The Labor Movement Should Take Up the Fight Against Evictions

A movement defending working-class interests isn’t just about what happens at work, but also about the places where we live. A labor movement fight against evictions can break the power of landlords to ruin our lives — and make the case for why we all deserve affordable, quality housing.

The ideological supremacy of private ownership, which sees a home as a commodity, threatens working-class lives and communities. (Cameron Venti / Unsplash)

“A fair rent is a rent the tenant can reasonably pay according to the times, but in bad times a tenant cannot be expected to pay as much as he [sic] did in good times . . .” So claimed Irish nationalist leader Charles Stewart Parnell in a speech in County Mayo in June 1879. He’d insisted that agrarian tenants faced with eviction stay put — and that they join a united national campaign against rapacious landlordism.

Himself a wealthy landowner, Parnell was here aligning himself with tenants during a period of Irish history that became known as the Land War. Between 1877 and 1880, during a severe economic downturn, recorded evictions in rural Ireland rose from 980 to 2,100 a year. Barely a generation since the Great Famine — An Gorta Mór — poor Irish people were, again, facing a battle for survival.

Historic comparisons can be a risky game. But the situation facing many tenants struggling to keep their homes today has echoes of an earlier time and place. In the United Kingdom, housing and homelessness charity Shelter estimates 230,000 households are now at risk of homelessness following the lifting of the pandemic-related ban on evictions on September 21. Figures for the United States and many other countries are similarly worrying.

As in nineteenth-century Ireland, the threat of mass evictions is symptomatic of deep political crises and socio-economic inequality. As today’s British establishment has been divided by Brexit, so too was its Victorian counterpart riven by the question of Home Rule for Ireland, with its own great tensions around nationality and identity. But unlike the movement Parnell tried to harness, there have so far only been sporadic cases of united campaigns to resist the unprecedented number of evictions.

Parnell — like the more radical forces around him — was raising the perennial question of the balance between the rights of landlords and tenants. Reflecting on this same period, James Connolly wrote that “When the landlord had declared war upon the tenant by evicting him [sic], the labourers responded by war upon the landlord.”

Today we would rarely find such robust acknowledgement of class conflict. The UK labor movement, like those in other countries, has failed for many years to articulate the truths of the super-exploitative housing market — so it is no surprise that it offers only half-hearted amelioration in the face of the looming eviction crisis (for instance, giving tenants more time to pay off arrears).

There are some exceptions. Speaking before the pandemic, in May 2019 Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez raised the fundamental question underlying the housing crisis down through the ages when she said “our ability and our guarantee to having a home comes before someone else’s privilege to earn a profit.”

This same basic principle inspired and guided Irish eviction resistance during the Land War. Indeed, while the current housing crisis has many more recent causes, we can point to many parallels with other times. Above all, as Ocasio-Cortez argues, in both eras the ideological supremacy of private ownership, which sees a home as a commodity, threatened working-class lives and communities. What is missing today is the broad recognition of the need to resist such a threat — and to do so by building united class action.

Not an Eternal Condition

By 1880, half of Ireland’s population was reliant on charity. Such desperation spurred the creation, in 1878, of the Irish National Land League, which grew from small local meetings of tenant farmers to “monster meetings” across the country attended by tens of thousands.

The Land League’s three core demands were rent reduction, security of tenure, and transfer of land ownership from landlords to tenants. The latter reflected the fact that, in 1870, half the land was owned by just 750 families — often they were absent landlords who maximized profit through a system of subcontracting and parceling of land that made it almost impossible for tenants to make a living.

Alongside the parliamentary maneuvers in London led by Parnell, a national movement exerted pressure on the British imperial government and landowning class throughout Ireland. The most well-known example of this tactic was the practice of ostracizing landlords and their agents, which became known as “boycotting.”

But this was only one feature of a campaign of solidarity, which also included rent strikes and physical resistance to evictions. Some of these values endure in parts of Ireland today — you can still sometimes see signs warning people against buying land that has previously been repossessed by the owner.

For radical Fenians like Michael Davitt, the ultimate aim was the abolition of landlordism and “the land for the people.” Unsurprisingly, such sentiments terrified the Tory ruling class, whose media mouthpieces published cartoons invoking readers to “pity the poor landlord” together with racist portrayals of Irish people, typical of the time.

The challenge to landlordism in Ireland 140 years ago also drew familiar cries of “communism!” — fears that increased when attempts were made to unite agrarian and urban workers across sectarian religious lines.

The Land League’s twin-track strategy of parliamentary and extra-parliamentary activity compelled the Liberal and Tory governments to make concessions, particularly under Liberal prime minister William Gladstone.  He combined a probably genuine commitment to Irish Home Rule — semi-autonomy, not independence — with a series of land reforms that had a lasting impact on the country.

The Land Act of 1881 had measures that could fit today’s situation, including a fifteen-year eviction moratorium and the writing off of rent arrears by the government at an approximate price of what would be the equivalent of £100 million today. The provisions for the transfer of land to tenants meant that, by the time of Ireland’s partial independence and the partition of the Northern Six Counties in 1921, most land in Ireland was owned by the people who worked it — a situation that would have appeared utopian forty years earlier.

A similar thing could have been said about many significant housing and land reforms since. While these dramatic events were unfolding in Ireland, the housing conditions of the English working class were little better. The squalor of Victorian towns and cities had been vividly described by Friedrich Engels, Charles Dickens, and Arthur Morrison in A Child of the Jago, published in 1896. The fictional melodrama featured the notorious Nichol slum in London’s East End.

Such environments were widely seen as inevitable. But by 1900, the Nichol had been pulled down and replaced by the Boundary Estate, the first example of public authorities using public investment to create high-quality housing, en masse, for working-class people. The Boundary set a precedent that led to one-third of UK residents being council tenants by 1980 — what would have been, at the start of the twentieth century, an unthinkable subversion of capitalist norms.

The belief that things can be different — and better — should be a prerequisite of today’s housing struggles, particularly in the context of COVID-19. But there are also other lessons to be learned from Ireland’s history. The need for a united national network of local and regional housing justice campaigns has never been greater.

This should be combined with clear demands that recognize the seriousness of the current situation, advanced through a variety of tactics, including a willingness to take direct action to keep people in their homes. Politicians who profess to represent working-class communities must come under more pressure to demonstrate this by addressing the critical question of housing.

Looking for Mobilization

Sadly, at the moment, there are few signs of this type of popular movement emerging in the UK. The legacy of acquiescence to and/or complicity in pro-market housing policies has exposed the limitations of mainstream politicians who now find they have no answers to the critical questions we face. This is exemplified by the British Labour Party.

Under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, the party began to adopt housing policies that would have challenged the hegemony of private property speculation and landlordism, including its brutality when tenants, through no fault of their own, can’t pay their rent.

However, now “under new management” with Keir Starmer, the party’s leadership has seemed reluctant to back “no eviction” campaigns, preferring to offer palliatives in the form of rent deferment, rather than cancellation. Unlike the Irish Land League, the Labour Party is not prepared to challenge the sanctity of private property.

Though the limitations of current UK housing campaigns aren’t restricted to political parties. Above all, there is a woeful failure of unity and coordination in the face of a crisis, of the type that brought historic change to Ireland under similar circumstances.

There are, at least, half a dozen different organizations representing the thousands of private tenants facing the threat of eviction, but with limited exceptions, they appear to be working in isolation from one another (although there are some encouraging, if rather late, noises coming from Momentum).

A similarly fractured picture is evident within Britain’s trade union movement, where even before the coronavirus crisis, housing was rarely treated with the seriousness that it surely has had for most of the country’s six million union members.

But perhaps the most pernicious aspect of the failure to respond adequately to the looming eviction crisis is the role of charities and nonprofits. There are a myriad of these organizations, with substantial wealth, resources, and influence at their disposal, but in general, they have appeared reluctant to support active resistance to what could be an unprecedented housing disaster.

This suggests an accommodation to the status quo, which seriously questions their role. For example, while distancing itself from grassroots anti-eviction campaigns, the Shelter housing charity has formed an alliance with private landlords.

There are some exceptions to this frustrating picture. One is the inspiring Upstate-Downstate Housing Alliance in New York State. Under the banner “Housing Justice for All,” over seventy organizations representing tenants in public and private housing, and the homeless, have come together with a clear set of demands.

As well as a ban on evictions and the cancellation of rent during the pandemic, they call for long-lasting rent control, investment in nonmarket rented homes, and taxation of the rich to guarantee safe, stable, and affordable housing as a human right.

The clarity and assertiveness of this platform has won widespread local support and forced concessions from establishment politicians in a way the Irish Land League would recognize. But vibrant housing activism has also grown in Ireland itself, a country where the scourge of predatory landlordism is deeply ingrained in cultural memory.

Prior to COVID-19, Dublin saw protests of thousands of people urging government action to end growing homelessness and build public housing as an antidote to the failing private market — though political support has only come from non-establishment parties.

This begs the question why there aren’t more popular uprisings over housing, particularly when a chronic socioeconomic crisis collides with an acute public health crisis. As in nineteenth-century Ireland, the dead hand of parliamentary politics has often canalized and dampened the potential for large-scale popular movements.

But there are perhaps deeper reasons for this lack of popular mobilization. In some respects, the perpetual housing crisis has become normalized, with a sense of inevitability that begins to see the issue as almost akin to an out-of-control virus, with no obvious remedy in sight.

Moreover, as in Victorian Ireland, housing and land rights have become subjected to aggressive external forces representing vast empires of property wealth. Just as the Irish peasantry faced a system of agents and enforcers, so too do today’s tenants facing eviction often find a wall of intermediaries separating them from an invisible, often absentee landlord.

This phenomenon intensifies the individualization and declassing of the housing experience. Unlike earlier anti-eviction campaigns, it appears that many today are detached from any sense of collective working-class organization. This is partly a failure of the labor movement, which consistently fails to take housing struggles seriously, but is also combined with a degree of hostility on the part of post-Occupy social movements toward organized labor.

As ever, the key question is the ability of the campaign to convince people it’s worth getting involved — that winning is possible. Fighting evictions is essential and can bring important victories. But if it appears purely reactive and overly individualistic, there are real limits to how far it can go, particularly given the scale of what we could be facing in coming months.

It is possible that we’ll see a displacement on a similar scale as the mass clearances of rural Ireland (and other British colonies). Of course, the social and ethnic cleansing of chosen urban areas has already been advanced, but it would be naïve to think that, amidst all the speculation about the future of cities, trans-Atlantic Trumpian forces will not see an opportunity for the further restructuring and exploitation of our homes and workplaces.

That’s why resisting evictions must go hand in hand with a broader attack on the capitalist system that created both the housing crisis and the health crisis. Writing about Ireland in 1882, Karl Marx referred to the importance of maintaining dynamic pressure on liberal reformism to keep people in their homes, while also raising the more fundamental questions of ownership and control of the land. Establishment politicians, whether in the Labour, Democratic, or Fianna Parties, will never wage a land war. But we must do so.