By Iswed Tiggjan – Picture Source: 101 Notes on the LA Tenants Union
So-called Australia has been in a housing crisis for a long time. This crisis has only grown worse since the start of the COVID19 outbreak and will continue to worsen as the recession deepens. Combined with the end of JobKeeper and drop to JobSeeker, more and more people are facing poverty and the threat of evictions remains high. Rental vacancies in QLD are at an all time low and landlords true to form are using this as an opportunity to retaliate against tenants who asserted their rights during the worst of COVID, while drastically raising prices to line their pockets even further off our exploitation. Homelessness rates – already high before COVID – are beginning to soar as more and more people, particularly younger and older people, are priced out of the market.
When the COVID pandemic started and the prospect of mass evictions due to lost income became a stark reality, we saw a rapid campaign emerge across Australia calling for a rent strike to force the government to institute a nationwide eviction ban with a promise that no person impacted by COVID would be evicted or forced to pay restitution for unpaid rent throughout the crisis. This was an important campaign that fought for important issues, but it had one massive issue: a lack of participatory tenant organisations from which it could build from. Instead, the campaign appeared to emerge from the aether, without any practical structural basis or community involvement through which popular power could be built and sustained. This is not to blame any of those that were involved in the rent strike campaign, but to illustrate the importance of establishing organisation before rather than during a crisis. Across much of the continent this along with some other contributing factors resulted in the movement fizzling out, with the one exception being in Melbourne, where the movement crystallised into the Renters and Housing Union. We should never discount the fact that there are times where struggle is forced upon us, or erupts rapidly from what seems like nowhere, meaning it may not always be practical to establish a union before the fight. But the rent strike experience should serve as a reminder that we should always strive to be proactive in struggle. It is already too late to build a tenant’s union prior to crisis hitting in Meanjin, so we had best get to work.
Make no mistake about it, the relationship between landlord and tenant is that of exploiter and exploited and is a part of the wider class struggle. Landlords do not provide housing, the workers do, landlords simply monopolise it and use that monopoly to live comfortably off the rent that we are forced to provide. In the current struggle between landlords and tenants, the balance of forces remains in the landlord’s favour. They have the money and the power of the state behind them with the threat of eviction and homelessness as a potent trump card. Tenants on the other hand remain isolated from each other and only have a paper shield in the form of the few limited rights the state provides us. While it may seem like the cards are stacked in the favour of the landlords, tenants continue to have one incredibly powerful weapon – our numbers and our capacity for solidarity. The history of labour organising has shown that when they remain isolated and disorganised, workers are weak. Yet when they come together to build a militant union through which they can struggle together side by side, they have the power not just to fight back but to win. It is no different for tenants. Tenant’s issues are a part of the class struggle and the key to class struggle is to organise. The threat of eviction loses its power when we have the capacity and the will to come together and resist it.
So, what is a tenant union, how does it differ from existing tenants advocacy groups, and why should we attempt to build one for Meanjin? A tenant’s union, to put it simply, is a union for tenants, or those that rent, or do not control their housing. For us a tenant’s union is a directly democratic and autonomous organisation of solidarity which participates in direct struggle against landlords and real estates for the rights of its members while participating in wider campaigns for tenancy reforms. In its ideal form, a tenant’s union should serve to facilitate the self-organisation of renters to act collectively in their shared interests, through solidarity, direct action, and skill sharing which can increase the capacity of all those involved. A tenant’s union should, as much as possible, be decentralised with branches based as locally as possible and federated upwards to facilitate coordination on shared struggles. In short, a tenant’s union should serve as a participatory organ of class struggle, which the community can use to shift the balance of forces away from the landlords and towards the people. We believe it is incredibly important for any future tenant’s union that we learn from the lessons of the labour movement’s alliance with the ALP, its shift towards reforms through elections and its subsequent co-option and loss of power. It should remain completely independent from any and all political parties, instead participating in direct struggle for the conquest of demands on its own terms and through its own power. rather than through a politician or party. It’s also important to avoid the NGO trap of striving for a seat at the consultation table as just another ‘stakeholder’ wanting to talk with the government about its rights. We believe that for any right to have a long-lasting effect, it needs to be won through our own power. Any gift given to us from above by the state can and will be taken away at the first opportunity. In our opinion only building popular power can achieve long-lasting change.
Landlords will continue to exploit us, real estate agents will continue to lie to us about our rights, and the government will continue to stand by and let the abuse continue.With Meanjin seemingly set to host the 2032 Olympics, we will soon start to witness the evictions, removals and destitution that they commonly bring with them. We need to act, and we need to organise. Like all organising, establishing a tenants union is work, and a lot of it. It will take a lot of struggle and will include a lot of failures. But if we don’t struggle, and we don’t risk failure, then we have already lost, and those in power will only continue to attack us more fiercely. We are lucky to have inspiring examples whose experiences we can learn from such as the LA Tenants Union, Chicago’s Autonomous Tenants Union, and prior mentioned Renters and Housing Union.
On the 15th of May, Anarchist Communists Meanjin is holding a public meeting to propose and discuss forming a tenants union for Meanjin, based on the characteristics outlined above. While we have an idea in mind for what a future tenants union should look like, we hope this meeting and future discussions will help shape a tenants union that matches the conditions of Meanjin and the needs of our communities. Landlords and dodgy real estates have exploited us for long enough, confident in the fact that we can’t fight back, it’s time that we show them that they’re wrong.
Public Meeting Event: https://fb.me/e/6CGtjOno6
Renters and Housing Union
LA Tenants Union
101 Notes on LA Tenants Union: https://communemag.com/101-notes-on-the-la-tenants-union/
Chicago’s Autonomous Tenants Union
Tools For Building Tenants Power: Tactics Vol 1: https://libcom.org/library/tools-building-tenant-power-tactics-vol-1