“Union at Home” – Tenants and Collective Bargaining

ACORN International NLRB Tenants Unions

Marble Falls      ACORN in Canada, the UK, and Europe organizes tenants into tenant unions.  As I learned chanting with our members in Glasgow some years ago, the “rent is bananas, b-a-n-a-n-a-s!”  For younger people this is an issue, because for many, if not most, the notion of owning a house seems financially out of reach and some argue at current prices, no longer the best financial decision.  Given the state of the economy from the Great Recession to the pandemic to now, the pressure of rising rent is not just hitting the young, but in many communities and larger cities, sucking more than half of the income for families and older people as well.  Unsurprisingly, ACORN makes the case that organization is a huge part of the antidote for this disease.

An interesting experiment in San Francisco indicates not only that we are not alone, but there might be some creative policies that can advance the building of tenants’ unions.  In 2022, the city council passed an ordinance called “union at home.”  The Guardian reported on this recently:

The law covers associations in privately owned buildings with five or more units where a majority vote to join. Since it passed, tenants in more than 60 buildings across the city have formed associations, representing more than 1,100 units of rental housing owned by more than a dozen landlords. These groups have pressed for everything from modernizing elevators to posting notices in Spanish and Chinese so more tenants can read them.  Tenants have also negotiated significant rent refunds. In one building with code violations that include faulty fire alarms and a severe rodent infestation, tenants will have 90% of their rent waived for the past 20 months. In another, tenants will receive a 90% rent reduction for almost a year for similar code violations. While not all tenants participated in a rent strike, the association is negotiating for its agreement to cover all tenants, regardless of whether they joined the association or the strike.

That’s very interesting.  Requiring that landlords meet with tenants’ unions would force recalcitrant operators to the table, which is often one of the threshold issues in building organization.  It is unclear what teeth are in the ordinance to get them there, but that doesn’t make this effort any less novel, especially when it seems to be creating results in terms of alleviating conditions and prodding enforcement ahead.

The analogies to building workplace unions and collective bargaining are more apples and oranges than anything else.  In the early 80’s, ACORN in Arkansas tried to adapt some of these same techniques to negotiating with utilities and smaller telephone operators.  We actually succeeded in coming to a written agreement with the Arkla Gas Company that dealt with rates, rights, and even gave us space in the lobby to handle grievances.  We won something similar with Parkland Hospital in Dallas in terms of access.  I’m not saying it’s not possible, but it’s case by case.

Some are touting the “union at home” measures as something that can depress soaring rents.  That’s a harder climb without a huge base and a lot more leverage than just something that just mandates a meeting.  Collective bargaining even within the structure of institutional unions and government regulators like the NLRB is not a panacea, but there’s no question that direct negotiations between organized tenants and their landlords that are compelled in whatever way possible, will produce significant improvements for tenants so that they can get a fair deal for their rent, or their rent is fairly pegged to the deal they are getting.

The bottom line is simple.  There needs to be more tenant unions around the country, and more cities need to pass measures, like San Francisco’s, that force the parties together.  How hard could that be?