By: Michael Mochaidean
It’s a hot summer day in Morgantown when Travis Boothe begins his canvassing route to the major apartment complexes in and around the town. He’s traveling with members of a newly-formed local coalition, Morgantown Socialists, to speak with tenants about the biggest challenges they face dealing with their landlords. In almost every interview Travis conducts that day, one common theme emerges – an utter lack of concern for renters.
Renting is big business in Morgantown, home to the state’s flagship college – West Virginia University. In 2015, for example, over 22% of a median renter’s household income went into paying monthly rent, compared to 19% for the state and just over 20% for the country. In the town itself, 37% of housing units are renting households, compared to just 27% in the state.
One of the biggest factors explaining this disparity is the sprawling nature of Morgantown and its reliance on the university to keep the town economically stable. The population of Morgantown fluctuates from 31,000 in the summer months to over 60,000 during the fall and spring semester. Morgantown is also one of the few towns in West Virginia that has maintained a steady, positive growth in the population over the past decade. When WVU joined the Big 12 in 2012, one of the stipulations for joining the new conference was an increase in student population by roughly 10,000 students over the next decade. The University Board of Governors acted swiftly to build accommodations for these new students. In 2012, WVU spent $14.5 million to purchase massive portions of land in the congested Sunnyside neighborhood near campus. Small homes were torn down and in their stead large, expensive sky rise apartment complexes – an oddity for the town – were built.
Travis’ interviews reveal an underlying sentiment of tenant discontent, but one that has long lacked any tangible possibilities for effecting change. In last year’s city council election, local landlords banded together to pump thousands of dollars into the Republican nominees in the hopes of maintaining hegemony over the local city ordinances governing rental agreements. Luckily, their hopes were dashed with the help of the progressive group – Mountaineers for Progress – which was able to get progressive Democrats elected from all seven wards.
Travis, however, is not as optimistic about the recent electoral victory. For him, a reliance on electoral politics allows power to remain in the hands of the few. Rather than relying solely on elected officials to enact change, he has taken charge to see it through himself. Utilizing direct action politics, which he and other members of the Morgantown Socialists learned from activists with Philly Socialists, the Morgantown Tenants Union (MTU) was born. Taking the lead from the Philadelphia Tenants Union, Travis stated that the goal of the MTU is to focus on dual power and work on institutions outside mainstream capitalist politics. In their first meeting on July 15th, there was no talk about the philosophical differences each member had with one another. The big-tent group that grew in the wake of the Sanders campaign is less concerned with striving for left unity and more on working-class unity.
Speaking to the long-term mission of the MTU, Boothe stated that, “Our primary mission is to organize the unorganized.” Too often, leftist groups work within themselves in an insular fashion, cutting off others who may otherwise support your cause but who are, as of yet, unaffiliated. For Travis, the MTU can draw in a broad progressive base of unorganized, working-class tenants and then “help them to break the mold of what it means to be political.” In this sense, Travis is less concerned with working with other local activist groups than he is with making connections with everyday residents.
The MTU hopes to achieve these goals in much the same way that the Philadelphia Tenants Union has achieved theirs: publicize grievances against landlords, maintain a registry of complaints, stage a picket in key locations and in front of landlord buildings, organize a rent strike, and push the city council to enact some form of rent control. Throughout this process, Travis hopes that the group will increase the level of class consciousness in the area.
While Travis works to develop the central goals and organizing tactics of the MTU, on the other side of town, the newly chartered North Central West Virginia DSA chapter is holding its monthly meeting. Jeff Ryan – chair of the local chapter – is sitting down with members to develop a community outreach program centered on education. At first glance, this emphasis on education might seem strange to the outside observer, given Morgantown’s proximity to the university. Ryan, however, is helping to develop an educational program to teach local citizens how to spot “fake news.” His outreach is not intended to target college students, but instead the poor, working-class families living in Monongalia county and the surrounding regions – many of whom pass by the university daily, but will never attend it.
Unlike the MTU, the North Central West Virginia DSA is focused on the small towns on the periphery of Morgantown. “In fact, when we were working on the title for our chapter, we didn’t want it to have the name ‘Morgantown’ in it,” Ryan stated, referring to the chapter’s submission for approval in March. “We wanted it to be more all-encompassing of the region.” The DSA title matches the chapter’s outreach. For example, the local is working on writing resume workshops and its “fake news” media educational program through the county’s libraries where they believe they can best impact lower-income, working-class families.
When asked why the local was spending much more of its time and effort on the more rural parts of the county, Ryan replied that, “There needs to be a greater outreach educationally to small towns outside of the so-called blue centers.” The ‘blue centers’ refer to demographically condensed areas that tend to vote Democrat and have a higher median income, which Morgantown is slowly becoming . Many of the surrounding towns, where Ryan is trying to shift the focus of the local DSA, are “living without capitalism already.” While there has been much written about the experiences of urban poverty – food deserts and accessibility, chief among them – there is not much outreach into the types of rural poverty witnessed in the state, according to Ryan. As such, the effort to increase educational accessibility in towns with a population below 200 are increasingly more important for the North Central West Virginia DSA than are issues of singular, town-specific poverty.
What is being witnessed in Northern West Virginia, then, can be seen as an experiment in socialist praxis writ large. Morgantown Socialists is experimenting with big-tent socialist politics in their attempt to ameliorate working-class poverty of student and non-student renters. Engaging with unorganized tenants in the specific confines of the town allows them and their newly formed tenants union to draw a direct line between renters and landlords. The issue-specific nature of their cause also prevents fracturing on socialist ideology, while allowing observers to participate in their own economic liberation in a cooperative, direct manner.
The North Central West Virginia DSA chapter, on the other hand, is shifting their focus to more rural areas of poverty where the dislocation between accessibility and services is greatest. These areas are known to be traditional conservative enclaves and the dispersed nature of these towns makes local organizing difficult for local leftists. Nevertheless, Ryan and the local chapter understand the need to bridge this metaphorical divide with what Michael Harrington described as “The Other America,” rather than writing them off as a lost cause.
In a sense, both strategies are necessary for the development of twenty-first century class-consciousness. The narrow focus of the MTU provides issue-specific solidarity that transcends political party or ideology, whereas the broader focus on community outreach championed by the local DSA chapter dismantles traditional center-periphery relationships between large and small towns.
Most importantly, this strategy can benefit other new locals, concerned with their long-term goals. The MTU and the DSA chapter are not affiliated with one another, and yet both socialist groups have found ways of impacting their community without overindulging one particular issue. It is yet to be seen what the long-term efficacy of these groups will be, and if they will one day work closer with one another on issue-specific projects. For now, however, West Virginia is a case study in socialism-in-process.