Amongst the greatest victories in Scottish workers’ history was the 1915 rent strike – during the First World War. Beginning in Glasgow, resistance spread across Scotland and to industrial cities in England.
Expanding munitions, shipbuilding and other ‘war work’ in the industrial areas around Glasgow increased demand for homes. Housing was already overcrowded and in desperate need of repair but profit-hungry landlords capitalised on the influx of workers, hiking up rents. Coming on top of rising food prices this meant people struggled to make ends meet – the same position people find themselves in today.
With many men fighting in the trenches for a bosses’ imperialist war, working-class women stepped into the frontline of struggle at home. Mary Barbour was a factory worker from Govan, whose infant son’s death from meningitis pushed her into building what became known as ‘Mrs Barbour’s Army’ to fight for healthcare and decent housing.
In February 1915 landlords announced all rents would increase by 25%, but these women fought back. Meetings were held across the city: “Street meetings, back-court meetings, drums, bells, trumpets – every method was used to bring the women out.” Refusal to pay soon spread across Clydeside.
Landlords and the state responded with threats of eviction, but placards appeared in tenement windows declaring “we are not removing”. Wherever the Sheriffs’ Officers appeared they were surrounded by angry crowds. Defeated on the streets, landlords and their factors (agents) tried docking arrears from workers’ wage packets. The Clydeside Workers’ Committee, representing factories across Glasgow organised a general strike, increasing pressure on the government given Glasgow’s central role in war production.
Militant defiance won what pleas to politicians could not. On 25 November 1915, rents were frozen at pre-war levels. The Increase of Rent Act 1915 was won because the working class fought back and stood united to fight against capitalist austerity and oppression.