On April 2, six tenant organizations from around the state banded together to start a new statewide tenant union called the North Carolina Tenants Union, led by Nick MacLeod. In a conversation, TCB asked MacLeod and Housing Justice Now’s Sudarshan Krishnamurthy about how the new statewide organization will help local branches like HJN in Winston-Salem.

Disclosure: Sudarshan Krishnamurthy is a freelance writer for TCB.

Tell me about how the NC Tenants Union got started.

NM: So it started about three to four years ago. The NC Housing Coalition read the landscape of the state and saw that there wasn’t a statewide tenant organization. They kept getting into fights where tenants rights were being eroded and realized that there was a meaningful difference between access and power.

The downside of doing nothing just got unavoidable; it’s too dangerous to do nothing.

I was brought on as the organizing director of the housing coalition in 2020 with the goal of building these organizations and helping them build up infrastructure. We were lucky enough to have built up folks who were already moving like Housing Justice Now because the fact is that tenants have been organizing in North Carolina for decades and decades.

How many organizations are part of NCTU and what does it mean to be part of the union?

NM: Part of the reason why we’re saying it’s a tenants’ union is because we recognize that our power comes from mass numbers.There are currently six local groups and our board is made up of people from each of these groups. I’m currently the only staff member. The important part is that it’s a directly democratic organization.

Being able to get to collectively negotiated leases is like collective bargaining. It’s a power shift between tenants and landlords. This is not like a labor union; there is not a legal form for a tenant union but we know that there is a lot of power outside of the legal structure. 

SK: Exactly, it’s about learning from what has worked and what hasn’t worked and sharing strategies. 

Why is this important for tenants in NC?

SK: Housing is a crisis all over the state. I think seeing this union will build solidarity and will allow the locals to share struggles from all over NC. It will also encourage more folks to join the fight and learn that they were not alone. It helps to construct narratives of these shared struggles.

NM: Our hope is that all of these pieces are mutually reinforcing.

SK: So that looks like saying, ‘Hey, this is what we did with Crystal Towers. We moved the Winston Housing Authority in this way, so you can do that in Wilmington, too.’ 

What do you imagine for the future of NCTU?

NM: Since we launched on Tuesday, we’ve heard from so many other folks around the state. We want to get to all the places where housing is a crisis which is quite literally everywhere.

Ultimately, we’re hoping we have more full-time workers for each local chapter and beyond. NCTU only exists because of the incredible work that the workers and tenants on the ground are doing. It’s very much been a collective effort.SK: A lot of what will change is that we will have more people, we will benefit from other locals and we will benefit from the central NCTU structure; it will be immensely helpful.

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