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Rent Strike 2020: A Historical Perspective

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This country has been catapulted into the biggest health care, economic, and social crisis in generations. One-third of apartment renters were unable to pay their full rent in April and millions more will be in the same position in May. The three million people who signed on to the RentStrike2020 petition signals the outline of an organized response to this current crisis. 

To help us navigate the coming period where the inability to pay rent will likely become ever more widespread, it may be useful to get a perspective on the historical and international experiences of rent strikes. In this article we look at a few rent strikes spread out around the globe from the 1800s to today.

The vast majority of rent strikes are triggered by one of two things: inability to pay due to a rent hike, or protesting landlord neglect of buildings. For the strikes in Glasgow and Barcelona, tenants organized against escalating rents, and in Soweto and Harlem, the strikes were primarily fighting slum-like conditions. 

Glasgow: Workers and Tenants Unite

The Glasgow 1915 rent strike took off during World War I. Glasgow had become a center for shipbuilding, with workers moving to the city for jobs and landlords exploiting the moment to hike rents. A movement, led by working-class women, organized a non-payment of rents campaign. The local Labour Party endorsed the rent strike which grew to include 20,000 households. The state apparatus in the form of the police were mobilized to enforce court-sanctioned evictions to break the strike. Hundreds of women blocked streets. The violent police response created a riot and the leaders of the rent strike were all arrested. 

News of the strike spread south to England, where renters began to organize, often through their Labour Party branches, to join the strike. On the day the women leaders in Glasgow were taken to court, their husbands, brothers, and sons in the shipbuilding industry walked out on strike in solidarity. They joined a march through the city of thousands united against high rent. This was a game changer for the rent strike. The government dropped all charges against the strike leaders. In 1915, the government passed the Rent Restrictions Act, taming the worst excesses of the landlord class and freezing rents at the pre-war level for renters across Britain. The most prominent leader of the rent strike was the factory worker, Mary Barbour. After the war Mary Barbour was elected as a socialist city councillor in Glasgow.

This movement, along with the rise of the Labour and Communist Parties, contributed to the post World War II expansion of public housing, tied to the demand for low cost and secure housing. At its peak in 1979 some 42% of Britain’s population lived in public housing with average rents equal to half of rents in private housing. In Scotland, between 1945 and 1968 some 85% of new housing built was publicly-owned.

Barcelona: 40% Rent Cut Now!

The great rent strike in Barcelona has similarities to Glasgow’s strike. It was provoked by a rapid growth of industry during the 1920s and a massive migration into the city. As a result, Barcelona’s population grew 60%. By 1931 landlord greed had pushed rents up 150%. The Confederacion National de Trabajo (CNT), an underground radical union federation, launched the Economic Defence Commission as an attempt to organize tenants, overwhelmingly working-class people. They demanded a 40% reduction in rents and organized in buildings and neighborhoods for a July 1 rent strike.

According to the unions’ statistics, 45,000 people were on strike at the beginning of that month growing to 100,000 by August 3. The private landlords had the backing of the authoritarian government. The strike was defeated only by massive state repression with police forcibly evicting and then re-evicting tenants after the union helped get them back into their homes. The leaders of the movement were put on trial and quickly jailed. Despite this defeat, many neighborhoods maintained their tenant organizations. The memory of the strike was a critical part of the developing militancy in Barcelona that contributed to Barcelona being the main bastion for the Spanish Revolution later in the decade.

South Africa: Longest Mass Rent Strike

During the revolutionary upsurge against the segregationist apartheid regime, a rent strike exploded in 1986 in the country’s largest black township of Soweto. Fed up with squalid housing conditions, the strike was launched against the Soweto Council, the apartheid public housing authority. More than 80% of renters joined the strike which increasingly became a politicized strike against the entire apartheid regime. It coincided with the height of the rise of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), perhaps the most militant union federation globally at the time. Strikes or “stayaways,” were also increasingly political and tied to the struggle to overthrow the racist regime. 

The mass resistance to evictions resulted in police firing on demonstrators in August, killing 20 protesters. The apartheid regime banned all public funerals to avoid mass demonstrations, but also increasingly withdrew from attempts to both evict tenants and collect rents. The strike continued for at least four years until apartheid was formally ended and elections took place. It played an important role, alongside other mass workers struggles, in bringing the regime down. Even the new African National Congress government had problems collecting rent in Soweto thereafter as people had simply got used to not paying rent. 

An American Farmer Rent Strike

The first documented rent strike in the United States was the uprising of tenant farmers in upstate New York in 1839. A small number of families owned millions of acres, with one family, the Rensselaers, having 80,000 tenants on their land. The strike was triggered by an attempt by a landlord to cut down trees on a tenant’s farm. A fight ensued and one of the landlord’s men was killed. After a failed attempt to arrest the tenant, a mass meeting of tenant farmers pledged to no longer accept the dictates of the big landowners. They agreed to stop paying rent, seeing their fight as an extension of the Revolutionary War. 

Some 500 mounted deputies invaded the area, but were faced off with more than 2,000 armed farmers on horseback. The sheriffs retreated. Eventually, the federal cavalry arrived and occupied the region resulting in arrests and death sentences against the tenant leaders. Six years later, fourteen of the tenant farmers were elected to state legislature and in 1846 New York outlawed the worst aspects of this feudal system of tenant farming in the state.

The Great Depression

The shocking stock market crash of October 1929 did not initially lead to tenant organizing in the United States. Widespread hunger and the threat of starvation led the Communist Party to initiate demonstrations for unemployment pay, under the banners of “Work or Wages,” and “Fight – Don’t Starve.” Starting in the spring of 1930, Unemployment Leagues led marches of up to 35,000 in New York and 60,000 in Pittsburgh. The response of the employers and local governments was fairly uniform: sending in the police to break up the peaceful protests, sometimes before a speaker had even begun to address a protest. 

As the depression dragged on, millions of workers fell behind in their rents. In Philadelphia in 1933, some 63% of white families and 66% of black families were in rent arrears. In New York City, the landlords, the courts, and police were busily putting people out of their homes. In the eight months prior to June 1932, New York courts served 186,000 eviction notices. 

The movement’s turn to eviction defense during this period led to increased police oppression, resulting in huge rent riots in cities across the U.S. In New York City, it became increasingly common for thousands to congregate to physically prevent police evicting tenants under the slogan “Pay No Rent! Fight or Starve!” The tenant organizations, led by communists and socialists, organized tenants to break back into their homes and occupy them. This was both against bank foreclosures and landlord evictions. According to Labor’s Untold Story by Richard Boyer, 77,000 families were restored back into their homes by the tenant movement in New York during this period. 

Renter demonstrations in Chicago in 1931 were brutally attacked by police, leaving three tenants dead and three police injured. The authorities wanted to squeeze the last penny out of tenants but were also concerned by the rising influence of the Communist Party and socialist ideas. The Mayor of Chicago responded by ordering an unprecedented moratorium on evictions.

1960s Harlem Rent Strike

The Tenants League in overwhelmingly black and Latino Harlem initiated a strike involving hundreds of buildings in November 1963. Private buildings had become ATMs for landlords where they took rents but refused to invest in the upkeep of properties leading to widespread rat infestation. Hundreds of buildings had pledged to support the strike with the movement widening every day. 

Thirteen-thousand renters marched downtown to let City Hall know that they had enough of slumlords. Many carried rubber rats with them and the governor claimed he had received 52 dead rats in the mail. The movement at times merged with the labor movement who were fighting for a $1.50 minimum wage and an end to slum housing. 

By January 1964, the Mayor was forced to claim he was on the strikers’ side and that city money would be spent on cleaning up buildings. The strike was legalized by giving tenants the right to strike if landlords violated housing codes. City inspectors moved to fine slumlords. The tenants won some victories, but the poverty in Harlem was never squarely addressed.

Rent Strike 2020

While rent strikes have been used against rising rents or landlords not maintaining buildings, we have a different situation in 2020. The Rent Strike 2020 fight is to help encourage organization among the millions who are unable to pay rent and to fight for a freeze and cancellation of rent, mortgage, and utility payments for the duration of the current crisis.

The development of the resistance this year is likely to fall into place with past experience once the current moratoriums on evictions expire. After nonpayment, the landlord puts an eviction notice on doors and if the tenant doesn’t leave, the landlord seeks court action. After the court action, usually a few weeks later, the sheriff arrives and puts the tenants’ furniture on the street. This battle has been played out for as long as renting has existed. The key difference will be in the ability of working-class people to organize to push back this process.

For tenants to survive this moment economically, without going into the next years with devastating debt levels, collective organization is the best defense. Before carrying out a rent strike in a building, tenants must work to get organized on a building and neighborhood level while a national movement develops.

Publicly Funded Housing

In the final analysis, for renters to be able to breathe freely with lower rents and secure housing we must remove the big landlords from the equation. The top 10 landlords in America own 822,000 units of housing. The top 10 apartment management companies control 1.6 million units of housing. These companies must be brought into democratic public ownership and run for the benefits of people and not as wealth-extraction machines. 

In Berlin, Germany, where 85% of residents are renters, an active movement of renters has forced the city into a five-year rent freeze affecting 1.5 million housing units. The legislation bans rents that are above 20% of the city’s average rent for comparable size. The big real estate magnates are characterizing these events as a disaster with some big landlords now being forced to lower rents. The next step of the movement has been delayed by COVID-19 as Germany’s ruling judicial body weighs up the constitutionality of a proposal by renters in Berlin to bring all the biggest landlords, those with over 3,000 units of housing, into public ownership. 

Many renters will leave this earth having paid half of their lifetimes’ incomes to landlords who don’t really need the money. Capitalism is a system of organized inequality, that robs those that have little to pay those that have too much. A democratically socialist planned economy is increasingly the only way forward for an economically stable and sustainable world.

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