Glasgow rent strike, 1915
Over recent weeks, more than 5000 students across 45 UK universities have withheld rent payments and demanded a 40% reduction in rent, refunds for those not taking their places in halls, and greater financial support for students. Sky high rents have long been a problem for students and rent strikes have been a regular feature at university halls since 2015, when students at University College London launched the Cut the Rent campaign, winning £1.85 million in rent rebates, bursaries and rent freezes. The coronavirus pandemic, however, during which students have either been locked inside their accommodation with little or no outside support, or unable to attend university at all, has inspired a fresh wave of outrage. It is also significant that they have organised the strike on such a magnificent scale at a time when normal campus activity is halted and all of the usual methods of agitation - leafleting, door-knocking etc. - are unavailable to activists.
Historically, the main protagonists behind rent strikes have largely been women. Tending to be the ones responsible for managing household accounts and turning the breadwinner’s wages into the means to get by, and very often making sacrifices themselves so their families might be a bit better fed, it was women that felt most harshly what it meant to be living on the breadline or at the mercy of unscrupulous landlords. Time and time again they have organised their communities and their men to do something about it. To celebrate the student rent strikes of 2021, we briefly retell the stories of two historic, women-led rent strikes from the early twentieth century.
When the First World War began in 1914, thousands of workers descended on Glasgow to work in the shipyards and munitions factories on Clydeside. Spotting an opportunity to turn a profit, in February 1915 the city’s landlords informed their tenants that all rents would rise by a huge 25 percent, even though housing was chronically overcrowded and dilapidated. Despite recent examples of tenants’ organisation (John Maclean of the British Socialist Party had led the Scottish Federation of Tenants’ Associations to fight against rent increases and for public housing in 1913), with many men away fighting, it was felt that the housewives of Glasgow would present little resistance.
How wrong they were! The Glasgow Women’s Housing Association was quickly established with the support of the Independent Labour Party and Women’s Labour League to protest the rent increases and, under the leadership of Mary Barbour and a number of other women, it became the driving force behind the largest rent strike in British history, beginning in Govan, the shipbuilding district on the banks of the river Clyde, in early 1915.
What followed was a militant campaign involving propaganda meetings, including at factory gates, rent strikes and eviction resistance. Women’s committees were established, which met in kitchens and would share news of forthcoming evictions. Tenants staged mass demonstrations against attempted evictions, often resulting in violent confrontations in which they would defend themselves with flour-bombs and other missiles. Empty houses were picketed to prevent new tenants that had agreed to pay higher rates from entering.
On one occasion, when one tenant was persuaded to pay the rent increase after she was led to believe that others had already done so, Mary Barbour organised thousands of women and workers from the shipyards in Govan to turn out onto the streets outside the House Factor’s office. The Factor quickly handed the woman back her money.
By November 1915, 20,000 tenants were on strike across Glasgow and rent strike activity was spreading to other parts of Scotland and the UK. The British government had little option but to bring in legislation, in late 1915, which introduced rent controls. Although this was intended as a temporary measure, the tenants in Glasgow and elsewhere kept up the pressure with further rent strikes organised in the following decade. Rent controls would remain a part of the British housing settlement until the 1988 Housing Act.
The rent strike of 1915 was not a spontaneous uprising. It came at a time of rising industrial militancy. It was not long, afterall, until the British government would bring tanks onto the streets of Glasgow to suppress the revolt of ‘Red Clydeside’ in 1919. Mary Barbour herself was also not just a housewife. She was an active socialist and member of the Independent Labour Party, who campaigned on a wide range of causes, including the vote for women, women’s access to birth control and maternity benefit. She also organised Socialist Sunday Schools, a method of educating children in the core principles of socialism, first established in the 1892 London Dock Strike.
Lower East Side, New York City, 1907-8
In 1907, 20-year-old Pauline Newman, a Jewish immigrant from Lithuania into the Lower East Side in New York City, moved into a windowless, bathroom-less tenement. That autumn, landlords called for a rent hike.
Enlisting 400 girls and women, Newman set about organising families to demand a 20 percent decrease in rent. Although Newman needed to go to work during the day, they built an army of housewives that could go door-to-door, tenement-to-tenement and mobilise tenants to the cause. By late December, they had convinced 10,000 households to withold rent, and the strike began.
Landlords responded by ordering evictions and shutting off the water supply to properties. Faced with the largest rent strike that New York City had ever seen, however, some landlords did agree to reduce rents, benefitting approximately 2,000 families. Moreover, out of the strike came a long-standing demand for rent controls, and it would inspire decades of tenants' activism. Rent controls would be brought into effect in New York City in the late 1930s.
Newman, dubbed the "East Side Joan of Arc" by the New York Times, would go on to be an impressive labour movement activist. In 1908 she was the Socialist Party candidate for secretary of state, in spite of the fact that women did not yet have the vote. She used her election campaign to advocate for women's suffrage.
She organised garment workers, too, and was a central organiser in the 'Uprising of the 20,000'; when, in November 1909, more than twenty thousand Jewish immigrants, the majority young women in their late-teens or early-twenties, held an eleven-week general strike in New York's shirtwaist industry. While the strikers won only a small portion of their demands, the action precipiated five years of struggle that would result in the garment industry becoming one of the best organised industries in the US.