Unions and Tenant Organizations Are Natural Allies

Across the US, labor unions are starting to ally with tenant organizers around affordable housing and tenant protection campaigns. The efforts reflect a growing sense of shared interests — and shared corporate enemies.

Demonstrators hold signs during a KC Tenants rally outside the Jackson County Courthouse in Kansas City, Missouri, on July 30, 2020. (Chase Castor / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Hope Vaughn was a tenant union organizer before she knew there was a tenant union. When her New Haven, Connecticut, landlord Ocean Management refused to address the mold in her apartment, the rodents in the building, and the standing, rancid water in the basement, Vaughn’s response was obvious to her. After more than a dozen years as a long-term care certified nursing assistant member of Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1199 NE, she had no intention of fighting back alone. She began knocking on her neighbors’ doors and gathering signatures on a petition demanding repairs and a cleanup.

“My union experience taught me that it may be easy for a landlord to ignore one tenant’s complaints, but even powerful people in high places are forced to listen when a lot of us come together,” Vaughn says. “There is strength in numbers.”

Then one day, Vaughn overheard someone else outside a neighbor’s door, asking the same questions she had been posing about the bad conditions in the building. A tenant union organizer was making the rounds. Vaughn joined on the spot, and soon became vice president of the Quinnipiac Avenue Tenant Union. She was part of the team elected by fellow tenants that last year negotiated an agreement with Ocean Management to rescind eviction notices to sixteen residents and enter into Connecticut’s first-ever agreement to collectively bargain with tenants.

The public rallies in support of those tenants were bolstered by a big union presence, and every member of the tenant negotiating team had labor-union experience. “Tenants and workers have one thing in common: they have a rich person who is oppressing them,” says Dave Richardson, a longtime Carpenters Union member who joined Vaughn on the tenants’ negotiating team. “The contractor and the landlord are both committed to giving as little as possible.”

Labor Unions Fight for Affordable Housing and Tenants’ Rights

The Connecticut partnership is just one of the ways that labor unions across the country are turning their attention to housing. The Chicago Teachers Union’s current bargaining proposal includes the city and the Board of Education creating ten thousand affordable housing units with a priority for Chicago Public Schools students and families, along with identifying unused city and board property that can be transformed into public housing. Multiple unions played core roles in supporting Los Angeles’s successful mansion tax ballot measure in 2022, which is expected to yield $600 million a year for affordable housing and eviction prevention.

In Tacoma, Washington, United Food and Commercial Workers’ canvassing, phone-banking, and funding helped push through a November 2023 ban on cold-weather evictions and school-year evictions of households with students or teachers. Collective bargaining rights for tenants in San Francisco and Minnesota rentcontrol legislation both passed thanks to campaigns that featured active union involvement. Unions like American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Local 3299 in California are demanding that both worker pension funds and employers divest from rent-gouging corporate landlords.

Labor attention to housing is on the upswing, but it also has plenty of precedent. The landmark National Housing Act of 1937 was pushed by the American Federation of Labor’s (AFL) Labor Housing Conference. During the twentieth century, unions like the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) and the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America built cooperative housing for workers.

“There is an obvious reason why housing should be part of the labor agenda,” says Stephen Lerner, the architect of the SEIU Justice for Janitors campaign and senior fellow at Bargaining for the Common Good, a partnership between unions and community organizations. “Even if we negotiate a great wage increase for our members, they are losing ground if rent goes up by twice that amount.”

This is not an idle concern. Since 1985, rent hikes have outpaced wage increases by a whopping 325 percent. So it is no wonder that, when unions ask their members about their priorities, housing dominates the answers. “Regardless of if you’re a janitor or a nurse or a health care worker or a home care worker, everyone overwhelmingly said the number one issue was housing affordability,” David Huerta, the president of California SEIU State Council told Vox last year, describing a member survey. “We have members sleeping in their cars, who have big families sleeping in one-bedrooms, who are traveling hours and hours to get to work because they can’t afford to live near their jobs.”

When unions turn their attention to housing, they often find familiar names and faces on the other side of the struggle. “Increasingly, the same people who own the housing are the ones who are screwing over workers,” Lerner says. He and others cite the example of Blackstone, the private-equity firm that is the nation’s largest landlord, employs well over a half million workers, and is notorious for hiking rents and opposing rent control. “When you look to see who the members of the ruling class are, who are the ones with deep political and legislative influence, they are in real estate, especially in urban cities,” Lerner says.

“They Get It, Because They Are Living It”

One of the most promising examples of labor-tenant partnership is the success won by Vaughn, Richardson, and their fellow members of the Connecticut Tenants Union. Rob Baril, president of SEIU Local 1199 NE, points out that the union’s long-term care workers in Connecticut often struggle to make ends meet in a state where it can cost $90,000 a year to cover the high cost of living. “We won 33 percent raises in 2020, but that can quickly get eroded by inflation, especially the cost of housing,” he says.

So 1199 began collaborating with the tenants union, not just with organizing help and rally turnout but also with financial support. “Our members were very ready to have some of their dues money going to support tenant organizing,” Baril says. “They get it, because they are living it. Even if they individually are not getting crushed by housing costs, they know many coworkers who are.”

Hannah Srajer, president of the Connecticut Tenants Union, says the collaboration with Local 1199 has helped the tenants create a labor-inspired organizing methodology that prioritizes democratically elected committees, majority-based membership, and strike readiness. “A lot of people in labor know how to fight, they know how to win material gains for their members, and they know how to build lasting organizations,” Srajer says. “We are starting to do all that in tenant unions.”

Tara Raghuveer of KC Tenants and the national Tenant Union Federation agrees. “Labor has figured out not only how to build power but to exercise power, in a way that the tenant movement is still learning how to do,” she says. “For example, the strike power is a profound one. A labor strike and a rent strike are not identical, but there are a lot of lessons to be learned from organizers who have taken shops out on strike.”

Beyond alliances with tenant unions, there is deep labor support for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders’s Green New Deal for Public Housing Act, which would dramatically increase the stock of social housing. This support makes sense for labor on multiple levels. A massive investment in social housing would help workers meet their housing needs while at the same time creating union jobs in the building of those homes. Those social-housing construction jobs can endure during the economic downturns when jobs in the for-profit construction industry traditionally dry up.

For anyone familiar with housing successes in other nations, a growing labor-tenant alliance is exciting stuff. Organized labor played a big role in the creation of social housing in places like Sweden, where workers have come together to form a cooperative that builds and manages housing, while a National Tenants Union bargains for tenant rights and lower rents. The labor movement also played a major role in Vienna’s historic commitment to building and maintaining social housing.

Labor and tenants coming together will help both movements grow, Connecticut Tenants Union’s Srajer says. “A lot of our members are working low-wage jobs where they need a workplace union,” she says. “We are all fighting against corporate greed in the end. The same guys who are buying up whole neighborhoods, jacking up rents and no-cause evicting folks are the ones bankrolling the nursing homes that underpay and mistreat their workers.”

SEIU Local 1199 NE’s Baril agrees. “We have to construct a twenty-first century, integrated movement for working-class rights. That obviously has to include the ability to have shelter fit for human beings to live in,” he says. “Tenant unions are going to be the tip of the spear for that effort, but some of the resources needed are going to have to come from labor unions. Us doing that is not charity. That is self-interest.”