Organizing Updates for a New Era

Organizing Updates for a New Era

Protesters with "Cancel Rent" signs in DC

We are in a moment of severe crisis for working-class people around the world. The COVID-19 pandemic is disproportionately affecting people of color and “essential workers” who aren’t able to work from home. Others have lost jobs and income, leaving them unable to pay rent and purchase basic necessities as unemployment systems struggle with unprecedented demand. Each day the scale of the disaster seems to grow worse, and it has become clear that the effects of the pandemic will be long-lasting.

Desperation has driven millions to organize: labor and rent strikes around the United States have demonstrated the vitality of working-class resistance. Tenant organizing is one of our few weapons in this fight, and Stomp Out Slumlords (SOS) and the DC Tenants Union (DCTU) have been on its frontlines in DC. SOS has gone from taking part in some half a dozen active organizing drives earlier this year to triple that number now, especially through our work within the DCTU. We’ve rallied thousands of Washingtonians with organizing drives, petitions, and phone zaps. People who’ve never been drawn to grassroots organizing have flooded hotlines and called their neighbors, offered mutual aid, and pulled together socially-distanced protests. There is no question that the pandemic has politicized ordinary people in DC, especially around questions of housing.

Yet we shouldn’t leap to the conclusion that COVID-19 has created a revolutionary situation or that it has upended the power relations that were in place just a few months ago. That may yet happen, but for now we’re fighting a lopsided battle against viruses, landlords, bosses, and politicians. We are keenly aware of the risks of organizing in a “hot shop”: quick, spontaneous mobilizations in response to an emergency frequently lack structure and discipline and dissipate quickly in the face of sharp resistance or small concessions from the boss. The fundamental laws of organizing still apply, and we want to do things the right way even when it’s tempting to take shortcuts. In a time like this, it’s important to periodically take stock, self-reflect, and strategize. Nobody becomes a successful organizer by reading books and blogs alone. But reading about how other organizers have dealt with conflicts and challenges can be enormously helpful to novices and veterans alike. We ourselves have learned a lot from projects like and the Philly Tenants Union Organizing Guide. We hope that others have found something useful in our comprehensive periodic updates about our work and the strategic thinking that informs them. 

As a complement to these publications, we’ve decided to start a new platform—one focused less on high-level reflection and more on the day-to-day nitty-gritty of organizing buildings during COVID-19. This blog will host a running stream of brief interviews and writeups about the ongoing organizing drives we’re involved in, which run the gamut from established, years-old campaigns with experienced tenant organizers to entirely new ones where we have only the experience of others to guide us. We hope that tenants and organizers around the country will learn from what we’re doing, and, at the very least, feel a little less alone in this hard and isolating new world.