Issue 3

Tenant Power is Proletarian Power: Autonomous Tenants Unions Against the Landlord Class

The tenant struggle is here, and we must do our part to support it.

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The tenant struggle is here, and we must do our part to support it. Since the Covid-19 pandemic hit the U.S., housing has emerged as a clearcut site of the class struggle. Tenants across the continent have demonstrated a willingness to build and fight together. Many have started to organize themselves into tenants associations, a form of organization that rhymes with labor union organization. Even more promising, however, is the ascendancy of an organized tenants movement that is committed to organizing mass membership tenant unions that span entire cities and regions. The Autonomous Tenants Union Network (ATUN) represents most of these fledgling unions at the national level, and socialists need to pay attention to it. This organization is the first of its kind: a national organization of bottom-up, anti-capitalist tenant unions that are committed to mass organizing free from the Democratic Party and its donor base. Though some socialists in the DSA have considered and built city-wide tenant organizations—and some, though certainly not all, of ATUN’s founding members are DSA members—it is now time that we agitate for our local chapters to support the movement materially and organizationally. 

The burgeoning tenant movement is an expression of working class self-organization posed against a significant fraction of capital known as real estate. This is a struggle that touches directly on a central aspect of today’s capitalist economy, particularly in the capitalist imperial core. But the autonomous tenant movement not only contains the preliminary resistance necessary for decommodified housing in the future. It also gestures towards the strategic possibility of recomposing the working class and building truly left mass organizations capable of fostering mass action in our time.  

Class Independence: Non-Profit Industrial Complex and the Democrats 

The Autonomous Tenants Union Network has begun to fill the historical void in left mass organization. Since the 1970s, left organization has been on the decline on all terrains of struggle. Just as the fortunes of the old electoral left tilted downward, so too did the organized extra-electoral left follow a similar trajectory. Though the 1970s saw the rise of some Alinskyite-style organizations, these groups fatally attached themselves to the Democratic Party and their affiliates, and their horizons were limited by a lack of anti-system revolutionary politics that could enable systemic criticisms of capitalism. This trend has continued with a slate of non-profit organizations funded by the elite layers of the Democratic Party developing in the wake of an increasingly unorganized left. Often enough, these organizations will take up radical rhetoric, situating themselves as the harbingers of progressive social change. Of course, radical rhetoric only takes one so far, and the general tendency of such organizations is to stabilize capitalism by attending to its worst excesses, or to demobilize working class people at peak agitational moments. Looking more closely, we can identify three specific consequences of the non-profit layer’s rise. 

First, the NGOs have sown political confusion by bringing together left-wing rhetoric and neoliberal politics. The result has not only been confined to the general popular conflation of neoliberal and left politics, but also the general disillusionment with the possibilities of collective organization. This confusion and disillusionment came at the heels of massive state repression and the exile, imprisonment, and murder of communists, internationalists, and pan-Africanists during a particularly intense interval in the late sixties to the early seventies. Second, NGOs induce many people into a status-quo, compliant NGO complex. These are people who, in another time and place, may have joined the Communist Party, or another similar revolutionary formation, and dedicated themselves to organizing towards proletarian power and revolution. Third, and most obvious, NGOs decisively reduce the extra-parliamentary power of the working class. This last consequence has shaped the situation we are now in: a period where the political possibilities are narrowed to what seems like a reasonable outcome for Democratic Party machinations in any given moment. Here, we are put on the backfoot as anything left of progressive neoliberalism, including left reformism, can be easily cast as unachievable and characterized as ridiculous reverie.

What is striking about the Autonomous Tenant Union Network is that it is successfully moving against all of these trends. Currently, ATUN consists of 20 directly associated tenant unions. Many more are still in formation and have yet to become part of the organization. What makes affiliation with ATUN compelling is its commitment to pushing forward tenant organizing in places with tenant unions and in places without them. One of the primary activities of ATUN is the transmission of practical lessons and theoretical developments that emerge over  the course of struggle. Older tenant unions like the Los Angeles Tenant Union (LATU), which has thousands of dues-paying members, have become sites of working class innovation. All the while, these unions are building the structures necessary to become mass organizations and are activating working-class self-activity by supporting agitated working class subjects who are impacted by the sharp contradictions in capitalist housing. Even from a purely quantitative point of view, ATUN and its affiliated unions are moving against the grain of the historical atomization and the disorganization of the proletariat. 

Strikingly, this development is taking place under a specific context of class independence. Admittance to ATUN requires that the tenant union is member-driven through dues structures and that decisions are democratically decided by the tenant membership. Absent boards with members who are in finance or tech capital, the set of political debates that take place within this corner of the tenants movement are protected from the contingencies of funding streams and from the desire to achieve bourgeois respectability. Full immersion in the class struggle is not sacrificed for political expediency. Money and bourgeois politics surely go well together, but when they do so under the signpost of “progressive” politics it is often at the behest of the Democratic Party. Here, once again, the ATUN-affiliated tenant unions mark a new path as they are decidedly detached from the Democrats. By putting forward a mass organizing model, the ATUN tenant movement has begun to do the difficult work of constructing new foundations for a left working class presence on the housing terrain. This aspect is especially important, as even the most stringent progressive municipalities and states are nevertheless hemmed into supporting the all-important sector of real estate capital. Though some blue states have seen eviction protections put onto the books, at the end of the day their political commitments have continued to maintain a status quo in which real estate is king.

The Tenant Struggle Isn’t New

Though the pandemic cast tenants’ struggles into sharp relief, this site of struggle was apparent long before the onset of this crisis. The Los Angeles Tenants Union (LATU), which is the most mature and largest tenant union in ATUN, was created many years ago, long before the Covid-19 crisis. LATU got its start in 2014, and since then many more tenant unions have been formed. For example, the Bay Area’s Tenant And Neighborhood Councils, which has roughly 400 members, began in 2018 and continues to grow. Still, even aside from the establishment of these unions, it is clear that the struggle is not new. A “housing crisis,” as it is often called in the media, has existed in various localities for some time now. Gentrification of inner-city neighborhoods, typically places with well-established Black and brown communities, was taking its course well before then. In fact, housing has remained a significant site of class struggle against specifically capitalist forces for a very long time. Housing has been a central place of capitalist contradiction, and its augmenting importance is linked to the neoliberal transformation in the U.S. 

Real estate has become important for the accumulation of capital on a global scale, and we must understand the tenant struggle as an elemental part of the class struggle. When Marx described the process by which surplus value was generated, he took care to note that an important aspect of this process was the reinvestment of such values back into the means of production. Asset investment, which is the allocation of values into new means of production, has always been an important part of the overall process of capitalist accumulation. Real estate, though arguably not directly a kind of “means of production” in the usual sense, nevertheless follows the logic of capital that Marx described. From a working class person’s viewpoint, the struggle for housing is often about social reproduction—meaning the ability for the working class to ensure its own conditions of life outside of production. Indeed, in our time, housing has become a principal site for the storage of surplus values that, after being accumulated elsewhere in the system, are reinvested into commodified housing stock. Workers’ dependence on purchasing commodified housing has turned out to be a lucrative form of capitalist extraction outside of the sphere of production—and also a significant site of class conflict. 

The emergence of real estate capital as a principal site of capitalist activity is likely linked to the problems of profitability and overproduction of goods. Heightened international competition between manufacturers and a working class with lower disposable income due to stagnating wages has left capital searching for new places to invest. If capitalists cannot find productive outlets for investment, then it makes sense for them to look elsewhere: real estate emerged as a saving grace for capital.

The allure of real estate has also been fueled by U.S. politicians’ commitment to inflate asset prices across the board since the 1970s. Importantly, policies that enable asset inflation have had a high degree of cross-class consensus. With the relative purchasing power of wages continuing to decline, many working class homeowners have become increasingly reliant on the appreciation of their homes for extra cash. Working class homeowners can potentially leverage their home-as-asset, using various financial products to extract money in order to fund everyday life expenses, retirement, or to assist children who are often struggling under evermore unfavorable labor conditions. Thus, for some time now, the political class could offset ongoing wage segregation with policies that facilitated asset inflation without causing massive backlash from below. 

Of course, this political consensus always left out significant portions of the working class, especially non-white workers denied early access to financial mortgage products and relatively favorable housing stock. Various roadblocks had been thrown before Black working class homeownership. The well known example is redlining, which has produced lasting racial cleavages within the asset economy. Lower wages for women and people of color clearly have compounded this situation too. Many Black and brown workers have ended up with higher than average mortgages, and many were thrown out of ownership in general amid the 2008-09 financial crisis. Still, more have been stuck with assets in non-lucrative areas that may never appreciate at a comparable rate. Add to these racial dynamics an emergent intergenerational trend that has overtaken the classically racialized American situation, as many millennial workers now find themselves unable to break into the lucrative asset economy (unless blessed with an intergenerational lifeline in the form of a parental gift) and are stuck as lifelong tenants. 

In short, capitalist dynamics have inflated assets, which in turn has forced housing costs to an all time high. And with wages refusing to move upward, the ranks of tenancy may likely grow and bring hitherto advantaged workers into tenancy. On the other side, those with significant real estate holdings have found themselves in a relatively favorable position. All of this has produced a volatile site of contestation. These trends have enabled class struggle to break through while also revealing new possible trajectories for struggles in the near future. 

Building Out The Housing Struggle

Though Covid-19 has exposed the contradictions in capitalist housing for all to see, this intensification is not a flash in the pan. The tenant struggle was here long before the Covid-19 pandemic, and it will continue after the pandemic has abated. In other words, housing is a site of contemporary class struggle. What is built, or not built, on the terrain of housing will impact politics in every other sphere. If socialists do not actively support the growing movement by figuring out ways to organize within and alongside the Autonomous Tenants Union Network, we risk allowing our class enemies more space for countering this important organization. Just as the development of the CIO in the 1930s represented a step forward in the American labor movement, so too could the development of a mass, multi-tendency anti-capitalist tenants’ movement form a new leg in the housing fight. 

For some, a question of political vision comes up, specifically asking if it makes sense for DSA comrades to build and support tenant organizations that are multi-tendency, like those affiliated with ATUN. The alternative would be to build tenant organizing work directly into local DSA structures. This idea represents a grave misunderstanding around the nature of mass organization. One would never expect labor organizers to ask all workers upon joining a newly formed labor union to also join the DSA. Doing so would make the difficult work of building new unions even more strenuous. Yet, socialists continue to commit themselves to labor organizing. We do this because we know that the class struggle is of primary importance, and that as workers struggle they will be exposed to new perspectives about capitalism and its alternatives. There is no alternative to confidence in our ability to present a compelling political vision.

Perhaps even more important is the fact that we are still learning from the tenant movement, and new innovations are still taking place. The fact remains that direct, practical struggle is where significant forms are developed. The labor union, the party, the soviet—these were products of struggle detected by militant comrades and then replicated elsewhere. In a time like ours, where a vast majority of workers are not part of any organization, and where liberal forces do everything they can to ensure that struggle is subordinated to legal procedure and to class compromise, our primary task is to allow space for the class struggle to grow. The Autonomous Tenant Union can be identified as a new, innovative mode of class struggle. We should do everything we can to defend these unions and to support their growth in cities and towns across the US. 

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