Fighting to win: Steel City Solidarity and Solidarity Networks
by Peter Marin
It is late morning in Hamilton and an unusual scene is unfolding in a quiet residential neighbourhood. I am with a group of 25 or so people, and we are gathered outside a house. We are from Steel City Solidarity, a solidarity network run out of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) local 3906–a union representing teaching assistants and other precarious academic workers at McMaster University. We are here with Dorian, who is owed hundreds of dollars in unpaid wages and unreturned deposits.
Some ten feet away is his landlord, sitting inside a black Mercedes with its engine on and windows rolled up. We wait outside his house to present our written demands. A few times we approach his car to attempt to hand him our letter. Each time we get close, he drives off a short distance. The letter lists a set of grievances and gives the landlord a week to address them in full, or else face further action (a “do not rent here” campaign... though we do not tell him this at the time).
Finally he rolls down his window and accepts our letter. As he reads the letter several times over, three police cars roll up. Neighbours and other tenants are now in the street. It is becoming quite a spectacle.
Scenes such as this one are becoming increasingly common in North American cities with active anarchist communities. Steel City Solidarity, and more recently the London, Ontario-based Forest City Solidarity, are the latest groups to spring up in southern Ontario. Common Cause members are organizers with both groups.
Much of this organizing is inspired by the very successful and well-promoted Seattle Solidarity Network, a loose affiliate of the revolutionary union, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). SeaSol, as it is known, has been active and winning victories against bosses, landlords and developers since 2007.
Solidarity networks are successful because they require relatively few resources to set up: 2-3 core organizers, a phone tree with 15-20 people who will come out to actions (such as picketing a business or visiting a landlord's home) and new cases–which are generated by putting up posters around town. These conditions exist in pretty much any city in North America, and so solidarity networks have spread quickly, much like other anarchist projects such as Food Not Bombs and CopWatch—both similar in that they succeed by making the most of the few resources available to small anarchist groups and communities.
Besides the ease with which they are established, solidarity networks meet a real need faced by our class; in every city there are workers and tenants owed unpaid wages and unreturned or bogus rent deposits. There is therefore no shortage of cases for solidarity networks to find and take on.
Solidarity networks are attractive to anarchists looking to start up mass, working class-based organizations in which to put our ideas and practices to use. Faced with a choice between a labour movement that remains a sleeping giant or working with corporate and/or State-funded community NGOs, solidarity networks offer a promising new option; they allow our movement to practice direct action and direct democracy within budding mass organizations—organizing bodies that attract and depend on the active involvement of those outside the traditional anarchist/activist milieu.
Building a solidarity network is not without its challenges. For one, many of us are not used to organizing outside of radical activist groups. While these groups have prepared us well for some of the tasks required by the solidarity network—such as organizing a successful demonstration—for other tasks–such as working one-on-one to empower a tenant or worker who is often frightened at the thought of taking collective action, or has no experience of it—our activism has not prepared us as well. It is a strength of the solidarity network that it allows anarchists to develop such organizing skills.
Another issue stems from the fact that even small anarchist and activist communities can often be fractured, making it a challenge to consistently count on a base of 15-20 or more people to be part of a sustained campaign. Fortunately, because solidarity networks start off by taking on “small time” bosses and landlords–oppressors that are “our size” —small victories are quick to come by. And nothing attracts people like winning, and the promise of more victories to come.
With the police present, the landlord finds the courage to get out of his car. Once he sees that there is nothing the police can do to make us go away he tries to negotiate with us. He offers Dorian about half of the money that is owed, pleading with him to “just get these people off my street” —a sign that he is clearly shaken by our presence. We walk away to consider the offer, all of us huddled around Dorian. The three police officers, a dozen or so neighbours and several of Dorian’s fellow tenants look on.
After some discussion and with our encouragement Dorian sticks to his demands. A cheer goes up as he delivers the news to his landlord. Seeing this, the landlord quickly agrees to our demands in full, again requesting he “just get these people off my street”. Ten minutes later he returns from the bank and hands Dorian the full amount in cash.
Moments later we are taking a “victory picture” across the street from the landlord’s home, all of us visibly moved by what we just accomplished—none more so than Dorian himself.