Organising a Rent Strike at Bristol Uni: What we did, how we went about it, its successes and failures

rent-strike-2
Written by a Bristol activist.

Between 2016/17 activists from Acorn Community Union, Bristol Reclaim Education and other groups came together to start a campaign against university halls rent increases. It was Acorn Community Union plus other student activists (including newly elected Student Living Officer Stephen Le Fanu) who initiated Bristol Cut the Rent at the end of the previous academic year (2015/16). Bristol Cut the Rent was inspired by the similarly named UCL Cut the Rent campaign which between 2015/16 had launched one of the biggest rent strikes in higher education history at University College London – UCL had launched anamazing rent strike where over 1000 students took part, coupled with big demonstrations, rallies and flash occupations of management, the campaign won over £1.5million in cuts, bursaries and rent freezes despite UCL’s attempts to intimidate rent strikers and student journalists who uncovered and spoke out against UCL’s profit-making in university halls.

Bristol Cut the Rent at the end of the 2015/16 academic year launched a meeting and a protest over proposed rent increases which garnered a lot of support. The following year Bristol Cut the Rent launched a rent strike campaign to encourage first year students to withold rent en masse as a way to protest and gain leverage over the university in order to demand rent cuts, rent controls and transparency in rent costs.
The following is an account of how those involved in the organising went about organising a rent strike, th successes, and the failings of the campaign and what we can conclude. Just to clarify however I was just one of those involved in the campaign and can’t necessarily speak for others. Nevertheless I think it’s important to reflect on campaigns you have been involved, what happened, what went well, what didn’t and what we can learn from that.

By no means would I say that the Bristol Cut the Rent 2016/17 rent strike was a success, however it was one of the few in times in Bristol University’s history when students at the university had taken collective (and technically illegal) action against the university and the very fact that this was done and how it was done should be told.


Rent Strike Weekender

Those who had been organisers and activists in the UCL and Goldsmiths Cut the Rent campaign, both of which had secured pretty big wins using rent strikes as a tactic, organised a “Rent Strike Weekender”. This was a weekend of workshops on rent, the housing market, university marketisation as well as practical workshops on how to organise a rent strike, how to do the social media campaign, how to go into negotiations with management, etc. Around 4-5 of us from Bristol went down to the weekender. At the weekender itself there was easily 100-150 people from over 25 campuses who had come to learn and
share their knowledge.

What I found particularly inspiring and interesting about the rent strike weekender was how much doorknocking and face-to-face conversations were stressed. One of the Goldsmiths activists explained how they had been inspired by the organising around the had read about during the Poll Tax rebellion where organisers did waves of doorknocking and literally had meetings in people’s kitchens in countless housing estates.

A brief timeline of the rent strike

November 2016
– we started doorknocking in University Halls (UH is the cheapest halls but nonetheless had very high rent, it is currently £110 a week and will be increased)
– a week and a half later there was a meeting of 30+ students in the University Hall bar

December 2016
– a pledge system was put together where students signed up to pledge to rent strike if 100 other students agreed to do the same
– Doorknocking was done in many other halls including Hiatt Baker, Badock, Durdham as well as Northwell House and city centre halls.

January 2017
– the pledge was only a few people short of the 100 needed
– the rent strike was not called due to there not being enough participants

February – April 2017
– periods of negotiations were had with university management who only partially agreed to give us a breakdown of the costs halls running and maintenance.
– doorknocking began again but not to the same extent as in November and December
– a new pledge was put together with 150 people needed to call a rent strike
– this target was not reached and in the end around 40 or so students took part in a rent strike
– the campaign’s final major action was a demonstration at the university
– in the end the campaign won a pledge for more bursaries for rent, a rent hike of 3.5% instead of 4.5% and a breakdown of the ingoings and outgoings of in university halls.

Doorknocking and having conversations with students and our struggle to get information
Doorknocking was probably the most important aspect of the campaign and the main way in which we actively engaged, talked and listened to people. Doorknocking and the engagement you do through conversations is the often invisible and often considered “less sexy” work of the campaign. I personally find it one of the most fun parts of campaigning and organising because you are not shouting things at people or buildings you are talking to people as people and getting them to understand the power they have collectively. However, when it comes to doorknocking and conversations it can be done well and it can be done badly. In hindsight I think our approach was partly good partly bad and it is something that we could definitely have had training in by good, principled and successful organisers.
When doorknocking we introduced ourselves by our names and why we were doorknocking. We would then ask them an open question like “We think you pay too much rent, what do you think?” More often than not the person agreed. We would then explain how much rent has gone up in the past years and that we knew that there was a way to respond and demand rent cuts. In most of our conversations we almost immediately talked about going on rent strike. We would ask if the student knew what that involved. If they didn’t we would explain. We would then ask what they would think about doing this kind of action. This would usually result in a bunch of questions like what the university response would be, does it actually work, etc. To all of these questions we had answers which we had learned and knew from the UCL and Goldsmiths Cut the Rent campaign. We knew more or less what the response from the university would be at most points both with regard to home and international students. By being open and honest about the risks as well as the power of taking this kind of action we gave people the confidence and understanding to take action.

However, although we did this we only partially got students involved. Our approach and how we saw ourselves for the most part was a group that would try to maneouvre the campaign with a certain amount of students in halls participating too. We always wanted to students in halls to get involved and participate however the language we used and the way we engaged was not the type that actively engaged students. Reading more organising advice from successful organisers like Jane McAlevey I realise that even quite small things in conversations make a big difference when it comes to encouraging and building confidence. E.g. instead of saying “Thank you” at the end of a conversation it’s better to say “Good talking to you”, “See you later”, “Look forward to seeing you soon” because we are not thanking them for doing something we want to say “hey it’s your rent and your problem we’re just here to give you the info and help you along seeing as you want to do something about it, we’ll help make decisions but it needs active democratic engagement from everyone for it to be successful.”

Again we did get some students actively engaged and organising and that was very important to the campaign. However, we failed to get the majority of students engaged.

Another issue we had when it came to doorknocking is that we could not give a straight answer on how much we could win. We had done our homework to some degree however getting some very basic information from the university proved difficult. The university for a long time refused to give us information about the costs, ingoings and expenditure on halls deeming this information as “commercially sensitive”. We were told that a differently worded Freedom of Information request might have been more successful. We never did this and instead just ploughed on ahead.

Due to this lack of information we failed to be direct about how students could win. The most reasoning we could give was pointing out how much the university would spend on expansion and pointing out the above inflation rent increases that had been happening but it wasn’t possible for us to say exactly how much money the university had been making from rent and what type of rent cut was possible to get. In the end we got a breakdown of costs and income from the university regarding halls. The university claimed that they had made a deficit however the categories of this account were very vague including unexplained financing of “other” costs accounting for around £5m, rental paid to lease owners (ca. £13m) and “loan financing” £2.7m. Moreover, some other ingoings of university halls were omitted in the “budget” including the amount made from conferences.

Moreover, sabbatical officers had seen different budgets from the university and heard different claims from the university management including that they didn’t budget for halls.

Given this confusion it was not possible for us to say properly where the university would get its money from to finance a rent cut exactly because the university was so obstinate in being transparent.

Lessons learned
In the end I learned a lot from the campaign about the work that people need to put into the campaign. In the end I think the campaign would have benefitted best from having someone who had helped in a successful rent strike or majority workplace strike. And going forward I think it is important for anyone doing community and/or work-place organising to learn from those who are doing it very well, such as United Voices of the World (UVW), the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB), the Bakers and Allied Food Workers Union (BAFWU), the Picture House workers campaign, as well as strikes by good branches of bigger more bureaucratic unions such as those who helped organise the St Barts strike with Unite in 2017.

A very obvious thing but something that we didn’t take seriously enough is doing our homework on what might be called the “cost of concession” – the amount of power you need to win whatever it is that you want to win. We didn’t have a clear idea about how much we could win, and what it would take to win that. When it comes to a rent strike the power of it comes from the fact that for quite a few months you are en masse witholding a large amount of money that the university wants. However, to make the strike very strong, and this requires students building a significant amount of solidarity, students would have to threaten an indefinite rent strike until their demands are met. Unfortunately many of us who talked to students about rent striking sold it on the basis that it is a very safe action since the university won’t want to call evictions on so many students. Whilst this is certainly true, it’s not a good basis on which to build something that needs to to actually be very strong.

Assuming we had had a good idea of the “cost of concession” and a good strategy to present. E.g. mass petitions + rallies led by students in halls + demos led by students in halls + occupations led by students in halls + an ongoing rent strike. To actually turn it into something with mass participation would have involved bringing the campaign into more parts of students social life. E.g. getting other, in particular “non-political”, societies to support the campaign, getting live-in seniour residents onboard, getting lecturers and professors to support the campaign. This large amount of support for the campaign can only be built by taking those who will take the rent strike and getting them to lead it, since they know what support would be best to get in their wider student life.

Finally something that we did not do but we ought to have done is knock on literally every door. And even more importantly getting to a point where it is basically only those taking rent strike action who are knocking on doors. We got some rent strikers doing doorknocking but not enough to that it was rent strikers democratically and mass participationally taking rent strike action.

In the end, helping organise the rent strike was a very new thing for all of us and it changed the way I organise quite a lot. I really encourage students and non-students to take the initiative and organise more things like this and join up with housing and work-place struggles outside of university. It can only make the struggle against marketisation, for free education, and for free and accessible housing more of a reality and all the things that will liberate us more of a reality.

Why we’re marching for housing rights on Pride

On Saturday 27 June, we’ll be marching on Pride in London with the trade unions and Lesbians & Gay Men Support the Miners – join us! All supporters are welcome regardless of sexuality or gender identity. Details here.

rent controls bannerBy RV, NCAFC activist

This Pride takes place in a year when the number of people living in hostels has reached a seven year high. This Pride takes place in a country where people pay the highest private rents in Europe. This Pride takes place in a year where the Tories have won and could remove housing benefit for young people.

This is why we have to use Pride as a mechanism of resistance instead of a corporate pinkwashing exercise. We have to take to the streets, not so that Barclays can give themselves a pat on the back and celebrate their inclusiveness, but as a start towards dismantling a housing system which puts LGBT people on the streets.

The last 5 years have been a brutal assault on young LGBT people; coalition policies have removed housing services that are vitally needed by vulnerable LGBT people. Under-35s are restricted to claiming housing benefit if they are living in a shared house. In a society that is deeply LGBTphobic, this can mean living in unsafe spaces, with housemates that harass or bully you. At the same time LGBT voluntary organisations have faced up to 50% cuts in their budgets, including housing charities. This means a lack of specialised support for LGBT people when they need it most.

If the Tories abolish housing benefit for under 21s, expecting people to return to their family homes, it is LGBT people who are most likely not to have a family home to go back to. It is LGBT people who need most of all cheap rents, in order to be able to have control over the safety of their environment.

25% of homeless people are our LGBT comrades.  We must fight the social aspect of the battle and change people’s ideas, but we must fight the material aspect just as vigorously: that is, fight for homes for ourselves.

The theme of this years’ Pride is ‘heroes’. The hero that must emerge is our collective strength in demanding all of us as LGBT people have a home, both through increased housing benefit and through a mass building programme of social housing.

UCL student tenants organising for action on poor conditions and high rents

halls assemblyBy Angus O’Brien, UCL Defend Education

On Thursday, 30th October, students at the Ifor Evans Site (the UCL Halls in Camden), held the inaugural Halls Assembly to discuss the state of their living conditions (for a flavour of this, you can read this report from the London Tab) and what they are going to do about it. It is likely to have been the first of such a meeting, at least in current student memory at UCL.

Discontented with the poor conditions and the cost to live on the Ifor Evans Site (the majority of students paying either £132 in Max Rayne or £167.70 in Ifor Evans per week), the assembly has created a plan to take action. In the next few weeks, a demand for information and transparency as to where the students’ money is actually going is to be made, alongside the signing of a petition containing 5 demands to be sent to the UCL Accommodations Department.

The unhappiness with living conditions has been exacerbated by two facts in particular: one, that rents have risen since last year, seemingly without evidence of any corresponding investment by the university and above the rate at which student loans and grants are rising. This has caused a loss in real terms for all student tenants in comparison to previous years. Secondly, UCL is running its accommodation with an excess of £10 million a year. The proliferation of this fact has caused disgust on the site as UCL is essentially making a profit from its own students, a notion reflected in the fact that they refer to their student tenants as ‘customers’.

But more tangible factors have also played a part within this student movement: broken fridges, toilets and showers, extortionate fines, inequality of conditions between floors and rooms only seem to scratch the surface. Cockroaches, believed to be living in the walls, are being found throughout Max Rayne, showing that nothing has been done about this an issue that has affected students for numerous years. Walking around the site, it is hard to find any evidence of investment since the residence opened in 1979. Coupling this with increasing rents and the wholesale lack of willingness to deal with the greater problems, it’s no wonder students are disillusioned.

It must be said at this point that the writer of this report is personally tied to this movement, but, nevertheless, would like to make a prediction. These students are being ripped off by their own university, but by holding assemblies, creating action groups and working together, the tide may just turn back into their favour. The Camden Halls could well turn out to be the catalyst for a wider student fightback against the extortion they are being subjected to by their universities.

The demands to be made by the students at the Camden Halls are, in brief:

  • reverse the rent hike
  • equal standards across the site
  • accountability and direct student influence
  • transparency in spending
  • sustainable investment for students, not profit

Are you organising for your rights as student tenants? Or do you want advice on getting started? Let us know by emailing [email protected]!

National Day of Protest Against Benefit Cuts – Day 3

In solidarity with those fighting the terrifying cuts to benefits,  we re-publish this callout from Benefit Claimaints’ Fightback and strongly encourage supporters to take part in the forthcoming day of action:

The 3rd National Day of Protest Against Benefit Cuts has been called for April 14th 2011.

Millions are set to be affected by savage cuts to housing, disability, sickness and welfare benefits. People with disabilities, illness, the unemployed, single parents, carers the low waged, part time students, volunteers, homeless people and college students are all likely to see a devastating drop in disposable income with many slipping even further below the poverty line.

The poorest and most vulnerable are being asked to pay for the mistakes and extravagances of the richest. Meanwhile poverty pimps like Atos Origin and A4e are set to rake in hundreds of millions on government contracts to bully and intimidate people from claiming the pittance handed out in benefit payments. Many disabled people have threatened suicide if these cuts are allowed to continue. Some have tragically already carried out that threat.

The first two days of protest against benefit cuts have seen demonstrations, meetings, unemployed discos, public pantomimes and occupations in cities across the UK. Atos Origin have been forced to close offices, protesters have gathered inside and outside workfare sharks A4e and demonstrations have taken place from Downing Street to local town centres such as Lydney and Crawley.

This time we have two months to organise for the biggest day yet. We call on all claimants, as groups or individuals, to organise and take action around the country on April 14th.

If you are planning an event in your town or city please add details in the comments below to be added to this page and the facebook page at: http://www.facebook.com/event.php?eid=164277070288955

You can also send details to [email protected]

If you would like to see action locally, set up a group, event page or ask below. We will do out best to promote and co-ordinate all activity.

We are fighting for our homes, our livelihoods, our very survival. It’s time to show these public school parasites and their poverty pimp collaborators we mean business.

Actions/events organised so far:

Brighton

Thursday April 14th 2-5pm

Churchill Square Brighton

http://www.facebook.com/event.php?eid=210782635605158

Bristol

Thursday April 14 · 12:00pm – 5:00pm

Benefit Cuts Hurt Protest – 3rd National Day of Protest

Government Buildings, Flowers Hill, Bristol, BS4 5LA

http://www.facebook.com/event.php?eid=199413500079998

Leeds

Thursday, April 14 · 10:30am – 2:00pm

Meeting @ Leeds Train Station 10am before moving to picket ATOS from 10:30 for an hour then move onto A4e/BEST for a couple of hours. The last picket was a great success and we hope to have another good day. Bring banners, flags etc.

http://www.facebook.com/event.php?eid=155593464493862&

London

1. Thursday, April 14 – 2pm
Protest Outside The Daily Mail – Stop the Defamation – Stop the Lies

Daily Mail Headquarters, Young Street (off Kensington High Street), London W8 5TT

http://www.facebook.com/event.php?eid=161556473898500&

Protest Outside Westminster City Hall & Mass Food Give Away!

2. Thursday, April 14 · 5:00pm – 9:00pm

Westminster City Hall, 64 Victoria Street, London, SW1E 6QP

http://www.facebook.com/event.php?eid=186039361439862

3. In Islington there will be a protest at 8.30am onwards outside Atos Healthcare assessment centre at 1 Elthorne Road, just off Holloway Road, 2 minutes walk south from Archway tube. This private company gets paid millions to carry out dubious medical assessments for Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), which is replacing Incapacity Benefit.

https://www.facebook.com/event.php?eid=208099605885448

Poole

Outside the Jobcentre at noon. Everyone welcome!

http://www.facebook.com/event.php?eid=161332900587762

Everywhere

National Troll A Tory Day 3 and Rat On A Rat!

http://www.facebook.com/event.php?eid=173026406078054

Supported by:

o Black Triangle Anti-Defamation Campaign
o Brighton Benefits Campaign
o Cardiff’s Unemployed Daytime Disco
o Carer Watch
o Carer Watch fb page
o Crippen – Disabled Cartoonist
o Diary of a Benefit Scrounger
o Disabled People Against Cuts
o Dundee Unemployed Workers
o Free London Listings
o Goldsmiths in Occupation
o Haringey Solidarity Group
o Ipswich Unemployed Action
0 Islington Poverty Action
o Kilburn Unemployed Workers Group
o Lancaster and Morecambe Against the Cuts
o London Coalition Against Poverty (LCAP)
o London Foodbank
o Mad Pride
o Medway Against Cuts
0 Mental Health Resistance Network
o Norfolk Community Action Group
o Nottingham Claimants’ Union
o Nuneaton Against Benefit Cuts
o Oxford Save Our Services
o Squattastic
o Tyneside Claimants Union
o Welfare Action Hackney
o Welfare Rights 4 u (UK)
o Work Programme & Flexible New Deal Scandal
o World Homeless Day