DSA and the NHGO

- Caucus Statement

The NPC has already voted to terminate the contract but the argument for the NHGO as a staff position rather than another consultant remains important.

As we build a mass organization that will win socialism for the multiracial working class, conflict and harm are inevitable.  People enter DSA with a wide range of emotional regulation, communication and conflict resolution skills, as well as varying ideas about how harm and conflict should be addressed in a socialist organization. DSA provides formal guidance to members through our National Code of Conduct; Resolution 33, DSA’s harassment and grievance policy, chapter-level codes of conduct, and in some cases, chapter-level conflict resolution or related training.

The implementation of Resolution 33 is overseen by our National Harassment and Grievance Officer (NHGO). At the chapter level, Harassment and Grievance Officers (HGOs) perform investigations related to Resolution 33 and make recommendations to chapter leadership.

“A Lack of Organizational Consensus”

Right now, DSA is facing urgent questions about best practices, confidentiality and other aspects of the Resolution 33 grievance process. A central tension within these and other questions is what our current NHGO describes as “a lack of organizational consensus…some prefer a more punitive approach that removes the member and prevents further harm to the chapter’s reputation. Others feel strongly that a restorative justice approach is most consistent with DSA’s values.” This mirrors ongoing debate in our country about punishment, harm, and rehabilitation that became prominent for many of our members in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder in Summer 2020 and while chapter HGOs may continue to decide the appropriate orientation for a given situation, the overall direction of our approach to conflict has already been democratically set by multiple conventions.

In 2021, the DSA National Convention made a commitment to abolitionist organizing through Resolution 03. In our present context, abolition is both a political vision and a practical organizing strategy that works to dismantle the racist prison-industrial complex and address harm without using violent systems. That Convention also passed Resolution 28, “Building Transformative Justice Through A National Committee of Grievance Officers,” creating a permanent committee to train chapter harassment and grievance officers (HGOs) in transformative/restorative justice, conflict resolution, and mediation and to make recommendations to standardize/improve our harassment and grievance process.

Both resolutions passed on the Consent Agenda with supermajority support. This shows us that members have already chosen: DSA must explore alternatives to punitive approaches, and the staff NHGO must recognize the abolitionist backdrop against which they implement Resolution 33 and be willing to support the NCGO in the work sanctioned by Resolution 28.

DSA itself exists in the shell of the very different and much smaller organization that existed prior to 2016. Each convention some group puts forward a proposal for some form of structural change and each year that “lack of organizational consensus” shows itself in the failure of this or that structural amendment to receive the supermajority support it needs to be enacted. While there is wide agreement that our current structure needs work, there is an extremely wide range of conceptions of what the problems with it are and of views on what DSA is and should be. We in the Libertarian Socialist Caucus would characterize the current primary point of conflict as  whether DSA is and should operate as a member-run socialist organization or in a more top-down structure replicating a standard non-profit run by staff and an elected board clearly divided from the mass of volunteers (that is, members). This basic tension has manifested differently in different organizational contexts over the past 6 years, but in the specific context of DSA’s conflict resolution practices the direction of the convention is clear.  There can certainly be (and are) disagreements on the best approach to a given situation but past conventions have already decided on a member-run orientation for our HGO process.

What’s Happening Now

This organizational consensus can be seen from the very beginning of our Harassment & Grievance procedure: Resolution 33, which passed at the 2017 Convention and laid out the groundwork for that procedure, directed National DSA to take three actions:

“1.Vet and appoint at least one staff member to serve as the designated national HGO;

2.Determine appropriate training requirements for HGOs

3.Determine term limits for HGO(s) and develop methods for removing HGO(s) for cause.”

For reasons that are unclear, in following the first directive the NPC elected at that convention chose to fill the role which the convention had designated as a staff position by retaining the services of a consultant, beginning our current contract in 2018. This contract was most recently renewed in November of last year by the vote of a simple majority of the NPC, to the tune of $540,000  for an additional 18 months. Many of us have expressed concern about the dollar amount here, especially relative to the size of our organizational budget, and that in itself is a big and immediate problem, but it fits into a larger set of structural problems that both hamper our ability to resolve internal conflicts in a principled way and run contrary to the already-stated will of our membership as dictated by our highest governing body, the Convention.

The consequences of the decision to fill the role of NHGO in this way shouldn’t come as a surprise to any of us. To some extent, there is a running conflict in DSA as to what degree of separation, if any, should exist between “professional” (staff) and “volunteer” (member) labor. We’ve seen this dynamic play out in a number of areas this NPC term,but wherever comrades stand on those issues we should all recognize: our staff are DSA members, they are comrades in the socialist movement, working with us with the shared goal of building a socialist future. None of this is true of an outside consultant. An industry professional retained in this role will naturally see it as an HR position - why wouldn’t they? In strictly professional terms, DSA is just another 501c(4) non-profit. What this means is that their first priority is to protect the organization from legal liability and to resolve conflicts among volunteers in the favor of the Board as they understand it.

The way this has played out since its implementation in 2018 is a process replicative of corporate HR, where all conflict brought to the grievance process for resolution is placed under the umbrella of harm and subjected to legalistic confidentiality requirements to protect the corporate entity of DSA from liability. This isn’t to say that confidentiality should never be used - our chapter HGOs often handle sensitive issues where this is absolutely necessary - but with this as our only formal avenue for resolution, political conflict is lumped in with interpersonal conflict and then removed from view and made unable to be discussed in the open without fear of disciplinary action. There is, for example, no way to lodge a formal complaint about the NHGO. Complaints are referred to the NHGO, who also makes their own performance reviews.

Also concerning is the lack of transparency around the process itself. After submitting our NHGO resolution for the convention, my co-author C.S. and I received an email from the NPC explaining that some language in the background section of our resolution, as well as the inclusion of the name of the LLC that is contracted as the NHGO in a Whereas clause and the resolution’s title, risked breaking a non-disparagement clause in the contract and was being removed. These alterations ultimately weren’t significant as the “resolved” clauses remained the same and if we had been aware of the clause we would have been sensitive to it in drafting the resolution, but the simple fact that this information wasn’t available to us raises questions about what other legal or operational constraints have been created by this arrangement which are invisible to members.

A Member-Run Organization

We propose to make the NHGO position a staff position in recognition of the actual text of Resolution 33 as approved by the convention and for these reasons:

  1. Commitment: Being hired by the org requires “commitment to democratic socialist, feminist, anti-racist, anti-ableist, anti-heterosexist and pro-worker action and identify as a socialist and be grounded in democratic socialist politics.” These should be the bare minimum required to do work on behalf of our organization.
  2. Transparency: We’re deeply concerned that the contract current NHGO and DSA National cannot be viewed by general membership. We learned about the non-disparagement clause essentially by accident and haven’t received an answer as to the clause’s duration. There is no non-disparagement clause for staff and if necessary, DSA must be able to openly address any future NHGO performance issues.
  3. Competence: We trust our elected HGOs to complete reasonably fair and impartial investigations. Members who have served as an effective HGO who have additional experience in workplace investigation, conflict resolution, training and quality assurance can competently fill the role of NHGO.
  4. Urgency: A proposed amendment to consider both a staff and contractor option for new NHGO states that “the contract with our current consultants will be terminated in accordance with its terms and conditions after a replacement NHGO is identified.” We must avoid repeating what happened with the National Committee of Grievance Officers which, while authorized in 2021, is widely understood to have been deprioritized by some members of the NPC and did not meet until earlier this year. An amendment like this could result in action to replace the NHGO being delayed indefinitely.

The intention of this proposal is for the National Committee of Grievance Officers to be closely involved in both the hiring process and National HGO work going forward. Our hope is that this staff position will work alongside the committee without re-creating the division between “professional” and “volunteer” labor and access discussed earlier and empower the NCGO to do the work that it was created to do.  This is part of a long term strategy for shared leadership that creates a stronger, more resilient organization that helps ensure that DSA remains member-driven not staff-led.

DSA is uniquely positioned to learn from our mistakes, to build on our successes and to work together transparently, respectfully and collaboratively to create conflict resolution and grievances processes that both protect our members and keep our members in the fight. No matter who the next NHGO is, they must be in that fight with us.