Issue 3

Horizons of Mass Tenant Unionism in Connecticut

Central Connecticut chapter co-chair Alex discusses in-state victories by DSA such as a right to counsel for tenants, and actively working towards a vision of building municipal-area and statewide tenant unions.

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Since the 2008 financial crisis housing instability has increased not only for homeowners, but renters as well. In 2017, Pew Research noted that “more U.S. households are renting than at any point in 50 years.” Furthermore, according to Statista, “the monthly median asking rent for unfurnished apartments in the United States increased by nearly 50 percent since 2008.” To this there has been a response, with socialists increasingly finding themselves at the forefront: tenant unionism.

While socialists have been recognized for engaging in class struggle at the point of production, it is also the case that socialists have done so at a vital node of social reproduction: housing and the home. This has been through organizing tenant unions and engaging in militant action like rent strikes. There is a rich history for socialists to draw on, including militant tenant unions with anti-capitalist outlook, such as in 1920s Mexico. This history also includes coordinated labor and rent strikes, such as what occurred in 1931 Barcelona. Though not necessarily led by socialists, this history even includes protracted mass rent strikes and tenant organization serving as critical components of anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa. In the United States tenant leaders often became, or were, leaders in socialist parties, such as in early 20th century New York. Today, socialists are part of projects seeking to build mass tenant unions through local formations like the Los Angeles Tenants Union, the Greater Boston Tenants Union, and Tenant and Neighborhood Councils (TANC) in the Bay area, as well as in tenant organizing projects like Stomp Out Slumlords in the District of Columbia. Across North America an increasing number of similar local tenant unions are amalgamating themselves into the Autonomous Tenants Union Network (ATUN).    

In Central Connecticut DSA we are striving to open up yet another front in the struggle to build mass tenant unions. From leading the push for a statewide right to counsel for tenants during eviction proceedings (which just overwhelmingly passed both the Connecticut State House and State Senate with $20 million in funding committed and signed into law by the Governor); to researching housing decommodification; to helping build tenant unions in the Greater Hartford area and potentially beyond, Central Connecticut DSA sees all of this work as fundamentally connected. All of these efforts concern rectifying the power imbalances at the point of social reproduction. More specifically, as socialists we see this work as seeking to rectify and transcend the power imbalances between tenants and landlords. This is an ideological premise that continuously enables our chapter to weave together the various parts of our housing work and strengthen our chapter as a whole. It is what enhances our position and capacity to engage in the project of building greater municipal area tenant unions, if not even potentially and hopefully a statewide one.

Building Tenant Unions in Connecticut

Arriving at such an ideological premise for political action and organization has required ongoing political education. Central Connecticut DSA has conducted various Socialist Night Schools on the topic of housing. This has included looking at the history of tenant organizing and connecting it to the present. For example, the 1915 Glasgow Rent Strike, which escalated into rent strikes across Britain and ultimately led to the massive construction of public housing in the immediate subsequent years. In the spirit of internationalism, we also invited a speaker from Sweden to educate our membership on the Swedish Tenant Union, the largest tenant union in the world with over 500,000 households in its membership today. This event was co-sponsored by the DSA Housing Justice Commission as well as the Autonomous Tenants Union Network (ATUN). Together with tenant organizers across the United States, we learned that the Swedish Tenant Union formed out of deep and sustained organizing by socialists, communists, and anarchists starting over a century ago. By the late-1940s, this organizing generated the mass base that would successfully push the construction of social housing in Sweden. On a more theoretical level, our chapter has also broadly striven to educate ourselves on housing decommodification to better grasp the vision for a socialist housing system that we are ultimately working towards. Closer to home, we have also looked at histories of tenant organizing and housing decommodification within the state of Connecticut, inviting famed historian Jeremy Brecher to present on his book Banded Together: Economic Democratization in the Brass Valley. Through Brecher’s presentation we learned about how a tenant union in Connecticut engaged in a rent strike in the late 1980s and subsequently went about forming limited-equity housing cooperatives atop a community land trust in Waterbury. This tenant-controlled apartment complex still exists today.

All of this has grounded us in the work we as Central Connecticut DSA are engaging in today, with different components of our housing work amplifying each other. For example, since launching in late-December, Central Connecticut DSA’s right to counsel campaign has generated multiple organizing leads that have resulted in the formation of active tenant unions. Three such tenant unions have formed in the Greater Hartford area. DSA members have been at the forefront as tenants in organizing their own buildings, as well as in providing direct ongoing support to tenant leaders in residential complexes. One DSA member choosing to remain anonymous stated that it had not occurred to him that he could organize his own building prior to joining the Central Connecticut DSA Housing Justice Project meeting. When he committed to this organizing, our chapter provided ongoing support to get the organizing off the ground, but it was still led by tenants of the building. During the early stages, a text chat formed in response to the beginnings of the pandemic. This was soon utilized as a core communications tool to agitate and articulate the notion of building a tenant union. From this, meetings were held and grievances were collectively written up. Upon forming a tenant union, immediate victories were won.

Our DSA chapter has not only provided ongoing support to members, but to those already taking leadership, and with a broad social network in residential complexes. One example of this is in Windsor, a town just north of Hartford. Prior to Central Connecticut DSA’s involvement, tenants raised demands in January 2021 for change at the Windsor Housing Authority. This was after over two years of significant changes made at the three properties, with major shifts in personnel and infrastructure. Upon getting in contact with Central Connecticut DSA, tenants themselves began the work of forming a tenant union. Organic leaders were identified who had longstanding connections to the wider community of Windsor tenants. With these organic leaders on-board, tenants could begin to be brought together under the distinct project of building a tenant union. Meetings were held, individual grievances were heard, and as tenant organizers have often said elsewhere: private pain was turned into public power. In early April, the Millbrook Tenants Union and the Fitch Court Tenants Union were publicly announced as formed and in formation, respectively. Ultimately, in early May 2021 the executive director of the Windsor Housing Authority was fired, with tenants hopeful that more positive changes will follow. One of the Windsor tenant union leaders, Taariq Jaamal has remarked that “DSA was the number one reason, through their knowledge, their assistance and available time [they] gave to residents of Windsor Housing Authority…They gave us the wisdom, knowledge, courage, and how[-to’s] to take the proper steps to build a tenant union and do other things”. Nonetheless, it should not be overlooked how much these tenant unions are led by and for the Windsor tenants, with continuously growing membership. As Jaamal asserts, “tenants can create unions to defend themselves and their communities against the mismanagement and mistreatment from landlord[s] [and] housing management.”

In addition to building tenant unions in the Greater Hartford area, Central Connecticut DSA has provided support to PT Partners, a tenant organization in Bridgeport. This has largely occurred through the Bridgeport branch of Central Connecticut DSA continuously following through on mutual aid work. PT Partners itself has been a voice in support of right to counsel, as well as publicly speaking alongside Central Connecticut DSA leadership on housing issues. Thus, as tenant unions have formed alongside the longstanding PT Partners, tenants are representing themselves in making demands of landlords and of the state. Tenant organizing has been a vehicle to not only make change in buildings and residential complexes, but to generate a collective tenant voice in support of transformative reforms like right to counsel, of which Connecticut is now only the third state to pass—and due to our chapter’s leadership and the coalition we brought together.

Toward Mass Tenant Unionism

From all of this, however, it must be stated that “building a tenant union” is not a one-time affair. It is ongoing. Organizers must nurture their organization, identify new leaders, and train them. Victories must be understood and explicitly stated in the context of deepening and extending organization, so that even bigger victories can be achieved later. “Mass organization” and “mass tenant unionism” may make us think in abstract numerical terms, but our power in numbers can only be achieved by a sustained care of the organizations that we begin with. We have three tenant unions right now in Connecticut, with a fourth longstanding tenant organization. We are at the beginning, but that means consolidating power where we are at, and intentionally and deliberately identifying new leads. Building blocks can only be building blocks if we ensure there is little to no fragmentation before we seek to extend organization and capacity into other spaces. Our role as socialists can also be to sow connective tissue between tenant unions, as we have sought to do with tenant union teach-ins that draw in tenant organizers from various parts of Connecticut. This itself is a deliberate and careful process and one that generates opportunities to engage in simultaneous structure tests for both tenant organizers and those within DSA. In doing so, we create an experience that organically forms and nurtures a bond between tenant unions and DSA, but one that is based on the work. In part, we have done this through hosting tenant union teach-ins with the speakers from the Autonomous Tenants Union Network, which provided insight to DSA organizers and tenant union leaders and members. We have also sought to sow bonds through social events which also double as actions, such a recent barbecue co-organized between Central Connecticut DSA and the Windsor tenant unions. While we are at early stages of our loftier goals, we hope to see our current building-based tenants unions link up into greater municipal area tenant unions which in turn can scale to the state-level.

Careful organizing with spurts of mass militancy can reap real long-term rewards. As noted above, the Swedish Tenant Union has over 500,000 households in membership with a strong history of militancy and transforming the order of social reproduction nationwide, as documented by Swedish labor and tenant historian Hannes Rolf. The Swedish Tenant Union has even won a mandated structure of collective bargaining between tenants and landlords, in addition to social housing. Nationwide collective bargaining has even resulted in agreements that rent cannot exceed twenty-five percent of disposable income. Whatever one’s thoughts might be on the current state of the Swedish Tenant Union, the fact is that a mass tenant union exists and it is one that has achieved consistent victories for nearly a century and has had strong connections to various Left political tendencies. The Swedish Tenant Union has both fought landlords at the point of social reproduction, and been a co-generator of an alternative regime of housing. That is what we can and should aspire to in the here-and-now.

The point is that we must see that there is a horizon. Without it we will not be able to make the decisions and deploy organizational capacity in a direction that ultimately forges mass tenant unions which are capable of altering the municipal, state-level and federal landscapes. In Connecticut, our right to counsel campaign is an example of this, as a start. As we fight for systemic changes like right to counsel, we identify organic leaders within our own communities, residential complexes, and elsewhere who in turn build tenant unions that fight to win. This is what occurred with those in Windsor, who initially connected to Central Connecticut DSA through our right to counsel campaign. In addition, Central Connecticut DSA members have cultivated a public voice on right to counsel through various editorials and speaking engagements across news outlets. With intention and discipline, we at Central Connecticut DSA have shown we can move beyond simply making thematic connections between work like right to counsel and tenant unions, and instead deploy tactical means by which various parts of our work support and amplify each other.

Despite our victories we should be clear, we have not yet reached mass organization, let alone an adjacent horizon of one big union of tenants and workers (which itself is likely wrought with contradictions). Nor should we rush towards it. What we as Central Connecticut DSA are helping to build with tenants in Connecticut today is a start, but as socialists we also know that the potential is so much more.

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