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Issue #1910      April 6, 2020

AN ASSESSMENT OF THE RENT STRIKE

On the 31st March, the COVID-19 Rent Strike Australia group sent out letters to a list of real estate agencies informing them that tenants involved in the strike will be withholding rent during the COVID-19 public health crisis as of 1st April.

On the same day the group also produced an open letter to members of parliament to demand a universal amnesty on rent payments and mortgages, stating that, as of 31st March, almost 17,000 people had pledged to withhold rent on an online petition.

The organising of this rent strike began not long ago, in the middle of March, just around when COVID-19 began to seriously affect Australia. The purpose of this article is to explore the risks involved in spontaneous action.

In What is to be Done? Lenin commented on the strikes in Russia in the late 1800s and said at best they were a struggle only in its embryonic form; “more in the nature of outbursts of desperation and vengeance than of struggle.” The same can be said of the Rent Strike. The Rent Strike was not carefully planned over the past year, it did not precisely analyse the target of its strike and it did not organise apartment blocks or neighbourhoods. It began with a petition, simply calling on people to withhold rent, mortgage payments, and a rent and mortgage amnesty to be extended. Following this, it called for the following demands:

  • An indefinite amnesty on all rental payments
  • A continuing ban on all evictions, until everyone has recovered from the crisis
  • No renters will be left with debts or fines, or retaliatory rent increases
  • No adverse rental histories for tenants who don’t pay rent

The target of the strike seemed confused and the organisation lacked direction, with some participants wondering “ok, so we signed a petition, now what?’ It was not clear whether people were to be organised based on councils or agencies. Nobody seemed to know when or how to strike until one week before the chosen date. Then, individuals were sorted into real estate agencies, with many left alone as a sole tenant striking at a sole agency.

Rent strikers were fragmented and out of touch of their neighbourhoods, especially because of the inability to organise in person due to COVID-19. Perhaps, from the beginning, the plan was flawed since organisation was not a question of building support from a local level up, but a task of organising 17,000 people who pledged to rent strike into local groups. This task became near impossible when the time frame was set to as little as two weeks.

The strike is clearly an “outburst of desperation.” The organisers correctly identified a flaw in the system but acted on it when it was too late. Organising community unions takes time and preparation, and it’s especially important that no rash actions are taken that could put people at risk. Unfortunately, no amount of solidarity can overcome the mishaps of an unsuccessful strike. An unsuccessful strike can ripple throughout the consciousness of the working class, demoralising whole generations.

The group, responding with a knee-jerk reaction to the sudden threat of their housing and livelihoods, did not consider other vital questions of housing during COVID-19. Under the list of demands, where was the demand for emergency housing for those who are already in insecure housing? What about people in public housing getting kicked out of their homes due to ongoing privatisation?

A final question that failed to be properly addressed is: what of people who lose their homes because of the rent strike? Will these people have to move, couch surf, or move into a squat? As mentioned previously, during a public health crisis, insecure housing can be dangerous. There needs to be an actual militant response in which marshals can guard the front of apartment buildings and hold off cops. This is how the Unemployed Workers Movement protected tenants in the 1930s. But for this to work, we need to be able to spend time preparing, planning, and organising in the community.

To reiterate, it is not a rent strike we oppose, it is the way it has been done, and we wish to learn from this experience. It is possible, as the rent strike group have pointed out, that they are able to succeed at their goal because of the current moratorium on evictions. However, to organise in a rash way can risk people’s livelihoods and break morale. Hopefully, the rent strike and the situation with COVID-19 will awaken working-class consciousness and demonstrate that preparation for capitalism’s ups and downs through union and community organising is vital.

Next article – COVID-19 AND CHINA – AN OPPORTUNITY TO THINK MORE, ACT LESS!

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