Collective bargaining for housing: Connecticut tenants union wins landmark fight against mega-landlord
300 tenants and supporters march from New Haven City Hall to the offices of mega-landlord Ocean Management. | via Connecticut Tenants Union

NEW HAVEN, Conn.—This summer, the Blake Street Tenants Union in New Haven has been actively mobilizing mass action and engaging in a stiff legal struggle to defend their community from ongoing aggressive, profit-driven rent increases. As a result, a corporate landlord in Connecticut has been forced to publicly recognize the union and to withdraw several eviction notices and engage in collective bargaining.

According to public reports and court records, the Blake Street Tenants Union has been targeted by Ocean Management for union-busting and attempted retaliatory evictions. After two years of neglecting the Elizabeth Apartments, Ocean Management demanded rent increases of 30% in June.

To fight back, the Tenants Union issued a united demand for collective bargaining. It was signed by nearly 100% of the building’s residents and called upon Ocean Management to come to the table, negotiate rents, and address squalid conditions caused by the company’s mismanagement.

Residents with the Blake Street Tenants Union rally outside the offices of Ocean Management to deliver their petition. | via Connecticut Tenants Union

Mega-landlords like Ocean Management want to negotiate with tenants one-on-one because they know they have the power to make someone homeless. Because of threats of homelessness, the landlord can pressure individuals into taking bad deals. Collective action, on the other hand, shifts power away from landlords and into the hands of tenants.

The Tenants Union’s petition stated that the members “stand united to protect ourselves from excessive rent increases” and that they “refuse to negotiate alone.” They’ve taken a page right out of the strategy book of organized labor. Employees in a workplace or industry who band together in a union to collectively bargain can win the higher wages and benefits that a single worker alone can’t.

The Union also filed complaints with the New Haven Fair Rent Commission to protect their community from these wild rent increases. Corporate landlords typically increase rents in order to manufacture evictions for non-payment of rent. In Connecticut, filing a complaint with the Fair Rent Commission requires landlords to justify their rent to the public. This means landlords need to justify their profit margins.

During negotiations in July and August, the Union used their collective power to demand Ocean Management address conditions in apartments and charge a reasonable rent.

By mid-August, Ocean Management realized they were not going to be able to get their rent increases if the Union remained united behind their demand that rents be reasonable and conditions in the complex improve. So, they sent a wave of eviction notices to half the building in a naive attempt to split and intimidate the Union. Their attempt failed.

Instead, the Union mobilized over 300 members of local tenants unions, trade unions, and political groups. The public took to the streets on Aug. 28 and marched to Ocean Management’s headquarters to present another petition signed by nearly all of the building’s residents, that demanded this landlord come to the bargaining table, continue to negotiate, and withdraw their retaliatory evictions.

via Connecticut Tenants Union

Simultaneously, the Union filed a lawsuit with the Superior Court requesting injunctive relief, demanding that the Court protect the Union from retaliatory evictions and aggressive rent increases because Ocean Management engaged in illegal activities and unfair trade practices.

Corporate landlords like Ocean Management have great power over individual tenants, but they fear public accountability. The last thing they want is the public to be looking through their books, seeing their profit margins.

In response to the Union’s mobilization, Ocean Management has withdrawn the eviction notices and has been dragged, kicking and screaming, back to the bargaining table. Critically, the Union and Ocean Management have signed a memorandum of understanding that recognizes the Union, requires the parties to negotiate in good faith, and bars Ocean Management from further acts of wrongdoing.

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C. D. Carlson
C. D. Carlson

C. D. Carlson is a Connecticut-based attorney who advocates for underrepresented and marginalized communities.