From Yes On 15 to a California DSA

Yes On 15 demonstrates the incredible potential for coordinated, statewide action by DSA chapters across California. Jordan E and Marc K make the case for why DSA must prioritize the development of regional bodies–in California and across the country.


Capitalist oppression and the upward transfer of wealth and power have created a national crisis of democracy that extends far beyond the present election. Today, elected officials in both parties are more likely to represent the interests of the wealthy and powerful than those of working people. Faced with this harsh truth, organizers and activists often echo the claim that “they have money but we have people.” This is true, and yet the left often fails to organize with those people at the scale necessary to confront the structures that control our lives.

Americans are more progressive than their representatives, and there is a clear mass base–the democratic socialist constituency–who favor the transformative reforms that DSA organizers have made our bread and butter. DSA’s anti-capitalist message is connecting with more and more people, but so far, our significant national growth and key local wins ultimately represent just a few steps on the path toward building and wielding power as a mass movement of the working class. A next step that must be prioritized in 2021 is a commitment to building formal regional organizations that can scale up and sustain our work. This is made abundantly clear by the experiences of organizers in California.

The score in California

There are few places where the disparity between constituencies and electeds is more glaring than in the Golden State. In recent years, while the state has fallen for Democratic presidential candidates by thirty points or more, the corporate-friendly Democratic Party has managed to block the progressive left from winning major material victories.  

On June 23, 2017, California SB 562–a single-payer healthcare bill that had been previously ratified by the State Senate–was unilaterally tabled by Democrat Anthony Rendon, Speaker of the State Assembly. Despite widespread outrage, progressives were powerless to undo the decision. Unions with a statewide presence–like SEIU and the The State Building and Construction Trades Council–that many had hoped would challenge Rendon, instead stood by his decision. The activist wing of the state Democratic Party tried to catalyze a recall and push support for his primary opponent, but due to these activists’ lack of traditional, party-like organization, as well as their lack of preparedness to run a serious candidate against Rendon, their efforts failed. 

Despite the promise of current DSA-endorsed candidates for State Assembly, including Jackie Fielder in San Francisco and Fatima Iqbal-Zubair in Los Angeles, basic challenges remain. There is no material evidence that any other statewide institutions, from the California Democratic Party to the AFL-CIO, have shifted enough to pursue single-payer healthcare and other progressive policies in the near-term. Rendon still occupies the speakership, and Governor Newsom is only willing to commission studies, not demand action.

Following Bernie Sanders’ massive win in California during the 2020 primary, DSA is uniquely positioned to appeal to and catalyze the nascent democratic-socialist constituency in the state. The DSA for Bernie campaign showed us that there is mass potential across the country, and we’re seeing an increasing number of wins coming out of various locals.

But so far, at state and regional levels, DSA has yet to develop the capacity to systematically challenge Democrats on their ballot line. While there have been past attempts in California at promoting the type of cross-chapter collaboration necessary to develop regional power and influence, these attempts have always been tied to specific campaigns like 2018’s Prop 10 as well as DSA For Bernie. The networks formed have been ad hoc and have mostly collapsed as soon as the campaign ended.

While individual DSA chapters in California and elsewhere may continue to achieve individual wins, and while these individual wins are meaningful checkpoints on the path toward socialist power, DSA will struggle to build lasting material influence both locally and regionally, until we build formal regional structures through which all of our chapters and members can coordinate ambitious and prolific campaigns. The current, nationally-endorsed Yes On 15 campaign has provided the latest opportunity through which a formal California DSA might emerge, as well as illustrating the pressing need for such a structure.

Yes On 15: a unique opportunity for DSA in California

California Proposition 15, “Schools and Communities First” presents voters in California with an important opening to undo some of the harm caused by CA Prop 13, and has been embraced by many DSA chapters in the state. Specifically for DSA, Prop 15 also provides an opportunity for mass work, ties together multiple issues that matter to us and our members, and would institute meaningful progressive taxation with a clear class-based message: “tax the rich.” Further, it offers an opportunity for DSA to distinguish ourselves in California to community and labor organizations, as well as to demonstrate our commitment and capacity in the fight for a better future for working-class Californians.

The statewide project of uniting DSA chapters around Prop 15 was borne out of attempts to promote statewide DSA labor coordination, and this campaign represents a meaningful advancement in that work. But like many previous attempts at cross-chapter coordination both in California and in other regions, the obstacles faced by the campaign show why DSA must prioritize the development of regional bodies–in California and across the country. 

It remains to be seen whether it will be most advantageous to prioritize state-level bodies or larger “regional” ones uniformly in every situation across the country, but the current Prop 15 campaign makes five clear arguments for building a California DSA that are broadly applicable in other contexts as well.

  1. Durability and Permanence

A formal statewide structure will outlive individual campaigns. This would ensure that the lessons learned by organizers during the current campaign will be carried on to later projects. While many of the individuals who worked on previous state campaigns in California (like 2018’s Prop 10) have grown as organizers and formed working relationships with individuals in other chapters, there is a need to operationalize these connections and institutionalize the lessons learned, so that cross-chapter infrastructure does not need to be formed from scratch whenever the need for statewide coordination arises.

In the case of Prop 10, organizers believed that a California DSA would be a natural outgrowth of the relationships they developed. They learned the hard way that this was not the case, as follow-up coordination calls were eventually supplanted by the demands of local work. While a proposed roadmap for developing a state organization is outside the scope of this article, the need for a formal structure that has the buy-in of all chapters, not just individual organizers, is key. This will ensure that DSA can intervene swiftly and skillfully on statewide issues as they arise. Further, a statewide structure can serve as a base to plan and execute long-term regional organizing.  

2. Accountability and Transparency

While it is often easiest to launch projects on the basis of personal relationships, DSA should strive for the accountability and transparency that a formal body would promote. A statewide organization would represent DSA’s entire membership in California, and any goals, strategies, and plans would be decided in a way that reflects the collective will of DSA in California.

Such a structure should have bylaws, representative leadership, and decision-making processes. This will help chapters identify clear points of contact for developing, reviewing, and coordinating work. Having clear leadership roles and structures will provide clarity on how organizational power is exercised at the state level. A formalized statewide structure will also clarify questions of proportional chapter representation to ensure burgeoning chapters in CA are properly represented in planning and deciding important strategies and actions.

3. Strategic coordination among chapters 

To reiterate, coordination among chapters at present happens informally, often based on caucus affiliation or personal networks. A formal statewide body in California would create a framework by which chapters could marshal resources while building trust through shared work.

Such a body would provide the ideal structure to institutionalize a mentorship program among chapters. Through the mentoring process, chapters can deepen relationships, share resources and information, and develop common organizing goals and priorities. Whether it is labor organizing, tenant organizing, or electoral campaigns, the need to engage in class struggle extends beyond any chapter’s local jurisdiction. This is especially true in cases where electoral districts span multiple chapters: Rendon’s own AD-63 is shared by Los Angeles and Long Beach.

The passage of legislation that is beneficial or harmful to immigrants, tenants, and workers in one municipality, city, parish, or county can ripple across the region, and we need to be ready to consolidate any gains and face down any challenges as a strong state and national organization. This imperative goes far beyond electoral projects. While San Diego DSA may operate in unique circumstances against an international border, coordination among chapters in the greater border region would ground our internationalist principles in shared geography and opposition to the violence of the militarized border itself. Taking into consideration DSA’s growing national membership and the need to leverage our numbers to achieve material change, building the capacity for DSA to act in unison regionally and statewide is essential. 

The Prop 15 campaign illustrates this point powerfully in two ways. First, there is the positive example. A statewide campaign, developed with the greater resources of larger chapters, can empower smaller chapters by providing them with turnkey campaigns that can be easily taken up and adapted to local conditions. Further, chapters with large bases in progressive, urban areas can support smaller, rural chapters by phone-banking into their area or by promoting the distribution and visibility of campaign propaganda. Heavy-lifting for the Prop 15 campaign was largely taken on by East Bay, Los Angeles, and Inland Empire chapters. But this allowed smaller chapters like Santa Barbara, Ventura County, Yolo, and Kern County–who might not have had the capacity to design such a campaign on their own–to meaningfully engage, learn, and connect through a statewide campaign. In this sense, Yes On 15 has done well in marshaling the resources that exist in more-established chapters in order to strengthen less-established ones.

Second, the negative example. The Prop 15 campaign has demonstrated that if DSA wants to run effective and well-resourced campaigns, we need regional bodies to administer vital organizational funds and resources. A major obstacle for Prop 15 has been attempting to quickly establish a PAC in order to do this. Without formal oversight, which chapters will sponsor the PAC? Monitor campaign finance compliance? Who will oversee funds disbursements, and make important decisions on how to use PAC resources? 

Further, the campaign’s leadership and work assignments are informal, and delegated based on which chapter representatives have the time, knowledge, and capacity to take on responsibilities. While this informal delegation of responsibilities has gotten the campaign through the election season, it is not sustainable for long-term regional and statewide campaigns looking forward. The administration and allocation of PAC funds is a big responsibility and a point of organizational power that would be best served by a formal regional body that can collectively oversee its use. Because we do not currently have this level of organization in DSA, more established chapters are taking lead on PAC-related decisions while trying to maintain a degree of democratic participation and direction.

4. Ability to engage with statewide power structures

The Democratic Party and labor unions in California have fallen short of passing profound progressive policies despite the significant influence they wield across the state. A well-organized and battle-tested California DSA that connects thousands of democratic socialists across the state can provide a vehicle to realize the transformative reforms that working people support in growing numbers.

The major labor unions backing the official Prop 15 campaign are naturally organized into regional and statewide bodies to exercise power and influence, and DSA should do the same. Doing so in the formation of the Yes On 15 campaign has allowed DSA to interact with unions across the state, such as the Oakland Education Association, UTLA, Glendale Teachers Association, SEIU 1021, UAW 2865, UAW 5810, and UPTE-CWA 9119, and UE 1018.

The Yes On 15 campaign has turned out union members as phone bankers and speakers to DSA-run events that often outpaced those administered by the unions. Despite having fewer resources, the DSA-led efforts have demonstrated our ability to effectively organize at a regional scale in a way that has proven our worth as a coalition partner and has had a meaningful, material impact on an important campaign.

If we hope to one day gain the credibility and muscle for DSA to lead with bold campaigns geared toward winning transformative policies, we need permanent regional organization. DSA must build upon Yes On 15 by taking steps to establish such an organization, one that can act at the scale necessary to turn California our shade of red.

5. Strengthen the national organization

In addition to the benefits that regional organizing offers to individual chapters, and in addition to the ways that organizing at a regional scale is a worthy goal in and of itself, there is a clear case to be made that our rapidly-expanding national organization needs regional structures in order to promote effective communication between national leadership bodies and the membership at the chapter level.

As CPN argued ahead of the 2019 National Convention, “DSA’s current lack of intermediary structures has created limited space for accountable, substantive political debate. This has contributed to a dynamic in which various chapters and regions struggle to grasp the organizing realities occurring elsewhere. We have no formal way to give feedback or request assistance from National, and National lacks a clear constituency or mechanisms to build meaningful consensus throughout the organization.”

Yes on 15 has benefited from the endorsement of the national organization, but also enjoys the favorable condition of being a ballot measure in the high-turnout year of a presidential election. As the national organization seeks to expand the work and campaigns of the DSLC, Medicare For All, and a Green New Deal, it will be necessary to use intermediary regional structures to effectively coordinate across multiple regions and adapt campaigns to local organizing conditions. DSA will struggle to execute national campaigns outside of its most engaged chapters until these structures exist, and California may be the perfect state to lead the way.

Conclusion

Conservative media loves to flatten all Californians into a “coastal elites” stereotype. There are elites here, certainly, sitting at the top of a vicious food chain of capital and privatization, all sucking from the spigot of global trade, tech, and finance. But of course, most Californians belong to the same working class who form the vast majority in every state and every country in the world.

California is home to strawberry pickers and app-based drivers, garment workers and copywriters, construction workers, machinists, nurses, teachers, students, and retirees scraping by on social security. As inequality increases in the face of a bitter housing crisis and ongoing environmental catastrophe, the contradictions are heightening here, and people are looking for alternatives to the status quo.

From San Diego to Yolo, Merced to Kern County, Los Angeles to the Bay Area, DSA organizers are beginning to grapple with serious questions about the structures that will be necessary to build a strong, mass, and truly national organization fighting for a socialist future. We are not unique among the rest of the country in this. While CPN organizers in California will seek to strategize with our many comrades in the state who share the goals we’ve described here, we emphasize that this urgent need for regional structures is shared nationally, and we look forward to prioritizing their establishment at the 2021 DSA National Convention.


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