HENS & the counter-campaign

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by Anders B.

St Paul, Minnesota is poised to become a leader in the fight for housing justice. A combination of the capitol city having favorable criteria for putting initiatives on the ballot, add to that tireless efforts of organizers and volunteers has led to a major opportunity for St Paul voters to pass a rent stabilization ordinance that would cap residential rental increases at 3% annually. The coalition group is called Housing Equality Now St Paul (HENS) and the ballot initiative is affectionately referred to by the campaign as “Keep St Paul Home”. I urge readers to peruse the campaign’s site and learn more about the specifics of the ballot initiative, the importance of rent stabilization efforts, and see just how many left and progressive groups with solid ties to many communities have been eager to attach their names to the effort. Twin Cities DSA has been a proud endorsee of this campaign and I know many St Paul comrades have put a lot of labor into one of the most ambitious rent stabilization campaigns in any US city.

However this piece isn’t intended to focus on the nuts & bolts of this policy proposal; there are people far more knowledgeable than I who can speak on those particulars. As committed as I am to a more just housing policy, it is not an arena of struggle where I spend the bulk of my time. Labor organizing is my main focus and as we get closer to voting for rent stabilization I want to offer the perspective of a labor organizer on how the public facing side of the campaign is shaping up. There are some strong parallels emerging between common patterns in a union drive and some of the public pushback on the HENS campaign. People working more closely with the campaign have an entire team and strategy for how to formally respond to pushback, but how should the rest of us approach contentious discussion, especially in online settings? In short what are the best practices that organized socialists should use to first recognize the nature of public pushback, and second respond in ways that strengthen the campaign and work to bring more people on board.

Signs That You Have Traction

Weeks ago the HENS campaign wowed observers when the deadline for ballot initiative signatures arrived and campaign organizers submitted double the minimum needed. An effort that stuck to the fundamentals of canvassing and community education combined with a sharp focus on key neighborhoods and community groups formed a solid foundation to the campaign. A team of sharp and dedicated organizers built on that foundation with thousands of hours of not just getting signatures, also ensuring that every possible signature submitted was gathered within all of the process requirements for ballot initiatives.

More recently we have seen a sudden wave of public commentary that raises “concerns” about this initiative. Whether it’s a twitter thread, a blog post or a letter to the editor, the final stretch before Election Day 2021 we are seeing more and more dire warnings about scary hypotheticals as it becomes increasingly plausible that this initiative will be approved by the votes of our St Paul neighbors.

All of this should have some familiar echoes to anyone who has played a role in a union drive. When workplace unions are announced, the employer has the option of either agreeing to volunteering recognition of the union and immediately moving on to negotiations, or the employer can force a vote to happen among all employees eligible for the union…and most employers chose the latter. There are all sorts of more or less straightforward parallels to be drawn between the HENS ballot initiative and a union drive with what we can call “the counter-campaign” being the most clear cut.

The Counter-Campaign

The counter-campaign always has two sides to it; the coordinated pushback and the individual cold feet. Sometimes the two can be closely tied together, and other times they can be simultaneous yet still distinct.

The coordinated pushback can be broadly defined as persons or groups in positions of power and influence using that power to run misinformation and intimidation efforts. In a union drive that might mean captive audience meetings where bosses intimate all sorts of calamities that could befall the business should the union become official. There might have to be lay-offs! You all could lose the good things you already have! The business itself might have to move elsewhere to stay afloat, presumably someplace with weaker organized labor! The ballot initiative side looks a little different because the counter-campaign can’t compel residents to attend captive audience meetings. However filling postal boxes with disinfo mailers, buying up physical and online ad space, or laundering thinly veiled editorial pieces through notable local news outlets are all straightforward ways that real estate developers and related business interests are known to use when fighting public policy that would scrape away even the smallest bit of their power.

The individual cold feet can be trickier to identify initially because it is far less “in your face” than the coordinated pushback. A coworker who has long said they favor unions in the abstract seem to all of a sudden have second thoughts now that having a union has moved from something to discuss during an after hours meeting to something publicly visible and plausibly within reach. Maybe the coworker is repeating the boss’ talking points. Maybe they are becoming noticeably uncomfortable when a core organizer asks to confirm how they’ll vote. The parallels here should be abundantly clear to anyone with even a light connection to housing policy discussions on social media (especially Twitter). A collection of voices who will swear upon every holy text in history that they are true believers in renter protections broadly speaking…it’s just that this specific situation is not a good fit. “I’m pro-union” your coworker declares, “I just don’t think this specific workplace is a good fit for a union.” “I’m pro renter protection policy” your savvy housing policy acquaintance on twitter declares “I just don’t think this specific proposal is a good fit for our situation.” 

Sometimes the individual cold feet can be activated by the coordinated pushback, other times it emerges independently. Either way there are typically pre existing pieces that, while never making cold feet inevitable, do make certain persons more susceptible to losing heart when the campaign reaches a point where everyone has to make a clear decision of which side of the line they will sort themselves.

Practical Lessons on How to Keep the Faith

Fortunately labor organizing holds some best practices that help to deal with both the coordinated pushback and the individual cold feet. And (spoiler alert) I am happy to say that we can see how the formal efforts of the HENS campaign and supporters in the wider world are already utilizing these best practices to keep voters focused on winning the ballot initiative.

Union drives succeed when a critical mass of workers recognize that despite whatever divides them in the world, their fates are still tied together. Various workplace departments may have grievances so widely varied they can appear polar opposites of each other. Individuals and groups of workers may experience vastly different hurdles in the workplace due to different degrees of oppression they experience in the wider world. However they succeed when enough of them recognize that however different things may look on the receiving end, in a workplace all things good or bad are part of the same structure and so they as workers need to have a distinct voice in policies and practices of the business.

Building and maintaining that shared worker consciousness ideally starts long before there is any public use of the word “union”. Successful union organizers know how to map out who in their workplace has earned the trust and influence of their peers. Organizers learn to identify cohesive groups then seek to bring them in as a group. Organizers learn who is more isolated then seeks to forge genuine connections to them so that they can be brought in as part of the larger group. In essence the core organizers are simultaneously identifying social relationships that already exist, building new relationships on top of that, and most importantly ensuring that more and more of their coworkers can see the web of relationships just as clearly. This all means that when the coordinated pushback comes there will already be formal and informal structures to warn in advance of the widely used talking points the bosses will use. This also seeks to ensure that if an individual coworker is getting cold feet that there will be someone within the emerging union who will have a solid enough relationship to have a direct conversation, hear their concerns, counteract misinformation and do what they can to bring the coworker back into the group.

This all maps onto how we should (and for many already are!) approaching the pushback on the HENS campaign. When someone has a bad take on rent stabilization, it’s completely correct to respond, and we can sketch out what we know works better or worse:
Keep circling back to the main issues. It may be necessary to point out factual errors in someone else’s argument, or point out specific reasons why the source may be operating in less than good faith. The end point however is to get more people to vote for something. Our counter arguments should always and rapidly pivot back to the issue at hand whether it’s “A union means we have a voice” or “This policy keeps rents from skyrocketing and will especially protect black and brown renters”.

It’s all about relationships. When it comes to informal advocacy (away from coordinated canvassing or tabling) our most likely success is in persuading those persons you already know. Work on those closest to you, then when you’ve done all you can there, help each of them persuade whoever is closest to them. You should certainly respond to sincere questions coming from someone you don’t know as well or at all, however the strongest effect you can have outside of canvassing is with those you know best.

It’s okay to move on when there’s no traction. Sometimes people just aren’t persuadable. Sometimes people just aren’t persuadable right now. Anyone who has canvassed or tabled for a campaign has experienced that there are those who are just uninterested and those who are actively hostile. The same dynamic can be seen in social settings and online. If someone seems to be only interested in endless debate, if it seems like nothing will swing them over, then trust your instincts, end the conversation and redirect your energy to others who might be more amenable. 

The naysayers want your attention, don’t give it to them. Many times in union drives or when a powerful new policy is within arm’s reach, people will become hostile to the change because they see it as not just a change in process but a change in power dynamics, a reframing of what is politically possible. Some people oppose positive change for very measurable material reasons, others just because they would then have to share a spotlight they thought was exclusive. Social media is full of such persons so don’t let yourself get pulled in.

Different audiences may call for different response style. You may be a core member of a campaign’s leadership team, or you may be someone who made a donation and boosts stuff on social media, but there are a lot of observers who won’t know or care about that distinction. Workers and renters want better things, what they don’t want is to take risks on pipedreams and their perception of who is organizing for change greatly affects how seriously they will take an offer to help try to change their world. So how you present yourself as someone publicly associated with the campaign matters. This does not mean you act passionless, it means we learn to ask ourselves how we are directing our passion towards bringing more people in, versus aiming our passion at those who have already announced they have selected themselves to stay out. Caring about seeing a campaign succeed means stopping yourself to ask what is the benefit of actively antagonizing a specific person or group; maybe there’s a very valid reason but did you ask yourself the question first? Being serious about improving people’s lives and building power means developing an awareness of who is one’s audience at any given time. Important issues like labor unions and rental rates are always going to elicit strong feelings. We are after all trying to make people’s lives fundamentally better. Yet passion in organizing is like fire, powerful when focused, but damaging when it takes on a life of its own.

And if you screw up on any of these, just admit to yourself you were wrong, apologize if it’s a relationship you want to maintain, then move forward.

Eyes on the Prize

Overall I think that most everyone connected to and supportive of the HENS campaign have done great at dealing with the emerging counter-campaign. When I first became aware of the HENS campaign I became excited about it both as a worthwhile cause in it’s own right, and also as an incredible structure test for the Left in St Paul. The ability to succeed in a campaign like this will not only help all of of our neighbors, it will also give us all the experience to better fight the next struggle, and the next, etc. At the same time, good organizers regularly remind themselves and each other of the best practices for winning, and pass them along to others.
I hope these thoughts have been insightful and I hope that they will continue to be put to use as the HENS campaign reaches its final weeks, and again when we coalesce around the next efforts.

Now go sign up for something and let’s win this thing!

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