A retrospective on the efforts of Connecticut DSA to build democratic socialism and working class power in 2022.
By Bryan C.
Following the labor of love and principled example from chapter secretary Jason R. in reviewing CT DSA’s organizing in 2021, it is my honor to reflect on our efforts this past year in building democratic socialism and working class power in Connecticut.
I joined DSA in 2020 during the end of Bernie Sanders’ second campaign for president. As a student organizer for Bernie, I was recruited into the Wesleyan chapter of Young Democratic Socialists of America (YDSA, DSA’s campus section), where we organized for a just pandemic response from the university. In the midst of statewide mutual aid organizing as well, Jason found and recruited me into CT DSA.
CT DSA was a dramatically different organization then than it is now. 2020-2021 saw a new Steering Committee confront a total rebuilding of the chapter, from membership to administrative function and political direction. The Housing Justice Project (HJP) was formed as the new heart of CT DSA. Joining right at the height of our reorientation, my campaign experience led me to help found our Electoral Working Group, which I started co-chairing in 2022. Electoral grew along other working groups like Housing Justice, International Affairs, Labor, Reproductive Justice, and Ecosocialism.
At the end of 2021, I was coming off an intense election season. On one hand was the historic victory of JAM, the CT DSA-endorsed slate for Hamden city council and board of education; and on another, the taxing but educational process where I tried and failed to get a mayoral campaign endorsed by our chapter. In between these two situations, I found myself interrogating the purpose of electoral campaigns, raising questions about working class party building and base building, which our chapter had committed to via organizing tenant unions. Thus, I threw myself into tenant organizing to help consolidate our chapter core and develop a working class base, a cadre of organizers, and a political vision – all necessary ingredients for effective campaigns, electoral or otherwise.
When 2022 began, I learnt tenant organizing with our Hartford branch and recruited our future core Middletown organizers to canvass with us, while helping to mount an ambitious drive to prospect candidates for state legislative elections. I then took time off chapter work to organize a union drive with Wesleyan student workers, the organizing experience that has impacted me most to date, and that also empowered me to organize rideshare drivers with our Labor Working Group. These developments gave me the unique opportunity to tie experiences and analyses across three fields of organizing: electoral, housing, and labor. I will review our efforts in these fields and more below.
2022 BUILDING SOCIALISM IN CONNECTICUT
The resounding victory of our 2021 legislative campaign – guaranteeing the Right to Counsel to tenants in eviction court – put our chapter on the map, with legislators crediting CT DSA by name on the floor of the Connecticut State House upon bill passage. We had clearly punched above our weight, and won.
Winning Right to Counsel was only one step in our strategy of building a mass tenant base, as protecting tenants from evictions gave folks more time and leeway to organize. Building off that victory meant doubling down on organizing autonomous tenant unions (TUs), first manifesting as Connecticut Tenants Union (CTTU), a statewide formation organized by DSA members to allow individual tenants and city, building, or landlord based tenant unions to federate.
Over months of canvassing, meetings, organizing 1-on-1s, and structure tests, we were able to launch several tenant unions, going public with their struggles against corporate slumlords in various cities, building on the successes of Quinnipiac Gardens TU in New Haven in 2021. Seramonte TU, now expanded as the citywide Hamden TU, started through CT DSA-endorsed Councilor Justin Farmer connecting constituents with DSA organizers. Blake Street TU in New Haven, Wedgewood TU in Bloomfield, and Avalon/Maple TU in Hartford followed, the last of which is also expanding into a citywide TU. Union drives continue in other cities across the state. Throughout all these wins, we brought tenant leaders from different unions together in statewide CTTU meetups, so they could learn from and build solidarity with one another.
While TU projects were taking off, we tried to leverage Fair Rent Commissions (FRCs), municipal bodies where appointed members can process complaints from tenants and rule on unfair rent collections or increases. FRCs could also create a legal mechanism for recognizing TUs officially, through issuing “collective remedy” to groups of tenants (ie. TUs) filing complaints against the same landlord, if the municipal ordinance chartering the FRC allowed it.
To that end, our Hamden Socialist Caucus on the city council led the passage of a resolution calling for a stronger FRC, better code enforcement, and regulating predatory towing, a favored tactic of local slumlords. DSA members then organized to pass an ordinance that enshrined similar policies in neighboring New Haven, making it the first city in Connecticut to recognize tenant unions by law. Meanwhile, Hartford DSA organizers won massive funding for housing inspectors, housing repairs, and legal aid. I joined efforts to replicate these projects in Middletown, where months of canvassing without strong union leads led to this tactical shift, as an FRC that recognized TUs would theoretically facilitate tenants to organize their buildings. In Middletown, we worked with a tenant leader who had organized his own building to lobby for an ordinance, an effort that continues today.
As the year wrapped up, CT DSA sent a delegation to the first ever regional tenant union meeting in Worcester, MA, connecting with and hearing presentations by organizers from seven unions in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut.
In 2022, we made leaps and strides towards a replicable model of autonomous tenant unions, a form of independent class organization that would not only pursue transformative reforms at both municipal and statewide levels, but also continue to agitate the broader working class and organize class struggle in our neighborhoods. CT DSA’s current priority campaign, Cap the Rent CT – fighting for a cap on annual rent increases and good cause eviction protections – will be leaning heavily on these structures to succeed.
Following the election of JAM in Hamden, Justin Farmer and Abdul Osmanu for city council, Mariam Khan for Board of Education, CT DSA turned toward supporting their municipal governance and the 2022 state legislative elections.
Organizers from our Electoral Working Group (EWG) and New Haven branch provided ongoing support to JAM, who were now joined by sitting councilor and DSA member Laurie Sweet. This practice was modeled after NYC-DSA’s Socialists In Office (SIO) Committee. The four electeds announced the formation of the Hamden Socialist Caucus with their statement condemning the Dobbs decision, staking out a principled socialist position and framing on reproductive justice and the fight for abortion rights. In addition to the Fair Rent Resolution, the Caucus has been working to hold the Hamden Police Department accountable for illegally shredding civilian complaints, expanding religious equity in public school holiday observances, and restoring working class hubs such as the Keefe Community Center.
Elections at the state level in Connecticut offer a unique opportunity absent in municipal elections: public campaign financing, $30,000 and $100,000 respectively for qualifying state representative and state senate campaigns. The EWG considered an ambitious strategy to take advantage of this resource – a statewide slate running a coordinated campaign that could pool resources into needs such as hiring staff and developing materials. However, the big cart before the horse was recruiting candidates in winnable districts. We ran phonebanks to find DSA members interested in being candidates or being involved in a campaign.
While we had many great conversations on the phone, none resulted in finding the interest we needed. However, we learnt several lessons from this prospecting operation. First, the level of work going into pre-campaign research, such as calculating win numbers and assessing local conditions. Second, the time needed to prospect and prepare any potential candidate for not just any campaign, but a DSA campaign accountable to our membership. The third lesson is a personal conclusion: without a working class base, a cadre of organizers, and a political vision, it is difficult to develop and run a dedicated socialist candidate who can be both organizer and official, while also expecting them to differentiate themselves from the liberal hegemony.
The EWG rounded out 2022 with a Midterm Elections debrief, joined by Councilor Osmanu and allied State Representative David Michel (a member of the French Parti Socialiste), where we discussed statewide developments and led a power mapping exercise of the Connecticut state legislature for the chapter, in anticipation of the Cap the Rent campaign.
After celebrating the victory of the reform slate led by DSA member Leslie Blatteau, which swept the leadership elections of the New Haven Federation of Teachers (NHFT) in 2021, our Labor Working Group (LWG) continued to support both rank and file worker organizing and legislative campaigns. At the municipal level, the LWG started “No Respect, No License”, a campaign to pass a city ordinance in New Haven that would rescind licenses of any business that committed wage theft.
In LWG meetings, we brought DSA-member rank and file teachers together with Connecticut Drivers United (CDU), a grassroots formation of rideshare drivers, to engage in training and conversation on strategic organizing. Over many months, we supported CDU in developing a statewide legislative campaign, the Rideshare Worker Equal Rights Act, to win legal protections for rideshare drivers in Connecticut, who are especially disadvantaged compared to drivers from neighboring states of Massachusetts and New York. One highlight of the CDU campaign was a rally with NHFT President Blatteau and Councilor Abdul Osmanu, who delivered a rousing speech invoking solidarity in class struggle against app company “overlords,” tying the drivers’ struggle to those of Amazon and Starbucks workers, and calling on established organized labor to stand with CDU.
On the shop floor, CT DSA members were leaders in the historic campaign of UNITE HERE Local 33, unionizing more than 3,000 Yale graduate student workers with 91% voting yes – generations of CT DSA cadre were involved in this struggle over three decades. 40 minutes north in Middletown, YDSA members such as myself helped win another historic campaign to unionize undergraduate Resident Advisors at Wesleyan University, forming the Wesleyan Union of Student Employees (WesUSE), OPEIU Local 153. This marked the first time ever that an undergraduate union won voluntary recognition without needing a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) election, a campaign explained further in this Jacobin article I co-authored.
Our chapter is proud to have led the socialist response to the Dobbs decision in Connecticut, with a strong turnout for the immediate post-decision unity rally and march in New Haven. Our member delivered an electrifying speech calling out the Biden administration’s violent response to peaceful pro-choice protesters and the Democratic Party’s support of policing, further framing reproductive justice in terms of housing, healthcare, and economic justice. She ended with a call on protestors to take the fight out of nonprofits and into their own hands through direct action, mutual aid, and movement organizing. Our speech was widely regarded as the best of the rally based on crowd response, and CT DSA signed more than 20 people up to join the chapter that day.
These new members would go on to rekindle socialist feminist organizing in our chapter by forming the Reproductive Justice Working Group (RJWG), pursuing organizing to end fake abortion clinics (ie. “crisis pregnancy centers”) in Connecticut. RJWG worked with our Housing Justice Project as speakers at a coalitional reproductive justice teach-in in New Haven. We delivered a presentation about the intersections of reproductive and housing justice, and advanced a socialist analysis that grounds reproductive justice in the material needs of the working class. Members also participated in a reading group of Social Reproduction Theory and the Socialist Horizon by Aaron Jaffe, Abolish the Family by Sophie Lewis, and We Organize to Change Everything, a collection of essays on the fight for reproductive justice published by Lux Magazine and Verso. This outburst of enthusiasm demonstrated the eagerness of working people for the intersectional analysis that only socialist feminism can articulate, and is willing to join our movement if we boldly engage them on a program distinct from the liberal hegemony.
Although the Ecosocialist Working Group went into dormancy during the pandemic, we have been reviving ecosocialist organizing in CT DSA through two projects in 2022. First was Justice 4 Our Streets, an initiative started by a Stratford DSA member to organize neighbors around relief from flooding caused by the nearby Bruce Brook and poor infrastructure. DSA members rallied residents for city council meetings to demand capital improvement spending, beginning to organize a working class base in Bridgeport and Stratford.
We also started solidarity action for Stop Cop City, a campaign that Atlanta DSA also supports to prevent the mass demolition of historic forest to build a new $90 million police training facility. This year, the Atlanta Police murdered forest defender Tortuguita, spurring nationwide protests in response which we have continued to participate in.
In 2022, CT DSA’s International Affairs Working Group (IAWG) organized vigorously in solidarity with the anti-imperialist and decolonial struggles of Cuban and Palestinian liberation. Galvanized by the decision of DSA’s National Political Committee to revoke the charter of the national BDS and Palestine Solidarity Working Group (BDS WG), which included CT DSA members, IAWG led an effort to successfully pass a chapter resolution dissenting against the decision. This resolution increased members’ awareness of the urgency around Palestinian solidarity work in DSA, and the IAWG recruited activated members for local organizing.
With this energy to recommit towards Palestine solidarity, the IAWG led the organizing of a Nakba Day coalitional rally and did a Connecticut launch of No Appetite for Apartheid, a boycott campaign launched by the National BDS WG, in commemoration of the Nakba or Catastrophe of 1948. For the campaign, the IAWG canvassed local stores and asked them to become Apartheid-Free Stores, by taking off the shelves products by companies complicit in the occupation of Palestine. From this organizing, four stores have pledged to be Apartheid-Free and a few more have expressed tentative interest. The IAWG mobilized members to visit these shops and continue conversations with owners and workers about the BDS movement.
IAWG members also mobilized a CT DSA delegation to meet Pedro Luis Pedroso Cuesta, the Cuban Ambassador to the UN, when he was invited by State Representative and lifetime DSA member Edwin Vargas to visit multiple cities and towns in Connecticut. As a result of this visit, IAWG members were invited by the Cuban delegation to stand in solidarity with them at the United Nations Headquarters and watch the 30th vote against the US embargo of Cuba. These instances are benchmarks in a relationship that the IAWG is actively cultivating with Cubans and the broader movement of Cuban solidarity in Connecticut, with important implications for future organizing opportunities – from passing municipal and eventually state resolutions demanding an end to the embargo, to organizing with future delegations to Cuba.
Also of note were efforts to oppose the war in Ukraine. The IAWG participated in several anti-war mobilizations in coalition with other organizations. The IAWG also endorsed a coalitional letter pressuring Connecticut’s federal elected officials in calling for a peaceful and diplomatic solution to the war in Ukraine, and to cease the sales and shipments of weapons. The vote to pass a chapter-wide resolution to endorse failed by a small margin, although members engaged in generative discussion on our position and its relationship to our organizing.
DARE TO STRUGGLE, DARE TO WIN: CLOSING THOUGHTS
In 2022, we in Connecticut experimented with a break from the typical progressive electoral and legislative framework that has become standard, even in DSA. We directly built and developed new class independent vehicles for collective action, instead of remaining shackled to the staff-driven strategies of the nonprofit-industrial complex that do not address the key problem of our time: proletarian disorganization. Through bringing tenants into organized conflict with landlords, we are developing class consciousness, leadership, and perhaps most importantly, inspiring hope in the working class that change, victory, and liberation are possible.
All of that said, we in CT DSA still have immense tasks ahead of us, beyond the immediacy of Cap the Rent CT or continuing the long road of building a mass tenant base. The pandemic put our chapter in the position of having to build the plane as we started flying it, and we can observe this from the uneven development of our working groups and external vs. internal organizing. We have started drawing the political connections between housing and other work. We must keep fostering those connections, and grow different organizing cores in our chapter. We have started cultivating layers of organizing leadership. We must advance political leadership as well.
While I may feel daunted by the magnitude of our mission, I have deep energy and profound hope for CT DSA in 2023. Not the kind of brash energy emitted erratically in countless directions, nor the kind of naïve optimism expecting things to just work themselves out, but committed energy towards a vision and strategy, towards love and solidarity, and hope from seeing how the working class is taking the wheel, taking charge of their own destiny, in Connecticut and across the country. In the words of Fred Hampton, “If you dare to struggle, you dare to win.” In 2023, let’s keep struggling, and let’s keep winning.
^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^Bryan C is an electoral, labor, and tenant organizer with Connecticut DSA and national YDSA.
Image credits: Connecticut DSA’s Housing Justice Project Summer 2022 retreat.