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ONE DARK dark and wintry evening in the Page Hall area of Sheffield, Mahmood and his family nervously ushered fellow members of Acorn into their home. Tonight was the night we would confront their bullying landlord and win.
Mahmood showed the union members around the small terraced house, room by room. Despite the family’s best efforts to make the house a homely base to raise their young son, Sheffield Council Private Housing Standards had condemned the property as “unfit for human habitation.” But the landlord still would not listen to Mahmood’s pleas for repairs.
The kitchen was an empty room with no lighting. Six months previously, Mahmood had first complained that the oven was broken. Rather than fix the problem, the landlord had tried to illegally evict the family, and sent heavies round to the house to threaten them when they refused to leave.
During the stand-off, one of the hired thugs took a hammer to the kitchen, ripped out all of the appliances and dumped them in the garden. The family had been left ever since with no functioning kitchen in their home.
We moved through the house, and as I stood in the tiny bedroom of Mahmood’s seven year old son, the child showed me the drawings he’d stuck up to try and cover the black mould creeping along the walls next to his bed.
As we returned back downstairs, Mahmood came through the door with six hot pizzas he had bought from a nearby takeaway to feed the troops. He apologised that they were unable to cook us a home cooked meal. We ate, then got to work.
Wrapped up in scarves and wooly hats and waving our red Acorn flags against the night’s sky, we marched to the landlord’s house. Mahmood was shocked when we arrived to see a row of luxury cars on the driveway and a chandelier through the window. We knocked on the door and Mahmood made his demands while his fellow union members had his back, chanting songs and flyering neighbours to make sure he would not be ignored this time.
By the time we got back to Mahmood’s house a builder had rung him. After years of waiting, asking politely and reporting problems to the council — one Acorn action meant that works started on the kitchen the next day.
Acorn is a community union. We’re an organisation made up of ordinary people coming together, fighting and winning on the issues affecting our communities. Since launching our first local branch in Bristol seven years ago, we have grown into a successful, strong and resilient union with thousands of members and almost 30 groups across England and Wales.
We have successfully used people power to resist hundreds of evictions, forced landlords to complete repairs and have won tens of thousands in compensation for our members. During the pandemic, we ran a nationwide community support network to combat isolation and to get food and prescriptions to those in need. As well as this, we have fought and won on issues ranging from speeding in residential areas and school academisation to public transport.
This success is testament to people power and to the spirit of our members who fight tirelessly for the benefit of each other.
Our work, naturally, has brought us up against powerful people — people in positions of political and economic influence and people with money.
Over the years our organisers have received death threats, we’ve had people threaten to smash up our offices, members on picket lines have been verbally abused and even physically assaulted by landlords who hate people exposing their unsafe housing and profiteering. But these scare tactics have not worked. If anything, these tactics fuel our fire.
That’s why some of these landlords are now trying to use the law — and their ability to pay for it — to attack us. They’re using “lawfare” against us; that is, using the legal system and their ability to access it, to damage and delegitimise us as an opposing organisation.
They are slapping us with notices of legal proceedings to scare us. From claims of GDPR breaches to accusations of harassment and defamation, they’re trying to keep us busy, in the hope that we will back down and desist in our fight.
In some cases they are trying to silence us and our members, attempting to get injunctions to stop ordinary people from speaking out about their malpractice and substandard housing. In others they are trying to sue us, ultimately hoping to bankrupt the union.
We are confident that we are in the right, and as a fighting union we are determined to stand up and defend ourselves and our members. But we are not confident in our ability to afford the legal process itself. The legal system is rigged against ordinary people. And bluntly, we are a small start-up union punching above our weight, with very few resources.
So what are we doing about it? We are looking for legal support and this comes at a big cost.
We have recently launched a crowdfunder for our legal defence fund — like a trade union strike fund — to make sure we have the resources available to fight any cases and stand up for ourselves in court. Lots of small individual donations add up and our members and supporters have raised nearly half of our £50,000 target so far — but we need your help.
We ask that you, readers of the Morning Star, stand with us in the face of these threats and show solidarity with a donation to our legal defence fund. Help us to keep fighting the wealthy elite, and building the power of our class. Together we are strong.
To donate to the legal fund go to www.mstar.link/DefendAcorn.
Rohan Kon is the chair of Acorn.
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