Over the next year, Greater Manchester Tenants Union will be organising a series of exchanges with our sister unions in Ireland (CATU) and London (LRU), to facilitate growing links between our three organisations.
This partnership was born out of conversations that emerged in November 2022 in Athens, when delegations from Britain and Ireland's tenants movement attended the annual conference of the European Action Coalition for Housing and the Right to the City.
In this blog, we will go over some of the themes that emerged from the Athens conference; how delegates came to the conclusion that we needed an exchange of our own; and how the exchange is shaping up so far.
Athens, November 2022
The conference was held in the neighbourhood of Exarcheia. This famous neighbourhood, created to house the workers who built much of the monumental architecture of 19th-century Athens, has been a hotbed of radicalism ever since.
It's home to the Polytechnia, the university where the student uprising of 1973 took place which led to the downfall of the military junta, as well as the HQ of many anarchist, communist and socialist organisations. In 2008 it was the police murder of 15-year-old Alexandros Grigoropoulos in Exarcheia that sparked uprisings across Greece, and kickstarted the wave of protest against austerity in the aftermath of the crash. In the last decade too, the neighbourhood has been the base of a remarkable solidarity network of squatted buildings that have provided an initial point of support for refugees and asylum seekers arriving in Greece.
Yet today, Exarcheia is a neighbourhood under threat. Since the coming to power of the right wing New Democracy party in 2019, the national government has issued a heavy crackdown on the squats and political organisations in the neighbourhood. Spearheaded by police violence, the government has evicted many squats. It has also walled off the central square - once a meeting point for people in the neighbourhood - in preparation for the construction of an extension to the metro line to the neighbourhood. This infrastructure has attracted significant opposition, with residents fearing that the arrival of the metro will accelerate gentrification to a point where it will be irresistible.
It is striking how in Exarcheia the processes that we see unfold in our own cities of gentrification, tourist-led neighbourhood change, evictions and police violence, seem that much closer to the surface. The tension in the atmosphere is palpable, as armed police stand in a 24-hour watches on street corners and engage in pitched battles with anarchists. Visiting the neighbourhood forces us to reflect on our own cities - are ours really so different, or are the underlying structures essentially the same?
In this febrile atmosphere, delegates from across Europe met to discuss the issues of the day. Items on the agenda included the cost of living crisis, campaigns like Don't Pay, assessments of recent successes and failures of the European renters movement - including the famous Berlin campaign for remunicipalisation of ex-public housing. Issues very familiar to us in Manchester such as Airbnb, evictions, privatisation of public land and luxury developments found their parallels elsewhere. We saw how our particular struggles here in Manchester are part of a much broader fight over our cities between capital and the working class that is unfolding across the continent.
Why we need an exchange
Delegates from Britain and Ireland were also faced with the uniqueness of their own situation. Our comrades from Europe were shocked to find the weakness of protections for private renters here - with 6 month tenancy the standard minimum in the UK. And if our situation as renters was among the worst, the response from the movement was among the most organisationally advanced. The organisational form of the 'Tenants Union' as represented by the delegates from Britain and Ireland finds few parallels in Europe - with the notable exception of Spain, and the Sindicat de Llogaters, and Sweden which has both a national Tenants Union, and a new, grassroots splinter version - 'Ort Till Ort', which translates roughly as 'Block to Block'. Elsewhere, membership organisations of tenants were not the norm, rather the campaigns represented were looser affinity groups of activists.
In light of this, our three organisations agreed to work towards creating an exchange programme over 2023. We felt there would be significant benefit for each organisation from the process of visiting each other's cities and learning from each other's organisational strategies. Additionally, our longer term goal of strengthening coordination between aspects of the Britain and Ireland renters movement can only be reached through on the ground exchanges. With Manchester fast replicating the dynamics of both London and Dublin's housing crises, we believe now is the time to be organising this project.
How the exchange will work
The exchange will take place across this year. The first leg will be in Dublin, where CATU will host over the May Day bank holiday weekend (28th April - 1st May). The second leg will be in the summer, where we will host in Manchester. We are planning a filme launch, a day long political school, a walking tour and much more! And then completing the year, LRU will host in London, some time in the autumn. We will host over the weekend of the 16th-18th June, and the LRU-hosted London leg is to be confirmed!