Tenant and Neighborhood Councils (TANC) grow working class power in East Bay
The evidence that working class people are losing a battle with capital is everywhere. We feel it in the marked deterioration of our lives — in declining wages, the elimination of social programs, and painfully skyrocketing rents. Less evident, but more decisive, is the impact of decades of counter-revolution on class struggle itself. Active class struggle has waned since the 1970s as the popular institutions that once supported this struggle have drastically declined. Organizations that promote liberal practices, reinforce capitalist logics, and strengthen civil organizations embedded within the capitalist political parties have replaced these popular institutions.
Many popular movements in the United States have forgotten where the source of our class power lies. Entire generations can’t remember what class struggle looks like. We have lost the blueprint. The steady rightward drift of US politics demonstrates the inadequacy of non-profit advocacy organizations, electoral campaigns, and bureaucratic business unions. The toothlessness of this kind of politics has driven many working class people to give up on politics altogether.
Taking revolution off the table has made politics a morbid affair. We have trouble imagining we can shape history. History becomes an inevitability. It is something that happens to us. Yet, as long as class divisions exist, the working class can once more become a threat to capitalist domination and take an active role in shaping history.
BUILDING POWER VS. ACCESSING POWER
The current left has two main organizing orientations:
accessing the institutionalized power structures, or
building independent bases of working class power.
Attempting to access institutionalized power through existing structures sets us up for failure. Because these structures are reliant on the capitalist class for power, they are necessarily disconnected from and opposed to the interests of the working class. Further, because this reliance on capitalist power and disconnect from the working class produce opportunism and careerism as a fundamental operating principle within institutionalized structures, individuals operating within them are unable to organize effectively for working class power. In contrast, building independent structures enables the working class to effectively organize ourselves to exercise our dormant power.
Reform-oriented politics are often presented as “harm reduction.” Here, reforms are desirable to mitigate the damage that capital inevitably produces. Yet, this notion that working class people can legislate from the helm of the capitalist state begs the question: if we can institutionalize reforms, why stop at the reduction of harm? The absurdity of this question lies in a misunderstanding of what reforms are.
Reforms are concessions. Ruling classes throw reforms into the path of movements building towards working class emancipation as a way to manage, and sometimes neutralize, mass organized discontent. Hence, directly seeking specific reforms is to misunderstand that reforms are a byproduct of revolutionary power. We call for an offensive, rather than inherently defensive, type of politics. Revolutionary organization thus requires a program of harm production. Our aim is to become an existential threat to accumulation and empire-building. We joined the DSA to do just this. We want to reconstitute our class, the working class, into a fighting force. After all, only through organizing towards the realization of the most radical demands have we won sustainable victories for the working class. We want to build the power necessary to strike terror into the hearts of the ruling class. This will be achieved once we have the organizational capacity to shape history, rather than submit to it.
COMMUNIST CAUCUS & TANC
We formed a caucus — Communist Caucus — based on this strategy of building independent working class power. We chose this name in Marx’s spirit because we understand communism not as an abstract idea, but as a living movement to abolish the present state of affairs.
Our wonderful city of Oakland is in the midst of a brutal housing crisis, with more people being priced out of their homes and living on the street every day. Working class people are crushed inbetween bosses and landlords who conspire to keep wages low and raise rents. There is ample opportunity for struggle. As we grapple with finding stability and safety, we thus view tenant organizing as a clear approach to build working class power that can oppose bosses and landlords. We created an organization called “Tenant and Neighborhood Councils” (TANC) because we, as the working class, need institutions that can grow our power.
TANC is a militant housing organization which aggregates and elevates class struggle around housing. We organize around reducing housing costs and improving the conditions of tenants. We envision that TANC will become a mass housing organization, composed of working class people who act as militants, teachers, and leaders, eventually becoming a force capable of decommodifying housing and doing away with landlords entirely. While we are not there yet, in TANC’s first year it has already become a site of independent working class power.
LAURA THE LANDLORD
We wanted to address an issue affecting all working class people in the Bay Area: rent. As it turned out, a member of Communist Caucus had a notoriously oppressive landlord, Laura, whose constant harassment of tenants had already been written about in the local paper. Organizing against her seemed like a great starting point.
We hosted a BBQ at a public park to gauge tenants’ interest. Our objective was twofold. First, we wanted to facilitate connections among tenants to discuss their issues around rent, housing, and the landlord. Second, cookouts are fun, and because we are all alienated, it is crucial to build trust in simple, supportive ways.
To spread word about the BBQ, we canvassed Laura’s tenants. We identified Laura’s holdings through public records at city hall; she owns over 40 properties, with each property worth an average of $1 million. We went door-to-door with flyers for the BBQ, and a print-out of the newspaper article about Laura’s history of harassment. A common response was a mixture of shock and relief—“it’s not just me?” Tenants told us seemingly endless stories: Laura regularly went through tenants’ trash at night, discriminated against Black tenants, even took pictures of tenants through their windows. People were unhappy with Laura, but without a common cause and organization, they lived with her bad behavior.
The BBQ was a great success: over 20 tenants attended. Throughout the event, one pressing issue emerged from the conversations among tenants: Laura regularly denied subtenant applicants. When somebody moved out, Laura required that the replacement tenants have high incomes and white collar backgrounds. Tenants often could not find such a person, forcing to pay for the empty room. This meant an effective rent increase not regulated by rent control; evidently, Laura hoped to evict through attrition.
A collective issue thus identified, the real question was what to do. We decided to call a formal meeting of all tenants so we could study the situation and plan next steps. We invited tenants we met at the barbeque to canvass, so they could agitate and practice organizing other tenants. We continued building a contact list and getting more people involved in our organizing efforts. However, a problem soon arose: right before our meeting, we discovered Laura had gotten hold of one of our flyers.
Laura sent a letter to every tenant, urging them not to organize against her. She claimed she and her husband were a small “mom-and-pop” business. They also claimed they would resolve all of the tenants’ issues. The letter’s tone was a surprising contrast from the accusatory letters she normally sent, and it included a gift card for a local candy shop. But it had one concerning element: Laura promised she would attend the tenant meeting so as to engage in “dialogue.”
We decided it was too soon to confront Laura directly. We sent her a letter requesting that she not attend the tenant meeting. She ignored us, insisting she would attend regardless. To facilitate the tenant meeting, we formed a security team which rerouted tenants to meet at an alternate location as they arrived, and successfully ensured no one was spotted. When Laura showed up, Communist Caucus members confronted her with a letter stating she was not welcome. She refused the letter and left, only to return two more times. Finally, a non-affiliated comrade on a motorcycle telling her she was not welcome chased her away (*). Laura erratically sped down the street, flying over speed bumps at 50 MPH.
Ultimately, Laura’s candy-laced letter only emboldened the tenants further. The meeting was a success, as more tenants participated in the meeting than the barbeque. At the meeting, tenants drafted a letter demanding Laura immediately end her harassment and accept all pending tenant applicants. Within one week, Laura caved to the tenants’ demands. She decided that going forward she would only give “recommendations” for new housemate applicants. She didn’t want to deal with us anymore.
We had won our first fight.
Throughout our experiences with Laura and other landlords, we developed a model of supporting tenant organizing by offering infrastructure such as research, canvassing, and tenant inquiries; hosting cultural events and BBQs; establishing communication channels between tenants; facilitating tenant organizer trainings; producing media such as posters and a reader with theory on housing, history, and local struggles; and shielding tenants from retaliation however possible. We call this project “Tenant And Neighborhood Councils” or TANC. In a future issue of Build, we will provide more detail about the structure of TANC, lessons we’ve learned through struggle, and a few of our future plans for DSA.