What is a Tenant Union?

Matt Cossick

The Covid-19 pandemic has created a corresponding housing crisis through layoffs, shut downs, and slowdown of personal services due to social distancing. ”Tenant union" is a phrase that has been going around a lot more this year.

What is a Tenant Union though? Most folks have heard of labor unions such as the Teamster, SEIU (Service Employees International Union), and AFSCME (American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees), or Trade Unions such as the UBC (United Brotherhood of Carpenters), IW (Iron Workers), and IBEW (International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers), but many have not heard of a tenant union. If you know what a labor union is, a tenant union actually functions similarly and by looking at how a labor union works, we can more easily see what a tenant union is and how it builds power.

A labor union is a group of workers that work together to build a common voice and identify workplace needs among themselves. This way, the boss cannot easily divide and conquer the workers by replacing workers and saying, “I can find someone else who will do this work for a lower wage”. Power in a labor union comes from collective bargaining, which is more effective than every worker individually coming to their boss and attempting to negotiate their wages, benefits, and workplace protections. When all the workers come together as a single unit, they can avoid being taken advantage of and can stand up for fair wages, benefits, and protections. They have an added layer of defense when they come together as a group because the boss can't fire them all!

Labor and trade unions seek to organize workers along trade or industry sector lines. The primary players within labor organizing are the workers, union, and “Bossman” or the owners of whatever company the workers labor in. Labor unions facilitate this process by sending workers experienced negotiators to help bargain for them, and by tethering their workplace negotiation to hundreds of other workplaces and thousands of other workers all over the country. Not only do the workers have the power of their coworkers behind them, but also the power of other similar workers in their region, state, or country.

Tenant unions operate in a very similar manner. Since there are no overarching national tenant organizations controlling smaller tenant unions, we as neighbors have a beautiful opportunity to come together on a local level to practice direct democracy in our own local tenant councils.

We are stronger when we stand together! In the world of tenant organizing the primary players are the tenants, tenant union, and the landlord. Does this sound familiar? (Labor Unions: worker, union, boss/management).

The tenant union gathers together the tenants of one landlord, facilitates communication between them (online now because of Covid-19), and then helps them collectively decide what they want from their landlord. Maybe tenants want lower rent, better maintenance, or perhaps protection from eviction. The union helps form a consensus among the tenants of a landlord and then brings those demands to the landlord.

Now, instead of individually negotiating with their landlord, tenants have a collective of neighbors that can help fight for their needs and protect them when the landlord attempts to intimidate, evict, or ignore them. Our community becomes the autonomous creator of our own future. Local tenants councils can then decide if they want to tether themselves to other tenants councils to form a larger, regional tenants union.

Present day examples of tenant unions can be found all over the country. There is the Omaha Tenants United in Nebraska; Tenants United Hyde Park/Woodlawn in Chicago, Illinois; Richmond Tenants Union in Virginia, and in our very own state, the Philly Tenants Union. For further learning, you can hear more about many of these organizations on the show, “Tenants United Podcast”. There you can listen to the struggles and victories of these organizations and how they became the entities they are today.

This country’s economic and government institutions funnel wealth to the top while standing on stolen indigneous lands, the legacy of slavery’s uncompensated labor, and the day in, day out labor of working people. Ultimately, with the weight of the pandemic and this unfair economic system, the call for, “All power to the people!” becomes more and more attractive. Tenant unions are an effective way of achieving this call.

As a friend, who is a union ironworker, told me growing up, “You can beg on yer knees alone, or bargain on yer feet as a group.” What would you rather do?