The Glasgow Rent Strikes

by Shaun Morris

As an example of working class people fighting for the right to fair and decent housing, we should celebrate the Glasgow Rent Strikes as we continue that same struggle today.

The strikes arose out of the heightened class tensions created on the ‘home front’ by the First World War. Before 1914 British workers struggled to secure representation in Parliament through the Trade Unions and the Labour Party, forcing some concessions from the ruling class. For the sake of the war effort and national unity, some campaigners – such as the Suffragettes – postponed their activity for the duration of the conflict. The landlords of Glasgow were not so patriotic.

Seeing the opportunity to squeeze more money from their tenants, landlords increased rents in working class areas. They cited increased demand and increasing costs as the reason. The demand was artificially created by regulations on war industry workers and the landlords never improved or repaired the slums, making their costs negligible. It was plain price gouging.

The property owners (having paid their way out of the war) believed they could further take advantage of the women whose husbands toiled in the factories and died in the fields. These working class communities – led by women like Mary Barbour – refused to be ripped off. They paid only what they thought was fair and not a penny more. They immediately set about organising themselves (the key to their success!) into tenants associations in order to coordinate their defence against the agents of the landlords.

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Whether through legal mercenaries from the courts or extra-legal mercenaries from the streets, the landlords tried to intimidate the rent strikers into paying up. The tenants would match the landlords’ militancy, by blocking the debt collectors from getting into the closes and chasing them away by pelting them with flour.

Prepared to use all means at their disposal to subject their tenants to the rules of private property, the landlords took many of the strikers to court. The courts showed whose side they were on in the struggle of classes. The people protested and it was the power of striking shipyard workers in a display of class solidarity that put insurmountable pressure on the State.

The Government capitulated and told the courts not to take any of the landlords’ cases. They were instead to wait for the passage of the 1915 Rent Restriction Act, which fixed rents at pre-war levels. The rent strikers had won.

The Glasgow Rent Strikes show us that united class action will lead to victory. This is important to know as the struggle for housing rights still goes on. The slums of the early 20th century may be gone, but we are still far from the strikers’ vision of decent, affordable homes as a social right. The housing charity Shelter Scotland notes that over half of rented accommodation in Glasgow does not meet the Scottish Housing Quality Standard. 3% of Scottish households were overcrowded in 2013-14. Along with these conditions, rents continue to rise and housing prices inflate.

There is a crisis of housing in Scotland, the UK and Europe. This housing crisis is the crisis of capitalism. It is international. It is structural.  In this age of austerity, social housing is being sold off, homes are repossessed, tenants are evicted and in the hands of the bankers the housing stock becomes inaccessible to the next generation. Profits come before the needs of society.

People are becoming increasingly aware of this crisis as it intensifies. There were mass movements in Spain to prevent evictions.

There was mounting pressure on the Labour Party in the last election to introduce rent controls. In Greece, the Syriza government announced that it would prohibit evictions from homes valued under €300,000. In the UK, national attention has been drawn to the social cleansing of London where working class households are evicted for the sake of international property speculators.

The people are fighting back. In their struggles they have come to see the scale of the problem they must tackle, and it only emboldens them. Groups like the Living Rent Campaign and the Focus E15 Mothers need to grow. As a part of their struggle for fair rent and decent social housing they must become an integral part of the working class political agenda and adopt the struggle for socialism. Only the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism can make their victories immutable. In capitalism, a house is just another commodity. Fight for your homes, fight for socialism!

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