At the August 2017 DSA National Convention, delegates voted to require the NPC to offer sample bylaws to all Organizing Committees, to help them better get started as new local chapters. In December 2017, the Steering Committee of NPC released its proposal for a new set of sample bylaws, which you can find here. This proposal, however, came under heavy critique from many comrades (the Los Angeles chapter, the Orange County and San Francisco chapters, and the Libertarian Socialist Caucus, among others). While some of these were process critiques — the sample bylaws were originally released only on the DSA Leaders listserv and the public comment period was originally very short and over the holidays — many were substantive as well. As a result of these criticisms the NPC has elongated the deliberation period by several months, which we commend them for.
Nevertheless, while the DSA Accountability Task Force (DSAA) substantially agrees with the criticisms levied against the proposed sample bylaws, it is also true that most of the feedback has been negative — i.e., has been showing what’s wrong with the proposed bylaws but not demonstrating how they could be done well instead. We are seeking to fill this void by writing our own set of sample bylaws, which fulfills the goals of the original (making it easier for new chapters to form and fulfill our obligations to incorporate) while avoiding the problems with it. We developed a draft and sent it to national Working Groups and chapters for feedback, and now we are ready to release it publicly: Sample DSA Chapter Bylaws, DSA Accountability Proposal.
To be clear: The DSA Accountability Task Force has no power; we have neither the ability nor the desire to impose these bylaws on anyone. Our motives are: a) to provide positive feedback to the NPC on the sample bylaws issue; b) to aid the process of developing a new set of sample bylaws; and c) to give chapters and organizing committees ideas for developing or changing their own bylaws, if they choose to. We welcome feedback; feel free to make criticisms or propose changes on the sample bylaws doc itself.
Why are bylaws important?
Bylaws outline a structure for organizational action. They provide solutions for unforeseen issues. For the DSA, they detail what it means to be a member; when members can meet; the election and powers of leadership; the formation of committees, working groups and caucuses; amendments; and many other key processes of democratic governance.
An organization’s bylaws function much like a building’s structure, providing a necessary institutional framework while protecting its members. Well-drafted bylaws ensure members’ efforts are spent organizing and advancing agreed-upon objectives. Poorly-drafted bylaws will cause the building to fall during a time of stress — or, perhaps even worse, allow a small minority to hijack the organization to advance their own ends.
A real-world example of this can be found in Rick Perlstein’s book Before the Storm. In it, he describes how Frederick Clifton White and a relatively small group of supporters manipulated Robert’s Rules of Order and the Republican Party’s own arcane codes to enable Barry Goldwater to win the nomination in 1964. Here is one passage, where Perlstein describes how White learned tactics from some 1930s-era Communists (p174):
The Communists deployed honeyed words to seize the chairmanship of a meeting, then manipulated parliamentary procedure to control it: by relocating a meeting to a room so small that they could crowd into it before others arrived and turn their minority into a majority; by making endless stalling motions to hold off critical votes until the wee hours of the morning, when only their troops remained; by slowly calling the roll votes that were going against them, using the window of time to lobby the swing votes, in then jacking the roll call to lightning speed once they had them; by maneuvering for their forces to vote at the point in a roll call where a candidate had 49 percent so they could negotiate concessions in exchange for putting him over the top; by imposing the unit rule — whereby a delegation votes as a bloc so that a proposal with majority support can be made to appear unanimous — whenever the vote was auspicious to them; by calling a lightning vote when enough of their opposition’s forces were out of the room, and then calling for adjournment.
There was no reason, White decided, that anticommunists couldn’t use the same techniques to defeat them. Later he would use them to take over the Republican Party.
Problems with the original sample bylaws document
Here are our major substantive critiques of the NPC’s proposed sample bylaws documents:
1) The proposed sample bylaws outline a board-driven organization. For example, they recommend a limited number of meetings; allow the Board to call meetings unilaterally; give the Board control over nominations and the ability to create committees; and require amendments to originate with the Board. If adopted as-is, this could fundamentally shift DSA into the direction of a board-driven organization.
2) Lack of a recall provision. Recall is a fundamental right in democratic organizations, to ensure that newly-elected officials cannot abuse their office by acting contrary to the membership’s wishes.
3) A lack of attention to accessibility issues. Many comrades have difficulty attending meetings due to illness, disability, work, or other issues; no effort is made in the proposed bylaws to accommodate them. Indeed, by prohibiting proxy voting, they make it impossible for anyone who cannot attend meetings to have a voice in the Chapter.
4) Ease of expulsion. The proposed bylaws allow members to be expelled via majority vote, and do not require a hearing beforehand. Such a process is rife with potential for abuse and political or personal retaliation.
5) Insufficient quorum provisions. Meetings basically do not have quorum (“The members present at any properly announced meeting shall constitute a quorum”), and the Board’s quorum is only 1/3 its membership
6) The existence of an executive committee within the Board. Such a division within the Chapter’s governing body produces needless hierarchy and conflict.
A Way Forward
The DSA Accountability Task Force worked together to create an alternative to the proposed sample bylaws. Our basis was the sample bylaws that have been sent to local chapters and organizing committees since June, which can be found here. We then drew on many existing chapter bylaws to formulate changes. Here are the ways our proposed bylaws fixes the flaws pointed out in the previous section:
1) All the provisions that outline a board-driven organization have been removed. We believe that our bylaws document ensures that power in DSA remains where it belongs: in the membership, not the leadership.
2) We include a recall provision (see Article XI, Section 4).
3) Article IV, Sections 5 and 6 discuss accessibility. We make it clear that the bylaws must allow for either proxy voting or electronic voting, to enable members who cannot attend meetings to assert their democratic rights.
4) Suspensions and expulsions now require both a hearing and a 2/3 vote by the membership (see Article III, Section 2).
5) Meetings now have a numerical quorum (Article IV, Section 4), and Steering Committee decisions require the assent of a majority of the SC’s total members (Article VI, Section 4).
6) There is no sub-division inside the Steering Committee; while different officers have different duties, they are all equal in power.
Note that some sentences, paragraphs, and sections are in brackets (). This is to indicate that those sections in particular are optional, and chapters should decide for themselves whether or not they want to include them — and if they do, what modifications they might want to make.
Again, we welcome any feedback, which you can leave on the document itself or email us at email@example.com. We also always welcome new members to our Task Force; you can find our mission statement here, and join us by filling out this form.
Developing a good set of sample bylaws to protect and advance democracy in DSA is critically important. We hope that our proposed bylaws are a step toward achieving that.
About our process
1) DSA Accountability Task Force is an ad-hoc group internally organizing within DSA for accountability and transparency within our organization. All DSA members in good standing are welcome to join.
2) There is no leadership. We have members who have volunteered to assist in facilitation, and all members are welcome to do so as well, but do not hold power to unilaterally make decisions. We hold votes on all key issues.
3) We are transparent. All of our channels, documents, and discussions are open to all members. We archive channels and make them available to all members, and there are no private channels.
4) We encourage debate and discussion. The space we have created for ourselves welcomes disagreement. We do not shy away from deliberation, and work to foster the types of discussions where members are comfortable to speak their thoughts.
5) We try to work using a consensus model. That means that when folks disagree, we attempt to alleviate concerns of both sides, while still maintaining an eye towards the majority opinion. We make an earnest effort to hear all voices.
6) We did not always agree. In a big-tent organization like DSA, comrades may often reasonably disagree on decision-making structures, and the Accountability Task Force was no different. Whenever we came to an impasse we decided via majority vote, then did our best to address the concerns of the minority. The sections that caused the biggest disputes among us, as well as sections where we recognize the ongoing political debates within DSA, we have put in brackets (). Brackets also indicate sections that may need to be adjusted to the needs of each local chapter.
7) After we created the sample bylaws, our work wasn’t finished. We reached out to all of DSA’s working groups and caucuses and made sure that we had consultation every step of the way. We consider these bylaws a living document: that is, they are always open to discussion and alteration. We want to ensure that all members can weigh in if they so choose.