Counterfire's Katherine Connelly interviews US writer and historian Chris Wright about how workers are organising to protect lives and homes in America today
Hi Chris, thanks so much for taking the time to speak with Counterfire. You’re based in New York City, please can you tell us about the rent strike there? What prompted this action and how has this been organised in the current circumstances?
Most states, including New York, have instituted a moratorium on evictions for a few months, but that’s a pathetically insufficient response. What are tenants who can’t pay supposed to do when the moratorium is over? (In the meantime, by the way, many are still being pressured and intimidated and threatened by landlords.) They’ll have to pay the back rent they owe, without having the means to do so. As a result, tenants all over the country are organizing rent strikes largely as a way to pressure elected representatives to take their plight seriously.
Of course, most of these tenants can’t pay their rent anyway—and obviously millions of people who aren’t consciously participating in a strike won’t be able to pay. But organized collective action sends a message, in addition to de-atomizing and “empowering” people who would otherwise feel helpless and alone. It also pressures landlords to collectively bargain with tenants.
Rent strikes—not only in New York—are being organized in all kinds of ways. Some of them are very micro-scale, involving a few dozen tenants in one building or several buildings owned by the same landlord. For example, in one case in Brooklyn, a couple of tenants put up signs in the hallways of their building, which led to a group chat and recruiting people door-to-door.
They wrote a letter to the landlord, a large company that was bullying and threatening tenants who couldn’t pay rent. Initially they were ignored, but once the tenants’ union had solidified, a clear set of demands emerged: forgiveness of rent and late fees, the completion of repairs, recognition of their union, etc. Meanwhile, they’ve been in touch with lawyers and politicians.
For a clearer example of a landlord’s nauseating greed, we can turn to Columbia University, the largest private landowner in New York City. Columbia is both employer and landlord for its graduate students, so it has the power to cancel their rent and/or raise their salary. In its infinite wisdom—corresponding to its nearly infinite endowment—it has declined to reduce or cancel the rent this summer for students who have lost access to various funding sources.
This is despite its waiving of April and May rents for commercial (as opposed to residential) tenants. So hundreds of Columbia students have organized a rent strike, with the assistance of social media (e.g., Facebook groups).
On a larger scale, grassroots groups like New York Communities for Change and the Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence have organized virtual meetings with tenants to coordinate rent strikes, the ultimate goal being to put such economic pressure on landlords that legislators will be forced to comprehensively address the crisis.
In New York, the Upstate/Downstate Housing Alliance, along with many other groups, has organized tenants in scores of buildings statewide and launched a petition vowing to withhold rent until the state meets three demands: freeze rents, cancel rent for the duration of the public health crisis, and permanently house the homeless. In the aggregate, this appears to be the largest rent strike in nearly a century.
A national organization called Rent Strike 2020 has called for a suspension of rent, mortgage, and utility bill collection in all states. Tenant-rights organizations in cities from L.A. to Philadelphia to Chicago to D.C. are coordinating strikes; a campaign called We Strike Together is trying to keep track of all the action, which has involved hundreds of thousands of households across the country. The power of social media—Facebook groups, Twitter hashtags, Zoom meetings—to facilitate resistance to the capitalist class that itself owns these media is impressive and encouraging. It’s hard to see how governors and legislators will be able to ignore all this mounting pressure.
Here in Britain, it feels as though the pandemic is revealing a lot about society and how it’s really organised. On the one hand, the relentless – deadly – drive for profit, but on the other who are the real key workers that keep everything running. As in the UK, it’s BAME people who are suffering disproportionately, which exposes a lot about racism and exploitation. Would you say that people’s ideas are being changed by this crisis?
At this early date, it’s hard to say for sure how people are responding or will respond. With regard to racism and xenophobia, here in the U.S. there’s been some of that. On one hand we have Trump’s farcical attacks on China for having bred the pandemic or even (so it’s ludicrously said) creating the virus in a Wuhan lab—transparent attempts to shift the blame for his administration’s catastrophic response.
On the other hand, Asian-Americans have reported a rise in harassment and discrimination. That’s a real concern, which could very well lead to a rash of hate crimes around the country. But, broadly speaking, I think only the lunatic-right fringe has promoted anything like racism. For all the problems with identity politics, that’s one thing we can be grateful for: racism has become disreputable here, such that only the most vulgar and vicious of political figures will promote it.
On the positive side, it appears that people are indeed growing more aware of how society is organized, for example by seeing the contrast between the federal government’s munificence towards the wealthy and miserliness towards everyone else. It’s a lesson we learned in 2008–09, and we’re learning it again now. Millions of the unemployed have had difficulties receiving the benefits they’re entitled to; medical workers have been appalled by governments’ inability to provide personal protective equipment, test kits, ventilators, and other supplies; companies have treated their employees with utter callousness, often refusing to grant hazard pay or paid sick leave. Popular discontent is certainly increasing, which tends to bode well for the left.
I don’t think most people are “victim-blaming” or blaming Asians. I think they’re blaming the Trump administration, the rich, and a dysfunctional political economy.
We’ve been hearing about strikes, walkouts, and stay-aways taking place in workplaces that have been notorious for appalling working conditions, from Amazon warehouses to meat processing plants. Please could you tell us about this and whether this represents a renewed working-class confidence?
I don’t know if it represents confidence; I’m inclined to say it represents intense frustration and anger. It will probably be years before confidence and optimism begin to motivate large numbers of workers in their confrontations with bosses. But it’s true that the upsurge of strikes in the last couple of years—in 2018, more workers went on strike than in any year since 1986—in addition to Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaigns, has begun to shift people’s perceptions of what’s possible.
Five years ago, I doubt there would have been such an eruption of wildcat strikes. It also helps that people in these non-white-collar jobs are being told their work is essential, they’re even heroes. And their bargaining power has increased, given that their employers (Amazon, Instacart, grocery stores) are in high demand right now.
The escalating strike wave is remarkable. In the last couple of months, hundreds of strikes, sickouts, and walkouts have occurred. Whole Foods, Target, McDonald’s, Taco Bell, Walmart, FedEx, Ford, Uber, and many other big-name companies, in addition to meatpacking plants, agribusinesses, trucking companies, and smaller stores, have seen labor actions. The causes have been various: in many cases, workers haven’t been adequately protected from the virus; in others, they have demanded hazard pay or have protested low wages; a common demand is for paid sick leave and compensation for unpaid time off.
Unions, workers’ rights groups, and organizers with the Fight for 15 campaign have helped coordinate many of these actions, but in other cases, workers themselves have organized walkouts, with the help of social media. They’ve racked up some victories, and it’s likely that more will come.
Crises like the pandemic present opportunities for both the exploiters and the exploited, the ruling class and the working class. The coming years will doubtless see a reinvigoration of the same old fiscal austerity and heavy-handed repression. But I’m optimistic that, even in the midst of all this, popular resistance will, at long last, start to shift the momentum to the workers.
One of the other things we’ve been hearing about, of course, is the staggering and rapidly mounting unemployment figure. How is the left responding to this challenge?
What the left should do is what the Communist Party did in the 1930s: organize the unemployed. We should have Unemployed Councils in urban neighborhoods organizing people to demonstrate, to block traffic, to picket outside power centers and politicians’ homes, demanding public works projects, generous unemployment insurance, a universal basic income, rent control, etc.
Especially once social distancing measures are relaxed, local organizations should devote resources to building tenants’ unions that can negotiate with landlords and help lobby governments. And of course, national organizations should pressure the government in all possible ways, including by direct action, to launch a Green New Deal or other programs that can employ millions.
The left everywhere is perennially cursed by inadequate resources—which is a major reason for its continual defeats—but I think much of the left has been doing a creditable job of advocating for the unemployed. Left media are doing what they can to highlight the suffering of those who have been laid off, publishing stories about the frequent impossibility of getting unemployment benefits and people’s loss of their employer-based health insurance (at the worst of times, during a pandemic). Unions are fighting to limit layoffs and ensure their laid-off members receive the benefits they’re due.
Everyone knows the U.S. lacks a visible left on the national stage—except for Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and a few other leaders. But these few national leaders, supported, as always, by an army of grassroots organizations, have resisted Republican sociopathy. Sanders and others were able to force Congress to include in the CARES Act some much-needed relief for those out of a job, such as four months of receiving $600 a week on top of whatever unemployment insurance their state gives them, as well as a one-time payment of $1,200 for people earning less than $75,000. They’ve tried to get much more than this, for example monthly $2,000 payments, but Republican opposition makes it impossible.
In general, the left seems to be doing what it can to support the sort of agenda Bernie Sanders has publicized. It’s also lobbying state governments to raise taxes on the wealthy so as to avoid brutal austerity measures.
In both the US and the UK we have dangerous complacent political leaders who are endangering lives on a mass scale. In December we suffered the blow of the election result which saw probably the most progressive leader ever of the Labour Party ousted and replaced by a centrist who has already proved himself no ally of working people in this crisis. Then, just as the Coronavirus crisis began to explode, we watched as Bernie Sanders pulled out, leaving Joe Biden as the default Democratic candidate. But in the UK, the government’s handling of the crisis has prompted widespread opposition and support for workers’ rights.
Would you say that something similar is happening in the US – that despite what’s been happening at the top of politics, there’s a real crisis in right-wing ideas and a growing popularity for socialist solutions?
I certainly think socialist solutions are becoming more popular, especially among the young. I see this in the students I teach at the City University of New York, most of whom seem to take it for granted that capitalism is in dire need of radical reforms, if not a systemic overhaul.
One of the ironies of history is that great leaps in moral progress often require that things first get radically worse. The Great Depression and (especially) World War II, which mobilized the left on an unprecedented scale, made possible postwar social democracy, which was a significant improvement compared to what had existed before. Likewise, I think that the coming years of global crisis will create the conditions for the growth of the international left and delegitimation of the trite ideas of neoliberals.
To speak as a Marxist, neoliberalism, through its contradictions and catastrophic consequences, has prepared the ground for its own “dialectical” transcendence, by means of the agency of working (and unemployed) people. Capitalism is showing its true nature, and fewer and fewer people will continue to be deceived by its apologists.
Fascist and nationalist ideas aren’t in the same sort of crisis as center-right ideas, and the right will surely continue to grow internationally. Demonization of minorities, foreigners, “out-of-touch leftists,” etc. never gets old. But, as I’ve argued elsewhere, the longer the right stays in power, the more popular the left will get. Virtually by definition, right-wing policies lead, sooner or later, to societal collapse. (It was nonsensical propaganda when Margaret Thatcher said, “there’s no such thing as society,” but unwittingly she was communicating a truth: the hidden meaning of the right, with its fetish of markets (“externalities” be damned), privatization, and commodification, is that in the end there will be “no such thing as society,” because it will be destroyed.)
So there’s always a backlash eventually—what Karl Polanyi would call a movement by “society” to “protect itself” (against the market). Less misleadingly: as people get more and more miserable under reactionary regimes, the prestige of left-wing ideas increases.
We can be sure neoliberal ideas will continue to straggle on for years because the ruling class won’t stop propagating them except under the most extreme duress. But the tide is beginning to turn, finally. The legitimacy of the status quo is almost completely shattered at this point.
Chris Wright has a Ph.D. in U.S. history from the University of Illinois at Chicago, and is the author of Notes of an Underground Humanist and Worker Cooperatives and Revolution: History and Possibilities in the United States. His website is www.wrightswriting.com
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Kate Connelly is a writer and historian. She led school student strikes in the British anti-war movement in 2003, co-ordinated the Emily Wilding Davison Memorial Campaign in 2013 and is a leading member of Counterfire. She wrote the acclaimed biography, 'Sylvia Pankhurst: Suffragette, Socialist and Scourge of Empire' and recently edited and introduced 'A Suffragette in America: Reflections on Prisoners, Pickets and Political Change'.
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