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

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.