A new tenants' organization in Montreal is using strength in numbers to pressure landlords to make repairs, keep rents low and stop so-called renovictions.
The Syndicat des Locataires Autonomes Montréal, also known as the Montreal Autonomous Tenants Union (SLAM-MATU) was created last fall, when organizers noticed a lack of solutions to housing disputes outside of the Tribunal administratif du logement, the provincial rental tribunal.
Union members Jules Dimant and Noah Merali say that recourse through the tribunal is often skewed in favour of landlords, leaving tenants in need of other solutions.
SLAM-MATU essentially provides a structure for connecting tenants from various buildings and neighbourhoods to one another, and gives them strategies and resources to push for effective change.
When someone approaches SLAM-MATU and says they have a problem with their housing situation, the union presents them with several options for action and organization.
"It's always in the hands of tenants of individual buildings," says Dimant, "but we try to orient ourselves through direct action, so signed petitions, flyers, banner drops."
Their model is based on progressive escalation of tactics intended to build solidarity among tenants. They start by knocking on doors in order to create a community united around common issues.
"Odds are if someone's having problems with rats or repairs or neglect of the unit, then their neighbours are having these issues as well." says Merali.
From there, SLAM members and tenants document the issues and might co-sign a letter or a petition with demands for the landlord. The unified front that union members and tenants present gets landlords to take them seriously as a group, as opposed to isolated individuals, organizers said.
Collective action, or, as Merali puts it, "people power," is the basis for the union's activities.
"By coming together as a collective, we're able to boost each other's strength and increase the power beyond what each individual person has," he said.
"In order to level the playing field with the landlord who will often not care about a single tenant, or take advantage of a single tenant who believes their problems are too small to be worth going through a larger process."
Creating a union to strengthen collective bargaining power was inspired in part by other tenant action, such as the 2017 Parkdale Rent Strike in Toronto and Tenant and Neighbourhood Councils in California's Bay Area.
The Montreal organizers say the tactics they use have been effective so far.
In early July, tenants from three downtown buildings finished the first round of negotiations with COGIR, a real estate company managing over 80 buildings in Quebec.
SLAM says that after COGIR failed to respond to tenant concerns, they marched on the company's Montreal office, refusing to leave until the vice-president agreed to meet with them.
In the negotiations, COGIR agreed to initiate repairs to their buildings, cancel the lease of one tenant (at the tenant's request) and hold another round of negotiations for rent decreases.
In a statement to CBC, COGIR said: "We firmly believe in respecting the environment of our tenants and that why we were happy to meet with the Montreal Autonomous Tenant's Union on July 9th. The meeting went very well and the discussion was very collaborative. An action plan is being planned as we speak to address many of their demands."
"I think that the negotiations went well," said Merali of the COGIR case. "And I think that as a union, we are optimistic. But we'll continue to push for what the tenants deserve."
Housing as a bigger issue
While SLAM is increasing tenant power, organizers also say that there are larger issues to be addressed in the fight for housing rights. Merali says that the real problem goes beyond a single landlord — it's the commodification of housing in general.
"One of our core values is that housing is a right that everyone is owed and everyone should be able to have secure, safe, comfortable housing. It's not necessarily just about landlords."
According to Merali, treating housing as something to be bought and sold, rather than as a basic need, is a systemic issue. While SLAM-MATU's ultimate goal is the end of this system, each union win is a step in the right direction.
"Any sort of movement towards that end goal is definitely a success for us." said Merali.