Tenant Organizing and the Path to Power: A Personal Reflection on Socialist Organizing in 2021

Building a socialist mass movement depends on understanding our theory of change and critically reflecting on our successes and failures in its pursuit. With this in mind, we reflect on the 2021 tenant union building efforts in Central CT.

by Joe H.

As socialists and Marxists, we have an obligation to record and reflect on our work. Doing so in writing gives us a space to work through the problems we’ve encountered, analyze them, and synthesize conclusions that are useful for moving forward. Perhaps more importantly, it creates a record for future socialists to learn from our successes and failures so that organizing can be more efficient, following the paths that lead to success and avoiding the ones that lead to failure. In that spirit, I’d like to reflect on the collective work that I was a part of in DSA in 2021. Most of this work has been as a part of Central Connecticut DSA’s (CCTDSA) Housing Justice Project (HJP), where we are hard at work to organize tenant unions across the state.

Personal organizing experience and early 2021

I moved to Connecticut in June 2021 after having spent the last few years organizing in DSA and bumping around the Northeast. I spent a few years in Boston DSA, where I worked on various ecosocialist and electoral efforts. From roughly the start of Covid onward, I lived on the New Hampshire and Vermont border and organized as a part of the Upper Valley DSA. My time in the Upper Valley, which stretched into May of this year, was very politically instructive. We worked on a failed initiative to defund the police department in Lebanon, NH. After power mapping local political structures and hundreds of canvassing conversations, we employed a variety of liberal-leaning advocacy techniques (petitions, official proposals, etc.) to reallocate funds from the police to social services.

The failure of our proposed reallocations led to a pivot in organizational strategy. We knew that it was not enough to work within the legislative apparatus. If we wanted to make real change, it would depend on building an agitated base capable of fighting together. From January through April of 2021 UVDSA ran “The People’s Table” where we handed out food and supplies, mostly at hotels in Vermont that were being paid by the state to shelter unhoused people during the winter. Our goal was to use mutual aid to help alleviate the harms of capitalism and build a new political base for our work. We supplemented this work with readings on base-building theory. One article that was of particular influence on me was “Malcolm X Didn’t Dish out Free Bean Pies” which critiques a common configuration of mutual aid politics on the modern left, one that essentially functions as a less-efficient charity or NGO. Too often mutual aid is stripped of its political potential and becomes service-oriented. As the article points out:

The logic behind social-work-as-revolutionary-organizing goes something like this: The masses have real survival needs (food, clothing, housing, etc.). The capitalist-imperialist system, especially with austerity measures and crises, fails to meet those needs. If us revolutionaries meet those needs, the masses will come to trust us and look to us for leadership, especially as crises get sharper and immiseration grows more acute. Since we’ve proven we care about them and shown that we can meet their needs while the system can’t, they’ll join the revolution….

Building a relationship with the masses premised on “we can meet your needs better than the bourgeoisie can” sets up a different form of the same old bourgeois paternalism that has long guided charities.

The critique was evidently applicable to our mutual aid work. It quickly became obvious that we were addressing symptoms of a larger housing problem, not building a movement capable of solving the problem itself. Arguably the most important aspect of our tabling work was social investigation into the housing conditions in New Hampshire and Vermont, learning from people experiencing the violence of the state. Our lack of skill in adequately politicizing the work, as well as the precarity of their situation, made the folks that we were interacting with hard to organize into a political base. As Bronx housing organizer Lisa Ortega said, “people begin to organize more once they have a place to lay their head.”

A Theory of Change

Out of this mutual aid experience came many questions, but two questions  in particular had a profound influence on my work for the rest of the year: (1) what group is in position to be ideologically agitated to fight for socialism and is capable, as a force, of winning it? and (2) what type of political work can be done to reach and agitate those people? Hearing about the growing successes within the tenant movement (in a moment of rupture in the public consciousness created by the eviction moratorium) suggested one possible answer to those two questions. Tenants, due to their structural relation to capital and social production, have the potential to be a revolutionary group (the other, historically emphasized by Marxists is, of course, labor). While labor perhaps has more leverage over capital due to its strategic position in the point of production, tenant organizing is promising because it is another large base for radical organizing in a country where the barriers to labor organizing are often quite high. From this vantage point, agitating for tenant unions is a type of work capable of producing politicized subjects capable of fighting for and helping win socialism.

The framing of “winning socialism” is an essential one. If capitalism is the primary source of housing injustice, then fixing this injustice doesn’t hinge on housing advocacy, it hinges on ending capitalism. If injustice is profitable, be it in housing, energy production, or healthcare, we can only begin to construct a just system by destroying the system that leads to injustice. Only by breaking down the old can we open the space to pursue truly equitable possibilities. We cannot achieve justice by legislating what should be, because the current legislative mechanisms are a means by which capitalism protects itself. Instead, it is crucial that we focus our energy on removing the obstacles that prevent what should be from becoming a reality. To begin the process of justice, we need to build socialism. Tenant and labor organizing are the path towards socialism, precisely because they produce, through the experience of struggle, the political body with both the material interest and the means (in numbers, ideological attitude, knowledge) to remove the obstacles of capital such that a world constructed around use-value, not profit, can flourish.

Organizing in Hartford

In June, I moved to West Hartford and joined CCTDSA. Fortuitously, Right-to-Counsel was passed and the desire to ramp up tenant organizing was already underway. I was able to join and get immediately involved. Judy and Sarah were critical to my onboarding. Judy reached out to me when I mentioned my interest in housing on the CCTDSA orientation call, and Sarah and Dahlia followed up for a meeting in Hartford to get to know me and introduce HJP’s work. Without their relationship building efforts, I would not be as involved as I am now. One of the strongest lessons that I’ve learned this year has been the importance of relationship building and creating an organizational culture that encourages and facilitates building relationships. I’ve seen firsthand how one-on-one discussions agitate us to do work and keep us accountable to each other.

One of the first tasks assigned to me was to attend a tenant “deep canvassing” event in New Haven with the goal of understanding the tactic and bringing the model back to Hartford. From my observations, this “train-and-expand” model has been effective. We continually draw new organizers to canvasses and build their skills. New organizers learn how to solve problems, run a canvass, and can take what they’ve learned to other parts of the state. This model plants the seeds of struggle in new locales and creates accountability without rigid hierarchy, refines shared ideological commitments through practice, and builds problem-solving networks. The model has worked for us in New Haven and Hartford and is expanding to Bridgeport and Middletown!

The DSA deep canvassing project as originally conceived had four goals: 

  1. to grow organizing skills and capacity by having a concrete project
  2. to engage in social investigation of housing conditions in different cities
  3. to build tenant unions
  4. to create a base to defend Right to Counsel and agitate for other statewide reforms

The first Hartford canvassing date was Tuesday, September 14th which means that we’ve been canvassing for about six months. We identified some of the worst landlords in the city and learned how they operate. We logged 200+ tenant interactions at 25+ buildings. We agitated enough tenants that building unions became a natural next step. To that end, we turned out around 14 Hartford tenants to our first Connecticut Tenants Union (CTTU) meeting in December to discuss the process of unionization. Out of these interactions there are at least 5 promising leads for building unions. While these leads are promising, aside from an existing union at a CT DSA member’s building, we have not yet had success in establishing new unions from our canvassing efforts in Hartford.

One reason we don’t yet have a union is that, frankly, it was not our immediate focus. We focused on building organizer skills and capacity, and wanted to be selective with our unionization efforts, choosing the buildings that were in the best position to be organized. However, from November onwards, we made attempts to organize the most promising of canvassed buildings and have not yet succeeded. Some of our mistakes:

  1. A lack of leadership development among our canvassers. When we divided up our canvassed buildings and assigned them to canvassers to follow-up with tenants, we hadn’t prepared them properly for the work of building a union. Even the leadership layer of CTTU is new to this process! While we did a great job training people on how to canvass, we underemphasized both general organizing skills and the theoretical aspects of political education necessary to assist tenants in building unions. It’s important to remember that a strong understanding of socialism and housing politics makes all other aspects of our organizing easier. When you understand the political orientation and ideological underpinnings of the work, agitating tenants, answering their questions, and building movement-oriented unions becomes easier.
  2. Miscommunication and a lack of structure tests. For example, at Building A, our initial meetings with tenants were clunky. We didn’t do a good job calling tenants to confirm dates (always call the day before or the morning of!) and people flaked. Too many calls and texts didn’t have a specific ask. We both failed to develop a set of concrete steps to give to tenants interested in unionizing, as well as to develop their leadership potential.
  3. Working with DSA organizing tools. At Building A we failed to get creative about what processes and tools might work best for tenants. Our work in buildings will probably look different than the Signal chats, Zoom calls, and rigid Google Doc agendas that dominate CCTDSA’s internal organizing. We need to ask tenants what works best for communicating and iterating quickly so that we can seize momentum while it’s there. We shouldn’t be afraid to try new tools. Both “technical tools” (Signal, Zoom, GDocs) and “process tools” (meeting structures, communication hierarchies, political education), should fit the context and needs of a building. A concrete example: texting is slow and messy, Signal is too complicated, but lots of folks at some of our buildings use WhatsApp. Why not try using it? One thing to think about on this point is how we can teach flexibility and build a culture of flexibility without becoming disorganized. Perhaps we can lean on our newly developed organizing tree to keep a diversity of tactics under strategic alignment.
  4. Letting tenants come to us. There are already agitated tenants interested in unionizing and it’s worth increasing our propaganda efforts (social media, flyering, etc.) to find them. Canvassing is a great project for social investigation, skill development, agitating tenants, and finding leads. It is also, oftentimes, slow. Political agitation takes time and connecting with those that are already agitated will allow us to grow our movement more quickly.

Despite some mistakes, I don’t think we lost energy we can’t get back through proper follow-up and agitation. There is no shortage of tenants that would benefit from a union. I look forward to correcting our mistakes and building our first tenant unions here in Hartford. It is my hope that building our first unions will allow others to spring up quickly as we learn to better deploy successful tactics at new buildings and harness the momentum created by winning.

Horizons and Challenges

Deep canvassing has given us an ongoing organizing project that is capable of training new socialist organizers and building our understanding of the city. We need to continue to strengthen and expand our organizing cadre and establish unions engaged in active struggle. In order for these unions to grow in power, we will need to establish solidarity between them, especially in instances of a shared landlord. CTTU gives us a space to network these unions and connect them in struggle. Should we be successful in doing that, interesting new horizons begin to present themselves. First and foremost is using such a movement to push for social housing at the city or state level. Another possibility is the establishment of “truly mutual” mutual aid. Whether it’s food delivery, car sharing, healthcare clinics, or child watch programs, we should not shy away from experimenting with prefigurative politics and possible paths towards dual power to build a political body capable of dismantling other types of social injustice. Similarly, we should always be seeking out ways to connect housing struggles to intersecting labor struggles, immigrant rights movements, and abolitionist work.

As we look to grow our organizing, we also need to recognize potential pitfalls and safeguard against them. From my perspective, the largest risk to our work is the bifurcation between “DSA organizers” and building-level organizers. We should take care to erase this distinction both in the interest of being equitable and in the interest of winning. It is imperative that we bring our tenants into the socialist cause and begin removing artificial distinctions between the organizing and the organized. It’s not enough to preach a commitment to this. We must learn from others’ failures and experiment with fruitful strategies from those that have succeeded in sublimating socioeconomic and cultural divides into a self-aware unity of class-consciousness. Doing this depends on being honest in self-criticism of our subjective observations, as well as using quantitative metrics, to make sure that we are building diverse leadership capable of waging the struggle against capital.

There are also pressing tactical questions. How do we better develop leaders to improve democracy and reduce burnout? How do we maintain unity and momentum during both good times and bad? How do we engage in productive coalition-building while safeguarding against non-profit infiltration and “reformist reforms?” And there is the pressing threat of security. What skills do we need to defend ourselves against landlords, reactionaries, and the state with its power to evict?

Conclusion

I am awed by the work done in Central Connecticut’s HJP this year. I am especially thankful to the canvassers that sacrificed evenings and Saturdays in the interest of waging class struggle and fighting for justice in housing. Tenant organizing has been the most rewarding organizing experience of my life and in it I see the massive potential to build anti-racist, feminist, working-class power. To my comrades in the Upper Valley, I also extend heartfelt gratitude. Our learning and countless late-night discussions provided a critical foundation for the work I am helping to carry out here in Connecticut. I have been lucky to learn from and work with an amazing group of comrades across many chapters of DSA. In struggling with you all, I have found in myself a level of discipline and commitment that I didn’t know was there. The opportunities with this work are not boundless, being subject to the same cruel laws of material circumstance as everything else, but I couldn’t be more excited to see how the possibilities unfold.

Solidarity forever!

Joe H is an organizer with Connecticut DSA’s Housing Justice Project and serves on the steering committee representing the Hartford branch.

Image credit: Construction by Gustavs Klucis

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