Socialists Lead the Fight for a Citywide Tenants’ Union: Lessons Learned After One Year

by David Thompson on September 4, 2016

The following is the transcript of a speech given by David Thompson for the one-year anniversary of the creation of the Philadelphia Tenants Union.

PTU executive board

Photo credit: Philadelphia Tenants Union

Last year, Philly Socialists started a campaign for a citywide tenants union with big hopes: hundreds if not thousands of members, rent control in our city, a transformed and diversified socialist group. Sadly, we have not yet expropriated the landlord class and converted their offices into people’s grain silos.

The Tenants Union campaign has fallen short of many of the benchmarks we set for it, in no small part because of my own shortcomings as the project’s leader. We have not recruited nearly as many people as we hoped, we have not won as many clear victories as we’d hoped, our big political campaign is moving slowly, and, in keeping with Philly Socialists tradition, we are trying to do more than we really have the capacity for.

However, I’m pleased to report that we have created a fierce, experienced fighting force that is breaking new ground in the city, winning concrete improvements in people’s lives and, more importantly, serving as a classroom for class struggle.

Since last year, we’ve taken on two slumlords, beating one outright and winning major concessions from another. We’ve trained dozens of volunteers in canvassing and direct action tactics. We’ve spoken with hundreds of Philly residents about the need for Just Cause Eviction protections, and are about to take that push to City Council this week. The beginning of this stage of the Just Cause push opens up a new field for our tenants union work, one that will be a training ground for how we should relate to the state that protects capitalists’ interests.

For about a dozen of us, we’ve also learned the hard way how to strategize better, how to organize better, how to communicate and recruit better. We’ve learned what tricks to look out for from our oppressors. And we’re bringing those lessons learned to bear on new fights.

The Philadelphia Tenants Union (PTU) now has 60 dues paying members, and we have won the loyalty and participation of a small group of committed working class leaders who are making the Tenants Union their own.

There have been challenges and setbacks. For instance, our organizing efforts at Ingerman owned properties were extensive, but today we’re left with little to no involvement from tenants of these properties. That’s not to say we weren’t successful. Thanks to our efforts, an ogre of a property manager was fired. Locks, intercoms, and an entry system for a person in a wheelchair that had been broken for years were all fixed. People started to get new appliances and cleanings they’d been waiting on for years. But we didn’t keep people coming around.

Image credit: Philadelphia Tenants Union

Image credit: Philadelphia Tenants Union

I learned some important lessons from this fight. One is that it takes time to build militancy, and it can’t be rushed. We had a great action in New Jersey to protest the landlord’s headquarters, but only four tenants joined us. One actually went home because she thought the tactics were too forceful.

Another is that we can’t substitute our own efforts as radicals for work that needs to be done by the working class. The organizer Fred Ross said “You don’t develop new leaders, you push people into taking action by refusing to do it yourself. You are then providing them the opportunity to become aware of their own capabilities.”

Disappointment is part of this work. It’s unavoidable. [Cesar] Chavez says: “In order to help the farm workers, look at them as human beings and not as something extra special, or else you are kidding yourself and are going to be mighty, mighty disappointed. Don’t pity them, either. Treat them as human beings, because they have just as many faults as you have; that way you’ll never be in trouble, because you’ll never be disappointed.”

However, we had a clean victory against the slumlord Mike Davis. Our North Philly team spent months organizing with his tenants. They researched, they plotted, they did everything they could to get under his skin. We delivered a letter to his sister and laws home, we reported him to the Water Department, we went to his church and passed out flyers about him. I think we goaded him into overstepping and filing a retaliatory lawsuit against Barry, the PTU president. And when 15 of us showed up and protested at court, brought the documents we’d assembled and witnesses to Davis’ practices, Davis gave up and Barry ended up walking away with several months worth of rent.

Tenant group photo

Photo credit: Philadelphia Tenants Union

This too taught us lessons.

We’re implementing these lessons in West Philly, in what I believe will be our most successful organizing drive and fight yet. We’re taking it slow, letting residents take the lead, making sure each decision is discussed, considered, that we notify even unsympathetic residents of all our activities (even though this means a lot of frustrating door knocking.) We’re working to build the strategic skills of residents, using the Midwest Academy’s strategy chart to think through tactics.

Another significant challenge we face is that we are trying to do as many types of things as a labor union might: both protests and policy. Both direct and political action. This is difficult to sustain without a core of professionals who can dedicate an outsized amount of time to it. But we’re making progress. In the spring when I was seriously ill, things slowed down significantly. I don’t believe that would happen if I were to get sick again. That’s because our team has grown smarter and more dedicated even since March.

Photo credit: Philadelphia Tenants Union

Photo credit: Philadelphia Tenants Union

Cesar Chavez says, “There’s no trick to organizing, there’s no shortcut: a good organizer is someone willing to work long and hard. Just keep talking to people and they will respond.” It’s taken a lot of talking to get where we are, but I think we should feel proud of it. We’ve built something that is developing people into stewards of the class; people who know the potential for collective action and can make it happen to get small victories from our oppressors. And we’ve got a project that provides all levels of involvement for new recruits to Philly Socialists—from knocking on doors for an evening all the way to planning a direct action campaign and managing the political conflicts in a group. We’re going to need more and more people who have these skills if we ever want to win bigger victories even just here in Philadelphia.

I believe that we can do great things with the Tenants Union. The seed is there. We just have to let it grow.

Photo credit: Philadelphia Tenants Union

Photo credit: Philadelphia Tenants Union

David Thompson is the At-Large Representative on Philly Socialists‘ Central Committee and the Secretary of the Philadelphia Tenants Union.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Dennis Petty January 15, 2018 at 12:54 pm

From Center Post Apts (IS Bee Street, LLC).
I participated in PTU meetings and conferences.
I appeared at the protest/rally at IS Bee/Residential Life headquarters.

Now I’m being retaliated against. I’ve been to Tenant Court twice in 6 months. They have taken photos of my apartment and disseminated them among the other residents.
Now I’m being threatened with eviction….for $68.

I could use some help at this time.
It seems like everyone here who participated in PTU, ends up getting evicted.


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