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The Rosemont Tenants Association’s Struggle for Collective Bargaining Rights in Vancouver

“We regard this contract as historic” - Bruce York, 1968


By Aaron Bailey, Rent.Strike.Bargain Coordination & Research Working Group



Photo: The Province, October 28th, 1968. 53 Years Ago, the residents of 36 East Fourteenth, an unassuming four-storey complex in Mt. Pleasant, fought for the right to bargain collectively with their landlord. Today, tenants and organizers throughout British Columbia are attempting to do the same.


Introduction


Rent.Strike.Bargain’s efforts to build solidarity with organized labour in British Columbia and support the creation of a province-wide tenants movement are, in many ways, entirely novel in the context of Canadian housing justice activism. Decades of government divestment from the non-market housing sector, the commodification and financialization of our homes, and the organized hollowing-out of the Canadian labour movement have left tenant unions with few tools to confront the systemic imbalance of resources and political power that exists between renters and landlords under capitalism. Despite being faced with these conditions, regional concentrations of renters in British Columbia are organizing to confront the systemic failures of the housing crisis through collective struggle and by adopting bold new approaches to tenant organizing. Rent.Strike.Bargain’s ongoing work to create a legal framework and mobilize tenants toward the extension of collective bargaining rights to renters is a cutting-edge example of such an unparalleled campaign.


However, as we continue to conduct research, talk to our neighbours and support the establishment of tenant unions across the province, it is important to bear in mind that the problems we face today are longstanding and systemic. As we struggle to ensure that tenants are equipped and able to act on their right to safe and healthy housing free from harassment, our forebears in the housing justice movement also struggled to assert renters' rights to resist exploitation through collective action. One such group was the Rosemont Tenants Association that, in the fall of 1968, went public with Vancouver’s first well-organized effort to secure a collective lease for its membership. By learning more about the Association’s work and the outcome of these critical weeks in the history of tenant rights in B.C., we’re better positioned as a movement to adopt their effective tactics and avoid repeating their mistakes.




An Unassuming Building in Mount Pleasant


Photo by Aaron Bailey. Rosemont Manor was the site of a rich organizing history in 1968. This history may be critical to today’s struggle for collective bargaining rights for tenants.


By the fall of 1968, Vancouver’s tenants-rights movement was beginning to establish itself as a conduit for popular enthusiasm under the leadership of Bruce Yorke, a UBC-educated labour organizer and repeat Communist Party of Canada candidate. Organizations like the Downtown Tenants Association (DTA) and Vancouver Tenants Organization Committee (VTOC) would lead this charge, but not before the efforts of the Rosemont Tenants Association contributed to a rising chorus of tenant power in downtown Vancouver.


On October 8th, 1968, 22 of 55 tenants at Rosemont Manor, 36 East 14thAvenue, were issued eviction notices. Refusing to pay retroactive increases to their damage deposits levied that previous September, which were correctly identified as arbitrary rent increases, tenants were facing eviction by their landlord, Eva Virtue. While the increases themselves ranged from $2 to $25, building residents recognized that the issue at hand was an imbalance of bargaining power between them and their landlord. Accordingly, 22 tenants who had been notified of these increases protested the changes and attempted to negotiate with Virtue. When they were unable to come up with a compromise, they subsequently paid their previously agreed upon rents, excluding the new fees. This prompted Virtue to issue the eviction notices.


The Rosemont Tenants Association (RTA), led by president and spokesman Peter Halford, was quickly formed to advocate for building residents and prevent their displacement, meeting for the first time to devise a strategy that very same day. The RTA immediately went public with the details of their dispute and attracted an offer from sitting alderman Tom Alsbury to act as a mediator. Meanwhile, the group established points of contact with like-minded organizations, including the DTA and tenants groups in other provinces, to begin to establish a coalition that would become the Bruce Yorke-led VTOC. The council’s careful use of Vancouver’s media to publicize their cause is the sole reason why we are able to tell this story over 5 decades later.


An official meeting between the newly formed VTOC, representing the now amalgamated Rosemont Tenants Association and Downtown Tenants Association, and mediator Tom Alsbury would take place on October 13th. Two days later, VTOC would organize a public demonstration of support for the tenants at Eric Hamber School at 33rd and Oak St. Crucially, the Rosemont struggle was not viewed as a single dispute, isolated from the material concerns of other tenants throughout the city. In fact, Bruce Yorke himself believed that “Rosemont tenants [were] pioneering in a determined effort to establish basic democratic rights for all tenants in Vancouver.”. The apartment complex and the efforts of its tenants were a literal “test case in the association's campaign for Vancouver’s estimated 150,000 tenants”. Vancouver’s tenant movement was beginning to take shape, in no small part due to the contributions and tenacity of the residents of an unassuming building in Mount Pleasant.


Collective Power and Collective Agreements


Photo: The Province, September 26th, 1968. Photo by Dave Looy. Bruce Yorke of VTOC speaks to Vancouver city council and demands the creation of a system of municipal rent control in rental properties.


By October 24th, 1968, VTOC’s expression of collective power and willingness to enter adversarial negotiations with their landlord had paid off. It was reported that the association “had nearly all its major demands met in an agreement”, many stipulations of which would become the substance of future tenancy law in British Columbia. The Rosemont tenants secured concessions from their landlord in exchange for paying the new damage deposit that included 90 days notice for rent increases, a year of rent freeze, tenant agreement to deduct parts of the damage deposit, interest payments on deposits, required inspection at the beginning and end of tenancy, 30-day notice to vacate for tenants and a required 90 days notice to vacate from the landlord. Tenant power had prevailed, but VTOC’s ambitions for Rosemont Manor extended beyond the tenure of the contemporary residents.


While celebrating the important win for Vancouver’s renters, lead organizer Bruce Yorke insisted upon the codification of these concessions into a single collective lease for the tenants of Rosemont Manor, which he had drafted, that was analogous to a collective agreement for tenants. Tenants moving into Rosemont Manor would enter the previously negotiated collective agreement, and thereby gain access to its benefits. Yorke believed that the creation of the collective lease was an integral part of advancing tenant protections in Vancouver, claiming that he “regard[ed] [the] contract as historic. It is the first of its kind ever negotiated in Vancouver and probably in Canada… [i]t establishes the principle of collective negotiation by tenants groups with landlords”. It would, “in effect, … put Rosemont Tenants’ Association in much the same position as a labour union with a collective agreement”, which would fundamentally “change the status of tenants establishing certain rights they didn't have”.; This would ensure the long-term security of the hard fought and newly secured protections for tenants, which were likely to erode over time with tenant turnover if they were to be attached to individual leases. The collective lease became the final hurdle for VTOC and the residents of 36 East Fourteenth to overcome.


Bruce Yorke himself appears to have kept quiet about his ambitions surrounding the idea of the collective lease until the end of negotiations but was nevertheless committed to the idea. He claimed that “We (VTOC) regard this contract as historic. It is the first of its kind ever negotiated in Vancouver and probably in Canada… It establishes the principle of collective negotiation by tenants’ groups with landlords”. Despite the ostensibly radical nature of Yorke’s demand, it was reported that property owner Eva Virtue agreed to its terms in principle, so long as she was able to sign a collective agreement that applied strictly to her tenants rather than a city-wide organization. Interestingly, the Alderman designated mediator for the dispute, Tom Alsbury, was surprised to hear of this plan. Having previously voiced skepticism over the legitimacy and effectiveness of rent controls and infringements on the property rights of landlords in general, Alsbury appeals to have opposed the concept of the collective lease prior to the meeting that finalized the agreement on October 25th, 1968.



Photo: Rosemont Manor today.


The Elusive Lease


We are certain about a few facts regarding what took place on October 25th, 1968. First, we know that the Rosemont Tenants did finalize an agreement that included their demands. We also know that VTOC emerged from this event as an ascendant force in Vancouver’s housing sector and tenants-rights movement. However, given the absence of a collective lease at Rosemont in the years that followed and at present, we also know that the idea for the codification of bargaining rights for the building's residents was likely abandoned at the negotiating table at the last minute despite a formal draft being prepared.


Rent.Strike.Bargain has been searching for this elusive draft lease in the personal fonds of Bruce Yorke, with no success. The hunt is however ongoing, and we look forward to updating our community on the progress of this research. The history of the Rosemont Tenants Association, VTOC, and the struggle for a collective lease at 36 East Fourteenth illustrates that the legal recognition of bargaining rights for tenants and strong, well-organized tenants unions are the foundation of housing justice in our city. It also shows us that it is possible to create such an agreement that is acceptable and attractive to a private landlord for the benefit of tenants. Finally, this history also makes clear the necessity of tenant power and direct action to improve the material conditions of our lives. Tenant rights have never been freely given by the state; in instances where they have been created or advanced, such rights have been painstakingly carved from the harsh and inhospitable landscape of capitalist property relations by mass movements.


Legally actionable bargaining rights for tenants, firmly rooted in extant jurisprudence upholding workers' freedom to associate and collectively determine the conditions of their employment, is a winnable fight should we choose to take up the work of the Rosemont Tenants Association. It’s time for a union at home, and the legal recognition of collective bargaining rights for tenants is a strong, historically-rooted foundation from which we can build it together.

Aaron Bailey is a member of the Right to Remain research collective, volunteer researcher with the Eastside Illicit Drinkers Group for Education, an organizer with the Rent Strike Bargain campaign, student researcher with the Downtown Eastside SRO Collaborative and graduate student in Health Promotion within the Centre for Environmental Health Equity at Queen’s University. His work focuses on the relationship between history, activism, alcohol harm reduction, and housing in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.