MATU participated at the 2023 Socialism Conference on a panel focused on tenant union building in cities in conjunction with Brooklyn Eviction Defense, the Los Angeles Tenants Union, and the Autonomous Tenants Union Network. At one of the biggest socialist conferences in the country and with multiple other panels going on, the room was packed with over a hundred audience members from around the country looking to build tenant unions in their cities.
Panelists introduced their respective unions and spoke on issues particular to their region as well as issues that are general to working-class tenant organizing. With experiences from NYC to LA (with a detour in MKE, of course), each panelist contributed to a rich discussion flush with radical politics and practice: year-long rent strikes and combatting public-to-private schemes by real estate capital in NYC; forging cross-national solidarity to fight against landlords weaponizing the immigration system against Latinx tenants in Los Angeles and base-building to expose and oppose slumlords and the parasite economy in Milwaukee.
Conversation with the crowd elevated the experience, and, truthfully, probably was the most important part. If we value the revolutionary insights of Brazilian literacy educator Paulo Freire, we know that learning is a dialogical (and dialectical) process. We engage in dialogue. A mutually interactive activity between the learner and the “teacher” where they build knowledge, together. Not just engage in pouring knowledge into the learner’s head. Even though the “teacher” does know that the learner does not have the latter does need the former as a guide for exploring the object of study. However, the teacher must be exactly that, a guide. The teacher draws the experience of the learner and uses it so that the learner can gain a foothold for understanding which they can use to expand their knowledge. At multiple points, the roles reverse, and the teacher becomes “teacher-student” and the student becomes “student-teacher.”
This isn’t a comprehensive explanation of Freire’s process this isn’t the place for it) and will probably be faulty to those more versed on the topic. It’s just a quick synopsis, that hopefully starts a new synapse for the readers who come upon this.
(The writer is aware that some of the readers might be “boutique” lawyers specialized in “aggravated litigation” ™ or their assistants scouring our site for “evidence “of defamation for their bottom-feeding boss, who they see as a big lick. What’s a parasite’s parasite? A tick sucking blood from the ass of a mosquito?)
On top of that did our experience completely model this? No. Sitting at a table physically elevated over the audience and presented (even if implicitly) as “experts” while the audience has to sit listen and then line up to ask a question when we tell them is not ideal. But it was what it was. You have to start where you are at
And we think that applies to one particular participant from the audience. This person was from Indiana where tenant rights are nearly non-existent, according to him at least. And that’s not saying that he isn’t accurate, we can relate here in Wisconsin and Milwaukee. And frankly, we didn’t have the perfect, super answer because there is none. There is only the dialectical-materialist process that must applied to the conditions of that particular area.
That’s general yes, but there are some specifics that we gave. You must build the tenant union (even if there are no protections). Study. I mean really study; the area, the law, the history, the demographics, the politics, and the people. Keep eyes, ears, and feet to the street. What’s going on and where? The feet part is the most important (action). In the beginning, it may be shots in the dark, but you have nothing but conjecture without action. Hit the doors, you might be surprised by what or who you find. It may be awkward but who cares, move on. Failure isn’t as bad as failure to do anything.
The Indiana audience member also noted that he was running some local office, which led to an overdramatic eye-roll from a person sitting next to the audience’s microphone. However, if used in a way not as an end in itself, held by a person subordinated to a revolutionary movement and who understands their time to hold the position and use its power in an actual meaningful manner will be short, a local office is nothing to roll your eyes at. But that’s only if the aforementioned criteria and others not thought of here are followed. If this person thinks they can change things solely from the inside, they are severely mistaken. And the eye roll is deserved. That said, reforms can provide runaway/
In a sort of exasperated tone, he brought up the fact that most places don’t have the protections that New York and California–more specifically New York City and Los Angeles). He’s right about that. Many places don’t have the protections that would allow tenants to rent strike or even just a bare minimum concession from a landlord without getting retaliated. Other places have ostensible protections on the books, but they are either not enforced or easily maneuvered around. Having those protections does create big differences for folks’ tenant organizing there. They have a runway that you don’t have.
The thing is though, those protections didn’t just materialize nor were they gifted by the ruling political order. They came from reforms that were given as concessions. They were fought for. Many times by socialists, communists, and anarchists. And sometimes populist movements that were explicitly revolutionary and some even with reactionary tendencies (See the Bay Area Tenant and Neighborhood Councils Tenants in Movement Vol. 1). Additionally, the comrades in the areas are putting in the work to squeeze all they can out of these quickly eroding reforms. Look at the work of the comrades in the LATU, especially the K3 Tenants Council. They are using what they have to protect tenants, political education, build solidarity, build confidence, and connect to the overall movement for socialism, which is necessary to defeat the system that prevents housing from being a human right.
There is no single bullet. Only an ever-evolving process. Start with what you have to make more.