James Vazzana / Gavel Media

An Inside Look at Greater Boston Tenants' Union

Greater Boston Tenants’ Union is an anti-capitalist and police abolitionist organization which seeks to build a “world without landlords”—that is to say, a society ruled by the working class. On June 14, Nick Watter of GBTU joined The Gavel’s Albar Shahnoor for an interview (upon which this article is based) about the union’s formation, activities, and goals. Their site can be found here. Nick’s answers have been edited for clarity and cohesion. 

Some GBTU History and Background

Greater Boston Tenants’ Union formed out of necessity. A lot of us came out of Boston Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), and we were doing tenant organizing through the Housing Working Group. There were also some people who came out of a mutual aid group in the Somerville-Medford area. Many of those people who were in MAMAS, the mutual aid group, were also part of DSA, but not all. We formed in October of 2020, and this was right as the Boston, Massachusetts eviction moratorium was ending. We formed GBTU as an autonomous tenant union, autonomous meaning that the organization is fully funded by its members. We pay dues anywhere from $1 to $5 a month, and this is just to help fund the operations. This is the same model as L.A.Tenants Union [LATU], Philly Tenants Union, and Bay Area Tenant and Neighborhood Councils, or TANC, as they are commonly called. And a huge variety of this is all part of a network called the Autonomous Tenants Union Network, or ATUN. The reason why we wanted to be autonomous is that we really wanted this organization to eventually be a mass movement representing working-class people in Boston, one that isn't reliant on money from the state, or any type of private grants­—which most nonprofits are. They are funded by grants, sometimes by the state, and because of that, it puts a lot of limitations on them. 

We feel that working-class institutions have been largely eroded, and it's left a vacuum, which is quite obvious when you look at the right-wing populism that's still very popular despite Trump being gone. Meanwhile, you have liberals and nonprofits thinking, “Oh, all we need to do is…” I don't want to rag on all these people because there are obviously people who do good work, but I will say that their vision lacks revolutionary horizon. Their vision is pretty much hoping to get what little reforms that they can possibly get. I know that sounds harsh but I just want to be real about why we felt the need to form the Greater Boston Tenants’ Union. And this is why other tenant unions—the autonomous tenant unions that are part of the network—also formed because they have a similar vision: we want eventually to have long-lasting tenant unions that are affiliated with us, that don't just win one demand or that just push purely for a reform like rent control. All those things would be great and would help us, but we really want them to be long-lasting, for them to form a counter-power to capitalist hegemony. That's personally what I want, but it's a mass org, so obviously we're gonna have people with various reasons for joining us. We definitely are not zealots where you have to believe in one ideology, but we do have points of unity that you can look at on our website that state very specifically what we're about.

Getting Involved with GBTU

There's two ways you can join GBTU. You can join us as an At-Large member. First, it’s all run by tenants­­—we do not allow landlords, and we do not allow police officers or anyone connected to the carceral state, nor people who are connected to the real estate industry. If you work in property management—some people might go, “What if they’re a tenant too?”—you're upholding real estate capital which might put you at odds with some of our politics, so we don't allow that. But we do allow homeowners as long as they are not landlords. You can be a homeowner but you can't vote on or propose things, so you can be more of a supporter, a solidarity organizer.

Now, there are a few ways that you can join as an At-Large member. Generally, if you're a tenant, we'll usually do a one-on-one interview, which is a little on-boarding process: tell you what we're about; go over the points of unity; make sure that even if you disagree on some of them, then you will least agree that this organization runs on these lines and that you can handle that. What happens if you're an At-Large member is that you eventually start organizing your building if you feel comfortable, or if you don't do that, then you help organize other buildings. And this is the hardest part: building our capacity to have organizers willing to show their solidarity and really go canvassing, do one-on-ones and really talk to working-class people. That's hard because it takes a lot of training. That’s one thing that we are trying to implement more, to have more in our onboarding process and to have more trainings that really get people comfortable, maybe pair them with somebody who's an experienced organizer to show them the ropes of this type of organizing because it's not hard, but it does take a commitment. Say, you get a phone number of a tenant, of someone in a building we’ve canvassed. We are hoping that you will follow up with them and maintain a relationship. And that is hard, it's stressful. Once you've formed these relationships with tenants, you take on a lot, but we think it's imperative because why would people trust us if we're just these outsiders? We really want people to realize that we're in this for the long haul, this isn't just a hobby that we do. We are looking at this like a job. Also, if you’re a tenant, you can join us by agreeing with our principles of unity.

Another way that people get involved is if they’re organizing their building on their own. If you want to affiliate with us, we try to ask at least one or two people from that building-level tenants’ union to join GBTU in official capacity, just so we have a representative of that union. By voting to affiliate with us, you will have access to, for example, printing for flyers and all this stuff, or to help if you want us to put stuff on social media. So we've had a few tenant unions like one Somerville tenants union where some members are actual GBTU members. They are affiliated with us, and they have access to all the resources that they need, as much as we can offer. Same with Fineberg Tenants’ Union, which has almost 200 members—they even have their own leadership board! So not all of their members are GBTU members, but they are affiliated with us, and we will support them on actions that they do and really try to help them. In short, there's two ways to join GBTU: you can be an At-Large member and you can just join and we hope that you either want to organize a building or help organize others; or you can form a tenants’ union, either with our help or just on your own, and then decide to affiliate with us. 

Of our members, almost 70 are dues-paying. Alongside that, we have a number of affiliated tenants’ unions and organizing projects that probably have a few hundred people, roughly. There are some tenant unions that have voted to affiliate with us and not every single member is technically a dues-paying member of GBTU, but they have a few delegates essentially allotted to be dues-paying members. And you don't have to agree 100% with everything, but you have to at least agree that the org that you're affiliated with, is going to remain autonomous of nonprofits, of politicians, of any type of organization that we think doesn't really align with our values and what we call base building.

What Does GBTU Membership Mean?

GBTU MEETINGS AND ORGANIZING

We used to have weekly meetings over zoom. We might change that to bi-weekly but we haven't decided since we need to have a vote. We also want to be aware that we are a mass org, and we want to make sure that if we do have in-person meetings, they're in places that working-class people would go to. We don't want to just do it all in Cambridge or all in Somerville, we would do it in places like Mattapan and Hyde Park. As of now, the meetings are all on Zoom, which we know still has problems for many people who might not be accustomed to that technology or don't have internet. We are also starting to do more outdoor events, not a total meeting but just trying to get ourselves out there and meeting in parks, and trying to have a more social aspect because part of this project is also building bonds of solidarity with each other. That, again, is to counter how alienated we are under capitalism. It's important to rebuild those bonds: social outings, going to the park, playing soccer, having a picnic­—we look at all these things as tools to help us build.

Usually, we’ll have weekly meetings, possibly bi-weekly, where affiliated tenants’ unions will come up with their own meetings. People who are at large members who are working against a specific landlord, generally meet once a week, for anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour just to figure out if they're canvassing on the weekend or a weekday, or just to do check-ins. A lot of us will be assigned various tenants and buildings, and we’ll want to know what's up, and we’ll want to share that information. It’s also just a great way to talk about organizing. Recently, we tabled the softball game by La Liga Dominicana, a Dominican slowpitch softball in Hyde Park. So we're trying to figure out ways of not just door-knocking to target specific landlords, but also just getting our name out in communities. And it's a process. Most of us—not all, but most of us—we don't live in the communities that we’re organizing, and we have to be aware of that. We have to make a presence and show that we're in this long haul—we're not just trying to get you to sign this petition or to donate money to us. We really want to form these relationships with people.

GBTU AND DSA

As far as our relationship to DSA, we are autonomous from them. Many of the early members were part of the DSA Housing Working Group. However, we don't get any funds from them at all. Usually, the only interaction is if people are in DSA who really want to get into tenant organizing, then we will of course refer them to Greater Boston Tenants’ Union. The most you could say is that we are in a loose coalition with them because it’s obvious that people in DSA have supported events that we've done. 

And look, it would be great if everyone joined DSA, but let's be real, that might not happen. I think more people are more likely to join the mass org that's based around a specific contradiction in capitalism, so it could be a labor union, for instance. In our case, it's the tenants union. More people are going to join that than DSA, knowing the landlord-tenant relationship. I think they're going to see that this is how they live. It's not that they don't understand how capitalism works, because people live this in daily life, but I think having a tenants’ union that's really connected to anti-capitalism is the way to go. And I think DSA can be great to find committed organizers, those who really believe in this type of project because they joined DSA because they want to get involved politically.

ACCESSIBILITY

This has been hard, but we're trying to move to Slack. That’s alien to people though—I don't even use Slack for my work! I never used it until I actually joined DSA, which I find hilarious, because it's an app that's meant for workspaces, and I’m thinking “Aren’t we challenging this entire concept of work?” But we're living in a digital world, so we have Slack, which is generally just for announcements. We are also really trying to transition to using WhatsApp. I know everyone in the Left wants to use Signal, but we found that most people, especially immigrant communities, have WhatsApp. It's just a common app that people have. It's very easy and it's so common. Everywhere we go, when we talk to tenants, 90% of the time, they go “I have WhatsApp,” so you can add them to a group. As far as other logistical stuff, that has always been a challenge. There are people who join and go, “Look I don't have the capacity to go out and  knock on doors, but I could make phone calls to tenants, and I could help do some organizing.” We have a list of people who have expressed interest or gone on canvases, so what we are doing now is texting or calling people to follow up and ask if they’d like to come back, or if they want to join. We have two WhatsApp groups, one just for members and the other for GBTU supporters for people who aren't official members that just want to keep in the loop.

How Does GBTU Organize?

In union organizing, they have one-on-one conversations with someone. This works the same way in tenant organizing. You just have to talk to people—constant text messages or emails, actually pick up the phone, or better yet, meet someone in person, socially distanced—or I guess not if you’re vaccinated. My point is to have a conversation, get some coffee, just really talk to people to pull them in because I think the follow-up is what is really hard. For example, one thing that we do is that two of our comrades will do a bi-weekly “office hours.” These are two really experienced organizers, and they'll each have a different theme. If you are a new member and you want to learn about how to write a demand letter or something, they might have that theme and they'll show up and just discuss. This is a way for new members to get some basic training. It's not super expensive, but it's just that you have the option of people who have been doing this for a long time and know what they’re talking about. So, for example, on Tuesday I can go talk to somebody about an issue. We’ve also been trying to have a regular hang-out. We've changed our meetings a lot. We used to have our meetings (on Zoom) with everyone there. It initially worked but for new people, it also could be alienating if you haven't been doing this work, thinking, “Wow, these people have been doing this, I don't even want to step in.” So, we've been really trying to change meetings to utilize breakout rooms to have small discussions. It’s great for new people so instead of just talking to a big group of 40 or 50 people on a call, they can talk to just five people, which is much less intimidating. 

Organizing Struggles and Dealing with them

FATIGUE

I’ve had fatigue for a project that I’ve worked on against a landlord for over a year now. We've had tons of ups and downs, and tenants come and go. Sometimes—and this is the hardest thing—it's okay to let a project go for a little bit, not completely abandon it, but realize we're pumping all our resources into this, we have limited capability, so maybe we can find something else for the moment. This is something we struggle with because we want to win. We are going entirely against the grain of what radical organizing is. We're not doing pressure campaigns. We're not trying to pressure lobby politicians. We're not just fighting for some reform. We are trying to organize working-class people, to fight against their landlord so they can take back their housing. To combat burnout or fatigue just really, again, reach out to fellow radicals.

We really need to give people an outlet so that they can feel connected to this org and also accept that it's okay to take a week, two weeks off. It's okay to take even a month off! The hope is that you don't just take the month off and realize, “I don't want to go back.” I'm not into the whole self-care ideology that gets pushed, but it is okay, if you're really stressed out, to take a step back.

I'll say personally, from my own personal experience, myself and another person had been working on this project for a long time—this is key, I think maybe this is the most important point—we should always, always be trying to transfer our skills. This is big in labor unions but if you're a skilled organizer and you’re working on a project, you better hope that within a few months, that those people you've been working with have the exact same skills as you have, that you've created another community organizer. 

Circling back, for me personally, I was working on a project that was just two of us, really. We had people come and go, with just two of us committed, but we started getting more people so I really took it upon myself to reach out to these people, who were new to leftist politics. I basically told them, “No, you can do this, you have this skill, you can do this and really help us.” I got to the point where I no longer had to be the only person for this particular project. I could say that they got it going, they have it moving along, and I think that's really important. If you're the center of a project, when you get new people in, really try to make them feel part of it because you will want to take that break, and you might not be able to go on a canvas every weekend. Now, I have people who are so dedicated, and it made us much closer. We feel very connected to each other, and it's because all of us spent the time: I train people, then those people train new people, right, and then that makes them feel connected to this right, and we have a very great working relationship! Yeah, we have disagreements, but that's key to really beating burnout, creating more and more organizers, so you can take a step back for a little bit and have them go, and then they're going to train more organizers, and then they might need to take a breather for a while, and then you still have that momentum. It’s hard, you really have to be willing to pick up the phone, talk to people, and make them feel that what they're doing has some purpose. If you just treat them purely as a volunteer, “Oh cool, you're just free labor, thank you for showing up”, then why would they come back? I've had a lot of people telling me to come to an action plan but then they never do follow up with you. So, you think, “Well, they didn’t follow up, maybe it wasn't that important.”

COMMITMENT

I just really want to highlight the social aspect. You want to create more organizers, and you have to be willing to do that work. Mind you, I'm an educator, so I have students, and I'm always trying to learn with my students. That’s another thing is you're not just transferring your own knowledge. People are not empty vessels, you also learn from them. I learned a lot from people who told me, “Oh I don't really have a lot of experience,” then they suddenly have these really amazing skills I never thought of, and they end up being amazing at talking to tenants. I've one person, in particular, who was able to talk to tenants who were going through some very serious crises. This was stressful work—we're not social workers—but she was so good at making these tenants feel comfortable that she was able to help them. It really opened up an entire project for us because these tenants were like “Wow, these people are real, they don’t just have some agenda that they're trying to push on us, they actually care about us and they care about, they care about this organizing.” My point is that in order for people to be committed and to avoid that burnout, you just have to make people feel that they belong, that they can learn from others, and that they can teach other people.

Politicizing Tenants’ Unionism 

One of the hardest things of tenant organizing is that we want to build long-lasting institutions that are not just for one particular kind of rental cycle. We want these to be long-lasting for years, to be a counter-power. Sometimes tenants get demands met very quickly. The landlord gets scared because they’re not used to this type of organizing. Also, depending on the size of the landlord, sometimes they might just completely fold. People will have most of the demands met quickly and when that happens, of course it's great, but also tenants go, “Well, okay, we got our demands met, cool.” This is where I think the role of political education really becomes important. 

The first thing is that it’s not just about getting your immediate demands. The idea is to hopefully have tenants realize that this will keep happening. You might have a small win here, but as long as the tenant-landlord relationship exists in our society, as long as that contradiction exists, then this will be happening over and over and over again. That’s one thing I've been really trying to do. We're not talking about political education where we just shove a bunch of theory against some tenants and be like, “You must believe this.” That does not work. Political education should emphasize that tenant mistreatment isn't because your landlord is an evil person. I think that's what a lot of people think, “Oh this landlord just sucks, I want a better one.” That’s not really what it's about. All landlords have the same relationship with tenants. There are some who are just absolutely despicable human beings. Many of them are, in fact. And then there are some who act like they're really nice people, but when you really get down to it, it's the same relationship. I think to sustain this, we're going to have to do a much better job of really politicizing and emphasizing that, no matter where you go, as long as you're a renter, you're under the thumb of the landlord and capitalism.

I look at all of these struggles as a totality of capitalist oppression. Racism and white supremacy are ways of enforcing class rule, through trying to heighten differences between different ethnic groups and races. Like it or not, in the United States, working-class oppression is so tied to race that, for example, specifically in Boston, we have such a deep history of terrible redlining and complete disinvestment and dispossession of non-white working-class people. In the Boston Globe, from 2017 I believe, they have a statistic that in Boston alone, the median wealth of a white family is six figures. The median wealth of black families is  $7. Okay, there you go, you have the economic aspect! How can you say that race and class aren't together, right? Also, when looking at Breonna Taylor, many people are arguing that police had been doing raids and searches on this particular neighborhood where she lived because of gentrification. Developers were really trying to develop, and they were trying to really start cracking down and they thought, “Ooh, here's a way: crime,” to make it a very hard place to live. There you have an example of the State and police working hand in hand with capital.

Housing is also a hugely feminist issue. It’s another site of work, right? In our society, people look at all the work you do at your home as not counting as work because you don't get a wage for it. That’s fundamentally flawed. What we call reproductive struggles are so fundamental to the reproduction of capitalism. All of the gendered labor from washing dishes to taking care of children, all of that care work happens in the home, and it shows right there that we have a direct link to how we relate this to a feminist cause. It seems that a lot of people think it's hard to connect, but I look at capitalism and all these different forms of oppression as a totality—something you can't really separate from each other. Some people think, “Oh well, let's just only talk about class,” but that's hard to do, and some people say, “We should only talk about race, let's avoid the class part,” and I’m saying you can't do this! It's so interconnected, you have to talk about all of them. Also, the definition we have of a tenant isn't just somebody who rents. We look at a tenant­­—we took this from LATU—as anyone who does not control their housing. So, a person who is houseless, living on the street, is also a tenant in our book because they don't control their housing. 

You can expand this definition of tenants to really include a lot of dispossessed people. That’s how I would see it. We really try hard to connect these. It's sometimes hard and difficult because it can seem very abstract. But in Boston, once you go to these neighborhoods that are predominantly non-white majority renters and with the highest evictions, you'll go there and it's just so obvious. You can witness with your eyes when you go into some of these canvassing in some of these neighborhoods, that it's really not that abstract.

NGOs: Friend or Foe?

This is a touchy subject for people because everyone thinks, “Oh, of course, they [NGOs] are doing great work, look at them,” but when you really get into the nitty-gritty of their overall vision, I look at nonprofits as being an auxiliary of the state. Our government should be funding healthcare, aiding people who are houseless and are living on the street, who have mental illness, who are dealing with addiction, but it doesn't—we don't have healthcare for everyone. What largely happens is that nonprofits fill this void, and they do not have the resources to get everyone, and they end up becoming completely embroiled in the State machinery, even though they seem independent, thus being very limited.

We have principles of unity, and principle number two says that we will remain independent of NGOs and will be fully member-funded, and that we want to be tenant-led. I think we really, really have to refer to that. One thing we wanted to do is eventually officially become affiliated with the Autonomous Tenant Union Network, which also has the same principles. If we're very cognizant of that, and if we really hold those principles of unity to be true, then I'm not really worried. We’re very strict on how we get money. This is fundamentally one of the most important aspects of organizing: team member funding.

Looking to the Future

We're eventually going to—I can't believe I haven't done this already—create an email list, and do a monthly newsletter that will have tenants posting stories, updates, organizing projects, and just what the future of GBTU looks like.

We’re hoping to set up locals in various neighborhoods. This is what L.A.Tenants’ Union and TANC does in the Bay Area. For tenants who might want to organize a building but it may be hard for them at the moment, we would want to create a space where they can at least meet other tenants in their neighborhood. We’re in the very beginning stages and we'll probably have a vote. We still need to have a vote on to see if this is the direction that we want to go in. From talking to the LATU people and organizers there, it seems to be—I mean, they did it for L.A.because it’s this giant metropolis—that it would help people feel connected and more comfortable to be in a local tenants’ union in their neighborhood. My hope is within the next year we can at least have one local, or maybe to set up in neighborhoods, especially working-class neighborhoods, specifically. So that's the goal.

There are some projects that we've been working on for a long time, for almost a year, especially in areas in Roxbury, Mattapan, Hyde Park. These are the areas that have high concentrations of working-class people, generally non-white, majority renters, which also have the highest eviction rates because of long histories of horrible redlining, outright discrimination, and white supremacy. We're still dealing with that, so we have some of those projects that are starting to really pick up. I'm excited for the summer, let's just say.

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