DSA Needs Rules for Paid Political Leadership 

Without safeguards, paid political leadership could undermine what it seeks to bolster—member democracy.

Any membership organization that wants to build power will eventually, if it grows, require the paid time of some of its members. Unions, political parties, or membership organizations like Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) universally trend towards some level of “professionalization” as they grow in size, resources, and power. Whether it’s managing an office and finances or going out to organize new workplaces, chapters, or campaigns, at a certain point, grassroots leaders come up against challenges that can’t be handled on a fully volunteer basis, and the decision to pay some members to carry out organizational work needs to be made.

In an ideal world, there would be no tradeoffs (other than money itself) to paying people for organizational work, but the reality can be different. In a democratic organization, power over important decisions should stay in the hands of the membership, either directly or through elected leaders, and paid members should be using their compensated time to carry out the organization’s democratically decided program. The reality, though, is that paying members introduces a number of inevitable contradictions as well as serious pitfalls for democratic membership organizations. Compensating some people for their time introduces differentials in incentives, access to information, time, and access to the membership that can alter democratic dynamics considerably.

For DSA, these dynamics deserve particular attention because delegates at the 2023 national convention took steps to greatly expand our paid political leadership—meaning members who are being paid part-time or full-time ex officio (by virtue of the office they hold) to conduct the duties of their elected leadership position in DSA. This practice of paying elected leaders is common in the labor movement, and it is an exciting development with many potential benefits for DSA. But the proposals for paid political leadership passed at convention were approved with surprisingly little discussion of the potential risks. While salaries and stipends for some of these positions are on pause due to DSA’s present budget crunch, the NPC and conventions have authorized payment for a large layer of the national leadership, including full-time salaries for two NPC co-chairs and two labor commission co-chairs, part time stipends for the rest of the NPC steering committee, and stipends for a substantial number of YDSA leaders. As DSA moves towards adding a robust new layer of members being compensated for their organizational work (on top of our existing professional staff), it’s important to identify the ways these paid political leaders could change our organization and think through how we can ensure that safeguards are in place to preserve the dynamic, grassroots democracy that is essential to DSA’s organizing model.

There’s no guarantee that paid leaders will be aligned with the will of the convention, behave responsibly in office, or resist the temptation to use their position to cement their political and economic positions within the organization. To minimize the possibility of these more damaging outcomes, DSA should ensure that paid leaders are elected by the convention itself, apply a uniform set of rights, benefits, and responsibilities to all paid leadership, and implement clear regulations to maintain an even playing field in DSA’s internal elections.

What’s the Worst That Can Happen?

For DSA members, the most salient reference point for the challenges that arise with paid organizational work is usually the labor movement, which makes sense because unions bear many similarities to DSA in their structure. A typical union represents workers at some number of work sites, who pay dues and elect their leadership. A majority of the union’s dues frequently go to either paying staff (hired from outside as professional staff or from within the membership) or paid leadership (paid directly by the union or paid through “release time” from their unionized workplace.) In a strong union, staff and elected leaders are tightly integrated with the membership, doing what is necessary to build the unity and power of an informed membership base who fights to win and enforce contractual rights. In weaker unions, on the other hand, members may have little to no interaction with the union other than paying dues, while staff and/or paid leaders handle bargaining, contract enforcement, and the internal union business with little oversight.

What some leftists fear about paying leaders or hiring staff in unions is that there can be real incentives once in power to change the character of the organization to be more passive and bureaucratic. These dynamics have led to too many unions having weak or almost nonexistent internal democracy—despite having democratic bylaws and elections. The purpose of electing members to work for the union full-time is to get the benefits of having professional staff while still having an organization whose leadership come from the rank-and-file membership and share their experiences, concerns, and priorities. But in any union (especially those where members are engaged in low-paid, dangerous, or physically demanding work) holding a paid position can mean more money, better working conditions, reputational benefits, and power. In the worst case scenario, leaders who come off the shop floor may become out of touch with the needs of the membership and be able to rationalize transforming the union into a passive organization where their own more desirable position is secure. The biggest Marxist critics of union staff and leadership characterize this as being in a structurally similar position to capitalists – instead of a worker being exploited by a boss for their income, the paid union leaders are now living off the surplus produced by other people’s labor. While this analysis can sometimes be applied reductively – or worse, used to slander staff who are doing their best to carry out an organizational program (remember our movement needs staff and will need a lot more staff if we are able to grow) – what it gets right is that an engaged membership and democratic decision making are essential, and members who are getting paid should support member engagement, not be a substitute for it.

Even when personal financial incentives are removed from the equation, having some members in paid positions can change democratic norms and outcomes. Having a paid leadership position is a major advantage to retaining power (because of the ability to be in front of the membership full-time and during work hours), significantly increasing the already real advantages of incumbency. Additionally, the existence of paid leadership positions gives leaders the opportunity to use the resources of the union to build their political base. In many unions, membership in the governing caucus or fealty to the leadership is a first step in climbing the ladder of the union. Paid or stipended positions are often reserved for allies or handed out in a politicized way. Whether they are granted directly by the leadership or elected (with the support of the governing caucus), paid positions can easily become a form of political patronage that gives outsized power to the existing leadership. Promising promotion to a more remunerative position or threatening removal from a particular office or slate are potent ways for leaders to keep their allies from stepping out of line. This is a major way union leaders suppress internal democracy, despite often having very democratic bylaws.

DSA staff jobs are not cushy sinecures being held by corrupt union bureaucrats, and our paid leadership positions are not likely to be either, but we can and should learn from more than a century of democratic struggle and reform in the labor movement. As we take the significant step of adding a new layer of paid political leaders, we should put safeguards in place to protect our dynamic member democracy. Most importantly, we must put in place regulations to ensure that holding paid positions does not become a platform to undermine member democracy.

Paid Leaders Should Be Elected by the Convention

In any democratic organization, especially one as factionally divided as DSA, it is important that all paid time is being deployed in a way that is consistent with the democratically decided will of the membership. DSA’s highest decision making body is the biennial convention made up of hundreds of directly-elected chapter and at-large delegates. The convention elects the 16 at-large members of the National Political Committee (NPC), which is the highest decision making body between conventions. The NPC has the authority to hire and fire the National Director(s), who in turn oversee DSA’s staff. This is a clear chain of command and political authority that starts with DSA members electing their convention delegates and ends with staff members carrying out their duties. Elected leaders, on the other hand, won’t always neatly fit into this framework. They will not have supervisors, they will inevitably feel accountable to whatever subset of members elected them, and they will (rightly) have a level of political legitimacy and autonomy that staff do not by virtue of being elected. In order to maximize unity in DSA and minimize conflict over the role of paid leaders, we must ensure that the lines of authority flowing from the members through the convention and NPC stay consistent. Requiring any elected leaders who are paid by DSA to be elected by the delegates at convention, as the NPC co-chairs and steering committee members are currently, is the best way to do that. If there are instances where a convention election doesn’t make sense (for example, a paid leadership position whose responsibilities include a specialized skill set), the same chain of authority should still be followed, meaning the next best option is to have the NPC make appointments.

The 2023 convention almost took us in a different direction by authorizing paid National Labor Commission (NLC) co-chairs. At the time, the NLC co-chairs were not elected by the convention but by the National Labor Commission membership—a sub-body within DSA that has a restricted membership and its own internal bylaws and democratic procedures that are not guaranteed to meet the standards of the national organization. To ensure that they would better reflect the overall political priorities of DSA’s membership, the NPC made the right decision by overruling the NLC bylaws and having NLC co-chairs be elected by the convention delegates rather than by membership of the NLC. This approach should be our standard practice—paid leaders should be elected by the convention, not by self-selecting or restricted membership sub-groups.

DSA Needs a Consistent Policy on Responsibilities, Rights, and Benefits for Paid Political Leaders

For better or worse, any organization that is paying people for their labor must be able to answer some basic “human resources” questions. What happens if an employee isn’t doing their job? What happens if they engage in unacceptable behavior in the workplace? What happens if they get sick? What happens if they have a personal crisis? For most DSA staff, the answers to these questions are laid out in their negotiated collective bargaining agreement (CBA). Since paid political leaders are just as human as paid staff, all of the same questions are likely to arise as their use is expanded in the organization. It’s important, then, for DSA to establish personnel policies for paid political leaders proactively, before issues arise. In addition to codifying these basic terms and conditions of employment, we should account for the fact that paid political leaders don’t have supervisors and have far less accountability than the typical employee. At a minimum, all paid political leaders should document their hours and provide written reports to the NPC on at least a quarterly basis explaining how their compensated time is being spent. Clear guidelines for nonfeasance should be established for all paid positions, and the criteria for nonfeasance and elected leaders performance against those metrics should be transparent to the NPC and general membership.

DSA Needs Robust Rules on Campaigning for Internal Office to Ensure a Level Playing Field

Strange bedfellows have created a situation in the US where union elections are arguably more regulated and more democratic than many government elections. Corporate opponents of unions supporting (often onerous) transparency requirements, reformers fighting for a level playing field within their unions, and government actors concerned with rooting out organized crime influence in the labor movement have all contributed to a robust set of regulations for candidates for union office. Candidates for union office have a right to access membership lists before elections and a right to send mail to union members. Donations from any employer to candidates for union offices are forbidden. Ballots are counted independently and candidates have the right to view the counting. The notice period for elections, frequency of elections, and definition of the electorate are all subject to government regulations. DSA’s elections are already surprisingly unregulated (even student government elections, for example, often have campaign finance rules), but as we move towards paid political leadership the absence of rules becomes all the more urgent to address.

For our paid staff, the CBA forbids them from using their role as staff to organize for or against any political tendency or perspective in DSA, and they are not allowed to hold elected office in DSA locally or nationally. Compare these modest limitations to our paid political leaders: by their very nature, to get elected, they have to be among the most adept DSA members at organizing for their political tendency or perspective in DSA, and by definition, they are already holding political office. Once elected, they will have enormous advantages in terms of position, access to information, time, and visibility with the membership that could make it nearly impossible for rank-and-file members to seriously contest elections. Without careful regulations, factions that secure paid political positions will be very well positioned to use them as full-time factional organizers and begin the process of turning DSA into an internally demobilized one-party state like too many labor unions have become.

DSA should consider new rules to maintain a level playing field for leadership elections. Requiring the registration of slates and caucuses would be a first step at bringing some transparency to the highly organized but secretive groups that increasingly dominate DSA’s political decision making. Candidates and slates should be required to report their spending on campaigning, and there should be overall limits on how much can be spent to promote candidates. Government officials are not supposed to use their office resources for campaigning, and union leaders cannot use union resources for campaigning, but DSA is woefully behind in establishing similar bans. We should establish clear rules on how DSA assets like Zoom accounts, social media accounts, and official email accounts can or cannot be used for campaigning, and we should codify and enforce the ban on formal DSA committees and working groups making candidate endorsements. Establishing a “campaigning period” from the start of delegate elections to convention where candidates who are running for DSA office step back from chairing official events like pre-convention conferences could also help maintain a level playing field at the moments when incumbent leaders with paid positions will have the most to gain from pressing their natural advantage.

The Time to Act is Before There is a Problem

If DSA can climb out of its current budget situation, it’s clear that increasing use of paid political leadership will be part of our organizational makeup moving forward. It’s important to be thoughtful and proactive about putting policies in place to protect our member democracy before problems arise. If paid political leaders are elected by the convention in elections with a level playing field for non-incumbents, and have clear rights and responsibilities that are transparent to membership and the NPC, we may see tremendous benefits from adding a more politically active layer of paid members full-time alongside our existing organizing staff. If we fail to put these safeguards in place, we could empower and entrench leadership cliques even further in DSA, and erode the democratic norms that make our unique, high-engagement membership model possible.

Photo: Greek theatre in Baton Rouge, LA by Spatms. Shared under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.