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The Squad Crossed a Line. DSA Members Must Do Something about It

After the railway worker strike vote, DSA members must admit that their electoral strategy isn’t working. Calls for accountability point in the right direction, but a deeper reflection is required. It’s time for DSA members to come to terms with the fact that working within the Democratic Party just doesn’t work for socialists or the interests of the working class.

Tatiana Cozzarelli

January 6, 2023
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In recent years, folks in every kind of workplace — from Starbucks, to UPS, to schools — have joined the Democratic Socialists of America. In June of 2022, thousands of DSA members descended on Chicago for the Labor Notes conference. Many of these workers are connecting the new labor movement to the dream of socialism. 

I understand the appeal. After all, DSA is the biggest socialist organization around with an active political orientation towards labor, attracting and including experienced organizers. And in many places, DSA members are willing to get jobs in key industries in order to organize, or show up in solidarity with workers’ struggles, bringing coffee, donuts, and a smile to picket lines. 

But despite the organization’s pro-worker rhetoric and many members’ activism in the labor movement, last month, the DSA’s endorsed officials, many of whom are DSA members themselves, joined Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi, and other Democrats in voting to stop a railway worker strike. All but one “Squad” member in the House of Representatives — Rashida Tlaib — voted to impose a contract with no guaranteed sick days, and all of them voted for a second bill imposing a contract with just half of the sick days that workers were demanding.

Both bills, including the one with seven sick days (which was easily defeated in the Senate) are a slap in the face to rank-and-file democracy. Workers, not Congress, should decide on the contract. In that sense, we shouldn’t support the actions of Tlaib or Sanders either. No members voted on the seven days of sick leave, and socialists should always stand with rank-and-file decision making. 

Not one of these “Squad” members came out and said “I’m voting ‘No’ to everything and starting a national campaign against the Railway Labor Act.” Despite being endorsed by or members of the country’s largest socialist organization, not one of them came out against Congressional interference in workers’ bargaining efforts. 

You might be interested in: Michael Harrington and the Origins of DSA: An Interview with Doug Greene.

Now, as the initial shock, rage, and sense of betrayal wears off, some DSA members are doing Olympic medal-worthy mental gymnastics to justify the Squad’s votes. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s (AOC) defenders claim that she spoke to “workers” and voted the way they told her to — though it’s not clear exactly who she spoke to. What is clear is that there is no way that AOC spoke to the thousands of railway workers who rejected the Biden contract in an up or down vote taken just a month before. Rank-and-file workers should decide whether to strike or not, and AOC’s vote was a vote to break a strike, point blank, period. 

The DSA’s statement on this makes some correct points: 

The members are the union and a majority of members voted to reject the TA. Socialist electeds must stand with unions when they reject a TA [Tentative Agreement]. The vote to defend workers’ right to strike was an opportunity to further organize the public in solidarity with the railworkers. The left cannot afford to miss these moments! 

It’s true. The Left cannot miss moments like this. Railway workers were waging a brave struggle: they insisted over and over again that they deserved more and that their billionaire bosses could easily provide for their demands. They went against their own union leadership and Joe Biden to vote down the tentative agreement reached in September. The role of the Left should have been to encourage rank-and-file militancy; it should have been to say that we’ll stand by the workers if they choose to break the law, not to vote to break the strike. This was an opportunity, and DSA officials did more than squander it. They stood on the wrong side of the trenches. 

This clear and public betrayal is going to push a sector of the working class into the open and waiting arms of the Republican Party which has been courting and disingenuously acting as though they are the party of the working class. Even Marco Rubio tweeted that he would not impose a deal on rail workers without their support, and several Republicans in both the House and Senate voted against the measure. Republicans will undoubtedly point to this to try to win a sector of the working class to the racist, anti-worker, transphobic Far Right. And by voting yes on Biden’s strike-breaking plan, DSA elected officials are helping that happen. 

The Squad Crossed a Line, What Will DSA Members Do about It?

If you are a DSA member you should be absolutely livid at these strikebreaking members of Congress. After all, this is your organization. Your group. The folks who are supposedly your comrades, helping organize unions alongside you, who will help mobilize the picket lines with you. 

After all, this is your organization, whose most high-profile members and endorsees — people you were asked to donate to, volunteer, and vote for — are strikebreakers. 

While the national statement by the DSA makes some good points, it provides essentially no way forward. There will be a DSA-wide call, but what good will that do? And when will this call even be? When the initial anger has been forgotten and folks have moved on? This level of betrayal demands a much deeper reflection, and it requires drastic action at the same level of the drastic betrayal. It requires a deep rethinking of the DSA’s strategy and it requires action.

In addition to the statement from the National Political Committee, several DSA caucuses have issued their own statements. The Seattle DSA’s statement has gotten numerous signatures, including from the Afro Socialist Caucus and other local DSA chapters. 

In it they clearly state:

We believe this vote by the DSA Congressmembers has triggered a serious crisis for our organization that must be squarely addressed. The Congressmembers’ votes took place only a year after DSA Congressmember Bowman voted to fund the Israeli military, in which AOC abstained, violating DSA’s democratically agreed platform. In our view, there needs to be a real reckoning about the relationship between DSA and our elected officials. We need a serious discussion about how DSA can hold electeds accountable when they trample on basic working-class principles like the right to strike or anti-imperialism.

They demand that DSA’s electeds attend this meeting and that diverse political views be represented in this call. They also call to discuss disciplinary actions against these DSA electeds.

These are all good first steps.

Many DSA members are having an important conversations about the need to hold DSA members in office accountable. This need for accountability is the right instinct, but real accountability will require greater rethinking of the DSA project. 

Right now, there are essentially no structures of accountability for DSA members in Congress. The fact that these don’t already exist says a lot about the intentions of DSA-endorsed politicians, who sometimes court the DSA during the primaries and then distance themselves once in office. Who can forget AOC removing the DSA from her public profile after getting elected, or in the course of her time in office, shedding the most progressive staffers from her ranks. While AOC spent her first day in office supporting a Sunrise Movement sit-in, she and other DSA electeds have since thrown their support to the establishment of the Democratic Party, including Nancy Pelosi. This stands in stark contrast to the actions of the far right Republicans who are currently refusing to support Kevin McCarthy. 

A DSA endorsement is like a rubber stamp to tell members who to vote and volunteer for, but it means essentially nothing in what these politicians do, how they vote, and how they act once they are in Congress. DSA candidates don’t fall in line behind their organization or its members; they just get thousands of people looking for a way out of politics-as-usual and who are passionate about socialism to fall in line behind the Democratic Party establishment. The truth is that DSA members in Congress are entirely and enthusiastically part of a bigger, stronger beast: the Democratic Party.

Here are the facts: The Democratic Party is part of a multi-billion dollar political industry — literally. As Kim Moody explains in Breaking the Impasse, the Democratic Party organs raised $770 million in the 2020 election cycle, in addition to the $2.5 billion raised for Biden, the $632 million raised for House campaigns, and $406 million for Senate campaigns. Of those billions, the majority come from the big capitalists. 

The Democratic Party is a billion-dollar industry funded by the biggest capitalists to have ever lived. Let’s not be naive: it’s clear who the Democratic Party is accountable to. That’s why when 400 capitalists sent a letter asking to stop the rail strike, Joe Biden, the “most labor friendly President of our time,” organized to end the strike. Even those who don’t take corporate donations end up caucusing, meeting with and under the sphere of influence of a party that is funded by and for big capital.

You might be interested in: Why Are There So Few Large Strikes? Blame the Democratic Party

As Kim Moody explains, progressives in the Democratic Party are pushed upward and rightward, with the Democratic Party using money and pressure to maintain the shiny appeal of these ostensible outsiders, while at the same time integrating them completely into the capitalist, imperialist machine. It’s both the carrot and the stick. And the Democratic Party will always have a bigger carrot and a bigger stick.

This isn’t a fancy new trick the Democrats have innovated with the Squad. It’s been used for decades — over and over with previous DSA members, with Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition and more. Hasn’t history shown us that socialists inside the Democratic Party always move “upwards and rightwards?” Aren’t the Iron Dome votes and the votes to break a railway strike enough to take a deep look at what the DSA is doing? 

Simple solutions won’t work here. The betrayal was deep and drastic. The solution must be as well. It’s time to admit that this is a failed strategy because DSA officials have essentially different goals. 

Our task is to build working-class power: to build the confidence and strength of the working class to do what is needed, including breaking anti-strike clauses and using our labor power to win. What the actions of the DSA electeds have shown us is that this is not their goal. At the very best, they want to pass some laws that could give workers a greater ability to unionize, like the PRO Act. But ironically, without mass working class action, neither progressive legislation nor worker power will be built. 

Because we have different goals from the Squad, we need a different organization. There can be no accountability once you are in the Democratic Party. It’s time to break with the Democrats and build our own party

It’s time to say decisively: the Democratic Party is a dead end. It is a party of strikebreakers, of Zionists, and of capitalists. They, and the Republicans, are an integral part of the capitalist state, which is nothing “but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie,” as Marx and Engels told us. The DSA has tried working within it, and even stayed after their electeds voted for Iron Dome funding. The problems weren’t fixed — they only got worse, with DSA leadership acting against the BDS working group. Now the DSA electeds voted to break a strike.

It’s time to take the leap to building our own, independent, working-class, socialist party — an organization that would have the power to mobilize thousands in solidarity with railway workers and encourage an illegal strike, and do the same for reproductive rights and trans rights as they are being attacked. 

I know many DSA members fear being irrelevant if the organization breaks with the Democratic Party. That’s a legitimate fear; we must find ways to connect with the working class, in class struggle and in social movements. It’s good if our message is in the mainstream press and it’s good if we get socialists elected to office. But if we build working-class strength, we will not be irrelevant. A rail strike would be decisive in the national and international economy — it’s the opposite of irrelevance. 

And the truth is that there is something worse than being irrelevant, and that’s building a tool that isn’t for us, the workers, but for the bosses. Worse than irrelevance is actually working for the enemy; nothing is worse than being a strike breaker and an imperialist. 

We have a big task in front of us: building a group that is not irrelevant, that plays a radicalizing and socialist role in class struggle and helps organize and support the big battles against the bosses that we have in the years to come. DSA members, your fight is so important right now. The ability to build such a party is at least partially contingent on sectors of the DSA going deep in this crisis and taking deep conclusions. If you are a DSA member and you are angry, make a stink. Make a scandal. Scream at the top of your lungs. Organize with other DSA members and other socialists to build the foundations for the organization we really need. 

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Tatiana Cozzarelli

Tatiana is a former middle school teacher and current Urban Education PhD student at CUNY.

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