Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.


How to win a rent strike

Social networks are stronger than management hierarchies. David Dahlborn describes how the UCL rent strike won

October 23, 2016
4 min read

rent-strikeUCL students march during the rent strike, which won after a months-long battle. Photo: UCL Cut the Rent

Winning a rent strike is straightforward. Landlords want hassle-free rent; if enough people say ‘You won’t get your rent until you give in to our demands’, what are the chances they’ll recoup their profits? Something has to give.

This spring students at University College London (UCL) demonstrated how it’s done, forcing managers to slash rip-off rents by an average of six per cent. We hit the landlord’s weakest point, concentrating our forces on one objective, on conditions and terrain of our choosing: organising the social and economic power of unpaid rent and united tenants. If you defend this position from landlords’ attempts to clamp down, strength in numbers wins. So how did we do it in practice?

We made a plan. Months before the campaign we calculated how much door-stepping we’d have to do to talk to everybody who’d be up for starting a strike. The fundamental question to overcome was ‘Won’t they just evict me if I don’t pay my rent?’ A good organiser’s reply helps zoom out to the collective mind-set: ‘What if one hundred people in the block withhold rent?’ The answer to this is consistently: ‘Ah, yes, they can’t evict all of us’ – renters realise the power they hold when united. People who come to this conclusion for themselves will believe in their ability to act. So began the winter of discon-rent.

We talked to people. Hundreds of people. These conversations were crucial, and being specific about strength in numbers made it clear that nobody would be withholding rent alone. Before the strike in January we ensured there were over a hundred people pledging to take action, in the firm knowledge that 99 others would do the same. There was a party and a residents’ assembly for rent strikers to find each other and realise their power. The strike date was set for the day the rent was due; invitations to negotiate were sent to management and the strike was on. Way more than 100 people withheld payment.

Keeping confident

We kept it social. Once rent is withheld, one of the biggest battles has already been overcome. Next it’s vital to remain confident when the landlords inevitably start bullying you. At UCL they said renters would be served a ‘notice to quit’. Facilitating open meetings and staging debates with management, the campaign brought strikers together to ensure everybody felt supported by their peers. Simultaneously, a relentless, coordinated barrage of bad press and demonstrations hit management. By March confident students marched under the banner of ‘evict management’ as posters ridiculing directors and their empty threats appeared around the university, making clear we would not be moved.

We stuck to our turf and psyched the opponent. The landlords backed off. Their threats were never implemented; the strikers stayed on, rent-free. Now, the strike had a clear sprint to the finishing line, but we knew we had to escalate our power for the final showdown. As word of the strike’s initial success spread on doorsteps, in leaflets around campus and on social media, another 600 renters decided to withhold rent. By May we’d made sure management had utterly lost control of the situation – the ultimate manifestation of our power.

A few more raids – pickets and flash occupations at the landlords’ offices – broke the camel’s back. They agreed to talk. We stuck to what we’d promised: ‘Cut the rent and everybody pays, with the added bonus we’ll cancel our next demonstration.’ Result: they cut the rent.

Our strategy of escalation proved social networks are stronger than management hierarchies. It took several months’ work from dozens of activists, but we had many advantages, from seizing the initiative and constantly setting the agenda to standing on a social terrain where mutual trust and support overcame eviction threats. When the landlords realised they were surrounded and it was physically impossible to evict or bully hundreds of people, we’d won. And if we could do it here, why not everywhere?

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.
Share this article  
  share on facebook     share on twitter  

Labour Party laws are being used to quash dissent
Richard Kuper writes that Labour's authorities are more concerned with suppressing pro-Palestine activism than with actually tackling antisemitism

Catalan independence is not just ‘nationalism’ – it’s a rebellion against nationalism
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte argue that Catalonia's independence movement is driven by solidarity – and resistance to far-right Spanish nationalists

Tabloids do not represent the working class
The tabloid press claims to be an authentic voice of the working class - but it's run by and for the elites, writes Matt Thompson

As London City Airport turns 30, let’s imagine a world without it
London City Airport has faced resistance for its entire lifetime, writes Ali Tamlit – and some day soon we will win

The first world war sowed the seeds of the Russian revolution
An excerpt from 'October', China Mieville's book revisiting the story of the Russian Revolution

Academies run ‘on the basis of fear’
Wakefield City Academies Trust (WCAT) was described in a damning report as an organisation run 'on the basis of fear'. Jon Trickett MP examines an education system in crisis.

‘There is no turning back to a time when there wasn’t migration to Britain’
David Renton reviews the Migration Museum's latest exhibition

#MeToo is necessary – but I’m sick of having to prove my humanity
Women are expected to reveal personal trauma to be taken seriously, writes Eleanor Penny

Meet the digital feminists
We're building new online tools to create a new feminist community and tackle sexism wherever we find it, writes Franziska Grobke

The Marikana women’s fight for justice, five years on
Marienna Pope-Weidemann meets Sikhala Sonke, a grassroots social justice group led by the women of Marikana

Forget ‘Columbus Day’ – this is the Day of Indigenous Resistance
By Leyli Horna, Marcela Terán and Sebastián Ordonez for Wretched of the Earth

Uber and the corporate capture of e-petitions
Steve Andrews looks at a profit-making petition platform's questionable relationship with the cab company

You might be a centrist if…
What does 'centrist' mean? Tom Walker identifies the key markers to help you spot centrism in the wild

Black Journalism Fund Open Editorial Meeting in Leeds
Friday 13th October, 5pm to 7pm, meeting inside the Laidlaw Library, Leeds University

This leadership contest can transform Scottish Labour
Martyn Cook argues that with a new left-wing leader the Scottish Labour Party can make a comeback

Review: No Is Not Enough
Samir Dathi reviews No Is Not Enough: Defeating the New Shock Politics, by Naomi Klein

Building Corbyn’s Labour from the ground up: How ‘the left’ won in Hackney South
Heather Mendick has gone from phone-banker at Corbyn for Leader to Hackney Momentum organiser to secretary of her local party. Here, she shares her top tips on transforming Labour from the bottom up

Five things to know about the independence movement in Catalonia
James O'Nions looks at the underlying dynamics of the Catalan independence movement

‘This building will be a library!’ From referendum to general strike in Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte report from the Catalan general strike, as the movements prepare to build a new republic

Chlorine chickens are just the start: Liam Fox’s Brexit trade free-for-all
A hard-right free marketer is now in charge of our trade policy. We urgently need to develop an alternative vision, writes Nick Dearden

There is no ‘cult of Corbyn’ – this is a movement preparing for power
The pundits still don’t understand that Labour’s new energy is about ‘we’ not ‘me’, writes Hilary Wainwright

Debt relief for the hurricane-hit islands is the least we should do
As the devastation from recent hurricanes in the Caribbean becomes clearer, the calls for debt relief for affected countries grow stronger, writes Tim Jones

‘Your credit score is not sufficient to enter this location’: the risks of the ‘smart city’
Jathan Sadowski explains techno-political trends of exclusion and enforcement in our cities, and how to overcome this new type of digital oppression

Why I’m standing with pregnant women and resisting NHS passport checks
Dr Joanna Dobbin says the government is making migrant women afraid to seek healthcare, increasing their chances of complications or even death

‘Committees in Defence of the Referendum’: update from Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte on developments as the Catalan people resist the Spanish state's crackdown on their independence referendum