How Should Socialists Organize? Reflections on the Lift the Ban Campaign

Ever since I attended my first DSA meeting more than a year ago, it’s been the question: What should DSA do?

Not that members of Chicago DSA are short on things to do. There’s an array of working groups to choose from, many doing creative and exciting projects; there are educational events, parties, actions, and plenty of meetings. But as an organization of more than 1,300 socialists in the city of Chicago—what should we collectively try to accomplish? What is our plan?

Without presuming to be able to answer that question on my own, I want to make a few observations and reflections on the referendum campaign that Chicago DSA finished leading up to the March 20 primary election as part of its work with the Lift the Ban Coalition. For those of us who organized for and led it, this campaign was one answer to that question. By asking how and why we undertook this campaign and to what extent we accomplished our internal goals, we can hopefully draw some lessons that will be useful for Chicago DSA and other DSA chapters in future campaigns, as well as help point a way forward in the fight for rent control.

Background on the Referendum Win

On March 20, voters in 77 precincts in Chicago got to weigh in on whether Illinois should lift the statewide ban on rent control, and more than 75 percent—12,178 people—said yes. The referendum appeared on the ballot through the efforts of the Lift the Ban Coalition, whose members have been fighting for rent control in Chicago since 2016. (The ban has been in place since 1997, when the corporate-funded group ALEC pushed it through the state legislature.) Chicago DSA became a member last September, when the Coalition began its petition drive to put the referendum on the ballot. In addition to sending members to canvass with two other Coalition partners—Pilsen Alliance and 33rd Ward Working Families—Chicago DSA also ran its own canvassing operation for two precincts in the 5th Ward. In those precincts, 11 and 18, the referendum passed with 77 percent and 83 percent support respectively.

Like all referenda in Chicago except those regarding the sale of alcohol, the Lift the Ban referendum is non-binding. We set out to pass it by a large majority in order to show state legislators that voters overwhelmingly want to lift the ban—and that we have the capacity to turn them out to the polls. By all accounts, the Coalition succeeded at this first stage of the fight for rent control. Our next task is to pressure state legislators to repeal the ban, which will require making connections with renters and other stakeholders in downstate Illinois. Then we will need to pass a bill to enact rent control, either at the city or—as has been proposed by State Senator Mattie Hunter in SB3512—the state level.

Coalition Building

Chicago DSA joined the Lift the Ban campaign as part of our effort to build relationships with other organizations that share our politics. This may sound like an obviously good thing to do, but it’s more important than just making friends: it’s been an essential first step to organizing for socialism in Chicago. I think it should be a priority for any DSA chapter in a place where such organizations exist.

One reason it’s so important is that DSA’s membership is, as a June 2017 Democratic Left post put it, “whiter, richer, and more masculine than the working class we’re working for.” The extreme segregation of Chicago makes this divergence particularly evident in the case of the South Side Branch. It probably also contributes to the fact that it is the smallest of Chicago’s three branches. These conditions have encouraged us on the South Side Steering Committee to prioritize making connections with other groups based in working-class communities on the South Side. Since taking office last June, we’ve made it a practice to invite leaders of these organizations to speak at our branch meetings, and to meet with them one-on-one. The opportunity to join the Lift the Ban Coalition came about because of this practice.

In a city as rich with community organizations as Chicago, it would of course be foolish to intrude on anyone’s geographic “turf” without talking to them first. But avoiding stepping on toes is the least of what we have to gain from these conversations. DSA chapters should be deliberate about reaching out to groups that represent the self-organization of the working class and people of color and other oppressed peoples, because more often than not their fights will be ours.

The Lift the Ban Coalition is a great example. Of the four organizations on its steering committee—the Lugenia Burns Hope Center, Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, Northside Action for Justice, and Pilsen Alliance—all center low-income and working-class people, and three are based in neighborhoods that are majority people of color. The policy they are fighting for is one that curtails the profiteering of developers in the interest of working-class communities—a worthy goal for a socialist organization. In joining the fight for rent control, we have both grown Chicago DSA’s capacity and helped push the struggle forward. By targeting and winning our own precincts for the referendum, lending expertise in graphic design and social media, turning out members to actions, and showing up to coalition meetings, we’ve shown Chicago DSA to be a valuable, reliable coalition partner and paved the way for future collaboration on this and other campaigns.

We would never have accomplished all this if we hadn’t thought we had something to learn. This attitude is one we should hold on to going forward. With two new branches and a membership that has surged from 184 in October 2016 to 1,340 as of last month, Chicago DSA is—like many other chapters—a basically new organization. Of the thousand-plus members we’ve gained, many are new to organizing and political work. But we shouldn’t get so caught up in the exciting movement or interesting phenomenon that is DSA, that we forget that organizing is not new to Chicago. Rather, as we go forth to do something as DSA, we should be humble and receptive to the lessons we can learn from other organizations, without giving up any of our long-term ambitions or our ideological focus (which, lest we forget, are our strengths).

Capacity Building

The other big goal of the referendum campaign was to build the organizational capacity of Chicago DSA. Last September, most of our chapter’s projects and campaigns were happening at the working group level and, as a result, at the working group scale. As co-chair of the South Side Branch, I was looking for a potential campaign that would be big and broad enough for any branch—or chapter—member to plug into, in the form of a simple, not overly time-consuming, but rewarding and meaningful task (for example, a two-hour canvassing shift). Also, as someone with relatively scattered, minor organizing experience, and without a good sense of the organizing that was already happening on the South Side, I didn’t want to try to design a campaign from scratch. So when Pilsen Alliance invited Chicago DSA to collaborate with them on canvassing for the referendum, I decided, with the support of the other members of the South Side Steering Committee, to try to organize our branch and chapter to adopt the Lift the Ban campaign.

Looking back, I would say that we had a strong success in building Chicago DSA’s capacity with this campaign—with the caveat that I think we could have had even more success if the campaign had been taken up more broadly, at the chapter level. We ended up organizing it at the branch, and then the working group level, due to issues of timing and organizational structure.

In what ways did we build capacity? Starting last fall, the South Side Steering Committee learned how to build consensus around a campaign, and our membership participated in deliberative branch meetings in which we voted to adopt the campaign. Before the second, get-out-the-vote round of canvassing, the Housing Working Group did the same thing, and also wrote a comprehensive campaign proposal that included targets for turnout based on calculations of our win percentage goals. Dozens of Chicago DSA members learned how to canvass and had the experience of talking to folks about rent control on the doors, and several members trained and led their own canvass teams. A small core group learned to write a rap, cut turf and enter data in VAN, and conduct turnout phonebanks for a total of about twelve canvasses. (University of Chicago YDSA and 33rd Ward Working Families shared turnout duties with the Housing Working Group.) We got to know the ins and outs of the two precincts in East Hyde Park that constituted our turf, and learned how to distinguish between good and bad turf. In February, we helped plan, execute, and debrief a direct action for rent control at the Thompson Center. We helped write the copy for the referendum campaign literature, and a very talented Housing Working Group member did the graphic design work (shoutout to Ben). On March 20, we ran an election day operation which began with flyering at 6 a.m. when the polls opened and ended at 8:30 p.m. when the poll workers printed out the “tape” with the primary results.

We did a lot! And we ran most of the South Side-based campaign (the longer, more difficult get-out-the-vote phase) with a core group of only four people: myself, John Aspray, Loreen Targos, and Ruthie Lichtenstein.

Many more people contributed to the campaign by canvassing, phonebanking, or flyering on election day and by helping to organize our first petition-drive canvass last fall to get the campaign off the ground. But without diminishing anyone’s contribution, I would say we could have used more help. It would have taken some of the burden off of John, Loreen, Ruthie, and me, and it would have meant that the skills we gained were gained more widely.

How to Do Even Better Next Time

Why weren’t our numbers—both of leaders and of rank-and-file canvassers and phonebankers—higher? Bad timing deserves some of the blame. We held our first petition-drive canvass on the weekend before Thanksgiving, and our momentum dropped off during and after the holidays. Some Chicago DSA members shifted focus to other chapter work; others became inactive. This was unfortunate, but probably couldn’t have been avoided at the time.

Another, more important, reason hinges on the structure of Chicago DSA, in which working groups and branches operate independently and with near-complete autonomy from the chapter. The tendency that this structure begets is, as I mentioned above, for work to happen within the working groups and at the working group scale—that is to say, a small fraction of the size of the chapter, with no more than a handful of leaders. Those of us who organized for this campaign last fall tried to build consensus around it among the entire chapter leadership—and though the majority of them supported it, there was no easy or obvious means to encourage or enable them to organize for it. Based on votes taken at North and South Side Branch meetings, the majority of the membership were behind the campaign too—but on the North Side, once again, there was no mechanism to hold leadership accountable to this vote, and no clear North Side plan for those members to plug in to.

Thus, the campaign was initially undertaken by the South Side Branch, and in its second phase it was led by the Housing Working Group. The shift made sense because the members of the South Side Steering Committee were overtaxed with other working group responsibilities and the business of running the branch, and didn’t have the capacity to lead the campaign, whereas the Housing Working Group, once formed, pulled in a lot of new people who wanted to devote their energy to housing work. But the smaller size of the group which had “ownership” of the campaign probably also contributed to smaller turnout in the second phase of canvasses.

How can we address the structural issues that hampered the referendum campaign? We need more collaboration across working groups and branches. We need a stronger organizing culture at all levels of leadership—meaning leaders should have both a broad vision that encompasses the whole chapter, and a sharp focus on building Chicago DSA while also building working-class power. We also need bylaws changes that will give the chapter membership the power to decide what we should do—as a chapter. Only then can we marshal the full strength of our 1,340-member organization—and we’ll need all the strength we’ve got as we go up against Rahm, Rauner, and the neoliberal power structures behind them.