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Tenants' Union Recognized As Collective Bargaining Agent Historic Settlement In A2 Rent Strike

Tenants' Union Recognized As Collective Bargaining Agent Historic Settlement In A2 Rent Strike image Tenants' Union Recognized As Collective Bargaining Agent Historic Settlement In A2 Rent Strike image
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It may be many years before the far-reaching implications of the recent Ann Arbor Tenants' Union (AATU) victory over Trony-Sunrise Associates are fully understood. But that's often the way with history-making events.

After an uphill six-year struggle, the AATU has finally won an unprecedented collective bargaining agreement with the Ann Arbor landlord. This victory, the union claims, could have significant impact on the lives of local tenants, as well as giving impetus to the burgeoning nationwide tenant movement. The settlement of the four-month-old rent strike, in which over half of Trony's 120 units withheld about $40,000 in monthly rent checks, has given the AATU an "agency shop," recognized as the sole bargaining agent for all Trony tenants. The tenants began withholding rent in December to force the management to make needed maintenance repairs, including backed-up sewage, no heat, rats and other infestation, and walls and ceilings that were falling apart and didn't afford privacy.

Other terms of the settlement call for a one-month rent abatement for all AATU members and for no rent increase for those who re-rent. Rent increases for new tenants are limited to eight percent for next year. Also included are an innovative procedure allowing tenants to contract for their own repairs if speedy maintenance is not provided, and provisions for arbitration in maintenance disputes.

Most significantly, though, the AATU won recognition as a bargaining agent for local tenants, a landmark victory that union organizers have been working for since the massive city-wide rent strikes of 1969-1971. In those strikes, close to 1200 Ann Arbor tenants withheld their rents in what became the first major demonstration of a tenant 's right to rent strike - established by the Tenants' Rights Act of 1968.

Recognition, according lo Robert Miller of the AATU Steering Committee, will allow the union to significantly control lease clauses, rent increases, and maintenance. "Now we can negotiate over future leases and help tenants in the future, as well as just present tenants," he said. "For the first time, it has been shown that a tenant union can work for the benefit of its membership in regulating the oppressive ways of many landlords."

Miller likens the signing of the collective bargaining agreement to early victories for labor unions. "Recognition is the first important goal for all unions. With the recognition of the AATU by Trony, we have advanced a giant step toward establishing the respectability of tenant unions and tenant demands," he says. 'To the best of our knowledge, it is a victory unique in the country and will be a precedent for the establishment of other tenant unions throughout the country."

Jonathan Rose, director of the campus branch of Washtenaw County Legal Aid, who was involved in the negotiations and who has been with the AATU since its inception, explains that until tenants organize and begin to defend their rights, their oppression will continue and could possibly worsen.

"Tenants are an oppressed group that most individuals tend to ignore," says Rose. "Tenants, regardless of their income, regardless of their racial and ethnic background, are forced to pay outrageous sums of money to their landlord. They are forced to endure improper and inadequate maintenance. And they are left helpless, allowing landlords to control many aspects of their day-to-day lives.

"Only with victories like the one against Trony will this young movement begin to take hold, and only with a network of tenant unions throughout the state and throughout the country can the plight of the tenancy be changed."

One month ago, the AATU was sued by Trony Associates for $1 million in damages. In an apparent last ditch effort by the financially weakened company to intimidate tenants from organizing, Trony claimed that the organization was conspiring to have tenants break their contract. The suit has since been adjourned indefinitely, and the union expects it to be dismissed.

According to Miller, "Trony was hurting. We heard they were running into trouble with their investors. The million dollar suit just showed how effective we can be."

The AATU, with a membership of nearly 400, has spread its organizing throughout the city, with approximately 100 tenants striking independently and with two additional rent strikes raging against Reliable Realty and Longshore Apartments.

The rent strike against Reliable Realty, owned by Edith Epstein of Huntington Woods, has drawn the support of over 100 tenants, all withholding their rent for a range of maintenance complaints. Reliable and its attorney have already recognized the Tenants' Union as the sole bargaining agent for their tenants, but after two months of negotiations, a collective bargaining agreement or a general settlement has yet to be worked out.

"Epstein is an example of your typical rich landlord who goes home to her fancy suburban split-level and lets her tenants live in slums," explains Miller. "In many ways, her houses are worse than Trony's, and she's not going to get off easy. Her tenants are organized and seem to be growing increasingly militant."

Amongst the AATU's demands is a clause for rent control on all Epstein properties that would allow the landlord a fair profit, but would determine a proper rate of return based on current price indexes. This demand has been balked at by Reliable, but the AATU, for the time being at least, seems steadfast.

"The Tenants' Union has the power to get tenants what they want," Miller explains. "Rent control is one of the things they want. It is needed because tenants usually end up paying for past negligence on the part of landlords. It has been impossible to get rent control legislation through in this city. Maybe we can do it this way."

Rent control proposals were on both the 1973 and 1974 city election ballots, but were soundly defeated by a massive public relations campaign sponsored by the city's landlords. As a result, the housing crisis in Ann Arbor has intensified over the past few years, causing rents to skyrocket and allowing maintenance, especially in the downtown-campus area, to fall off.

"This town was good and ready for an active tenant's union," Miller adds. "Just as many other towns are good and ready. If anything, we've been an example for others to start organizing and to begin exercising and utilizing their rights. We have shown them that through this means, tenants can greatly affect the conditions of their housing."

Martin Porter, an Ann Arbor-based freelancer, has worked on the Michigan Daily and the Atlanta Constitution.