DSA Leaders Meet in Chicago to Plan Medicare-for-All Campaign and Dues Strategy

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By Colin M. Hill

DSA’s highest-elected members convened in Chicago for their quarterly meeting, the first since their election at August’s national convention.

Over three rain-drenched days at Chicago’s United Electrical Workers Hall, the 17 members of the National Political Committee (NPC) passed resolutions approving a national Medicare for All campaign, political mentoring for new DSA members and chapters, and a national dues drive that will encourage members to contribute monthly.

National Director Maria Svart led the NPC and staff in a discussion of DSA’s opportunities and challenges. DSA will have to parry threats by far-right organizers, including white supremacists such as those who murdered Heather Heyer and injured dozens more in Charlottesville, Virginia last summer, as well as fend off possible sabotage by government agencies.

But NPC members said that the political mobilization of women and economically frustrated millennials strengthened DSA, which has rapidly become the largest organization of socialists in the United States.

MEDICARE FOR ALL

Answering the National Convention priorities resolution that called on DSA to fight for socialized medicine, the NPC considered a proposal for a nationwide Medicare for All campaign. A Medicare for All bill passed by Congress would extend that program to all Americans, open a path for single-payer healthcare in the United States, and eliminate the power of the parasitic private insurance industry.

“Winning single-payer healthcare won’t just alleviate the suffering of millions of Americans,”Natalie Midiri (Philadelphia) says. “It would also give us an edge in the fight against capitalism.”

Midiri, who organizes for single payer in Pennsylvania, explains how the fight for socialized medicine builds working class power in the United States. “As democratic socialists, we have a lot of work ahead of us to expand democracy within the state,” Midiri says, “but the transition to single payer healthcare alone brings 20 percent of the wealth in our economy under public control.”

“Just think about how many more workers will be able to take big risks like organizing for a union when they know they won’t be risking their family’s healthcare in the process.”

The campaign’s ambitions are novel for DSA. “It is the first time, other than the Bernie Sanders campaign, that DSA is committing to a national campaign,”Jeremy Gong (East Bay, CA) said at the presentation. “DSA has not carried off something like this before.”

The proposal, which passed with four members voting against, creates a national Medicare for All committee and allocates DSA national’s resources to training and assisting with local canvasses. A so-called “campaign In a box” would create a path of least resistance for local chapters to start organizing around Medicare for All.

The resolution adopted by the NPC was a reduced version of the initial proposal. Language that asked local chapters to also adopt a Medicare for All campaign as their first priority was removed after feedback from DSA members.

John Hieronymus, an observer of the meeting from Chicago, said he was relieved that the NPC had voted to leave tactics up to local chapters.

“This has the advantage of giving locals a range of options for volunteers to engage in, as opposed to having a rigid mandate passed down from on high,”Hieronymus says, noting that the initial plan was designed without input from some chapters that have already started healthcare campaigns.

“I personally think that the most effective plan will be one ultimately that embraces creativity and a diversity of tactics, that combines deep canvassing with features of ACT-UP and HIV/AIDS activism of the 1980s and ‘90s, the last successful fight for healthcare justice in the US.”

Hieronymus added that he believes the NPC’s plan will help chapters that do not yet have healthcare working groups begin to organize for Medicare for All.

Prior to the NPC meeting, Zac Echola (Red River, ND) outlined the challenges the campaign was likely to face in a post on Medium, writing that Medicare for All should not stand in for DSA’s entire electoral strategy of winning socialism in the United States. “Victory for socialism depends on constructing a powerful movement that not only believes healthcare is a basic human right but can successfully drive socialist ideology into the mainstream,” Echola wrote. “Every socialist program must be focused on building that movement.”

Echola pointed out that Medicare for All would be at minimum a five-year campaign contingent on electing waves of single-payer friendly Democrats to the House of Representatives and the Presidency in 2020. Even then, the movement risks betrayal: California Democrats shelved a bill for statewide single payer when it reached the state legislature last summer.

DSA chapters in California, including Gong’s, participated in the statewide Medicare for All campaign.

MONTHLY DUES

Skyrocketing membership following the election of President Donald Trump made DSA one of the largest and strongest socialist organizations since the Vietnam War.

But as the one-year anniversary of the 2016 presidential election nears, NPC members see a critical need to encourage as many new members to renew their annual dues as possible. Forty percent of DSA’s membership comes up for renewal between November 2017 and March 2018. If too few new members from the “Trump Bump” renew, DSA national faces a financial crisis. In addition to retaining as many dues-paying members as possible, the NPC also aims to convert more members into paying monthly, rather than annual, dues.

Ravi Ahmad, one of three NPC members from New York City, said she believes in reach goals.

“Monthly sustainers are the key to DSA’s ability to do work,” Ahmad said. “A monthly sustainer means we have a steady cash-flow throughout the year and don’t have a situation where we’re facing a renewals tsunami with insufficient staff to reach out to all our members.”

The target in the resolution passed by the NPC called for at least a 60 percent new-member renewal rate and for at least half of these to become monthly donors of $10 or more.

BUILDING POWER TOGETHER

The NPC addressed how local chapters should be mentored in effective electoral work.

To be endorsed by the NPC, a candidate for public office must (1) identify as a socialist, (2) demonstrate a realistic path to victory, and (3) be endorsed by their local chapter. Director Svart also highlighted the need to teach chapters how to follow local election law. “Compliance is important, and our membership doesn’t have discipline about that,” she said.

Also discussed was how DSA can aid the labor movement, though no major decision was reached at this meeting. During debate, one member suggested DSA volunteers could take over rank-and-file organizing for unions. Another countered that unions would be wary of inexperienced DSA organizers.

An upcoming Supreme Court case, Janus v. AFSCME, is expected to invalidate the right of public-sector unions to require employees to pay dues, which would again put organized labor on the defensive.

Janus is especially dangerous because as it squeezes unions’ financial power, it will also squeeze their political power in the form of contributions to the Democratic Party and support for candidates.” Ella Mahony (New York City) says. ”That could mean that places with higher union density, like New York City or Boston, can’t be taken for granted anymore as bastions of progressive policy.”

“We need to defend organized labor not just on its own terms, but also because of how the attacks on it make our own broad political project harder.”

Mahony says serious obstacles remain to DSA becoming a strong partner with organized labor. “One of them is that DSA hasn’t 100 percent proved itself as an effective and reliable coalition partner yet. That can be fixed by working with labor allies on an ongoing campaign,” naming the Medicare for All campaign as the first major opportunity for this.

The NPC voted unanimously to have the new steering committee organize improved political education on these topics.

2018 AND BEYOND

Delé Balogun, one of two NPC members from Chicago, commented on how the NPC was beginning to work together as a newly-elected body. “The new NPC barely exited the doors of the convention at UIC before we were hit with a terrible crisis,” he said, referring to an incident where the NPC was forced to vote to remove one of its new members after it was discovered he had previously worked with police unions. The vote narrowly failed, though that member subsequently left DSA.

“Most of us hadn’t worked together before we were elected,” Balogun says. “I think this session really helped us to understand each other a bit more. Some of the discussions and debates around decisions were quite intense. However, this is what you’d expect of a brand new leadership body, trying to guide an organization that’s been relatively dormant for decades which suddenly explodes by 25,000 members.”

Balogun says that after the Chicago meeting, DSA National’s most important projects can proceed now that its subcommittees have been formed.

This includes a new Grievance Committee, headed up by three female NPC members, that will implement DSA’s anti-harassment policy.

A permanent national steering committee, which meets bimonthly, was elected from among the NPC members. Forming the new steering committee are Midiri, Gong, Echola, Joseph Schwartz (Philadelphia), and Christine Riddiough (Washington, DC). YDSA co-chairs Ajmal Alami and Michelle Fisher are also members of the steering committee.

A full account of the decisions made at the October NPC meeting can be viewed here.

The NPC will meet again during the final weekend of January 2018.