Housing Is A Labor Issue

Pluralistic: Housing is a labor issue (13 Dec 2023)

By Cory Doctorow
December 13, 2023

There’s a reason Reagan declared war on unions before he declared war on everything else – environmental protection, health care, consumer rights, financial regulation. Unions are how working people fight for a better world for all of us. They’re how everyday people come together to resist oligarchy, extraction and exploitation.

Take the 2019 LA teachers’ strike. As Jane McAlevey writes in A Collective Bargain, the LA teachers didn’t just win higher pay for their members! They also demanded (and got) an end to immigration sweeps of parents waiting for their kids at the school gate; a guarantee of green space near every public school in the city; and on-site immigration counselors in LA schools:


Unionization is enjoying an historic renaissance. The Hot Labor Summer transitioned to an Eternal Labor September, and it’s still going strong, with UAW president Shawn Fain celebrating his members victory over the Big Three automakers by calling for a 2028 general strike:


The rising labor movement has powerful allies in the Biden Administration. NLRB general counsel Jennifer Abruzzo is systematically gutting the “union avoidance” playbook. She’s banned the use of temp-work app blacklists that force workers to cross picket lines:


She’s changed the penalty for bosses who violate labor law during union drives. It used to be the boss would pay a fine, which was an easy price to pay in exchange for killing your workers’ union. Now, the penalty is automatic recognition of the union:


And while the law doesn’t allow Abruzzo to impose a contract on companies that refuse to bargain their unions, she’s set to force those companies to honor other employers’ union contracts until they agree to a contract with their own workers:


She’s also nuking TRAPs, the deals that force workers to repay their employers for their “training expenses” if they have the audacity to quit and get a better job somewhere else:


(As with every aspect of the Biden White House, its labor policy is contradictory and self-defeating, with other Biden appointees working to smash worker power, including when Biden broke the railworkers’ strike:)


A surging labor movement opens up all kinds of possibilities for a better world. Writing for the Law and Political Economy Project, UNITE Here attorney Zoe Tucker makes the case for unions as a way out of America’s brutal housing crisis:


She describes how low-waged LA hotel workers have been pushed out of neighborhoods close to their jobs, with UNITE Here members commuting three hours in each direction, starting their work-days at 3AM in order to clock in on time:


UNITE Here members are striking against 50 hotels in LA and Orange County, and their demands include significant cost-of-living raises. But more money won’t give them back the time they give up to those bruising daily commutes. For that, unions need to make housing itself a demand.

As Tucker writes, most workers are tenants and vice-versa. What’s more, bad landlords are apt to be bad bosses, too. Stepan Kazaryan, the same guy who owns the strip club whose conditions were so bad that it prompted the creation of Equity Strippers NoHo, the first strippers’ union in a generation, is also a shitty landlord whose tenants went on a rent-strike:


So it was only natural that Kazaryan’s tenants walked the picket line with the Equity Stripper Noho workers:


While scumbag bosses/evil landlords like Kazaryan deal out misery retail, one apartment building at a time, the wholesale destruction of workers’ lives comes from private equity giants who are the most prolific source of TRAPs, robo-scabbing apps, illegal union busting, and indefinite contract delays – and these are the very same PE firms that are buying up millions of single-family homes and turning them into slums:


Tucker’s point is that when a worker clocks out of their bad job, commutes home for three hours, and gets back to their black-mold-saturated, overpriced apartment to find a notice of a new junk fee (like a surcharge for paying your rent in cash, by check, or by direct payment), they’re fighting the very same corporations.

Unions who defend their workers’ right to shelter do every tenant a service. A coalition of LA unions succeeded in passing Measure ULA, which uses a surcharge on real estate transactions over $5m to fund “the largest municipal housing program in the country”:


LA unions are fighting for rules to limit Airbnbs and other platforms that transform the city’s rental stock into illegal, unlicensed hotels:


And the hotel workers organized under UNITE Here are fighting their own employers: the hoteliers who are aggressively buying up residences, evicting their long-term tenants, tearing down the building and putting up a luxury hotel. They got LA council to pass a law requiring hotels to build new housing to replace any residences they displace:


UNITE Here is bargaining for a per-room hotel surcharge to fund housing specifically for hotel workers, so the people who change the sheets and clean the toilets don’t have to waste six hours a day commuting to do so.

Labor unions and tenant unions have a long history of collaboration in the USA. NYC’s first housing coop was midwifed by the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America in 1927. The Penn South coop was created by the International Ladies Garment Workers’ Union. The 1949 Federal Housing Act passed after American unions pushed hard for it:


It goes both ways. Strong unions can create sound housing – and precarious housing makes unions weaker. Remember during the Hollywood writers’ strike, when an anonymous studio ghoul told the press the plans was to “allow things to drag on until union members start losing their apartments and losing their houses?”

Vienna has the most successful housing in any major city in the world. It’s the city where people of every income and background live in comfort without being rent-burdened and without worry about eviction, mold, or leaks. That’s the legacy of Red Vienna, the Austrian period of Social Democratic Workers’ Party rule and built vast tracts of high-quality public housing. The system was so robust that it rebounded after World War II and continues to this day:


Today, the rest of the world is mired in a terrible housing crisis. It’s not merely that the rent’s too damned high (though it is) – housing precarity is driving dangerous political instability:


Turning the human necessity of shelter into a market commodity is a failure. The economic orthodoxy that insists that public housing, rent control, and high-density zoning will lead to less housing has failed. rent control works:


Leaving housing to the market only produces losers. If you have the bad luck to invest everything you have into a home in a city that contracts, you’re wiped out. If you have the bad luck into invest everything into a home in a “superstar city” where prices go up, you also lose, because your city becomes uninhabitable and your children can’t afford to live there:


A strong labor movement is the best chance we have for breaking the housing deadlock. And housing is just for starters. Labor is the key to opening every frozen-in-place dysfunction. Take care work: the aging, increasingly chronically ill American population is being tortured and murdered by private equity hospices, long-term care facilities and health services that have been rolled up by the same private equity firms that destroyed work and housing:


In her interview with Capital & Main‘s Jessica Goodheart, National Domestic Workers Alliance president Ai-jen Poo describes how making things better for care workers will make things better for everyone:


Care work is a “triple dignity investment”: first, it makes life better for the worker (most often a woman of color), then, it allows family members of people who need care to move into higher paid work; and of course, it makes life better for people who need care: “It delivers human potential and agency. It delivers a future workforce. It delivers quality of life.”

The failure to fund care work is a massive driver of inequality. America’s sole federal public provision for care is Medicare, which only kicks in after a family it totally impoverished. Funding care with tax increases polls high with both Democrats and Republicans, making it good politics:


Congress stripped many of the care provisions from Build Back Better, missing a chance for an “unprecedented, transformational investment in care.” But the administrative agencies picked up where Congress failed, following a detailed executive order that identifies existing, previously unused powers to improve care in America. The EO “expands access to care, supports family caregivers and improves wages and conditions for the workforce”:


States are also filling the void. Washington just created a long-term care benefit:


New Mexicans passed a ballot initiative that establishes permanent funding for child care:


New York care workers won a $3/hour across the board raise:


The fight is being led by women of color, and they’re kicking ass – and they’re doing it through their unions. Worker power is the foundation that we build a better world upon, and it’s surging.

* This article was automatically syndicated and expanded from Pluralistic.

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