By Ben Ger and Rebecca Kantwerg
In 1973, the Law Reform Commission of B.C. was tasked with considering whether collective-bargaining rights should be extended to tenants.
Tenants and tenant groups provided 10 percent of the 200 submissions received by the commission. They were in favour of collective-bargaining rights.
The commission's final recommendations reflected a hearing process that did not recognize the collective nature of the tenant groups’ submissions. Landlords dominated the process and, not surprisingly, were unanimous in telling the commission that they did not support collective-bargaining rights for tenants, claiming it would be unfair to landlords.
The commission declined to recommend that the government recognize tenant collective-bargaining rights.
There was at least one submission, provided by tenants, that proposed a clear structure for tenant collective bargaining. This included mandatory collective bargaining in unionized buildings, and, where collective bargaining reached impasse, a process for third-party mediation and binding recommendations with a framework for the right of renters to strike.
The commission rejected this proposal, stating “in…landlord and tenant relations the remedies of self-help ought to be discouraged if other means of solving disputes can be found”. The commission refused to recognize that tenants ought to have the collective power to determine for themselves what their housing terms and conditions should be.
Much has changed since 1973. Collective action has since been recognized as being intrinsically valuable and empowering, in legal decisions interpreting Section 2(d) of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which confirms our freedom to associate.
The Charter became part of our Constitution in 1982. After many long-fought labour-union battles, the Supreme Court of Canada in 2007 recognized (see paragraph 82) for workers that collective bargaining and striking are valued because these activities promote “human dignity, liberty, and autonomy” by giving people “control over a major aspect of their lives, namely their work”.
The same rights have not yet been recognized for tenants. Collective action at home is inherently valuable for ensuring tenants are empowered and able to control this other major aspect of their life, their home. It is time for tenants to demand those same rights.
Presently, renters remain legally isolated in individual tenancy contracts and their collective rights are not recognized. While tenants may ask that individual complaints filed with the Residential Tenancy Branch be heard together, that is the extent of legislative recognition of tenant collective action and is probably more concerned with the efficiency of adjudicating multiple, but still individual, complaints at the same time rather than a concern for giving tenants the ability to act collectively.
Renters, like employees, are in an inherently unequal bargaining relationship. This is particularly so in a place like Victoria, Prince Rupert, and Vancouver, where vacancy rates are low and rents are very high for given housing standards.
An employee relies on their employer for money to pay rent and is constantly at risk of termination; a tenant relies on their landlord for housing and is constantly at risk of houselessness. Workers have realized that they are powerful when they act together and by doing so have won the rights to unionize, collectively bargain, and to strike. It is time for tenants to do the same.
B.C. tenants have engaged in collective action in effort to bargain for better living conditions in the past. In 1968, tenants at Rosemont Manor, motivated by an exorbitant rent increase, joined together in the Rosemont Tenants Association. The Vancouver Tenants Council, representing them as bargaining agent, presented a collective-tenancy agreement to the landlord.
In 1971, 200 tenants across multiple buildings owned by Wall & Redekop Corp. initiated rolling rent strikes in an effort to collectively bargain against a high rent increase. More recently, in 1990, tenants at 633 Commercial acted together and struck their landlord, again, to collectively bargain against a high rent increase and to negotiate better living conditions.
Rent Strike Bargain is fighting for the right to tenant collective bargaining. Their framework includes four foundational pillars: (1) the right to organize and associate; (2) recognition of the union and requirement to bargain; (3) right to rent strike without eviction; and (4) access to justice for landlord noncompliance.
Collective bargaining is a process tenants can use to take their housing stability, safety, and affordability into their own hands, rather than relying on government or corporate charity.
A meaningful process for tenant collective bargaining would allow tenants to protect themselves without waiting for government intervention. It is time that tenants’ rights to collectively bargain be recognized.