YDSA Must Have Clear Priorities

Autumn P. of Purdue YDSA and Sumter A. of Georgia Tech YDSA give their opinions on resolutions to be debated at YDSA’s upcoming convention and argue that delegates must vote for clear priorities.

A ship does not set sail without a clear destination in mind, a unifying purpose that all the crew understand and work to achieve. For YDSA to be an effective vehicle for working class power, members must hoist our organization’s sails and set our course clearly. In order to recruit members, build power, and make the case that YDSA is the organization for the working class, we need focused political priorities. YDSA members should be thinking hard in the coming days about the best way to refine our direction — if we don’t, we will miss important openings for building power, like the Black Lives Matter uprisings and the campus reopening announcements, and we will find ourselves facing the same organizational problems again in a year’s time.

The Context

In the past three years, YDSA has exploded from a handful of chapters to over one hundred. We are quickly becoming a political force to be reckoned with, both nationally and within our chapters’ communities. However, this rapid development has left holes and disparities in our organizing capability and political power. Some places, like New York City or the Bay Area, are primed with strong nearby DSA chapters, an extensive network of YDSA and allied youth organizers, and favorable urban environments. Other areas, especially in less dense, smaller towns in the South, are often being left behind in terms of leadership development and political support. In order to adequately support all of our chapters, no matter their conditions, YDSA must develop sharp priorities and commit to further cohering our organization. 

At the last convention, all 15 proposed resolutions were adopted. Many of these resolutions established independent committees or set YDSA to fight along the lines of various issues, such as a Green New Deal, College for All, Labor, YDSA for Bernie, and more. It took 6 months for YDSA’s national leadership body, the National Coordinating Committee (NCC), to combine these mostly inactive committees into a single “supercommittee” with enough organizers to actually achieve its political goals. If we want to get the ball rolling early and hit the ground running to do the work necessary to build a better world, comrades need to come to convention with specific ideas. It may sound obvious, but it needs to be said: we can only do what we have the ability to do, and not everything we would like to do.

The 2020 YDSA National Convention begins in less than a week. Despite this, it is not at all clear what sort of organizing program the convention delegates will decide upon. 

The Consensus

It is worth noting that YDSA does have some apparently popular priorities. Students’ and Workers’ Relief appears poised to be the lone political campaign for the organization. Compared to last year, when 4+ political campaigns confused YDSA’s direction and competed for a handful of national organizers, this is a positive development. Using national structures to develop local campaigns that are winnable and focused can generate buy-in from chapters and strengthen the organization while deepening the bench of organizers working at the national, regional, and inter-chapter levels; committing to this campaign will leave us in a better position to run and win future campaigns.

Commitments to a national political education program and to organizing at Historically Black Colleges and Universities and community colleges also seem uncontroversial. As has been argued elsewhere, political education is a necessary effort for a socialist movement that has been relegated to the margins for decades, and intentionally growing our membership among Black and working class student bodies is essential for creating an active and representative campus organization. 

However, other organizational questions may not be so easy for delegates to decide upon.

The Choices

How will YDSA conduct its recruitment and further root itself in the working class? Two labor resolutions offer different approaches. Campus Labor Organizing seeks to organize where our chapters are, anchoring our members in their immediate fights on campus and in the community. Alternatively, the Rank and File Pipeline promises a grand vision of the labor movement that begins with getting core members of YDSA to commit to post-graduation union jobs, hoping to revive union militancy. Whether our labor strategy should be internally or externally oriented fundamentally delineates Campus Labor Organizing from the Rank and File Pipeline. 

For background on this question, the “Rank and File Strategy” has been the status quo in YDSA for two years now. Resolutions were passed at both the 2018 and 2019 YDSA conventions committing YDSA to the “Rank and File Strategy” by encouraging YDSA members to industrialize into already-unionized jobs in “strategic sectors”.

All the Rank and File Strategy resolutions have prescribed identical actions: the creation of a National Labor Committee to work with DSA’s Labor Commission to place YDSA members in such “strategic” jobs after graduation. But over the past two years, we haven’t seen evidence that YDSA as an institution has actually mobilized a meaningful fraction of its members into such jobs. This is not to say that individuals or groups within YDSA are barred from pursuing this strategy, but rather that attempting to put organizational resources behind this effort have not been fruitful.

This year, just as was done in 2019, proponents of industrialization are arguing that we can both pursue campus labor organizing and industrialization at the same time.  But over two years of democratically-resolved commitment to industrialization, we have not seen any meaningful progress toward the construction of such a pipeline. Instead, we have seen an inward-facing focus on persuading a handful of core members to industrialize. We should be hesitant to repeat those mistakes. 

In our view, these resolutions are not complementary, but are competing for the same pool of limited resources — time and energy from staff, NCC members, and experienced YDSA labor organizers. Rather than make a third attempt at constructing a Rank and File Pipeline, YDSA should fully commit to Campus Labor Organizing.

YDSA must also determine how it will structure itself so as to mobilize its members and allies around shared strategy. There are three distinct perspectives in this arena, represented by proposals for the National Organizing Committee (NOC), the National Tasks and Perspectives Document (“Document”), and the National Activist Coalition.

The National Activist Coalition sets collaborating with other activist youth leaders as a priority. This perspective assumes that in order to wield more power, YDSA must set aside our political differences and unite with many other left-wing student organizations around a common platform. Unfortunately, few such mass organizations exist that are materially independent of the capitalist class. Moreover, this strategy orients YDSA to prioritize collaboration with activists over independent working class organization and activity — it fundamentally misunderstands who comprises the base for socialist activity.

The NOC and the Document both orient YDSA toward its own members and base, but with significantly different approaches. The Document proposal and its authors seem to view a central breakdown in YDSA as one of understanding our organization’s political line. The NOC, on the other hand, views the breakdown in YDSA as one of access to necessary skills, relationships, and support. While the Document and the NOC are not mutually exclusive, the two proposals would undoubtedly occupy similar organizational resources, and, if passed in tandem, must be implemented in tandem. Consensus-building around the Document must be done through the relationships built by the NOC for it to be effective. Even the resolution’s own authors acknowledge that the Document “will not serve the role of centralization in itself; it needs to be acted upon”; the NOC is the exact body to act upon it.

Whatever resolutions come from the Convention will undoubtedly be supported by the majority of YDSA members. However, in our view, the immediate task for YDSA is not merely to create a priorities document, but first and foremost to build the relationships that make YDSA chapters accountable to and materially connected with the national organization and other chapters — in short, to have our chapters share more than just a name and yearly convention. Prioritizing the NOC will expand the pool of leaders in YDSA who are equipped to work at all levels of our organization, not just the chapter level, while increasing the flexibility and institutional memory of our organization. It will also make each of our chapters more effective. Delegates must ask themselves “how can we implement other priorities through the National Organizing Committee?”.

If we are committed to a vision of YDSA as a mass organization, then delegates should think carefully about how to prioritize the realization of this vision. Not all of the above questions are directly counterposed or even contradictory. In fact, most of the proposals this year would be positive for the organization. It is simply a question of allocating our most precious resources: organizing time and energy. Whatever our comrades’ opinions, I encourage them all to make decisions and set priorities with YDSA’s limited capacity in mind.

Autumn P is a former co-chair of Purdue YDSA and candidate for NCC at this year’s convention with the Towards Power program. Sumter A is a former co-chair of YDSA Georgia Tech and a high school teacher.

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