Problems starting a solidarity network?

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John E Jacobsen's picture
John E Jacobsen
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Sep 19 2011 09:01
Problems starting a solidarity network?

Solidarity Networks take a lot of hard work and dedication. Sometimes more than people are able to give. As a result, a lot have started and quickly folded.

I thought this might be a good place for folks to bring up problems they have had in getting a solidarity network off the ground.

Share your experiences, ask questions and find workable solutions.

welshboy's picture
welshboy
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Sep 19 2011 15:46

The Glasgow Solidarity Network didn't get off the ground mostly as a lot of folk seemed to want to try and turn it into a 'broad left' campaigning organisation rather than something that focused on individual cases. I wasn't really involved but hearing form comrades who were attending meetings this seemed to be the case.

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Schwarz
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Sep 19 2011 16:56

Cooperative Action Project in New York City seems to be on a hiatus at this point. There was a bunch of activity and some initial success, but some real issues sapped people's energy I think. I never played a very central role, but here are my two cents.

A huge problem was that, despite flyers calling out for both workplace and renters' disputes, a vast majority of the responses that CAP got were from working-class residents (many from housing projects or subsidized housing units) threatened with eviction. There was only one phone response from a worker and that was some odd situation of a yacht worker who had lost his bosses' boat and needed help finding it or some nonsense!

Eviction is actually a great and important place to get involved as a solidarity network, but because of the high proportion of middle-income renters in NYC and their relative degree of political clout there are layers upon layer of social services here that address housing issues. (Read: liberal bureaucracies that suck up people's energy and tie them closer to the pitiful largess of the 'welfare' system.)

These housing provisions, of course, go back to the radical struggles of the Metropolitan Council in the 1930's and the wildcat rent strikes in Harlem and Brooklyn in the 1960's and 1970's; the city was forced into making housing laws that sometimes favored tenants over landlords and forced into keeping rent control and stabilization on the books.

Anyways, because eviction proceedings were the responses that were coming in, and often the best course of action for these individuals was to go through a long bureaucratic process against their landlord where they could stall and where that they had a chance to win or at least get placed elsewhere, CAP found itself as a sort of middleperson between tenants and the social workers whose job it is help people wrangle the system in these situations. This was kind of disheartening for those who (rightfully) had a grander idea of what a solidarity network could be.

That said, there was an action against gentrification in Bedford-Stuyvesant that was promising, so perhaps these issues could be overcome by a broader focus on housing, private property vs tenants rights, etc.

I don't think CAP is dead-in-the-water, but the last correspondence I saw was a couple months ago and talked about refocusing specifically towards workplace struggles. But then some people thought that this was merely retreading the ground that the IWW has worn in the city.

There are/were some great and dedicated people involved, so hopefully it gets back off the ground.

klas batalo's picture
klas batalo
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Sep 20 2011 00:14

I think a key is making sure you actually meet and also to make sure you actually have activity. Like most organizing it is going to drain a lot of time, and that can be hard for a bunch of activists floating from one thing to the other. There can be problems like overly depending on email lists to help organize. Also I think solidarity networks need organizers that are self-starters. If you aren't putting up fliers at first, you are not really doing the work.

Does NYC IWW already do direct action grievances for folks that are outside the union?

Juan Conatz's picture
Juan Conatz
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Sep 20 2011 00:14

The Iowa City Solidarity Network has officially existed for 9 months now, but has been unable to take on a fight. I helped start it, but left in January, right as the first public event to announce its existence happened. I don't know all the reasons why there's been trouble taking on a fight, but some of what has been mentioned like

Quote:
CAP found itself as a sort of middleperson between tenants and the social workers whose job it is help people wrangle the system in these situations.

seems to have occurred. Although replace social workers with landlords. I could be wrong though. Also, I believe almost all the calls have been tenant issues? I don't know. Hopefully someone from IC sees this and posts.

tastybrain
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Sep 20 2011 03:50
Juan Conatz wrote:
The Iowa City Solidarity Network has officially existed for 9 months now, but has been unable to take on a fight. I helped start it, but left in January, right as the first public event to announce its existence happened. I don't know all the reasons why there's been trouble taking on a fight, but some of what has been mentioned like
Quote:
CAP found itself as a sort of middleperson between tenants and the social workers whose job it is help people wrangle the system in these situations.

seems to have occurred. Although replace social workers with landlords. I could be wrong though. Also, I believe almost all the calls have been tenant issues? I don't know. Hopefully someone from IC sees this and posts.

Thats no good. Isn't the whole point of the solidarity networks to militantly confront landlords rather than being mediators of any kind? Or do you just mean the people with the greviences weren't taking an active enough role so it felt that way?

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Schwarz
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Sep 20 2011 05:01
tastybrain wrote:
Juan Conatz wrote:
The Iowa City Solidarity Network has officially existed for 9 months now, but has been unable to take on a fight. I helped start it, but left in January, right as the first public event to announce its existence happened. I don't know all the reasons why there's been trouble taking on a fight, but some of what has been mentioned like
Quote:
CAP found itself as a sort of middleperson between tenants and the social workers whose job it is help people wrangle the system in these situations.

seems to have occurred. Although replace social workers with landlords. I could be wrong though. Also, I believe almost all the calls have been tenant issues? I don't know. Hopefully someone from IC sees this and posts.

Thats no good. Isn't the whole point of the solidarity networks to militantly confront landlords rather than being mediators of any kind? Or do you just mean the people with the greviences weren't taking an active enough role so it felt that way?

CAP did militantly confront a couple landlords, but after the confrontation the situation still reverted back to legalistic means. The issue is that the people most in need of help, through direct action or otherwise, are often already wrapped up in state subsidy programs like Section 8 or NY Housing Authority. As one member said:

anon wrote:
most of the people are really looking for someone to help them navigate tenant law, and to be quite honest, a lot of the time, resolving their issues in court is probably going to end up better for them since a lot of these folks are receiving government aid, or have kids, or have complicated situations that involve 1000 other variables that requires them to go a legal route. we haven't gotten anything "clear cut" like a dispute about a deposit, but even the one time we did, a letter from a lawyer did the trick in the end. in these situations cap has been the secondary means, supplementing the court strategy, and has ended up... mostly giving advice on housing law, going to court dates, and seeing the campaign resolve itself through legal means.

This was when talk of refocusing on workplace issues arose. Soon after, some CAP folks went to support the IWW in their Focus on the Food Chain campaign against the Flaum company. Someone in CAP then made a snazzy flyer called "CAP your boss", but it appears nobody got together to put it up.

I think all the above points to some burnout within the group and a divide between those who wanted to focus on gentrification and those that wanted to focus on workplace issues.

I wonder how other groups like SeaSol have navigated the two differing logics behind workplace and tenant organizing.

blarg
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Sep 20 2011 05:33

For SeaSol, it has not seemed like there are different 'logics' for job vs housing fights. It's just been, someone's either being ripped off by their employer (or ex-employer) or by their landlord (or ex-landlord), and so we have to figure out how to fight that person or company to win the demands. The process is really the same.

You mention gentrification, which has not been something we've focused on at all. It sounds like if the only working-class tenants in the areas you're postering are in Section 8 or public housing, then maybe you're postering in the wrong areas (i.e. those that have been gentrified)? Maybe try farther away from the city? I've found around here that, while public housing managers and Section 8 qualified landlords may often be abusive assholes, their tenants seem to be in some ways better off than working class tenants who are stuck in the regular private rental housing market. For one thing, Section 8 landlords have inspections to pass, whereas other landlords get away with much more horrendous conditions. Also of course, as you say, Section 8 and public housing tenants are afraid of losing those 'benefits', and tend to have more bureaucratic channels through which to pursue their grievances. So for all those reasons, tenants in regular private housing tend to be more likely to bring viable solidarity-network fights.

Back on the job vs housing thing, on average it does seem like if we put up an equal number of "problems with your employer?" posters and "problems with your landlord?" ones, we tend to get more landlord-related calls. However, we've kept up a balance between the two in terms of the actual fights we've taken on, partly by being more eager to take a fight on if it's a job-related one, and sometimes even by putting up a larger number of job-related posters.

Schwarz's picture
Schwarz
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Sep 20 2011 06:18
blarg wrote:
For SeaSol, it has not seemed like there are different 'logics' for job vs housing fights. It's just been, someone's either being ripped off by their employer (or ex-employer) or by their landlord (or ex-landlord), and so we have to figure out how to fight that person or company to win the demands. The process is really the same.

Yeah this sounds straightforward enough.

blarg wrote:
You mention gentrification, which has not been something we've focused on at all.

This came up because one of the tenants we were fighting for was one of a half dozen families being evicted from a building in an 'up-and-coming' area so they could be replaced by young urban professionals. Perhaps this is just a geographic difference, but in NYC gentrification has reached absurd proportions. It's not uncommon to see glass and steel luxury highrises go up across from housing projects in the outer boroughs.

But I think your point is well-taken if you mean that solidarity networks work best when they focus on individual issues and seek to expand on the basis of winning tangibles through direct action. Perhaps it is an activisty tendency to encounter a systemic problem and go directly into single-issue campaign mode, a tendency which needs to be eschewed.

blarg wrote:
It sounds like if the only working-class tenants in the areas you're postering are in Section 8 or public housing, then maybe you're postering in the wrong areas (i.e. those that have been gentrified)?

This is entirely possible. As tempting as it is to focus on the communities most in need of material support, perhaps things would have gone differently in different neighborhoods. Still, 'tenants rights' are strong everywhere in NYC and legalism may just be par for the course.

blarg wrote:
Back on the job vs housing thing, on average it does seem like if we put up an equal number of "problems with your employer?" posters and "problems with your landlord?" ones, we tend to get more landlord-related calls. However, we've kept up a balance between the two in terms of the actual fights we've taken on, partly by being more eager to take a fight on if it's a job-related one, and sometimes even by putting up a larger number of job-related posters.

And this attempt at balance sounds like a great solution to the issue.

John E Jacobsen's picture
John E Jacobsen
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Sep 20 2011 10:13
Quote:
CAP did militantly confront a couple landlords, but after the confrontation the situation still reverted back to legalistic means. The issue is that the people most in need of help, through direct action or otherwise, are often already wrapped up in state subsidy programs like Section 8 or NY Housing Authority.

Did CAP approach the two fights you mentioned as whole campaigns they were going to take on? From what little I can gather, it seems like the first fight you linked to was just a person CAP found who was just asking for support with his refusal to pay rent until repairs were made.

In Seasol, when we decide to take on a fight, we'll generally start with figuring out what someone's demand will be (in this case, get the landlord to fix electrical problems) and proceed to plan a whole campaign around getting that demand met, not just go out to a landlords house to get him to vaguely promise to do something.

Was the problem you had in that fight that the tenant decided not to work with you any more, or did CAP just stop moving when they saw the person was still doing legal stuff? I know in SeaSol the policy has generally been that if people want to do legal stuff on the side, thats their own business, so long as it doesn't get in the way of the Direct Action campaign.

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Kittenization
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Sep 21 2011 21:28

This is a really useful thread. Thanks for starting it, John.

We're forming our SolNet now. Our city shuts down Main St. every third Thursday and community groups pay a small fee to table there. There are all kinds of vendors, as wide-ranging as Planned Parenthood, to martial arts schools, to those atrocious "pregnancy crisis centers." We tabled the last two and collected emails there to get a base, held our first meeting last week, and start postering the town tonight (we're meeting in a half hour--weird that I was pointed to this forum just twenty minutes ago or so!).

We've decided to start really slowly, with a small core of about 8 people, but around 60-70 activists around our periphery who might help out at actions. Our idea is to meet with folks who contact us and seem like they might have a winnable fight, will join the network (we're explicit about not being a charity), etc. and wait to pick our first fight until we have one where the "stars align," so to speak (i.e. winnable, person who wants to fight and join).

Any advice greatly appreciated. We live in a city with a large immigrant population where wage recovery efforts are being fought legally all the time. I suspect we'll be organizing around some of this, as the NLG lawyer who typically reps these folks knows us and is overwhelmed and has to routinely turn cases down.

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888
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Sep 22 2011 19:09

Where are you, Kittenization? Good luck!

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Kittenization
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Sep 22 2011 21:27

Storrs-Willimantic

Uncle Aunty
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Sep 22 2011 22:15

It's my understanding when SeaSol first started out, the expectations for people they took fights on with/for was a lot lower than it is now. This makes some sense, if you do not yet have a group that functions well or has a decent track record, why should anybody believe you they can get their shit back by joining a group such as this?

Maybe it's necessary for a group to get started to just be ready to do some fights FOR people, as it gets it's stuff together. Don't wait for the perfect worker or tenant who gets the whole concept perfectly.

It'd be useful for a older seasol member to chime in here of course.

blarg
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Sep 22 2011 23:20

Yeah that's right. At the beginning we didn't say people had to become a member in order to get support, and in fact we hadn't even defined such a thing as 'membership'. Also we didn't try to bring the people we were supporting into our regular SeaSol meetings. A couple of us would just keep meeting with them separately to plan the fight. Mainly this was because our regular meetings didn't happen every week like they do now, so we couldn't rely on them for planning ongoing fights since they weren't frequent enough. Also in the beginning, attending those regular SeaSol meetings probably would not have inspired much confidence in the aggrieved workers and tenants...

For other solnets out there, hopefully it won't take quite as long to develop the whole mutual-support thing, since they won't be groping blindly as much as we were. But still, there will probably have to be a period at the start where the group is basically helping someone without being in a position to ask for (or get) much participation in return, and where they don't fully identify as part of the group.

TheManyColoredDeath
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Sep 27 2011 01:43

I've been in SeaSol for a few years and just wanted to echo what blarg and Uncle Aunty said. When a solidarity network is getting started you need good fights more than anything. Don't worry too much if the person may or may not remain involved. After all, if we relied on just recruiting one person at a time solidarity networks would never get anywhere. More important are all the people you are able to bring in simply by having something for them to do and actions to invite them to. It was only 18 months ago that we got serious about the mutual aid side of things.