Last Monday, over 150 students at Bristol University started a rent strike in the face of increasingly unaffordable rents. This was organised by Bristol Cut the Rent, with similar campaigns being fought around the country for the past few years. At University College London, a prolonged rent strike in 2017 led to concessions of around £1.4 million. Since October groups have been set up in King’s College London, Liverpool, Sheffield and York. Rent Strike, the national network of Cut the Rent groups, provide a detailed account of this movement on their website.
But what exactly is a rent strike and what’s it got to do with people living outside of University? Rent strikes are simply when tenants collectively withhold their rent, accompanied by a series of demands for their landlord(s). Before a rent strike begins a local Tenant’s association is likely to be established, agitating around rent hikes and other injustices, and eventually organising the strike itself. These organisations are usually run by local members of the community. The rent strike is also likely to be met by threats of eviction and thus local tenants will often have to attempt to prevent this from taking place. In a sense rent strikes might look more like a boycott than a traditional strike.
Rent strikes are one of the many potential ways of dealing with housing issues. Other options might be squatting or housing co-operatives. But rent strikes open a new frontier for many people who are unwilling, or unable, to adopt drastic lifestyles changes. Not only can people struggle to improve their lives at work through unions, they can also agitate for lower rent and better conditions at home. This is especially relevant if you don’t have a job. It’s understandable that most people will feel alienated from these campaigns at trendy middle class universities, but tenants organising has a history that goes beyond the campus and into working class communities.
In Britain, we have a long and rich history of rent strikes. Perhaps most noteworthy is the 1915 Glasgow rent strike. In response to landlords profiteering from overcrowding and undertaking mass evictions, one particular eviction in March was prevented by a crowd numbering in the hundreds. This was followed by a rent strike and continued organised opposition to the evictions, with 20,000 households participating in the strike by November. The strike ended in success with parliament introducing rent controls nationwide, undoubtedly because of the militant action taken by primarily working class women during a time of war.
In fact here in Leeds we had two prominent rent strikes. The first strike began in 1914 in Burley with the support of the Labour Party but eventually spread to areas like Harehills. Sadly this strike ended in failure, with a number of participants from Harehills being evicted and blacklisted from renting in Leeds. The failure could partly be due to the fact that while the strike eventually spread throughout the city its initial proponents were more affluent skilled workers who saw themselves as being above “slum-dwellers” – expecting sympathy from the courts. Ultimately they failed to build the mass movement based around solidarity, necessary to tackle the landlords and courts. However, while the strike failed at obtaining its immediate goals it seems reasonable to suggest that it might have contributed to the pressure that forced the government in 1915 to introduce rent controls across Britain.
The second strike took place against a Labour council itself. This was apparently the first major strike by council tenants against their council and was headed the Leeds Federation of Municipal Tenants. However, the tenants’ communities were divided by the Means Test (which encouraged neighbours to rat each other out) as well as having a lacked of shared identity since they had only recently moved to the suburbs. The strike failed, only lasting two weeks.
It’s important that we try to learn from these failures. Politicians will eventually betray tenants, the Labour Party played a crucial role in the 1914 strike but by by 1934 were the landlords being opposed. A lack of of cohesion on the part of tenants also played a key role in the downfall of both of these strikes. Therefore autonomous organisations built around class solidarity are necessary for direct action to succeed. While there are plenty of examples of rent strikes succeeding, Leeds demonstrates that this is not always the case.
When a black flag bearing the words ‘no rent’ floats over a single slum, when streets are torn up and barricaded, when from the windows and roofs of the houses there comes a shower of hot water and storm of stones and brickbats, what can the police or bailiffs do?
~John Greaghe, Commonweal (1891).
Interestingly anarchists and tenant’s unions have a shared history in the case of the Barcelona rent strike. In 1931 construction workers from the anarcho-syndicalist Confederation of Labour (CNT) demanded rent cuts of 40%, later adding that the unemployed should not have to pay rent at all. After a mass rally in July it was agreed to only pay 40% of the rent. There were 100,000 strikers by August, leading to mass participation in organising against evictions. This was met with harsh repression – after declaring the strike illegal the government arrested many key organisers and eventually ordinary tenants on strike. After the strike petered out there was some hope that a more reformist approach might yield results, unsurprisingly it failed to make any meaningful change.
Did the strike succeed? Results appear to have been uneven, and while a citywide 40% cut certainly didn’t take place some districts were able to negotiate rent cuts or simply to have their “debt” from the strike wiped. However, the real significance of the strike was that it shattered any illusion that the new “democratic” state was a friend of the workers, demonstrating the potential of direct action and working class autonomy. This undoubtedly paved the way for the social revolution that enabled workers in Barcelona to fight the forces of fascism in 1936. It’s crucial that as anarcho-communists we support tenant’s unions. Being embedded in the community rather than the workplace they might provide a better predecessor to the society we wish to create that industrial unions. Furthermore as seen in Barcelona tenant’s organising helped build the strength of the working class.
A key element of successful strikes is solidarity, without it collective action simply falls apart. In Leeds a lack of solidarity, whether that be in striker’s neighborhoods or across the city itself, seemed to play a key role in the failure of the strikes. Solidarity can also extend beyond tenants with potential links between industrial and community organising, for example in the successful 1889 Great London Dock Strike dock workers refused to pay rent as part of their industrial strike. Recently we have seen the emergence of a large environmental movement, headed by Extinction Rebellion and the youth strikers. Perhaps if a rent strike made basic environmental demands alongside more substantive economic ones, and some demands do overlap such as insulation, support might be gained from these movements.
Its crucial that we stand in solidarity with this new wave of rent strikes. If you’re a student renting university accommodation get involved with your local Cut the Rent group, it would be great to see some action in Leeds. Its crucial that rent strikes spread beyond the campus and into our communities, for the sake of workers and students alike. After all most students only spend a year or two in university accommodation. In Leeds tenants organisations like Harehills’ Redbrick Solidarity might be somewhere to start. If there aren’t any tenant’s unions nearby you can always start your own, just get in touch with your neighbours or fellow tenants to organise a meeting. There is no need to rely on large groups claiming to act on your behalf, plenty of advice can be found online. For example, here are some guides for organising as tenants from the Autonomous Tenants Union, Buffalo Class Action, the Democratic Socialists of America and the Solidarity Federation. Its understandable to be cautious, as demonstrated above rent strikes don’t always work. But you can start with smaller, safer actions to build up your presence. While its important not to overstate the effectiveness of rent strikes, at the end of the day we can only rely on each other to struggle against the housing crisis.