This text is a bit of a rush job as both myself and David are heavily involved in spreading the UCL strudent rent strike as I write this (February 2016). It aims to give the essential details on the key factors which bring about a rent strike – open meetings, trained canvassers, and the ace card – conditional commitment. Feel free to edit and proof read and send up your copy to firstname.lastname@example.org.
How to organise the next hundred!
By the people who helped organise the first three.
Roger Hallam and David Dahlborn (Radical Think Tank).
It’s well overdue but the rent strike has at last appeared in the global capitalist hot house of London. Millions of people in this city know they are getting screwed. As ever, social scientists and seasoned activists know things are getting worse, but this is no guarantee that collective resistance will happen. Collective action requires organisation and this freshly produced pamphlet tells you the good news – it’s actually damn easy to organise a rent strike in London right now but you need to know what to do. And here you get it from the horse’s mouth – both of us – David and Roger have been closely involved in “real existing” rent strikes so what we are going to tell you here is no theory – it’s the details of actually how to make them happen.
Needless to say, there may be other ways to get people to strike and no doubt other activists involved will have their own take on what makes them work. This text is not written by committee. And we will edit and adapt it as we get feedback and more information. But we think it is really important to get the word out there and this is definitely one of those areas where knowing what has been made to work can help enormously. A vital part of making rent strikes work is to build quickly on recent successes. Rent strikes depend upon collective confidence – if people know that they have worked recently elsewhere then you are already half way there in getting more to happen.
So apologises in advance for any errors or possible inaccuracies – this is not the definitive guide but it will get you on the way. No doubt if and when more strikes happen the powers that be with change their tactics and so we shall have to so as well – situations are always changing. If you are seriously thinking of getting stuck into creating a strike yourselves then by all means contact us (and/or the Radical think tank) and we would love to have a chat and provide more detailed briefing/training. Thanks.
David and Roger
Setting the Scene
Much of the inspiration for this guide has been drawn from the experience of the student housing campaigns and rent strikes in London over the past year. The inspiration for radical grassroots organising and action has also been drawn from the recent campaigns and methods used by independent trade unions such as the IWGB and IWW in workplace disputes.
Some advice might seem basic to experienced organisers, but hopefully collecting these steps all in one place can be helpful for both hardened campaign veterans and anybody just getting started with creating a strike. Of course, there are many general methods and tactics that apply to all forms of campaigning. If there is one thing that distinguishes housing campaigns from other forms of organising it’s that it requires active participation and bold actions to be taken by a large number of people – just like a union campaign in a workplace. Even if the key organising group in your campaign may be small you will need to use methods to convince and encourage many others to take part. Therefore this guide will include advice on how to build democratic and inclusive campaigns and assemblies to increase participation, as well as strategies for how to apply our collective power and leverage to disputes with the landlords.
Landlords and rent are oppressive. Property owners can set the rate of rent without asking renters. They can force us to move or sell us shoddy, rip-off services. Poor maintenance, conditions or pest control can make life hell for us while the landlords live well off the profits of our rent. Renters can organise campaigns and renters’ unions to give us power and collective leverage over the landlords.
Without the rent we pay the landlords would be powerless and the strength of a powerful housing campaign comes from using this advantage to take control of our homes by organising democratic campaigns and assemblies by renters for renters. This is a method with revolutionary potential as it gives us the means overcome the power of the class that is profiting off our rent and low living conditions by means of direct action, and it will also enable successful campaigns on local everyday problems.
Organising is the key to successful housing campaigns. To fight campaigns the most effective way is to have numbers on your side and an open, democratic organisation that gives everybody a say and an opportunity to get involved. You need to set out with a clear, concrete idea of what you want to achieve. You also need to know why you want to do it so that you can convince others to join the campaign. As we will show below you need to talk face to face to your flatmates, neighbours and residents in your block or on your street, or in student halls. Find out what problems they’re facing; what issues do they have to deal with on a daily basis?
These problems are probably linked to structures that can be explained by mismanagement or unfair distribution of resources. Do flats have cockroaches? Are there leaky taps? This is probably because the landlord doesn’t invest enough of their profit in maintaining our homes. Does the rent go up every year? The landlords are making us pay while they continue to profit! If you interpret these problems correctly and explain how they’re connected to exploitation and propose a solution you can get more people to take action, especially if you’re all together in the union or a renters’ assembly.
The best way to talk to people is to simply knock on their door and ask if they’ve got time for a chat (see below). Take your time to understand people’s concerns and tell them how you interpret their problems and how to solve them. Ask them to put their name, email and phone number on a sign-up sheet so that you can stay in touch. In particular, demonstrate that you’re actively working to solve problems. People are inspired by active campaigns. They will be much more likely to join an interesting campaign with a strategy and planned out-ward facing activities. From this point on you will be able to unionise more tenants and organise even better and more participatory assemblies.
What do you want to demand? – Some general points
This is up to you. A housing campaign can place any demands on the landlords. Improving your rent or maintenance levels are two obvious options. Maybe you want your landlord to improve fire safety in their properties. Maybe you want them to boycott a particular provider, or maybe you want to abolish the landlord altogether and establish a co-op that’s sets rents at running costs and not for profit.
When running a democratic and inclusive campaign the best demands will be those supported by the majority of the renters taking part in it. This will mean that there is a large number of people who will go far to make sure the demands are met. This does not mean that the demands necessarily have to be moderate – if you can convince a majority of people that it’s in their interest to cut the rent by half, then go for it. Remember that more people are likely to get involved with issues that directly affect them – this is why rent is a very effective key to encourage action.
At UCL, before the rent strike, we heard that student tenants were angry over bad living conditions and construction works that were preventing them from sleeping and studying. A few activists spent a weekend to canvass the entire tower block where they lived to ask everybody what they’d like us to do about this problem. A lot of residents were fed up but had given up hope that things could change. However, when the activists proposed that we could organise collective action and start a campaign by signing a complaint letter everybody they spoke to thought this was a great idea.
Step by step:
- Prepare and research. Make a plan and a strategy for the campaign. What do we want to achieve and what do we need to do it? Find out what procedures are usually involved in making complaints. Learn the law and know your rights, and prepare the tactics you need to use to reach your goals.
- Make a list of the flats/floors you need to canvass. Get to know those who live there and how to contact them. Draw up a map and a spread sheet to keep track.
- Research and canvass renters in your area. What are the problems that matter? Who owns/controls the property they live on? Who would join the renters’ assembly? Find out what people think and explain how you can help.
- You know what to do and who’s ready to do it. Call a renters’ assembly and canvass your area to get people actively involved. Make sure that there is a concrete action plan that the assembly can vote to adopt and get the ball rolling. Use your contact lists and make sure everybody is convinced and geared up to fight and to win.
Plan for victory
Anybody can become an organiser with some practice, and the best way to practice is to go out and take action. Pick your fights with the landlords, present clear demands that you’ve agreed upon in the renters’ assembly or ballot and escalate your campaign until you win.
Escalation means that you start out small, and step-by-step increase your pressure as you gain more power and support. Campaigns are often not won by a single dazzling knock-out blow with shining news coverage, but by a determined process of cumulative pressure and provocation. Housing campaigns are no different and all the plans you make should bear this in mind. Always plan strategically to stay two steps ahead of the bosses and leave them guessing what you’ll do next.
You’ll have to adopt the tactics you use to your local situation. Some campaigns might be won by using mass indirect action tactics like letter writing and petitions, most are likely to require more radical collective direct action – most likely a rent strike – and it’s important to see how some tactics are more effective than others. What will make or break a housing campaign, however, are the number of people who take part in the actions.
If you plan backwards from your target you can break the campaign into manageable chunks in relation to what you can handle. I.e., one week canvass one hall/block/street, each campaigner speaks to 20 people. Next week use what you learnt and draft complaint letters for everybody to send to the landlord. Carry on like this, or if you feel the time is right, escalate. Keep canvassing regularly to update residents to remind everybody of the next action or assembly. Sooner or later you will put your landlord in a position where they either feel forced to give you something or to strike back. Be prepared for both, in particular for repression so that you know how to counter it and turn violence and threats from the bosses to your advantage.
The key is to force the landlord into a situation where they have no choice but to act.
In practice this can mean a lot of things. Maybe the landlord is forced to act under the threat of a rent strike; maybe they’ll be forced to act if they’re blockaded by angry protesters; or maybe they’ll be forced to act under public pressure and exposure to scrutiny by the press or authorities. This will depend on what your landlord’s weak points are and how you can plan to maximise the strengths of your campaign to put pressure on them.
There’s nothing to stop individual cases to be treated as collective disputes – in particular evictions. Neighbours need to stick up for one another and if one eviction is prevented everybody will benefit.
Psyche your landlord by being assertive, loud and vibrant: Release frequent public communications about your campaign, blog posts, open letters and press releases, and help them reach a wide audience. Publish letters from the landlords and publish your replies online – don’t let them get away with individualising disputes, make sure disputes are made public.
Communicate with your landlord: They may be dicks, but make sure the landlords know what you’re disputing, that you’ll be taking action and why by writing to them. You don’t need to tell them everything if you want to plan surprise actions but some actions, such as rent strikes, work well as threats – so if you plan to strike, make your landlord well aware of this to give them plenty of time to offer concessions. Stay open to negotiations, if the landlords make any offers, and make them look bad when they refuse to meet with you.
So onto the nitty gritty
With these general points in mind we need to look in some detail at how the first three rent strikes were created:
The first two began largely because tenants were so pissed off with their living conditions – rat infestation and 24/7 noise from building work. Activists were quickly involved and union officers were soon off the mark to support a strike. With the latest UCL strike in early 2016, however, we started from a clean slate and this is what makes this case interesting for people reading about how to create a rent strike from scratch. This strike is the first genuinely pre-organised rent strike since the 1970s. Activists came in from the outside and, as laid out below, organised a canvassing campaign, planning out how strike could work in these halls. The fact is that if it can be made to happen at Max Rayne House at UCL it could be made to work in a hundred other places. The reason the strike went ahead was not because of anything particular about this hall but because of the way we went about mobilising people. Of course there are always a lot of reasons which can mentioned when discussing why something happened and so the factors we have chosen here are only what we think are the key ones. Other activists involved in the campaign would no doubt mention others. The point is however that, in our judgement, these are the important things to focus on – the approaches which make that crucial difference between getting a strike to happen and not getting to that vital tipping point.
Pre-planning is crucial.
With two strikes happening in the Spring of 2015, we knew something exciting was happening here. We both met each other around this time and agreed that there was a massive potential to use the example of these initial strikes to pre – organise another one from scratch. We also knew from previous experience that campaigns that win are ones which are pre-planned – they develop a clear and precise objective – a date when it will be achieved and then work back in detail week-by-week on what needs to happen by when. Along with a several other local organisers we had several planning meetings and discussed a number of mechanisms, drawing upon new ideas of radical political effectiveness.
The plan we drew up was broadly as follows: We knew the key time to strike would be the first week of January 2016 when the rent for the second term of the academic year was due. There wouldn’t be time to mobilise to a strike at the beginning of the first term and the beginning of the third term would be too far in the future and would co-inside with the heavier work load of students revising and taking exams. This structural decision is vital – pre-planning enables you to pick the best time to do everything – you are choosing the best conditions rather than having outside conditions impose sub-optimal choices upon the campaign.
The next thing, as mentioned, was to work backwards from the strike the process of escalation which would bring it about. This is called “reverse engineering” and is very empowering – the group thought process is not “how are we possibly going to bring about this strike” but rather “wow the strike has happened – given it has already happened how did the build up to the strike take place”. The objective has already been achieved and the group has to use its imagination to work out backwards the stages leading up to it.
We knew the backbone of mobilising tenants would be canvassing – we wanted 1000 out of the total 5000 UCL student tenants to go on strike (more on this below) for there to be a critical mass – i.e. a number which would make it pretty sure we could win a rent reduction. Working backwards we worked out how many people and hours of canvassing this would take and how much training would be required. We worked out a timeline of what needed to happen when, in order to create a smooth escalation up to when the strike would be called. So parallel to the canvassing would be a petitioning campaign, followed by a handing in of the petition (accompanied by creative direct actions) to the landlords; then a deadline by which the landlords would have to agree a rent cut; and then, on the basis of none being given, the calling of the strike and the use of canvassing and in-hall activists going along their corridors to get the necessary number of commitments for the strike to go ahead.
In order to kickstart the campaign an open meeting would be called at which it would be clear the campaign would be well organised with a clear aim and strategy, as worked out by the pre-campaign meetings over the summer. The impression to be made is that this is sorted and it’s going to work.
This then was the plan – details were filled in on two big sheets of paper with parallel lines showing time lines for different lines of actions and escalations happening simultaneously. The point here is not that all this would definitely happen like clockwork but that we had thought about everything in advance and had an idea of what we would do in all these circumstances. As the phrase goes “the plan is worth nothing, the planning is worth everything”. In other words, doing the planning means that when “events” happen – you are not endlessly starting from scratch but know where you are going and adapt the plan as you go along to these events.
Super-organised and participatory initial open campaign meeting
Empowerment is created by participation, not by speakers standing up in front of people telling them what to think. This is a big lesson which has been proven by research over and over again (see references for Roger’s paper on this) and so a good way to mobilise people in a meeting is to get people to talk to each other. People love to talk in small groups – everyone relaxes and has a good time and from this flows an ownership of the campaign and an excitement about getting involved. Add in having free snacks and drink and people are even happier – it’s more like a get together with friends than a “meeting”!
The meeting then was publicised around all the halls and throughout the first week of the academic year. Around 30 people came to the meeting. The chairs were arranged around four tables and as people came in they were sat around these tables in groups of around 8 people, already facing each other, and so people started chatting. The meeting started with a five minute intro from Angus, the Student Union Halls Representative. He made clear this was an open participatory campaign and everyone was very welcome to be involved. At the same time he made clear it would be super organised with a clear and precise objective – to get a rent cut in January 2016. The meeting then split up into the table break-out groups and in each group there was a go round where people in turn introduced themselves and then talked about why they had come to the meeting. You could tell everyone was beginning to relax as people shared stories about how crap their accommodation was and how unfair the rent was. The meeting came back together and one person from each group summarised the thoughts of their break out group. Then Angus spent no more than another 5 minutes explaining the general aim of the campaign and the main ways we could go about achieving it. A rent cut would be called for but it was up to everyone in the room to participate in deciding the size of the rent cut that they wanted to demand. He give some stats about the economic situation – the level of profit the landlords make etc., and then we split back into the break out groups for around 15 minutes to discuss this central issue – the rent cut we wanted to get. Again we came back as one large group and one person from each break out group summarised the general feelings of their group. After a short discussion it seemed like all the groups would support or go along with a rent cut demand of 40% and this was confirmed by a vote by people putting up their hands. This rent cut would create a social rent – enough to cover the cost of running the halls but not to provide unfair additional profit. Upon making this decision several people spoke about how excited they were about being involved in the campaign and how amazing it would be to collectively bring about a sizable rent cut.
Finally we split into four working groups – action in halls, canvassing, designing materials, and social media. By this time in the meeting everyone was really animated – and you could see lively discussion happening in all the groups. Finally the date was announced of the next meeting and people ate up the last of the food and drink.
We have gone into some detail here because first impressions count and because too many meeting disempower rather than empower people. The key thing here is that you have to split people into groups because this enables more people to speak and it is this very act of speech which gives people the crucial feeling that this a campaign they want to be involved in. And creating a rent strike is all about high participation – there is a lot to do! This meeting went spectacularly well – because it was pre designed to go well – we didn’t leave it to chance. One participant interviewed later said “it was the best meeting I have ever been to”. And of course the proof is in the pudding – at the following meeting 28 people turned up – effectively the same as the initial open meeting. Usually initial open meetings get lots of people but there is a significant fall off on the second meeting. But this did not happen so we were off to a great start.
Skilled canvassers and effective scripts
Creating a rent strike is all about getting a lot of people in a concentrated space and time to take collective action. It is not the usual story of getting 20 odd activists from around the whole of a city to do something. This means that social media and leaflets are just not going to do it for you. The people you have to get to are not going to make time to read your leaflet or go onto your facebook page – they have plenty of other things to do. There is no getting around the fact that you are going to have to knock on their door and speak to then – or rather get them to speak to you. This is the only way you can get the mobilisation, in the concentration you need, to get to the critical mass required for a strike. Basically if you don’t go door-to-door, it ain’t gonna happen!
The second thing to realise is that there is canvassing and canvassing. A lot of people have the idea that door knocking is a pretty straight forward thing – you just do it. But like many other areas of activism, people are massively more effective if they are trained, skilled and therefore confident in what they do. So we did two things. We piloted scripts – experimented with different things we said and worked on what worked best. Then we typed out a core script (see below) and organised 2 or 3 short training sessions each week where someone who have already gone canvassing role played a tenant, while a new trainee canvasser read from the script. This was done several times with the trainee getting feedback between role plays, till they got the hang of it and understood what they were trying to do. They then went away and ideally learnt the script by heart – not so that they just recited it to people but so that it gave them the confidence to know what they were saying when a tenant answered the door. Again the proof is in the pudding – we found that without training or a good script only 30% of tenants said they would be willing to “probably” or “definitely” withhold paying their rent. Once people were trained and had a great script this percentage went up to over 60% – this is the difference between a strike happening or not happening.
Contrary to the popular myth about being pushy, the key to effective canvassing, like with the good meeting design, is to get the tenant to talk to you not to talk to the tenant. Again this can appear counter- intuitive – you are there to tell the person about the way things are – right. Wrong! Tenants will agree to withhold their rent to the extent that you listen to where they are at. The point is that most tenants are already pissed off and obviously it goes without saying that they would like a rent cut. But no one has asked their opinion before and so often they have not explicitly thought through the situation. Giving them the space to do this makes them more conscious of their feelings about the issue.
Therefore the best way to get to people to consider striking is to approach the situation indirectly. The first time canvassers knock on doors the aim should be to simply “ask you a few questions about the rent and accommodation”. You ask then what they think of their rent – and then their accommodation and enter into bit of a conversation. Only then do you suggest the possibility of changing the situation. So here is the script for the first round of canvassing
(Non-spoken notes in brackets. …… means a pause or wait for their response)
- Hi sorry to disturb you. I’m (your name) – I’m working with the students union – with Angus the rep for the block/accommodation here.
- If you just have a minute would it be okay if I just ask you a few questions/ it won’t take long
- Oh – take a piece of chocolate – that’s to welcome you in here!
- Okay so I don’t know if you know but last year there was quite a lot of unhappiness amongst students in this block and other blocks about the high rents and the accommodation. In fact, I don’t know if you know this, but the rent has increased here by 60% in real terms in just the last five years and some students have really struggled with their finances.
- In that time the budget for the room maintenance has actually gone down. In fact recently there been a leak and it been found out that the university authorities make £16 million pounds a year straight profit out of the UCL students rent here – so they don’t even use it to maintain the flats/accommodation.
- So what I was wondering then is how high do you find the rent – like very high?, high?….. okay?…
(always will say something here)
- Okay great so you think it’s very high/high/okay
- And so what about the accommodation – are there any problems with your room
(enter into personalised conversation here – write down the details. Empathise – “oh yeah those blinds look pretty crap” – summarise their comments – feedback what they have said to you in different words)
(Mention others have the same problem “oh yeah I’ve got 4 other people on this floor who have the same problem – yeah that’s really pretty bad”)
- .. okay so generally speaking what would you say about the accommodation/room – really bad/bad/okay…
- … (give their answer)
- .. okay great thanks
- So I don’t know if you know but with all these problems with the rent increasing and bad accommodation a lot of students last year stopped paying their rent – there was a rent strike – like it was really bad – like there was cockroaches and rats running around in people’s flats
- .. (they usually go .. yuk)
- Yeah it was really bad. So basically there is a plan for students to delay paying their rent for a few weeks at the beginning of January to get a reduction in the rents– because – you know – a lot of students are actually struggling to pay their rent and it’s really bad for them (key phrase)
- … (they say yeah.. )
(may add) – yeah you know it’s like a lot of students don’t get the help from parents and all that..So the question is then is if say 1000 students in this block and the blocks around here stopped paying their rent for a few weeks in January so that we can get a 40% reduction in the rent would you be okay not paying your rent as well..
(might say yeah here..)
- So would you definitely? … probably? …maybe? (leave a long gap between these words). Okay so that’s great thanks – so you would definitely/probably. In fact over 60 per cent of students in this block have so far said they would take part.
(so if they say probably or definitely or maybe go..)
- Okay so can I just take your name – your first name is fine
- And if you can just put your email down here.. if you can put it in block capitals that would be great
(quick in with the comment on the block capitals)
(take back the clipboard back and check the email is clear to read – That is vital!!)
- Oh great thanks/thanks very much
- And what’s your mobile number
(read back out to check) –
- Okay thanks so much for you time – we/Angus with me in touch
- Yeah thanks.. bye..
The general principles behind the script
(this script was developed by Roger who has 20 years experience of canvassing for workers co-ops)
Getting a yes is emphatically not about “selling pressure” – it is mainly a matter of the following:
- If you are personable you can you get a good connection going with each renter. People are different – they have different voices and confidences – the name of the game is to mirror their mode of expression – if they are confident and loud so are you – if they are quiet and cautious and you should be same as well. Once you have mirrored their behaviour you can bring them into the middle ground and gain their confidence – subconsciously once you are on their level they are likely to listen and agree with you
- You have to be nice – this is a really big factor in whether people will agree with you. This is closely connected to being confident. Say something funny or self depreciating and they will warm to you – like “er sorry I’m just getting going with this survey bear with me.” (the sub-conscious message is that you are confident in admitting you are a bit rubbish at doing this – and this breaks down the “professional canvasser” v “normal person” dynamic)
- With all the questions the subconscious message is “nothing is a problem here” – pressure, preachyness, and getting all moral is a total killer – unless they are like you (pretty rare!) in which you can mirror it – but you are always following them.
- You feed back to them their own position and answers and their own comments. People love this because they are being listened to (at last!) and they will open up. Then they will like you and then subconsciously want to be part of your gang – i.e. not pay their rent.
- Give them the information and let them sort out the moral/political message. So not “and it’s really terrible that people can’t pay their rent” but rather “at lot of tenants can’t afford to pay their rent” – not “we want people to go on this rent strike” but “and a lot of students are planning to not to pay their rent.”
- Note above that the phrase is “not paid their rent” – not “rent strike” – use verbs not nouns – action phrases – and never any slogans or lefty language – and this includes the word “strike”. Of course if they are a lefty (but most people are not!) you can use this language and you can mirror it.
So the secret is the more you are like them the more they will like you and the more they will be open to joining with others in your campaign – it’s totally counter intuitive. Of course this is only part of the story – the rest is the intrinsic rightness of our case and the factual information we give them. But these are set – the facts cannot be changed. What can be changed is your delivery – how you come across. Even if you think this is a small matter – it is even a smaller matter getting good at it. An hour of practice will increase how good you are by 50-100%. And what more you will enjoy it a lot more and people are much more likely to enjoy talking to you. It’s an all round win-win.
Note the basic idea is that this first canvassing is centred around a survey – three questions – what they think of the rent level, what they think of the quality of the accommodation, and would they be prepared to width hold their rent if a critical mass of others did likewise. From this data you can map out the tenant situation. In particular you can identify the tenants who are the most enthusiastic and ask them to help canvass their blocks or corridors a second time round. They are the core people to mobilise the people they know on their floors.
Decision-time: Getting the timing right and concentrating forces.
It’s important to realise that this strike nearly didn’t happen – twice. The first “crisis” was the decision to go for a strike at the beginning of December. One of the things often overlooked in designing a campaign is the stamina of the people involved. A general rule is that without results people lose heart and stop taking part. So the timing and pacing of a campaign is a vital design consideration. Start too early and the goal seems too distant to be credible – start too late and you don’t have enough time to get everything properly organised. With this campaign it was clear by November that not enough canvassing was happening to mobilise over 1000 people over all the UCL student halls. Although the percentage willing to not pay their rent was high – over 60%, there were simply not enough people do all the necessary door knocking. The plan was not going to plan! Without a clear assurance that we would get enough people to strike it was seriously considered calling it off and maybe building for a strike in April 2016 – the next time students had to pay their rent. But at the same time we knew that this would be a blow to morale and there was no guarantee that enough activists would still be around to do another 3 months of slog. The obvious solution was to reduce our ambition. A general rule of thumb in mobilisation is that you cannot make too big a jump all in one go. Going from two small spontaneous strikes involving a few dozen people to bringing out the whole of the UCL student tenant body was biting off a little bit more than we could chew! However the good thing about canvassing most of the halls in the October and November was that it was possible to identify the most pissed off hall and this was Max Rayne House in Camden. It was therefore decided to concentrate our limited resources on this hall with 300 tenants.
The Final Rounds of Canvassing and the Beauty of Conditional Commitment.
A key consideration in this scary decision to “go for it at Max Rayne” was the re assurance of using conditional commitment in the strike call. What this means is that we would only call a strike if a critical mass of students seriously committed to not pay their rent. The last thing both we and the tenants wanted was to not get enough people to make a strike effective and lose by being picked off/evicted. Based up the previous strike, and literature on the subject, it seemed a good bet that if you can get 30% or more a group of tenants to strike it will be near impossible politically for a landlord to evict them all and they will be forced to negotiate. There were 300 tenants in the hall so the target “critical mass” was set at the nice round number of 100 tenants willing to strike. Of course this is just a calculated guess but this figures seemed pretty objectively sufficient for a successful strike. The other factor was whether it felt like a critical mass subjectively for the tenants. Our research, asking tenants where their threshold of how many other tenants would have to width hold their rent for them to do the same, showed most people’s point of action was 70 or 80 other tenants. This is confirmed by other research (e.g. by Kickstarter the fundraising website which uses conditional commitment to raise money for arts projects) which shows that once conditional commitments get to 20-30% a lot more other people are prepared to join in if asked.
The beauty of conditional commitment (CC) is that it overcomes the “collective action problem” – the “I want to do it but only if other people do – no one else is doing it so I won’t do it” problem. This is the fundamental problem of mobilisation for rent strikes (and loads of other collective actions). When you’re canvassing it is soon obvious that everyone is pissed off and everyone wants a rent reduction. So why doesn’t everyone just strike and get it? Because no one wants to make the first move. You will never get a rent strike to happen by knocking on doors and saying “would you be prepared to strike to get a rent reduction” – what you need to say is “would you be prepared to not pay you rent to get a reduction in your rent if a 100 other tenants (or whatever is a credible critical mass) do the same”. You then take their details and when you get past the 100 mark you get back to everyone and tell them that it is on.
In this case we already knew from doing a statistically significant amount of canvassing across several halls that around 60% of tenants would “probably” or “definitely” strike if a critical mass of others did the same. This was the crucial empirical data which showed a strike is possible is you use conditional commitment to lever it.
In the specific case of Max Rayne we went round before Christmas and it was clear there was enough support for the strike. What’s more a comparison was done of how willing tenants would be to strike without or without CC. Without CC only 50% expressed a willingness to strike; with CC this went up to 78%. Of course this is just a verbal commitment not actual action so it would be reasonable to assume that less people in both groups would do it. However the difference is clear and significant.
It was decided set up a bank account so that people would pay their rent into this account and so we would have a transparent way of showing that 100 people had not paid. With all the money in one account it would be more difficult for the landlords to pick people off with threatening letters. People were emailed and leafleted to pay into an official student union account at the beginning of January. However due to the timing of the start of term and being able to pay everyone back if we did not get to 100 people, there was not enough time to organise getting everyone to pay. This created the second “crisis” – how could we get a credible 100 plus people to commit not to pay without the account. Again flexibility saved the day. With 2 days to go before calling off the strike if we didn’t get to the 100 people, it was decided that if people simply emailed the campaign email address to say they would not pay we would take that as a clear commitment. Both of us spent two evenings in a mad dash knocking on doors to get people send the emails. On the last evening before the deadline there were only 70 commitments but by the end of the canvassing we got it up to around 115. It was a close run thing! In the event we worked out we had commitments on the doors of 150 people – 50% of the tenants. 80% of tenants supported the strike (but some had already paid their rent not knowing the situation, or it was paid by institutions for them). The strike was solid!
The script used to create these commitments then was roughly as follows:
Hi sorry to disturb you. I am working with Angus the student union rep and I am just calling around to update people about getting a rent reduction for the tenants here. You know with the Cut the Rent campaign.. (just about everyone did by then)
Yeah.. so the situation is the student union is backing the campaign and if over 100 tenants commit to with holding their rent then they will negotiate a rent reduction for all the tenants (then mention that tenants in the other 2 strikes did the same thing and got £1000 plus of their rent back). So basically we need 100 tenants to commit to not pay their rent which is the number we need to be able to negotiate a reduction. We are on 60 commitments (or whatever the figure is) at the moment so we only need 40 more people. Would it be okay if you can make that commitment. Basically all you have to do is email the email address now and that is it – you just say your name and room number and that you will not pay your rent so we can get a rent reduction.
(if unsure about it ..)
So basically it’s a win-win situation. If we don’t get to 100 people the strike does not go ahead so you just pay your rent as normal – and if we do have over 100 people then the strike will go ahead and we will be able to get a rent reduction.
Note that as the evening goes on the persuasion becomes easier – i.e. the number of commitments already in the bag goes up from 60 and nears 100. So you can say “look we have 90 – we only need 10 more for this thing to go ahead …” it all gets a bit exciting! People start phoning their friends in other corridors and volunteering to see the people you we have missed along the corridor – we give the most enthusiastic strikers a list of the doors we haven’t managed to canvass and those which are “maybes”.
We can see from the figures then that we only just got past the 100 mark in time. It is a good bet that if we have just asked people to strike without using CC, persuasion rates would have fallen from around 80% to 50% and we would not have got over 100 commitments by the deadline. What you say to people counts and CC gives you that vital boost of credibility.
You can see from this story that the reality of getting this strike to happen was a bit messy. What you want to take away from this is that you need the bank account sorted in good time. The good news is that people were willing to pay into the account once they knew others were doing the same and “this is what people are doing” – and if the CC element is clearly explained – you will get the money back if we don’t get the 100 people to pay by the deadline. This then creates an excitement – CC turns the whole thing into a race against time and people who are already committed and paid in have a strong motivation to get other tenants to do the same. “Look I have paid into the account – we just need another 20 people to do it for the whole thing to go ahead – so can you do it as well, yeah?” A tipping point is reached and the tenants will mobilise themselves – as happened via the communal kitchens on each corridor on the evening of the deadline in this campaign.
The strike is on: Media and Negotiations.
At the time of writing the strike is now on but the negotiations have yet to be concluded. The point of this text is primarily about how to get to this point but it is worth saying a few things about how to organise matters from this point on. In the present fevered climate in London there is massive interest in rent strikes – shown by the 36,000 shares on the Guardian news piece on the action. It is easy however to get drawn away by the seduction of mass media attention and not make sure that the main issue is being attended to – the morale and solidarity of the tenants. The key structural aim with a strike campaign is to create a cross over whereby the original activists pass over responsibilities to the tenants themselves. This is tricky and messy but necessary if the tenants are going to own the strike and thus commit themselves to it. Therefore it is important as many as possible join the closed facebook page, that they are included in the media appearances, and help with publicity.
A key mechanism is to hold an “open space” meetings along the lines of the first campaign meeting described above. Just week into the strike we held such a meeting with Max Rayne tenants. Over 50 tenants came into the common room. Crucial to the turnout was getting the union to pay for free pizza for everyone! We gave a short summary of the state of play and then split everyone in groups of around 10-12 people and there was a go round in each group where people introduced themselves and shared why they were not paying the rent. We then came back together and did another five minutes on what actions could be taken. Then again everyone split back into groups and, munching on a second piece of pizza, discussed what they could do. There was a great animated atmosphere and ideas were flying around. People got up to speak to people across the room about various mini projects – it looked like a film would be made and short interview/stories posted on tumblr etc.
The point here however, as with the first meeting, is that the content is not so important as the fact that people are able to connect and work together themselves – no boring long speeches by outsiders. This is how radicalisation happens in reality – through personal interaction not external information.
On negotiations – as mentioned this has yet to happen – but the general framework is that any offer will be decided whether or not to be accepted by the tenants themselves. The rules need to be clear, as this is an important decision and it is vital it is seen to have democratic legitimacy. Therefore the campaign has decided that all tenants will be given a minimum of 5 days notice of a general meeting and that, after discussion in break out groups, the decision to accept or reject an offer will be taken by majority vote of those present. The point here is not that this procedure is necessarily perfect but that there is a procedure in place. Structurelessness is a recipe for confusion, disillusionment and bitterness – i.e. – not good!
Any activist reading this will no doubt have noticed we have missed quite a bit out. There is plenty to be said about how to organise well, how to do media campaigns and create direct actions. However these subjects are much the same as on any other grassroots radical political campaign and knowledge on about them is relatively well known. If and when we have more time, we may produce a longer booklet which goes into them in more detail but given the time constraints in getting this text produced we have concentrated upon the key specific elements which are needed to get a rent strike on the go. But briefly here is what the campaign has done on these other areas;
Good organisation: All this stuff is often forgotten (bit like the washing up!) but is vital to the effective running of a campaign. Most importantly meetings need to have skilled and competent facilitation – people need to be trained (and not just white men). Meetings need to regular, advertised well in advance and start on time – and ideally be somewhere quiet where people can sit in a circle. Minutes need to be taken and people should write down what they commit to and tell people so they are accountable. Where needed working groups should take on set responsibilities and have a contact person.
Media: We have had the standard closed Facebook page for activists and open one for promoting the campaign and open events. Various people have taken on doing Twitter and other social platforms. Press releases has been sent to the mainstream media and people asked to respond the initial rush of media requests for interviews via the facebook page.
Actions: We have had stalls and leafleting to get over 1000 people to sign an on line petition. There is talk of organising direct actions now the strike is happening. There is a lot of potential here and a future campaign may want to focus on more on this sort of activity. However a word of warning – it is easy to feel good about actions just because they are actions (“vanity metrics”) – but this will not necessarily persuade your target group of tenants to go on strike. As we have tried to make clear a rent strike is different to many campaigns. The key focus has to be on door to door mobilisation. It’s this hard graft which is most necessary. Of course mobilisation can go on line after a certain point – but when starting from scratch there is on avoiding going to talk to real people.
Don’t forget the broader picture!
So there you have it. Obviously at the present state of play (February 2016) it would make total sense that if you are reading this and planning to organise a strike yourself you should contact us for a chat and come to a specific training event we plan to hold. Time allowing we can meet and discuss the specifics or at least talk on skype. Remember the devil is in the detail and there is no better way of getting your head around that detail then talking to someone who has already done it. Obviously you should adopt our approach to your particular context. For instance you may want to start with some pilot surveying and then call a meeting – or you may be responding to an existing group of tenants who want to go for it – or a general meeting which has already been held.
We have focused here on the nitty gritty because this is what people need to know. But this focus should not be mistaken for a lack of vision or strategic awareness. At the same time as learning canvassing scripts etc we need to develop a long time line of mobilisation. It is vital that as and when strikes grow we have a plan to create participatory and democratic network of tenants across London and other cities. We can be sure that as soon as this thing takes off all sorts of opportunists – whether political parties or hard left top down set ups with descend to try to take it over and mess it up. So we need to create organisational forms based upon participation which cannot be captured. This is another big challenge but we need to be modelling it now, not after suddenly things taking off – and if it does take off you can be sure it will be sudden. There is a massive repression at the moment and if people see there is a tried and tested way to free themselves, in our social media age, it will go global in no time at all. So if and when others get involved in creating the next few strike we need to start network meetings to work out not just the next step but the next three or four!
So thanks for reading this and good luck.
David is a full-time student finishing a BA in Jewish History at UCL. He lives in West London and has in the past been a student union organiser on housing issues and has worked in a hospital, call centres and as a chugger. He wants rent to be abolished and social housing to be a universal right.
Roger has been involved in social movements for more than 20 years as a trainer and organiser with a particular background in participatory design. He is currently doing a PhD at Kings College London on the design of effective radical political collective action and has co-founded Radical Think Tank.
To contact us via email: email@example.com.
To contact the UCL, Cut the Rent Campaign: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Some references and links:
This text has been written by Roger and David and has been printed as part of the Radical Think Tank (email@example.com). The RTT is a new open network of radical academics/researchers, activists and community organisers which aims to create concrete information and training on how to bring about bottom up radical political change. It is free to join and people can connect via the website/facebook page or regular London get togethers to collaborate on research projects and the writing of “how to do it” texts. We are helping organise a big event on 9-10th April : “How to do it: Building Bottom up Political Participation” at Kings College London – where people will participate in sharing knowledge and collaborate in developing best practice texts on a wide range of grassroots cultural and political activity. It gonna be fun so please come along! See firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information on conditional commitment check out: https://radicalthinktank.wordpress.com/2015/11/01/introduction-to-the-design-of-effective-political-action-for-london-activists/ (on the RTT website).
For more information on participatory meeting design see the prize winning paper: radicalthinktank.wordpress.com/2016/01/27/prize-wining-paperempowerment-by-design-an-open-meeting-of-the-university-college-london-cut-the-rent-campaign/ (on RTT website)
There is not much on rent strikes in print – and least as yet, but here are a few great texts on the state of the art of creative contemporary radical activism. Here are two books/websites to check out:
Blue Print for a Revolution, Srdja Popovic.
Beautiful Trouble – A tool box for Revolution (also check out the website – they have a section on debt strikes).