This is the first in what will be an ongoing series on militant and revolutionary women
by Marianne Kemp
With the partial commodification of state housing – mainly through the imposition of market rents – and the growth of precarious and low-paid work, along with b are existence-level benefits, state house tenants face very hard circumstances. In the early 1990s Auckland state housing tenants, with the assistance of the Communist Party, formed the State House Action Committee and fought back through rent strikes and occupations. Both SHAC and the CPNZ are long gone and, although there have been tenant protests since, there has been no significant tenant movement to carry on the work of SHAC. It would certainly be a contribution to the struggle if someone produced a reflective history of SHAC – ie an account of its strengths, weaknesses, successes, failures and the lessons for the future.
It can also be helpful to learn about and reflect on previous struggles by working class tenants in both private and state sector rental housing. There are some important differences between state-owned and privately-owned housing – for instance, it’s a lot easier to put more pressure on a few private landlords than on the state with all its power but, on the other hand, the state has a lot more tenants who can be mobilised against it. However the changes in state housing, in particular the imposition of commodification via market rents, means there are now increasingly significant similarities between these two forms of rental housing. This means state housing tenants today can draw inspiration and lessons from earlier struggles against private landlords as well as against the capitalist state as landlord.
One of the most dramatic and significant struggles by working class tenants, certainly in the English-speaking world, took place in Glasgow in 1915. Last year, then, marked the 100th anniversary of this struggle, one of whose most notable features was the role played by working class women.
At the start of the First World War, private landlords owned about 90% of housing in Glasgow. Much of the accommodation for working class families was in tenements, with crowded conditions and a lack of fresh air and sanitation. Often there was only one toilet to an entire row of tenements. Glasgow was the most over-crowded city in Britain.
These already-bleak conditions were worsened by the war. For instance, the war drew thousands more workers into the city to meet the greater demands for labour in engineering, the shipyards and the munitions industries. The city’s population rose by 70,000 between 1912 and 1914, but only 2,000 new homes were built. Landlords had a field day – as the demand for accommodation soared, rents could be substantially increased. Workers had to pay these exorbitant rents or become homeless.
A section of tenants, however, refused to pay the rising rents. Some of them were then evicted. As a result, working class women swung into action, creating tenants’ associations such as the South Govan Women’s Association and the Glasgow Women’s Housing Association and a number of local women’s housing associations. Tenants refused to be evicted and other tenants rallied around them. Where sheriff’s officers tried to enter local working class areas, they found their way blocked and eviction attempts were met with physical blockades. By October 1915, some 30,000 tenants were involved in the rent strike.
As the attempts at eviction stalled, landlords resorted to the courts, in particular small debts courts. They argued for rents to be deducted directly from the wages of their tenants. When 18 tenants, including prominent activists in the tenants’ movement, were dragged into court, workers held one of the city’s largest-ever demonstrations, with 10,000 people taking part. Strikes broke out in several shipyards. Thousands of signs went up in windows declaring, “We are not removing”. Fearful of the spread of working class militancy in the context of war, the government intervened to get the charges against the 18 dropped. The government also rushed in legislation to restrict rent rises.
In the face of a threatened general strike, the government’s new legislation said rents were to stay at their pre-war level until six months after the end of the war.
Women who identified with Marxism were in the forefront of much of the tenant organising. These included Agnes Dollan, Helen Crawfurd and Jessie Stevens, all of whom were members of the leftwing ILP (Independent Labour Party) and Mary Barbour, who stood on the far left of the early British Labour Party. Barbour was perhaps the most prominent leader of the Tenants Defence Association.
In the war industries, where so many of the men worked, strikes were illegal and penalties for industrial action were severe. While working class women also worked in war industries, they were often involved in other industries – for instance, by 1916 about 18,500 women worked in the overall metal industries in the Clydeside area – and many worked in only part-time employment or were forced to be full-time housewives. Barbour, therefore, concentrated on organising working class women. Meetings took place in backstreets, backyards and kitchens.
Women began acting as sentries, looking out for the arrival of Factors or bailiffs, ringing bells when the hated landlords’ agents were spotted. Upon hearing the bells, the women who were at home would gather anything that could be used– flour, rotting food, wet clothes – to hurl at the Factors.
“This struggle,” noted Helen Crawfurd, “brought great masses of women together.” The struggle took place on such a scale that labour historian James Smyth has suggested, “it may well have been the most successful example of direct action ever undertaken by the Scottish working class.”
In 1919 new legislation was passed to provide council housing for manual workers across Britain.
This class struggle, with working class women in its vanguard, helped improve the lives of workers across the whole country. Through this and other struggles led by Marxists and syndicalists, Clydeside became known as ‘Red Clydeside’ and remained for decades one of the most militant working class areas in Britain.