Tag Archives: organising

Launched

This is kind of what I said a couple of weeks ago at the Renters United launch. If you haven’t joined yet and are interested in these issues you can do so here: http://www.rentersunited.org.nz/join

In the ongoing debate about housing, renters are conspicuous in their absence. Politicians and the media, comfortable in their first, second and third homes, tend to look on renting a temporary circumstance. They view renting through rose tinted glasses: three character-building years in a freezing beer-soaked flat before getting on the property ladder.

As such, all the problems of — and solutions to — the “housing crisis” are about home ownership. Well I think that we all know that is not the whole picture, its time that renters got together and said so. This is what we want Renters United to be: a democratic union of renters campaigning to make renting better for all renters.

So a few of us came together and starting building for this day. Early on we realised that if we want people to join something, we need to tell them what it is and just as importantly, what it believes.

So, in the great tradition of progressive organisations, we drafted a manifesto. It’s not set in stone, we haven’t nailed it to any doors anywhere, but we came up with seven things we hope will resonate with you all tonight and with renters in general:

We believe renters should:

  • Live in a safe and healthy home
  • Pay affordable rent
  • Find and rent a home free from discrimination, intimidation and harassment
  • Expect a respectful and responsive relationship with their landlord
  • Have a rental agreement that grants them long-term security and stability
  • Have good cooking, laundry and bathroom facilities
  • And make their home their own though reasonable changes

Which of these things we focus on and how we do it will of course be up to our members. So, We, Need Members!

We need members to give us clear direction about where to start, because the issues are big and messy. We need members to spread our messages. We need members to recruit more members and most of all we need members to fight and win for renters.

As well as growing our membership our other initial goal is to connect with the many allies out there already working on the issue. We want to complement the work that people like Sarah and Phillipa are doing to advance policy and research on housing, and — at the sharp end — I know we can work closely with Julia and her colleagues to fight the individual battles too.

We need to challenge those with the power over renters and housing, we need renters demanding change directly and we are going to organise to make that happen.

We need to turn renting from a isolated and atomised experience to a uniting one, and the first step to doing that is to get renters and their supporters to join Renters United.

So all that is left to do is a bit of virtual ribbon cutting. We don’t have a bottle of champagne to break or a velvet curtain to open, but we do have a web server on stand-by ready to make the first version of our website live.

Please stand by:

Web server screen saying the site is now live.

Is the home the new place to organise?

One of my motivations for trying to get something going for renters was my feeling that people on the left need to start thinking about finding new ways to engage and organise people as workplaces becomes more fragmented and employment more precarious.

In the UK, Sarah Kwei is wondering the same thing as casualisation and fragmentisation makes workplace organising much harder there too:

Contrast this with 2014, when more than 1 million workers exist on zero-hours contracts and are told via texts whether they have work or not. The insecurity of the lowest paid is much the same, but the potential for workers to access one another and organise for something better has been undermined by these increasingly individualising practices.

In addition, most low-paid work is unstable. Workers frequently find themselves performing different roles over several months – perhaps a delivery driver one month, a shelf stacker the next – interspersed by periods of unemployment. [With the decline of industrialised Britain, few are able to look to one local company as their most likely source of employment. […] Such a radically different workplace poses significant problems to traditional forms of worker organisation, especially if most workers will struggle to say who their colleagues are or, indeed, their employer is, from one month to the next.

In this context it’s not surprising that some of the most inspiring (and successful) direct political action in the UK is centred instead around housing. Groups like the Focus E14 Mothers have shown that campaigning over quality and availablity of housing can capture the public imagination.

The issues around housing in New Zealand are markedly different from those in the UK but the core idea – that this rediscovered option for community organising has a lot of potential – rings true for me.

Sarah Kwei concludes by saying that she thinks that cooperation between established unions, with their organising expertise and resources and new community organisations is important. I can’t disagree and once we have our experiment in community organising up and running finding common ground and ways or working with unions will undoubtably strength us too.

Welcome aboard

When we first start, it’s going to be very important to find ways to express to our new members: what it is; how they can be involved; and the limits to our capacity to help them with specific problems. I’ve already mentioned that we need a strategy for how we handle the casework aspect of this, but we similarly need a plan for how we welcome members, how we set their expectations and how we engage and develop their involvement in the union. Many unions have a “welcome pack” they send out to new members but I think we need something more immediate and engaging.

If you use the web or particularly phone/tablet apps then you’ll be familiar with a design solution to this kind of problem called onboarding (neologism ahoy!).

Onboarding refers to a range of different ways that users are introduced to the key features and ways of using the application or website. Apps and websites that diverge further from the familiar patterns and ways of doing things often find it particularly important to make an effort to educate the user. A renters union is a similarly unfamiliar concept to most of our potential members so some form of onboarding seems a good idea.

For some designers, having to use onboarding processes reflects a failure in the design of the product as they show that it is not well designed enough that its use is obvious or discoverable without help. However, onboarding can also be used very effectively to convert a one-time or casual user into a more active user and this is definitely something we will be striving to do for our new members.

Here are a couple of examples of how an adapted version of onboarding could help us:

A membership process that introduces the organisation

Imagine a membership process that, as well as getting the necessary information for the person also uses those questions to introduce the broader purpose and network of the organisation.

For example, when asked for their address the user could be told that three other members have previously lived in that property, or that there are 10 other members on the street, or that their neighbours are involved in a campaign at the moment.

Joining could be presented as a two-way activity, we learn about the person and the person learns about us which would help establish the member in their immediate network and reinforce their choice.

Early connection and action

Once joined, we want to encourage active engagement, with the expectation (or hope) that this will continue in the longer term. To do this, we could offer a number of quick and easy ways to get involved in ongoing campaigns, democracy and in their local network.

For example, on signing up they could be immediately asked for their opinion on current campaign and once they’ve offered it they could be told a few ways that they can contribute right away to it.

As well as demonstrating an immediate focus on action, this type of onboarding activity could also – more subtly – introduce to them other principles and ways of working of the organisation such as its openness to all views, its typical methods and its campaigning priorities.

There is no reason why this same process couldn’t be available when we recruit in person as well as on-line because we can’t assume people will just come to our website.

As with anything, less is more and we don’t want to drift into the patronising, the needy or the creepy. Instead, onboarding is all about being friendly and welcoming and ensuring people feel they are part of a movement:

He aha te mea nui o te ao?
He tangata! He tangata! He tangata!
What is the most important thing in the world?
It is people! It is people! It is people!

Keeping in touch

In my day job as a web designer it’s easy to think that every problem can be solved by the internet (ha!) but the reality is that there is still a significant minority of people without internet access at home.

Statistics New Zealand says that 85% of households in Wellington have internet access. Of thosewho don’t most report that they don’t have internet either due to a lack of interest or because of the cost and opting out of internet access because of the cost grew between 2009 and 2012 (when the most recent data is from).

I think it’s a fair assumption that a fair proportion of those without internet access will be low-income renters and we certainly want to reach these people and get them actively engaged in our campaigns and other work.

With this in mind we need to consider whether we can rely on the internet as our only – or primary – medium for recruiting and communicating with members.

As with all organising face-to-face engagement is usually the most effective way to get people involved but even once we have recruited someone we need to consider how best to keep them up-to-date and active.

So, setting aside a website for the organisation for now, this graph is great place to start when considering how we might reach out to members and stay in touch (after all, we’ll be just like one of the family):

A few observations:

  • Direct contact via phone or text is likely to be the most effective method.
  • Texting is the clear favourite for frequent communication.
  • Social media does not feature in that graph, though you might expect that a majority of the “instant messaging” communication is via social networks.
  • Email is very popular too but seems to be used less frequently.

We will need to ensure members have control of how and when they get contacted as we don’t want to flood inboxes or turn people off with a barrage of texts. Instead, I think we want to try and establish and nurture personal connections with – and between – members.

For example, rather than a bulk text from a generic number, wouldn’t it be great if we could establish a texting version of phone trees (OL’SKOOL!) so every member got the information from an activist or contact they had personally met at some point?

Tenants or Renters?

Since I started thinking and writing about this idea I generally been using the word tenant to describe the people we will aim to organise.

Tenant is the legally defined term and is used by existing organisations in other cities (the Tenants Protection Association in Auckland and Christchurch, the Manawatu Tenants Union in Palmerston North) and of course the Tenancy Tribunal, so naturally I fell into using it too.

A few days ago someone who has been thinking longer and deeper about renting in New Zealand suggested I consider renter instead. My initial thought was of the baggage that term carries with it thanks to the TV show Renters, but on further reflection I think there is a case for using renter over tenant.

First, many of the people we would like to recruit and organise are not the formal “tenant” of the property. Nevertheless they will be paying rent and even if they don’t immediately identify with renter they sure as hell know they are paying rent so there is an association there. If someone is not familiar with the term tenant (which is somewhat technical and legal in nature), or if their renting situation is not legally a tenancy – such as boarders and other “grey-market” renters – the term renter should offer a sense that this thing if for them to.

Second, I feel that the word renter is more active and feels like something that common cause could be built around. In my head it feel analogous to worker, whereas tenant feels like it reflects a passive contractual relationship, more akin to employee in a workplace setting. This will help us express the need to focus on campaigning for wider change, rather than focussing on advocacy services for individual members.

This may be a somewhat trivial matter but I do think that language matters as organising is fundamentally about communicating. We need to choose our words wisely.

As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.

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.

Handling case work

If a tenants’ union is to get off the ground it will need a strategy – from the outset – on how it handles casework.

It’s clear that many potential members might reach out to the union and/or join to get specific help with a problem they are having with their landlord, property or property manager. But if the tenants’ union is to bring about meaningful change for tenants its effort and energy need to be focused on recruitment, campaigning and organising.

Casework can be very draining on resources, both in terms of time and emotionally and a clear plan needs to be in place as to how individual cases can be used to recruit, empower local activists and build the capacity of the union to take action.

People I’ve talked to so far have suggested a number of ways this could be handled:

Clinics

Regular clinics could be established. These could be at a publicised time and location and inquiries outside these times could be directed to them. This could help keep the amount of work manageable, especially if referrals and resources (see below) are employed well. These could be run by volunteers/activists with a particular interest in doing casework.

One obvious question about this approach would be how often should they be held? What if a member has an urgent issue or can’t make it to a clinic?

Train activists

An organising union should always be seeking to develop its activists so they can provide help and support to their networks. Good training can go a long way to giving activists the tool and confidence they need, especially when it’s supported by experience.

The strength of this approach is it should reinforce local organisation and networks over time.

Resources for self-empowerment

A bank of practical resources could be developed. These could be designed to empower members to resolve matters for themselves. For example, model letters, checklists, model tenancy agreements (with better than the legal minimums) and step-by-step guides to resolving common issues.

Case studies

The right piece of casework could be taken on as a case study to attempt to establish a new formal or informal precedent. as it stands less than 10% of cases brought to the Tenancy Tribunal are brought by tenants and where tenants win it is rarely publicised or reported in the media. In contrast, even small wins in Employment Court are heavily publicised by trade unions and you’d hope this makes other employers think twice before repeating those actions.

I’m sure there are many other options to consider, get in touch and I’ll trade you a coffee for your ideas.


Photo credit: Mark Crossfield via Flickr.

“Sticking together gives you hope that things can be different”

Focus E15 mothers are a group of young mothers who were evicted from a hostel they lived in. The hostel was a place of shelter for women facing homelessness and domestic violence. Their response to this eviction and the accompanying attempts by social service to disperse them across the country was to organise.

What strikes me about the actions of these brave women and their supporters, is that organising and campaigning of this nature is also an exercise in community building. And what better way to (re-)build communities than though campaigning on housing?

Finding the confidence to stand up for yourself and those around you is not easy but when you do you give others the confidence to do the same. Solidarity and action can be infectious and can strengthen a community to the point where it can begin to find it’s own solution to problems as well as become impossible for those with the power to ignore.

What is to be done?

Like many others, I was struck by the election result last month. As I watched the results come in I was not surprised by the left’s heavy defeat (depressing as that was) but I was more affected by how many of my friends on Facebook and elsewhere were lamenting the result and fact that the issues that they care about would now suffer another three years of inaction. Strongest amongst these statements was a sentiment of disconnect, comments like “I don’t even know you New Zealand” were common.

I get this, but I also think that we cannot wait for or expect our political parties or politicians to make any change happen for us. On election night I expressed it like this:

Only thing I have to say is that progressive change is achieved despite the political (-tician) class, not because of it. Pick something you hoped tonight might change and go and do your best to change it.

I’ve been thinking a lot in the subsequent weeks about what I hoped the election might change and how I might go about fighting to change it (after all this post was mostly a challenge to myself).

Like many, I am appalled by the reality of the poverty that a significant number of New Zealanders live in. I don’t think that charity can solve those problems, however noble the effort. Instead, I believe the left as a whole need to find new and innovative ways to reach out to and organise people to strengthen their own communities and fight for what they need to live happy, safe and fullfilling lives.

Of course many unions and other organisations are working very hard on this already, but organising those who are suffering most in our neo-liberal experiment of a society has it’s own sets of challenges. Work is casualised, fragmentised and contracted out and even where unions are able to make gains the transience and precarious nature of the work means union membership and organisation is a constant battle against entrophy.

And so my mind turned to considering whether there were other areas where complementary organising effort could reach out to and organise those that unions find hardest to reach. I arrived at housing and in particular that hundreds of thousands of people who will be life-long tenants.

Rent is usually a household’s single biggest expense and the failures of the market to provide healthy, warm and safe houses is already well documented.

So, my far from fully formed idea is this: a Wellington tenant’s union (working title) that organises tenants to fight for an affordable, safe and stable home for everyone.

I’m talking to anyone who’ll listen about this at the moment so get in touch if you’d like me to buy you a coffee.