A few lines from the Tenants Union debate

homelessOur society is not a debating chamber, but a power struggle between different groups and classes with competing and opposing interests. The landlords are raising the rent because they have the power to do so pure and simple.

The complex where I live in for example is run by numerous landlords, all in association with each other, and come every 6 months they raise the rent another ten dollars, not because anything’s different, but because they can. They won’t be swayed by argument, because from such a position of solidarity and strength (between landlords as a class) all arguments can be safely ignored. And anyway – we shouldn’t have to rely on the good nature of a landlord to ensure a stable place to live in. The tendency of Unionism I support is about association – ie tenants and workers getting together directly to form solidarity networks which can impose their own decisions. It scares me that the official ‘Tenants Union’ is purely representational – pretty much a lobby group/Service/NGO far removed from the collective self-organisation of tenants. Don’t get me wrong – we need people who can remind us of the few rights we have and help us navigate the confusing world of the Law, but it’s not unionism and it encourages people to approach these issues as individuals through the disempowering legal system – nearly always weighted in favour of those in power.

The legacy of rights and social gains which we enjoy today weren’t granted as gifts from above or because we asked nicely through reports and funding proposals— they were won and forced upon the system through popular struggle and have to be maintained through struggle. Now that we’re weak – they want to take away everything we’ve won in the past: The tenants rights sector, public services, support for LGBT communities, the right to strike, abortion rights, schools, the health of our communities and environment…This goes way beyond housing – If we don’t get organised we basically give those in power a blank cheque to do as they wish. There’s no point talking about a rent strike or anything of the sort since we have no power as tenants as it is. We need to re-learn basic nuts and bolts organising and begin to form the types of unions that will really serve to express and encourage solidarity between tenants and workers — start talking to your neighbours and get something going!

For some useful info on how to start organising around housing see the following:

How to build a solidarity network:

Picture the Homeless:

The City is Ours (Melbourne):

Brisbane Squatters Handbook:

Ontario Coalition Against Poverty Direct Action Casework Manual:

Seattle Solidarity Network: An example of tenant/worker power:



  • Dear Anonymous,

    Thanks for your very interesting comment… a most thought provoking contribution. If what you say were so – that our society is not a debating chamber but, purely and simply, a series of power struggles between the classes – then there would little point in offering this brief response… I like to think it’s more than that, and I recall that famous scene in Ken Loach’s ‘Land & Freedom’ as my motivation for saying so (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=njWMkZYazCM)

    It is fair to say that a preoccupation with rights and remedies-at-law can come at the expense of solidarity and self-conscious organisation – I’ve all but said as much in an earlier comment. But let’s be cautious not to overly romanticise the idea of what ‘unionism used to be’… Unions have always walked a fine line between the organised association of working people and the controlled management of class struggle within a particular set of political principles. Sure, there are examples of more radical unions (or interventions into unions by organised groups of radical workers) that have enjoyed relative organisational success at one time or another – such as the Central Organisation of Workers of Sweden – but these have been examples of collective organisation, rather than mere unionism. And never have they resulted in ‘solidarity networks which can impose their own decisions’ – at least, not the sort of decisions that would result in the erosion of class inequality in any lasting kind of way, such as how and when the rent might go up.

    Perhaps this is a semantic distinction, but it’s one that your comment invites. And it leaves us with a question about how and why we want to organise.

    Rights and social gains might be won and lost on the basis of our commitment to ‘struggle’, but we need to be careful not to define this word too narrowly. People struggle in a range of ways and at a range of levels within the economic and political spectrum – and whether we like it or not we tend to take the path of least resistance. The struggle for tenants rights is about holding mean spirited landlords to account, but it is also about understanding the influence of economics, politics and history on the development of our national preference for one tenure over all others…

    Not long after we published this post, we published an article by Dr Robert Mowbray called “Tenant activism: the emergence of the Tenants Union of NSW”, which goes some way to clarifying what I mean: http://tunswblog.blogspot.com.au/2013/06/tenant-activism-emergence-of-tenants.html.

    One thing a union – or a lobby group, or a service, or an NGO, or whatever – can do is to accept its limitations as ‘organiser’, and its strength as ‘representative’, of that class of people to whom it appeals for relevance. Speaking on behalf of, or in the interests of, class x or y or z, loses a great deal of meaning without some level of organised engagement and input around what’s being said.

    As to how that occurs…? Perhaps, as your comment suggests, that’s best left to those that are directly affected.

    We’re certainly listening.


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