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.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s