The Politics of the Anti-Water Charges Campaign – Part 1

anti-water-charges-campaigns-protests-4-390x285I was sitting in a small café at 12 o’clock having a cup of tea and a bacon sandwich, with customers at only two other tables.  A group of four elderly people were talking at one while three middle aged men were talking at the other.  Both were discussing the water charges, their opposition to them and the march they were going to join in one hour’s time.

I joined a feeder march at Pearse Street that went up Dame Street, up to York Street, where it collected some more supporters, and then went round to St Stephen’s Green to stop  a few minutes outside the Dail to tell the Government that they “could stick their water meters up their arse”.  Even the Guards on duty outside had a smirk.  The thousand or so then took off to join the main rally outside the GPO in O’Connell Street where a number of other marches converged.

The demonstration was not as large as that of a few weeks before, which was estimated as 100,000, but this time there were dozens of other marches being held right across the State in cities and towns big and small.  Estimates are that in total the numbers were greater – 150,000.

On 11 October the apparently sudden scale of the opposition to water charges was reinforced by the victory in the Dublin by-election of the Anti-Austerity Alliance candidate, who defeated the firm favourite from Sinn Fein because that party had done a little too much talking out of both sides of its mouth and was seen as insufficiently opposed to the charges.

Sinn Fein posters were in evidence on the march on Saturday and it was noticeable that flags and banners from other republican groups were also in evidence.  The left groups were more peripheral than is usual in such marches and I didn’t see one trade union banner, although I could easily have missed it.

The demonstration was overwhelmingly working class, composed of what many on the left call ‘ordinary people’, although I’ve never considered myself extraordinary for example.  The other noticeable thing was the folk songs sung from the stage, the references to James Connolly and 1916 and the general referencing to Ireland’s rebel history.  It is as if, at least sections of the Irish working class go to sleep for a few years and that when they periodically wake up they look back to their greatest struggles and leaders, when their intervention into Irish history appeared to promise a new future. That hasn’t really been the case for a long time, at least in the South.  A Northern banner in solidarity might have highlighted the unfinished business.

While I was in the café I was reading ‘The Irish Times’ and in particular an article by Eamonn McCann entitled ‘Public finally take to streets as water proves a tax too far’.  I’m sure he didn’t write the headline so it is no criticism of him to point out that demonstrations in Dublin of 100,000 against austerity have already taken place over the last five years or so.  They were organised by the trade union movement and the demonstrators were betrayed by the leaders of that same movement, as McCann alluded to in his article.

So what makes this movement different, if it is?  Firstly there is a view that it could succeed, in fact an argument can be made that it is already succeeding.  The Government parties have already responded by concessions in the budget to lessen the impact of the charges and did so in such a hurry they messed it up.   The newspapers, radio and television news are full of reports of the panicked reaction by Government politicians, especially with an election around the corner; hundreds of thousands of registration forms sent by the new Irish Water company have not been returned and the deadline for returning them has been extended to the end of the month.

Opinion polls confirm the unpopularity of the charge and the effect of this on the popularity of the Governing parties.  Labour is already a dead duck and Fine Gael support has fallen while support for Sinn Fein and ‘independents’ has grown.  The new company is particularly disliked because of the millions of Euros being spent on consultants for a service the state has been providing for years (the same thing happened in the North when Northern Ireland Water was created).  Bonuses are also to be paid to Irish Water staff with those at the top getting much larger amounts than those at the bottom, with the added insult from the company that they continue to peddle the line that they aren’t really bonuses.

Irish workers facing these costs believe that they are already paying for water so in effect they are being asked to pay twice and for huge management consultant bills and bonuses on top.

But previous, more outrageous decisions have failed to generate resistance that actually looks like it might win.  The decision to bail out the banks, costing over €64 billion, dwarfs the water charges in scale, with bankers hardly more popular than the Executives of Irish Water – and bankers’ bonuses have certainly been larger.   So what has changed?

Going back to Eamonn McCann’s article in ‘The Irish Times’:  he says that paying for a substance so natural sparks a particular anger.  But this isn’t really the case – in the café one guy was saying that he would be prepared to pay for water, but not twice and not for the consultants and bonuses.  This, I think, is the widespread view.  People are aware that they have to pay for water and sewerage services and they know this because it is obvious.

The headline over the article by Eamonn McCann in ‘The Irish Times’ said ‘Public finally take to streets as water proves a tax too far’; and that is the main reason for the resistance – it is one step too far.  As one of the leaflets given out at the demonstration put it -“No more.”

The whole austerity offensive, austerity budget after austerity budget, the state effectively bankrupt, posed the question of how to resist – what to do?  And resistance had to have some idea of an overall alternative.  The Irish working class didn’t know what such an alternative would be and didn’t buy the one sold by most of the Left.  I have examined this alternative in a series of earlier posts, for example here, here and here.

On the other hand workers are now being told that economic growth is not only on the way but has actually arrived.  Unemployment has fallen and tax cuts are promised while cuts in services will end.  Things look like they may have bottomed out.  They don’t think that they need to pay this unfair bill and what’s more they think that there is something very practical that they can do to stop it.

They won’t get their water turned off if they don’t pay.  As a commercial semi-state company the money can’t be taken off them through deductions to their salaries and wages.  Sure there is the possibility of court cases but cases against hundreds of thousands?  Even reduction of water pressure to the home is not so easily achieved and possible to prevent with direct, mass action.  In other words it is beatable and the disarray of the Government has demonstrated to many that it can be beaten.

To be continued

Thousands demonstrate for abortion rights in Ireland

DSC_0185In August it was revealed that a young rape victim had been denied the abortion she requested while apparently being led to believe that this was possible.  It came after the horrific death two years ago of Savita Halappanaver who died when she was refused an abortion.

Yesterday thousands demonstrated in Dublin to demand for abortion rights and repeal of 8th amendment to the Irish State’s constitution which enshrines this denial of women’s rights.

The march was organised by the Abortion Rights Campaign and was mainly composed of young people, overwhelmingly young women, who represent a new generation that is not prepared to quietly accept the denial of the most fundamental of rights to control their own bodies.  They are aware that increasingly they speak for the majority of people in the State and that the barrier to the vindication of their rights is the State itself, behind which stands the reactionary forces long associated with the Catholic Church.

The leaflet given out at the demonstration by its organisers pointed out that the Irish state has the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe.  That if a woman seeks a termination it can only be on the grounds that there is an imminent and substantial risk to the woman’s life, including suicide.  Rape is not legal grounds for an abortion, nor is the fact that a foetus will not survive outside the womb and the restrictive grounds that do exist require an assessment by up to 6 doctors.

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Many of the demonstrators pulled wheelie luggage with tags for LHR and LPL, recording the fact that 159,000 women have travelled to Britain for an abortion since 1980. The latest legislation by the State is not a solution to this infamous ‘Irish solution to an Irish problem’ – the temporary export of women to Britain.

The demonstration signposted the need for a new campaign to repeal the 8th amendment on the 30th anniversary of its passing, with speakers noting that most of those attending would have had no opportunity to participate in this decision.

The repeated exposure of the criminal abuse by the Catholic Church has robbed this body of much influence but it continues to retain its power though its alliance with the state and many demonstrators demanded their separation.

The campaign and others have correctly decided that the demand for repeal of this part of the State’s constitution is not a policy of reliance and dependency on the state but an effort to remove shackles on their rights and that direct, first-hand action has and will continue to be taken to provide women with real choice during unwanted pregnancies.

 

What way forward for the Dublin Bus workers?

482013-dublin-bus-strike-members-of-siptu-and-3-630x484In August drivers at Dublin Bus went on strike in opposition to yet another proposed cost cutting exercise in the company totaling €11m.  Subsequently a group comprising the Government, the Irish Congress of Trade Unions and the employers’ body IBEC, joined together to carry out an investigation into why Labour Court recommendations about cost cutting proposals had been consistently rejected.

From a workers’ point of view it is difficult to know where to start in responding to such an initiative.  ICTU joined with those seeking to cut terms and conditions in order to investigate why workers hadn’t done as they were told by management.  It might have been thought that unions were there to see how workers could defend conditions but the combination involved of bureaucrats, bosses and government have been engaged in a conspiracy against the decisions of the workers.

This is dressed up as concern for the drivers themselves –  the Minister for Transport Leo Varadkar and the Minister of State Alan Kelly have said that the investigators had worked independently “in an honest attempt to address the concerns of drivers”.  But addressing the concerns of drivers for these independent experts means that “We ask the drivers to agree to the final proposals.”  In other words the drivers are to do as they are told.

And if they don’t the workers are threatened – “We are clear, however, that the outlook for Dublin Bus and its employees is very stark if this final effort does not succeed.”

To appreciate what ICTU has done it is best to consider what it didn’t do.

ICTU didn’t commit itself to an investigation to ascertain if the claims by management about the financial position of Dublin Bus were correct.

ICTU didn’t investigate why the major concessions made by drivers in at least two previous productivity/cost-cutting agreements have failed to resolve the company’s financial crises despite management assurances to the contrary. Why are they threatened by yet another cost-cutting exercise?  Has management lied about the promised effects of previous cuts or has it just been incompetent in developing a robust plan for the company?

ICTU didn’t investigate whether the support of bus services by the State was comparable to that in other states, whether the Government had any coherent transport plan for the capital or had taken adequate account of the role that transport plays in providing the infrastructure necessary for an efficient and prosperous society.  Whether instead it had taken a narrow view of the company’s profitability without regard to wider benefits to society.

ICTU didn’t seek to collaborate with all the unions involved to determine a strategy that could assert and defend the bus drivers’ rights.

ICTU didn’t seek to rally together the bus unions, wider union movement and the users and potential users of the buses to initiate a campaign for an efficient, sustainable and decent bus service.

ICTU could have done lots of things and had plenty of alternatives but it decided to conspire with the bosses’ organisation and State to threaten the drivers. And it did it in plain sight.

When you think of it this way the actions of ICTU are shocking.  But they don’t shock and they don’t surprise and they don’t do these things because workers have long got used to the fact that this is the way ICTU behaves.  So registering anger and pointing out that ICTU are engaging in an act of betrayal is hardly enough.

Do socialists have an alternative?

The first and most important thing to understand is that socialists have no alternative unless workers decide to take matters into their own hands.  The first step is therefore that workers fight to win ownership and control of their own struggles through ownership and control of their own trade unions.

In so far as the steps that ICTU should have taken are political ones, workers need to create their own political party.  This of course is a longer term requirement only in the sense that it can realistically be achieved only over a number of years.  And while the building of a genuinely democratic and militant trade union movement is also not an immediate prospect it is one that is immediately posed.  In other words the fight to create it is always present, which means we must fight for it now.

These should be central tasks of Irish socialists and outside of them the debate about unity of the Left is pretty well irrelevant.  If the Left wants to unite to build itself, unless this is a task to be achieved through the organisation of the working class itself, it will be sectarian.  Left wing unity and political sectarianism are not mutually exclusive.

On the other hand genuine unity around such a task, achieved through democratic organisation, which alone can achieve it, would act as a beacon, however small, for workers in struggle.

In order to create it however we need to ask why we need such a movement.  Why is the current movement inadequate, even treacherous, and what would a new one do?  We need these answers in order to persuade workers to undertake the task of creating one.

So how do the ideas of socialism relate to the predicament facing Dublin’s bus workers?

First we should recognise that their repeated willingness to oppose management’s plans is the indispensable basis for any alternative.

Secondly we should inform workers that militant strike action by them will not be enough.  As Marx and Engels repeatedly stated, strikes are often provoked by bosses in order to facilitate their own plans.  Often they serve to save money, implement lock-outs and close workplaces.  In Dublin Bus they will undoubtedly be used to blame workers for the financial difficulties the company is in. Strike action is insufficient and is not the only action that can be taken.

Do workers have an alternative solution of their own that could be put forward?

The first step in creating such an alternative would be to establish the real financial position of the company, which is what ICTU should have done.  This would include an assessment of the support given to Dublin Bus by the state.

The second is to establish what sort of service should be provided and how it should be delivered.

The third is to determine whether the workers themselves can offer their own model of ownership to deliver this sort of service.  Privatisation and continued state ownership both offer the same prospect of cuts in workers’ conditions.  Reliance on state subsidy should be recognised as a weakness in the workers’ position.  Dependence on the state, the ally and protector of the bosses, is reliance on precisely those that are insistent that the cuts be implemented.  That these cuts must be made prior to privatisation is demonstration that both the bosses and state recognise that it is the latter which is best placed to reduce workers’ conditions.

The fourth is to publicise and win support among other workers and the travelling public.  Other forms of action could be considered to achieve this such as providing ‘free travel’ days.  Only a campaign structure going outside the confines of trade unionism could make such a campaign a reality.

It is no great feat of criticism to describe these steps as schematic or abstract.  Only a really existing movement could make them anything else.  Schemes, or plans, are there to be proposed and debated, discarded or modified as real, active workers determine.  They sometimes abstract from the concrete realities of the situation, which give abstractions content, and become simply propaganda, usually when those with ideas lack the power to implement them.  Propaganda however is almost everything when you have little else, which is where socialism in Ireland is at.  Ideas are critical when an idea of how to fight back is the element that is missing from struggle.

The point of the commentary above is to inform workers and socialists that a certain understanding, class consciousness, is required to see any way out of the struggle that the bus workers find themselves engaged in.

One thing is for sure; the answer to the bus workers needs has been proved not to reside with management, the state or with ICTU.  The second has yet to be proved – that it resides with the workers themselves and in the strength and solidarity that they can muster.

Thousands march in Dublin against Austerity

Thousands of working people from around the country marched in Dublin yesterday against austerity.  The demonstration had been called by the Dublin Council of Trade Unions and by other groups.  While not on the scale of the earlier demonstrations in 2008 and 2009 it was nevertheless a large protest against the government.  That it was smaller should not be surprising since in the meantime the people of the state have voted in a referendum, reluctantly of course, to support austerity.  The Garda initially estimated that there were 18,000 on the demonstration and later reduced that number to 10,000.  In my own view, at its height, the former figure was closer to the truth.  In this post I want to give my own impressions of the demonstration and in a further post look at some of the issues raised by it.

The demonstration was very diverse with lots of banners and placards from many different organisations and places around the State.  This diversity was not unfortunately united around any very clear or coherent perspective of opposition or alternative.  If it had a unifying theme it was simply one of opposition to austerity and opposition to the Government.  However what the demonstration did show was the potential to build some sort of opposition.  Unfortunately the organisers offered no means for those who might attend to either meet beforehand or afterwards to discuss what an opposition might look like, how it would come together to organise itself and on what policies it might unite.

In the age of the internet it should not be impossible to register groups and individuals’ interest in a demonstration beforehand and call a conference to discuss the demonstration and what everyone attending might want to come out of it.  On the other hand the demonstration itself could have been used to issue a single predominant leaflet advertising such a conference.  As ever these demonstrations seem to unite those prepared to protest for one afternoon, only for them to disperse and go their separate ways again.

The largest contingent on the demonstration seemed to be the Campaign Against the Household and Water Taxes (CAHWT) with banners from various localities in Dublin and other cities and towns across the State.  There were also large contingents from various trade unions including the Communication Workers Union, TEEU and SIPTU.  They were large by the standard of the demonstration but obviously not at all in relation to the size of their memberships.  The unions had obviously mobilised some of their activists but had not built more widely inside their union or across the movement.  A comrade had mentioned to me that he had looked at the union web sites that morning and it was clear that they had not sought to really build the demonstration.

The Communication Workers Union held up placards ‘for a better fairer Ireland’(while their band played the Internationale), no doubt in reference to the Irish Congress of Trade Union’s ‘better fairer way.’  Unfortunately we’ve already got this better fairer way as far as the trade union leadership is concerned.  They have negotiated a deal with the Government – the Croke Park deal – which has involved acceptance of austerity with no more than verbal opposition and the odd protest allowed.

The Croke Park deal requires that the trade unions not take industrial action and the union leaderships have ensured that this has been the case.   They seem happy enough with the present situation because they are about to go into negotiations for a Croke Park II with the Government setting a condition of a €1 billion cut.  This is proving no barrier to entering the talks.

The various community campaigns took up a large part of the demonstration and the rest by the various political parties.  Sinn Fein had the largest contingent of a political party, taking up the rear of the march.  Labour Youth also had a banner and a very small contingent.  This was brave enough given their Party’s role in Government but at least they had the decency to look a bit sheepish.  These young comrades must certainly know that their task, if they insist on staying in the Party, is to build an opposition within it to the leadership and demand it withdraw from the Government and never enter another one like it.

There were banners and members from People before Profit/SWP, Socialist Party, United Left Alliance, Communist Party, Socialist Democracy, Irish Socialist Network, Workers Solidarity Movement, Republican Sinn Fein, 32 County Sovereignty Movement, Republican Network  for Unity and Erigi – all in favour of the unity of the working class or of the nation.

There was no predominant chant from the demonstration; the odd ‘they say cutback, we say fightback’ and chants against paying the household charge.  Socialist Democracy (SD) and their supporters held up a banner at the side of the demonstration as it left Parnell square and called for ‘Labour out of Government, ICTU out of Talks’ and ‘No new Croke Park’.

A demonstration united around these demands would have been a more powerful expression of opposition.  It would have targeted the weakest part of the Government and the key task of the moment – stopping ICTU and the trade unions selling out to the austerity drive once again.  It must be clear that preventing the trade unions’ acceptance of cuts would be a real victory, and would be a first step to really opposing them.  Failure to do so would make it much more difficult to achieve this.  The many on the Left calling for a general strike should realise that such calls mean very little if the prior step of preventing ICTU from signing up to a Croke Park II is not achieved.

There were one or two calls from small parts of the demonstration for calling a general strike and in my next post I will look at this demand.  Whether or not the Socialist Democracy call had some effect I do not know but a couple of sections of the demonstration took up their point about the Labour Party.  One SD member told me that the CAWHT contingents had reacted enthusiastically to their loudhailer demands, the trade union contingents had reacted with silence and the SIPTU contingent had attempted to raise an alternative chant to drown them out.

The small Union of Students of Ireland contingent targeted Labour with –

“Ruairi Quinn – we know you

We know you’re a blueshirt too”

The Waterford CAWHT contingent had a rather more colourful take on this message –

“Eamon Gilmore – we know you

You’re a fuckin’ blueshirt too”

At the end of the demonstration what was left of the protest waited outside the GPO for the speeches.  I waited a while as well as some music was played.  I was talking to a fellow Marxist when he said he was debating whether to wait to listen to the speeches or do some shopping.  I was in the middle of telling him I was debating the same issue myself, but felt obliged to stay since I was going to cover it in the blog, when I realised that over 90 per cent of the demonstration had left and that I could leave as well without doing an injustice to most participants’ experience of the day.

It was later reported that one of the speakers, the current President of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, Eugene McGlone had joined in calls for a general strike in protest at austerity and cutbacks and that other speakers had echoed this call.  He was initially heckled when he took to the platform as was SIPTU President Jack O’Connor who said that ‘while he is not necessarily opposed to a day of action against austerity, unions would have to be able to convince the overwhelming majority of workers that the objectives they were advocating were achievable and were a better alternative.’  Sounds like a job description to me but not obviously one that Jack recognises.

The precious SIPTU leader then criticised what he called ‘fascist behaviour’ at the protest when McGlone and he were heckled by members of the crowd.  RTE reported that ‘a number of other senior trade unionists dissociated themselves from Mr McGlone’s call for a general strike – describing it as a “solo run”.’

RTE also reported that ‘the organisers of the pre-Budget anti-austerity protest have condemned what they describe as “the divisive attack” (on) Mr O’Connor (by) a section of the crowd.  In a statement, Councillor Brid Smith said: “Nobody orchestrated any heckling – it was a spontaneous outburst of anger at the inaction of union leaders.  Some highly-paid union bosses appear so much out of touch with the anger of their own grassroots that they see conspiracies everywhere,” she added.

We can be in little doubt that McGlone’s call is indeed a ‘solo-run’ but that unfortunately it is not “the inaction of union leaders” that is the problem but rather their actions that are.  In negotiating a deal with the Government which accepts austerity and agrees not to organise effective action against it they have consciously adopted the role of enforcing Government and Troika policy.  Their actions, in appearing to be concerned only with their members in the public sector, has effectively validated and supported the strategy of the Government, bosses and media of dividing workers into public versus private and making easier the imposition of austerity on both.

Attacking O’Connor is not “divisive” because these leaders have agreed a deal which supports austerity.  That he was allowed and able to speak at an anti-austerity rally shows how far Irish workers have to go to build a real opposition to it.  What is heartening is that some workers seem to appreciate this.