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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?