Reblogged: Building a Solidarity Network in Houston

This is from the gathering forces blog, by LBoogie. These kinds of projects are important for mapping out the political economy of the South, and seeing where the class is and how it moves. There is an ongoing attack on the class’s ability to reproduce itself, which also helps us focus on where and how militants should be struggling. The South is paving the way for the rest of the country, yet while there is an economic crisis the city of Houston still claims to be doing great. As we investigate we see that this attack on the working class has sunk its teeth deep into the working class here long ago, allowing for the continuity of exploitation here in ways that are not as steady in the rest of the country. This makes Houston an attractive place for capitalists and, thus, the job market continues strong, but at the expense of the class. SWDN (Southwest Defense Network) is taking up one task of defending workers’ rights to housing.

I am posting this on my page because I want to keep track of these projects in order to develop my own understanding of where Houston and the South in general is.


*This post reflects the views of the author and does not necessarily represent the views of the Southwest Defense Network as a whole*

Last October, a handful of Unity & Struggle members living in Houston, TX, together with other Houston-based organizers, started a solidarity network, the Southwest Defense Network (SWDN). [1] Since then our work has grown and we have been learning a lot about the economic and political dynamics in the city.

In many ways, Texas (and the South in general) represents a future that the rest of the country is rapidly headed towards. At the same time, the contradictions grow sharper every day, representing a potential for offensive struggles among the working class that have not been seen in other parts of the country in decades. This post is an attempt to pull together an objective picture of what’s happening with the working class in Houston, specifically in the area we are working, and to lay out some of the strategic reasons why we have chosen this as one organizing project among others.

What follows are some basic background notes on the situation that are intended to lay the groundwork for future thinking about the strategic and tactical issues that will be raised in this work.


According to most economic reports, Texas is a booming state, among the top in terms of job creation. It has an unemployment level that has consistently been lower than the national average. It is home to some of the most profitable national and multinational corporations. The number of new businesses relocating to or setting up shop in Texas is growing rapidly. It is a vital hub in the manufacture, import/export, warehousing and distribution of commodities. For the last decade, exports from Texas have grown at a faster pace than the rest of the country (its top export markets being Mexico, Canada, China and Brazil). [2]

The population of the state has exploded, growing by over 20% in the last decade alone. The city of Houston has grown by over 1 million people in that same period. Growth among communities of color fuels almost 90% of the state’s growth, and the majority of that is among Latinos. [3] Texas has the 2nd highest overall birth rate in the country but this growth is also happening due to a massive wave of immigration from other U.S. cities and other countries. Between 2000-2010, Harris County (in which Houston is located) had the largest absolute growth of immigrants compared to all other U.S. counties. [4] The majority (61%) came from Central America, with sizable numbers also coming from the Middle East, South/Southeast Asia and Africa.

This trend is only expected to continue and it contributed to Texas becoming a “majority-minority” state in 2004, which means there are fewer whites than people of color overall. The breakdown of the state is approximately 48% white, 35% Latino, 11% Black, and 5% Asian, Native American and other. Like most of the U.S., the vast majority of people (86%) live in urban areas. [5]

These racial dynamics are expressed in important ways geographically. This is a majority non-white state but the state political structure remains governed by a white oligarchy through the Republican Party. Most people of color reside in North, East and Central Texas and the border region with Mexico – regions where the largest cities are located. White folks in cities in these parts of the state reside mostly in the suburbs. Yet they still control most of the urban political structure, with some notable exceptions where Latino and Black patronage networks have made inroads into official power. [6] Suburbs around Houston look like militarized white enclaves, with gated and high security housing developments patrolled by police and private security, keeping out the riff-raff workers and poor from the city.

Like much of the rest of the country, the inner cities are being gentrified at a rapid rate, which especially affects historically Black and Latino neighborhoods such as Second, Third and Fourth Ward in Houston. As a result some cities are seeing a huge outward movement of poor people of color to the suburbs, pushed out of the inner city. [7] Despite these changes, strict dividing lines between city and suburb remain intact.

The red dots show white people, blue is Black, orange is Latino/a, green is Asian, and yellow is other, according to maps of 2010 Census data by Eric Fischer. Read more:

The red dots show white people, blue is Black, orange is Latino/a, green is Asian, and yellow is other, according to maps of 2010 Census data.
Read more:

Houston reflects these dynamics of expansion and division seen in the rest of the state, as shown by the map above. Houston is known as “Millionaire City” for the rapid growth in number of millionaires living here (10% growth each year on average). Only New York City has more Fortune 500 companies headquartered within its city limits. [8] Houston has the 3rd largest manufacturing sector in the country (in terms of gross metropolitan product) [9], with 4,000 manufacturers employing close to 250,000 workers. For the last four years, the city’s industrial employment has grown almost three times faster than the national economy. [10] The energy industry (specifically chemical and petroleum production) makes up the most significant portion of manufacturing, but other significant sectors include industrial machinery and equipment manufacturing, high-tech (computer & aerospace) and medical research. [11] The Port of Houston is the #1 most active port in the country, contributing about $178 billion in revenue to the state. [12]

In other words, the capitalists are doing extremely well in Houston, despite the ongoing economic crisis. But this prosperity, bragged about by Texas politicians and capitalists, depends on a super-exploitation of workers. Almost 20% of the city lives below the poverty level. [13] The job creation is mostly low-skilled and low-wage work. On the whole, Texas has the highest rate of workers paid at or below the federal minimum wage (over 11%). [14] This has an important impact on the labor market here, contributing to the frequency of wage theft, dangerous working conditions and retaliation against workers.

Further, this economic boom is made possible by an almost complete lack of investment in the reproduction of the working class. While Houston workers are producing at outstanding rates, they are subject to a deep and ongoing material de-development, in all senses that that is possible. Marx described this contradictory relationship between worker and work in “Estranged Labour”:

“It is true that labor produces for the rich wonderful things – but for the worker it produces privation. It produces palaces – but for the worker, hovels. It produces beauty – but for the worker, deformity. It replaces labor by machines, but it throws one section of the workers back into barbarous types of labor and it turns the other section into a machine. It produces intelligence – but for the worker, stupidity, cretinism.” [15]

In infrastructure, education, public health, and social services, Texas ranks near or at the bottom in terms of quality and funding. Of all 50 states, Texas spends the least on mental health care, prenatal care, and health insurance for women. It ranks at the bottom in terms of education spending and the number of people with a high school diploma. Whereas nationally, school districts on average spend around $11K per student, Texas schools spend only $8K per student. [16] That difference didn’t stop the state from cutting $5 billion in education funding two years ago. [17] Meanwhile, the state ranks highest for number of executions and the percent of children living in poverty.

Texas also ranks highest in amount of carbon dioxide emissions and toxins released into water. [18] Bourgeois commentators and academics are increasingly noting this and related infrastructure and ecological problems. One recent engineering report gave a failing grade to Houston in almost all areas of infrastructure. [19] The report indicated that the infrastructure is extremely outdated, with no plans in place by the city to replace or improve it. Further, it is not equipped to handle the population growth expected in the coming decades.


These are more than just numbers. They reflect significant political tensions and contradictions. The capitalists have only been able to delay the explosion of these issues into a full-blown crisis for the short-term. For instance, the consequences of the lack of investment in education – namely, the creation of a large number of workers with none of the skills or training necessary for jobs in many of the key industries in the state – are temporarily mitigated by the influx of better-educated workers, particularly from the Northeast, Midwest and California. In the last decade alone some 300,000 people with Bachelor’s Degrees have relocated to Houston. [20]

These workers, taught in better funded schools in other regions, can fill the high-skilled jobs that Texas-educated workers are unable to do because of lower-quality education. Furthermore, there has been a continuous migration of skilled and semi-skilled workers moving to Texas who have a very different experience with job protections and unions, even as these rapidly erode in places up North and in California.

Debates around the water crisis and immigration reveal how short-term solutions will not permanently prevent the broader social and political crisis. Texas is experiencing the worst drought in its history and is unprepared in infrastructure to sustain the water resources needed by both urban and rural areas. A recent debate at the state level demonstrated that the political establishment has no viable plan for dealing with the water crisis. Further, rightwing Republicans at the state level are increasingly coming up against capitalists who are concerned about the lack of long-term development of infrastructure capacity in the state. Additional pressure comes from the increasing number of high tech firms whose political and social culture are at odds with the rising white populism and mass austerity politics of the Republican Party.

A proposal was made to tap into the state’s Rainy Day Fund (which is drawn from surplus oil and gas taxes) to direct several billion dollars towards new water projects. Republicans, the majority, were split between a rightwing Tea Party faction which opposed the bill on the basis of ideology – they do not want to see any government spending regardless of source or need – while Gov. Rick Perry sided with business interests in supporting the spending – arguing that if the state does not tackle the water problem they will lose business. The Democrats, the minority, meanwhile opposed the spending for water, arguing that any emergency spending should go towards education. Ideology is pitted against the needs of capital, with a dose of useless political maneuvering. [21] The problem is real though; agriculture has taken a huge blow because of the drought and finding sustainable water supplies has not kept up with the pace of the growing needs of the state’s expanding cities and industries.

With immigration a similar dynamic is at play. Business in the state has exploded in no small part due to the availability of undocumented labor to work at low wages (or, as we’ll see below, no wages at all) and no benefits. The capitalists recognize this free input and actively encourage its expansion, despite their political rhetoric to the contrary. They support policies around detention and deportation only to the extent that it disciplines immigrant workers, but not if it interrupts business.

Meanwhile, the changing demographics of the state has ignited an anti-immigrant white populism, based on racial ideology and the real competition for jobs that capital creates between immigrant workers and U.S. born white workers. This populism is behind the proposals for draconian bills similar to SB-1070 in Arizona.

While the political establishment attempts to maintain the votes and direct the political energies of its white constituents, it must strike a balance with the opposing needs of business for cheap labor. In other words, there is a serious contradiction between what is needed to reproduce capital and the growing crisis in work and living conditions that will eventually impede this reproduction.

Texas is not the exception though. This reflects a national trend that most of the rest of the country is moving towards under the guise of austerity. As W.E.B. DuBois noted over a century ago, as the south goes, so goes the nation. In this historical moment of crisis, the capitalists are turning a profit only through the most aggressive forms of underdevelopment and disinvestment in working class communities, and there are currently very few organizational or ideological obstacles in the region preventing them from carrying out such plans.

Texas is a right to work state with a solidly rightwing political establishment and culture that has effectively sidelined worker organizing for decades. On the job organizing is extremely difficult because workers can be (and are) fired at will. The capitalist attack on the few protections and benefits workers have has been brutal and largely successful.

This ideology is reflected in the militarization of even routine protest far beyond what is typical in the other regions of the country. There tends to be a massive police and private security presence at all public political actions (even press conferences) held by unions and non-profits. The number of police usually matches the number of protesters, and their presence is overblown given the conservative political character of most protests. With some notable exceptions (i.e. some of the undocumented workers we are meeting), this atmosphere contributes to a deep sense of isolation, powerlessness and fear about fighting back among workers.

These sentiments are compounded by a lack of organizational experience. The types of common left political cultures one sees in NYC, Chicago or the Bay Area – such as a familiarity with revolutionary traditions, visibility of left parties and organizations, frequent political events and protests/actions, etc. – are virtually absent here. The low educational level among many workers reinforces a low level of political development about even basic political ideas.

Unions have a very small presence in the state as a whole (only 5.2% of workers are union members), and where they do exist they are business unions. [22] There are signs that some of the larger national unions see Texas as a major battleground state to try to revoke the right to work laws during the next decade, which could mean more offensive campaigns in the future, but at the moment there are only defensive struggles being waged (and lost, usually).

There is some non-profit presence in working class communities, but the non-profits and the unions both function as get-out-the-vote machines for the Democrats. The changing demographics of the state, in addition to its lucrative business presence, have contributed to a growing push by the Democratic Party to turn the state blue. In the last five years they have begun directing large sums of money to the local party offices and into setting up their own non-profit organizations (such as Battleground Texas) across the state in order to erode the Republican majority.


That is the political context SWDN finds itself working within. The SWDN organizing is focused on a region in Houston known as the Southwest, which is a microcosm for this double-sided dynamic of expansion and disinvestment. This region is actually made up of a series of neighborhoods or areas. Since the Southwest, like everything in Houston, is very geographically spread out, focusing on a select number of neighborhoods is the only way to make the work manageable. We are focusing on a mainly Latino neighborhood called Gulfton, a Black neighborhood around south Fondren St, and a mixed Latino and Black area in Sharpstown. Thus far our organizing work has focused on wage theft and housing issues within these areas.

The Southwest is exceptional in that it is the most ethnically diverse and racially mixed area in Houston. It includes the city’s large Asian, Arab and African population. The Black and Latino population here mainly represent the low-wage sector of the working class. Low wage jobs in healthcare, retail, the public sector, construction, warehousing and service sectors predominate. This contrasts to other areas in the city that are home to sizeable numbers of skilled workers, such as the Eastside where many port workers live.

This area of Houston is very young. We don’t know the average age, but based on experience since many of us live there, much of the Southwest is significantly younger than other areas. However, as a whole Houston is a young city with a median age of 33. [23]

The Southwest has a large first generation and even larger second generation immigrant population. Depending on the neighborhood, anywhere from ¼ to two-thirds of the population was not born in this country. One of the features of the Southwest then is a strong immigrant petty-capitalism. The area is filled with small shops and businesses. Despite the typical urban planning of Houston (and the South) the area has a very rich social life of food, clubs, grocery and other stores.

But most immigrants enter the lower rungs of the division of labor. The lower rungs of the working class are more likely to be subject to things like wage-theft and dangerous working conditions. Houston and Texas in general is a major wage theft state, with few laws and zero enforcement concerning these cases. An estimated $753.2 million in wages are lost every year due to wage theft among low-wage workers. [24] This is a significant source of additional profit for bosses and reflects a key way in which employers in Texas have been able to stay afloat amid the worst downturns of the ongoing economic crisis.

The type of wage theft SWDN is most frequently contacted about occurs among Latino male construction workers and “back of the house” restaurant workers whose wages have been outright stolen or who have been paid less than they were promised. While this is probably the most pervasive type of wage theft – it’s common because employers see these workers as vulnerable due to immigration status and high employee turnover – it is not representative of all types of wage theft here. For instance, many workers in these same industries are routinely denied overtime pay. Domestic workers and childcare workers are regularly paid under the legal minimum wage or are paid with bad checks. And restaurant owners frequently cheat their “front of the house” wait staff out of tips earned.

Employers are also able to pocket extra money through avoiding what few laws there are to ensure safe workplace conditions. In the construction industry, where half of all workers in Texas are undocumented, 1 in every 5 workers requires hospitalization at some point because of on the job injuries. [25] In what seems to be a pretty representative example, SWDN met one restaurant worker who had been denied safety equipment while being exposed to toxic cleaning chemicals on the job. The exposure resulted in respiratory problems and expensive medical treatment. He got fired for being out sick and his employer stole two days of wages while refusing to assist with his medical costs. [26]

The workers we’re meeting do not have the means to deal with the expenses resulting from these types of injuries. In the areas we are focusing on (and this holds true for much, though not all of the Southwest) about 50% and probably more earn a household income of less than $30K. While rents have gone up on average 7-10%, income has dropped on average approximately 20% according to census data. [27]

Wage theft and dangerous working conditions are not the only problems the division of labor produces for this layer of precarious workers. Many have little formal education and few skills, so they are easily replaceable and/or are constantly trying to flee shitty job situations in search of better gigs in other workplaces. The frequency of job turnover affects the development of informal workgroups on the job as well as workers’ willingness to stay and struggle rather than get the best deal they can and leave.

With wage theft in particular, it is common for workers to be fired for bogus reasons in order for the employer to justify the stolen wages or the worker quits in frustration over the situation. This means that wage theft struggles less frequently begin as on the job organizing and instead involve workers fighting to track down previous employers to get back their wages.

One way that SWDN orients to this volatility in employment is to treat it as an inroad to meet current workers who can continue to struggle on the job beyond the wage theft case. For instance, in the case of the restaurant worker mentioned above, one strategy was to fight for his back wages and medical compensation, while making contacts among current employees who could then struggle around workplace conditions and safety issues like what he had faced with chemical exposure.


The other main area of work that SWDN is involved with concerns housing issues. In general, labor and housing issues are very immediately connected. The cost of living is relatively low (although it is going up in most areas) but it is tied to the low wages most workers earn in the Southwest, so even here housing constitutes the largest expense most have. This means housing is the most prominent tool employers can rely on to discipline workers and prevent collective fight-back against the kinds of employment conditions described above.

Housing takes on some specific features here. The Southwest has an extremely high concentration of apartment complexes, which is Houston’s answer to public housing, a more familiar sight in places like NYC or Chicago. Houston, like much of the South, has on average cheap land prices. Urban planning, as a result, is largely in the hands of the individual private developers. Most of Houston is zoned commercial and residential so there are few restrictions on where commercial, rental and single family homes are built.

Houston saw an explosion in housing with the oil boom in the 1970s. Young skilled workers moved to the city in droves to fill the jobs in the energy and technology sectors. Entire neighborhoods were literally built overnight in the Southwest in the form of large multi-family apartment complexes. By the 1980s, the oil bust reversed this trend and apartment managers began abandoning many of these same complexes. Many of the complexes began to deteriorate and this abandonment has basically continued until the early 2000s. [28]

More recently, the trend has to been for real estate sharks to come in and flip and sell the complexes every 2-3 years. They do some minor surface renovations to “improve” the complex and justify raising rents, then sell at a profit of $1-2 million for the owner. The property management changes just as rapidly and the tenant turnover is high because of the changing rents and rental policies, but the overall deteriorating condition of the complexes remains virtually unchanged. It is not uncommon to find some complexes 25-50 percent unoccupied, with apartments literally abandoned with smashed out windows and doors.

With this pattern there is little reinvestment in the residential housing (and often commercial space) in the Southwest, as is generally true for Houston. There are so few barriers for developers to building new that it is not worth it to reinvest in the existing stock. A significant portion of the apartment complexes and homes are literally falling apart.

The housing crisis is mitigated by the expanse of cheap land available in and around Houston, which has meant the city can keep building outwards and upwards at low-cost and without repairing the existing housing stock. Much of the expansion in building (with notable and important exceptions) occurs outward, in the outer ring of the city. This has several consequences. First, this affects tenant organizing possibilities. People grow accustomed to picking up and moving out of a bad complex rather than staying and fighting because it is so easy to find relatively cheap housing elsewhere. Second, the growth of the outer ring also increases the strain on infrastructure. Infrastructure gets developed in patchwork style and much-needed improvements in older areas never get made.

Despite the growth of the city overall, population density per square mile is relatively low, averaging 3,000 people per square mile, for a big city with a lot of urban land and commercial buildings empty. However, the Southwest is an exception in terms of density. Southwest Houston has a population density of approximately 9,000 people per square mile, the same as Baltimore or Washington D.C. [29]

This density plus the lack of investment in housing translates into devastatingly poor living conditions. It is extremely common to meet tenants dealing with bedbugs and other pest/rodent problems; burst pipes, with the water turned off for days or, what’s worse, openly flowing sewage on the grounds around apartments; broken appliances or non-working air-conditioning (which is a serious health issue in a city that regularly breaks 100° in the summer months); and mold and mildew problems. We met one tenant whose toilet went unrepaired for a month, so her family would use the bathroom in plastic bags then dispose of them in the public garbage bins in the complex.

The working class in the Southwest not only faces increasing rents and falling wages. Capital gets back even more of those wages in many ways. A common example of this are towing rackets in some of the complexes. The management has a deal with towing companies to come into the complexes and tow away cars, even if they have parking stickers. Another thing is the high concentration (even for Texas) of parasitic pawnshops, cash advance and title loan companies operating in the Southwest. Further, it’s not clear how many people use them but it seems common for tenants to depend on surety bonds to pay for security deposits or avoid eviction. Surety bonds basically involve a tenant paying a non-refundable fee to a creditor, who then guarantees the deposit and/or rent to the apartment complex.

In other words, everyone has their hands in the pockets of the working class. This problem is compounded by the state attack on the social wage. Despite the boom, budget cuts are flying across the board. Texas recently passed legislation to require drug testing for people receiving TANF. [30] This is a budget cut in another form by decreasing the number of people eligible to receive financial/medical assistance from the state.

Finally, the police – along with some private security – have a heavy presence in the complexes, some permanently. The reign of police and security terror against Black and Latinos is open and well-known. While the predominantly white suburbs are militarized to keep people of color out, the Southwest is militarized to keep people on lockdown. Houston has no official stop-and-frisk policy as in NYC but many complexes work with the Houston Police Department (HPD) through “zero-tolerance” programs and “trespass affidavits.” These give HPD free reign to enter and search apartments, to harass and detain visitors and residents, and to carry out random drug searches with canine units.

Like the rest of the country, this contributes to the massive incarceration of Black and Latino men which changes the character of these communities and places particular pressures on women to reproduce the family under increasingly difficult conditions. Many Black and Latino workers we’ve been meeting talk about being stopped by the police, arrested on bogus charges and getting stuck with expensive court cases to fight the charges. It’s also common for folks to get evicted or pay substantially more in housing costs because they have a criminal record. At one predominantly Black complex that SWDN has been working in, the majority of the male residents are either under the age of 21 or over the age of 50 – a reflection in part of an entire generation of black men swallowed up by capital and white supremacy.

Many complexes also carry out their own policies of open discrimination and harassment that reinforce racial divisions. One complex solicited its majority Latino residents to contact the manager if they saw “teenagers of Afro-American descent or any other suspicious people” on the premises. [31] SWDN has also encountered a large complex that enforces a curfew on its residents.


This post assumes the reader knows some basic details about what a solidarity network is and does. [32] However, it seems helpful to lay out a general outline of the importance of a solidarity network in the Southwest and what SWDN’s work has consisted of so far. [33]

Like the rest of the country, what little Left presence there is in Houston is fairly isolated from the working class. There are almost no living connections to the historical traditions of struggle. The dividing lines between workers run thick and many express feelings of isolation and distrust in neighbors and co-workers. The level of political development among workers is extremely low when compared to places like NYC or the Bay Area. This necessitates a strategy to engage workers based on what is concretely happening in their lives. There are some mass organizations that attempt to provide a practical outlet to workers, but they generally offer no political education or opportunity for workers to take the lead in their own struggles.

Yet the atmosphere is changing. The experience of mass austerity, the Occupy movement, the teachers’ strike in Chicago, the response to Trayvon Martin and other police/security murders, direct action among a leftwing layer of the immigrants’ rights movement, and more are in some ways changing the political vocabulary and sense of what is possible here. The massive migration into the city means workers are arriving with connections to struggle elsewhere. And, as discussed in the previous sections, the rapid development of the city is unsustainable, possible only at great cost to workers, some of whom are growing openly defiant and interested in some kind of collective fight-back.

Given the large numbers of working poor in the city, it is necessary to help organize with this critical layer. To join and build the existing mass organizations, which are almost exclusively non-profits, would only lead to the trap of reformism or riding the waves of struggle with no continuity and no development of new militants. Further, these organizations do not carry out direct action fights against the oppressive conditions people face. At the same time, militants cannot remain isolated, working only within the form of revolutionary organization. The solidarity network therefore functions as a kind of intermediate level where people can organize around some basic unity of ideas and coordinate their activity at a broader level. [34]

The solidarity network as an organizational form presents an opportunity to fulfill some of these key tasks – connecting trained militants with a layer of the most conscious elements among proletarians as well as developing concrete struggles among a specific layer of Black and Latino proletarians in the city.

In SWDN, our most consistent activities have been flyering and meeting up with people in response to campaign inquiries. We flyer inside the apartment complexes in the three specific areas in the Southwest mentioned above, leaving flyers on doors and handing them out to tenants we see on the property. We also put up posters at bus stops, crosswalks and telephone poles around the complexes. Initially we were more randomly choosing complexes to start flyering in these areas.

As we have talked to people and gathered more information about what kind of problems people are experiencing, we have been able to begin to target specific complexes and build our presence there. Most people we encounter are very open about sharing their experiences, and the conversations we have reflect exactly the nature of their work. We have also developed a survey that we have begun canvassing door to door with as a means to making more contacts. [35]

Closely tied to the flyering is our contact work, or our concerted effort to build relationships with workers we are meeting as well as other organizers/organizations in the city. The contact work serves not only to put us in touch with workers who we can build campaigns with, but it is a central element to a longer-term strategy of building up a network of contacts and organizers across the Southwest. Out of what we hope can be semi-permanent committees and block captains can develop support for different organizing projects in the Southwest, as well as new organizational forms and spaces for the development of political perspectives about the work we are all doing. Overall, this would immensely contribute the level of resistance in the Southwest, creating qualitative changes in the neighborhoods that will then take on their own development. A new foundation of social struggle would open up new possibilities in a Southern city not always so easily grasped at this time.

For instance, we have been in touch with and have offered support to someone who is hoping to build an IWW chapter in Houston in the upcoming years, a project that is much needed here. We are in the beginning stages of developing a circle of contacts in two particularly bad apartment complexes. Long term, these relationships could form the nucleus of a tenant’s committee that maintains an active presence in the complex and/or takes up fighting around other issues.

We plan to put on various public events as a way to meet people and build relationships. We are planning an informational about the network. We are working on a “Know Your Rights” workshop for tenants and workers who want to organize but whose situations, for different reasons, we have not been able to take on right now as campaigns. We are conceiving of this not in the standard fashion of bourgeois individual rights but instead something more along the lines of Staughton Lynd’s Labor Law for the Rank-and-Filer. The workshop will focus on the historical development and analysis of housing under capitalism, with a component that looks at current tenant law and strategies with regards to collective organizing and direct action.[36] We’ve also done social events like parties and potlucks, as part of a strategy to build up the general political ecology among the similarly-minded Leftists in the city by creating collective and open spaces for discussions around organizing and important political questions facing Houston and Texas more broadly.

Lastly, an important part of our work has been building our capacity as a bilingual Spanish-English network. SWDN started out with half of its organizers being either bilingual/fluent or at least proficient in both languages. We make all our materials available in both languages. This has been key given the large Spanish-speaking population in the Southwest, and is evidenced by the high number of calls we have received from Spanish-speaking Latino workers.


What follows are brief notes trying to get at some particular challenges and possibilities that SWDN is facing so far in our organizing.

First, while it is too early to draw hard and fast conclusions about the meaning of this, we are noticing a gender distinction in the types of calls we are receiving. The vast majority of our calls initially were wage theft or labor problems made by men, specifically Latino men in the construction and restaurant industries. More recently we’ve received an influx of calls about housing-related problems, almost all of which have been from women, specifically Black women. We have speculated some about why this happens.

On the one hand, it could result from the pervasive social roles assigned to women and men; namely that women take care of the home (even if they also work waged jobs outside the home) while men bring home the money (even if their spouse/partner also has a job). On the other hand, it could reflect levels of consciousness and political development in the class, bringing to light what types of workers are moving and ready to fight back at this moment. Once we can more confidently identify and understand this dynamic, we see it as an important component to incorporate into our organizing strategy and perspectives.

Second, the material division between Black and Latino workers is pervasive. There is at times a sense of competition and distrust between the two. In several complexes where we have been developing relationships with Black tenants, there are complaints that Latino tenants are treated better, pay less in rent or get repairs made quicker. There are comments that Latino workers are quicker to accept poor housing conditions, making it harder for Black tenants to fight back. Often, in the majority Black complexes, the maintenance crew is all Latino, so there are often rumors that maintenance is stealing from residents.

Third, while the housing and labor problems translate into a large volume of calls to SWDN, we are facing challenges when it comes to converting meet-ups into campaigns or getting campaigns beyond the first one or two public actions. Part of this problem stems from a general trend among workers to orient towards the network as a social service rather than an organizing campaign in which they are a leading member. It equally has to do with the precarious conditions in which people work and live. This makes it necessary to move quickly on potential campaigns before circumstances change for a person, as well as minimize formalistic ways of organizing.

The role of the militant is especially important in preventing this dynamic. In SWDN we have a practice of communicating very clearly with prospective contacts about how the network organizes and the role that worker will need to play in their own campaign. At the same time, we see ourselves as playing an intervening role in the individual’s battle. We want the contact to take the lead in their own campaign, but we do not blindly follow the course they want to take. Instead we push for certain principles (i.e. direct action, collective decision-making) in practice.

The challenge to campaign-building also stems from a pervasive “individualism” among some of the workers we are meeting. They are not always won over to the idea that their individual problem is actually a social problem, tied to the experiences of their co-workers or neighbors. So at times they accept the first shit offer that management brings to the table, preferring to move out or get another job to improve their situation, without reflecting on the larger political implications of staying and fighting.

This is not to say that the workers we are meeting do not have a sense of this problem. The way this gets expressed in some ways reflects the division of labor and what layers of the class have more recently been active. For instance, many Black workers we are meeting express a deep cynicism about the state of the Black community and whether things can actually change. Many Latino workers, especially undocumented workers, express a sense that things are bad because people are not fighting back. Recently at a meeting with an undocumented worker who wanted to organize against a former boss for stealing his wages, we asked him why he thought bosses steal wages? He summed up the entire problem by saying, “Because they can.” He captured in one sentence the lack of power that workers have today and the reason why building working class organizations and struggling for what is ours is so important.

Additionally, as has already been alluded to, this problem of campaign building results from the general precarity of the situation of many workers in Southwest Houston. Needing to relocate for work, needing to care for sick family members, needing to pick up additional jobs or hours at work, dealing with legal issues in the court system – these and other issues make for an instability that diminishes some workers’ ability to see their campaign through to the end.

Nevertheless, as the Southwest is a testament to immense social disinvestment there is present a thinly veiled social anger that can be seriously explosive in Houston. The Southwest is an extremely concentrated area of the working poor whose specific needs will play an important role in the complicated division of labor in Houston.
End Notes

[1] For more information about the network, visit our blog at or find us on Facebook at

[2] “Texas Economy Moves from Recovery to Expansion.” Southwest Economy, First Quarter 2012. Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, page 4. Accessed online:

[3] “Minorities Drove Texas Growth, Census Figures Show.” Texas Tribune, Feb. 18, 2011. Accessed online:

[4] “Refugees and Immigrants in Texas.” Houston Demographic News blog, Jun 13, 2012. Accessed online:

[5] “Texas in Focus: A Statewide View of Opportunities.” Window on State Government blog. Accessed online:

[6] “21 Maps of Highly Segregated Cities in America.” Business Insider, Apr 25, 2013. Accessed online:

[7] “Poverty Takes Root in Austin’s Suburbs.” Austin American-Statesman, May 19, 2013. Accessed online:

[8] “Houston Facts and Figures.” City of Houston website. Accessed online:

[9] “Manufacturing Generates $57.6B gross product in Houston.” Houston Business Journal, Jun 11, 2012. Accessed online:

[10] “America’s New Manufacturing Boomtowns.” New Geography, May 15, 2013. Accessed online:

[11] “Houston First in Nation for Manufacturing.” Manufacturers’ News, Inc., May 19, 2009. Accessed online:

[12] “The Economic Impact of the Port of Houston.” Port of Houston website. Accessed online:

[13] “State and County QuickFacts: Texas.” United States Census Bureau website. Accessed online:

[14] “Characteristics of Minimum Wage Workers: 2010.” Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor website. Accessed online:

[15] Karl Marx, “Estranged Labour.” Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844. Accessed online:

[16] “Texas Drops Close to Bottom Among States in Student Spending.” Dallas News, Feb 22, 2013. Accessed online:

[17] “Strain for Teachers Runs Deeper Than Budget Cuts.” New York Times, Oct 4, 2012. Accessed online:

[18] “Texas is on the Brink, Legislative Study Group Says.” Texas Tribune, Feb 14, 2011. Accessed online:

[19] 2012 Report Card for Texas’ Infrastructure. American Society of Civil Engineers. Accessed online:

[20] “The Third Coast.” Wall Street Journal, Nov 1, 2012. Accessed online: See also “The U.S. Cities Getting Smarter the Fastest.” New Geography, Aug 09, 2012. Accessed online:

[21] For more information on the debate, see “House Debate Over Water Bill Could Spur Bigger Fight.” Texas Tribune, Apr 29, 2013. Accessed online: . See also “Water, Water, Not so Fast.” Off the Kuff blog, May 1, 2013. Accessed online:

[22] “Union Membership Drops Slightly in Texas, U.S.” Houston Chronicle, Mar 19, 2012. Accessed online:

[23] “Houston Tops Our List of America’s Coolest Cities.” Forbes, July 26, 2012. Accessed online:

[24] “Houston, We Have a Wage Theft Problem” Report by Houston Interfaith Worker Justice Center, May 2012. Available online here:

[25] Build a Better Texas: Construction Working Conditions in the Lone Star State. Workers’ Defense Project. Accessed online:

[26] See the Southwest Defense Network blog for the following two posts about this worker’s situation: and

[27] “Mapping the 2010 U.S. Census.” New York Times. Accessed online:

[28] “District 68 History.” Houston Firehouse 68 website. Accessed online:

[29] Ibid.

[30] “Senate Passes Unemployment Drug-Testing Bill.” Texas Tribune, Apr 11, 2013. Accessed online:

[31] “Notice at Houston apartment warns against ‘adolescents of Afro-American race’.”The Grio, Nov 21, 2012. Accessed online:

[32] For further reading about what a solidarity network is and does, this is by far the most accessible resource available to date: Building a Solidarity Network or in Spanish: Guía para tejer una red de solidaridad

[33] Since this post was written, a new tenants’ campaign has started in one complex and two other potential campaigns are being worked on. There wasn’t time to include information on these developments but you can check out the SWDN blog for further updates and info.

[34] More on what is meant by intermediate level can be found in this essay:

[35] The content and use of the survey has been shaped by discussion about Marx’sWorkers’ Inquiry: and this helpful summary of the use of the workers’ inquiry by later militants:

[36] Staughton Lynd’s Labor Law for the Rank-and-Filer is accessible online here:


SWATS Rising! A solidarity Network in Atlanta

I am currently participating in building a solidarity network called SWATS Rising! (SouthWest Atlanta Too Strong aka SW Atlanta Tenants Rising). We have been working on a presentation of the housing crisis in Atlanta and how it has been manifesting itself here and why the need to fight back. I wanted to include this presentation here:
I. Introduction
The Atlanta Way
i. The History of SWATS RISING!
a. We came together this summer to try to find an alternative way of fighting against the effects of the housing crisis here in Atlanta.
b. After Occupy begins to dwindle down, we saw this activity begin to carry over in communities. A big part of this was housing defense, like here in Atlanta The Glen Iris Home Occupation was fight by community members and the family against Chase Bank.  After Occupying the House for months and doing actions at chase local banks, the family decided to take a reduced settlement for the house.c. So after this occupation was over, and Occupy is long gone, we started thinking about how we can fight against not just foreclosures, but expand to fight against people getting evicted from apartments, jacked up landlords, and a lot of the issues we have to deal with renting apartments of homes due to the gentrification and different changes that are taking place here in Atlanta.

I am going to go into more detail of that in a minute, but before we move on we want to explain a little about what a solidarity network is:

ii. What is a solidarity network:
a. So a basic definition could be: it is a formal group of people who use direct action to confront the forces of power that have influence over their lives. This could be landlords, bosses, cops, banks, check cashing companies, or even harassers, though usually the targets have been bosses and landlords.

b. So that’s a basic definition. We also know people do this informally, whether they take a neighbor with them to go talk to the landlord about issues they are both facing, a few co-workers go talk to the boss to tell them a grievance they are having. But with this type of model this becomes a more formal way of dealing with these issues when they arise. Whether they be small or big, we learn to fight back together.
1. How do we start fights?
*video of demand letter drop*

In SWATS Rising we have employed a variety of forms to attract folks.  This includes postering, flyering individuals at MARTA stations and on MARTA trains, leaving flyers at every door in an apartment complex.  We have gotten calls back through each of these forms.

We begin fights by issuing a demand letter to the landlord in question.  These demands will have been decided upon beforehand by the contact and by SWATS organizers.  The demand letter will include what we’re fight for, who it is for, and a timeframe for them to redress the specific grievance, whether it be a leaky roof, a deposit that has not been returned, or

2. How do solinets work?
Solinets use a variety of tactics to in order to achieve their specific demands.
a. Picketing a store / restaurant / hotel.
[taken from SeaSol Pamphlet]
The timing of a picket is really important and often warrants scouting the location to determine the time of most possible impact. We have found that direct messages garner the most attention: “Don’t Rent/Shop/Eat Here” grabs people’s attention more than a nebulous “Justice for all workers!” or similar. When we picket we usually hand out an aggressive flyer at the same time. We have also tried out other tricks to help turn away business. For example, in the Jimmy John’s fight, we handed out coupons for Subway; in the Greenlake and Nelson fights we had collected negative online reviews to show to potential customers; in the Tuff Shed fight we had a list of other shed stores to direct people to.
In some cases picketing can antagonize the current employees, especially if they are restaurant workers who are dependent on tips. Recently we have discussed the idea of always doing a week or two of less aggressive, informational picketing or flyering before we start aggressively turning away business. This would give us an opportunity to make contact with the current employees in a positive way and explain the issue to them. We have also begun taking up collections for the tip jar when picketing a coffee shop or restaurant.
b. Crashing events (such as open houses).
[Taken from SeaSol Pamphlet]
This tactic makes the most sense in a long-running fight, where you are trying to find every possible way of making trouble for your target. When you find, usually by searching online, that a company you’re fighting is holding an event that’s open to the public, you can have a few people go in “plainclothes”—without picket signs—and blend in with the crowd. Then after a prearranged signal (someone yells, “yee-haw!”), they start distributing flyers to the crowd to inform everyone of the company’s misdeeds. Don’t forget to save some of the free snacks for your comrades outside.
3. What is the relationship between the solinet and folks who reach out to us in order to fight against their landlord or other power figure?Because the driving force of a solidarity network is solidarity, we require that those who reach out to us are central to organizing their own fight.  They will democratically participate and plan their campaign every step of the way with the solinet.  We also encourage those folks to become organizers themselves, to join the network, and fight beyond their own fight though some or most may choose not to.

We understand solidarity to mean to the active material support for working people based on the notion that an attack on one section of the working class, or one individual in this case, is an attack on the class as a whole.  This means those of us who organize in solinets have a vested interest since we are also workers, renters, etc.  A landlord refusing to repair a unit or evicting someone can happen to any one of us.

Because of this we don’t defer only to what the individual who contacts us wants to do.

II. The Housing Crisis
i. Atlanta Housing Crisis –
Now I’m going to talk about the housing crisis and what it looks like to us.
So, for us here in ATL it looks like the beltline, the elimination of all public housing, and high foreclosure rates:

1. “It’s just economics, get rid of the old, in with the new.”
i. These things are often talked about in terms of beautifying the city.. It doesn’t discuss in terms of gentrification – all the people who get displaced and straight up kicked out of their homes due to this beautification. We also think it is a problem that we don’t have any say in this – we don’t get to choose where we live, we have no control over “beautifying” on our own terms. It is those who own land, and landlords, and banks, and the state who get to push us around when they want to make these changes the city.

2. Olympics
So one way this has played out is back at the 1996 Olympics – we saw an attack on homeless as they try to push all homeless folks out of the city. The beautification process takes the center of the olympics because they want to put a rush on this change before the olympics happens. One outcome is the  removal of homeless, destruction of techwood homes for the olympic village** which at the time are public housing.

3. But the process of eliminating public housing doesn’t stop there. By 2010, Atlanta, becomes the first major city in the world to deliberately remove all public housing.
This process takes place in order to remove poor black folks from the city in order to rid the city of these elements and attract new money.

On top of the total elimination of public housing, there was a moratorium on section 8.
What this means for poor people who rely on these programs is that they are pushed out of the city, literally, into the outskirts or further out. On top of the old projects they are building new luxury condos, and expensive apartments that these folks can’t afford. This is all part of the process of gentrification.

2. Beltline
One project that is underway that is helping to facilitate this removal of poor black folks from the city is the Beltline. This is being built with the promise that it is going to fix this “problem” – the problem of projects and poverty – when the problem itself is the way society is built. We have no control over the housing we have access to and yet somehow we are being told we are the problem. If they could only get rid of us then the city can prosper. Because if there is no profit to be made off of public housing then they will just remove it with complete disregard of the people that live there. Out with the old, in with the new.

The Beltline takes control of public housing, making way for privatized corporations and individual landlords to take control of housing and quality of living.

So while they call it a crisis, we ask for who?

ii. banks and foreclosures.
Then Atlanta is facing some of the highest home foreclosures in the country. Many folks think that homeowners aren’t subjected to these same attacks but they definitely are.

[Taken from Dollars & Sense]
First, the wealth of blacks is more concentrated in their homes than the wealth of their white counterparts.  Even though homes are typically the largest asset of most households, regardless of race, homes of black families make 59% of their net worth compared to 44% among white families.  White households typically hold more of other types of assets like stocks and IRA accounts.  So when the housing crisis hit, driven down the value of homes and pushing up foreclosure rates, black households lost a far greater share of their wealth than the white households.

Second, mortgage brokers and lenders marketed subprime mortgages specifically to black households.  Subprime mortgages are high-interest loans that are supposed to increase access to home financing for risky borrowers–those with a shaky credit history or low income.  But these high-cost loans were disproportionately peddled to black households, even on those that could qualify for conventional loans.  One study estimated that in 2007 nearly double the share of upper-income black households (54%) had high-cost mortgages compared to low-income white households (28%).

iii. landlords
With this assessment on how the housing crisis benefits the ruling class, we have explained the banks benefit from this and how they are contributing to the attack on housing for the poor, but we also have an understanding of how landlords contribute to this.

We don’t look at them as “good” or “bad” landlords. It is just a fact that they are there to make money off of us.

The relationship is social, it is a social process. While they want to invest as little as possible and make as much as possible, they want to have total control over how we live and not the other way around. We want to live in good conditions and have more control over our lives.

It is an on-going tension but at times it will become more apparent. Like when the rents are being raised and we can’t afford them. Landlords have a stake in gentrification because it means they can make more of a profit. For us it means displacement, losing our homes and our communities.

We are on opposing sides of the tension but they have power on their side in the form of the state and the police. If you don’t pay rent cause you can’t afford it, or because they are refusing to make repairs, they get the courts involved and the police come to remove you.

But we do have power in numbers. And that’s how the solidarity network functions. We confront landlords together, we make demands together, and if they refuse, we fight back together.
III. outro, also why you should join our networkConclusion. I know we weren’t sure how much to include here and ended up just wrapping things up and giving a pitch for why people should join, so I don’t know if I should include more of what’s in the other sections but we can talk about this tomorrow.

So as we said earlier, SR! is a group that works using direct action. For us this has meant deliberately sidestepping official institutions to take care of our needs. It also means we work together, building up community resistance to the attack on housing that is taking place in Atlanta. We are not a non-profit so we are not bound by rules and regulations, but we also do not work for a profit. We are a group of community members who do this work in our free time.

That is why y’all’s involvement is key. If this strategy of home defense is going to work we will need to develop a network of folks who can come out to actions. Because we rely on direct action, having this network is how we will be able to put enough pressure on landlords to make them give in to our demands.

What it would mean for y’all to be part of the network as of now would just be if we need a call to action we can hit y’all up to come out to a[n action for an ongoing] campaign. As of now we don’t have a campaign so the urgency is low, but as soon as we get one we want to be prepared to act immediately. The other thing is that the solidarity network is a loose grouping, meaning people can decide on what level they would like to get involved. We go out to flyer every week, we will have more events, if we have a campaign we will have different level of tactics we will employ. Anywhere from delivering a demand letter to door knocking at an apartment complex, to having pickets. There are many ways people can plug into the organization, but at the very least y’all can join the email list to be invited out to actions [and events] when they happen.

Links/Sources: (need access) (housing vouchers in E. Point) (real umemployment rates) race and housing crisis gentrification in atlanta and demise of “black power” Great Recession in Black Wealth Really reactionary piece on how squatters are slow renovation The closing of a homeless shelter which has been an ongoing struggle for a few years Seattle Solidarity Network“The crisis in the housing market and the Great Recession made racial wealth inequality yet worse for two reasons. First, the wealth of blacks is more concentrated in their homes than the wealth of their white counterparts. Even though homes are typically the largest asset of most households, regardless of race, homes of black families make up 59% of their net worth compared to 44% among white families. White households typically hold more of other types of assets like stocks and IRA accounts. So when the housing crisis hit, driving down the value of homes and pushing up foreclosure rates, black households lost a far greater share of their wealth than did white households.
Second, mortgage brokers and lenders marketed subprime mortgages specifically to black households. Subprime mortgages are high-interest loans that are supposed to increase access to home financing for risky borrowers—those with a shaky credit history or low income. But these high-cost loans were disproportionately peddled to black households, even to those that could qualify for conventional loans. One study estimated that in 2007 nearly double the share of upper-income black households (54%) had high-cost mortgages compared to low-income white households (28%).”“While about 4.5 percent of white borrowers lost their homes to foreclosure during that period, black and Latino borrowers had a 7.9 percent and 7.7 percent foreclosure rate, respectively.
That means that blacks and Latinos were more than 70 percent more likely to lose their homes to foreclosure during that period, the study found.” ( snapshot of housing situation in East Point from August, 2010
“An estimated 30,000 people came over the course of three days to receive applications for the slim chance of obtaining one of the 62 [Section 8 housing] vouchers. The East Point Housing Authority was prepared for 10,000 people. East Point’s current population is estimated at just over 41,000.” (“the Pittsburgh neighborhood that has borne the brunt of the city’s housing woes. At just under 50 percent, the neighborhood’s vacancy rate is among the highest in the nation.” (“Georgia posted the nation’s highest foreclosure rate in May, with one in 300 housing units subject to a notice or repossession, data released Thursday by a real estate firm showed.” (