There’s Power in a Union

Since I came here, 14 weeks ago, I’ve averaged 2 – 3 meetings a week (that doesn’t include all the informal ones). But the one I went to (on Zoom) yesterday stood out. It was with a small group of union members from a construction workers local/branch, where we discussed how unions can get more involved in housing campaigns.

This question has been a perennial frustration of mine. During my nearly 30 years (eek!) of involvement, serious union engagement with housing campaigns has been the exception, not the rule. As I mentioned in my last post, there are several possible reasons for this, ranging from the organisational to the personal. But in the end, the still significant power of unions has not been utilised to confront one of the biggest challenges facing working class people and communities today.

Yesterday’s meeting tried to understand why this is and how we change it. One person referred to a “fatalistic narrative” around union participation in housing struggles, particularly when it may conflict with jobs. That’s probably more of an issue here, where union power is heavily centred around construction and building management contracts (the concierge staff we see in films on the doors of expensive Manhattan apartment blocks are heavily unionised, for example). As one of the union members said yesterday “if we don’t take the work building and looking after luxury housing, they’ll give it to non-union labour”. Another speaker rightly raised the issue of how much union pension money is tied up with the real estate industry. These are serious issues that need addressing with more discussions like yesterday’s.

From a UK perspective, as a member of Unite’s housing workers branch (which fights some brilliant workplace campaigns), it often feels like concern with housing stops at the end of the working day, particularly for senior union bureaucrats. I’m hopeful something will change with Unite’s new general secretary, Sharon Graham.

But for many rank-and-file union members, housing is a 24/7 concern. As someone said at yesterday’s meeting “where we live is as important as where we work”. A shift is needed. Cea Weaver, who’s one of the leading housing campaigners in NYC, argued at the meeting that union members – and a lot of the public at large – understand the need for collective bargaining. That’s something we need to instill in the housing sector, particularly in the cause of building (or rebuilding) independent tenant organisations, which are as important as independent trade unions. But it was also pointed out that, over time, unions have physically and psychologically distanced themselves from working class communities, again something I identified with. My union had a big branch office near the Islington council estate where I worked for ten years, but it might as well have been on the other side of the moon.

A campaigner from California told the meeting housing is now the “litmus test” for how politicians and the labour movement are judged in places where housing has become a matter of survival, but that too often union leaders pander to the failed model of “trickle down” housing policies. I think she’s right.

There are fundamental truths in the potential relationship between tenants and unions, particularly those in the hydra-headed housing sector. Global capitalism is now virtually dependent on the speculative property development industry and the rental economy. Between them, unions and tenants have the power to stop both.

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