Building a Solidarity Network in Houston

*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.

WELCOME TO HOUSTON, TX

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: http://www.businessinsider.com/most-segregated-cities-census-maps-2013-4?op=1#ixzz2VmCRhRjP
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: http://www.businessinsider.com/most-segregated-cities-census-maps-2013-4?op=1#ixzz2VmCRhRjP

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.

MORE THAN JUST NUMBERS

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.

WAGE THEFT IN SOUTHWEST HOUSTON

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 CRISIS IN HOUSING IN THE SOUTHWEST

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.

OUR WORK SO FAR

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.

CHALLENGES AND POSSIBILITIES

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.
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End Notes

[1] For more information about the network, visit our blog at http://swdnetwork.wordpress.com/ or find us on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/SWDNetwork

[2] “Texas Economy Moves from Recovery to Expansion.” Southwest Economy, First Quarter 2012. Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, page 4. Accessed online: http://www.dallasfed.org/assets/documents/research/swe/2012/swe1201b.pdf

[3] “Minorities Drove Texas Growth, Census Figures Show.” Texas Tribune, Feb. 18, 2011. Accessed online: http://www.texastribune.org/2011/02/18/minorities-drove-texas-growth-census-figures-show/

[4] “Refugees and Immigrants in Texas.” Houston Demographic News blog, Jun 13, 2012. Accessed online: http://houstondemos.blogspot.com/2012/06/refugees-immigrants-in-texas.html

[5] “Texas in Focus: A Statewide View of Opportunities.” Window on State Government blog. Accessed online: http://www.window.state.tx.us/specialrpt/tif/population.html

[6] “21 Maps of Highly Segregated Cities in America.” Business Insider, Apr 25, 2013. Accessed online: http://www.businessinsider.com/most-segregated-cities-census-maps-2013-4?op=1

[7] “Poverty Takes Root in Austin’s Suburbs.” Austin American-Statesman, May 19, 2013. Accessed online: http://www.mystatesman.com/news/news/local/poverty-takes-root-in-austins-suburbs/nXwt2/?icmp=statesman_internallink_textlink_apr2013_statesmanstubtomystatesman_launch

[8] “Houston Facts and Figures.” City of Houston website. Accessed online: http://www.houstontx.gov/abouthouston/houstonfacts.html

[9] “Manufacturing Generates $57.6B gross product in Houston.” Houston Business Journal, Jun 11, 2012. Accessed online: http://www.bizjournals.com/houston/news/2012/06/11/manufacturing-generates-576b-in.html

[10] “America’s New Manufacturing Boomtowns.” New Geography, May 15, 2013. Accessed online: http://www.newgeography.com/content/003707-americas-new-manufacturing-boomtowns

[11] “Houston First in Nation for Manufacturing.” Manufacturers’ News, Inc., May 19, 2009. Accessed online: http://www.manufacturersnews.com/news/story/houston-1st-in-nation-for-manufacturing

[12] “The Economic Impact of the Port of Houston.” Port of Houston website. Accessed online: http://www.portofhouston.com/about-us/economic-impact/

[13] “State and County QuickFacts: Texas.” United States Census Bureau website. Accessed online: http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/48000.html

[14] “Characteristics of Minimum Wage Workers: 2010.” Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor website. Accessed online: http://www.bls.gov/cps/minwage2010tbls.htm#3

[15] Karl Marx, “Estranged Labour.” Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844. Accessed online: http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1844/manuscripts/labour.htm

[16] “Texas Drops Close to Bottom Among States in Student Spending.” Dallas News, Feb 22, 2013. Accessed online: http://www.dallasnews.com/news/politics/headlines/20130222-texas-drops-close-to-bottom-among-states-in-student-spending.ece

[17] “Strain for Teachers Runs Deeper Than Budget Cuts.” New York Times, Oct 4, 2012. Accessed online: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/05/us/budget-cuts-and-new-policies-put-strain-on-texas-teachers.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

[18] “Texas is on the Brink, Legislative Study Group Says.” Texas Tribune, Feb 14, 2011. Accessed online: http://www.texastribune.org/texas-legislature/texas-legislature/texas-is-on-the-brink-legislative-study-group-says/

[19] 2012 Report Card for Texas’ Infrastructure. American Society of Civil Engineers. Accessed online: http://www.seinstitute.org/uploadedFiles/Infrastructure/Report_Card/2012%20Texas%20Report%20Card%20FINAL.pdf

[20] “The Third Coast.” Wall Street Journal, Nov 1, 2012. Accessed online: http://online.wsj.com/article_email/SB10001424052970204712904578092951334042918-lMyQjAxMTAyMDAwNDEwNDQyWj.html?mod=wsj_valetleft_email See also “The U.S. Cities Getting Smarter the Fastest.” New Geography, Aug 09, 2012. Accessed online: http://www.newgeography.com/content/003007-the-us-cities-getting-smarter-the-fastest

[21] For more information on the debate, see “House Debate Over Water Bill Could Spur Bigger Fight.” Texas Tribune, Apr 29, 2013. Accessed online: http://www.texastribune.org/2013/04/29/house-republicans-divided-ahead-water-bill-debate/ . See also “Water, Water, Not so Fast.” Off the Kuff blog, May 1, 2013. Accessed online: http://offthekuff.com/wp/?p=52652

[22] “Union Membership Drops Slightly in Texas, U.S.” Houston Chronicle, Mar 19, 2012. Accessed online: http://www.chron.com/business/article/Union-membership-drops-slightly-in-Texas-U-S-3419053.php

[23] “Houston Tops Our List of America’s Coolest Cities.” Forbes, July 26, 2012. Accessed online: http://www.forbes.com/sites/morganbrennan/2012/07/26/houston-tops-our-list-of-americas-coolest-cities-to-live/

[24] “Houston, We Have a Wage Theft Problem” Report by Houston Interfaith Worker Justice Center, May 2012. Available online here: http://downwithwagetheft.org/resources/houston-wage-theft-report/

[25] Build a Better Texas: Construction Working Conditions in the Lone Star State. Workers’ Defense Project. Accessed online: http://www.workersdefense.org/Build%20a%20Better%20Texas_FINAL.pdf

[26] See the Southwest Defense Network blog for the following two posts about this worker’s situation: http://swdnetwork.wordpress.com/2013/01/31/why-is-saltgrass-stealing-wages/ and http://swdnetwork.wordpress.com/2013/01/31/why-is-saltgrass-stealing-wages/

[27] “Mapping the 2010 U.S. Census.” New York Times. Accessed online: http://projects.nytimes.com/census/2010/map

[28] “District 68 History.” Houston Firehouse 68 website. Accessed online: http://www.firehouse68.com/district-68-history/

[29] Ibid.

[30] “Senate Passes Unemployment Drug-Testing Bill.” Texas Tribune, Apr 11, 2013. Accessed online: http://www.texastribune.org/2013/04/11/senate-passes-unemployment-drug-testing-bill/

[31] “Notice at Houston apartment warns against ‘adolescents of Afro-American race’.” The Grio, Nov 21, 2012. Accessed online: http://thegrio.com/2012/11/21/notice-at-houston-apartment-warns-against-adolescents-of-afro-american-race/

[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 http://libcom.org/library/you-say-you-want-build-solidarity-network or in Spanish: Guía para tejer una red de solidaridad http://www.alasbarricadas.org/noticias/?q=node/18055

[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: http://miamiautonomyandsolidarity.wordpress.com/2010/11/24/the-intermediate-level-analysis/

[35] The content and use of the survey has been shaped by discussion about Marx’s Workers’ Inquiry: http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1880/04/20.htm and this helpful summary of the use of the workers’ inquiry by later militants: http://thecommune.co.uk/2011/05/16/the-workers%E2%80%99-inquiry-what%E2%80%99s-the-point/

[36] Staughton Lynd’s Labor Law for the Rank-and-Filer is accessible online here: http://www.libcom.org/library/labor-law-rank-filer-building-solidarity-while-staying-clear-law

10 thoughts on “Building a Solidarity Network in Houston”

  1. Yo, while this is overwhelmingly right on and fantastic, there are a couple areas where y’alls analysis is not really accurate.

    1. The suburbs.

    “Despite these changes, strict dividing lines between city and suburb remain intact.” This is not really true. Many Houston suburbs are much more racially integrated than inside the loop. Fort Bend County county is only 46% white.

    Sharpstown was once a white suburb, Gulfton was developed as heavily rental for white yuppies. While Houston has rampant wealth inequality I do not see clear dividing lines between city and suburb. The suburbs are becoming whiter, and the inner city is being gentrified by yuppies of many ethnic backgrounds.

    2. Zoning.

    Houston does not have zoning “Houston voters have defeated proposals to implement citywide zoning three times, in 1948, 1962 and 1993” http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2007-11-18/business/0711150779_1_zoning-laws-land-use-houston-mayor-bill-white

    This does not disprove anything that you are alleging, but indicates a way that Houston is really totally oriented towards the interest of developers, and is something that should be better understood in struggles around housing and against capitalism.

    3. Demographic Research

    The City of Houston prepares demographic profiles of each Super Neighborhood Area of Houston and has it here: http://www.houstontx.gov/superneighborhoods/recognized.html

    You can compare ages and incomes of different communities here.

    With those things said, I am glad y’all are in Houston and organizing and trying to figure out how to build in black and brown communities here. I hope y’all keep researching and writing and contribute to an understanding of how Houston works, especially as its a city that is really taking the national spotlight in terms of economic growth and diversity.

  2. I think the reference to suburbs as militarized white enclaves relies on a
    stereotypical notion of white flight suburbs that doesn’t square with
    what is happening on the ground. Houston suburbs are actually growing
    more diverse at a faster rate than urban areas of Houston and are far less segregated than Houston’s inner urban neighborhood. This isn’t a trend exclusive to SW suburbs either, this is happening in the NW in neighborhoods like Cypress, Cy-Falls, Jersey Village and north alongside the 1960 corridor which has been the target of multiple anti-human trafficking billboard campaigns because it’s a hub. There is actually somewhat of a paradox taking place wherein Houston is experiencing decreases in racial desegregation while at the same time it is the most economically segregated city in the country
    suggesting another dimension needs to be added to the analysis. By
    characterizing suburbs as white enclaves that continues to ignore
    organizing opportunities in places like Cy-fair, it also fails to follow
    the logical path that urban gentrification causes– displaced people go
    somewhere, they go to the suburbs where there is less of a social
    safety net and poverty is diffuse or invisible.

    Again,this is a minor observation to add to overall a very well done analysis
    of Houston and without a doubt there is great work being done by SW
    Defense Network.

    1. You’re miscalculating. Factor in New Urbanism and you’ll see its designed to reverse white flight. And its working. Witness the gentrification of many urban centers. That gentrification is the outward expression of New Urbanism.

  3. Thanks for the comments Rob and Maureen. I agree that the part about racial dynamics in the suburbs vs the city could’ve been captured in more complexity in the piece. The outward movement of the working class and poor, particularly Black folks and Latinos, is indeed an important dynamic right now, which is why I referenced the Austin American Statesman article on how that is playing out in Austin (see footnote #7).

    Part of what I had in mind was specific places like Katy (which maybe is more of an exurb?) rather than places like Pasadena, but I agree that the dynamics there and for many areas around Houston are more complicated. You could add to this areas like Bellaire, which is its own distinct city inside Houston. It is not a white enclave in the traditional sense but it is definitely heavily guarded by Bellaire police and politically functions more like a traditional suburb.

    Something else the blog post is trying to get at is the point that the Southwest is more diverse and “integrated” in unique ways than some parts of the city like the Southeast. (I use “integrated” here to refer to the area as a whole, but we’re finding that many apartment complexes are still segregated along racial lines.)

    Again, I appreciate the clarifications and am happy to check out any other resources you can share that relate to this discussion. I’m also curious to hear what y’all think about some of the broader political points made about strategy and how militants and organizers should be intervening amidst these conditions? For instance, Maureen you raised the point about organizing opportunities in Cypress-Fair, can you elaborate?

    1. Thanks for the share LP! There was a group here in Houston not too long ago called ACAB (All Communities Against Brutality) that some of our people were involved in. They made a pamphlet on some of the history of Houston police violence and the kkk. The cover is that picture you have in the first post. Here’s a link if you are interested in looking at it https://docs.google.com/file/d/0B8Z2PkHoFBVlbHFsTGlwTWVFNXc/edit?usp=sharing. I am definitely going to look over your posts, good stuff for organizing here today.

  4. What is the purpose of limiting the Solidarity Network to the Southwest rather that opening it up to all workers/tenants in and around Houson? Does it just take too long for people to drive from one part of town to the other for this to be feasible? Or was it based on some sense that being geographically more limited would somehow make the group stronger within that area? Or are there other groups or scenes in other parts of town that you wanted to avoid or not compete with?

  5. Hi blarg,

    Yes, the focus on the Southwest was based on thinking about the scale of Houston, our group capacity, and a political assessment of what the conditions are like in the Southwest specifically. The city as a whole is very spread out geographically, so it does make it difficult (though not impossible) to cohere a group that is based across different parts of the city. The geography has an affect on the character of the neighborhoods, to where you have sparsely populated areas very close to the core of the city mixed with very densely populated areas. Commuting across the city, as you mention, can be difficult, but it also means that the types of problems being faced from neighborhood to neighborhood can look different (although they are all fundamentally connected). So for instance, in terms of housing struggles, the Southwest has a much higher concentration of renters so we are dealing mostly with problems with landlords, stolen rental deposits, etc., while other areas like Third Ward are facing problems with gentrification, home foreclosures and vacant houses left to rot.

    Focusing on the Southwest has allowed us to “specialize” in a way in certain kinds of struggles and have a lot more reach with a small group of organizers than we could’ve had if we had taken a city-wide approach.

    This is not to say that we are not meeting or working with tenants and workers across Houston though. We have worked on organizing and supporting a few cases of wage theft and eviction from other parts of the city. Further, a couple of the wage theft struggles we have taken up were cases where the worker lived in the Southwest but worked in a different part of the city.

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