Glasgow Rent Strike 100 years - Women lead fight for decent housing

In early 1915, amid the slaughter of the First World War, the patriotic landlords of Glasgow implemented a series of rent increases and evictions against tenants. In response, the working class women of the tenements refused to pay and initiated a rent strike which was to force the British government to place on the statute book the first ever controls restricting rents.

In today’s conditions of intensifying austerity and housing crisis, the rent strike campaign of 1915 is an inspiring example of how the working class can fight and win on the housing question. But more than this, it demonstrates the ability of seemingly powerless sections of the working class outside the trade unions to challenge both the authority of the capitalist state and the limits of the traditional labour movement itself. The ‘ordinary’ women who led the rent fight developed creative new forms of resistance, based on their own lives and conditions, and transformed the narrow industrial struggles of the Clydeside labour aristocracy into a genuinely popular movement, breaking the limits of the law.

For the RCG, this has always been the key to the emergence of revolutionary possibilities. The rent strikes of 1915, the rates strikes of the women of Free Derry against internment in 1971, the miners’ strike of 1984-85: all involved mobilisation based on the mass of the working class and directly confronted state repression. In 1990, in the midst of the anti-poll tax campaign, we wrote:

‘Successful resistance to the Poll Tax can be achieved only through a complete break with the old traditions of the labour and trade union movement. The creation of an organised movement from below, which puts the interests of the oppressed at its centre, prepared to defy the law and make alliances between the unemployed and the employed, community and workplace is a necessity. This new movement cannot be restricted to either workplace organisations or community resistance alone.

A unity of both is the key.’1

The organisation of the working class women of Glasgow a hundred years ago remains one of the most outstanding examples of how such a movement can be built. It is for this reason, Joey Simons argues, that we must reclaim its history.

The rent strike

Almost as soon as war was declared, the landlord class of Glasgow saw an opportunity to extract monopoly profits. With thousands of workers flooding into the city’s workshops and shipyards for war production, housing shortages were severe. The vast majority of people lived in terrible conditions, in one or two room houses in dilapidated tenements at the highest density in Britain. All workers’ dwellings were privately owned and the landlords seized the opportunity offered by the war. Rents were raised and eviction orders issued against tenants unable to pay.

Masses of manual workers, many of Irish or Scots Highland origin, driven to the city by poverty and the land clearances of the previous century, were crammed into Glasgow’s notorious slum districts. But it was in the ‘better’ working class districts of Govan and Partick, home to the skilled workers of the shipyards and war production workshops, where resistance to the landlords first emerged. Yet it came not from the traditional labour aristocracy, who through their critical role in the imperialist economy and solid union organisation, had secured high wages, status and security. It was the women of the tenements, not the men of the factories, who took up the struggle against the landlords and in doing so transformed the class struggle on the Clyde.

In May 1915, the first tenants in Govan began canvassing support for withholding rent increases. The same month a joint meeting of the South Govan Women’s Housing Association and the Labour Party’s Housing Representation Committee proclaimed the beginning of the rent strikes. The campaign rapidly spread to other industrial districts affected by increases and by late spring, 15,000 families were refusing to pay. Under the legendary leadership of Mary Barbour and the Govan housewives of ‘Barbour’s Army’, support was mobilised across every section of the labour movement on Clydeside. The majority of activists were members of the Independent Labour Party (ILP), which had long campaigned on the issue of working class housing provision. But in every case, the ‘immediate direction of local campaigns and the initial impetus for organisation seems to have remained with tenant leaders involved in the neighbourhood.’2

Through the summer and autumn of 1915, the whole working class movement on Clydeside was given impetus by the rents campaign. The Glasgow schoolteacher John Maclean was by now attracting thousands of workers to weekly meetings on Bath Street, where he thundered against war and called for revolutionary action against the warmongers. He combined this with relentless organisation building support for the rent strikers at dinner-hour meetings at the shipyard gates.3 Maclean participated in the Free Speech Committee and addressed 5,000 people at its first meeting in September. Outstanding leadership was also provided by Helen Crawfurd, secretary of the Glasgow Women’s Housing Association, and a former gaoled suffragette. She led the rent strike and rallied working class women to the anti-war cause, founding the Women’s Peace Crusade. Everywhere mass demonstrations, local meetings and factory assemblies were taking up questions of rents, conscription and workplace control as the terrible slaughter of war proceeded.

New forms of struggle

The rent strike has been called by one historian the ‘first effective display of women’s political power in Scottish history.’4 Excluded from the traditional structures of the industrial working class, their entry into the struggle inevitably called forth creative new tactics. These were developed on the basis of the daily co-operation necessary to maintain life at a dignified level in appalling conditions. Committees of two women were directly elected to run the strike in every close and organising meetings held in the common backcourts of the tenements. Vigilance committees would warn of the approach of sheriff’s officers – easily identifiable in bowler hat – with bells, whistles and rattles and local neighbours mobilised to defend the house of the targeted tenant, cramming the stairs to prevent entry. Sheriff’s officers were met with barrages of piecemeal, soot and flour.

Direct action was posing a direct challenge to bourgeois legality and property ownership. It was accompanied by impressive solidarity which prevented divide and rule. Willie Bain, Communist MP for Fife, and an original participant, recalled that the landlords ‘completely failed in their efforts to get new tenants to fight their battles for them.’ People arriving to view houses supposedly for let after an eviction were ‘quietly but firmly warned that an incoming load of furniture would get past no rent striker’s door, and would have very little chance of leaving the district intact.’ The fact that it was working class housewives engaging in these militant tactics, one of the most oppressed, marginalised sections of the Scottish population, cannot be underestimated. They challenged not only the previously feared representatives of bourgeois authority but the deep-seated prejudices of the labour aristocracy. As Harry McShane, one of the outstanding militants of the period, remembered: ‘most socialists were just like other men in their attitudes in the home. Many of them had big families and lived in appalling conditions, and it was the women who carried the burden.’5 But the women knew what was at stake. Thousands of families had been evicted in the years before the war and hatred of the landlords ran deep in the lifeblood of the Scottish working class. It was women who played a leading role in the Battle of the Braes on the Isle of Skye, when 50 City of Glasgow policemen were sent to baton charge crofters for non-payment of their rents 30 years earlier.

Victory!

What had begun as a localised dispute over rent increases had by Autumn 1915 been transformed into a genuine threat to the British state. Glasgow was the most important centre of war production in the empire. The example provided by the rent campaign had spread unrest and organisation into every industrial district of the city and threatened to disrupt the flow of munitions into the armies of the western front. Almost 30,000 families were now refusing to pay rents. The growth of state repression in the factories alongside the continuing harassment of tenants forged the previously disparate struggles over housing and working conditions ever closer together. The month of October saw 2,000 people from Govan and Partick mobilise to defend the threatened house of rent strike leader Andrew Hood. Shipyard workers prevented the eviction of a local pensioner in Partick four days later and threatened industrial action if evictions continued. And the rent strike continued to spread, now into the districts of Cathcart, Whiteinch and Kinning Park, where the formation of tenants’ defence committees accompanied unrest in the local engineering plants.

The British government was now forced to act. Munitions Minister Lloyd George dispatched official representatives to investigate the rents question and continuing threats of unofficial action over three gaoled shipwrights. They left Scotland having failed to resolve either, and on 17 November the Glasgow landlords launched one final attempt to reassert their power amidst rumours of government intervention to control rents. Eighteen workers appeared in court faced with eviction warrants and the recovery of rent arrears in the Small Debts Court. The court case was the occasion for a festival of working class resistance and solidarity, one of the greatest demonstrations in Glasgow’s history. Workers from at least five shipyards, one munitions factory and the Albion motor works downed tools and joined the demonstration in front of the court. Thousands of women, workers and children marched to George Square as John Maclean was carried by strikers from his school in Govan and Mary Barbour addressed the crowds.

This was the birth of working class power. Workers’ deputations demanded a private audience with the judge and dictated the terms of peace. War production on the Clyde would be brought to a halt immediately if the case was not resolved favourably. The ruling class acted swiftly. A terrified Sheriff Lee telephoned Lloyd George, who instructed him to drop the case. By early December 1915, parliament rushed through the Rent Restrictions Act, controlling rents to pre-war levels for the duration of the war and beyond. A famous victory was won.

Legacy

The example of the women of the rent strike should act as inspiration for our own struggles today. As we wrote in FRFI 245, ‘we need to create something new: a movement that is based on the mass of the working class, not on its more privileged layers or the middle class.’ Such a movement will necessarily involve workplace organisation. The key question is whether the mass of the working class outside the trade unions is to play the role of a passive appendage to the ‘real’ fight over wages and conditions, or whether community mobilisation can in fact provide the only basis for genuine workplace conflicts to emerge. The rent strikes of 1915 demonstrate that the entry of the most oppressed sections of the working class, fighting over living conditions and social provision in the widest sense, can and must play this leading role.

John Maclean, the one truly revolutionary leader on the Clydeside, was well aware of the rent campaign’s victory. He hoped that the rent strike would be ‘the first step towards the political strike.’ But he was equally aware of the limitations of the newly emerging shop stewards movement which was to dominate the class struggle on the Clyde for the next five years. He warned the workers ‘to treat with suspicion’ the unofficial committee and, if necessary, ‘take the initiative into their own hands’ as they did in the rent strike.6 With Maclean gaoled by the British government for his relentless opposition to the war, and silenced by a workers’ movement more concerned with extracting concessions for its continuance, it was not to be. The narrow struggles of the highly-paid engineers over dilution could never hope to mobilise the same popular support as the rents campaign, and the momentum generated was dissipated.

Nevertheless, as housing struggles erupt once more and women take the lead, the words of Helen Crawfurd – addressed to a protest in support of prosecuted tenants – should ring out: ‘this fight was essentially a woman’s fight. All who were taking part in the demonstration were showing their solidarity. They were asking not for money, not for charity; they were asking for justice…’

Joey Simons

FRFI 246 August/September2015

 

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