Statement on Sample Bylaws
The NPC shall produce a Standard New Local Constitution by which all newly chartered Locals shall operate. New Locals shall elect leadership in accordance with the Standard New Local Constitution. The Local’s members may vote to ratify a new Constitution, at which time the Local shall submit to the National Office a file copy of their Constitution (and any subsequent changes therein).
It had long been standard practice for National to provide sample bylaws (such as these) to new chapters, which they could modify at will or discard entirely. The change adopted at the Convention—which made it mandatory for all new locals to adhere to National’s sample bylaws until, by a process set out in those sample bylaws, they ratify a new set of bylaws—was argued for on the grounds that it ensures a certain amount of initial stability and allow chapters to get to work right away without spending time on a bylaws debate unless they so desired.
It was left to the National Political Committee (NPC) to draft these new mandatory sample bylaws, and it was generally assumed that they would follow the same unobjectionable and minimalist pattern of past sample bylaws. However, for reasons that seem tied to the NPC’s recent drive to incorporate individual chapters of DSA as non-profits, the sample bylaws they recently released for comment on a small listserv of local DSA chapter leaders are an extensive change from precedent. They contain centralizing, top-down, and authoritarian provisions which are unheard of in any previous sample bylaws or indeed in the bylaws of nearly any currently existing DSA chapters. What’s worse, they were released without much transparency as to the process of their creation in the middle of the busy holiday season, with very little time for review and debate before their adoption by the NPC at the end of January. Many of the comments on the bylaws already enumerate these complaints in detail.
The members of the Libertarian Socialist Caucus of DSA call for an immediate halt to the implementation of these default bylaws until a more democratic process is instituted, at which point we call for a complete re-drafting of these chapter bylaws in a manner that allows all DSA members to have an opportunity to contribute to their creation. While we realize that there are national and state laws governing the formation and tax exemption status of membership organizations such as ours, and that compliance with these laws motivated at least some of the sample bylaws’ problematic provisions, we strongly believe we can better meet those requirements in ways that do not abandon our democratic principles.
As such, we urge all members of the NPC, DSA chapters and caucuses, and rank-and-file members to oppose this sample bylaws proposal.
Much as any organizing committee takes time and care to build bylaws that the membership find acceptable, an important document like sample chapter bylaws deserves to be built through a thoughtful, democratic, and collaborative process. This process should provide ample opportunity for contributions from all those affected. The sample chapter bylaws will impact every member of DSA, both by dictating the rules under which new chapters will operate and by reflecting the values of the organization. It is vital that the process for drafting this document involves a diversity of members from inception to approval.
We believe that bylaws are an important tool for use in organizing for radical social change and their possible arrangements constitute a political decision. Governing structures must open up possibilities for political action and engagement, rather than foreclose them. The proposed sample bylaws seem to both insulate local leadership from accountability to the general membership and stifle initiative from the rank and file. This may or may not have been intentional on the part of whoever drafted them—they appear, for instance, to essentially mimic large portions of these boilerplate NGO bylaws—but regardless of their specific intentions, their effect if implemented would be to undermine the grassroots vitality of our organization.
DSA is a member-driven organization, and these sample bylaws are antithetical to the model of democracy we believe in. Democracy, and power, come from our membership.
Our Objections In Detail
What follows is a detailed critique of both the sample bylaws and the process by which they have been presented. In the spirit of good faith collaboration, we also provide links to a variety of chapter and organizational bylaws which could serve as an inspiration for a properly democratic alternative to the current proposal.
Our concerns about the decision-making process are as follows:
- The sample bylaws were released only via email to the DSA Leaders listserv. Not all elected leaders in DSA have been added to this listserv.
- The public comment period is extremely short, covers a holiday period while many members who might wish to comment are busy with other obligations, and was not communicated well to membership. It is unclear why passing the sample bylaws needs to be done so quickly.
- No statement of rationale was given for some of the controversial provisions included in the bylaw—even members of the NPC seem unsure as to why certain features of this document exist, according to statements on the DSA New Members Facebook group, on Twitter, and elsewhere.
- The sample bylaws are in stark contrast to previous sample bylaws that have been provided to chapters, as well as the bylaws of most currently existing chapters. Chapter members and elected leaders ought to understand the rationale behind the sudden departure from previous norms.
- It is unclear who wrote the sample bylaws, or whether working groups or chapter leaders were consulted prior to their release. Similarly, no transcripts appear to be publicly available of the meetings in which they were drafted. In order to facilitate an inclusive space in DSA, we must consult with working groups before moving forward with such a massive change to the structure of chapters.
- Proposed sample bylaws should use best practices already developed by local DSA chapters, and we should know which chapters they were developed by, so all DSA members can evaluate the context in which they were adopted.
Our substantive concerns with the content of the sample bylaws are as follows:
- The proposed bylaws describe a board-driven organization, rather than a member-driven one. We believe this strongly centralized structure is anti-democratic and echoes the capitalist systems we are actively seeking to destroy.
- There must be provisions to enable initiative from the rank and file. Fostering initiative is key to members building the skills and confidence to develop as organizers and vital to maintaining DSA as a multi-tendency organization that uses a diversity of tactics to achieve a common goal.
- There must be a procedure for recall of elected or appointed office-holders. We applaud members' quick efforts to propose such a provision.
- Except to the minimum extent required by law, sample bylaws should not replicate language and roles which serve to reinforce gendered or oppressed roles.
- Article II, Section 3: “Proxy voting is not permitted.”
We stand in solidarity with the Disability Working Group, who was not consulted prior to the release of the sample bylaws. From a DSA comrade in the comments of the sample bylaws document, “The Disability Working Group has been working tirelessly to ensure proxy voting in local chapters. It is undemocratic and ableist to say that a member who can not make a physical meeting (for whatever reason) does not have the right to a vote. This is a massive step backwards in improving accessibility, and we can't accept this.”
- Article II, Section 4: “…a member’s chapter membership may be terminated, on grounds specified in national DSA’s constitution and bylaws, by a majority vote of the members at a regularly scheduled or specially called meeting.”
This language does not provide a hearing for the accused and does not set a requirement of notice to the accused regarding the expulsion vote. It is an invitation for those in power to weaponize the expulsion process against their enemies. Not only is this unjust, it will decrease engagement and turnout for future work.
- Article III, Sections 2:"An annual meeting of the members shall take place each year in the month of ____, or as agreed upon by the Steering Committee..."
Article III, Section 3: "Special meetings may be called by the Chair, the Executive Committee, or a majority of the Board of Directors for any purpose..."
The current language indicates that Annual and Special Meetings shall be scheduled at the will of the chair(s) alone. Scheduling meetings for a time inconvenient to most, combined with a disregard for the notion of quorum (see comments on Art III, Section 5), would give the chairs an inordinate amount of power to pass motions favorable to their aims and block motions unfavorable to their aims. Article IV, Section 4 sets meeting notice at five days in advance, which is not long enough.
- Article III, Section 5: “The members present at any properly announced meeting shall constitute a quorum.”
This disregards the purpose of a quorum, which is to ensure that an unrepresentative segment of the chapter cannot take actions that would be opposed by the majority under normal circumstances. Any number of “non-numeric” quorum solutions exist in case there is a concern about setting quorums too high. (E.g. at least one chapter uses half of the average attendance of the previous three meetings as the quorum number for the next one.)
- Article IV title “Board of Directors”. This name is a direct echo of capitalist systems of power and should be avoided. Additionally, language later seems to indicate a distinction between “officers” and other members of the Board. Affording some members of any coordinating committee more power than others is inherently anti-democratic. If such language were required by law in some way, the bylaws should use other terminology and indicate that the coordinating committee shall be considered a “Board of Directors” where such is required by law.
- Article IV, Section 7: “All members shall be afforded the opportunity to nominate prospective board members. A committee of the board of directors shall be responsible for nominating a slate of prospective board members representing a diverse constituency of the membership. Such prospective board members must be vetted in advance of a ballot being produced.”
This section essentially gives the current leadership of a chapter total control over who can be considered for future leadership, which is, by definition, anti-democratic.
- Article IV, Section 8: “A quorum of the board shall be one-third plus one, including at least one board officer, for the purposes of conducting official business of the chapter...”
A quorum of the board set at one-third plus one is grossly insufficient for any coordinating committee, much less for one that has wrongly been afforded so much power.
- Article V, Section 1: “The board may create committees as needed for the operation of the chapter. Members are encouraged to identify and or self-organize committees and propose them to the board. Such committees may include finance, program, fundraising/development, public relations, etc. The board president/chair appoints all committee chairs... When a committee has been created, it continues its work until the board decides to change its commission or eliminate it.”
Unilateral action from the board can create or destroy committees, and change committee leadership, all without oversight. This can easily be used to ensure that only the board’s favored modes of action are enacted, and only the board’s favored members are heard. Finally, this provision allows the board too much sway in deciding what is and isn’t something chapter members can work on.
- Article V, Section 2: “The three/four officers serve as members of the Executive Committee. Additional directors may be appointed to the executive committee as the board sees fit. Except for the power to amend the original chapter Articles of Incorporation or these Bylaws, the executive committee shall have all the powers and authority of the board of directors in the intervals between board meetings and is subject to the direction and control of the full board.” This serves to produce further hierarchy within a chapter’s organizational structure. Furthermore, since the executive committee would have all of the power of the full board, the existence of the committee is redundant and creates an unnecessary power struggle between the committee and the board. The board can also freely add directors to the committee as they see fit. The fact that this process belongs to the board instead of the general membership is undemocratic.
- Article VII outlines the hiring of a director and staff, which is not applicable for a document intended to be bylaws for newly-forming chapters.
- Article VIII, Section 1: “These bylaws may be amended when necessary by a two-thirds majority of the board of directors, followed by a majority of the chapter’s members participating in a vote to approve such amendments.”
As a chapter’s membership should be the highest governing body of the chapter, there should be no requirement that the Board originate or approve bylaws amendments. This shores up the Board’s power even further—bylaws amendment proposals that are hostile to the existing Board should be given a vote by the general membership.
Links to alternative sample bylaws:
Standard pre-Convention DSA sample bylaws
Bylaws of the Libertarian Socialist Caucus
Red River Valley DSA bylaws
DSA SF Bylaws
Central New Mexico DSA Bylaws
Sample bylaws from another leftist organization
As Libertarian Socialists, we believe that in order to affect change in our world, we ought to create internal structures that model the external structures we want to see. The internal structure created by these sample bylaws replicate centralized, top-down, capitalist modes of control and impose severe limits on the power of rank and file members.
We believe that we must model our organization on the world we hope to create. Rather than an organization of leaders and followers, we must be an organization that empowers our members to organize, make decisions, and take action, as only an organization that liberates its members can bring about liberation in our society.
Therefore we urge the NPC and DSA’s membership at large to reject these sample bylaws and go back to the drawing board. If we learn from our mistakes and uphold our shared ideal of socialism as radical democracy, we have no doubt it will be possible for all of us to create bylaws that are worthy of our adoption and a drafting process worthy of our trust.
During voting on this statement, a closer reading revealed that the executive committee is a subset of the board. Some of the original concerns in point 13 reflected a misunderstanding. A vote that closed on January 5th fixed this. ↩︎