Is there Power in a Tenants' Union?: A Reply to Nick Bano

It is necessary to explore criticisms of tenants' unions but their capacity to act and have effects may be more extensive than these critiques allow.

10 min read

Nick Bano’s recent article in New Socialist taking a critical approach to tenants’ unions is an important intervention in a debate that needs to be happening. However, I would suggest alternative angles on the way he approaches the question, and in this article I propose different focuses for concern.

Tenants’ Unions: a Cause for Celebration?

In recent years, tenants’ unions such as ACORN, London Renters’ Union and Living Rent have been cause for much celebration amongst socialists and the left, and even sometimes the mainstream media. I am a member of ACORN in Manchester, and though the union’s wing in Britain and Ireland is still of a relatively modest size with a few thousand members, I have watched us bag win after win against landlords and estate agents using direct action tactics and community campaigning. Though these are small successes in the grand scheme of things, for each person whose deposit is returned or eviction resisted, the win is a massive relief and a proof of the power of collective organising.

My experience of organising collectively with ACORN has been largely very gratifying. Whether the tactic has been ‘marching on the landlord’, blockading estate agent phone lines, applying public pressure through floods of reviews online, or doorknocking to bring more people onboard against particular building management companies, it has been far easier and more empowering to win disputes through collective direct action than through futile email threads with estate agents, queues in the CAB, and the arcane twists and turns of small claims courts - the individual alternatives most of us would be faced with in the absence of a tenants’ union to back us up.

In his article, Nick Bano agrees that whilst the activities of tenants’ unions are valuable, the difficulty is in ‘scaling up’ these activities in an effective way - to do more than win small battles using the tactics described above. I agree that this is worth thinking about, but I disagree that the necessary scaling up is “at best, difficult, and at worst, doomed to failure”. There are already examples of wins for the housing movement that can’t be explained simply by coincidence or government charity. Together with other unions and NGOs, ACORN has campaigned nationally on a wide variety of housing issues, most notably ‘no DSS policies’, where benefits claimants were (and are) being refused housing on the basis of their source of income. In 2018 and 2019, when ACORN carried out public actions against banks whose mortgages obliged buy-to-let landlords to reject ‘DSS’ (benefits) claimants to minimise risk of missed payments, we managed to get three banks to remove this clause from new mortgages. This year, Shelter took a case to court to show that these policies were discriminatory, and won a landmark victory. Though I can’t prove that ACORN’s sit-ins in bank branches helped gain this victory, these outcomes never happen in isolation: I think the movement’s groundwork over preceding years applied public pressure and provided important examples of the injustice and homelessness that ‘No DSS’ policies cause. Hopefully, they will soon be a thing of the past - with the necessary pressure of tenants’ activism to help ensure that landlords and letting agents obey the law in practice.

There are already examples of wins for the housing movement that can’t be explained simply by coincidence or government charity.

More worrying to me is the fear that tenants’ unions will lose their radicalism and member-led approaches in the process of ‘scaling up’. I’m not convinced that most tenants’ unions in Britain are putting in the work of considering how they will grow sustainably, politicise and train up their members, and remain democratic and member-led. These are radical aims, and getting anywhere near them requires groundwork. Evidence from the trade unions and other small organisations suggests that political projects can become overly bureaucratised or centrally-controlled as they expand, and I already see signs of this in my tenants’ union and others. I would like to see open and public conversations about this stimulated by tenants’ unions, and this would give me faith in the possibility of our organisations scaling up sustainably.

Is there power in a tenants’ union?

One of the questions Bano takes on is the difference between workers’ power and tenants’ power. He writes:

Engels argued that the worker confronts their employer as someone with nothing (apart from their sellable labour), whereas the tenant confronts the landlord as a consumer; as someone who wants to buy something with money that they already own. And, because it is labour that creates surplus value, labour strikes can be a fearsome weapon. Therefore in economic terms, a renters’ union is more similar to a consumer rights’ campaign than a labour union.

Here, Bano argues that tenants are more akin to consumers than workers, and therefore that their power is weaker. Whilst I agree that tenants’ power is qualitatively different to workers’ power, Bano does not prove that it is always weaker.

Take, for example, a tower block, all owned by the same company who specialise in rental property. If all its residents strike on their rent at once, would that not be felt as the same threat - or even a greater threat - to the company’s profits as if all the building’s maintenance workers went on strike? Student accommodation, as we may be about to see, allows for similar capacities for collective action. Certainly, it would be very hard to achieve a whole block rent strike in the private rental sector and avoid the eviction of tenants in rent arrears, but that weakness isn’t specific to tenants: workers are vulnerable to sacking and other reprisals (even if the law offers certain formal protections), just as tenants are to eviction. This is also why tenants’ unions - as with trade unions - need to be political, partisan, and strive for wider systemic change to secure housing rights and working class power across the board, not just for members in particular houses or locations.

Even if tenants’ power is not always weaker, is it always qualitatively different? I would agree with Bano that it probably is, but I don’t think this diminishes the importance of tenants’ activism or threatens the ‘union’ model of organising, for several reasons.

Firstly, whilst renters do not labour to produce their landlords’ profit, many landlords and management companies are mainly rentier capitalists, and as such, their profits are reliant upon properties maintaining their value and tenants quietly getting on with paying expensive rents. Landlords, estate agents and property management companies do not use tenants’ labour to generate value, but they earmark a large proportion of our earnings, accumulating their wealth parasitically even though it has been produced elsewhere.

Whilst this could be described as a ‘consumer’ relationship, it is usually the single biggest consumer relationship in any renter’s life: it’s one of the most important as it provides for an extremely basic need, and it’s usually the most expensive. Plus, unusually (but not uniquely) for consumer relationships, housing is regulated by an explicit contract and an in-depth set of legal rights and expectations. The contract is an important factor, because it’s what provides the relationship in which our campaigning and action can take place, a much less ephemeral relationship than the one-off purchase of a product or service. As a tenants’ union, like a trade union, we can support our members to fight for better terms and resist attacks on basic rights. In other words, due to the contractual and legal relationship between tenants and their landlords, we can fight back using similar tactics as workers, and we are still threatening someone’s profits, whatever the technicalities of that profit-making apparatus. Moreover, one of the most significant uses a tenants’ union has is in education and legal support, in giving tenants the power and confidence to insist on what legal protections they are entitled to under contract, particularly to frustrate evictions.

Due to the contractual relationship between tenants and their landlords, we can fight back using similar tactics as workers, and are still threatening someone’s profits, whatever the technicalities of that profit-making apparatus.

The danger of stressing the difference between housing and workplace activism is that it risks repeating the traditional socialist foible of privileging workplace activity above all else because of the specificity of labour to the Marxist theory of value, subordinating other forms of activism as somehow ‘not a threat’ to capital, and therefore a bit soft, a bit ineffective. There have been attempts in recent socialist theory to move away from this way of viewing non-workplace campaigns, not least because workerist approaches have been so tied up with sexism and the undervaluing of the ‘home’ and ‘family’ as important sites of both resistance and oppression under capitalism. The home and the family, after all, are where workers have to go to eat, rest, recover for the next day of work, cheaply and quietly raise the next generation of compliant workers. This is a point many Marxist theorists including Tithi Bhattacharyya have also been making to draw attention to the anti-capitalist power of ‘social reproductive’ sectors like education, housing and healthcare.

Of course, the capitalist need for the working class to reproduce itself doesn’t have uncomplicated results: some sectors of capital (e.g. our employers) may well want us to be securely and comfortably housed so we can get to work each day; our landlords, by contrast, may not care about our security as long as they are getting the best returns on their investment by charging the highest rent they can and avoiding doing too many repairs. Nevertheless, because of these tensions, there is power: power to turn competing needs and forces of capital against each other, power to leverage concerns accepted as legitimate by the government to secure rights even in a climate hostile to left-wing campaigning (e.g. I see the ban on estate agents’ fees in June 2019 as an example of this, as if we’re honest, we really weren’t fighting for the ban that hard).

More structurally, and perhaps of significance in the longer run, the contradictions between those sectors of capital who pay wages (for whom high rents increase the cost of labour power) and those who receive rents may become acute in the longer run, or more rapidly given the possible recompositions provoked by COVID-19. A tenants’ movement may have capacity to take advantage of this.

Subscription Model v Grant Funding

In my opinion, a useful part of Bano’s piece is where he asks whether union-style dues-paying-membership is an effective model for housing movement organisations in the current context. He uses this question to consider the risks of current tenant union models becoming subsumed into a servicing model, replicating the shift in trade union organising over the last 30 years. He argues:

The subscription model allows for (and perhaps even encourages) passive membership. The implicit bargain is that the union will be there for its dues-paying members when it comes to the crunch.

I think that it is true that a subscription model allows for passive membership. The same could be said of trade unions. The important point here is that both forms of union face the same fundamental risks: that, if your subs are simply seen as the ‘purchasing’ of a service, rank and file collective organising carried out by you and your fellow members will be lost to a simple servicing model, in which staff are expected to carry a caseload of member defence work, and members basically become passive consumers.

However, I don’t see why subscriptions would be any more of a guarantee of this passivity than the other main way that unions and NGOs get their money: grant funding. As tenants’ unions grow and their bureaucracies form, there is a temptation to use grant funding to expand services and administration quickly, thereby detaching staff from the need to be accountable to members and shifting that accountability to the demands of grant funders, who often have particular expectations for how their money will be used. This reduces members’ power to decide what activity their union is taking, and reduces their sense of ownership over the union’s actions. This mechanism - part of NGOisation - counter-intuitively reduces the capacity of the union over time, turning members into detached volunteers and overworking staff. A grant-funded approach often goes hand in hand with a top-down approach to political leadership, which entrenches the problem. The alternative to subscriptions and grant-funding, unpaid volunteer work by a small group, risks burn-out and places a hard limit on capacity to scale-up.

A grant-funded approach often goes hand in hand with a top-down approach to political leadership, which entrenches the problem.

In this sense, I agree with Bano when he says “the subscription has to be seen as a device for allowing the organisation to exist, rather than a transaction between a service user and their professional representatives”. Once a different funding pool allows the union to exist, we have to ask to whom those unions are accountable, how they envisage what their members are there for, and whether they will remain a good environment for collective organising.

Subs can be a demonstration of political commitment, as they are in many political parties and organisations which offer no or very few member services. Subs can also be a symbol of democracy: everyone pays in what they can, or a flat rate, and as such they are viewed as equal members. Subs don’t have to be transactional, but to represent something more, they have to go hand in hand with a political commitment from the union to democratic structures, member leadership, and transparency.

Taking the active path

Towards the end of the article, Bano asks:

This is the important point: will the tenant union movement follow an active, political path, or will they delegate their solidarity to the formal structure of the union?

I would suggest that it is over-reliance on grant funding and NGOisation that should be challenged most within housing campaigns, not the subscription model. I would also take a more optimistic view of the scalability and power of tenants’ unions and their role in the wider movement. But to avoid passivity, I agree with Bano that we have to follow the “active, political path”, and this means ensuring our tenants’ unions are democratic, political, and truly member-led.

In summary, I think that though there are qualitative differences between workers’ and tenants’ struggles that need to be thought through, these distinctions don’t seem to me to be an existential threat to the model or value of tenants’ unions or a reason why tenants cannot exert significant power collectively - just worth considering when trying to improve the tactics and strategy of the housing movement.


Kate Bradley

Kate Bradley is a member of ACORN Manchester and the socialist organisation rs21.