Critical support for renters unions

It's a positive step for the left to take housing struggles seriously as a site of political activity. But is a union-style dues-paying-membership organisation an effective model in the current housing context?

9 min read

On 20th September 2020 the courts in England & Wales will resume the business of evicting people from their homes. The tens of thousands of pre-pandemic eviction cases that have been sitting idle in the court system since March will be joined by an enormous number of coronavirus-related claims. Acute risk of homelessness has spread from those at the sharpest end of the housing crisis to a much larger proportion of society.

That, coupled with the unpromising prospect of organising within a Starmer-led Labour Party, has caused many on the left to look to housing struggles as a site of political activity. This is obviously good and necessary, but it is worth thinking about tactics. In particular, is a union-style dues-paying-membership organisation an effective model in the current housing context?

The landscape of housing action

At one end of the scale there are professional UK-wide campaigning and lobbying groups like Generation Rent, which is chaired by Baroness Alicia Kennedy (a Blair-era senior official in the Labour Party). As far as lobbying goes, the noble baroness recently told the government’s housing minister that she “did not believe that a tsunami of evictions was likely at all” when the eviction ban comes to an end. At the other end of the scale are calls for badly-thought-through rent strikes, which (thankfully) seem to have calmed down.

Between those poles, the big names in housing organising are Acorn, London Renters’ Union, Living Rent in Scotland and (more recently) Tenants Union UK. One of Labour’s pledges in the 2019 election was to fund this model of organising. There are also independent local groups, including Greater Manchester Housing Action (who have made a habit of publishing excellent writing about housing on their blog), the Take Back the City network in Dublin, and a number of London-based groups under the umbrella of the Radical Housing Network. I am a member of HASL (Housing Action Southwark & Lambeth), which is part of the London Coalition Against Poverty, and we have been organising through a ‘direct action casework’ model for the last seven years. There is, of course, the usual offering of SWP-linked organisations too.

I don’t want to pour scorn on anyone or any group that is committed to meaningful organising or campaigning around housing. It is useful, though, to think about strategy, and to find effective and sustainable responses to evictions.

Lessons from history

What’s striking about the history of housing struggles is the lack of historical examples of successful renters’ unions of the dues-paying, formal membership structure type.

Successes in housing have been won by groups that were either a part of broader left-wing political projects, or groups that practised a much more active or acute type of organising.

The high point of housing struggle in the UK was the ‘Red Clydeside’ revolt of the 1910s. The working class of Glasgow, threatening to tear down the city at the prospect of civil enforcement of rent arrears (by attaching the debt to workers’ wages), frightened the UK government into passing the Rent Acts, which would protect tenants for the next 70 years. As former Communist Party MP Willie Gallacher explains in his memoir (Revolt on the Clyde), the organisation of these actions was caught up in complex relationships between different strands of party politics and trade unionism, but it was an active, committed, working-class women-led movement (rather than the unions and political parties themselves) that won such a stunning victory for generations of tenants. Similarly, the memoir of another Communist Party MP, Phil Piritan (Our Flag Stays Red), makes no bones about the fact that the successful housing struggles in the East End from the 1930s onwards were a propaganda tool for recruiting into anti-fascism and the Communist Party. The nearby St Pancras Tenants’ Defence League (which organised successful rent strikes and sought the affiliation of neighbouring campaigns from the 1930s) was clearly linked to the Communist Party.

In the following decades there was a reaction against the failures of this explicit electoralism – in the early 1960s, for example, the United Tenants Association saw defeat in the St Pancras rent strike when it let its support for Labour Party council candidates outweigh its members’ immediate concerns. ‘No politics’ became a widely-used slogan. But the successes in housing struggles from the Second World War onwards demonstrated a very active commitment to other forms of politics, and particularly to liberation struggles. Squatting, for example, was particularly important for LGBT, Black and Bengali activists in the 1970s.

This absence of successful ‘formal but apolitical’ tenant unionism seems to hold true internationally, too. In Spain the Platform for People Affected by Mortgages (Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca, or PAH),which emerged during a wave of mortgage possessions during the financial crisis, developed a mutual aid model: “We never tell anyone that their case will find a solution just because they showed up. What we do tell them is that if we continue to work together, the chances that their situation will improve will be better”. In recent months the Catalan Sindicat de Llogaters seems to have organised itself along similar lines: “We don’t provide a customer service, we don’t have like a window and a queue and you pay your membership and then we solve your problems, it doesn’t work like that. You come to the assembly, you explain your problem, and the people help each other”. During the 1918 “Spanish” Influenza-era rent strikes in New York, ad hoc but solid tenants’ unions sprang up, which grew in a rich soil of working class struggle.

There are some exceptions. The national Swedish Union of Tenants is apparently the largest membership organisation in the country and collectively negotiates rents for about 90% of all renters. Sweden has a sectoral bargaining structure (with reciprocal recognition between the national federations of landlords’ and tenants’ unions), and a ‘closed shop’ arrangement where the union has a legal right to negotiate the rent. These are, of course, excellent ideas, but it is unrealistic to expect a Conservative government to bring forward the legislation that would be needed to replicate those structures. Similarly, in Germany renters’ unions have statutory powers to bring legal challenges, and about 14% of renters are represented. The Berlin union attributes its success not to its radicalism, but to its “strong relationships with major parties”. The Institute for Public Policy Research has recommended adopting the German model, where tenants’ associations support their members in disputes and provide assistance with insurance and legal cover. Again, this model is underpinned by legal rights and protections that are significantly stronger than the UK’s housing and trade union laws.

Broadly, however, successful housing campaigns the world over seem to have spread from a core of action committees and urgent self-organised campaigns, rather than large or formal structures. Tenants’ unions (in Los Angeles, for example) have provided essential support in housing struggles, but they have not been the vehicle for successful organising. As the authors of this appraisal of historic rent strikes note: “Formal organizations are always given more weight in historiography than informal organizational spaces”, but even so, formal renters’ unions are conspicuously absent from the history of housing organising (the authors could only find one example of a rent strike called by a large organisation, in Barcelona in 1931, and make the important point that the immediate needs of the tenants and the political aims of organisations can diverge).

An injury to one

What explains this dearth of successful tenants’ unions? For practical and theoretical reasons, the trade union model may not translate especially well into the housing context.

The problem facing groups like Acorn, LRU and Tenants Union UK is recognised by LRU’s coordinators: “The aims of the LRU include organising their membership into a radical fighting body […] As the union sees it, skilling up all members – not just a few – to take on leadership roles is key to building a truly mass housing movement”. However, the subscription model allows for (and perhaps even encourages) passive membership. The implicit bargain is that the union will be there for its dues-paying members when it comes to the crunch. Can a union keep its end up? LRU acknowledges that rent strikes and eviction resistances are difficult. The weapon underpinning syndicalism – collective strike action – is difficult to wield in housing because private tenants tend to have disparate landlords, because social landlords tend to be large enough (and solvent enough) to outlast and evict defaulting tenants, because evictions are extraordinarily easy to secure, and because the legal protections for labour strikers do not apply to rent strike organisers (landlords could try to sue renters’ unions for strike damages). In other words, it is unrealistic to expect the union to be able to protect the homes of all, or even a majority, of its members.

Even worse, unlike a timid trade union, renters’ unions don’t offer fringe benefits like cheap insurance. Unless it has a highly engaged and self-supporting membership, the only offer to its members is that they will be able to ‘queue at the window’ (as the Sindicat de Llogaters put it) when housing problems arise.

As far as theory is concerned, the landlord-tenant relationship is (economically and politically) different from the worker-capitalist one.

Engels argued that the worker confronts their employer as someone with nothing (apart from their sellable labour), whereas the tenant confronts the landlord as a consumer; as someone who wants to buy something with money that they already own. And, because it is labour that creates surplus value, labour strikes can be a fearsome weapon. Therefore in economic terms, a renters’ union is more similar to a consumer rights’ campaign than a labour union. When it comes to the landlord-tenant relationship, different forms of action and organising may be more appropriate than syndicalism.

The apolitical renters’ union therefore can’t really work as a form of social insurance, particularly at a time when such a large proportion of the membership is at risk of eviction. In theory they have nothing to offer their members but collective action, and this is a context in which collective action is (at best) difficult or (at worst) doomed to failure. Renters’ unions will therefore work best – or perhaps they can only really work at all – when they are vehicles for solidarity and mutual aid, which is necessarily radical, political and non-corporate.

What to do?

None of this is meant to detract from the victories that renters’ unions are already securing. Every deposit that LRU has won back, every landlord that an Acorn group has humiliated, is an excellent step. These are exactly the sort of victories (and achieved by broadly the same methods) that HASL or a Solidarity Federation group would pursue and celebrate. These victories raise consciousness, remind tenants that they are not alone, and keep landlords on their toes. Renters’ unions also deserve sincere praise for visibly uniting tenants and fostering a sense of resistance and struggle.

And there is a good reason for the existence of subscription membership models. There’s little point in yearning for the autonomous, honest-to-god working-class action committees of earlier decades, particularly in a society that’s so overworked and under-resourced. When organisers are unpaid there’s always a greater risk of well-heeled activist types, and the corresponding exclusion or sidelining of those who can’t spare the time (although HASL has been thriving, and the victories of groups like Peach are wonderful to see). The subscription has to be seen as a device for allowing the organisation to exist, rather than a transaction between a service user and their professional representatives.

The correct question, therefore, is probably not whether the model should exist, but how to avoid its pitfalls.

How will this new movement respond to the mass evictions of 2021? Will the unions rise to the challenge of “skilling up all members” and “building a truly mass housing movement”? Will housing unionists use their networks to provide meaningful solidarity, rather than just £3 per month? This is the important point: will the tenant union movement follow an active, political path, or will they delegate their solidarity to the formal structure of the union?

Now is a good time to start answering those questions. Housing rights (particularly in England) might be paltry, but they are rights that all renters should know – I’m always amazed when HASL has done training for comrades in the independent trade unions, where we barely have to open our mouths because the membership knows that you do not have to leave when the section 21 notice expires, whereas my middle-class friends keep sending me despairing messages saying “the landlord’s not renewing my contract! I guess I’ll be homeless tomorrow!” Tenants Union UK is leading the way here, with an excellent programme of online training events.

The history of the housing struggle shows us that organisations that are rooted in broader political projects are the ones that win. For the first time in a generation trade union membership is increasing, and the mutual aid network has emerged as a political response to an extraordinary threat to our lives and health. There is therefore a good opportunity to forge links among the broader left, and ensure that this new strand of renters’ unionism is not siloed or ‘apolitical’. Given the scale of the coming housing crisis, it is in everyone’s interests for the renters’ union project to work.