On Saturday the 13th of October the Glasgow branch of Living Rent held their hugely successful AGM here we have posted the opening and closing speeches by Living Rent members Anna Knox and Joey Simons.
Living Rent opening speech to Glasgow AGM, 13 October 2018
Fifteen months since we last gathered here in Govan, Living Rent has not only survived as a newly-formed tenants’ union, but thrived. Just this week, our union secured a major victory against a rogue letting agency, a victory planned and executed from start to finish by union members; a victory won through investigation, negotiation, direct action, and our trusty friend: a giant cheque. It is a victory that could not have happened a year ago.
Today, we want to show that this victory, and the many others we have won over the past year, is fundamentally about power. About the power that we have now, and the power we want to build. The urgency of this question is not in doubt. It is not confined to one neighbourhood, one city, or even one country. Housing is now the frontline of the battle against the tyranny of profit; perhaps not for a hundred years has the right to a decent, affordable and secure home been such a necessary and radical demand. Since our branch was launched, on average two people a week have died sleeping rough on the streets of Glasgow; private sector rents in the city have surpassed those of Aberdeen for the first time; rents in the social housing sector have increased inexorably; hundreds of units of social housing have been lost to demolition or redevelopment; evictions have been responsible for a quarter of all those made homeless in Scotland; and now universal credit threatens to decimate vulnerable working class communities already struggling on the edge. This is not just a broken system, or a temporary crisis; this a system based on financialization and privatisation working exactly as it should.
But from Dublin to Deptford, from Glasgow to Grenfell, communities are organising to meet the gauntlet thrown down by capital: either we allow ourselves, our homes, and our communities to become the victims of slumlords, speculation and social cleansing, or we assert our right to life. Against the constant pressures driving us apart, the alienation, the isolation, the loneliness, the division, the shame of debt or the exhaustion of day-in, day-out ensuring that bills are paid, the mould on the walls doesn’t poison your family, the mice, rats, slugs or cockroaches infesting your house don’t take over…against all that, we have begun to assert our own identity.
We are not just individuals. We are tenants. There are over 300,000 of us in this city alone. And there is power in a union. Because the benefits of a system that screws everyone on housing is that there are a hell of a lot of people with something in common. Our tenants’ union is based on this fundamental, strategic fact. Whether in the private sector or in social housing, we are politicising the experience of renting by demonstrating in practice how tenants working together can change their reality. We are building a culture where mutual organising and support transform weakness into strength. It is not just what we do but how we do it that counts. Every time we defend a member of our union, that that member defends themselves, chaps doors, mobilises family, friends, neighbours, finds their voice or pushes back against the landlord who assumed they were powerless…that is worth a thousand cases won in secret, through backhanders, or tribunals, or charity, methods that all still assume this is an individual problem, and not a structural one. We want power, not charity. We are not a nice campaign doing nice things for nice people – we are a working class union that fights to improve our lives and the lives of those around us. (If some of us are also nice…well that’s a bonus!)
These new times require new tactics. We are pioneering them as we go, learning from every battle, and moving people to action. When SERCO announced its plans to evict hundreds of asylum seekers and refugees, we took to the streets, we protested, we campaigned; but we also identified the structures and forces rallied against us, hit them at their weakest points, demanded – in person – that housing associations and letting agents take a stand; we signed up hundreds of people ready to physically resist evictions if necessary; and we went out to working class communities to win the argument, on the streets and on the doors, that if we let this happen to the most vulnerable in society, then we let it happen to ourselves next.
The question posed to us today is not a legal one, but a political one. We have ‘world-leading’ homelessness legislation; and hundreds on the street. We have new laws banning the charging of illegal fees; and the siphoning off of hundreds of thousands of pounds through fees every year. We have ‘community consultation’ and ‘tenant involvement’ in housing associations; and relentless rent increases and waiting lists. Every gain in housing reform made in Britain over the past century has been dependent on the sustained threat of militant working-class organisation and antagonism, not the benevolence of the state. Rent restrictions were won by the heroic actions of the working class women of Govan in 1915; they were defended and extended through the sustained rent strikes and militancy on Clydebank in the 1920s; in 1951 it was direct action and mass campaigning by tenants and building workers that halted the sell off of council houses in Merrylee; it was community-led rent strikes which finally ensured tenants were rehoused from the Hutchie E death-traps in the Gorbals in the 1970s; it was the schemes which defeated the Poll Tax and the anti-stock transfer campaigns which most recently ensured Edinburgh, Lanarkshire and elsewhere did not follow Glasgow in the biggest privatisation scheme Europe has seen. We are part of that living tradition. State action in the housing sector has always been based on supporting the accumulation of private profit. At the same time, there is constant pressure for those who challenge the system to be channeled into forms and organisations that seek only to blunt the independence of tenants.
For this reason, our union is not, and should not, be interested in co-opting the power of the institutions that have created the housing crisis. Instead, our interest lies in building our own institutional power – one that is equipped to defend itself, run by tenants, for tenants. We do not have a blueprint or panacea for how to solve this crisis. There is not a single solution, ready-made, that currently exists, or that we claim to have. But we do know that unless tenants and residents are centrally involved, unless there is a strong, organised housing movement, based on the working class communities most affected, there will be no solution at all. Our key task is to organise our neighbourhoods, to ensure that in every block, every close, every street, our union has a presence, and tenants can collectively support each other to discuss and to intervene on the decisions that matter. We are not there yet – but it is the task we have set ourselves.
This also means we cannot do things in the old ways. As Helen Crawfurd famously announced on the great rent strike demonstration in Partick in 1915: this fight is essentially a women’s fight. We are asking not for money, not for charity; we are asking for justice. Women must be in the lead in this fight, or there is not fight at all. We are disproportionately affected by the housing crisis, by the burden of unpaid domestic and caring labour, and we are underrepresented in the class struggle, and still in our own union here today. It is the responsibility of the whole movement to ensure that women can participate fully in the life and decisions of the union; it is not a secondary question. As a small but important step, from its beginning the Glasgow branch of Living Rent has committed to providing food and free childcare at every event. But we have a long way to go. Despite this, the contribution from the women in our union and further afield – many of whom are sat here today – has been immense. It should be no surprise that women make the best leaders. For those experienced in organising manic households, organising a neighbourhood is a walk in the park. The dedication of these women, despite the huge pressures of their day-to-day lives, is a constant inspiration to us all and it is only with their input that our union can realise its goal. Tenants’ struggles have always been led by women, and for too long have been relegated to ‘second place’, their history and contribution ignored or forgotten. But no longer.
We are fighting on many fronts. In the private sector, our Seize the Fees team have pioneered a militant and effective campaign to win back thousands of pounds in illegal fees and conduct original research into the state of the rental sector. We have forced the issue of rent controls back on the agenda, and exposed the limitations of Rent Pressure Zones as they currently stand. We have picketed and confronted landlords happy to leave our members in death trap flats, making it as personal for them as it for us. In the social sector, we have won ground-breaking rent reductions and mobilised communities against Housing Association executives who treat their tenants like customers. Today we will be launching a major city-wide campaign to say enough is enough to the relentless rent increases forced on tenants across Glasgow. In resisting SERCO’s brutal evictions of asylum seekers, we mobilised what felt like an entire city, ready to defend the doors no matter what. Nationally we are forcing policy-makers and politicians to recognise our power and demands, from our Winterbreak campaign against winter evictions to sitting commissions on housing. We have marched in our hundreds in solidarity with Grenfell, held film showings and workshops with those organising against gentrification and demolition in London, and shown our support for those resisting private security thugs and police at Summerhill in Dublin. But most importantly, we have gained a sense of our power, as tenants, as comrades, involved in union that has given us hope that we are not alone. This is only the start. By the end of today, we will have new action teams, new ideas, new energy, new experience that can take our union to where it needs to be.
So to everyone here today, I ask the following questions:
Do you agree with our vision as a union?
Do you agree with our methods of achieving it?
And will you be part of building the power we need?
Written and delivered by Living Rent member Anna Knox.
Living Rent AGM 2018 closing statement
We set out today to be ambitious (maybe too ambitious!). But we wanted to give our members, ourselves, a sense of the power and the potential that this union has. What we have achieved so far is only a small glimpse of what is necessary if we are to truly have an impact on the politics of this city. The victories we have achieved so far only scratch the surface of the true structural inequalities around housing and land which exist today. We have often demanded only that laws which already exist to supposedly protect us from the ravages of the market be actually enforced, or we have been the enforcers ourselves. The right not to be evicted onto the streets in the depths of winter; the right not to live in flats without basic fire safety; the right not to have our children breathing in black mould; the right not to pay fees already illegal in law…these are not radical demands. These are the absolute minimum of what we expect. They are not our endpoint.
What we want is power. The power to have a say in the fate of our neighbourhoods and communities. The power to transform isolation and alienation into solidarity and union. The power to take back the city for those who produce it. As we said at the beginning, we don’t have a blueprint for this, but we do have the accumulated knowledge and experience of a century of housing struggle, in this country and across the world. We have an understanding of where economic power lies. We have the rents which we pay, and which we can decide not to pay. And we have a tradition and a culture of struggle which is more than a comforting story to be packaged up and sold back to us.
And we also have a sea to swim in. The real challenge we have is not to convince people of why we exist, or the insanities of the housing system in this country. We are not on the doors arguing with folk telling us their rents are too low, their landlords or housing associations are just too understanding if they’re late with payment, that in fact they’re sick of the new windows, or carpets or cookers their letting agent keeps putting in. Our challenge is to convince tenants of the potential we have – that they have – to transform this situation by acting together. We’ve heard today from Saskia and Jasmin, and I think the Focus E15 campaign is the ultimate example of that famous phrase that a single spark can light a prairie fire. It may seem that beneath the surface, it’s business as usual. But one act of resistance, one person deciding enough is enough, one community saying ‘no, here we stand’, can be all that’s needed to demonstrate that we can fight and win and suddenly transform an individual problem into a general one. And also unlock the creativity and expertise which exists buried under the rubble of this broken housing system.
And we also hope that today we have shown we are not content to do things in the old ways. As we heard in the opening session, the same faces, the same ideas, cannot be in the lead. In our union, we are not there yet, but it is the ambition we have – and to at least recognise that is an advancement. The culture we create must be one of mutual support, solidarity, and also laughter. We need to share the burden. Through the action teams we have started to build, we hope to have new experience, new ideas, new energy which can challenge us, and push us to create an even better union, more representative, more responsive, more effective, more radical. These city-wide teams should become a catalyst from neighbourhood teams – for every area to have its own branch, its own focus of organisation to act as a counter-power to the institutions above us. The fantastic research we heard presented today from Alessio – we want this everywhere, to know our enemy, to become experts on our own situation. And through the city-wide campaign we launched today, we want to send a clear signal to those who hold power today that things are going to change. When Living Rent comes knocking, you better answer the door! We see you pulling the curtains shut! We see you calling the cops! We see you locking the doors to your fancy offices! We’re here for the long haul, we’ve got tea and sandwiches, we’re not going anywhere!
So join Living Rent today, make it yours, change it, transform it, and above all remember – there’s power in a union, and a storm’s a-coming!
Written and delivered by Living Rent member Joey Simons
A full report of the Glasgow AGM will be available for all members and supporters ASAP, congratulations to everyone who helped to organise and attended what was a truly inspiring day. Please be patient as our members enjoy a well earned week long respite from union activity.