Late this past July, a small group of activists from around the United States and Canada converged in Seattle for the first ever International Solidarity Network Conference. After spending the weekend discussing organizing skills and listening to presentations from groups as far away as Hamilton, Ontario, on Sunday afternoon the attendees piled into cars and headed to the Tressa Apartment complex in the north Seattle neighborhood of Shoreline to do what solidarity networks do best: picket, fight, and win.
The apartment complex, owned by the national real estate group FPI Management, had kept hundreds of dollars of a former tenant’s security deposit, despite telling him that only sixty to seventy dollars would be deducted for general cleaning. The tenant and his family had considered taking the company to small claims court, until they heard about the Seattle Solidarity Network, or SeaSol for short. After consulting with SeaSol organizers, the family decided they would rather resolve their grievances through direct action. Together with activists from the network, they spoke with other Tressa residents and hung posters around their neighborhood urging potential tenants not to rent there. Following weeks of community outreach—and shortly after a spirited, attention-grabbing picket, the tenant received a check from FPI Management for the remainder of the security deposit.
The fight with FPI Management is just one example of a new model of worker and tenant organizing that has begun to emerge in recent years in the United States, Canada, and elsewhere. Solidarity networks are volunteer mutual support groups that organize around specific cases using collective, direct action tactics. Decisions within the group are made on a directly democratic basis at weekly meetings, with no elected officers. There are no specialized professional organizers, and groups don’t have any regular funding sources outside of small individual donations. “We believe its more advantageous to build power in the long run if we can structure ourselves in a way where we don’t need paid staff, we don’t need lawyers,” Andrew, a SeaSol organizer, told Dollars & Sense. (He asked us to only use his first name.) “All we need is to continue organizing regular people to solve these problems ourselves.”
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So far, the strategy seems to be paying off. Since a small group of activists in Seattle started organizing according to the solidarity-network model, in late 2007, SeaSol has taken on over forty different cases, winning the vast majority and getting back thousands of dollars in withheld wages and security deposits for dozens of workers and tenants. Such a high rate of success has inspired other groups, not only here, but also around the world. The Seattle Solidarity Network’s website lists contact information for over forty other solidarity networks, including groups as far away as Glasgow, Scotland, and Brisbane, Australia. “I think a lot of [activists] are frustrated with feeling like we’re losing all the time,” Andrew continues, explaining one appeal of the solidarity-network model and its smaller scale. “I think it’s attractive to people in that they can see that here is something where we can use our skills, our energy, our organizing power to tangibly improve someone’s life in a way that will also hopefully help us build a broader movement.”
The general decline of union membership over the past decades along with a shift towards a service-oriented economy in the United States has also created a vacuum that solidarity networks aim to fill. Take, for example, the a small college town and former steel and manufacturing center of Huntington, West Virginia, a union stronghold until the 1970s when deindustrialization hit the region. “[Unions] just don’t have a very heavy presence here anymore,” Dan, an organizer with Huntington’s Jewel City Solidarity Network told Dollars & Sense.
For their part, unions have been scrambling to adapt. At the AFL-CIO’s quadrennial conference this past September in Los Angeles, six different resolutions were passed aimed at broadening the base of the labor movement. Some unions have began funding smaller, direct-action-oriented organizing efforts: OURWalmart, which organized protests and employee walkouts at Walmarts in 15 cities across the United States this September, and the SEIU-backed Fight For 15 campaign, which this August mobilized fast food workers in around 60 U.S. cities for a one day walk out.
But the decentralized character of most service-sector workplaces still poses serious challenges for organizing efforts, and some activists feel that big unions’ efforts at broadening their base still fall short. “A lot of them don’t deal with housing issues or see the connection between those issues and workplace issues.” Dan told Dollars & Sense. “While labor seems to nationally be coming around to organizing service industry folks, or folks in more marginal employment, here [in Huntington] they haven’t quite caught onto that yet. There doesn’t seem to be much interest on their part.”
Many workers at the kinds of small workplaces that solidarity networks target are desperate for a way to engage in collective action. A 2008 report by researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago, UCLA, and the National Employment Law Project found that “workers at businesses with less than 100 employees were at greater risk of experiencing [workplace] violations than those at larger businesses.”
For organizers like Andrew, this situation presents a gap that solidarity networks can help fill. “Here’s a situation where we can actually, using only our own power and imagination, collectively really change something [and] win tangible victories, even if its for scraps. Its something where we can actually have more power than a given boss or landlord and make them do what we want them to do.”
Frederick Douglass famously wrote, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” SeaSol and other solidarity networks are rediscovering this and pressing demands, one boss (or landlord) at a time.