2023 DSA National Convention: Mini-Issue Articles

Tenant Organizing Strengthens DSA and the Wider Left

A member of the DSA Housing Justice Commission and ETOC explains how tenant organizing conducted by DSA members strengthens the DSA and brings tenants into the political struggle for socialism.

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As the bi-annual DSA convention begins, myriad tendencies in the organization are discussing its future. Communist Caucus believes that the DSA should focus on turning every member into an organizer, thereby strengthening the DSA and the wider left.

An Organization of Tenant Organizers

When DSA members join mass work organizations and organize within them, a powerful ecosystem on the left emerges. Our caucus has verified this strategy through our engagement in DSA’s national Housing Justice Commission (HJC), where the new Emergency Tenant Organizing Committee (ETOC) program helped develop 10 tenant unions in 1 year, with other groups taking first steps as we write. Some of the promising trends we have observed include: the development of new organizers, the strengthening of socialist praxis in mass organizations, and the growth of the left as mass actions create tangible, immediate results that draw in new faces. Local DSA chapters could benefit from these trends by implementing a similar strategy.

ETOC’s goal is exactly what Communist Caucus champions: to build an organization of organizers–in ETOC’s case, tenant organizers. As tenant organizers, we do long-term work that allows community members to control their own destiny. Consider the organizer cadre in San Diego, where tenants stopped illegal evictions–or Phoenix, where a group of 4 has become 50 by knocking on neighbors’ doors. 

The crux of this work is building relationships and trust–not one-off conversations–so that when a crisis arrives, tenant-workers reach for union support to fight back with strength in unity. When comrades in ETOC make the union a place where tenants can get support for their struggles, tenants become bound with organizers in relationships of genuine friendship and solidarity. Community is forged, and we become not just isolated radical activists, but organizers deeply embedded into our neighborhoods, ready for a crisis. Notably, the democratic structure of tenant unions has a triple benefit: organizers contextualize their otherwise abstract politics to develop consensus; tenants inject creativity into actions as they take on greater responsibilities; and non-activist tenant organizers begin to take the lead in their organizing, which builds trust and unity.

What is ETOC?

So what is ETOC, exactly? It’s a series of programs that supports the creation of new tenant unions, from panels and training intensives to mentorship programs. Its strength has been distilling lessons from tenant unions across the country into a format adapted to the varying conditions of our cities and neighborhoods. It helps comrades proceed from a group which wants to “do tenant organizing” to a mature and self-sustaining autonomous tenant union with a strong relationship with their local DSA chapter, fighting for tenant dignity and socialism.

Tenant Organizing is Politics

Autonomous tenant unions are being created rapidly throughout the US, as agitated tenants connect with tenant unionists. Many of these tenant unionists have a socialist or communist political perspective and are active not just in their tenant unions, but in the larger socialist movement through organizations like the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). The tenant unionist struggle has taught many of us valuable lessons about the broader struggle for class power that we carry out through our engagement in DSA. We have become convinced of the need for long haul struggle in our neighborhoods, of the need for developing leaders who aren’t already committed socialists, and of the need for building democratic working class organizations.

Solutions for these needs are crucial for DSA more broadly, and we are experimenting extensively with answers to these challenges in our tenant unions. Developing a meaningful connection between DSA and the tenant unionist movement in every city where DSA and autonomous tenant unions are growing will transform DSA for the better. DSA can be a vehicle by which tenants who are developing socialist consciousness can learn how to transform their workplaces and more. In other words, DSA involvement turns tenants into socialists. Tenant unions, meanwhile, can be a vehicle by which socialists join with their neighbors in meaningful class struggle in the places they already live. That is, tenant unions turn socialists into organizers. Therefore, mass work–conducted by DSA members through their tenant unions–is politically vital. 

An organization of organizers also has plenty of space for those who aren’t directly engaged in the kind of mass work we’ve described above. Over the last year, Communist Caucus members of the HJC have worked alongside various DSA tendencies. While much of our focus has been on advancing the tenant struggle through the ETOC program, we have also supported the diversity of tactics practiced in the broader progressive struggle for housing justice. DSA comrades have been leaders in campaigns for Right to Counsel in San Francisco, Jersey City, Boulder, and all of Connecticut. They also contributed heavily to the success of a campaign to create a public developer for social housing in Seattle. Finally, we have been developing political education to help DSA comrades discuss matters like social housing, the problems with YIMBYism, tenant protagonism, and abolition work within our tenant unions. 

Build Tenant Power and Organization at Convention

By passing the HJC’s consensus resolution, Consensus Resolution #1: Building Tenant Power and Organization, at this year’s convention, we can expand on the success of our work in the HJC and the practical transformation of DSA into an organization of organizers. The resolution affirms our commitment to housing justice and expands material support for ETOC. We strongly encourage comrades across DSA to get involved in the HJC and in ETOC, especially if you have disagreements with some aspects of our approach. We strongly believe in organizing together for a world without landlords and bosses.

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