All Power to the Locals?: A Cautionary Tale from Pittsburgh DSA

Pittsburgh flood of 1936

December 2016 felt like a new dawn. At the largest history museum in Pennsylvania, among the remnants of one of the oldest shipping and manufacturing centers of the rust belt, hundreds congregated at what would become the Pittsburgh chapter of the DSA. This chapter swiftly emerged as one of the most impressive in the country, electing four public officials to local office in two years and putting the fear of God into the local Democratic machine. Then it collapsed. Pittsburgh DSA’s terminal decline is only the most extreme example of the fate that has befallen many other chapters. What best explains these depressing episodes of DSA chapters crashing and burning? What lessons do they hold for working-class organizing in the US?

A new style of politics was necessary to address the resurgent right and bring the American left back to working people – especially in a rust belt city in a state where established Democratic party dominance was in question and the political landscape in flux. What would this new politics look like? Who would be part of this new coalition? Pittsburgh DSA’s inability to answer those questions by means of democratic consensus left it vulnerable to sabotage by a determined alliance of self-styled anarchists and local Democratic Party machine operatives.

For a brief time, the urgency of the political moment was enough to paper over ideological divisions and differences. Everyone had their own projects and respected each other’s work – initially at least. Pittsburgh DSA formed working groups without linking them to each other or a central leadership, such that as the chapter grew working groups diverged more and more. Latent disagreements became manifest and fueled growing mistrust and antipathy between members of different groups. Without a strong majoritarian democratic process, this became a fatal flaw. Factionalism took over, and this factionalism had its origins in a class divide within the chapter’s membership. What occurred in Pittsburgh was the displacement of working class politics by an organized faction representing the material and career interests of a small clique of professional-class members.

A white-collar takeover

In the best of cases, for most working-class members, the internal politics of the DSA is of secondary concern. They trust that some unifying structure will facilitate the work, but are rarely interested in determining that structure, especially not if it entails open conflict with others. Thus the people with time and experience do it: engineers, nonprofit workers, academics, lawyers, and professional activists and organizers skilled at waging protracted internal battles and factional fights.

While most members were busy with rank-and-file union work, or knocking on doors for local candidates, a select few spent their time coordinating in a so-called “no bullshit caucus,” or NBC, the primary goal of which, according to its own members, was to disrupt organizing that it disagreed with within the Pittsburgh chapter.

Thus the decentralized working group model that had characterized Pittsburgh DSA soon became unsustainable. The professional middle-class left is not concerned with any particular goals or achievements for the broader working class. Instead, it brings together self-righteous purists with radical rhetoric to preach socialism to the uneducated masses in need of salvation. In Pittsburgh, it encouraged charity programs and consciousness raising, but not grassroots labor or electoral organizing. 

To gain the kind of internal control they sought, the professionals coalesced around an internal caucus with its own values and interests. The next step for them was to purge the chapter’s ranks of the impure and the inconvenient. They hoped to limit the chapter to their agreed upon set of events and agenda. NBC members started attending planning meetings as a bloc, with pre-planned motions designed to ensure that decisions about organizing projects would either be made in a separate committee headed by NBC members, or else dissolve the working groups that fell out of favor.

Along with the labor organizing working group, several DSA chapter leaders attempted to organize against the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center: Pennsylvania’s largest land owner, its largest non-governmental employer, and frequent union-buster. The NBC labeled people affiliated with a local SEIU chapter a  “union front group.” When labor organizers tried to codify the working group’s intention to work on a cross-committee, chapter-wide project, they were blocked by procedural objections, and the effort was abandoned. 

The people most prominent in this attempt to fight the UPMC’s union-busting activities were labeled spies of SEIU, shunned in chapter activities, and antagonized by NBC members in an attempt to discourage them from participating in the chapter. Attrition set in, and the SEIU and healthcare workers gave way to more professional class union workers – librarians, computer programmers, graduate students, and lawyers. 

Infiltration by the Democratic machine

Once it became successful, the electoral working group, too, came under scrutiny from the NBC. The electoral working group met regularly to discuss fundraising, field plans, voter data, and overall strategy, and while it was open to whomever wished to attend, several dozen people came to the majority of meetings. After victories in two municipal races in 2017, and two state house races in 2018, with some outside help, the NBC turned its attention towards disrupting electoral organizing, which they labelled “opportunist.” 

After State Representative Summer Lee’s 2018 primary victory, Darnika Reed, a professional organizer/activist associated with established nonprofits in Pittsburgh who had never before attended an electoral working group meeting, began attending DSA meetings somewhat frequently. She said that the chapter had failed to vet candidates properly. She said Rep. Lee had fabricated her credentials/biography during her campaign, and was a “token” that white progressives were using to dominate the black community. 

Lee’s credentials were in fact well-documented and clearly presented to the public and her district is majority white. This did nothing to dissuade Ms. Reed or her supporters. Anyone who refuted Reed’s claims was branded as engaging in racist and sexist “misogynoir.” Summer Lee is a black woman and known community activist in Pittsburgh. But Reed sat on nonprofit boards and participated in local projects with various NBC members. Nobody wanted to be the next person labeled a racist and a misogynist for questioning the validity of Reed’s claims.

Egged on by allies in the NBC and a fortuitous conjunction of events, Reed’s grudge metastasized in an environment of growing sensitivity and mistrust around racial issues. As the broader left in Pittsburgh organized protests and vigils over the unjust police killing of Antwon Rose II, a black progressive candidate for district attorney, Turahn Jenkins, battled a homophobia scandal. Black progressive activists called for two of Jenkins’s staffers, who had been DSA members, to resign. Both duly stepped down. Reed then brought black feminist activists and nonprofit leaders to the next DSA general meeting to confront the chapter for its allegedly racist behavior, and to demand the resignation of chapter leaders, along with any chapter members associated with the campaign for district attorney. 

The disproportionately white and middle class Pittsburgh DSA had no defense mechanism against this sort of identitarian ratfucking, and as Reed’s opportunistic allegations found purchase they began to proliferate. Reed’s supporters charged that the chapter’s prominent role in the protests against the shooting of Antwon Rose II represented co-optation of a black struggle. According to Reed’s supporters, the resignation of Jenkins’s staffers was now itself a racist abandonment of a black candidate. That the staffers were no longer active members of the chapter, that the chapter had no official ties or responsibility to the candidate in question, that the chapter leaders accused of participating in the protests had already resigned: none of this mattered to Reed or her NBC allies. 

The chapter had been charged with the sin of racism and needed to repent. To provide a forum for “people of color” to express their concerns, an internal channel, called “Time to Listen,” was established. Longtime “POC” members were recruited and reached a consensus that the chapter’s response to the allegations and to its own disproportionate whiteness would be to revamp its recruiting strategy. A well-known, highly-respected black socialist, Carl Redwood, became involved. He presented an even-handed proposal arguing that the electoral working group was not responsible for problems in the chapter, but that the chapter should do more to recruit people of color. 

Reed dissented. She demanded an apology be extended from Pittsburgh DSA to Jenkins (for whom she had begun to work) and the black community of Pittsburgh. She screamed, cried, and threatened to “expose” the chapter to the local news if her demands were not met. Her NBC allies accused people of color who disagreed with her of being sexist or Uncle Toms (“token minorities”). Community outreach plans were scrapped. 

NBC allies subjected participants in the “Time to Listen” chat to coordinated smear and harassment campaigns on social media so as to discourage them from further participation. In January 2019, the Pittsburgh DSA chapter issued the requested apology. Reed and her immediate allies had written it. In the following months, remaining electoral working group members were chased out of the chapter. 

By April, the electoral working group was reformed into an “electoral pressure committee” that NBC members led — just in time to make a “recommendation” that the membership endorse three political campaigns: a district attorney campaign (run by Reed), a city council race (ditto), and Reed’s own campaign for local school board. The chapter had no further electoral successes. In 2020, Reed managed the campaign of a pro-fracking candidate who primaried Summer Lee, with backing from establishment Democrats.

DSA must be an organization for the working class

If the DSA is to fulfill its promise as the largest socialist organization in the US, there’s a lesson here. Many DSA members view organized ideological caucuses with mistrust, and we understand why. But if we want a healthy, sustainable volunteer-based organization, we need to get involved in internal politics. If we leave them to those with an inclination for them, and refuse to form caucuses of our own, we have no way to keep professional middle-class people from using their caucuses to take over any given chapter. 

Bylaws can and should set the priorities of any chapter, and even nationally. Thus our main argument is that decentralizing, “horizontalist” tendencies allow nonprofit organizers, establishment Democratic party loyalists, and other assorted middle-class professionals to set the priorities for chapters, and to destroy them as vehicles for labor and electoral organizing. We need a national structure that will prioritize the fight for universal programs like Medicare For All that can provide immediate, tangible benefits to the US working class. Chapters need to prioritize labor organizing and electoral work if we are to achieve those benefits. 

As we see it, the only path forward for a working-class movement in the US is an organization with concrete goals, clear priorities, well-defined limits, and a commitment to local labor and electoral campaigns separate from professional nonprofit and activist work. We should demand that the national organization not only adopt priority campaigns, as they did in 2017, but also dedicate resources to enacting these priorities at the chapter level. The rubber needs to hit the road if we are to avoid disastrous outcomes like what occurred in Pittsburgh.

“All power to the locals”: this has been the rallying cry for those who insist that each chapter’s leadership committee should have ultimate control over local decisions. But this slogan masks a class agenda: that middle-class professionals be allowed to run local chapters in an undemocratic fashion that maximizes identitarian conflict via smear campaigns on social media. 

Working groups, committees, and caucuses affect policy at the local level. But the national organization needs to foster an environment in which a working-class person can join a local chapter and be given guidance and resources to fight union-busting, primary their local establishment politician, or run an issue campaign on a local ballot. Unless and until we can do that, why should a working-class person join the DSA? And if working-class people don’t want to join, in what sense is DSA a working-class project?