The following post is a transcript of Christine Darr’s opening speech at Take Action School: Housing Justice which took place on September 16, 2017.
We are part of a resurgence of socialism in America. We are some of the thirty-thousand people in this country who have said enough. We have had enough of profit taking priority over the needs of the people. We have had enough of living hand to mouth, paycheck to paycheck, and being told that the economy is doing great. We know our economy is not meeting the needs of the vast majority of us, because it’s not supposed to. In a capitalist society, the economy’s purpose is to funnel profits into the hands of the few. We say no.
Right now, our capitalist system is organized to prioritize profit over people. In capitalism, the profit motive dictates whose interests are given priority and whose needs are being met. In a society ordered toward profit, housing is simply one commodity among others. The objective of the owning class is to make a profit, not to provide a place for a mother to tuck her child in for the night. The Dubuque Landlords Association is very explicit about this fact. On their website, they say that “a full house in poker is a good hand, but a full house in the rental business may mean your rents are too low.” When the purpose of ownership is to make a profit, offering affordable housing is a liability.
The housing system in place in Dubuque and nationwide is unjust. It is the result of political decisions that have been made in the interests of capital accumulation, not the well-being of citizens. What we want, what we are fighting for, is a socialist society in which our basic human needs, such as housing, medical care, education, food production and so on are democratically controlled and oriented toward the well-being of all people. Housing solidarity is part of a larger struggle of working class solidarity.
In the labor movement, it is said that if the workers are organized, all they have to do is to put their hands in their pockets and they have got the capitalist class whipped. Who are those who rent apartments and homes in Dubuque? They are the people that prepare our food at restaurants, that nurse us to health at the hospital. They care for our children and our elderly. Tenants are doing the work that makes our community run and they are rewarded with low wages and high rents. If we organize tenants, then we are organizing workers. And when we organize workers, we can start to reclaim our society. We know that having safe, affordable housing is necessary to thrive, and we will fight for that right until it is available to everyone.
We know this is not simple, nor is it easy. Last winter, many of us were in the City Council chambers, asking the Council to adopt a ban on section 8 housing discrimination. The experience of being present while landlord after landlord spoke in front of the Council, highlighting their desire to just do a good business here in Dubuque, drove home for many of us the organized way in which these landlords have made the system work in their favor. They have personal access to City Councilors, some of whom are landlords themselves. Many have served for years in groups like the housing board of appeals, which grants extensions of time for compliance of orders from housing officers and grants variances from the housing codes. They have the Dubuque Landlords Association, which was established in 1996. That association is full of people with a lot of money, and because we live in a capitalist society that money brings with it influence and power. Renters, on the other hand, were reluctant to come forward and share their experiences of discrimination for fear of retaliation. What chance did tenants have, in the face of the unified power of the landlords? What power do tenants have, in a society where money is the only thing that seems to speak?
The power is us. The power the owning class possesses is false, because it rests on the assumption that we will accept the conditions in which we live. As long as we live in fear—of each other, of our futures—they can continue to call the shots. But they are the ones who should fear. In the words of the British Labour Party’s leader, Jeremy Corbyn—we are many, they are few. If we rise up, if we reject their power over us, then we will win. Capitalism can thrive only as long as we remain separated from each other. If we choose solidarity over fear, then we will have the power. Solidarity has been the rallying cry of labor movements and leftist movements since the French Revolution. For socialists, solidarity is the principle that must guide our actions. Only when we are thinking and acting in solidarity with those who have been seemingly discarded by the owners, the capitalists, the bosses, and the landlords are we capable of creating something new.
For socialists, solidarity is the principle that must guide our actions. Only when we are thinking and acting in solidarity with those who have been seemingly discarded by the owners, the capitalists, the bosses, and the landlords are we capable of creating something new.
But what, exactly, does it mean to act in solidarity? Acting in solidarity means recognizing the common interests we share and working together to further those interests. I choose the word “act” intentionally—solidarity requires action, through financial support or physical participation in the struggle. It cannot be a superficial affirmation of support, that is too easy. Solidarity is not a form of charity, where people with abundance give to those in need. Acting in solidarity happens when I see that you and I share in a common struggle, and we commit to act together to bring about a better situation for us all.
Acting in solidarity in this late stage of capitalism requires some of us to develop a new lens through which we see the world. Some of us own our own homes. All of us have been taught about the so-called virtues of home ownership. Our entire lives, we are told that owning a home is the path to success and security. We are told to avoid buying homes near rental properties, as those properties might drive down our own property values. When housing prices rise, as they did for years, home-owners benefit. We are participants in a system that rewards homeowners at the expense of renters, prioritizing high property values for a few over affordable living conditions for all. Choosing to act in solidarity for those of us who own homes means recognizing that we are beneficiaries of an exploitative, unjust system, and choosing to use the power we have in order to dismantle that system.
For those of us who are renters, acting in solidarity requires seeing the other tenants in your building as allies in a struggle against the landlord who is taking advantage of you. It means recognizing the common cause we have with renters in other parts of Dubuque, in housing situations that are unsafe, unhealthy, or with landlords that refuse to follow the laws that protect their tenants’ rights. Acting in solidarity means uniting together in the fight for better living conditions, because we recognize that we cannot thrive if some of us are suffering.
Acting in solidarity means uniting together in the fight for better living conditions, because we recognize that we cannot thrive if some of us are suffering.
And what does it mean to choose solidarity in this fight, the fight for safe, affordable housing for everyone in Dubuque? We are inspired by a movement of people that are acting out their solidarity all over the country. I’d like to share with you some of the work that has captured our imagination. Stories like the one I will share are a testament to what is possible when people join in the struggle together, and they can help us to see a path forward.
The Seattle Solidarity Network, or SeaSol, has been working in the Seattle community since 2008. When asked why they do what they do, they have this to say: “each of us at some time has suffered from unjust treatment by employers, landlords, or other wealthy people who hold power over our lives. We’ve learned from experience that the only way we’ll be treated fairly, equally, and with dignity is by being prepared to stand up to such people and defend our rights. It’s hard to do this alone. That’s why we’ve come together, and we’re seeking out other local people with similar problems who feel the same way. Together we can find ways of dealing with abusive bosses, greedy landlords, and those who would deny us, our friends, families, neighbors and co-workers the right to a decent life.”
They have supported each other through many fights, and I want to tell you about every single one. But I’ll keep myself to one that seems representative of what they have been able to accomplish.
After three weeks of fighting, the landlords relented and paid every tenant what they were owed. It was a sweet victory, and one that would not have occurred if they hadn’t been willing to stick together and fight for each other.
A week after receiving the eviction notices they had still not received their due. So, these tenants enlisted the people-power of the SeaSol Network. Altogether, over twenty people showed up on the landlords’ doorstep. In addition to repeating their demand for payment, they also left leaflets for the landlords’ neighbors, explaining what the landlords had done. Because the landlords still refused to pay, the campaign escalated. SeaSol worked with the tenants to organize a picket of two hotels also owned by the landlords. By attacking the landlords where they were most vulnerable—their businesses—the tenants and SeaSol made clear the power they had as a united front. After three weeks of fighting, the landlords relented and paid every tenant what they were owed. It was a sweet victory, and one that would not have occurred if they hadn’t been willing to stick together and fight for each other.
The Dubuque Democratic Socialists are ready to do the work. It is not glamorous, it is not flashy, and it won’t make us any friends in high places.
But when tenants unite together and begin to demand fair treatment from their landlords, we will have gained power beyond measure.