Power In a Union: Living Rent AGM

A report released by Living Rent Tenants Union last week revealed that around £1.6 million in unlawful fees are conceivably charged in Glasgow each year, a damning illustration of the imbalance that exists in the rental sector. But there’s reasons for encouragement: like other tenants unions around the world, Living Rent members are winning victories and emboldening tenants at a time of housing crisis. We report back from the Glasgow annual general meeting…

In December, last year we put together one of our first activist guides on Conter. Our report on rented housing in association with Living Rent provided essential information around tenancy agreements and legal rights along with relevant case studies from tenants across Scotland. The name of the guide is significant: when all tenants are shackled within an imbalanced structure where landlords exploit them for profit, passivity isn’t an option.

Since the turn of the decade, rents have increased dramatically across the country but especially in a city like Glasgow, where housing lists are long, the council is breaking the law by failing in its obligation to those seeking housing, and multiple homeless people are estimated to be dying every month. While people’s living standards continue to decline under austerity, people are being driven from their homes and those in the rental sector face annual increases. There are over 300,000 tenants in Glasgow alone, so the road to overturning this state of affairs is long, but Living Rent’s achievements since launching can’t be ignored.

What formed in 2012 as a grassroots campaign for RPZs is now a fully fledged tenants union with hundreds of members and support from the likes of John McDonnell and cross-party politicians. The union has won back thousands of pounds in illegal fees charged by letting agents, growing exponentially in size and influence over the past year. In the last couple of months, Glasgow-based activists have even been instrumental in forcing Serco, a global multinational supported by the home office, to suspend plans to change locks on 300 properties housing asylum seekers (read the piece on Conter here). And last week, the union secured a major victory over a rogue letting agency thanks the collective work of members.

This growing confidence was clearly on display at Glasgow’s AGM as dozens of members packed out the Pearce Institute in Govan. We were in awe at not only the number of folk, of all ages and backgrounds, who turned out to spend their Saturday sharing experiences and discussing tactics around housing struggle. The day was kicked off by a session led by women members of Living Rent as well as the Focus E15 group, a London-based campaign formed by mothers who were served eviction notices by East Thames Housing Association in 2013. After presenting a Guardian documentary which documented the group', activists Jasmine Stone and Saskia O’Hara were keen to stress that the council they fought tooth and nail had been a ‘progressive Labour’ one. The message was clear: elected representatives of all stripes have failed to protect tenants on both sides of the border and people power is a necessity.

rent_controls_[1].jpg

These sentiments were echoed in the first speech of the day, delivered by member Anna. She said: “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 […]

”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.”

The tone of this speech, and others that followed, was encouraging. Members recognise that, like all rights and concessions, working class people are forced to organise themselves to achieve justice. ’Power, not charity’: this simple and unequivocal message represents why Living Rent is not just a housing campaign with the goal of regulating the market. Inspired by groups in Newham, Grenfell, Dublin and elsewhere, Living Rent’s goal is rooted in the recognition that capitalism as a system has proven incapable of providing everyone in society with clean, safe, well-insulated housing.

To that end, the various sessions held throughout the day weren’t so much lectures as they were workshops. Splitting into groups, members convened to talk campaigns, events, outreach and member defence. Members we spoke to felt particularly empowered in the latter session - rather than simply seeking ‘representation’ by those who “know better”, members were trained to manage situations, demand rights in a clear manner and seek support in numbers. Members and supporters were also invite to sign up to teams reflecting these areas, along with media, communications and research. Living Rent member Alessio, of the latter team, shared an illuminating investigation he’d conducted into a local housing association and the additional profits they’d been deriving from tenants, for example.

This led to a Q&A around strategy and, ultimately, the announcement of the union’s next campaign: Not a Penny on the Rents. The day closed with a powerful campaign documentary with this very title (which you can watch here). Made in 1968, the 20-minute film shows how Greater London Council tenants organised Tenants' Associations and conducted the first rent strikes against council rent rises. Most stirring of all is the moment when it’s revealed just how many housing blocks elected en masse to refuse to pay the increased amount. Capturing the spirit of ‘68 might seem a stretch today, but the victories won this year demonstrates just what genuine collective action can achieve. The campaign is set to be launched soon and Conter will be right behind it all the way.