by Eric O. Scott
“Whether it was from management, a coworker, or a customer, when was the last time you faced sexual harassment at work?”
“I don’t know if this is rhetorical, but: a customer – today. Every day.”
This was the start of a conversation in a Facebook group dedicated to organizing restaurant workers in Columbia, Missouri, a college town of about 120,000 people. In this online space, restaurant and other service workers discuss different aspects of their working conditions (e.g., “When was the last time you worked sick?” “Does your employer make you cover the cost of a dine and dash?”), and compare notes on how workers are treated across the community. Workers also discuss ideas on how to improve conditions. An in-person meeting is planned for November, where these initial conversations will be a catalyst to organizing a class of workers that most unions would consider impossible to organize.
The restaurant workers campaign is the first project of Mid-Missouri DSA’s Labor Working Group, one of several DSA working groups pursuing community organizing goals in Columbia and nearby Jefferson City. The Electoral Working Group has focused on education regarding the slate of ballot propositions in Missouri’s November elections, while the Queer Socialists Working Group has researched recent state-level legislation impacting the lives of queer people in Missouri. Behind the scenes, a dedicated group of volunteers reserves venues, sends emails, and communicates with DSA National to get official organizing committee status.
Oh yes – Mid-Missouri DSA isn’t technically an official organizing committee yet, having only recently had the chance to initiate that process with DSA National. Regardless, the nascent chapter is moving full-steam ahead to build an organization that advocates socialist principles and policies in the middle of the Midwest.
Over the past twenty years, Missouri’s national image has steadily moved to the right, to the point that it is now regularly considered a “red state.” At first glance there is ample evidence to support this: the GOP currently has supermajority control of the state legislature and Trump won Missouri by 18 points. While it would be easy for the Left to write off Missouri as a lost cause outside of the urban strongholds of St. Louis and Kansas City, recent events show the state’s politics are more complicated than the pundits suggest.
The Republican supermajority, with aid from Eric Greitens, the since-deposed and disgraced governor, passed Right-to-Work (RTW) legislation immediately after coming into session in 2017. In response, using an obscure state law provision, organized labor blocked RTW by collecting over 300,000 signatures to send RTW to the ballot. Despite the GOP’s attempt to depress turnout by moving the RTW election from November to August, two-thirds of Missouri voters (a great many of whom otherwise voted in the Republican primary) voted to overturn RTW. In other words, the people of Missouri did not just reject RTW, they crushed it.
Looking forward, on the November ballot, there are propositions for wide-ranging ethics and gerrymandering reform, a minimum-wage increase, and the legalization of medical marijuana. All of these measures, which came from citizen organizing efforts outside the Democratic Party, stand a good chance of passing. Even with the GOP’s stranglehold on the legislature, there is clearly room for politics that put activism and organizing at the forefront to achieve leftist aims.
This is the environment into which Mid-Missouri DSA has entered. Our first meeting was scheduled for a room with a capacity of 20 people. By the time the meeting actually happened, we had changed venues twice, and more than 75 people attended. There is an undeniable demand for democratic socialist politics here, and especially for a socialism that prioritizes community organizing.
That’s not to say that everything has gone smoothly. Some working groups which attracted strong initial interest, including Anti-Racism and Education, have failed to lead to viable plans for action. Working out the organization’s actual logistics has also been an issue, in particular keeping lines of communication open and ensuring tasks are accomplished without bylaws to enumerate a defined organizational structure.
That said, those growing pains speak to Mid-Missouri DSA’s potential to make real change in the community. There is a tremendous opportunity, right here in the middle of “red state America.” It is up to our chapter to seize it.
One member of the Labor Working Group, who is a restaurant worker himself, explained why he felt joining DSA was the right call. “I was tired of feeling unrepresented,” he said. “And then I heard about this, and I had hope.”