Wellington houses

First thoughts on an organising approach

Building a new tenants’ union from scratch is a daunting task. I’ve spent the last few weeks thinking a lot about what the organisation might be, in particular what it’s approach and values are, but I keep coming back to a big unanswered question: How do I get it started? What is our organising strategy?

In recent conversations a few ideas have come up, far from fully formed. to some extent this is a bit premature but I’m very keen to hear what people think about both the principle and the practicality of this so I’m putting it out there:

1. “Values” based recruitment

Initially, I’m not sure that the a tenants’ union operated completely by volunteer activists can make many grandiose promises to prospective members about the benefits of membership. I don’t think we will be able to promise to resolve everyone’s problem with their landlord or ensure every home is fixed up or rent reduced. As a consequence I think this kind of transaction recruitment strategy will fail.

Instead, I think that we need to be able to clearly and compellingly express the values and purpose of the union, alongside the strength that collectivism brings.

If people join because they believe in the purpose they are more likely to contribute back to the union and recruit others, less likely to expect miracles for stretched activists and, I think, more likely to see membership as a commitment that in the longer term forms part of their identity.

2. Campaigning from the outset

Campaigns are the expression of the unions values and purpose as well as it’s key mechanism for change. Without campaigns we will be stuck trying to explain the union only in terms of its values, which is often a exercise in abstraction and empty platitudes (like this blog).

For those who we recruit because they are interested in or share the purpose of the union we need to give then the opportunity to participate in a meaningful way. By connecting campaigning activity back to our values we can express to members and potential members exactly what type of change we want to see.

The approach I imagine is similar to that undertaken by the living wage campaign which unites people around a specific demand but ensures that it is supported by common values:

As the gap between the rich and the poor grows in New Zealand and poverty increases, more and more New Zealanders don’t get paid enough to meet their needs, enjoy their lives and participate in society.

3. Establishing a presence in the community

Being visible and available to talk to interested people is going to be very important in early recruiting. This will likely mean that with limited resources we will want to target our efforts on particular suburbs or areas with Wellington, probably those with high concentrations of rentals and families.

Person to person contact will be important so attendance/presence at regular events like markets and contact with people through pre-existing community networks like churches and schools will be a good place to start.

Alongside this, we should create a distinctive “brand” for our activities, activists and supporters (t-shirts, badges, shop signs etc.) so as the union establishes itself in the community this becomes more and more visible.

4. Proactive organising

One possible organising approach would be to tackle recruitment on a street by street basis. Assuming (big assumption) that we have a a small core group of activists, an activist (or maybe a pair) could be assigned a street to organise.

Ideally this would be the street on which they live as service of their own community would help with both initial conversations and in the longer term. Having good data about which houses were rentals and would also help a lot.

In a sense these activists would be analogous to shop stewards or delegates: providing a (very) local point of contact, visibility and intelligence for the union and coordinating members to support campaigns and other activities.

If this kind of structure gets established then it would need to be supported by good training and support and succession planning to ensure that as activists inevitably move around the city those movements can be used as an opportunity to establish or strengthen membership in other areas.

As always, very keen to hear from anyone who wants to talk, get involved or has ideas or experience to share.


Photo credit: Flimin via Flickr.

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