The strategic genius of the Philly Socialists’ Tenants’ Union

chatham court

Tenants and organizers facing off with building management at one of the tenants’ union’s first locations

The Need for Vehicles to Express Class Anger

The genius of the Philly Socialists’ Tenants’ Union (more on why I mention the connection to Philly Socialists later) stems from the need to wage class struggle while acknowledging the extreme difficulties of labor organizing and the extreme limitations of single-issue movements making demands on the state.

It’s 2016.  People have been livid about the economy and their living situation since 2009.  The Left has not done terribly much about it.  We had a big protest called Occupy Wall Street.  That faded.  We’re running this guy called Bernie Sanders.  I still support him but with him losing in New York, it’s looking like time for contingency plans, and we needed to find ways to continue that momentum regardless of the electoral result anyway.  Opinion has shifted dramatically toward socialism, I shouldn’t even have to link to the polls, but here anyway.  Check those “Under 30” stats.

However, we are horribly lacking in vehicles to actually fight class struggle beyond just building socialist groups on the basis of ideology alone (not that this isn’t worthwhile in itself).


Organizational Log-Jams

Traditionally the socialist Left in the USA has looked to the labor movement to be the organic expression of class struggle.  And yet this country’s union density is a joke, especially outside the public sector.  The amount of work stoppages per year has dropped so low that they’ve nearly stopped counting.

A lucky small set of people are positioned in the public sector or other trades to participate in the internal union politics, but most of us work in the non-union private sector, in a continuously shifting environment.  Some of the most public-interactive shops are the highest-turnover small shops.

We need a form of labor movement which the average person who has class anger (ie half of America or more) and wants to express it can get in on it without all these barriers – people who don’t work in the highly specific unionized sectors, people who can’t risk getting fired by trying to start a union in their own shop, etc.  Those who are positioned in the belly of union politics should take what they have and run, fighting within their union to improve it.  But we also need models of organizing for people who don’t have this.

Some examples of this already exist.  For example, the $15 minimum wage movement is one example.  In various places in the country, IWW activists have organized multi-workplace workers’ alliances and solidarity networks based on specific commercial corridors.  “In my view,” the Sanders movement also plays a similar role.

However each of these have limitations.  The Sanders campaign, win or lose, will end.  I respect the work of the IWW activists but we can’t ignore the fact that the organization is often cohered on a very flimsy and unclear political basis (it has a program of sorts but no one really enforces it consistently), leading to low stability and high turnover, and often more of a focus on moralism and dogma than pragmatic strategy.

As mentioned elsewhere, the $15 movement suffers from being a demand on the state.  The goal of the movement has often been to gain a base in low-wage workplaces themselves like fast food chains, but in practice it has tended instead toward being a campus-centered movement making demands on city councils.  This has led to a relative weakness of the movement overrelying on legislative alliances and weakening their own legislation, even unions exempting their own members, for the sake of a symbolic victory.

Anyway, what is needed is a movement centered on people’s units of daily economic circulation.  Even though $15 is a great class demand, it is usually targeted at governments.  When a movement revolves around a macro-institution to which most people are not directly connected (like their own job, housing, transit, school), the only people who tend to get involved are a student-and-activist crowd who tend to have the time, money, ideological background, and inclination to undertake activism.  It doesn’t help that the $15 demand is ambitious enough to be more of a mid-to-long-term demand in many places, rather than one that will succeed in the short term.

I have heard some socialists argue that “campuses are where the radicalization is” but I find this misguided.  Society is where the radicalization is at this point, and if we actually want to build a base for mass class struggle instead of an inward-looking activist scene, we can orient to non-students, former students, and centers of youth outside of college (ie “Millennials” ie “hipster enclaves”), in addition to colleges.

It’s true that the $15 movement could be pursued in a fashion more focused on base-building: it could focus more on the workplaces, but it could also pick specific institutions to target for a minimum wage, such as a specific company like McDonald’s, or specific local institutions like getting a $15 minimum wage for workers on certain campuses (since the movement already seems to have forces there anyway).  In some cases the movement is doing this.  And it’s not like I’m against the $15 movement – I go to the marches when I can.  I have always supported the demand unequivocally.  But I also see some of the shortcomings of the path there as I have seen it implemented.

So if there are issues with everything else, why does the tenants’ union work?


The Tenants’ Union

Tenant organizing involves less risk for participants.

Jobs aren’t widely perceived as human rights, but to kick someone out of their housing is seen as a very awful thing to do.  It’s much easier to get fired for union organizing than to get evicted for tenant organizing.  Laws tend to protect tenants more than workers.  Landlords are also culturally regarded as a more parasitic form of capitalist: business owners provide some kind of good or service, whereas landlords collect rent from merely owning land, in a throwback to feudalism.

Tenant organizing is accessible to anyone.

Most people don’t belong to a union or would find it nearly impossible to begin one.  Furthermore, there are large bureaucratic barriers to supportive non-members giving anything but the most passive support to unions they don’t formally belong to.  A tenants’ union is a wider movement which any tenant can involve themselves in, and where any activist can be directly welcomed into the organizing work of the union itself.

Tenants’ unions revolve around people’s units of daily economic circulation…

The rootedness of a tenants’ union in local fights around specific buildings and specific landlords ensures it does not get lost in the social democratic vortex of watering itself down in order to make itself electable.  It also, as stated above, engages ordinary people who would never before conceive of themselves as activists, who have no previous exposure to politics or ideology, and extend far beyond the usual campus-and-activist scene.

…while still allowing for citywide legislative battles.

Focusing on local struggles only can also come with its own disadvantages: the fight is never big enough for any kind of inspiring critical mass or major issues to be at stake, there is rarely any energizing cross-pollenation between different groups of people from different local struggles.  The dual nature of a tenants’ union in being based in both local struggles and citywide legislative campaigns allows it to stay anchored in a base of people motivated by working-class economic self-interest, while also having enough interaction with macro-politics to achieve and sustain larger momentums.

Rent control is a possibly-winnable, somewhat less ambitious demand.

Rent control is a slightly less ambitious demand than, say, a $15 minimum wage.  It simply asks that people’s rent stays the same rather than being hiked from lease to lease, rather than for some kind of huge increase in expense for the capitalist.  New York already has rent control so it’s not inconceivable it could spread to other East Coast cities and elsewhere.

Tenants’ union organizing is direct class struggle.

Poll after poll shows that since the Recession, the top issue of concern among the population has been the economy.  With many people’s incomes decreased or stagnating, everyone is feeling the squeeze.  Sanders went from being a sideshow freak to a main contender by relentlessly beating the drum of class anger, standard-of-living issues, and wealth inequality.  Fighting for tenants’ rights and rent control are directly relevant to the entire proletariat, from the lower-income and lumpenproletarian, to the working majority and white-collar slaves.  It affects housing issues we live with every day, and most importantly, the stakes often take the form of literal dollars and cents in people’s pockets, the most motivating thing of all.

It’s connected to Philly Socialists.

Several of Philly Socialists’ activities have been similar to serve-the-people projects and tenants’ unions that emerged in New York out of Occupy Wall Street, except they were largely connected only to the dwindling Occupy scene itself or to the informally-organized anarchist scene.  The obvious strength of Philly Socialists’ efforts, in comparison, is that they are connected to a socialist party-building effort, so that the organizing skills and accumulated resources don’t dwindle away or stay confined to movementism.  At some point we have to move beyond merely fighting bosses and landlords, and actually abolish them.  This is something that requires the construction an explicitly political and ideological organization, which has a vision of a new system that organizes economic activity at the social scale, rather than merely tearing authorities down.

April 14th Philly march pros, cons, and strategy

stadium stompers

Last Thursday, April 14th, was a march that incorporated the $15 minimum wage demand, black community control of the police, and opposition to the new stadium construction plans at Temple University.

I was happy to see Philly Socialists student members present, which is not usual given Philly Socialists’ abstentionist past with the $15 movement.  I found myself really pumped and amped up by this march, something I kind of needed.  After a slog of a campaign season in Philly Socialists, the incremental and low-visibility accumulation of forces in the tenants’ union, and the stupid divisiveness in the Left over Sanders, it was a breath of fresh air.

That being said, many of the critiques of the $15 movement (and nearly every movement) which circulate among the Philly Socialists crowd do have some merit, and were somewhat verified by the April 14th march.

My analysis of Stadium Stompers has tended to be that, since it is based around a specific incident rather than a general fight based around people’s units of daily economic circulation (housing, jobs, transit, schools), it will not tend to pull in as much of the actual North Philly community as the student organizers hope.  (This is in contrast to, say, a tenants’ union, which deals more directly and obviously with the economic needs of the community; even if the stadium would indeed be disastrous for the community, it’s not as easy to mobilize around it or build lasting power from it.)

This seemed confirmed to me by the fact that in truth, the march was not that big.  The recent Sanders marches have been larger actually.  I myself have been overloaded with events and was not even going to attend, except that I just happened to be working in Center City and I heard the drumbeats of the march at the end of the working day.  (The drums were cool in building energy but also drowned out chanting, pro’s and con’s.)

This blends into general problems with the $15 movement.  I would describe it as having similar issues as the Stadium Stompers movement.  It’s a good demand, and directly related to class struggle and people’s own standard of living, which means ordinary people might care about it and get involved more than many other activist demands.  That being said, it’s a demand on the state rather than necessarily a specific demand against specific, concrete local institutions.  We always harass McDonald’s, but the amount of actual fast food workers we’ve attracted has been minimal.  Movements around demands on the state tend to be self-limiting to a student-and-activist crowd who can afford the time to mobilize around issues that aren’t of direct relevance to institutions and life conditions they themselves may not be connected to.  This means only a small activist minority of the population will be mobilized, instead of the broader working class.

It’s true that, for mostly including causes initiated by white college kids, the march was wonderfully multiracial.  Maybe I’m being optimistic but certain parts of the crowd seemed to be 50/50 (which is good because that’s roughly the actual racial composition of Philadelphia).  Part of this had to do with the presence and involvement of the Black Hammer, a socialist and black nationalist group which incorporates both black national and class struggle demands in its focus.  (Dude, what an epic name.)  This to me was one of the most positive aspects of the march: the confluence of class and race demands, in what has often been a toxic left environment which counterposes these issues instead of conjoining them (or conjoins them without actually being multiracial in the composition of participants).  But in sum the overall smallness of the march lends to the notion that actually not much of the community has actually been mobilized by ANY of the demands – not $15, not the stadium, etc.

What could we do to change this?  One thing which seems to be in the works is making $15 a campus-oriented demand, ie demand the campus pay its workers $15.  This makes it more easy to build a student critical mass as well as engage the workers who work there, and lends itself to building a student power network based on campus-specific demands that are directly relevant to students’ own economic self-interests (tuition, room and board, things not mentioned in any of the Temple student government platforms – in fact the cost of the stadium may be more directly impactful to students in a dollars and cents fashion than anybody else, in the form of tuition hikes and fees).  Another thing would be to build up an inter-workplace workers’ alliance in distinction/complement to the traditional local-based union structure.  The Restaurant Opportunities Center seems to play a related role to this in Philadelphia.  The Philly IWW also used to run a South Street Workers’ Alliance which at its peak had 100 members, though this may have been a decade ago and collapsed.  The direct involvement of socialists in these alternative union initiatives makes sense to me. At the moment Philly Socialists is building a tenants’ union, which serves a slightly different but also very similar role of creating activity across multiple locations, struggling around units of people’s daily economic circulation.

Now these predicaments are not entirely our fault.  The unions involved are, well, unions, with all the shit this often implies.  Fight for $15 is not really a self-organized grassroots movement, but an SEIU front where the SEIU paid staff mobilize members.  Now I’m glad they’re doing this, but it makes their involvement contingent upon the possibly tenuous approval of the bureaucrats (who actually used their influence over this march to ban any campaigning for Sanders, which myself and others gleefully disobeyed).  Furthermore many of the West Coast $15 laws have involved exceptions against the unions themselves, negotiated by the unions themselves (this would almost be unbelievable, except we’re talking about union bureaucracy).

On a more positive labor note, it was nice to see Caucus of Working Educators people there too, though I have no idea who plugged them in or what their relationship was to the forces involved.  What relationship socialists and socialist organizations should have to such reform caucuses is itself a huge topic which deserves an entire separate article.

It was enjoyable to see electoral politics enter directly into the issue-oriented march, with the contention over campaigning for Sanders, a handful of people (probably SEIU staffers) holding Clinton signs getting harassed, and a speech by a state senate politician McGinty who was booed by some anarchists and others (okay maybe me for a second) for being the “Hillary Clinton of the PA senate race.”

Overall despite the criticisms I’ve made, it was a beautiful confluence of varying currents worthy of this psychedelic era, and benefited from a lot of red energy.  As an outsider to the actual organizing preparations, I wonder how the different forces involved felt about it.  For example, the $15 demand predominated in the chanting.  Did the black police control or stadium people feel slighted by that?  I have no idea.

I am not sure what precise role I play in this movement(s?) except as a supporter and marcher (hell, I am not exactly sure what my role really is in anything at the moment).  But I hope the Philly Left and these movements are full of enough thoughtful, open-minded, strategy-oriented, and driven people to maybe take some of these thoughts and run with them.  Better to talk about it than not.

As for me, I hope to build the party and increase the redness.