A Union for Tenants

Tenant militancy in Gothenburg as a historical example

Keywords: boycott, history of Gothenburg, labour history, rent strike, tenants’ union

The Swedish Union of Tenants is known today as perhaps the strongest tenants’ organisation in the world, with an established institutional role in the rent-setting system and a mandate to collectively bargain rents. What is relatively unknown, however, is that this system emerged out of a period of widespread rent struggle during the mid-war period. This was especially noteworthy in the city of Gothenburg. During the 19th Century, Gothenburg had become an important industrial centre and its population multiplied tenfold. Together with other groups, such as clerks and small shop owners, the workers formed a distinct popular class culture with organisational expressions and collective mobilisation that changed the social and political order of the city forever. One of these expressions was the tenants’ unions, seen as a sort of trade unions for the rented home. Tenants’ unions advocated protective legislation for tenants and confronted landlords, both with legal means and with militant methods such as rent strikes and blockades. This militancy reached its highest levels from 1932 to 1937. The collective mobilisation and organisation of the tenants altered the power relations between landlords and tenants, which can be seen both in the concessions made by landlords in numerous conflicts and in the fact that the landlords altered their organisations to defend themselves against the tenant offensive. By the time of the rent control act of 1942, centralised collective bargaining had been largely implemented and the collective organisations had become established and recognised interest organisations. The historical relationship between organised labour and tenants, and the effect of tenant organising on the rental market, are still under-researched subjects. This article is intended to both explore the historic rise of the tenants’ movement and to show the very real historical conflict between independent grassroot organisations and political parties in housing and labour history.

Hannes Rolf has a Ph.D. in social welfare and is affiliated with the Center for Civil Society Research at Ersta Sköndal Bräcke University College, Stockholm and with the Institute for Housing and Urban Research at Uppsala University. His research areas are mainly political history and social movement history, and he is especially interested in the history of the labour movement and housing. Hannes’s thesis was a study of the Swedish tenants’ movement in the late 19th and early 20th century.

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