Since March of last year I had found myself without a shower, as Little Real Estate, who managed my home, had failed to facilitate quick and easy repairs. But after months of no shower I received notice from Little that they had good news for me. Not only was my shower to be fixed, but I was to receive a whole new bathroom. All it would take was for my entire bathroom (laundry sink, shower, hand sink and toilet) to be unusable for a short two weeks while the renovations were done. In my naivety I believed Little and trusted in them to do their job. Trying to think of it as a little holiday, I agreed to move to a cheap hotel for the two weeks while I waited out the work.
Weeks slowly became months and as a result my hotel bills built up and up while my university study suffered as a result of being forced from my home. All in all I accumulated roughly $6000 in expenses as Little continually mismanaged renovations and failed to notify me of the progress of the work. At one stage work was even halted as Little had misplaced the key to my property, leaving the workers no way to enter!
I was absolutely furious, but the only options I could see were to try and appeal to the humanity of the real estate agency in the hopes that they would be moved by the fact that I was stuck paying hand over fist for temporary accommodation while they were still collecting my rent each week.
Too bad for me that these people have no humanity. Their only concern was protecting the passive income of the property owner. They palmed me off, insisting that there was nothing they could do about the situation and that if I just held on a bit longer, the bathroom would be back to working order in a few more weeks.
As the months dragged on with no repairs in sight and my savings dwindling, I decided to approach the recently formed SEQUR to seek advice about my rights and how to proceed with the situation. The response of the union was more than I could have ever expected.
The union soon decided that they would take my struggle against Little on as a campaign. Collectively we began to construct a set of demands to be delivered as a union to Little Real Estates office in Spring Hill, and a campaign strategy began to be developed.
The ultimate goal of the campaign was clear: win back the money that the real estate's incompetence cost me. The union's overall strategy is a classic: taking collective action as a union bound together by solidarity and shared interests. Through building an understanding of the shared interests of tenants and engaging in collective action the union planned to shift the balance of power in my favour, something which my individual efforts alone were incapable of accomplishing.
The demands of the campaign were simple, clear and achievable. Firstly, that I was to be reimbursed for my out of pocket expenses in having to seek alternative accommodation, secondly, that my lease be renewed for another 12 months, thirdly that the bathroom immediately be restored to working order with there to be open and transparent communication for the remainder of the project---especially in the case of any further delays. A two week period to meet the demands was provided after which the union stated it would begin its campaign.
Once our letter of demands was written and agreed upon by the union's membership, the next step was its delivery. Around 20 committed tenant unionists walked into Little Real Estate's office on the 4th of November and ensured that our demands reached the hands of my property manager. The message to Little was clear. I was not alone or powerless. I had union power behind me.
Perhaps assuming that our demands and promise of a campaign to come was little more than a bluff, Little did not just refuse to remedy their mistakes, but notified me with an eviction notice the very next day.
SEQUR members called an emergency meeting to discuss how they would respond and the conclusion was unanimous---Little Real Estate had thrown down the gauntlet and the union would respond appropriately.
What followed was the implementation of a set of tactics that could be escalated over time. This strategy of escalating intensity increased the fighting capacity of SEQUR, which was founded only six months prior to taking on my fight against Little Real Estate.
SEQUR began by organising a campaign of mass phone-ins to Little's offices and directly to their property managers, encouraging community members to enquire about why the agents thought it was acceptable for a tenant to have to pick up such a hefty bill for their failure. Members were able to make contact on a few occasions and reported that the people they had spoken to were rather flustered by the experience. However, it was soon discovered that---whether from incompetence or pure conflict avoidance---these agents rarely answer their phones at all.
Another tactic which caused a great deal of discontent for Little's agents was what union members began referring to as 'open house disruptions'. The union organised for members to attend inspections of properties that Little was trying to sell and stand outside with banners reading 'Little Real Estate Big Mistake' while handing out flyers detailing Little's numerous shortcomings. These actions were successful in at least two ways.
First, they showed Little that the union was not backing down, that they were in for a long fight if Little did not capitulate. Second, the union members who were involved experienced a great many positive interactions with the prospective homebuyers who were attending, several of whom indicated that they would seriously reconsider doing business with Little. As a tactic the disruptions were effective precisely because it hit Little where it hurts most, damaging their reputation and their bottom line.
While these actions involved a smaller number of unionists, SEQUR maintains a principle of mass participation. Over the course of November and December 2021 members held a series of weekly pickets outside Little Real Estate's office in Spring Hill. These actions saw renters from all around Brisbane/Meanjin coming together in solidarity to fight not just for me but for the collective rights of tenants. There were passionate speeches, rowdy chanting and even a live band on occasion. Those working inside the office were so disrupted by demonstrations that they locked their doors and hired security guards, and on a couple of occasions closed the office for the whole day in order to avoid having to face their tormentors.
The pickets were paused while Little closed the office for the Christmas break, and a COVID outbreak in January and February made further mass action unviable. The demonstrations resumed in March 2022, this time with parallel pickets of Little Real Estate offices in Melbourne and Sydney by the Renters and Housing Union and Black Flag Sydney respectively.
The campaign had escalated from polite phone calls to a national mobilisation of furious renters. I was able to see firsthand the difference between me trying to negotiate on my own and being able to make demands from a position empowered with union solidarity---and victory would soon follow.
In late March 2022 the matter was heard before the Queensland Civil and Administrative Tribunal. At that hearing Little Real Estate and the landlord were ordered to pay me most of the compensation we were seeking as a union.
While the union's victory may have come by court order, we remain confident that Little would have conceded even if the court had found in Little's favour. Little knew that we had them beat, but they simply could not bring themselves to concede to the union directly, lest that serve to show the strength that tenants can find in struggling directly for their interests. Through conceding in the tribunal rather than directly to the union, Little hoped to show that 'working through the system' is a viable method for tenants, but we know that this isn't true. For every one win that tenants achieve in court there are 20 losses. Laws are made by the capitalist class, and tenants will always lose when we restrict ourselves to what crumbs they feel fit to toss us. We must always fight for our interests, not what the state has deemed to be our rights.
When I first came to SEQUR I was just a tenant looking for support. I had little knowledge or interest in anti-capitalist politics. Six months of campaigning against Little, seeing the realities of the class conflict which permeates our society and the strength that we can find as workers and tenants in collective struggle and solidarity has changed that. Now I can say that I am a proud tenant unionist and anarchist.
This is why anarchists maintain that how a campaign is fought matters, often more so than the end result. SEQUR's campaign drew a clear line in the sand which would not have gone unnoticed by the real estate industry. Tenants are getting increasingly organised, and are willing to fight for their class interests. Through this fight the union grew in experience, capacity and size and will be all the more ready for the next struggle on the horizon. If the campaign had been fought only in the courts then tenants as a collective whole would have been no better off today. However, by fighting collectively as a union SEQUR has now served to push the tenants movement towards even greater wins in the future.
But more than that by engaging in a direct struggle I was transformed. And I was not the only one. When we fight we open the possibility for great victories for our class, but just as importantly we transform our consciousness. We gain an understanding of our collective interests as a class, and learn that we have power in that collective interest. Direct struggle more so than any election drive or piece of propaganda is our most effective means for growing socialism.
I will forever be thankful to SEQUR for fighting for me, for showing me that we can fight, that we do have power. That is why mass organisations of the working class are so essential. They are the fighting organisation of the class and the school for socialism.
That is the lesson I learnt in SEQUR and it's a lesson I won't soon forget.