As we’ve now become accustomed to hearing, COVID-19 is the worst pandemic in over a century, when “Spanish” influenza tore through a war-weary world in several waves across 1918-1919. Fifty million or more lives were claimed worldwide by the flu, close to twenty million people died on the Indian Subcontinent alone. Varying estimates have between 1-5% of the global population losing their lives, dwarfing the number who died in combat over the course of the calamitous war with which it had overlapped. The illness was characterised by the rapidity with which it took hold. What’s more, it could be transmitted before vectors showed any sign of symptoms. “Spanish” influenza disproportionately killed young adults who accounted for more than half of deaths overall, with pregnant women being particularly cruel and common victims.
The catastrophe of influenza joined a world already on fire. Not only did the war rage on till the end of 1918, revolution was fighting for its survival in Russia as domestic and foreign forces tried to crush it. Anticolonial movements against British rule intensified in Egypt, India, and Ireland. Postwar attempts at social revolution would ultimately be crushed in Germany, Hungary and elsewhere. The class war also raged in New York City throughout the height of the pandemic and it is there that we will turn our attention.
New York flu
New York was, by 1918, the second most populous city in the world, behind only London. The city suffered its first peak of the virus in the Spring and a much worse one in the Autumn, part of a deadly second wave globally. Both officials and the press were complacent about the outbreak, their primary focus was on keeping up morale for the war effort. Government and media campaigns abounded, encouraging patriots not to allow fear of the flu to defeat them. The city’s health officer, Royal Copeland, initially saw no danger in the epidemic, despite New York being the country’s largest port and main entry and exit point for US troops. Copeland was confident the illness would not affect “a well-nourished people”, disregarding the fact that many impoverished New Yorkers were malnourished.
On October 12, in an event that would become emblematic of official complacency and recklessness, President Woodrow Wilson led a parade of 25,000 people down Fifth Avenue to boost morale and encourage Americans to invest in war bonds. Dissenting voices warned at the time that public gatherings such as this would wreak havoc but they were ignored. Infection and fatalities would reach their peak later that month and a third wave would strike that continued into the new year.
Measures were eventually put in place to mitigate the spread of infection. Some businesses and public places closed. Elsewhere, opening times were staggered in an attempt to reduce crowding. Public funerals were banned with only spouses permitted to attend, though schools remained open. New York City’s official death toll was 33,000 people, but the real number is thought to be substantially higher.
Early twentieth century New York was a crowded hub of working class struggle, albeit one largely divided up into ethnically separate neighbourhoods. Labour unions and socialist parties formed and grew, radical newspapers (of multiple languages) were read widely and workplace strikes were organised across several industries. Living and working conditions were characterised by horrendous overcrowding and a lack of basic safety, illustrated most of all by the tragic fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist factory in 1911 that killed 146 garment workers, mostly Eastern European Jewish and Italian women and girls.
These newer immigrant communities would come to dominate the organised workers movement in New York in this era, flooding into its labour unions and forming new tenant unions. One “immigrant” community that could not integrate in the same way was the massive internal “Great Migration” of African Americans from the South into Northern cities like New York, massively increasing Black populations already resident. Black southerners, escaping the lynching and debt peonage of the Jim Crow South, had also been lured by promises of good war-time jobs. But they were greeted by racial segregation and white violence, showcased in its extreme in 1919’s “Red Summer” of anti-Black pogroms across America. The era of the rent strike, the gaining of suffrage for (white) women, the birth of American Communism and the brief burst of support for Garveyism was also the era of the meteoric rise of the second Ku Klux Klan, even more popular in the North than in the South.
The rent strikers of the influenza period were by no means starting from scratch. There had been many pre-war rent strikes. The largest, in 1907-8, was according to the New York Times, the largest the city had ever seen. It lasted several weeks and was led by working class Jewish women and girls, particularly a 16-year-old factory worker and socialist named Pauline Newman. The strike had been largely limited to Jewish majority neighbourhoods of the Lower East Side or Harlem in Manhattan, or Williamsburg and Brownsville in Brooklyn.
Pre-war strikes saw few victories but New York’s housing crisis wasn’t going anywhere. Indeed US entry into the war in 1917 only deepened it, bringing about a substantial redirection of resources and production towards the war effort in the US economy as well as those of its trading partners. House-building ground to a halt due to price inflation of materials and the cost of labour, while the notion of public housing remained anathema. Housing shortages combined with increasing demand put landlords in a position of even greater power.
rent was gobbling up more than half of most workers’ incomes...which often meant taking food out of their children’s mouths.
Tenant-landlord antagonism deepens
“If you don’t like it, you can move.” This was the common refrain of the New York landlord. Landlords were figures of hate for many, habitually known as “hogs” and “sharks,” or referenced with the racialising trope of “Shylock.” The scales of justice in a capitalist society are always tipped towards the protection of private property and those who hold it and it was egregiously so in war-time New York. Courts and police appeared to exist solely to support landlords and their incredible power over the lives of their tenants. A landlord could categorise their tenant as “undesirable” at any point and have strong legal grounds to remove them with no evidence required. Some would capriciously choose not to rent to tenants with children. Others felt emboldened to pass judgement over tenants’ spending and lifestyles, telling them they could afford rent better if they didn’t spend so much on eggs or if they stopped having children.
War-time New York saw extremely cold winters which were exacerbated by coal shortages. Coal and bread riots hit the city towards the end of the war as fuel and food prices soared. Jewish housewives led boycotts against shopkeepers who jacked up prices. Tenants accused landlords of hoarding coal and withholding hot water. But the antagonism was about more than a temporary coal shortage. Tenants were embittered by years of ill treatment, bullying, and failures to make repairs or improvements to apartments. Impoverished families – dealing with regular bouts of unemployment and fathers and sons at war – were stretched to breaking point by landlords’ rent hikes. As many can identify with today, rent was gobbling up more than half of most workers’ incomes, forcing them to cut back elsewhere, which often meant taking food out of their children’s mouths.
Rent hikes were being levied across the board, often multiple rent hikes in very short order so that in some cases rents had increased by 90-100 per cent or more in the space of less than a year. Tenants' first solution was to move frequently, constantly trying to find cheaper neighbourhoods to avoid the hikes. But rents seemed to be going up everywhere. Tenants felt pushed into risky rent strikes, that they had no other choice. They certainly saw no protection from the courts, clogged with housing cases in which judges invariably sided with the landlord.
Rent strikes exploded into life in 1918, becoming the primary weapon of a wave of tenant struggles over the next three years. One activist is quoted in The New York Call, the newspaper of the Socialist Party, rallying a tenants’ meeting in the Bronx by saying, “they cannot dispossess thousands!” The scale of the housing struggle increased by orders of magnitude compared to the pre-war rent strikes and this cycle of struggles would leave behind organisational footprints that lasted. Robert M. Fogelson has written that “between May 1918 and April 1920, the heyday of tenant activism, there were hundreds, if not thousands, of rent strikes in New York.” Fogelson compares the “heyday” to the pre-war strikes: “the postwar rent strikes attracted far more tenants – tens and hundreds of thousands, as opposed to thousands - and affected far more buildings - hundreds and maybe even thousands as opposed to dozens.”
This was due in part to the generalising of the struggle across ethnic lines with Italian-, Irish-, Polish-, German- and African-American tenants all contributing to the viral spread of rent strikes. Giving us an idea of the scale of both evictions and the struggles ranged against them, The New York Call commented in April 1918 that “it is almost an unusual sight to pass a street without furniture in front of a tenement house.” The paper went on: “entire blocks are being organized. On almost every block there is a procession of women wheeling baby carriages back and forth in front of a ‘struck’ house.”
Yes, this was a movement overwhelmingly led by militant working class immigrant women. Housewives were typically in charge of household budgets and childcare. As many of their husbands and older children were either at work or at war, they were engaged in a desperate battle to preserve the means of subsistence for themselves and their families. It was women who decided collectively when to initiate rent strikes and how to organise them. It was women who maintained picket lines outside “struck” buildings and drove up huge turnouts for court support. They held street corner rallies and mass meetings, forming new tenant leagues. “Struck” apartment blocks were festooned with red flags and signs proclaiming, in Yiddish and English, “this house is on strike!” On pickets women had to stand up to violence and abuse from police and landlords, while marshalling their own persuasion, intimidation, ostracisation and occasional attacks on any “scabs” among the tenants or any prospective new ones coming to view apartments. All this while doing childcare.
The roots of solidarity, key to any movement, were watered and helped to grow as new tenants were recruited to strikes and to unions, and local support was garnered from other tenement blocks and small businesses each time yet another building came out on strike. Sympathy strikes began to mushroom from tenants in other buildings. Strikers tried to demand solidarity from unionised “schleppers” (Yiddish slang word for bailiffs) or craftsmen working on buildings, imploring them, only occasionally with success, not to work on buildings, or help to evict people from them, where tenants (and fellow trade unionists) were on rent strike. “Doubling up” became common practice as evicted strikers immediately moved in with those who still had roofs over their heads, all squeezing into the tiniest of apartments. Tenant unions proliferated throughout Manhattan, Brooklyn and the Bronx. Such organisation, often connected to the Socialist Party or the new Communist Party (formed in 1919), was sorely needed to combat the collective organisation of the landlord class. The Socialist Party also commonly provided legal support for strikers.
Strikers faced often brutal police violence on picket lines, laced with anti-Communism and often accompanied by xenophobia and antisemitism. The NYPD Commissioner at the time remarked: “If you don’t like your rents, get out. If you are not satisfied with our system of rents go back where you came from.” “Schleppers” could also be abrasive and careless in carrying out evictions, unceremoniously dumping tenants’ belongings in the street. Some landlords hired thugs to beat up troublesome striking tenants and to break up pickets. Landlords also organised tenant blacklists. They wanted to humiliate strikers and to make examples out of trouble-makers.
Amidst such an onslaught, rent strikers could only fight back. Bricks, stones, and bottles were thrown at police and “schleppers” to fight off evictions, while Brooklyn housewives “poured boiling water from tea kettles on those who arrived to carry out evictions.” Threats, intimidation and violence against landlords and their families became commonplace. Some tenants threatened their landlords by claiming to have mob connections, while others “beat and scratched” theirs themselves. One tenant even pulled a gun on their landlord. Landlords were burned in effigy, while one theatrical group of tenants carried an empty coffin around the streets with their landlord’s name daubed on it. The rent strike movement was making it unsafe for landlords to walk the streets. So much so that many hired bodyguards.
Some tenants engaged in property damage before their eviction to hurt their landlord in the pocket. Some instead chose to attack the landlord’s home directly. Keeping strikes going as long as possible was the order of the day. Strikers tried to delay evictions to cost landlords as much as possible, forcing them to fork out legal fees, pay “schleppers”, etc. Landlords paid their taxes and mortgage payments on their properties out of their rental income so strikers hoped landlords would opt to shelve rent hikes or even reduce rents rather than incur the costs of a long, drawn out dispute. Some strikes won, others didn’t. Most were resolved in court.
For some this struggle had revolutionary horizons and aimed to confront the very commodification of housing as such. One Socialist Party candidate at the time explained, “the Socialist Party does not say you should pay less rent. It says you shouldn’t pay any rent.” This was a period of intensifying militancy when thousands of workers were radicalised. Others’ aims were more short-term, a desperate bid for respite from evictions and eye-watering rents. Landlords, judges, politicians and police blamed strikes on “Bolsheviki,” “outside agitators” and other “un-American” influences. “Immigrants” in general were assumed to be responsible for radicalism and deportation was commonly invoked as a solution to disorder. Indeed, the “Red Scare” of 1919 saw the federal government deport thousands of radicals as part of coordinated repression and violence against anarchists and the IWW.
As a direct result of this cycle of housing struggles, rent controls were introduced in the 1920s, though public housing wasn’t. This wave of tenant activism, amidst a deadly pandemic, had helped to bring about an improvement in basic living conditions, guaranteeing tenants access to heating and reducing the capricious powers of the landlord. Tenants had tipped the balance of class forces to a degree that forced concessions from the existing political system and substantially reduced average rents. The struggle itself, as the Black socialist journal The Messenger put it in July 1919, was “teach[ing] the people that the land and houses will not disappear if landlords should die.”