By C.R. Mills
Nearly every major politician in California recognizes the right of residents to organize in the workplace. From Gavin Newsom to Diane Feinstein, Jerry Brown to Nancy Pelosi, the path to power in our state runs through labor. Union members knock on doors and heavily fund campaigns for Democratic politicians to get elected; even centrist members of the party, while sometimes voting against the interests of unions, would never argue that workers shouldn’t have the right to organize. These same politicians now face a crucial decision: does their belief in the right of people to organize in the workplace extend to people’s right to organize in their homes as well?
This Monday, Senate Bill 529 (SB529) will be heard in the State Senate’s Appropriations Committee. Simply stated, the bill would ensure tenants can organize against their landlords. Similar to workers’ relationship to their boss, tenants find themselves at the mercy of an individual or corporation with tremendous power over their lives: landlords. Also similar to workplace organizing before strong labor laws, tenants face harsh retaliation from landlords when they try to join together to demand better conditions in their lives.
Just ask Betty Galbadon, a Concord resident evicted with her daughter from her home of eight years after she organized a tenant association. “I was evicted because I worked to protect my family and my neighbors,” she told Tenants Together, a statewide tenant advocacy group. “Renters like me deserve the right to fight for safe, livable housing and not be afraid of retaliation from landlords.”
SB 529 offers several straightforward strategies to keep tenants safe if they decide to work together towards better housing. Under the bill, residents in a tenant association can’t be evicted without a justifiable cause and can launch a rent strike to ensure their landlord must negotiate with them about concerns they have about their housing. The bill would also increase the penalties if landlords retaliate against tenant organizers.
From one perspective, there’s nothing new about SB 529. It essentially transfers the same organizing rights that state Democrats so vocally support from the workplace to the home.
From another perspective, however, the bill represents a massive change in the power dynamic between renters and landlords. This change couldn’t come at a better time. The state’s epic affordable housing crisis forces many renters to scramble for housing they can barely afford. For example, two-thirds of the state’s 2 million very low-income renter households spend more than half their income on rent. The fear of being unable to find another home leaves many renters too scared to risk any chance of being evicted, including the risk of organizing against substandard conditions or unfair treatment by their landlords. SB 529 would change that.
The only reason passage of SB 529 might not happen comes down to a simple fact: just as labor unions assist Democratic politicians in getting elected, so do real estate interests. Organized real estate spent $1.3 million in a single year getting Democrats in California elected - they expect payback for their generosity.
SB 529 must be approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee to move forward. It would seem the hypocrisy of committee members who routinely voice support for labor unions turning their back on tenants who want the same rights would be too apparent for them to consider a ‘no’ vote; ultimately, a vote against SB 529 would be a vote against unions. But if history is any guide, choosing the interests of wealthy landlords over vulnerable tenants has not been a problem for many Democratic politicians.
That’s why tenant organizers want support for SB 529. The hearing for SB 529 starts at 10 a.m. in Room 4203 this Monday. You can either attend the hearing to declare your support for tenants’ right to organize, or call the numbers here to voice your support for giving renters more power in their lives to achieve the decent living conditions they deserve (the support of Toni Atkins is particularly important).