ATUN 2022 Convention shows potential of a nation-wide tenants network

On Monday, August 8th, Stomp Out Slumlords will host an in-person meeting with tenant leaders and organizers from across DC, Maryland, and Virginia at 6pm at MLK Library (901 G St NW, Washington, DC 20001). The delegation that attended the first-ever Autonomous Tenants Union Network Convention last month in Los Angeles will report back on the experience and the lessons learned from other tenant unions, as reported below:

Two and a half days, 19 tenant union delegations, 16 panels, two languages, more than 200 people, one big dance party, innumerable tacos: this was the first-ever national convention of the Autonomous Tenants Union Network (ATUN). Metro DC DSA’s Stomp Out Slumlords was proud to bring a dozen tenant organizers to Los Angeles, including eight who came up through pandemic rent strikes in their buildings. It was the first opportunity many of us had to engage with comrades from around the country (certainly in person) — and the first time on a plane (!) for four of us. Above all, we’re grateful for the generosity of the Los Angeles Tenants Union both for hosting the convention and for being such a shining example of what is possible when we come together in struggle and community. We’re excited to bring the next convention to the East Coast so that we can return the favor (and avoid canceled cross-continental flights!).

While we’re not convinced that a unified program for the entire country exists yet, the convention demonstrated that we’re all on the same general theoretical page: building a mass movement of tenants that is determined to demand more and better of the unjust world we’ve been told to accept — a tenants’ utopia, as one member put it, where we’re no longer tenants, and class distinctions have no meaning.

We loved squeezing in one-on-one conversations with other unionists between panels and at parties. Something that came up again and again was the importance of community building and social bonding at all levels: within a union committee, at a particular property, in the neighborhood, and beyond. (In that regard, even the trip to LA itself — traveling together, going to the surprisingly cold beach, getting pics with Freddy Krueger, learning to swim at the hotel pool — strengthened our collective identity.) Several organizers’ favorite part of the weekend was hearing from the Hillside Villa Tenants Association about how they forced the LA City Council to expropriate their building — a first in California, possibly the country, and an inspiration to us all, especially because the traditional use of eminent domain has been to destroy affordable housing. We also appreciated the group self-reflection that the ATUN organizers structured into the convention program, something we’d like to replicate back home to sharpen our strategy and build up our popular education. 

The weekend did reveal some real political and practical differences across ATUN, though. Unions across the country have led rent strikes, protests at the houses of those in power, eviction blockades, community cookouts, and marches on the landlord. But certain formations have gotten hung up on online activism, email campaigns, and hewing to some theoretical communist horizon instead of organizing the unorganized. Some seem to spend more energy labeling other groups and laws as “counter-revolutionary” instead of doing the work required to bring us closer to the revolution, like moving everyday people to action. To us, it’s counterproductive and frankly premature to tell tenants that, for example, their fight to turn their building into a limited-equity co-op isn’t radical enough. We’re not going to get to communism without moving people to talk to their neighbors first, and more importantly, doing it ourselves. Here in DC, exercising TOPA rights or pushing for rent freezes aren't going to immediately decommodify housing, true. But these are the small-scale sites of disruption from which we can build working-class power into something much bigger.

Ultimately we think these disparities come down to real differences in experience and accomplishments across the 19 tenant unions that participated in the convention, and in ATUN generally. Some unions are just starting and are understandably green; a minority have been around for five years or more and have engaged, and won, serious struggles like citywide bans on evictions and rent hikes or building-wide concessions. But it seems that the majority of unions have been around for a few years in name and have yet to develop substantial participation beyond a small political cadre. It’s worth considering the reasons for this, and how we can train our fellow unionists to win — we think that’s the greatest value in a structure like ATUN.

That training is key to overcoming the movement’s next hurdle: its composition. It was clear that the majority of ATUN delegates came to the movement through theory first, rather than the practice of defending their own homes or fighting in the workplace. One of the biggest advancements we’ve made in the pandemic era is focusing on developing organic leaders to create a real base of working-class agitators. As we’ve acknowledged in our reports, this isn’t something that came easily or early to the project — but it’s been essential to our growth in terms of membership, diversity, and success. We think it’s significant that we brought a majority of organizers who did not come to the tenant movement through DSA or traditional left spaces: our group ranged in age from 9 to 79  and included people who were undocumented, on Section 8, working minimum wage, working for a salary, with children, and retired. We think our success here comes down to the leadership development model we embraced during the pandemic, and the emphasis we place on meeting people where they’re at and pushing them to ever greater heights. This is something that we’re still working on, and that everyone can stand to do more of. What will it take to bring these kinds of organizers into ATUN through other unions? We’re gonna think about it, and report back.

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