YDSA Should Build Back Better

Two YDSA members from Georgia Tech critique YDSA’s National Student Debt Campaign and argue against national pressure campaigns in favor of local pressure campaigns.

This year, many YDSA chapters were rocked by COVID-19 and have struggled to recruit new members and supporters due to pandemic conditions. At the upcoming 2021 convention, delegates will be faced with questions about how we can hit the ground running when students return to campus this fall. We believe that YDSA should take advantage of the upcoming fall semester and explicitly focus on mentoring new organizing committees and rebuilding existing chapters through local pressure campaigns.

What didn’t work

A post-mortem analysis of YDSA Georgia Tech’s Student Debt Relief Committee reveals the downsides of having chapters campaign around federal policy instead of local bread-and-butter issues. 

In the leadup to the spring semester, our chapter decided to form a Student Debt Relief Committee because it was an issue that our executive committee assumed was widely felt and because it was the campaign that national YDSA had decided to run for the rest of the year. Some of the main goals of our committee were to publish video testimonials from members and to build towards a day of action around the end of the semester. However, the flaws of attempting to tackle an issue with such a large scope –cancelling all student debt — became apparent pretty early on. 

We found that many students, both YDSA members and non-members alike, were generally receptive to student debt cancellation and thought it was a good idea — however, it was not an issue that many felt we had the power to impact or could reasonably organize to achieve. As a result, our Student Debt Relief Committee meetings struggled with attendance and buy-in, even from our own membership. At the same time, our education and “Counselors Not Cops” committees had much higher participation in their meetings and activities. The lack of support from our members made it more difficult to organize around this issue, and by the end of the semester our Student Debt Committee had fallen largely into inactivity, leading us to dissolve the committee and refocus on other chapter work. 

In discussing the issue with comrades on other campuses, we found that other chapters had similar issues with a lack of buy-in to the national campaign from rank-and-file chapter members, and likewise that the national leadership also had difficulty getting chapter officers and leaders to commit to the campaign.

What has worked

While we found it difficult to organize around student debt at Georgia Tech, we have had much success in the past by pressuring and targeting our school’s administration. 

One example is our push for better dining services on campus. Georgia Tech has outsourced campus dining for years to third-party contractors that utilize non-union labor, which has led to more precarious jobs, lower quality food, and higher costs. The past few years, however, we campaigned for the university to take back control of our dining services and eventually Georgia Tech’s administration announced that it would be switching to its own in-house dining solutions starting later this year! This was a pretty substantial victory: not only for the students, who will now be able to enjoy better food at a lower cost, but also for campus workers who will now have public sector jobs and can organize with our campus’s labor union, United Campus Workers. The power we built during this campaign can be used to build towards larger wins for the labor movement on our campus.

We ran a COVID campaign last year called “People Not Profits” that targeted both GT’s administration and our university system’s Board of Regents’ reopening plan. Uniting outraged students together into one vocal campaign across multiple campuses, we were part of a larger movement that successfully got the University System of Georgia to institute a mask mandate. Furthermore, we contributed towards preventing a larger reopening than Georgia Tech had originally planned, and a majority of our classes remained  remote/hybrid. There are countless other examples of chapters running local campaigns rooted in collective action and winning, such as the tuition strike at Columbia YDSA or the fight for a tuition freeze at University of Virginia.

What we can do

It’s evident that YDSA does not have the political power or capacity to take on the federal government.

Our scrappy group of a few thousand students simply does not have the necessary leverage to move Biden to cancel trillions of dollars in loan debt. Instead of pushing chapters to participate in a national pressure campaign and biting off more than we can chew, we ought to develop and grow chapters by focusing on the bread-and-butter issues and power struggles that students on college campuses face every day. It is a lot easier for students to protest and influence the president of their university than the President of the United States.

Focusing on college administrations shrinks the scope for individual chapters and allows for YDSA as an organization to participate in a diversity of smaller, more winnable campaigns rather than going all-or-nothing on a high-stakes national campaign. It is important to run campaigns that we can win. Concrete victories and material benefits for students and workers is precisely what develops confidence and support among our base for our organization and our long-term program for democratic socialism. Nobody wants to be on the team that loses every time. 

In addition to winning on material issues, targeting college administrations will help YDSA chapters develop programs and demands that resonate deeply in our communities. The common factor between successful pressure campaigns is a political strategy oriented towards mass, collective action. When YDSA chapters develop a program tailored to their local conditions, they are able to more effectively reach and activate the local community, then organize them to build longer term political power. This is done by identifying issues that are widely and deeply felt; that are winnable; and that function as transformative reforms — in the sense that winning the reform serves to transfer structural power to students and workers instead of demobilizing our base. 

Congress and the Presidency are largely remote and abstract to college students but everyone pays tuition, fees, and rent. Democratic socialists should aim to be something different from the College Democrats or Republicans: we should strive to win the recognition and confidence of the masses as the political leadership of our class. By campaigning around bread-and-butter issues that are immediately relevant and material to students’ and workers’ living conditions (such as tuition, fees, rent, wages, workplace conditions, housing quality, academic policy, etc.) YDSA can build up our chapters and help them organize real bases and constituencies on our campuses.

For local pressure campaigns

YDSA is fundamentally different from DSA. DSA is made up of workers scattered as a thin minority layer across a broad area, so it makes sense to unite members around national demands where anyone can plug-and-play into a canvassing or phonebanking shift. 

On a college campus, however, there are far more socialists per capita. YDSA members typically live, work, and study in the same physical spaces; participate in the same community and cultural organizations; and share a common employer and “micro-state” in their administration. These factors combine to mean that focused local campaigns rooted in relational organizing and collective action are far more effective in YDSA.

So rather than turning YDSA into something that it’s not — a miniature DSA for kids that runs national phone-banking nights — we should recognize the specific objective conditions that we find ourselves in and respond accordingly. Continuing a doomed struggle for unwinnable demands of Biden would risk demoralizing our rank-and-file membership, overextending our already-overworked national leadership, and confining ourselves to a position of irrelevant unseriousness to the masses of working people who desperately need socialist political leadership in our present moment. 

Instead, we should take the Fall semester to focus on the hard and difficult work of consolidating existing support, developing more leaders and organizers, and exhaustively following up with every possible lead on a new or restarting chapter. To that end, we encourage delegates to support Resolution #2 Back To Class Struggle, as well as both amendments to Resolution #5 College For All. We believe these questions are some of the most important ones facing us this year: let’s set ourselves on a course to build back better!

What campaigns should YDSA undertake? YDSA members: we want to hear from you! Find out how to submit articles to The Activist here.

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