Bain Co-op Meets Wages for Housework:
A Political Thriller
By Ulli Diemer
When you first happen upon the Bain Avenue Apartments in Torontos
Riverdale, a working-class area some two miles east of downtown,
you get the sensation that they belong to a different time and place.
There is something about them that holds the flavour of an earlier,
quieter, more sensible era (even though such an era probably existed
only in the clouded reminiscences of our grandparents), something
about them that seems to stir the memory or the imagination. Built
just before the First World War, the 260 one-, two-, and three-bedroom
apartments at Bain are clustered around several tree-lined courtyards,
each with its own name, which even the Post Office is compelled
to recognize ("The Maples, The Lindens, The Oaks. . .").
There is a sense of scale here which is lacking in most larger developments,
and a certain quiet charm which partly compensates for the genteel
shabbiness that has overtaken the project over the years.
We can surely assume that for the working-class tenants who moved
into the newly-completed project in the summer of 1914, this setting
must have held forth the promise of a peaceful, prosperous, and
But it was never quite like that, of course, not then, and not
now, and the last few years have been no exception. For several
years, Bain has been the scene of constant battles, the latest of
which, occurring in the early months of 1977, is the subject of
this article. At issue was the future of the complex and its tenants;
the struggle, marked by a rent strike, furious door-to-door organizing,
stormy general meetings, and a large-scale referendum, pitted residents
against each other in acrimonious dispute. This struggle, however,
can only be understood against the background of the project.
History of Bain
The Bain Avenue Apartments were built by a group of Toronto philanthropists
who described themselves as "not a company, but a cause"
bringing about "a solution of a problem that vitally concerns
both the community and the nation: better housing for working people."
And if that praiseworthy ambition in no way conflicted with the
continued enrichment of these corporate benefactors, whose wealth
could after all be traced back to the labours of this same class
of working people, then at least Bain did provide, over the years,
somewhat higher-than-usual quality housing at lower-than-usual prices.
But the apartments changed owners, and grew noticeably older. By
the 1970s, little of the original concept survived.
In the fall of 1972, the Bain Avenue Tenants Association was
formed to demand repairs and necessary maintenance. The association
applied pressure to the owner, and started getting results, bit
by bit. For example, by a remarkable piece of coincidence, two of
the leaders of the tenants organization finally had long overdue
repairs done in their apartments a few days after the organization
was formed; other minor repairs followed. A visit by city inspectors,
pressured in turn into noticing Bain Avenue, produced a substantial
sheaf of work orders and a more systematic approach to the upkeep
of the place, including repairs and the hiring of additional maintenance
staff. The current landlord even made an excursion of his own into
philanthropy in an effort to boost his sagging reputation: he brought
Santa Claus to visit the children just before Christmas.
But any adults who might have been inclined to be swayed by this
display of Christian beneficence soon found it was Scrooge who was
lurking behind Santas beard. Suddenly, the employers of several
Tenants Association members began receiving phone calls from the
landlord, saying the activists had been "causing considerable
management problems in the apartments" and were "bothering
tenants". Simultaneously, all tenants received notices of a
rent hike. Finally, after a year of acrimony, the owner began to
issue eviction notices to tenants as their leases expired - with
the idea of turning the development into a high-priced condominium.
Tenants responded by looking for alternatives to eviction: co-operative
ownership, or city ownership. Eventually, an agreement was worked
out whereby the City of Toronto took over the project as non-profit
housing with $6-million CMHC funding, agreeing to transfer ownership
to the tenants co-operative when it was satisfied that tenants
could afford and manage the project independently.
If there had been initial doubt as to which alternative, co-operative
or city ownership, was better, that doubt was gradually removed
in the minds of most tenants as the City proceeded to demonstrate
that it, at any rate, could not manage the project on its
own. The single key event was the carrying out of renovations, which
the city bungled so badly that the total cost of the mess is still
unclear, although it is certain that between improperly done work,
work not done, and contractors skipping town, tens of thousands
of dollars were thrown away. Naturally, it all came out of the rent.
Meanwhile property taxes on the project leapt up because, as a
city-owned enterprise, Bain was taxed at a commercial rate, $20,000
a year higher than the residential rate it would have to pay as
a co-op. As if this werent bad enough, the city corporation actually
forgot to pay Bains municipal tax bill on time, so that Bain had
to pay a tax penalty - to the city! The City of Toronto Non-Profit
Housing Corporation, one resident said accurately, "has the
In this way less-than-delighted residents found themselves paying
for the advantages of city ownership with rapidly rising rents.
Rents went up 21 per cent, then 10 per cent. In October 1976 the
third increase in a little over two years was announced effective
February 1977; it was to be 18 per cent. To add insult to injury,
Bain people found they werent protected by Ontarios rent control
legislation: marvelously, it doesnt apply to non-profit housing.
With each new increase, tenants voted to go along: refusal would
have meant giving up their plans for co-operative ownership and
eventual escape from the citys clutches and the accompanying cycle
of rising costs. The battle wasnt all negative by any means: it
succeeded in producing a fairly cohesive community at Bain, well-organized,
with clear goals, impatient at the citys foot-dragging on the transfer
of ownership, angry at the continued mismanagement.
For one group of tenants. however, the latest rent hike was the
final straw which caused them to break decisively with the previously-shared
goals. This group, consisting primarily of members and supporters
of the Wages for Housework Group, began to organize for a rent freeze
in the complex. Their position was that low-income tenants simply
could not afford the new rents. (The latest increase put rents up
to $193 for a one-bedroom apartment, $253 for a lower two-bedroom,
and $266 for a lower three-bedroom. Uppers cost an extra $20.)
The freeze group advocated that tenants refuse the increase and
continue to pay their rents at the old rate. They canvassed their
position door to door, and then put it forward at a general meeting
of tenants in December, solemnly promising to abide by the decision
of the majority.
The general meeting left no doubt. With 142 of 400 adult residents
in attendance - the best turnout at any general meeting ever held
at the project - the vote went 120 to 16 against the idea of a rent
freeze. Anger about the increase was widespread at the meeting,
but most tenants felt that it was better to pay up now, to make
some short-term sacrifices, in order not to jeopardize the long-term
benefits they saw in co-operative ownership. It was generally accepted
that the city would use a rent strike as evidence of "irresponsibility"
and thus as grounds for refusing to go ahead with the ownership
With the defeat of their proposal at the general meeting, the freeze
group rapidly changed tactics. They could not, they said, sacrifice
themselves to the idea of future ownership for anyones sake, not
when they faced immediate hardship. They turned out more literature,
produced and printed by the Toronto Wages for Housework group, and
resumed door-to-door organizing. If they could sign up 70 of Bains
260 units in support, they said, the freeze would go ahead anyway,
in defiance of the decision taken at the residents general meeting.
On February 1, claiming 55 units signed up for the freeze and support
from another 35 subsidized units (half the units at Bain receive
rent subsidy and thus were not affected by the increase) they went
ahead, paying their rent cheques at the old level. When the smoke
had cleared and the rent cheques had been counted, however, their
claims of support turned out to be greatly exaggerated. Only 26
units participated in the freeze.
Still, their action and accompanying media offensive did win them
a good deal of sympathetic press coverage, including a strongly
favourable front-page story in the Clarion, a newly-formed
left-wing paper in Toronto.
The Residents Council, the elected executive at Bain, countered
by setting up an emergency internal subsidy program to help those
hardest hit by the rent hike, and by criticizing the tactics of
the rent freezers as divisive and likely to fail. They argued that
a rent freeze would pit the tenants against each other and against
three levels of government simultaneously - a battle they couldnt
Spokespeople for the freeze group, however, maintained that through
united action it would be possible to hold off the governments and
keep rents where they were. They pointed to a housing project in
Montreal which, they said, had recently fought a similar battle
and won. Increasingly, too, they criticized the concept of co-operative
ownership itself. It served only to make tenants their own landlords,
they said, leaving the basic problems of low-income housing unsolved.
As an alternative, they now supported the status quo - city ownership
- coupled with a strong tenants organization to protect tenants.
Supporters of the co-op idea responded by pointing to the long-term
advantages. Co-ops in Toronto, they pointed out, were faring significantly
better in terms of rent than non-profit housing or the private sector.
To achieve this was worth some short-term sacrifices, they said.
Co-op supporters, meanwhile, were also organizing door-to-door,
against the freeze. The freeze, they said, jeopardized the whole
project, since it meant that the rent bill could not be paid in
full. The freeze, they said, was tantamount to deliberate sabotage
of the will of the majority. Even more infuriating to them than
the issue of money ("Theyre ripping off all the other
tenants" was a frequent comment) was the fact that the freeze
group had sent letters to the Central Mortgage and Housing Corporation
(CMHC) asking them to hold up the transfer of ownership to the tenants,
claiming that tenants did not really support co-operative ownership,
and that the appearance of support for a co-op was due to "intimidation"
by a "small clique" that controlled the Residents Council.
Similar letters were sent to the City and Mayor.
The by now thoroughly acrimonious dispute came head at another
very well-attended general meeting which voted by a large majority
to issue eviction notices to those who continued to freeze their
rents, with a two-week period of grace in which to pay up. The notices
duly went out to the ten units still remaining on the freeze; all
immediately paid up, and no one was evicted. The strike was over.
The freeze group, by now reduced to its original core of Wages
for Housework people, still had another card to play, however. If
they couldnt bring down the rents, then theyd try to
bring down the co-op. A delegation to City Hall was mobilized which
persuaded the City to hold a referendum at Bain to see whether co-op
ownership was really supported by the residents. The City was only
too happy to oblige.
Another round of organizing by both sides ensued; Wages for Housework
predicted that a solid majority would reject the co-op.
No such luck. In an 87 per cent turnout, the vote went 2-1 in favour
of co-op ownership. And at elections for Residents Council, co-op
supporters were once again voted into office.
Predictably, the results didnt convince Wages for Housework.
The group issued a press release claiming victory, then proceeded
to demand that the City or CMHC overturn the results of the referendum
they themselves had asked for. The City refused, CMHC has yet to
reply. Few people doubt, however, that the transfer of ownership
will go ahead as scheduled later this summer.
Co-op vs City Ownership
To my mind, there are two questions on which the events at Bain
Ave. shed some light.
The first is the issue of city-owned vs. co-operative housing.
There are a number of residential projects in the City of Toronto
which for one reason or another find themselves in a similar situation
to that faced by Bain tenants in 1974. Each of these has in turn
debated the question of whether it is better to attempt to convert
the project into a co-operative, or whether it is better to have
the City take over as landlord under its non-profit housing program.
The Bain experience is worth studying for answers, but it is not
at all clear that the evidence points conclusively in the one direction
or the other. On the one hand, City ownership seems to offer benefits
and protection not available to those renting from a private landlord;
on the other hand, city mismanagement can drive rents up even faster
than the market does - at least as long as the market is held in
check by Ontarios rent control program, (due to expire next year).
Co-operatives have a somewhat better track record for keeping costs
down, but this can vary: in older developments, maintenance costs
can be quite high. Co-operatives also offer greater opportunities
for residents to make decisions about their project themselves,
but ultimately residents control is greatly restricted by the fact
that urban land continues to be controlled by the forces of the
capitalist market, and by the fact that the co-op comes up at every
turn against the totality of relations that dominate life and impose
choices in this society.
On balance, the evidence appears to indicate that it is probably
better to be in an already-existing co-op rather than in city-owned
housing, but this does not necessarily mean that it is best to pursue
the co-op route in a project where the alternatives have just been
posed, and where the final objective is still years off. The reason
is that the process of becoming a co-op is an extremely difficult
one, laden with pitfalls and problems, as the people at Bain discovered.
Becoming a co-op requires a great deal of time and energy from the
organizers, mountains of legal work and endless financial planning.
It requires, in short, that tenants form themselves into a disciplined
corporate entity capable of dealing with the government bureaucracies
which provide the necessary capital, and even, in a sense, that
tenants become their own landlord. One of the main drawbacks of
the process of becoming a co-operative as it took place at Bain
was the way it channelled the energies of a significant number of
active and politically aware residents into legal and bureaucratic
activities, and in so doing helped to dissipate the political consciousness
and energy that had been focussed by the battle with the former
landlord. At Bain, the battle seems to have been worth it all now
that the goal has almost been achieved, but the problems encountered
along the way should be enough to make other projects think carefully
before embarking on the same journey. A co-op is a strategy, but
its not the strategy. Its no sure-fire way to change
It is ironic that one of the things counteracting the trend to
depoliticization at Bain has been precisely the opposition to the
co-op mounted by the Wages for Housework Group and their supporters,
which drew many residents back into increased involvement with the
affairs of the project, and made people think very hard about the
goals they wanted to pursue.
The Role of Wages for Housework
The role of Wages for Housework in the struggle at Bain is the main
question I want to pursue here, and it is one that appears to me
to offer much more definite conclusions than the co-op vs city ownership
I should make it clear at the outset that I am not attempting an
evaluation of Wages for Housework per se, or of their general political
demands. I am dealing here with the political role of the group
in one particular struggle, a struggle, to be sure, which seems
to say a great deal about the political perspectives and tactics
of the group in general.
Prior to my becoming involved in the Bain situation, as a reporter
covering the events there for a local newspaper, my attitude to
Wages for Housework had been that the group had some valid ideas
to contribute to the socialist movement, and that the payment of
wages for housework would be a good thing if you can get them, (which
seemed unlikely), but I disagreed with what I saw as the dogmatic
narrowness of their political perspective. I had not, however, had
any particular opportunity to observe Wages for Housework in action
and had not formed any opinion one way or the other about their
political practice. Nor would I have thought it appropriate, as
a man, to deliver judgements in print on the strategies of a part
of the womens movement. But struggle at Bain involved men
just as much as women - in fact, one of the main spokesmen of the
rent freeze group was a man who actively works to support Wages
for Housework, while some of the key people on the other side were
women. And of course the issues concerned male and female residents
I should also say that when I initially began covering the rent
freeze at Bain, I was basically sympathetic to position of the rent
After hearing arguments from both sides, I was for a time a more
or less neutral observer, and only gradually, after following events,
reading literature, attending meetings, and interviewing people
on both sides did I become increasingly critical of the actions
of Wages for Housework and of the attittudes that seemed to underlie
The reason I became critical of the Wages for Housework Group at
Bain was not primarily because of the stands they took on co-operative
ownership and rents per se, although I did ultimately disagree with
them. But it is possible for a reasonable person to believe that
it would have been wiser for Bain residents not to have followed
the co-op route, and to have rejected rather than accepted the rent
increase. But that is not the issue.
The key point is that these questions were considered thoroughly
by the residents of this working-class community; that both sides
were presented to everyone living in the complex through leaflets,
newsletters, door-to-door canvassing, and general meetings, and
that after this lengthy and quite democratic process, the tenants
came overwhelmingly to a decision in favour of the co-op option
and against the rent freeze. Yet the Wages for Housework Group,
which had earlier promised to accept whatever decision was made,
chose to ignore the decision, to label it the result of "manipulation"
and "intimidation" by a "tiny clique", to lie
about events that had occurred and about their own support, and
to attempt to use every means up to and including deliberate sabotage
of the entire project, to get their way.
A number of points should be made:
First of all, the claim made by the Wages for Housework Group, and
repeated elsewhere, that the struggle was between a group of poor
tenants, especially women on social assistance struggling to keep
their heads above water, and a group aspiring to become "middle-class
homeowners" is false. In fact, fully half the tenants at Bain
are poor enough to receive governmental rent supplements; nearly
all the rest are working-class as well. A substantial majority of
both groups of tenants were opposed to the rent freeze and
in favour of the co-op. The dozen members of the Residents Council,
the elected executive at Bain, (the "tiny clique") were
drawn about equally from each group. Nine of the twelve were women,
three of them single mothers.
Nor is it true, by and large, that the poorest residents were
hardest hit. In fact, those residents whose income was low enough
to qualify them for subsidies were not affected by the increase
at all. Their rents remained the same; the increase was covered
by an increase in their subsidy. Furthermore, those who didnt qualify
for subsidies, but who were hard hit by the increase, were offered
and received an internal subsidy from the operating expenses of
the co-op itself.
This is not to deny that the 18% rent increase was an unpleasant
blow. But it was something that tenants walked into with their eyes
open, a burden they deliberately chose to shoulder. The reason they
did so was their decision to accept some reduction in their standard
of living now in order to achieve co-operative ownership, which
would reduce their costs in the long run, and bring them greater
control over their living environment. (It should also be pointed
out that rents at Bain after the increase are still equivalent to
or lower than rents in Toronto generally.) Incidentally, the fact
that 26 units out of 260 went on a rent strike on their own when
all the other tenants had decided not to, meant that the other tenants
had to pay more rent than they otherwise would have, in order to
make up the difference in the total rent bill payable to the City.
This caused some tenants to remark bitterly that it was a case of
the middle class feeding off working people.
However, for many people at Bain, the key issue was not the economic
one. It was rather that of control. Residents were of course
interested in paying as little rent as possible, no doubt about
that. And they thought a co-op would be the best way of achieving
that goal. But through five years of doing battle with private and
public landlords, and putting up with constant mismanagement, they
had arrived at a very firm commitment to controlling their living
environment collectively, even if it meant making some short-term
They didnt want a landlord - they wanted to run the place
themselves. It is only in the light of this determination that
the struggle at Bain can be understood at all. Other issues were
subsidiary, tactical questions. The thing that divided the majority
of residents from the Wages for Housework Group was their diametrically
opposed views on who should control the place.
While the majority were prepared to take on the risks and burdens
that residents control might entail, the Wages for Housework group
rejected the goal of controlling the place out of hand, characterizing
it alternately as irrelevant to peoples real needs or as a utopian
pipe-dream. They didnt care who ran the place, as long as their
rents didnt go up: a short-sighted position even in its own terms,
since most co-ops do have a better track record on rents in the
long run. In making their case against the co-op, they deliberately
and cynically played to peoples fears of taking over responsibility
themselves by suggesting all sorts of problems that might arise(2)
- as if there had not been an incredible number of problems for
as long as people could remember with both the private landlord
and the city.
The Wages for Housework people seemed to have but one solution
to every problem: ask the government to take care of things, whether
by providing more subsidies, taking management of the project back
from the tenants, or paying them wages for doing housework. And
when they couldnt convince residents to support their proposals,
they actually turned to the various government bodies to ask them
to overrule the decisions tenants had democratically arrived at.
To people who wanted to take on responsibility for their community,
they said the state should take care of things, like it or not.
Perhaps the most obvious contradiction the group landed itself
in was on the question of the rent increase itself. The majority
was in favour of putting up with the increase because it would allow
them to proceed with the transfer of ownership, and thus in a few
months rid themselves of the City housing corporation, which was
causing the increase through its mismanagement. The Wages for Housework
people wanted to fight the increase by rejecting the co-op goal,
thus permanently leaving the control of the project in the hands
of the same city corporation that was imposing the increases in
the first place.
Because of their commitment to continued city control of the project,
the Wages for Housework group had no qualms about ignoring any decisions
that residents arrived at, or about attacking the decision-making
process that produced these decisions, or about asking the government
to ignore the residents decisions and impose solutions on them
from the outside.
Thus, for example, the Wages for Housework people consistently
denigrated the general meetings at which decisions were made at
Bain, alleging that these decisions were imposed by the Council
(executive). People who took part in general meetings were characterized
as dupes of the Council. This, of course, was after a general
meeting rejected their strategy by a 120-16 vote. Before that, they
had had no criticisms of the meetings, which any of Bains 400 adult
residents can attend, speak at, and vote at. Even after the general
meetings were dismissed as charades by them, however, they continued
to turn out for them and put their case, and then dismiss their
defeats at them as the result of manipulation. It may well be that
these meetings are not perfect examples of pure democracy, but the
turnout at the crucial meetings was higher, for example, than the
voter turnout for Torontos municipal elections, which took place
around the same time. When you see that many working people, who
have to get up for work the next morning, spending several hours
- their entire evening - on several different occasions, in face-to-face
discussion about the future of their homes, you can be fairly sure
that youre seeing a form of democracy thats a cut above what is
usually considered democratic in this society.
And indeed people at Bain are justly proud of the way they make
decisions, of the way major issues are raised in literature put
out before meetings, and through intensive discussion at meetings.
Not surprisingly, many of them were indignant at the demand from
Wages for Housework that decisions be made by referendum instead
of at general meetings. They saw it as a step backward from the
level of involvement and democracy they had achieved.
But of course Wages for Houseworks advocacy of making decisions
by referendum only lasted as long as it took them to lose decisively
in the referendum the city imposed on Bain after the groups
lobbying at City Hall. (The so-called delegations from Bain
which were sent to City Hall included such luminaries as Selma James
and Judy Ramirez, two leaders of the International Wages for Housework
Committee, neither of them Bain residents.) Once they had lost the
referendum, by a decisive margin, they were back off to City Hall
and CMHC, this time with demands that the referendum results be
ignored. In their most recent literature, the Wages for Housework
people dont suggest any kind of decision-making process at
all - they simply demand that some government body - any government
body - impose their will on what even they have to admit is the
majority of Bain residents. (Ludicrously, they are now reduced to
saying that "the outcome would have been different" if
only more of their supporters, and fewer of their opponents, were
living at Bain!)
Their refusal to make any concessions at all to the goals of democracy
and residents control that most of the people at Bain have shown
they care about a great deal seems to be traceable to the political
theory that underlines their actions. The entire perspective of
the Wages for Housework group apparently centres on a particularly
vulgar form of economic determinism: the theory that people will
only respond, and can only be organized around, issues that have
to do with putting more money in their pockets. The theory says
that people cant be interested in something as abstract as controlling
their own community so, therefore, they arent interested, and if
they think they are, theyre just being duped. The Wages for Housework
philosophy is well captured in the symbol they have themselves chosen,
and which they used widely during their campaign at Bain: a hand
clutching a wad of money.
The implications of their approach became very clear at Bain Avenue,
where their campaign was based on exploiting peoples passivity
and fears and on the latent demoralization born of the long, drawn-out
struggles at Bain, rather than building on peoples strengths. At
crucial moments, their appeal was always to the state to help them
out. To the extent that their organizing produced any results, it
succeeded only in pitting working class people against a few people
on social assistance and a group of middle class activists. It was
only their failure to win any significant support that kept them
from destroying the solidarity that existed among the people of
the Bain Co-op. In the process of trying, they showed themselves
to be the epitome of the narrow political sect that is interested
in nothing except its own dogma and self-aggrandizement. It is to
the credit of the Bain community that they rejected the politics
Wages for Housework offered them and in so doing developed a heightened
sense of their own purpose and power.
The rent freeze group, in fact, distributed the first article
I wrote on the struggle (for Seven
News, the local newspaper) with their own literature.
For example. their literature played up the suggestion that if the
old boiler for the apartments were to explode, residents would have
to pay over $100,000 for a new one out of their own pockets. In
fact, the boiler is covered by insurance.
First published in Volume 2, Number 1 (Summer 1977 issue) of
For more information about the Bain Co-op, see the Bain
Co-op Web site.
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