Listen to the Episode — 84 min
Alanis: The Ex-Worker
Clara: An audio strike against a monotone world
Alanis: A podcast of anarchist ideas and action
Clara: For everyone who dreams of a life off the clock
Alanis: Welcome back to another episode of the Ex-Worker. The message of this one, despite all the words we’re going to take us to say it, is quite simple: DO NOT PAY RENT! THE TIME TO STRIKE IS HERE!
Really, if you’re busy, you can stop listening now, since you’ve already got the take-home message here in the first minute. But chances are this may be the first time you’ve considered going on rent strike; it might be useful to hear some advice on strategy and tactics, on the kinds of arguments you can use to support it, on how to plug in to local efforts, examples of people who’re organizing in their cities, or some history of how rent strikes have been deployed throughout in the past. If so, you’re in luck, because this episode has got all of these things.
Clara: April 1st is when many of us have our next round of rent and bills due, so there’s no time to waste. Many of you have already lost your jobs or sources of income, and so continuing to pay rent isn’t even really an option; if so, you can do it more securely by linking up with others and taking a strategic approach. Or it might be that you’ve still got work or you’re doing okay financially—for now at least; still, consider joining the rent strike in solidarity, and devoting the resources that ordinarily your landlord would be sucking out of you towards mutual aid projects for those in the most need. This episode will offer you context, history, inspiring examples, and strategic reflections to support you in taking bold action against the ongoing exploitation we face at the hands of banks and landlords.
Alanis: This is a revolutionary opportunity, the kind that possibly only comes once in a lifetime, to defy the logic of the market with massive social support, alongside and in solidarity with many thousands if not millions of others. Don’t miss it!
Clara: As always, you can find a full transcript of the show with all of the resources we discuss, links and much more at our website, crimethinc.com/podcast. Send feedback, comments, or updates about how your rent strike organizing efforts are going to podcast at crimethinc dot com. There’s no time to lose, so let’s get started!
REFUSE TO PAY!
Clara: We’ll start with some basic analysis of the situation and why we’re responding by refusing to pay rent on April 1st.
Alanis: In the midst of the pandemic, we are confronted not only with a virus, but with the murderous logic of the market. This crisis pushes to the breaking point the inequality already rampant in our society. Before COVID–19 hit, millions already struggled to afford rent, mortgage, or loan payments; today, all but the wealthiest face ruin, caught between either sickness or poverty. It’s inevitable that most of us will not be able to pay the bills next month—but what we do about it is up to us.
As the economic impact of the pandemic kicks in, grassroots momentum is building around the United States, Canada, and worldwide for a mass refusal to pay rent, mortgage, and loans. This April, millions of people won’t be able to afford their bills regardless of whether they want to pay. Like the pandemic, this is the inevitable consequence of a system that wasn’t designed to keep us safe in the first place. The virus threatens our lives—but it also threatens the social order that was already making our lives impossible.
To survive this together, we need complete immunity from all that attacks and harms us—not only viruses, but banks, bill collectors, landlords, and police. Immunity for all. To do that, we need to work together, coordinating our strength not to prop up the old world, but to survive and thrive in this one.
The beneficiaries of the prevailing order are mobilizing to impose the consequences of this crisis on us—one law for them, another for us. Corporations like Subway, the Cheesecake Factory, Adidas, and others have already declared that they won’t pay rent in April. There are provisions to protect middle-class people who can’t afford their mortgages, but none for the poorest people who must pay rent. The most pressing thing is to defend those who do not pay against eviction and other negative consequences. If we fail to come together to defend each other, those who hold power will isolate, betray, and destroy us one after another. Reach out to your neighbors. Build defense groups. Identify local pressure points. Talk tactics. Be creative. Prepare to stop the evictions by any means necessary. The more people who participate, the safer all of us will be. Together, we can overwhelm the courts and sheriffs that enforce the special privileges of the rich.
On April 1st, refuse to pay. Go on strike against the forces that keep us sick, poor, and precarious. Direct what resources you do have to mutual aid and supporting your community, not enriching the landlord and debt collectors that exploit you and your neighbors. Together, we can protect each other against disease, isolation, and fascism, building collective immunity for the pandemic and beyond.
THE FIVE DEMANDS, OR ACTIONS, OR NOT
Clara: So how are the folks coordinating rent strikes across the country framing their actions? Next we’ll share the 5 Demands being put forth by a wide range of groups, which provide some language to lay out what’s at stake and what many of us are fighting for. These have gotten a lot of traction online, so we want to engage with them critically.
The Five Demands:
For too long we have lived in fear that an unexpected incident may send us into crippling medical debt. With health insurance tied to employment, millions of newly unemployed people have lost access to medical care in the midst of a pandemic. We demand free testing, treatment, and medical care for all.
Many are being forced to work even while sick, creating unsafe and unsanitary conditions. An immediate guarantee of food stamps and paid sick leave would significantly impede the spread of COVID–19. Any essential service must adopt strict protective measures for workers and their families.
NO PAYING, NO DEBT
To expect those without secure employment to continue paying debts places profits over the survival of millions. Many will have to choose between keeping their homes or feeding their families. We must cancel rent, mortgage payments, utilities, and debt payments alike until everyone is on their feet.
Jails, prisons, and detention centers are major vectors for spreading disease due to densely packed populations and unsanitary conditions. We demand the immediate release of all prisoners and immigrants in detention centers who will otherwise face a death sentence due to COVID–19.
HOMES FOR ALL
There are over 17 million vacant homes in America – more than enough to shelter the 500,000 houseless people who have no protection from COVID–19 exposure, living in conditions that further contribute to contagion. We demand that unoccupied homes are made available to anyone who needs shelter.
Alanis: Okay, all of that sounds great, and not to be too… well, CrimethInc-y here, but: aren’t we against demands? I mean, don’t all the critiques we’ve been making for years apply here? That demands centralize agency in our enemies, that they reduce diverse struggles to homogenous goals and lowest common denominators, that they falsely simplify complex problems, that they limit the scope of possibility for a movement…
Clara: Yep, I hear you.
Alanis: I mean, so long as we’re making demands, I want a permanent end to the wage economy and landlordism, not just a rent and debt freeze “until everyone is on their feet,” whatever that means, at which point presumably we gratefully go back to being poor and vulnerable. The fact that I agree with most of them doesn’t lessen the critique of making them at all.
Clara: No, I totally agree. I guess the way I see it, these aren’t so much demands we’re making of the state or property owners or whatever so much as an agenda for the emerging social movement for a bottom-up response to the devastation wrought by the coronavirus. That agenda consists of things that we need to implement ourselves, through direct action, not of demands to beg our rulers to grant us.
Alanis: And after all, what fucking authority is actually going to grant these, even in the short term? I mean, paid sick leave and food stamps are winnable demands, but they leave us dependent on bureaucrats for survival and reinforce the legitimacy of the state. But NO WORK—what we actually want—would mean an end to capitalism and the wage system. Which no politician or corporation can grant us, even if they wanted to, which they clearly never would.
Clara: That’s why a CrimethInc. cell made a poster to parallel the 5 Demands, called "5 Emergency Actions for COVID–19 Survival.” This version calls for:
Free Healthcare For All: Free testing, treatment, and medical care for everyone.
No Work: Support all strikes and work stoppages. Guarantee access to good and resources for everyone.
No Payments, Rent, or Debt: Stop all rent, mortgage, utilities, and loan payments. Block all foreclosures and evictions.
Free all prisoners: Get everyone out of jail, block all ICE operations, stop sweeps of homeless camps.
Homes For All: Open up unoccupied homes to all who need them.
It concludes: These measures are essential to our collective survival. Until everyone can receive testing and treatment regardless of means–until workers are not forced to pay the rent even if they feel ill–until the resources of our society are redirected from police and prisons to health care and housing–we are all in danger.
We can’t wait on the authorities to take care of us. We have to start enacting these measures ourselves now. Five actions, nothing less.
Alanis: Okay, that’s definitely an improvement in some ways. I appreciate the emphasis on us taking direct action ourselves. But it’s basically an echo of these kind of basic demand politics with a sort of anarchist gloss put on it. Again, it’s not that I disagree with the content of them. And it can be a useful starting point to trigger people’s imaginations about what we could fight for together and the kinds of actions we could take. But I want us to collectively be able to move past the demand format, not just the language, and build power to reclaim our lives without granting any legitimacy to the powers that have made our lives unlivable all this time.
So what lesson can we take from all of this to support our own rent strike organizing? Well, one way to look at it is: the five demands, or five actions or what have you, are tools available to you if you find them useful in your context. But—and it’s a big but—don’t let those goals supersede the actual needs and desires of the people you’re organizing with. Don’t allow institutions who could conceivably grant your demands to regain the initiative and reclaim power and legitimacy, at the one moment when we’re on the verge of taking it away from them. Connect with others on the basis of your shared dreams and desires, and don’t be limited by what seemed like common sense even a month ago—we’re in a new world now, and that gives us an opportunity to break through barriers that seemed unthinkably strong until very recently. So however you choose to organize, use tools that expand rather than limit your imagination and your horizons of possibility.
TOOLKIT FOR RENT STRIKE ORGANIZING
Clara: Even though we’re critical of this 5 Demands framework, we found the practical advice in the group’s toolkit to be quite useful. Here are some concrete suggestions on how to get started on organizing with other tenants and neighbors, and how to support and defend each other as you move forward with your strike.
Alanis: From Isolation to Organization
THIS APRIL, an unprecedented wave of people will not pay rent. Some will do this in solidarity. Some will do this as their only option. Some will do this as an entire building or block. Some will go it alone. This strike does not belong to activists or organizers. It belongs to all of us, to everyone who simply cannot or will not bear the burden of this crisis. It belongs to everyone who won’t pay, who refuses debt, and who affirms each other in saying “no.”
THE TOOLKIT is a step-by-step guide with links to organizational tools and online resources to help you build collective power within your communities and leverage it against your landlords.
A note to listeners: you can find this toolkit with all of its links at 5demands (that’s a numeral five) dot global slash toolkit.
Research your landlord. Find out how many properties they have and where. City records are often hosted online. This can help you identify where to canvass and with whom to organize. Use a script and practice before you go door to door. Bring a friend or neighbor.
Be prepared to explain the need for a rent strike, if rent suspension or other relief is not offered by April 1st. Be friendly. Stay positive.
Meet other tenants and neighbors that share your landlord, not just the ones in your building. Be prepared to maintain recommended distances and have flyers or letters ready to hand out or leave in mailboxes. Share your contact information and stay on top of answering phone or email.
Download a Signal or Telegram app, and join the Rent Strike 2020 Telegram thread for updates. Set up your own group texting thread to arrange your first meeting. If people don’t feel comfortable sharing space, you can opt for online video chat with Zoom or Jitsi or plan to meet somewhere with adequate room for physical distancing.
Make contact and choose a physical or digital location to meet.
Host a meet and greet. Act as a host and help move the conversation for people to get to know each other. Get a baseline of the various communication styles and observe peoples fears and triggers. Introduce yourself and open the floor for others to do the same. Set a time limit for the meeting and arrange to meet again very soon to get to work.
To pay or not to pay? Ask everyone to state their intention to either pay or withhold rent, to better understand who needs more support and who can move into leadership roles.
Speak one-on-one with those who are unsure and appeal to them personally about your situation and the situation of countless others who require the solidarity of the entire nation to enact the demands of workers everywhere.
Consolidate the demands for your building into a single letter and deliver it to your shared landlord as a cohesive and organized body. You have now established yourselves as a tenants council, and all issues relevant to COVID–19 will take place through your council, rather than as individuals. Establishing a formal tenant’s council protects you from retaliation by the landlord in some states.
Share a form letter with those who rent single family dwellings, and express your solidarity in their decision to strike. Encourage them to join an existing tenants union in your city, and protect them. Please take care to understand your risks of eviction and consult a lawyer/the law if you have any questions. Best practice for communicating with your landlord is sending it certified mail and retaining a copy for your records.
A note on digital meetings: Jitsi calls and Zoom meetings present a new form of speaking to each other. Create a few guidelines to prevent people from interrupting each other. As a facilitator, ask people to mute their microphones when they are not speaking, and explore the additional functions like ‘hand raising’. After doing this a few times, you will witness a different pace in how people typically communicate — a conscientious slowing down.
A note on organizing in these times: Fear is a strong emotion. It tricks us into thinking we don’t have the answers. It stops us from acting collectively because we don’t make ourselves vulnerable to the moment and each other long enough to move past it. Collectivity and community can bring us power in a moment when we feel most alone. Being open and patient in these times is what will bring us together and build the networks of support we need for the long road ahead. Take a deep breath, and keep going.
Clara: Next Steps:
Take time to understand each other’s specific needs, for example: some people might have kids, or be elderly, immune compromised, disabled or chronically ill. These scenarios require tenderness and personal attention to ensure that those people feel supported by the group, especially as you’re taking a collective bargain for the sake of those who cannot pay and risking shelter for those who need it most.
Find mutual aid networks working in your area. Reach out to them and find out what sort of services they offer. Many provide food and medicine, but some even walk dogs and perform child care. Mutual aid networks are often connected and cooperate to fulfill different aspects of shared life, if one group can’t help with your specific need, they often know someone who can.
Map your neighborhood together, and help us map too. Know where people live and their local support systems like churches or other organizations. Help add those places to your strike network.
Share the work. Empower people to inhabit their best skills in a time of inaction. Paint signs and banners to hang on doors and out of windows. Create your own signifiers of your commitment to strike. Take turns cooking meals or providing sanitary care packages to home bound neighbors. Negate maintenance fees by fixing things yourself. Take care of each other and your shared dwelling.
Meet regularly and build relationships that will sustain you through the harder times ahead. Allow yourself to depend on your neighbors for their wisdom and humor, but also for their strength when fear creeps in. You are stronger together.
Set agendas and time limits for meetings. Designate rotating facilitators, note takers, and time keepers and find ways to conscientiously listen yet still move the conversation toward goals and actions to build your strike.
Draft letters to your city and state governments demanding the suspension of rent and the enactment of the 5 demands for emergency COVID–19 survival. Check-in with other buildings and houses on their progress and learn from each other.
Pool resources. Formalize sharing. Consolidate shopping trips, buy bulk or find other ways to stretch funds. Go for walks and get outside. Check on the elders, be mindful of your distance. Trade recipes and film suggestions. Become organs of the same body and keep each other healthy and supported.
Keep researching. Tenant laws are different in every city and state. Know your rights and how to protect your organization. Your landlord cannot legally shut off your essential services of lock you out of your apartment. If they use intimidation, band together and stand strong. Talk about the intensity of the situation and share space and time to process and recenter your goals.
Prepare to defend each other in the days and months to come. Have plans for how to keep the landlord and their agents out of the building if necessary. Create emergency text codes to quickly rally your neighbors if there are eviction attempts or threats.
Alanis: For more detailed information and links to learn more about rent strike strategy and tactics, consult 5demands.global or check out the links we have posted in our show notes at crimethinc.com/podcast.
INVITATION TO A STRIKE
Clara: Here’s a statement put out by a group of anarchists involved in rent strike organizing on the West Coast:
Alanis: Invitation to a Strike
We are not paying rent on April 1. We cannot afford to. We already barely could. Rent: our monthly contribution to the fallacy that the homes we inhabit on stolen land are owned by our landlords, to whom we are indebted simply for being alive. Now, when our very existence as a species is in question, we cannot endure the nightmare of that relationship.
Over the past decade, insurrections that toppled regimes have been defeated by the global gentrification of the cities. Rebels in cities around the world have bowed to the increasing cost of living and the soul-draining attrition of work. Our lives have become unending hustles. They’re pumping a trillion dollars a day into the banks to keep them afloat. Daily applications for unemployment throughout the so-called United States are already surpassing those at the peak of the financial crisis that preceded the occupation movements. In California, the association of apartment owners sent a letter to its constituents advising landlords to freeze rents, work with tenants to establish payment plans, and suspend evictions. Yet city governments are offering only paltry protections for renters. Capitalists have announced their willingness to sacrifice us en masse on the altar of the economy. They want us back to work already.
Our enemies are afraid. They know a storm is coming. Something has to give.
We have already been on strike.
Some of us have gone on strike in prisons, in lecture halls, in the streets and at the ports. Now we are striking from our homes. The same way we went on strike after the pandemic of 1918, just as we went on strike after the bubonic plague. After those disasters, they couldn’t keep us at work, they couldn’t stop our free movement, and we discovered the formulas which allowed us to expropriate from the rich the wealth they hoarded even in death—that equalizing force. Infinite new possibilities for life have suddenly become thinkable for countless people who are only just now imagining a life outside the economy. There has never been so pressing a need for our imagination, our energetic attention.
The same progressive politicians who defanged the word abolition are already trying to appropriate the language of mutual aid. They know the state cannot save us. If mutual aid is in fact a factor in evolution, then the ways that it has spread far and wide are already transforming us. When this is over, the authorities will tell us that we only survived because of their control; liberals are already applauding the new authoritarianism in the name of the common good. Yet we know that what really keeps us alive is our care for each other.
The virus threatens our lives, but it also threatens the social order that was making them impossible. Rent, work, fares, debt, insurance—all the scams we were born into as marks—let the virus freeze them. We’ll drink fire and tend our hearths to wait out the cold.
And spring is upon us. With April Fool’s Day, spring arrives in earnest: a renewal, a jubilee, a suspension, a reversal, a cosmic joke—but not on us. The fool’s journey opens the way to the world. The inevitable non-payment of countless debts will be our first blow against the world of measure and control. This is the easiest thing we can do. In the face of disease, begin with ease, grace, rest.
If work itself is killing us, the strike cannot be more work. April 1 is not a day of action. On that day, sleep in, call your friends, kiss your love, read, meditate, drink water, and get ready. That day is a small key which opens a large door. The managers of the coastal cities are already beta-testing the new normal, but the cards are still being dealt. The crisis isn’t over until we decide it is. Now, when everything is at stake, our collective refusal to play their game is our greatest weapon.
The old world will not give us all we require. How could it? Health, rest, a world without debt or prisons, home—we who step through this door will have to find these things for ourselves. We must understand the strike in the broadest possible terms.
We are not afraid of ruins. Today, when our futures have been cancelled, this time together may be all we have. We won’t be returning to normal. We will be the ones to shape what comes next. Set down your burden. You need not face this alone. We are striking out. With so much distance between us, it’s time to activate everything that connects.
Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers (RIP): Islands in the stream That is what we are No one in between How can we be wrong Sail away with me To another world And we rely on each other, ah ha
Alanis: Don’t pay. We won’t either. They can’t evict us all. We’ll give them hell if they try.
We know how to survive a plague.
La salute è in voi! — Health is in you!
INTERVIEW WITH STATION 40
ON RENT STRIKE AGAINST GENTRIFICATION AND THE PANDEMIC
Clara: To offer a case study of one building that’s undertaking a rent strike with a broader vision, next we want to share an interview with residents of Station 40, a longtime radical collective living space in San Francisco. It’s titled, “On Rent Strike against Gentrification and the Pandemic.”
In the Mission District of San Francisco, Station 40 has served the Bay Area community as an anti-authoritarian collective living and organizing space for nearly two decades. Five years ago, their landlord attempted to evict them, only to be forced to back down by a powerful coordinated solidarity campaign. Now, Station 40 has taken the initiative to respond to the crisis currently playing out across the world, unilaterally declaring a rent strike in response to the economic precarity caused by the COVID–19 pandemic. We interviewed residents of Station 40 about the history of their project and the context and objective of their bold refusal.
CrimethInc.: What is Station 40?
Station 40: Station 40 is a 17-year-old collective living space that has seen hundreds of residents and thousands of guests and many iterations over the years. This space has hosted numerous and diverse events, housed countless people, served food to the masses, beat the odds on everything from infestations to evictions. We’ve been a hub for organizing Mutual Aid workshops, healing pop-ups, memorials for fallen anarchists, revels, book releases, report-backs from comrades all over the world, prisoner support projects, reading groups, benefits for more projects than we can count. Food Not Bombs cooked here weekly for the better part of 15 years. Communication infrastructure like Indymedia and Signal have their roots here.
We hope to continue this ever-developing work, most recently bringing a focus of spirituality to the preexisting anarchy of Station 40 and our block in general. This space has been a means for us to continue to afford to live and fight in a city where that is increasingly miraculous.
CrimethInc.: Five years ago, people mobilized to defend Station 40 against eviction driven by gentrification in the Mission district of San Francisco. What factors and strategies were essential to your victory at that time? Did you learn anything important from it?
Station 40: At the time, there was a large push for development in San Francisco. In response to the influx of venture capitalists and start-up companies, our landlords were looking for quick capital by selling their constellation of properties for a fast payout. The “Monster of the Mission”—a giant box of luxury housing not unlike the other developments that were popping up—was supposed to be erected across the street; property prices were skyrocketing.
We had a pro bono lawyer who helped us, but ultimately the lawyer wanted us to settle and take the cash-for-keys so everyone would get a cut—of a payoff that could never match long-term affordable housing costs in the heart of this city. The housemates who were living together in Station 40 at that time decided to stay here instead. They employed a myriad of tactics, such as calling on the friends of Station 40 from around the world (an autonomous group of supporters who organized to help us out), “knowing the enemy” (gathering information about our landlords via public records), holding a press conference and events and fundraisers, consulting housing militants and the local Land Trust, and coordinating with supportive independent journalists.
We demanded that the building should go into a land trust and that our residency would be secured in perpetuity. We also made it clear that we would fight by any means to stay here. Two weeks into the fight, our landlords called us wanting to make peace; this resulted in a verbal agreement to leave us alone and revisit the issue in three years.
Today, it has been five years. All this time, the housemates here have been on alert, while also choosing to maintain our quality of life by not stressing too much about potential unpredictable outcomes—particularly in light of the fact that we have already beaten an eviction before. It was just recently announced that the “Monster of the Mission” is officially cancelled. Two years after our negotiated discussion date, the landlords have continued to cash their checks happily.
CrimethInc.: Why did you decide to go on strike this time?
Station 40: Coronavirus first began getting traction around these parts via memes, fleeting stories from news sources, and whispers from friends of friends in social services. We began listening to the whispers early and prepared as much as possible. It was less than a week later when news from Italy started coming in, travel bans were put in place, and—most notably—the toilet paper was gone.
Within a couple more days, all events were canceled, bars and restaurants had closed, and a soft lockdown quarantine was underway. At that point, 90% of the house had either lost work entirely or had their hours cut significantly. Meanwhile, the other 10% is now being asked to work twice as hard in social services to help maneuver through this crisis—but they are not getting paid any more for their extra efforts. This crisis has shined a glaring light on the injustices relating to housing inequality, the absence of affordable medical care, the astronomical costs of rent in the Bay Area, and the ways that capitalism robs us of our time, energy, and quality of life.
When this situation became clear, there was no other choice but to declare a rent strike. Trying to hustle during a mandatory shut-in not only puts us in danger but also endangers others who are more vulnerable.
However, this opens a larger question. Some projections say that after several weeks of this shutdown (though it may be longer), there will be no way to go back to “business as usual.” As anarchists, as a collective, we have to imagine what could be next and to do what it takes to be a part of building that new reality. Getting free from rent (which is to say, theft) and debt amid a full-blown pandemic crisis seemed like the best possible way to start. We believe that the simple tactics of refusal (rent strike, sick-outs, redistribution of resources, mutual aid) are essential to getting through this situation. We hope the rent strike spreads. We have the best chance of survival and victory together.
CrimethInc.: What is your vision of how we should respond to the pandemic and the social, political, and economic crisis accompanying it? What is the worst-case scenario for how this could pan out? What is the best case scenario?
Station 40: It seems that the best possible answer to the first question is that we need to find balance. We must find a balance between caring for ourselves and understanding what forms of mutual aid we have to share. We are being forced into fear, separation, and the dismay of confronting feelings of scarcity and a pandemic we can’t cure. The greatest strength of our house and our community has always been our connections based in trust. When you have community that you’re willing to show up for, that you can trust will show up for you, there is a sense—a faith—that everything can be OK. In times like these, hope and faith can be among the few things that keep us alive.
The easiest things to imagine right now are worst-case scenarios, overrun hospitals, the National Guard being flown in to violently enforce mandatory lockdowns, countless deaths caused by handshakes and coughs, being unable to work or connect with community for the unforeseeable future, all-out dystopian biopolitical authoritarianism.
But for us, it’s more interesting and exciting to think about what the best-case scenarios might be—the moments of imagination and creation—like a caterpillar dissolving in its cocoon, imagining itself into a butterfly. Imagine a world entirely without rent, in which people would have more time and space to envision and practice the things they love, the things that benefit them and their community alike. Imagine there being zero homelessness in the world because we took the ample empty housing currently available and gave it to houseless people, rather than letting those spaces sit vacant while real estate speculators wait to try to sell them to the highest bidder. How about not having to work 40 to 70 hours a week as a capitalist cog, making money for rich people who don’t care about whether we live or die?
Imagine no one having crippling debt. Imagine there being free medical care and food for all, instead of us having to spend all our money funding colonization and murder worldwide. How wonderful would it be if the people took the streets, gathered together to dance, break bread, practice ritual… honestly, the possibilities are endless. I imagine a healthier population that respects the earth and all living beings, giving the land back to indigenous stewards, reparations for all enslaved peoples, the end of incarceration and the entire military-industrial complex.
But we have to start somewhere. A widespread rent strike seems like as good a place as any.
For our part, we would like our housing to be secure in perpetuity—whether through a land trust or via other communal means. We think now is the time to push for that.
RENT STRIKE? A STRATEGIC APPRAISAL OF RENT STRIKES THROUGHOUT HISTORY—AND TODAY
Clara: And finally, as we consider organizing rent strikes in our communities today, it might be helpful to learn more about how have people across history have used that tactic in their struggles and what lessons we can learn from their successes and failures. To that end, we’re sharing part of an article originally published in Spanish by anarchists in Catalunya and translated by CrimethInc, titled, “Rent Strike? A Strategic Appraisal of Rent Strikes throughout History—and Today.”
Alanis: Around the world, calls are circulating for rent strikes in response to the economic hardships inflicted by the COVID–19 pandemic. Over the past decade, real estate values have skyrocketed and gentrification has destroyed countless communities. Housing costs were already unsustainable before the pandemic forced the issue; now it seems inevitable that housing will become one of the chief battlefields for social movements.
Yet how could we go on a rent strike against the economy itself? When we think of rent strikes, we usually think of a model targeting a particular landlord, advancing particular demands. In fact, as the following text documents, this strategy has been employed effectively on a much broader basis before. In a crisis in which massive numbers of people will not be able to afford to pay their bills whether or not they wish to, the important thing is to develop networks that can defend everyone who can’t pay. Over the coming months, we will have to build the capacity to confront every landlord who attempts to penalize or evict residents.
The following text is adapted from a Spanish version by Editorial Segadores and Bauma Talleres Gráficos, which appeared in Catalunya earlier this week. The authors review over a century of rent strikes around the world in hopes of identifying what makes them succeed or fail, in order to evaluate whether this is an opportune moment for a global rent strike.
Clara: Is This the Time for a Rent Strike?
Alanis: These are strange times. Spring has arrived, accompanied by a pandemic caused by a virus that has advanced with alarming speed. the totalitarian response from the state puts us in a new situation. While the police enjoy their new powers, many people have lost their jobs and many more already have no idea how they are going to make it to the end of the month. In this context, disobedient voices are emerging and the idea of a rent strike has gained traction. We have wanted to investigate this kind of strike, reviewing some famous past examples and imagining what a rent strike might look like in the coronavirus era. We hope that these reflections help whoever is interested in strategizing and acting. Let’s respond to confinement with critical thought and direct action.
What Is a Rent Strike and How Does It Work?
Alanis: A rent strike is when a group of renters decide collectively to stop paying rent. They might have the same landlord or live in the same neighborhood. This might occur within another campaign or as part of a bigger struggle, or it might be the principle axis of a struggle against gentrification, against insufferable living conditions, against poverty in general, against capitalism itself.
To succeed, a rent strike requires three elements:
First, shared dissatisfaction. At the beginning, even if neighbors haven’t collectivized their demands, it’s necessary that many of them perceive the situation in more or less the same way: that it is outrageous or intolerable, that they run the risk of losing access to their housing, and that they don’t trust the established channels to provide justice.
Second, outreach. As we’ll see below, the vast majority of rent strikes begin with a relatively small group of people and grow from there. Therefore, they need the means to spread their call to action, communicate their complaints, and ask for support and solidarity. In many cases, strikers can win with only a third of the renters of a property participating in a rent strike, but sufficient outreach is necessary to get to these numbers and to make the threat that the strike will spread convincing.
Third, support. Those who go on strike need legal support for court procedures, housing support for those who lose their homes, physical support to fight evictions, and strategic support to face repression on a larger scale. In many cases, especially in large strikes, striking renters have found all the support they require within their own ranks, supporting one another and creating the necessary structures to survive. In other cases, strikers have turned to existing organizations for support. But the initiative for the strike always comes from the renters who dare to start it.
Historic Strikes and Their Common Characteristics
Alanis: Now we’ll look at how these three vital elements were achieved in major rent strikes throughout history. To read the full story of these and other important strikes, consult the full text version on crimethinc.com.
De Freyne Estate, Roscommon, Ireland, 1901
In 1901, a rent strike broke out on the farms belonging to Baron De Freyne, a big-time landlord in Roscommon County, Ireland. Over the preceding decades, renters in the region had consolidated their organizing power against the owners of large estates, in a movement connected to the resistance against English colonialism and the effects of the Great Famine. These movements hadn’t taken root in Roscommon, but surely the inhabitants knew of the practice and had also participated in some of the semi-illegal forms of resistance that have always been a part of rural tenancy (mass meetings, physically resisting eviction, sabotage, arson).
At the beginning of the 20th century, the residents were organized under the United Irish League, a nationalist organization that dealt with agrarian and economic issues. When the inhabitants started their autonomous strike, they quickly connected with the local UIL, while other groups connected with them to support their strike.
At the same time, the high-ranking leadership acted ambiguously, sometimes offering support, other times trying to frame the strike as an independent undertaking that did not reject the concepts of rental and property outright, since the leadership of the UIL were still trying to persuade some part of the owning class to join them.
The immediate causes of the strike included a torrential rain that destroyed much of the harvest and drove up the price of feed; De Freyne’s refusal to lower the cost of rent; the accumulation of debt and the evictions of many families; and a long history of injustice with respect to land ownership, aggravated by a recent episode in which some of the inhabitants of a neighboring estate had been allowed to buy land while all of De Freyne’s tenants were forced to keep living like serfs.
The strike got underway in November 1901. At first, many of De Freyne’s tenants organized themselves clandestinely and informally, since the UIL didn’t take the initiative, although it did support the tenants. The strike spread to other estates, lasting over a year. Over 90% of the tenants on De Freyne’s lands participated. They resisted evictions by building barricades, throwing rocks at the police, and illegally constructing new dwellings.
All this caused a national scandal. In 1903, the English Parliament was forced to adopt extensive agrarian reform, putting an end to the system of tenant farming.
The Brooms Strike, Buenos Aires and Rosario, 1907
In August of 1907, the Municipality of Buenos Aires decreed a tax increase for the next year. Right away, landlords started raising rent. The conditions in poor areas were already miserable. In the prior year, the Argentine Regional Workers’ Federation (FORA) had campaigned for the lowering of rent.
On September 13, the women in 137 apartments on one block initiated a spontaneous strike. They drove out the lawyers, officials, judges, and police who tried to eject the tenants. By the end of the month, more than 100,000 renters were participating in a strike led by women who organized in committees, aided by mobilizations and structures organized by the FORA. They demanded a 30% reduction in rent; when the police came to evict a tenant, they fought with all they had, throwing projectiles and fighting hand to hand.
The strike spread to other cities, including Rosario and Baía Blanca, drawing the support of various labor, anarchist, and socialist organizations, chief of which was the FORA. Police repression was intense; in one case, they murdered a young anarchist. In the end, although the strikers stopped many evictions, they did not succeed in forcing the landlords to reduce the cost of rent. After three months of fierce battles and the deportation of many organizers (like Virginia Bolten) under the Law of Residence, the struggle ran out of steam.
Manhattan Rent Strike, New York, 1907
Between 1905 and 1907, rents in New York City rose 33%. The city grew without stopping, swelling with poor immigrants who came to work in the factories, in construction, and at the port. There was also a surge of anarchist and socialist activity. In the fall, landlords announced another rise in rents. In response, Pauline Newman, a 20-year-old worker, Jewish immigrant, and socialist, took the initiative, convincing 400 other young women workers to support the call for a rent strike. Already, by the end of December, they had convinced thousands of families; in the new year, 10,000 families stopped paying, demanding a 18–20% rent reduction. Within a few weeks, some 2000 families saw their rent reduced. This event was the beginning of a few years of neighborhood struggle and eventual state control over rent.
Mrs. Barbour’s Army, Glasgow, 1915
In the years preceding 1915, the Scottish city of Glasgow grew rapidly with wartime industrialization and the immigration of rural families. The property-owning class speculated on housing, leaving many homes vacant, while the working class found themselves in ever more crowded and deteriorating homes. Organizations such as the Scottish Housing Council and various labor unions spent years working to execute legal reforms in the housing and renting sector; they won some new laws, but in general, the situation continued to worsen. Furthermore, with the Great War, the prices of food rose without stopping and many of the country’s men were abroad. The property owners took advantage, thinking that it would be easier to exploit poor families with their men gone. From August to September 1913, there were 484 evictions in Glasgow. From January to March 1915, there were over 6000.
In February 1915, Glasgow landlords announced a 25% price increase for all rentals. Immediately, on February 16, all of the poor women in the southern part of the Govan neighborhood held a mass meeting. In attendance were the organizers of Glasgow Women’s Housing Association, an organization that had formed the previous year but still had little traction. At the meeting, they created the South Govan Women’s Housing Association, affiliated with GWHA. They decided not to pay the increase, but instead to continue paying the original rate. This spread throughout the neighborhood.
GWHA called a rally for May 1, drawing 20,000 participants. In June, the women of Govan won the cancellation of the rent increase. The movement grew from there. In October, more than 30,000 people participated in the rent strike all over the city. They came to be known as Mrs. Barbour’s Army, named after Mary Barbour, a worker of Govan. In the course of spreading and maintaining the strike, they organized rallies and protests and defended tenants against evictions, fighting hand to hand with the police. The unions threatened to go on strike in the armament factories; at the end of the year, they succeeded in winning the suspension of any punitive action against strikers, a rent freeze maintaining pre-war rent prices, and the first rent control laws in the United Kingdom—an important step towards social housing, which was introduced not long after.
From early on, the movement won the support of leftist parties and other existing organizations that focused on housing, like the Scottish Federation of Housing Associations, connected with the Socialist Party. But it’s important to highlight that the women created autonomous organizations rather than joining traditional organizations. The GWHA’s activity was far from traditional leftist politics: their meetings took place in their kitchens, in washhouses, and in the streets. In large part, the force behind the acronym was the solidarity network that the poor women had already established in their daily caretaking activities. 3
Comité de Defensa Económica, Barcelona, 1931
In 1931, Barcelona had recently emerged from dictatorship. People eagerly awaited the improvements that democracy would bring… and they kept waiting. Barcelona had become the most expensive city in Europe, with rent amounting to 30%–40% of wages. (Today’s figures are similar, or even worse, but at the time, the average in European cities was 15%.) Conditions were abysmal. Many who could not afford to rent a place for themselves went to the “Casas de Dormir,” rooms where they could rest between factory shifts; often, these rooms didn’t even have beds, just ropes on which workers could rest their arms.
A rent strike erupted in April with the participants demanding a 40% reduction in rent. It lasted until December, involving between 45,000 and 100,000 people throughout the city. The Comité de Defensa Económica (CDE), or Economic Defense Committee, founded by the construction union of the CNT (Confederación Nacional del Trabajo, National Confederation of Workers), played a crucial role in the coordination and spread of the strike.
Like so many other strikes, this one was characterized by solidarity among striking neighbors who built barricades and resisted evictions together. When they succeeded, they celebrated in the street; when they did not, they broke back into the evicted house and celebrated inside. The very same workers who shut off the water or electricity in the morning came back in the evening to turn it back on. They were, of course, afiliated with the CNT. Sometimes the police ended up throwing furniture out of the windows or otherwise destroying it, fed up with having to return to reoccupied homes. Other tactics included what is known today as escrache, that is, protests in front of a landlord’s house.
Obviously, the strike didn’t come out of nowhere: it was based in community traditions of autonomy and rooted in a multifaceted network of relationships and ties that grew out of neighborhood and kinship. The movement was also closely linked to the radical culture that the CNT had been fostering since World War One.
Santiago Bilbao, organizer of the CDE, saw the tenants’ strike as an important act of economic mutual aid through which the dispossessed could counteract the power of the market and take control of their daily lives. The CDE’s advice to the workers was: “Eat well and if you don’t have money, don’t pay rent!” The CDE also demanded that the unemployed be exempt from paying rent. However, although the strike spread through mass meetings organized by the CDE, the movement really came from the streets, which were more essential to it than any organization.
St. Pancras, London, 1959–1960
St. Pancras was a mostly working-class area in London, with some 8000 people living in social housing. In 1958, the district voted to raise the rent in social housing, then raised it again the following year. Up to that point, there had been little neighborhood organization, but as August began, tenants in one district neighborhood formed an association. By the end of August, 25 such tenant associations had been formed and these had representatives in the central committee of a new organization, the United Tenants Association. From the beginning, most of the base favored direct action and a rent strike, but the Labor Party, which wanted to use the tenants’ demands to beat the Conservative Party and regain control in the district, held them back.
On September 1, 1959, a march and meeting took place involving 4000 people. The participants adopted positions including a refusal to fill out the required paperwork to evaluate each family’s new rent, a call for unity, a promise to defend any family facing eviction, and a demand for solidarity from the unions. Over the following months, the tenants continued to hold demonstrations and, with support from the unions, established committees on every block, which held weekly delegate assemblies often attended by 200 or more participants. By the end of the year, the UTA included 35 tenant associations.
The rent hike was set to take effect on January 4, 1960. At first, fully 80% of social housing tenants didn’t pay the increase, only the previous rent. After many threats and with the district’s eviction process beginning, participation in the strike dropped to a quarter of all tenants, or about 2000. In February, the Labor Party advised the UTA to call off the strike so they could negotiate with the Conservatives. The UTA refused: without the strike, they would be totally defenseless and several families were already in the midst of eviction processes.
Tenants began to organize their defense, determined not to allow a single eviction from social housing. In the middle of that campaign, in July, UTA leaders met with district counselors—but the negotiations failed, since the Conservatives didn’t want to hear anything about tenants’ problems. From that moment, the UTA began a total rent strike, and in mid-August, 250 more eviction notices arrived.
By August 28, massive barricades had been erected; tenants had prepared a system of pickets and alarms to alert the entire neighborhood, so that workers could walk out and come to defend people’s homes. As of August 14, the number of eviction notices had risen to 514. The Labor Party and the Communist Party feared the rising tension and called for the strike to end, but it was too late.
On the morning of September 22, 800 cops attacked. A two-hour battle followed in which one policeman was seriously injured. Police managed to evict two homes, but on one block, the clashes continued until noon. Some 300 local workers came to help defend the strike—but the labor unions did not offer support. In the afternoon, a thousand cops attacked a march of 14,000 tenants. Confrontations continued.
The leader of the district council signaled that he was prepared to meet with UTA representatives. The next day, the Minister of the Interior declared the prohibition of all demonstrations and gatherings.
The UTA decided to change strategies to avoid more evictions. They paid the back rent due from neighbors who faced the highest risk of eviction and decided to aid the Labor Party to oust the Conservatives in the coming elections. In May 1961, the Labor Party won control of the district council, running on a platform of rent reform.
Tenants awaited the reform of the rental plan in social housing… and waited… and waited. The two tenants who had been evicted found new homes, but after a few months, Labor counselors announced that rent reform would not be possible. The strike had failed.
Autoriduzione, Italy, 1970s
The 1960s and ’70s in Italy were a time of increasing precarity in labor and housing, and also a moment in which people dreamed of a world without exploitation and dared to pursue it. A strong autonomous workers movement had influenced the rise of self-organized neighborhood committees in which women played a crucial role. Focused on practical and immediate survival, these committees organized “auto-reductions” in which tenants and neighbors themselves decided to reduce the price of services—for example, only paying 50% for water or electricity.
In Torino, the movement gained considerable momentum in summer 1974. When public transit companies decided to raise fares, the response was immediate. Participants spontaneously blocked buses at various points, distributed pamphlets, and sent delegates into town. From there, the most militant unions began to organize a popular response: they would print transit tickets themselves and volunteers would hand them out on buses, charging the previous price. Through collective strength, they forced the companies to accept the situation.
The auto-reductions in electricity payments spread quickly, organized in two phases: first, collecting signatures committing to participation in the auto-reduction, in both factories and neighborhoods; second, picket lines outside the post office, taking advantage of leaked information from the public utility unions about when and where bills were mailed. Picketers handed out information about how to participate in the auto-reduction. After a few weeks, 150,000 families in Torino and the Piedmont region were participating.
Auto-reductions were stronger in Torino because the regional unions were autonomous from the national committees controlled by the Communist Party, which blocked every direct action initiative against rising prices. Thus, in Torino, the labor unions could lend their power and support to spontaneous initiatives and those by neighborhood committees, while in cities such as Milan, the unions did not support those initiatives or else, as in Napoli, there were no strong unions in the first place. In some cities, like Palermo, students and young people made auto-reductions possible through illegal actions.
The movement extended to auto-reductions in rent, aiming to keep rent from exceeding 10% of a family’s salary. Various tactics were employed from small group efforts to neighborhood committee initiatives backed by the more radical unions. In the first half of the 1970s, participants squatted 20,000 homes, temporarily liberating them from the commercial logic of rent. There were also rent strikes in Rome, Milan, and Torino.
The feminist movement was a major part of these efforts. In this context, women developed the theories of triple exploitation (by bosses, husbands, and the state) and reproductive labor, which remain crucial in present-day struggles.
Soweto Township, South Africa, 1980s
Soweto is an urban area of Johannesburg with a high population density. In the 1980s, it had 2.5 million inhabitants. Throughout the last decades of Apartheid, the residents of Soweto experienced extreme poverty and social exclusion. In 1976, this erupted in the Soweto Uprising, a series of powerful protests and strikes and a police crackdown that ended in dozens of deaths. The material conditions of the area began to improve, but only thanks to the continued struggle of the residents.
The housing situation was appalling. Houses were of poor quality, unhygienic, and disordered. Rent and services amounted to a third of the typical salary of the residents, not counting the skyrocketing unemployment rates. On June 1, 1986, when word spread of a plan to raise rents, thousands of Soweto residents stopped paying rent and services to the Soweto Council. The Council tried to break the strike with evictions, but the neighbors resisted with force. In late August, police shot at a crowd that was resisting an eviction, killing more than 20 people. Rage intensified and the authorities halted the evictions.
In early 1988, the authorities declared a state of emergency to try to suppress the rise of black resistance across the country. The sole focal point that they did not manage to extinguish was the Soweto rent strike. In the middle of the year, the strikes continued and the authorities cut off the electricity to nearly the entire area as a means of pressure.
Despite 30 months of a state of emergency that stopped much of the activity of the anti-apartheid movement, the vast majority of the residents continued to support the strike. In the end, the authorities recognized that they had completely lost control. In December 1989, they canceled all overdue rents—a loss of more than $ 100 million—definitively stopped evictions, suspended all rents pending negotiation with neighbors, and, in at least 50,000 cases, ceded ownership of the houses directly to the tenants.
The Soweto rent strike is a classic example of informal neighborhood networks being key to the organization of strikes, with formal structures being created as needed once the strike had already begun.
Boyle Heights Mariachis, Los Angeles, 2017
In an attempt at racist gentrification, a homeowner raised rental costs by 60–80% on a small number of apartments in a building next to Mariachi Plaza in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles. Half of the tenants formed a coalition immediately—including tenants not directly affected by the rent increase—and demanded dialogue with the landlord. When the landlord tried to engage with each of them separately, the coalition launched the rent strike. Subsequently, the Los Angeles Tenants Union (LATU) began supporting the strike, helping to mobilize and secure legal recourse.
After nine months, they received a rent hike of only 14%, a three-year contract (which is very rare in the US), the cancellation of any penalty for non-payment, and the right to negotiate the next contract as a collective after three years.
Burlington United, Los Angeles, 2018
A strike began in three buildings on the same property on Burlington Avenue, a Latinx neighborhood in Los Angeles affected by rapid gentrification, at a moment when the number of homeless Latinx people had been skyrocketing. When the landlord raised tenants’ rent between 25% and 50%, 36 of the 192 stories declared a rent strike; the poor conditions in the buildings were also one of the complaints shared by the tenants. By the second week, a total of 85 stories were on strike, almost half. The residents organized after the strike declaration. Later, the local LATU and a nearby neighborhood legal defense activist organization opposing evictions provided assistance to the strikers.
The legal system divided resistance through separate court processes for each apartment. Half of the apartments won their judgments; the others were forced to leave.
Parkdale, Toronto, 2017–2018
In 2017, the tenants occupying 300 apartments in multiple buildings with the same owner carried out a successful strike in the Parkdale neighborhood of Toronto. The neighborhood was undergoing rapid gentrification and the real estate company in question had already earned a bad reputation among its tenants for poor apartment conditions and trying to force them out via price increases.
When the company tried to raise prices, some neighbors decided to declare a strike; others quickly joined, organizing as an assembly. Another important element in the context was the activity of Parkdale Organize, a tenants’ organization from the same neighborhood that had emerged out of another neighborhood struggle in 2015. Parkdale Organize helped mobilize the strike, knocking on doors in the affected buildings, offering resources, and sharing models of resistance. After three months, they managed to block the rent increase.
Inspired by this example, tenants in another large, 189-story Parkdale building began a strike the following year. When the real estate company decreed a sharp rise in rents, the tenants in 55 apartments organized in an assembly and went on strike. After two months on strike, the tenants won their demands and the owner canceled the rent increase.
Most of these strikes were started by women; women played an important role in all of them. The strikes always occur in a context in which many tenants suffer similar conditions: rent that takes up a large proportion of salaries; the danger of losing housing; and some additional cause for outrage, such as very unhealthy conditions, a contextual issue like English colonialism (as in the Roscommon strike), or an unjust reform that favors some and harms others. And there is always a spark at home: most commonly, a price increase or a decrease in the economic opportunities of the tenants.
Often, strikes start spontaneously, which does not mean they appeared out of nowhere, but that they arose—in a favorable context—from the specific initiative of neighbors, implemented through an assembly or through affective and neighborhood networks. From there, they either create their own organizations or draw the support of existing organizations. In other cases, a formal organization exists from the beginning of the strike, but it is a rather small organization created by and for tenants, not one of the big union organizations or parties. We have only found one case in which a rent strike was called for by a large organization—1931 in Barcelona.
Regarding the chances of victory, it is important for the strike to spread as widely as possible, but it isn’t necessary that it involve a majority. Strikes have been won with the participation of only a quarter or a third of the tenants under the same owner; in the case of land strikes that are not directed against a particular owner, it may be a much smaller proportion of the total inhabitants of a city, as long as there are enough to interrupt normalcy, provoke a crisis in the government, and saturate the legal system. The determination to maintain high spirits and solidarity rather than seeking individual solutions is more important than the number of strikers.
Another factor, perhaps the most important, depends on context. What are the state’s capacities to inflict repression? Is it better for them to crush disobedience, or to appease conflict and restore their image?
The emotional aspect is essential in a rent strike. Precarious housing exists everywhere, every day. The fundamental element to spark a rent strike is the courage of those who say enough is enough, who decide to take risks, to take the initiative. It is a bit of a paradox: if everyone dares, victory is almost guaranteed and there is very little risk. But if everyone hesitates, without the safety of the group, the few who dare may lose their homes.
Yet right now, we obviously have the advantage. Millions of people from humble neighborhoods are in the same situation—and we all already know that we are in this situation. There will not be “a few” who take risks, because there are already tens of thousands who have lost their jobs and will not be able to pay their rent, and this number will only increase. If we suffer in silence, we may not risk anything, but all the same we may lose our homes. But if we raise our voices and collectivize our struggle, we have everything to gain and nothing to lose. The slightly more privileged people—those who can survive a month, two months, three months without pay, or who have retained their jobs—also have a lot to gain if they join the thousands of people who have no other way out, because none of us know how long the quarantine will last or how long the consequent economic crisis will continue. Regardless of the pandemic, in most of the cities in the Spanish state, we were already losing access to housing. If normality returns… then tourism will return along with Airbnb, gentrification, and the unbearable pressure of ever-rising rent.
We have another advantage on our side: during the state of emergency, the courts are also paralyzed. Some cities have already postponed all evictions and other municipalities will not be able to manage them at all, or only extremely slowly.
There could not be a better time to start a rent strike. The only thing that is needed is to raise our voices and collectivize the situation that we are all experiencing.
Organizations Specializing in Housing
Social organizations play a very important role in a rent strike. They can convene it, they can support it—or they can damage it. What are the characteristics of a strong and effective relationship between the housing movement and organizations?
Movements for housing consist of everyone who suffers from poor housing conditions or who is in danger of losing access to housing. They, the precarious, are the ones who have everything to lose and everything to gain; they are the ones who have to take the initiative to declare a rent strike or other acts of resistance.
Organization is a matter of the utmost strategic importance within a rent strike, but there is no specific organization that is essential. An organization that is already very strong can call the strike, as in Barcelona in 1931. But if the neighbors themselves need to go on strike, they will call the strike themselves and then create the organizations they need to build support and coordinate their actions. Even when organizations specializing in housing already exist, if they do not respond to the residents’ immediate needs, the residents will ignore them and create their own organizations. And in the very unfortunate case that an organization considers itself the proprietor of the movement and tries to lead it according to its own political needs rather than the needs of the residents, as occurred in the strike in St. Pancras, London, in 1960, it will end up sabotaging the strike and harming the tenants.
The fact that the vast majority of rent strikes have been organized by women reflects this dynamic: the formal organizations of the Left have emerged largely according to a patriarchal logic that puts “party interests” ahead of the human needs of the most affected people. For this reason, women often organize their own structures, among other things, within their own networks and with their own methods, rather than joining the large organizations that exist.
A strong and effective relationship between the housing movement and social organizations could be based on these principles:
Social organizations respond to the needs of the residents. They can help to formulate strategies, but they should not turn a blind eye to the realities and inclinations of the residents.
Organizations exist to support residents, not to lead them. If the organizations assume that their leadership is essential, residents will likely have to create their own initiatives when action is urgent.
The most important support structures that organizations can provide are psychological and defensive. In regards to the first, the organization helps residents to see that they are not alone—that together they are strong, they can win. In this sense, the essential thing is to feed people’s spirits, not to discourage them or sow fear or unnecessary cautiousness. As for their defensive role, this is the activity of coordinating physical resistance to evictions and gathering legal resources for legal processes. Without this activity, the strikers will fall house by house.
By contrast, what are the characteristics of a counterproductive relationship between social organizations and the housing movement?
Specialist activism. It is admirable when people dedicate their lives to solidarity struggles for dignity and freedom. But problematic dynamics arise when a specialization is derived from this approach that generates distance between the experts and “normal people.” In the case of the fight for housing, activists may end up being more aware of the perspectives of other “organized” activists and militants than they are of what is happening to other residents and precarious people. Consequently, they prioritize the interests of the organization (affiliating more members, looking good in the press, gaining status through negotiations with the authorities), when the interests of the residents should always take precedence (gaining access to decent and stable housing).
The danger of specialist activism is especially great in the case of economically privileged people. It is admirable when people from well-to-do families decide to fight side by side with precarious people. But it is totally unacceptable for such people to try to determine the priorities of the struggles of the precarious. As in all cases of privilege, they should be transparent with their companions and honest with themselves and support the struggles of precarious people instead of trying to lead them.
Limited scale or narrow vision. It is entirely understandable that people who have spent a lot of time fighting for housing would feel a little overwhelmed or doubtful about a general call for a rent strike. Indeed, it would be troubling if they didn’t feel that way. It has been more or less a century since we saw rent strikes on this scale. But we must also acknowledge that it has been nearly a century since capitalism has experienced a crisis as intense as the one developing today—and the rent strike continues to be an effective tool. It should give us some peace of mind to know that tenants and organizations that have been involved in rent strikes for the past three years in Toronto and Los Angeles are supporting the current international call.
As for the danger of dividing up the struggles, we do not support any proposals that do not take into account the needs of the homeless and those without documents. Although it is understood that many organizations seeking short-term changes focus on a more specialized field or topic, they should not contribute to the fragmentation of struggles, undermining the possibility of solidarity. It is a tactic of the state to offer solutions for people with mortgages but nothing for tenants. We should not reproduce this approach even if we have good intentions. Therefore, all calls should support a moratorium on evictions and also legitimize the practice of occupying empty houses, or at least connect with calls that do.
The Reform/Revolution dichotomy. To speak plainly, it’s an illusion to believe that it’s possible to win a revolution and abolish all oppressive structures from one day to the next: revolutions consist of a long path of struggle after struggle. It’s also an error to believe that it is possible to gain real reforms without creating a force that threatens the power of the state: states look after social control and the well-being of the economy and they don’t protect those who are dispensable to those causes. Almost all really beneficial reforms have been won by revolutionary movements, not by reformist movements.
There is a lot of important debate about the appropriate relationship between the state and political movements, about tactics and strategy. But we are stronger when we work together—when those who are dedicated to small but urgent gains are connected to those who work against the fundamental sources of exploitation and fix their gaze on a horizon where exploitation no longer exists. At the end of the day, our struggles comprise an ecosystem. We’ll never convince the whole world to think like we do, nor will we dominate all social movements; whoever tries to do so only weakens their movement. We should cultivate healthy relationships based in solidarity between different parts of the same struggle, sharing whenever possible—and when that’s not possible, permitting each other to continue on a more or less parallel path. In order that this solidarity can function, it is necessary to respect the immediate work some people focus on and at the same time not to denounce any group’s “radicalism” to the press or to the police.
It’s easy for someone who spends half of her earnings on rent to appreciate a law that caps rent; for someone without money to appreciate public health services; for someone who lives in a full building to appreciate a moratorium on evictions; for a migrant to appreciate legal protection against expulsion. Those who don’t personally experience any of these threats should incorporate empathy for those who do experience them into the process of forming their political ideas.
At the same time, many of us who experience precarity choose not to create an identity out of it. We have to get to the root of the problem. Public health and rent control are great, but legal reforms and “public” assistance are not under our control; they are under the control of the state, and they’ll do us no good when the state decides it’s inconvenient to maintain what they once gave us. Why has this pandemic resulted in such a grave crisis? Because the state has continually reduced public health access. Why has rent increased so much in Spain? Because the Spanish state passed the Urban Rentals Law, stripping away protections won by previous generations.
Short-term measures are necessary, but we also need a revolutionary perspective, at least for whoever doesn’t want to spend their whole life fighting for crumbs, for mere survival.
Capitalism is global. States support themselves on a global level. A revolution in one single place isn’t possible, at least not for the long term. An internationalist vision is essential in this time of pandemic, xenophobia, borders, and transnational corporations. In the Spanish state, internationalism has been pretty weak of late. In Latin America, there have been strikes and revolts for free public transportation, there have been right-wing coups, there have been months and months of struggle, and many deaths. Yet in the Spanish state, nothing. In Hong Kong, there was almost an entire year of protests against new authoritarian measures. In the Spanish state, silence. For all of 2019, just on the other side of the Pyrenees, the yellow vests gave it their all fighting against austerity. How many rallies showing solidarity have there been in the Spanish state?
Movements for freedom and dignity and against exploitation must be global. Right now we’re suffering a global pandemic—and the strongest states, from the US to China, are responding with apathy and deadly incompetence or with a level of totalitarian surveillance (drones, real-time location surveillance of individuals, cameras in every public space that use facial recognition). In the Spanish state, we see a combination of incompetence and police authoritarianism.
The rent strike is already spreading through various neoliberal countries, where vast numbers of people are in danger of losing their homes. There is no doubt that this is also the situation here in the Spanish state. If we’re not capable of internationalizing our struggles now, will we ever be?
For solidarity and dignity, against precariousness. #RentStrikeNow
So that’s it for this episode of the Ex-Worker! We hope you’ve found this useful as you plan for your April 1st. Please let us know how it goes for you—whatever happens. We need to learn from successes as well as failures and everything in between.
Chances are we’re going to be in this pandemic limbo for some time, and the harder we push and the more ground we gain from the very beginning, the harder it’ll be for landlords and bosses and banks to force us back into the position we’ve been in for so long. As scary and overwhelming as this moment is, we really do have a chance to change our lives and to change the world in the process. Let’s be brave and really go for it! We’ll be with you and supporting you however we can.
Till next time, love and solidarity from all of us at the Ex-Worker. Thanks for listening! See you on the other side!