From Acorns grow mighty tenants’ unions

Tenants’ union ACORN has been making a splash with a string of wins over rogue landlords and a striking growth rate, which has inspired Plan C Manchester to get involved. The group explains why in the post below, originally written for Plan C.

Manchester Plan C is embarking on a year-long project to set up a branch of  the ACORN social union here in Manchester. We want to use our skills and resources to be the catalyst for a large diverse union being formed. In a year’s time we will evaluate our strategy as a group. The priority for our group this year is to build the union, begin defending our members at the local level and start campaigning at the municipal and national level. We also ideally want to see ACORN in Manchester expand rapidly beyond renting alone.

The past year has been interesting to say the least, a resurgence of support for Corbyn and the political collapse of the Conservatives in the recent election led thousands of people into hitting the streets and canvassing for the Labour Party. These thousands of people did this for many reasons, a support for a Labour Party led by Jeremy Corbyn and his party’s manifesto, a rejection of the neo-liberal management of the country, as well as general disaffection with mainstream politics and politicians. At some level this election marked the return of a level of class consciousness.  Whilst technically losing the election, most who had been involved did not feel disheartened. In England many seats which nobody could imagine ever voting Labour, such as Kensington in London, were won with a combination of an election manifesto which resonated with many people and a large canvassing campaign. As the election recedes it seems less likely a snap election will take place and there is now a potential that the energy generated by the election will ebb away. The power of community organising was demonstrated in the recent election, but without ongoing organising to provide avenues for this energy it will be lost and it is exactly this kind of political energy, structured through organisations with strategies and plans, which we need in the future, whether Corbyn wins the next election or not.

Alongside this revival of widespread class consciousness, the recent Grenfell disaster was a stark reminder that the UK’s current housing situation is in absolute disarray. Rent prices are rising, homelessness is rapidly increasing, and more and more people are being permanently locked out of secure housing (ownership or social housing). In Manchester the situation is particularly bleak. The city has over 120,000 people on the social housing waiting list and the fastest rising rent prices outside of Westminster. The past decades have seen the power in the landlord-renter relationship shift dramatically into the hands of landlords, who can raise rents and evict tenants with no legal reason (so called “revenge evictions”). Obviously it is the working class most effected by the housing crisis (indeed, it is only seen as a housing crisis now the middle class is experiencing the same conditions). Over 70,000 families are living in temporary accommodation currently in the UK. What new homes are being built are generally luxury apartments. These are perfect investments for speculators. many of the luxury apartments in Manchester city centre are unoccupied and will remain so. With the potential roll out of universal credit, meaning people have to wait up to six weeks to receive benefits, we might be seeing more people finding themselves in debt, in rent arrears or out in the cold. The housing crisis is a lived experience for huge numbers of people all facing similar problems. This, we believe, makes it an important topic for organising around.

In the electoral sphere this growing crisis is becoming a key political issue. Even the Tory party have made a measly commitment to building 5000 affordable homes a year, trying to calm people’s anger at the situation. Here in Greater Manchester the Salford Mayor, Labour Party member Paul Dennet, has been appointed to ‘radically rewrite’ the Greater Manchester Spatial Framework, which, if successful, wants to solve Manchester’s housing and homelessness crisis.  His most recent electoral pledge in April 2016 was for a fair rents commission to be set up to challenge the current model, which has let profit dictate our current housing provisions and not social need. In Greater Manchester, a region which has often been a testing ground for neo-liberal policy, this won’t be easy. A fight between the New Labour old guard in Manchester of Richard Leese and his pals versus a Corbyn inspired Mayor (or two maybe if Manchester mayor Andy Burnham gets involved) tapping into the anger and hope of the people in Greater Manchester looks likely to be brewing.

Where does Plan C fit into this?

After a summer of discussion Plan C MCR have committed to building a branch of ACORN for a minimum of a year. Manchester needs a strong tenants union willing to take direct action and we want to use our time and energy to build it. It is clear renting will remain a massive political issue and a part of our lives in which  we see the effects of class power plain and clear. We don’t want to start with single issue campaigns or simply design an activist campaign orientated round housing, but want to build the union as an instrument of class power. We have been inspired by the success of other ACORN groups across the country and the rise of small, militant unions such as United Voices of the World and the IWGB. We hope it will become a broad and effective organisation by the end of its first year and will attract many of those energised by the Corbyn election campaign. This union will defend its members at the day-to-day level but also campaign at the municipal and (hopefully) national levels using direction demands for larger structural change.

We chose to build an ACORN branch as across the UK, ACORN has seen several wins and shares our political vision of long term organising and direct action to achieve the change we want. In Bristol, the ACORN group managed to successfully campaign to stop changes to council tax in the area that would have meant 16’000 of the poorest households would have to pay extra council tax. Sheffield ACORN successfully stopped an eviction of a family with over 100 people on the streets. Through small and achievable wins, not only can we achieve better housing rights for our community, we can begin to build the confidence of other community members building our power.

As a national organisation ACORN is growing rapidly and we want to use our skills and resources to build a broad and effective branch in Manchester. We are excited about building links with other groups in the area and can already see this coming together. We want to go beyond traditional activist organising and also beyond just housing as an issue. This also means consciously aiming far beyond leftist circles and the “usual suspects” and building a large mass membership organisation. We don’t want this mass membership to merely be formal though. The challenge, as always for organising for radical social change, is how to empower our members, not to provide services for them, but to amplify their power to change their own lives. Whilst we are putting a lot of energy in at the start, we are already seeing other organisers stepping forward and we are working hard to continue this.

Plan C MCR will be also continuing our other political work in Manchester including continuing to support the red gym Street Edge and , continuing to support Partisan (Manchester’s most exciting social center project in a long time) and working with Friends of Kurdistan in solidarity with the Rojava Revolution. Some of our members are active in our Rojava Solidarity, and Radical Municipalism clusters.

ACORN will be launching officially in January but you can get involved right now. Like the union on facebook or join us here. If you are interested in joining Plan C after reading this then please message our facebook or apply via our website here