A banner reading "we won't stop 'til we win" flies over the Whitworth building at the University of Manchester. It's a neo-gothic building with a bright blue sky with fluffy white clouds above it.

Rent strikers at The University of Manchester (UoM) have been given a show of solidarity by 10,860 fellow students, almost a quarter of the entire student body. In an official referendum, only open to UoM students, 97% of respondents voted in favour of the strikers' demands. The 350 members of the rent strike are calling for more students to join the movement in time for the next payment date on 20 April.

The referendum results have been released after a challenging week for the strikers who were forcibly removed from their occupation of the Simon Building on Wednesday 22 March. Bailiffs from the National Eviction Team broke down the occupiers’ door at 5.20am and told the strikers to pack up all of their stuff and leave. Deciding not to leave the building voluntarily, the occupiers were carried out by bailiffs. Supporters kept their spirits up, defiantly singing rounds of “solidarity forever.”

Two days after eviction, rent strikers broke into UoM security offices and stayed overnight in a stunt which sends a message to UoM senior management that they have not been disheartened by the intimidation tactics of recent days. Their banner read: ‘this is just a warning’.

On Saturday, the strikers and supporters picketed The John Owens Building with banners and flares and erected a banner which read ‘UoM: you have been warned’ on one side and ‘we won’t stop til we win’ on the other.

A supporter of the rent strike, known as T, was one of the occupiers evicted by the bailiffs. They say the decision by UoM to choose force over consultation “shows that any of the university’s claims that they care about student welfare is just surface level.

“The first time we got into a room with senior management was when we were in the courtroom, whilst they were getting us a possession order. And that says a lot about how they see us.” 

“We’re not asking for something majorly radical. We just want basic cost of living support.”

A rent striker, who goes by the alias Grey to protect themselves from disciplinary action, says if they could speak to the Vice Chancellor of UoM, Nancy Rothwell, they would give her the list of their demands and say: “if you actually care about students, then do something about it. Because so many students are thinking about dropping out of university because they can’t afford it.”

The group’s demands are:

  • A 30% reduction on future payments for students in UoM halls and a 30% refund on the October payment
  • UoM to commit to not raising rent prices for at least three years and make 40% of student halls affordable according to NUS definition, within three years
  • A promise from UoM not to take disciplinary action on rent strikers

Grey works two jobs to sustain themselves through the cost-of-living crisis and has struggled to afford their food shop. Priced at £167 per week, Grey’s accommodation comes with a mouldy shower, faulty ethernet port and no communal social space. The mould has had a deteriorating effect on Grey’s asthma condition as the university ignored their reports of maintenance issues.

“I’m spending weeks on the phone, on hold to the university to get through to someone. And it’s this constant process repeating where any issue comes up and I have to go through 20 or 30 different people and then usually at the end I don’t even get the action that I need. I’ve got a friend who doesn’t have a working fridge. They have to buy milk and drink it really quickly because the university hasn’t replaced it yet.

“The effect of campaigning is far less [stressful] than the effect of living in the university halls.”

Grey says the group have been mindful of ‘activist burnout’ and have taken measures to cope with the mental strain. When occupying the Simon Building, the group took shifts and even set up a community kitchen to help each other with access to food. During the eviction, chants of “solidarity forever” were sung in support of each others’ sacrifice.

T adds: “It’s taken a toll on people. In occupations, you don’t get much sleep. We had 15 people in there today and having that solidarity, feeling like you’re with other people has also been majorly inspiring.”

Looking ahead, both Grey and T say the experience of the eviction hasn’t deterred them from continuing to strike.

T says: “Hopefully it won’t go on for too much longer. But I don’t see them giving in too easily quite yet. So we’re definitely going to keep taking action.”

Messages of solidarity have also been given to the rent strikers by workers unions. A Unite Manchester branch released an official statement which highlighted the successful strike of 2020 which won a 30% reduction in rent prices during the first semester affected by Covid lockdowns.

The University and College Union have supported the rent strike throughout the movement, attending each others’ protests and offering financial support. Grey says: “It’s really important to us that we’re standing with the UCU because we have the same battle. Both groups are fighting against a university that is exploiting its staff and students to make profit, and to make a business out of a learning institution.”

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Featured Image: UoM Rent Strike

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  • Eddie Toomer-McAlpine

    Eddie is from Manchester and will be starting an MA Multimedia Journalism course this year at Manchester Metropolitan University. He has a background in music, poetry and theatre and is interested in how the arts can help to strengthen our communities. Eddie also likes to read and write about local working class history and natural science.

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