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The Massachusetts DSA Labor Outlet
Updated: 52 min 56 sec ago

Reflections on 2023 DSA and YDSA Convention

Tue, 2023-08-29 12:57

CHICAGO — From August 3 to 6, roughly 1,000 elected delegates and alternates, as well as observers, from across the country gathered in Chicago for the 2023 National Convention of the Democratic Socialists of America. After the virtual one in 2021, this was the first in-person DSA Convention since 2019 in Atlanta.

Based on membership size, chapters and at-large DSA members are apportioned and elect a certain number of delegates to DSA Convention, which meets every two years as the organization’s highest decision-making body. They debate and vote on constitutional and bylaws amendments that change DSA’s structure and internal rules, platform amendments that update our beliefs and goals on key issues, resolutions that inform the work of the national organization and chapters, and our top leadership between conventions on the National Political Committee (NPC), the members of which make sense of and direct the implementation of convention decisions.

The NPC includes 16 members, with one vote each, elected by delegates at DSA Convention, plus the two co-chairs of the Young Democratic Socialists of America (YDSA), who share one vote. The annual YDSA Convention, which elects its co-chairs and YDSA’s National Coordinating Committee (NCC), also met in the city in the days immediately prior to DSA Convention.

DSA is a multi-tendency socialist organization, which means there is a range of different socialist politics across the membership. Caucuses and other similar member formations are the organized expression of these political tendencies and form when like-minded members choose to join together to organize internally for their political vision for the organization and its work. That can consist of running candidates for chapter leadership, convention delegate, and NPC, and also submitting proposals that may be debated at Convention. Candidates may also organize themselves into slates without the backing of a formalized caucus, and any DSA member in good standing can draft and submit proposals for Convention provided they gather signatures from other members and support from delegates.

While most DSA members and delegates are uncaucused — being no member of any formation — DSA has no ban on factions. These organized political tendencies help present politically distinct paths for the future of DSA for us to consider and debate and are a vehicle to advocate for them too.

Below, Working Mass presents 10 statements reflecting on this year’s DSA and YDSA Conventions. Collected from a selection of attendees across most chapters in Massachusetts and the range of tendencies represented in their delegations, they lay out a variety of perspectives and highlights that we hope gives an impression of these conventions and their outcomes.

Michaela and Desmond, Bread & Roses

Bread & Roses had about 90 members at DSA Convention as delegates.

As proud Bread & Roses members, we see the 2023 DSA Convention as a massive step forward. Nearly a thousand delegates recommitted to the rank-and-file strategy in labor, endorsed a more independent, oppositional electoral strategy, and approved paid political leadership. Combined, these decisions could lay the foundation for a more democratic, powerful, party-like DSA in the coming years.

To start, Convention made important interventions on electoral strategy. The base Electoral Consensus Resolution included important structural reforms to the National Electoral Commission (NEC). B&R’s “Act Like an Independent Party” amendment, which calls for DSA to develop organizational, strategic, visible independence from the Democratic Party, passed with almost 80% support. By passing another B&R-authored proposal, “Defend Democracy through Political Independence,” Convention also rejected a strategy of fighting the authoritarian right by tailing the Democrats. Instead, we committed the organization to defending democracy by running independent campaigns to build working-class organization and consciousness. These votes amount to an overwhelming endorsement of political independence for DSA, an important choice as the 2024 elections loom.

On labor, delegates voted down two amendments to the Labor Consensus Resolution. One would have weakened DSA’s commitment to the rank-and-file strategy, hinting that we would privilege working with union leadership over rank-and-file workers and even stripping language about building and collaborating with Labor Notes. The other would have scuttled the base language about paying our two National Labor Commission (NLC) co-chairs as elected full-time organizers, kneecapping our national labor work at a crucial moment of revival in the labor movement. Delegates rejected the former 69-31 and the latter 54-46.

Finally, this Convention made big gains for DSA as a democratic mass organization. In the consent agenda alone, we passed B&R-endorsed resolutions to revive the National Activist Conference (NAC), which can become an important learning hub for our activist layer, and to establish a DSA Editorial Board that can build out Democratic Left and Socialist Forum into a lively, serious party press. We passed a strong YDSA Consensus Resolution that will empower our youth wing with the resources and autonomy to keep growing. The newly approved Democracy Commission will research and plan for a more democratic internal structure for DSA. Most significantly, the Convention rejected austerity arguments and passed B&R’s proposal to elect two full-time paid co-chairs of DSA. Soon, we will have elected national spokespeople whose full-time job is to build DSA!

We didn’t celebrate every convention decision. B&R’s amendment to the International Consensus Resolution, “Class Struggle Internationalism,” was defeated, and we weren’t able to stop the stripping of language around accountability for electeds from the “Defend Democracy” resolution. Still, we’re excited to engage with DSA’s international work going forward, and the bulk of the defend democracy strategy – including the core commitment to political independence – passed overwhelmingly.

We have our work cut out for us, but this Convention was a huge win for all who want DSA to become a real mass socialist organization that can organize the working class to fight for its own liberation.

Michaela B (she/her), a delegate from River Valley DSA, is the chair of the Matching Funds subcommittee of the Growth and Development Committee and is a past co-chair of River Valley DSA. She joined DSA in 2017, and this was her second consecutive DSA Convention as a delegate.

Desmond O (he/him), a delegate from Boston DSA, is the rank-and-file organizing chair in Boston DSA’s Labor Working Group and organizes with the DSA Logistics Committee. He also serves on the Bread & Roses National Coordinating Committee. Desmond joined DSA in 2021, and this was his first DSA Convention as a delegate. He is a member of UNITE HERE Local 26 in Boston.

Russell, Socialist Majority Caucus

Socialist Majority Caucus had about 55 members at DSA Convention as delegates.

This Convention found a DSA energized and mobilized, politically matured, and financially stretched. Where we are by 2025 and by 2033 and beyond will depend on the choices comrades make now and in months to come.

I joined Socialist Majority Caucus when it formed in 2019 because it was made up of comrades I saw do good organizing across DSA in the 2-3 years before united by a belief in a strong, well-funded, politically coherent national organization; running socialists for office using whatever ballot line is easiest for them to win on; campaigns to build the organization; and the centrality of race and racial justice in the fight for socialism.

In 2019 and 2021, delegates consistently voted for SMC’s ideas, passing resolutions for multi-racial organizing, pragmatic electoral strategies, and a version of the rank-and-file strategy in labor that emphasizes organizing the unorganized; defeating resolutions to weaken the national organization by decentralizing or financially undermining it; and electing our candidates to a plurality on the National Political Committee.

At the 2023 Convention, it was gratifying to see many of our ideas have become consensus positions in DSA, underlying many consensus resolutions that passed, especially labor, electoral, multi-racial, growth and development, internationalism, and the Green New Deal. There are no longer debates about decentralizing or defunding national or against organizing through power-building campaigns. Delegates defeated resolutions committing DSA to self-marginalizing electoral strategies. Most excitingly, our top political priority — a national campaign for DSA to fight the right through work to defend abortion and trans rights — passed overwhelmingly!

That said, while our allies on the Groundwork slate won four seats, SMC’s NPC candidates mostly lost and won’t hold a plurality for the first time since 2019. Most tragically, SMC fought hard for a necessary reform to democratize DSA by expanding our structurally dysfunctional elected leadership from 18 members to 31. It won support from 61% of delegates, but not the 67% supermajority needed to pass. However, a “Democracy Commission” to study NPC reform did pass, so hopefully we can win some kind of reform in 2025.

The Convention heard reports from national staff and elected leaders that we spend more than we take in, and we’re depleting savings built up over many years. Convention then created numerous new paid positions and committed to expensive projects and campaigns. The new NPC faces a hard job deciding priorities, and all DSA members need to recruit more comrades and increase dues.

However, after nine years in DSA, I have more hope than ever for our ability to meet this moment of rising worker militancy and the rising fascist right. This Convention showed an organization of tens of thousands of members who are already organizing — investing time, energy, and money in the socialist movement — and ready to do much more. We must!

If you agree with the Socialist Majority vision I’ve laid out, join us:!

Whether you do or not, sign up for income-based dues to support DSA’s fight for socialism at!

Russell W (he/him), a delegate from Boston DSA, is a solidarity co-chair in Boston DSA’s Labor Working Group, a past co-chair of Central New Jersey DSA, and a past NPC member. He joined DSA in 2014, and this was his fifth consecutive DSA Convention as a delegate. He is a member of the Boston Teachers Union (AFT Local 66).

Connell, Marxist Unity Group

Marxist Unity Group had about 30 members at DSA Convention as delegates.

One of our priorities is electoral work that moves toward independence from the Democratic Party and has standards for DSA electeds decided democratically by membership. For me, this Convention was an extremely positive step for DSA’s direction.

Compared to the results from 2021, there is a definite shift toward political independence. The electoral amendment “Act Like an Independent Party” establishes that we must present a democratic socialist alternative for the working class that is independent of the Democratic Party and that we should develop our own party identity while we work toward our organizational independence. This amendment passed with about 80% of delegates voting in favor, whereas a similar amendment failed last Convention.

There were also failed amendments that nevertheless show growing support for change to the DSA electoral status quo. The amendment “Towards a Party-Like Strategy” that MUG wrote with Reform & Revolution would have established DSA electeds should fight for our platform, and among other things set out a few red lines in advance. These red lines would set an expectation of people we endorse to oppose increases to police budgets, refuse to vote to restrict the right to strike, oppose all forms of oppression and discrimination, and oppose military budgets and aid. It got 40% of delegates voting in favor so it failed, but compare this to a similar resolution from 2021 that got around 30% in the pre-convention delegate survey and did not make the agenda. Because of a procedural motion with the resolution “Defend Democracy through Political Independence,” we also got to take an unexpected poll on one aspect of our political orientation. While the vote on it failed, 49% of delegates supported the idea the National Political Committee should publicly disapprove of DSA candidates and electeds supporting or endorsing centrist Democrats. Between these three votes, we see a trend toward political independence that we can continue building on.

The NPC election was another sign of positive change for DSA. As a relatively small and new caucus, MUG members are very excited to have elected both of the NPC candidates we ran, Rashad and Amy. They are experienced chapter leaders with a commitment to transforming DSA into a mass socialist party. Many DSA members have been dissatisfied with the level of transparency and member input into DSA, and the NPC elected this Convention has good prospects of putting membership in control.

Other positive convention outcomes are the defeat of the Groundwork labor amendments that would have weakened DSA’s commitment to rank-and-file workers, a national campaign for trans rights and bodily autonomy, and paid full-time co-chairs both for the National Labor Commission and the NPC. The opportunities from these new member leadership positions are exciting, but only if we can pay for them. Since Convention closed there has already been a surge in DSA members with renewed commitment signing up for income-based dues. Whether or not you agree with my assessment of Convention, if you’re financially able, sign up for your 1% for the 99%!

Connell Heady (they/them), a delegate from River Valley DSA, is a co-chair of that chapter. They joined DSA in 2020, and this was their second consecutive DSA Convention as a delegate.

Eve, Reform & Revolution

Reform & Revolution had about 25 members at DSA Convention as delegates.

The 2023 DSA Convention was a big step forward for our organization. Delegates amended the agenda to take on some of the key debates for DSA today, like whether and how to run fighting national campaigns, the question of party-like socialist electoral work, and the lessons learned from the conflict between the outgoing NPC and the BDS working group and our approach to anti-Zionism. In the end, despite substantive debate and a sense of seriousness and maturity compared to 2019 and 2021, many important issues were left unresolved or untouched. The Convention was silent on U.S. support for Ukraine and how socialists should relate to the 2024 presidential election and Joe Biden. But with an energized left wing of the organization emboldened by gains on the NPC and a strong plan for a national campaign on trans and reproductive rights, Reform & Revolution delegates came out of Convention excited to build DSA in 2024 and beyond!

Eve Seitchik (they/she), a delegate from Boston DSA, is a past co-chair of that chapter. They joined DSA in 2018, and this was her third consecutive DSA Convention as a delegate.

Cory, Red Line

Red Line had about 15 members at DSA Convention as delegates.

Three DSA members in Congress voting to ban a strike prompted Red Line’s formation, and our delegates were pleased by leftward movement toward more principled electoral work, even when we lost, as we voted as a bloc for:

  • Yes on Amendment I, “Act Like an Independent Party,” which with 79% support amended the electoral consensus resolution, for a DSA “organizationally, strategically, and visibly independent of the Democratic Party.”
  • Yes on Amendment P, “Towards a Party-Like Electoral Strategy,” which failed with 41% support and would’ve formalized expectations that DSA electeds oppose strengthening the police, restricting the right to strike, oppressing vulnerable groups, or funding the military or U.S. client states like Israel.
  • Yes on retaining, within “Defend Democracy through Political Independence,” lines 41-46, which failed with 49% support and would’ve directed the NPC to “publicly communicate disapproval” of DSA electeds “explicitly or tacitly support[ing] centrist leaders of the Democratic Party.”
  • No on the Green New Deal Campaign Commission resolution, which passed with 37% opposed and commits significant funding and staff to their electoral strategy, expands redundancies with the National Electoral Committee and National Labor Commission, and lacks substantive reflection on the Pass the PRO Act and GND for Public Schools campaigns.
  • No on the NPC recommendation moving the BDS Working Group to the International Committee, which passed with 48% opposed and disciplines the BDS WG for strident opposition to unprincipled votes by Congressman Bowman.

While more active under new leadership, the NLC’s relationship with chapter labor committees remains unclear, it lacks a socialist labor publication, and its work often defaults to cheerleading workers from the sidelines while many DSA members’ union work is uncoordinated and individual. On labor, Red Line voted:

  • No on Amendment H, “We are Workers,” to the labor consensus resolution, which failed with 69% opposed, because we reject prioritizing relations with leadership at the expense of standing with the rank and file — whether it’s tying ourselves wholesale to leadership’s bargaining goals and strategy or opportunistically pursuing endorsements for our electoral and legislative work.
  • Mostly Yes on Amendment F, which passed with 97% support, to build out EWOC locally, but believing that it cannot be a way to sidestep confrontation with union leadership or hard choices while “boring from within” existing major unions — as reorienting them to the class struggle is necessary to organize the unorganized on a mass scale.

Competitive elections, a vibrant political culture, and left organization produced a more representative and more left NPC, and we’ll now see how it actually lands on the issues. DSA’s internal democracy is strong, but we hope for staff and structural reforms, a better agenda-setting process, proportional election of all delegations going forward, and that the successful resolution revitalizing DSA’s publications further empowers members.

In sum, Convention affirmed the value of socialist regroupment within DSA and the error of abstention from the center of the socialist movement in this country and from the ideological struggle over its character and future. Join Red Line in the fight for it!

Cory B (he/him), a delegate from Worcester DSA, is a member of the board of Working Mass, the National Labor Commission’s Solidarity Fund Committee, and in his third term on his chapter’s steering committee. He is also a past member of the Organizing Committee of the Boston DSA Electoral Working Group. Cory serves on the Red Line provisional steering committee. He joined DSA in 2020, and this was his second consecutive DSA Convention as a delegate. He is on the organizing committee in his workplace with IBEW 2222.

Paul, North Star

North Star had about 10 members at DSA Convention as delegates.

I came home from Convention with a great deal of hope and enthusiasm for the future of the democratic socialist movement in the United States.

DSA is finally metamorphosing into the powerful organization we dreamed of in the early 1980s when we merged the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (DSOC) and the New American Movement (NAM) to form DSA.

Some of the few surviving veterans of that effort attended the 2023 Convention as delegates associated with the North Star Caucus. I think most of them would agree with my positive assessment that this was the most hopeful and inspiring Convention held in the four decades since we helped launch DSA.

I personally feel pride and gratification in the vitality and converging sense of unity and commitment demonstrated in Chicago. This does not mean that I agree with the outcome of every contested vote or voted for every successful NPC candidate. That is not important.

What matters is that DSA LIVES! Ten years ago, we were barely surviving, with an aging membership loyally soldiering on. I served six years on the NPC from 2009 to 2015, when we had four to six functioning chapters and a few campus organizations. Beyond maintaining a modest office and paying a minimal staff through membership dues, we depended on legacy bequests to support any national programming.

We made some seminal decisions that eventually paid off in 2016-17: hiring Maria Svart as National Director in 2011 and David Duhalde as Youth Organizer and later Deputy Director, putting office procedures and financial reporting into good order, and putting most of our scarce resources into campus organizing, which became the core of YDSA. Above all, we helped encourage Bernie Sanders to run for President as a self-identified democratic socialist in the Democratic primary.

I want to share two anecdotes from Convention. During the comradely but heated debate on amendments to the labor consensus resolution, I went outside to refill my water. When I went to reenter, I ran into Sean Orr, National Labor Commission co-chair and a UPS Teamster key to our Strike Ready campaign, and known to me as the resolution’s primary drafter. Sean was not a delegate but a volunteer freed up from his intensive union work by the tentative agreement. We had a great discussion on the spot, agreeing that the outcome of the amendments would not much affect our ongoing work.

One meal time I happened to sit with Jane Slaughter, now a member of Detroit DSA. I first met Jane in the 1980s, when we were in NAM and she and her comrades in the International Socialists respectfully left because they thought we were insufficiently committed to a strategy of concentrating on heavy industry. Now together in DSA, we celebrated our growing convergence with Labor Notes on a pragmatic rank-and-file strategy.

Without multiplying instances, I was inspired by encounters with comrades of all generations from all over the USA. I would do it over again, and not even complain about frivolous points of order.

Paul Garver (he/him), a delegate from Boston DSA, is a steering committee member on the International Committee, its liaison to the National Labor Commission, and a past National Political Committee member. Paul was a member of the New American Movement from its beginning and was a founding member of DSA. This was his tenth DSA Convention as a delegate after 1982, 1984, 1986, 2007, 2009, 2011, 2013, 2015, and 2017.

Bryan, uncaucused

Walking into the Convention, I was a mix of excitement and a little uncertainty. It was a bunch of firsts all rolled into one — traveling to a new state (not just another East Coast trip), hopping on the train with fellow delegates from different parts of New England, and hanging out with fellow delegates from chapters all over the place. I’ll admit, I was a bit nervous at first about facing so many new faces, but meeting all these comrades from different walks of life was really cool and informative, and they made me feel right at home. Getting the lowdown on how other chapters are dealing with things was pretty eye-opening, and even on the train ride, as well as before and during, I was talking with fellow delegates and chapter leaders about ways we could work together to make our chapters thrive.

When we got to the voting part, I’ve got to say, I was genuinely impressed. The whole process went smoother than I thought given what I had heard from previous years, and a lot of those votes went the way I was really hoping for. I’m pretty excited that we’re giving reproductive and trans liberation some major attention in DSA. Those issues really need all the support they can get, especially with the challenges they’re facing from almost all fronts. And the decision to start the process of stepping away from the major political parties to have our own? I’m totally on board. It’s about time we carve out our own political path for the working class!

Let’s chat about those breakout sessions and panels — they were awesome. I not only learned a lot, but the people leading them were really spot on. They made sure everyone’s questions got answered, whether they had the answers or they pointed us toward more info. I’m even happy to say I will be working with some members on ways we can grow our local chapter and do more in our community. I’m really excited about the newly elected National Political Committee (NPC). The fact that this group consists of people with diverse backgrounds and a range of ideologies is a great sign in making sure folks are represented as well as ensuring that all comrades’ voices are heard. It’s clear that every member of the NPC is dedicated to helping the organization thrive and grow. This gives me a lot of confidence that our movement is in good hands, ready to move forward with inclusivity and a shared goal of progress.

As the curtain falls on this transformative event, I’m totally amped about the possibilities that lie ahead. Memories of the good times made with comrades and the insights and experiences I’ve got from this Convention will keep driving me to make things happen in my chapter and beyond. The Convention was a reminder that stepping into the unknown with a mix of excitement and those butterflies in your stomach can lead to some seriously awesome growth and empowerment.

Bryan Sylvestre (he/him), the alternate from Cape Cod DSA, is a co-chair of that chapter and a past media coordinator on its executive committee. He joined DSA in 2019, and this was his first DSA Convention as a delegate.

Vivian, Constellation

Constellation had about 20 members at YDSA Convention as delegates.

When I speak to DSA members about YDSA, many are surprised by the extent of the differences between our main political debates. Because YDSA does not conduct its own independent electoral campaigns, formations like Socialist Majority and Groundwork are not represented. Instead, our main debates center labor and internationalism and are generally preoccupied with the following questions:

  1. Should we run a large national campaign? What issue should that campaign center, and what tactics or strategies should we use in that campaign?
  2. What sort of labor work should we do? Should we prioritize salting in strategic industries, such as healthcare, labor, and logistics? Should we prioritize campus labor organizing? Or can we do both?
  3. How much should we integrate into DSA? Should our committees remain relatively independent with a liaison going between them, or should we operate as subcommittees that work on YDSA priorities within larger DSA committees?

The 2023 YDSA Convention was the first where my caucus, Constellation, had an official presence. Last year, several of our founding members formed a slate known as TRAIN, an acronym summing up several of our major priorities, including big tent internationalism, grievance reform, building up YDSA’s national organization, and others. This year, Constellation advanced many of the same priorities as TRAIN, but with a larger focus on diversity. We were the only caucus to run exclusively people of color for the National Coordinating Committee, one being Aron Ali-McClory, one of YDSA’s new co-chairs, and the other myself.

Our status as a caucus allowed us to meet regularly before Convention and plan out a more developed strategy. Four of our nine proposals this year were placed on the consent agenda, and eight were adopted by the Convention. Additionally, Aron came in first in the YDSA co-chair election by a 45-point margin, demonstrating once again that our politics have gained significant popularity. This was a big improvement from TRAIN, which elected none of its NCC candidates and only passed two of its proposals.

We are particularly pleased that the Convention voted down R23, “Class-Struggle Internationalism,” 49–85. Internationalism is one of Constellation’s biggest priorities, and our founding members have served both on the International Committee’s Youth Leadership Committee and on IC Steering. Those of us with extensive experience doing international work felt that R23 would unnecessarily separate YDSA’s international work from DSA’s, greatly decreasing YDSA members’ ability to rely on the DSA IC to help us form and maintain relationships with other youth formations.

We are also pleased with the results of the NCC election this year, particularly the election of Callynn Johnson and Hailey Sowa, two Constellation-recommended candidates, since Aron and I were guaranteed at least at-large seats due to the POC quota. The past year’s NCC had a Bread & Roses majority at the time of its election, though one B&R member resigned in the middle of the term. This year’s NCC has a little more caucus diversity, with B&R, Marxist Unity Group, and Constellation members all being elected. 

Vivian Dai (she/they), a delegate from Boston University YDSA and Boston DSA, is a co-chair of BU YDSA and a past Silicon Valley DSA steering committee member. She joined DSA in 2020, and this was their third consecutive YDSA Convention as a delegate and first DSA Convention as a delegate.

Ruy, Reform & Revolution

Reform & Revolution had about 10 members at YDSA Convention as delegates.

YDSA’s 2023 Convention was a marked shift to a more boldly socialist and fighting organization. Delegates affirmed not only a national campaign for bodily autonomy and trans rights, but also committed the organization to become the youth wing of a socialist party (as opposed to the campus wing), argued that we are against the Constitution and need to build a new one, and generally fixed many organizational issues that we’ve been dealing with. Our delegates from Reform & Revolution YDSA are amped and ready to get to work over the next year!

Ruy M (he/him), a delegate from Harvard College YDSA, is the co-chair of that YDSA chapter and a past co-chair of the Austin DSA Electoral Working Group. He joined DSA in 2016, and this was his third YDSA Convention as a delegate after 2020 and 2021.

Hunter, uncaucused

The UMass Amherst YDSA chapter was represented by William O’Dwyer as a delegate, Benjamin Campanella as an alternate, and me as an observer. All three of us in attendance are uncaucused but on most issues are sympathetic to Bread & Roses’ policy agenda and their candidates for elected positions in the organization.

In terms of resolutions passed, while UMass YDSA is sympathetic to the sentiment of R21, “Winning the Battle for Democracy,” we opposed its passage. We believe that encouraging DSA to advocate for sedition against the Constitution serves only to marginalize our organization and alienate sympathetic working people from our cause without accomplishing anything substantive toward further democratizing the U.S. government.

UMass YDSA was pleased with the passage, unamended, of R12, “Recommitting YDSA to the Rank-and-File Strategy,” and by the election of Winnie Marion of B&R to the National Coordinating Committee.

Overall, UMass YDSA is excited to continue our chapter’s participation in the national organization, and we remain a committed partner in the fight to build socialism in our time in the United States.

Hunter Cohen (he/him), an observer from UMass Amherst YDSA, is a past president of that chapter. He joined DSA in 2021, and this was the first YDSA Convention he has attended. He is a past member of Teamsters Local 170.

Featured image credit: Overlayed on a photo by Claire B of delegates singing “Solidarity Forever” at the close of DSA Convention are headshots of the members of DSA’s new National Political Committee, appearing in circles colored according to their caucus or slate, if any, with the diameter of each circle based on the number of first preferences they received in the NPC election (or total votes received in the case of the two YDSA co-chairs, who were not elected by single transferable vote). Graphic by Cory B/Working Mass

OPINION: Despite Controversy, Rail Workers are Winning Paid Sick Leave

Thu, 2023-06-29 09:23

By Paul Garver and Eli Gerzon

DISCLAIMER: The entire Working Mass board appreciates the research and reporting that went into this important article and of course the big wins for rail workers across the US. However, some members of the board strongly disagree with some of the analysis in the article especially regarding the actions by members of Democratic Socialists of America who are in Congress. This is a controversial topic across DSA. We welcome any op-eds or letters to the editor in response.

Most of the 115,000 rail workers in the US now have paid sick leave! Many workers are also getting safety improvements they have been fighting for for years. In December 2022, Biden and Congress voted to impose a contract on workers with no paid sick leave and took away their right to strike – a move that angered many socialists and other supporters of labor. How can workers get what they need when the right to strike has been taken away? And yet, rail workers have gotten these major wins. What happened and what more needs to be done?

Several factors for positive changes for railroad workers:

  • More attention to the issue following lobbying by rail workers and Biden’s imposed contract in December 2022
  • Efforts by members of Congress such as Senator Sanders and Representatives Bowman, Bush, and AOC
  • Bad press following the railroad catastrophe in East Palestine, Ohio
  • Several states have recently passed regulations requiring at least two person crews on freight trains 
  • Rank-and-file organizing by railroad workers especially by RWU and BMWED
  • Many rail workers have been quitting their increasingly stressful and dangerous jobs –  to deter quitting and recruit replacements, rail corporations have improved some conditions

A few things which have NOT caused positive changes for rail workers:

  • Greedy railroad barons suddenly became nice guys
  • Bureaucratic rail union leaders have done fundamental union restructuring and reforms so all railroad workers can boldly wield their power as a united workforce
  • DSA expelled Bowman, Bush, and AOC and gave up completely on electoral work that has any association with the Democratic party

Railroad Workers’ Organized for Better Conditions in 2022

Rail corporations reaped record profits during the pandemic era for people like Warren Buffet. But the workers who made that possible were denied paid sick days and forced to work under increasingly dangerous understaffed conditions. Freight trains have become longer and heavier, with safety inspections more cursory. Workers organized across 13 different craft unions with the four major rail corporations for better pay and conditions. This culminated in calls for strikes in 2022 and a vote by Congress to impose a contract at the end of the year.

Many socialists considered the votes of Congressional DSA members Jamaal Bowman, Cori Bush and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for the imposed contract on rail workers to be an indictment of those individuals as anti-worker. Some also considered those votes to be an indictment of DSA, electoralism, and any association with the Democratic Party.  

It was the BMWED (Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes Division of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters) Rank and File Caucus that led lobbying efforts in the fall of 2022 to get Congress to vote on an amendment to include seven paid sick leave days for rail workers. That included urging Bowman, Bush and AOC to vote for the resolution and the amendment. It was a “Hail Mary Pass” that passed the House but narrowly failed to clear the 60-vote hurdle in the Senate. Although that tactic did not succeed in the short run, it cleared a path to the current successful negotiations.

“A Rail Strike was never intended by Rail Labor leaders… never in the cards. Anyone with an appreciation of American Rail Labor History knows this.” This is according to Carey Dall, one of the founders of the BMWED rank-and-file caucus in his article “Rail Unions in the U.S. are in bad need of consolidation, democracy, and militancy.” He notes the years of preparation and strategizing needed to accomplish any successful strike which would “endangers interstate commerce.” None of the leaders of the 13 rail craft unions had lifted a finger to prepare for a strike in December. In fact, Dall in some ways places more blame on Rail Labor leadership than on Biden – let alone members of Congress.

There were some rail workers who expressed support for going on strike. But even some militant leaders of rank-and-file rail workers’ caucuses expected that the tentative agreement would be imposed by Congress. Since no strike was envisaged or prepared, the legislative route to winning paid sick leave, a gamble that could have been better executed in practice, seemed the only alternative. It should have been made possible for legislative champions of the rail workers to vote against the imposed contract as a whole after voting for the sick leave amendment. But Speaker Pelosi out-maneuvered the union lobbyists.

Senator Bernie Sanders and Representatives Bowman, Bush and AOC, plus other members of the Squad and Progressive Caucus, continued to put pressure on the Biden Administration through public statements and organizing a public letter to Biden in support of the demands of rail workers signed by 70 Senators and Representatives.

I sent a letter today with more than 70 of my colleagues in the House and the Senate urging President Biden to do everything within his power to guarantee rail workers the seven paid sick days that they desperately need.

— Bernie Sanders (@SenSanders) December 9, 2022

Progress For Rail Workers in 2023

The freight rail corporations, which had appeared triumphant at the end of 2022 after successfully using the blackmail threat that a rail strike would cripple the U.S. economy, then faced blowback from the negative consequences of their political victories in Congress.

Also the lobbying efforts by railroad workers earned lots of press coverage and sympathy. That has helped put pressure on rail corporations. The catastrophe in East Palestine, Ohio also put pressure on rail corporations to make safety improvements.

Most of these agreements provided for four new paid annual sick days, with an option of converting three personal days into unscheduled paid sick leave. In general, the agreements cover non-operating personnel rather than locomotive engineers, where negotiations with the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers (BLET-IBT) continued until May 29, when the BLET reached a tentative agreement including work schedule changes still subject to ratification by the members.

The best roundup is by veteran labor reporter Steven Greenhouse in The Guardian: US rail companies grant paid sick days after public pressure in win for unions (

An updated recent story appeared in the Associated Press: Norfolk Southern is 1st railroad to give all workers sick time as others negotiate with unions | AP News 

Norfolk Southern will have to pay out at least half a billion dollars for their disaster. But insurance coverage and tax breaks will limit the impact on Norfolk Southern’s bottom-line profits. 

A more significant threat to the excessive profits of the entire rail freight industry is posed by legislative action at the federal and state level to require at least two person crews on freight trains. 

Kansas just joined eight other states in announcing that it would do so for trains passing through its territory: Kansas will regulate railroad crew size under Kelly proposal | The Kansas City Star

The Pennsylvania State House also just passed a bipartisan bill to regulate freight railroads: Pennsylvania House passes rail regulation bill – Trains

State-by-state legislation poses at best a minor nuisance to the industry. The current SCOTUS would probably overturn state rail safety laws, but it demonstrates that the federal Railway Safety Act as proposed by the Democratic and Republican Senators from Ohio could be enacted: Senate panel OKs rail-safety bill as railroad vows to help homeowners affected by Ohio derailment (

The current profit model of the major rail corporations is highly dependent on reducing labor costs by cutting staffing to the bone, and super-exploiting a dwindling workforce. Since the end of the last contract cycle in November 2018 some 40,000 rail jobs have been eliminated, without any technological changes to justify the cuts. As RWU co-chairman Ross Grooters, a lifetime member of DSA, was quoted in 2022, “The job is really just becoming fewer people doing more work faster.”   

As predicted by rank-and-file rail worker reformers in 2022, following the imposed settlement that did not address the underlying causes of worker anger at Precision Scheduled Railroading and other schemes to cut the rail work force to the bone, large numbers of rail workers took the large bonuses and back pay settlements under the agreement, and quit their increasingly stressful jobs.  

To deter some workers from quitting and to recruit replacements, the rail corporations have a self-interest in providing somewhat less onerous working conditions. Bargaining over paid sick leave, which alleviates some of the stresses on rail workers, but does not touch the core issues of scheduling and adequate staffing, in fact happened because the rail corporation management were themselves beginning to do it unilaterally.  

Railroad Unions Still Fragmented

Bureaucratic rail union leaders are quick to claim credit, complacent that no fundamental union restructuring or reforms are required of them. But these wins are not thanks to better bargaining skills by union leaders. The unions are still bargaining fragmented agreements in an uncoordinated way as they have in the past.

“We’ve made a lot of progress,” said Greg Regan, president of the Transportation Trades Department of the AFL-CIO, the main US labor federation. “This is being done the right way. Each railroad is negotiating with each of its individual unions on this.”

Greg Regan is technically correct that under current law and union structures, there is no alternative for the rail unions that now are bargaining from a position of fragmentation and structural weakness.  13 small craft unions are powerless against big corporate management. Real and lasting progress for rail workers will come only from a major restructuring of the rail unions into a single union, together with the mobilization of a unified and democratic rail workers’ movement.  Rank-and-file reformers are advocating for one big Railway Workers Union, as imagined by Eugene Debs in the 1890s.

Resistance to the negative consequences of super-exploitative rail capitalism for rank-and-file rail workers has been coordinated by two rank-and-file rail reform caucuses, Railroad Workers United (RWU) and the BMWED Rail & File Caucus. These caucuses have developed in different historical ways strategically, and use differing tactics, but taken together have already made a major positive impact for rail workers. I described these two caucuses more fully in an article in Democratic Left posted on the DSA website. 

Both caucuses are contributing to help shape a better future for rail workers and their unions.

The BMWED Rank and File Caucus stems from an internal organizing effort within the Brotherhood of Maintenance Way Employees – part of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT).  The internal organizing campaign was headed by Carey Dall, an organizer hired from the ILWU (International Longshore and Warehouse Union). Over several years, utilizing as many as twelve internal organizers at a cost of over $10 million, the BMWED slowly increased its capacity to mobilize rank-and-file members.  In 2016 the union was capable of staging a coordinated National Day of Demonstrations.  However, the financial costs of the campaign became too much for the small union to bear alone, and the campaign ended with Carey Dall’s departure back to the ILWU.  The BMWED Rank & File Caucus, now aligned with other Teamsters reform caucuses, is insisting that rail workers need a unified and democratic industrial union to be effective: Fighting isn’t easy, but united we can win. (

An energized network of 26 state legislative coordinators from the BMWED rank-and-files, led by Deven Mantz of North Dakota, visited Congressional offices in November 2022, to lobby for paid sick leave.  They gained the enthusiastic support of Representatives Jamaal Bowman, Cori Bush and AOC for including paid sick leave in the tentative agreement that would end the current round of negotiations.  After Speaker Pelosi refused to include that sick leave provision in the agreement and insisted on separating the votes, the House passed both the sick leave amendment and the imposition of the Rail Labor Act.

Although the legislative team focused on lobbying Republican Senators from their home states to support legislation introduced by Bernie Sanders that would amend the tentative agreement to include seven paid sick leave days, several Republicans who had promised to vote for paid sick leave reneged under pressure from business lobbyists.  The Sanders amendment passed the Senate., but without the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster.

Yielding to pressures from the four major freight railroad corporations, on December 2nd President Biden signed his approval of a tentative agreement that did not address the essential demands of rail workers for proper scheduling and staffing, safety requirements and adequate paid time off.

Later that day Biden flew to Boston to sip tea with Prince William, only to be met by a protest of some 200 persons hastily organized by local members of the Railroad Workers United, by the Boston DSA labor working group, and others.  The rally noisily called out Biden as a SCAB, was well covered by the Boston Globe and local news media, got national attention, and led to editorials in the Boston Globe and other news media calling for paid sick leave for railroad workers.  A week later, a smaller rally in Worcester brought out members of Worcester DSA and a larger presence of rank-and-file rail workers. An article by Henry de Groot in Working Mass captures these actions, which remain among the largest protest actions in support of rail workers to date.  

Solidarity From DSA and Others for Bigger Changes for Rail Workers

This setback for the rail workers did not end the struggle for paid sick leave days for rail workers. Both the BMWED Rank and File Caucus and Railroad Workers United [RWU] made use of the public outcry against the unwillingness of the freight rail industry to keep agitating for paid sick leave as one measure to address the concerns of rail workers. The RWU, with an executive board and organizers made up entirely of rank-and-file rail workers from several different unions, expanded its already vigorous presence in a variety of media, including numerous interviews with organizer Ron Kaminkow and Executive Board Co-chair Ross Grooters.  The RWU also organizes an excellent weekly email mailing that includes news, editorials and excerpts from all sorts of articles including mainstream and industry publications. The RWU is committed to organizing regional solidarity chapters open to DSA members and other supporters along with rail workers.

As part of its agitational campaign, the RWU is pushing for nationalization of the freight rail industry. This campaign has been endorsed by the UE (United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America) and by DSA Labor. The national DSA Labor Commission and its various organizing committees (EWOC, Labor Corps, etc.) have sponsored numerous group discussions and webinars that include rail worker issues, attended regularly by Ross Grooters, Ron Kaminkow, Deven Mantz, Carey Dall, Matt Weaver and other rank-and-file rail workers.

This growing relationship, begun just several months ago, seems to be a useful experience both for the rank-and-file rail workers and for DSA. It is an important part of DSA’s commitment to joining and supporting broad working-class struggles from Starbucks and Amazon through the UAW and other academic workers’ unions, teachers and nurses. DSA Labor Commission has been prioritizing the UPS campaign, the success or failure of which will set a tone for all worker organizing in the USA, including that in logistical industries like freight rail.  

Building a militant, broad, environmentally conscious, and inclusive working-class movement in the USA makes every other goal of democratic socialism more possible. The DSA Convention will be debating a consensus resolution put forward by the National Labor Commission to make this a top priority for DSA as a whole.  Likely friendly amendments include ongoing support for nationalizing the rails and to support the rail rank-and-file caucuses’ demand for the creation of a big industrial union.

When we have a big industrial union we will have the power to improve everyone’s lives. This is especially clear when it comes to rail road workers: if we had nationalized rails and good working conditions we could prevent catastrophes like the train wreck in East Palestine. We would also rely on cars less and help prevent the worst of the climate crisis. If we combine the values of democratic socialism with the power of a big industrial union we could accomplish almost anything.

Paul Garver (he/him) worked as a union organizer in the USA for SEIU from 1974 to 1990, and organized and coordinated unions at the global level for the International Union of Food Workers (IUF) from 1990 to 2006. After formally retiring, he has continued this work through DSA, through the International Committee and as its liaison to the National Labor Committee. He is one of the founding members of DSA.

Eli Gerzon (they/them) is the managing editor at Working Mass. They are active members of Boston DSA and Jewish Voice for Peace – Boston. Gerzon got their start in political organizing as part of the climate movement helping start and lead statewide campaigns in Massachusetts.