Lessons from Berlin Rent Control Revolution

berlin rent control, rent freeze, rent speculation

April 12, 2021

New Orleans               Likely this hasn’t been right at the forefront of your mind, even though we have talked about this before, but the great Berlin, Germany, rent control revolution has proceeded and picked up steam, so that we can start to determine lessons and outcomes to guide our own experience. You may not remember that in responding to widespread protests and tenant demands, the progressive-led Berlin city government introduced a five-year rent cap for apartments built before 2014. The cap went into effect in February 2020 and rents for the one-and-a-half-million apartments that fell under the 2014-rule were frozen at their 2019 levels. In November of 2020, as part of the package, any rents that were more than 20% over a list of caps, had to be reduced to under certain prices per square footage requirements by landlords. Any future leases would also have to be beneath the caps to be legal.   For long time tenant rights advocates and organizers, all of this seems almost too good to be true.

According to the Economist, the German Institute for Economic Research has established that “rents in the newly regulated market of flats built before 2014 have declined 11% compared with the still-unregulated market for newer buildings.” The political leaders of governing parties in Berlin are taking these results and promoting them now as national policies, which should also be interesting.

Maybe it’s not all sunny skies. Reportedly rents in nearby cities and suburbs of Berlin are rising faster than the national averages as landlords try to compensate for losses in the city.           Predictably, in this situation tenants are staying put and doing the happy dance, while landlords, not so much. Some argue that advertisements for available apartments have decreased and that some landlords have taken units off the market and some moms-and-pops are perhaps squatting their own flats. Having organized with ACORN in Italy where tenants won huge advantages when landlords weren’t paying taxes due, I’ll bet some of this has also gone to black-market wink-and-nod contracts, where a stated lease says one thing and the reality is a bit of something else, as landlords try in some cases to wait out the reform.

Of course, the measure has been challenged in the German constitutional courts and a decision is pending, but this is interesting as well in these pandemic times when evictions in many countries have been at least technically frozen, and rents may have gone uncollected.  If the tenants were to lose in court, presumably the landlords could try to collect any monies that they could argue they lost out on because of the city regulations. Facing reality, one of the city’s biggest landlords is “discussing dropping demands for repayments.” Another giant landlord with over 100,000 Berlin apartments claims it would try to collect, but swears to anyone willing to believe this that it would “find solutions” for tenants unable to settle the arrears. In the US and elsewhere, collecting will be equally hard and likely as fruitless.

Under any circumstances, Berlin is still worth watching as the sharp point in expanding tenant rights. There is still an effort trying to move a proposition to the ballot that would force the giant owners of more than 3000 apartments to sell them to the government. That gun to their head might also be reason for their liberality about back rent, but either way this is a world class fight that could be earth shaking for tenants everywhere.


A Hard Look at the Amazon Bessemer Union Election – Part I

amazon union, union vote, bessemer alabama

April 10, 2021

Pearl River     The results of the union election at the Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama are finally tallied and the scorecard by the numbers was 1798 voting NO to be represented by RWDSU/UFCW with 738 voting YES for the RWDSU. There were 500 challenges that were uncounted in the box, largely by the company. There were 5876 voters eligible to vote and of that number 3036 actually voted with 2536 of those votes counted, and 2840 workers did not vote at all. The percentage of votes counted that favored the company was 70.9% with the union polling 29.1%.

There are five working days after the election when the union can file objections to the election conduct based on any evidence of unfair labor practices by the company on the winning side. The union has indicated that it will file such challenges. If the National Labor Relations Board finds that there is a prima facie case giving indications of the possibility of ULPs, then a hearing will be scheduled, followed by a determination of whether a new election should be held.

These are the raw facts of the matter. Opinions from all sides will be coming hot and heavy for a long time on this contest.

The one thing that cannot be in dispute is that Amazon administered a beatdown to the union. The company didn’t just try to win the election, they sought to totally humiliate the union and, if they were able, the entire labor movement.

Any veteran union organizer or observer knew the union was going to lose, as Mike Elk of the Payday Report and I discussed on Wade’s World, as the news of the election outcome was breaking. It was well reported that they had filed with only 2000 workers out of the almost 6000 asking for the election, meaning that they had barely made the 30% showing of interest required under the NLRA to proceed. Unions almost never get lucky enough to win certification elections with a light showing, and elections are never about luck. That is a universal organizing rule, and against a deep-pocketed, ruthlessly anti-union employer like Amazon, it was bound to be even harder.   Add to that the fact that the campaign had featured non-Amazon workers leafletting and trying to talk to people at the plant entrances going in and out of work, and it was painfully obvious that there was a weak in-plant committee that they were trying to shore up from the outside. Without a decent organizing committee inside, a union doesn’t have a chance, and against Amazon, it would have needed to be rock solid. Elk noted that the drive was too quick, starting in June as a hot shop, and there was never any “deep organizing,” which is much the same point.

Mail ballots in union elections often only see the most committed voting compared to manual elections, but to have 48.3% of the eligible workers NOT vote signals an abject failure on the union’s GOTV effort, which they had to have known from their assessments long before the count. Said another way, they lost at least 1000 of their original card-signers and likely gained almost no support during the campaign.

For Amazon to tactically challenge almost 500 voters, when the company obviously knew the outcome as well as the union from their supervisors’ assessments, meant that the company was dead set on embarrassing RWDSU and not even allowing them to claim that this was a contest, and determined to send the labor movement a message that they should go away for good. In an additional coup de grâce, some number of reporters, government officials, and others were able to observe the election count – and endless challenges – via live streaming.

This almost never happens under the NLRB’s concept of “laboratory” conditions for an election, so even though this was all by video, rather than in-person, I would bet money that either party, company or union, had to agree or could have blocked this painful filming. For the hard-fisted Amazon lawyers to allow this streaming underscore their total confidence that they were going to administer a total and debilitating ass-whipping to the union.

What was the union thinking? In a real organizing drive, rather than a publicity and political maneuver, no union organizer would have ever let this go to election. They might have filed in order to get the Excelsior list of the total workforce in order to build a stronger organization to contend, but knowing they we’re being walloped they would have used whatever ULPs they thought they had to block the election, even if it meant withdrawing a couple of months later so that they could try to come back again.

This election was an act of hubris by one union that could have built the labor movement and momentum for workers to organize, but instead may have broken dreams than they built.

There’s more to say on this.