For the past several weeks NRWP members have been conducting social investigation around local trailer parks. Our beginning started with fliering these local trailer parks, promoting a documentary discussing police militarization. As we explained in the ‘Do Not Resist – Christiansburg Reportback’ the documentary event and its promotion were a means for us to do social investigation and build relationships with worker-tenants. We also said that we accomplished our goal in doing this, worker-tenants talked to us, revealed the truths about their slumlords, and their desire to do something about it. We collaborated with them hand-in-hand to help organize the rest of their worker-tenant neighbors. This included the creation of a flier which called for a community meeting so that neighbors could come to know one another, work on building mutual aid for one another, and collectivizing a list of the problems the worker-tenants have towards the slumlord.
The text created by the tenants seemed too vague and unclear as to what exactly the purpose of this meeting would be, at least according to NRWP membership. We expressed this to the tenants, but they insisted that it remain this way, because they were concerned about how alarming it might be if the flier were more direct or “political” for other tenants and especially the trailer park manager. We had our doubts, but this was an effort driven by the tenant-workers themselves and we agreed that they should steer the efforts around their neighborhood. The amount of concern they had, especially about the trailer park manager’s reaction, proved to be well-grounded. Within a matter of hours after our first fliering session the manager found out and began harassing, intimidating and threatening tenants for handing out the fliers they crafted.
They claimed that the tenants were violating the rules of the trailer park, that they were “soliciting” and that it could only be done with management’s approval first. Under Virginia law tenants have the legal right to organize and join tenant unions, this activity is protected. But due to the threats by the manager, and the lack of knowing their legal rights, the tenants became terrified of fliering any further until they were certain that their actions were actually protected by law. We reached out to the local legal aid offices for advice and they were helpful and extremely interested in the tenants’ efforts to organize. They know about the slumlord’s history and are eager to hold them accountable for their exploitative practices against working class tenants. Unfortunately the law has been crafted in such a way that if a tenant has been late in their rent payment, for example, it hangs over the head of the tenant for a year before they no longer can potentially be evicted for this infraction. Even though we know that a tenant cannot be retaliated against for organizing, if the tenant has any violation against them it can be exploited by the slumlord and their management to try to get rid of troublemakers, this is the same tactic bosses use against workers on the job if they try to organize or unionize.
The law is constructed in such a way that it places an extremely high expectation on the worker-tenant to never make a mistake, to never fall behind in their payments, to never have less-than-satisfactory performance, which gets to be arbitrarily determined by those in positions of power. It is an effective way to scare workers from even exercising their legal rights, let alone militantly rebelling against their exploitation. We have to be careful in how we maneuver and organize workers, wherever the site of struggle may be, the odds are stacked against us, the workers know it and it functions as a powerful tool over them. “Why fight? You are only going to make your life more difficult.”, “Just work with us, under our control and we’ll see if we can make things more tolerable for you”, these are the sort of capitalist arguments always given to pacify, manipulate, and control workers from rising up against their exploiters. They want workers to “go though the system” as it is a more favorable terrain where they (bosses, landlords, ect) have the lawyers, and they have the social capital with the local bureaucrats, judges, and police. That is the terrain they wish workers to struggle on as it is already under their control. And this is why it scares them if workers organize independently from all of that, they desperately do not want the class struggle to advance beyond their dominance.
The community meeting itself only had a handful of tenants turn out. This was not surprising as the tenants were too afraid of fliering any further after the first session. We were unable to reach the remaining two-thirds of the trailer park with the fliers. Even the tenants who did come were afraid because the trailer park manager made sure to be at the meeting location listed on the flier. Despite all of this we still gained more contact information from tenants interested in going further to get organized.
The lessons learned thus far are several. We potentially should have waited on a call for a community meeting so soon, perhaps we should have placed more emphasis on building more connection with other tenants first, conducted more social investigation through door knocking, and accumulated more contact information prior to fliering for a community meeting. This may have resulted in a quantitatively larger and qualitatively richer event that could have better positioned us to consolidate tenants against the landlord and management. The meeting location itself was also favorable to the manager as it was on the trailer park property, rather than finding a different location off the premises, which would have made it easier to keep the manager away and lessen the fear that the tenant-workers have about retaliation.
Our main tasks are to break the fear worker-tenants have, firstly by debunking the lies the manager is telling them about this “breaking the rules” of the trailer park, and secondly by showing them that we have collective support, that we and they are not isolated and totally at the mercy of the slumlord and management. Organizers have to understand that these fears are legitimate, we cannot simply tell workers that they just need to disregard their concerns about existential issues regarding their livelihoods and the potential of homelessness. We have to carefully build networks and ideological unity among workers that convinces them they have favorable odds of winning in any struggle they may participate in. Ultimately this is their struggle, they are the ones who have to take charge and rebel against their exploitation, we can only help facilitate that, offer suggestions and provide a political analysis as to what actions will either help them build independent working class organization or become co-opted and appropriated by their bosses, landlords, and the system they use to retain their dominance over workers.
More to come…