Students for Bernie Find Their Home in Growing Socialist Movements

March 17, 2017

Courtesy of Young Democratic Socialists
Members of the Young Democratic Socialists gather at the organization’s annual winter conference, in Brooklyn, N.Y. “You could actually watch our membership tick up as the results came in,” one student leader said, describing the election’s effect on the group.

For Ajmal Alami, it’s more important “to have workers win a $15 minimum wage than it is to, maybe, change the name of a building to someone else’s name.”

“Not that those aren’t campaigns worth going for,” said Mr. Alami, the campus coordinator for the Young Democratic Socialists at Virginia Tech, “but there are bigger fish to fry.”

On the campus, in Blacksburg, Va., Mr. Alami said, the newly formed socialist group is trying to help graduate students organize around Virginia’s right-to-work laws, and it’s hoping to help dining-hall workers navigate the same anti-union rules. Elaina Colussi, who organizes the University of Oregon’s Young Democratic Socialist chapter in Eugene, is also looking inside its cafeteria for causes.

“Our student campus workers that work in the dining halls and stuff just got their free shift meals taken away, and now they have to pay, like, $3 a meal, which is ridiculous,” Ms. Colussi said, referring to a policy change that went into effect last fall.

Campus socialist groups are on the rise. Many organizers have pointed to the election of Donald J. Trump as a reason, as well as the numerous Bernie Sanders supporters looking for a home after the U.S. senator’s failed presidential campaign. Mr. Alami said activism is up because of one specific element of the human condition.”When things are threatened, people kind of jump up and say, ‘Oh, I gotta protect it now,’” Mr. Alami said.

The 2016 election has been a boon for socialist groups over all. The Young Democratic Socialists are the student branch of Democratic Socialists of America, a group that’s grown from 5,000 members to more than 18,000 members in the last year. Mr. Alami was asked to form a YDS chapter after connecting with the movement in Philadelphia, where he was protesting Mr. Sanders’s loss in the Democratic primaries. That has been a common path for many new socialists, said Ryan Mosgrove, assistant youth organizer for the national organization of YDS.

“A lot of the chapters that exist now were, at one stage, campus chapters of People for Bernie,” Mr. Mosgrove said. The Young Democratic Socialists even held an event last August in conjunction with College Students for Bernie and the Student Labor Action Project that was designed to “strengthen the left and advance towards a more progressive and brighter future.”

‘The Trump Boost’

Spencer Brown, a Wesleyan University junior who is a co-chair of the Young Democratic Socialists’ coordinating committee, attended that conference and watched firsthand how people shifted from Sanders to Socialist.

The Sanders campaign “made Democratic Socialism mainstream,” Mr. Brown said. “It did so many things for us, and our membership grew by about 1,000 members, which now seems small in light of the Trump boost,” he said.

“If Bernie hadn’t happened, our growth post-Trump wouldn’t have happened.”

The August conference, one of two that YDS holds annually, was meant to bring like-minded groups together. It did, but nothing like the Trump election, where “other people in DSA have put it that you could actually watch our membership tick up as the results came in,” Mr. Brown said.”Bernie created the condition for our growth, post-election. If Bernie hadn’t happened, our growth post-Trump wouldn’t have happened,” Mr. Brown said.

Ms. Colussi was one of the college students to move from Bernie supporter to YDS leader. She helped on the Sanders campaign in the Oregon primary race. Following Mr. Sanders’s loss, the campus group at the University of Oregon voted to join YDS. And after November, they got a bump in numbers.

“After the election, people flocked to our group. Our group doubled in size,” Ms. Colussi said, adding that the increased interest in socialism was a reaction to the louder conservative voices.

“We’re seeing a growing movement on the left since there’s a growing movement on the right,” Ms. Colussi said.

Ms. Colussi and Mr. Alami said their organizations were still small, with around a few dozen members. But they’re looking to collaborate with other campus groups on like-minded causes, and, for socialist groups, those causes tend to focus less on campus culture and more on labor issues. Mr. Mosgrove said most YDS groups are choosing to try to organize labor groups, similar to their DSA counterparts.

“It’s more of a priority for us to meet the labor movement where it is at and make sure that the struggles that they’re prepared for and that there’s energy around, that those struggles are successful,” Mr. Mosgrove said.

Beyond labor issues, Mr. Alami said his group of campus socialists would focus on a number of campaigns, among them advocating that Virginia Tech get out of the drone-research business and calling for transparency in the campus endowment. At Oregon, the young socialists have already been petitioning against a tuition increase at state universities, among other activities. Nationally, the Young Democratic Socialists recently hosted a conference in New York and are recruiting editors and writers for a YDS blog.

The organizers, Mr. Mosgrove said, are sticking to basic socialistic premises regarding organized labor and economic equity. Ms. Colussi explained those values in simpler terms, discussing the tenor of one of their most recent events at Oregon: “We talked about how much capitalism sucks.”

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