The last year has been one of big efforts, many setbacks, and lessons learned for the Lexington Tenants Union. We took what felt like one step forward followed by three steps back, then four steps forward, and two steps back! Despite setbacks, the LTU organizers and I are walking into year 2 with greater insight and knowledge, and this year, we plan to win.
I joined the team in the winter of 2020 after the conclusion of a difficult campaign the previous fall. We were fired up to organize after a year of COVID and a terrifying election season. We wanted a win — a win for some tenants that could lead to wins for all tenants. We hit the ground running and flyered all over town. We went door to door. We called tenants, talked to our neighbors. We helped a tenant facing eviction transport her life across county lines. We were even escorted by the police out of the downtown bus station under the guise of solicitation. In retrospect, we were all over the place, trying to do the most with all the time and energy that the current times offered us.
Tenant organizing is about building strong communities more than it is about building membership.
We spoke with many tenants living with appliances that would never be fixed; mold infestations; landlord harassment; and, many that were served illegal eviction notices and ruthlessly kicked out of their homes amidst a raging pandemic. However, we learned that great tenant organizing requires more than just good faith efforts and enthusiasm — especially tenant organizing during a pandemic. We reached tenants facing evictions more in time to help. We identified leaders in tenants that needed to get out of there ASAP. We were unable to hear out or provide assistance to our Spanish-speaking tenants. We made some mistakes, but arguably our biggest was that in our eagerness to help our community, we third-partied our union, failing to empower tenants to organize themselves. We wanted to help everybody, but without making clear the message that “the union is you!”, some tenants dropped off.
Over the past few months, our team of organizers has gone through transitions in both our personal and organizing lives. We committed to training ourselves (most famously, under the instruction of superstar Jane McAlevey). We took time to reevaluate where we could do better organizing and how we should organize considering the world now is a bit different than where we started. We’re coming to terms with the fact that tenant organizing is a long-haul game, and pacing ourselves is important. Most importantly, we’re reminded that tenant organizing is about building strong communities more than it is about building membership (though, of course, both are necessary goals). Our tenants are each part of a bigger movement, but we’re also much more than mere names on a list. We are tenants fighting for our own rights, and we are fighting for them together. We need the tools to do this.
We’re excited to report back that the tenants union is currently working on a new campaign with a group of tenants ready to fight for change. The campaign is led by the tenants of the building; our organizer base is taking an assistive organizational role, putting into use our pieces of training and first-hand experiences. Word on the street is that tenants empowered to organize around their own collective demands tend to win… with a little bit of help.