Back to index of Nerve 19 - Winter 2011

Radicalising Rent Strikes

By La Bandanna Rossa

According to Paul Mason, the concept of the rent strike originated in the slums of Buenos Aires, Argentina in 1907. In September of that year the women and children of La Boca, where the 'Conventillos' were, decided to protest against the extremely squalid conditions in which they lived. Conventillos were tenements arranged around a courtyard with just one door and one window. These conditions were not limited to Buenos Aires; other cities, such as Rosario, also suffered from them. The children who participated in the rent strike became radicalized, and this had long-lasting effects on Argentine society, though the Argentine government blamed Southern European emigrants from France, Spain and Italy for the strikes. These emigrants made up a large proportion of the urban population.

The demands they made were: a thirty per cent reduction in rent; a clean-up of the tenements; abolition of deposits and advance rents; and no eviction of strikers. The authorities deported swathes of the emigrants and thought the protest had been dealt with and the mass revolutionary anarchist movement that originated in Southern Europe had been extinguished. But the suppression did not break the spirit of the Argentine working-class.

Housing and Finance Acts are often used by governments in capitalist countries as a means of control over working-class life, especially over women and children. Certain sections of British women only became radicalised by using the Rent Strike as a weapon against the system in the late 1960s and early 1970s. As women were traditionally expected to marry and become mothers, rather than compete in the employment market, they seldom got a political education which enabled their participation in union and local government issues. The alliance, in the 1968-69 Abercromby Ward Rent Strike, of local women and the University Students Union [University of Liverpool were the landlords] radicalized local working-class women. It was ironic that due to a Royal visit and local and US television coverage the strikers won. The University met their demands, the City Council guaranteed them rehousing and their debts were waived. It turned out a few years later to have been a hollow victory, as in 1973-74 many of the same tenants had to fight the enactment of the Heath Conservative Government's Housing & Finance Act 1972, which raised council rents and brought in means-testing for those unable to pay. This led to the female tenants of Tower Hill Estate in Kirkby withholding their rent, as they were worst hit by the hardship caused by this Act.

This same weapon of Housing & Finance Act is about to be unleashed on social housing tenants again by the present 'Con-Dem' government and women are going to be on the front-line again. They plan to de-stabilize tenants by introducing fixed term Tenancy Agreements of between two and five years. With cuts in nursery provision and female employment working-class women are going to be penalised once more.

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