Sunday, July 06, 2003

Singing the Internationale

By Mauro Suttora


July 14, 2003

Communism in Europe collapsed 14 years ago, so I had to come to America to experience a real Marxist class struggle. In February a wealthy businessman bought the building where I live in Manhattan, along with a dozen others. Having spent $109 million, he now wants to maximize his profit. So he’s raising rents and trying to evict people. Also, he’s making a big fuss with the doormen. “I used to get $16 an hour,” complains Danilo Rodriguez from Puerto Rico, who covers the afternoon shift in my lobby on West End Avenue. “But he got rid of the pension benefits and the health insurance, so now I make only $10.”

My native Italy has the largest Communist Party in the West, and we are accustomed to powerful unions, labor strife and strikes. All I knew about the American variant was Joan Baez singing “Joe Hill” at Woodstock and Ronald Reagan screwing the air-traffic controllers. Never did I imagine that I, too, would soon be involved. Yet one day a sheet of paper slid under my door announcing a secret meeting in apartment 12C. “We gotta be united,” tenants admonished one another. This from folks who, before, hardly said hello in the elevator.

At first I was mystified by all the talk of “condoms.” Then I found out the word was “condos,” and that the landlord would be selling off the rentals as “owner-occupied apartments” - for big money, of course. To “protect our rights,” my fellow tenants hired a lawyer for the (to me) incredible sum of $13,000. Being an individualist, I refused to pay my $300 share. Why waste money against a phantom who hadn’t yet done anything against us?

The phantom finally showed up. His company’s name: Acquisition America. “He doesn’t even try to sound nice,” commented someone at the next meeting. So now we are all mobilized, Sacco and Vanzetti style, with aggressive direct actions unimaginable even in Italy. There’s a big, funny, gray inflatable rat at the front door - you get the symbolism - and there was the “picnic,” in reality a sit-in, one Sunday in front of the landlord’s mansion on Long Island. “To let his neighbors know” was our rationale. (Given the Gatsbyesque proportions of the estate, I doubted any of his “neighbors” could even see us.) This got much play in the New York press and soon unions, state senators, assemblymen and city councilmen were inviting me to raucous gatherings where the slogan is: “Tenants and workers united is our strength.” Am I living in the post-Reaganite wild West of capitalism, as my European friends think, or the last frontier of Sovietism?

Here, unions and laws (stabilizing and controlling) protect my rent. Thank you, but I’m skeptical that my rich company, which foots the bill, should pay $1,000 a month less than most individuals. And if the building goes coop, there will presumably be a board like so many others in New York. They have the power to keep you from owning pets, smoking in your apartment or inviting into your home whomever you please. Perhaps we should post one of those fat old babushkas in the lobby, just as in old Moscow.

There’s also an interesting ideological flavor to this struggle. Our new landlord happens to be a big shot in the Democratic Party, which puts him at odds with various other politicians from the same party who protect us. Discovering that he also has a big rug business, they question his possible exploitation of Third World labor. By contrast, we renters have developed a multiethnic solidarity with the African-American tenants of the owner’s Harlem buildings. Like any good communists, we are internationalists, too, and have forged alliances with our Latino and Montenegro doormen. The fight goes on, and on.

© 2003 Newsweek, Inc.