THE LESSONS OF THE BIN CHARGES CAMPAIGN
Basis of the Campaign
What was the basis of the Dublin ‘Bintifada’? What led thousands of working class people to oppose the law, hundreds to disobey it and dozens to go to jail as a gesture of defiance? What led the state to reel out all the repressive panoply of power to smash the protest? Socialist Party TD Joe Higgins had no doubt. On his release after 21 days in jail he had a very simple answer - double taxation.
In reaching this conclusion Joe was simply drawing on Socialist Party experience in the past. Joe himself had won his Dail seat in an earlier revolt against water charges. His parent organisation in Britain had a long history of involvement in the fight against the poll tax.
Yet in those earlier campaigns there had been general agreement between the contending parties about the nature of the struggle. In the water charge battle Fianna Fail, and everyone else, accepted that it was in fact a form of double taxation meant to replace the local rates which Fianna Fail had earlier abolished as an election gimmick. The government’s supporters did not deny the charge of double taxation – their defence was simply that it was financially necessary that the workers pay again.
In Britain Thatcher did not deny the regressive nature of the poll tax. Rather she gloried in it, fighting for a ‘fairer’ society where the poor paid as much as the rich and the ‘burden’ of local taxation was lifted from capitalist firms.
In Ireland the nature of the bin charge was itself a matter of sharp dispute. The left labelled it ‘double taxation’ – a charge sharply rejected by their opponents. The government and tax authorities pointed out that they had actually cut income tax! This was not a defence against arguments that the tax was regressive – that it favoured the rich at the expense of the poor – but it was a reasonable argument that the charge was not double taxation.
Stephen Collins, political editor of the ‘Sunday Tribune’ and a reporter with a long history of stating Fianna Fail’s unofficial position on major issues, led the counterattack with the postmodernist argument that the ‘left was the new right’ because they were demanding a cut in taxes and this would certainly mean a cut in services provided. The campaign provided no answer. This might have been OK if the argument had come only from Collins. It might even have been OK if had come only from Fianna Fail. The fact is that the same argument was taken up by ICTU leader David Beggs to openly condemn the demonstrations and support the bosses and the state. It was further taken up by SIPTU and IMPACT when they instructed their members to obey orders to act as bailiffs for the local authorities and refuse to collect from the homes of non-payers.
The campaigned failed absolutely to develop the argument beyond double taxation. It failed absolutely to provide a political riposte that would defend itself from the barrage of slander and criticism levelled at it and therefore left itself defenceless against the physical attacks that the slanders justified.
So what was the objective basis of the campaign? Why was it that, at the core of the campaign, there were thousands of working class people desperately angry and willing to confront the state and risk debt and imprisonment? And how can we show that the analysis offered in this booklet is a valid and true account, standing above the claims and counterclaims, the competing assertions about the nature and significance of the bin charge?
To find the answer we have to look at the context. Who is it that pursues this quite serious conflict that is deeply unpopular with the mass of the population? Quite clearly it is the government and, behind them, the capitalist class.
What strategy are they following? Again the answer is simple. The government and bosses are perfectly open in pursuing an economic offensive around privatisation. Not only is privatisation of public services open policy, not only is it a requirement of a series of E.U. treaties since Maastricht, it is a policy that the state has been actively implementing over many years.
Greencore and Telecom Eireann were privatised amid huge fanfare and promises of gains for investors, customers and workers – in fact all suffered. A major offensive has seen jobs go in state, semi-state and local authority areas, with casualisation of jobs and contracting-out of work following in its wake.
Air Rianta is a recent example both of the privatisation offensive and the response of the trade union bureaucracy. In July 2003, following the ICTU congress, David Beggs of ICTU and the SIPTU leadership were ready to fight to the death against the unilateral announcement of privatisation. In reality they had already accepted privatisation and were campaigning for perks such as employee share options – a strategy they had previously employed in the telecom privatisation. They huffed and puffed for several weeks before winding down attempts to build a campaign. The same sorry story is being re-enacted today with Dublin Bus.
When we consider this background it is blindingly obvious that the main purpose of the bin charge is to enable the service to be transferred to private hands – in fact a moments investigation will show us that we are in the midst of a long privatisation process and that many aspects of public service, including refuse collection, are in the process of being privatised. Indeed, union acquiescence to wholesale privatisation is a major plank of the latest social partnership deal, guaranteeing that the trade unions will lobby for influence and sweetheart deals within the process while preventing a serious rank and file revolt.
So part of the case we make is that the campaign was based upon a mistaken analysis and understanding of the tasks that it faced. What effect did this have on the campaign?
A correct understanding would have given the campaign an answer to the claim that the charges could not be double taxation since workers had already been given tax cuts. The argument could be made that workers were to be charged for services that should be socially provided, social provision that would demonstrate collective concern for waste and the environment. The role of income tax cuts could have been explained as preventing the funding of social provision and instead shifting the cost to the working class consumer. All this of course was lost in visions that we faced another poll tax and the thought that double taxation was a nice simple argument. As the performance of working class protesters showed on the ‘Late Late Show’ during the campaign such simple arguments left workers disarmed in front of their opponents. It is indicative of the level of argument that no one on the left paused for thought to appreciate that if the service was privatised the charges could not be described as taxation.
Second, while privatisation was stated by campaigners as the ultimate motive of the bin charges this came in and out of focus during the campaign and was very much subordinate to the view that the charges were double taxation. This meant that non-payment of the ‘taxation’ became the primary; one may say only, tactic. Understanding that the whole purpose of the attack was privatisation would have placed much more focus on the bin workers themselves, on the attacks on their terms and conditions – graphically demonstrated during the campaign by the Oxigen strike among workers already suffering under a private employer. Such a view would have concentrated minds on how they could be influenced and organised and work on this basis could have reaped dividends when the Oxigen workers took action. Instead no one noticed that protests essentially over privatisation had no contingents, never mind being led by, the workers most centrally involved.
It would also have placed the focus on the bin workers Corporation colleagues. They too will undoubtedly suffer from further privatisation and thus would have given a basis for calls for support. Most crucially it would have brought into focus the role of the workers’ union leaders, the role of SIPTU, MANDATE and ICTU. It would quickly have scotched illusions in these people peddled later by the campaign. Unfortunately this whole side of things was ignored.
Methods of organisation
By itself this is not a fatal criticism. It is not possible to map out in advance exactly the ways in which a struggle will advance. What is absolutely critical in allowing the campaign to evolve and correct its mistakes is the involvement of a substantial section of the working class, or at least the possibility of such organisation.
This could happen if some of the larger organisations with support in the working class took up its demands or it could arise out of a sudden and spontaneous mobilisation. Usually a campaign has to be built out of a broad democratic struggle.
A campaign needs to target the existing organisations of the class, especially the trade unions, because these organisations continue to organise and lead workers. It should not ignore these movements and construct a parallel universe where only the campaign exists and all the myriad obstacles and difficulties preventing the involvement of the class is ignored.
On the other hand, the campaign should not seek ‘unity’ on terms set by the existing leaderships – usually diplomatic alliances that commit to no action and preserve a quiet understanding silence about the failure of trade union and political leaders to offer any real support.
The classic tactic for building working class struggle is ‘unity from above and below’, based on the immediate concrete issues of class struggle. It calls on existing leaders to unite around the demands of the campaign (or to resign if they refuse). At the same time it calls on workers to support these demands but not to wait on the deliberations of the leaders but simultaneously to set up their own rank and file structures and begin to take action.
The campaign should at all stages aim to have its demands and tactics become the demands and tactics of the class. This ‘mass action’ perspective is opposed to ‘direct action’, where individuals or small groups just do their own thing.
This ‘mass action’ perspective is only possible if the campaign can facilitate a constant cycle of action and debate – making a balance sheet of each initiative, agreeing what is successful and what unsuccessful and why – looking ahead, considering the potential responses of the state and preparing countermeasures.
There is one further element that we have to consider before we look directly at the bin charge campaign. That is the history of attempts by working people in the 26 counties to defend themselves politically. Throughout the last three decades workers have lacked any party that could claim even notionally to represent their interests. At each election barring the last the workers have made desperate – and successful – attempts to throw out the government of the day. The result has been a series of dolly mixture assortments. There has been a whole series of governments – but only one capitalist programme.
The only substantial organisation claiming to represent the interests of the workers has been the trade union movement. Their reaction to the absence of a working class party has been to capitulate to capitalism by signing ‘social partnership’ deals where the union bureaucracy in ICTU have agreed to support a whole series of offensives against the working class in return for promises of consultation, a good deal of personal bribery of officials and minimal pay increases which don’t even keep place with inflation. (‘Benchmarking’ was sold as a means of correcting the balance by delivering high pay. It was used to push forward an agenda of flexibility and privatisation. In the end rather minimal increases were ‘fluffed up’ – they were promised for years and implementation was stretched over years).
The political counterpart of the union bureaucracy – the Labour Party – have an identical policy of capitulation to capital and have already flagged up their agreement to privatisation.
Even ‘up and coming’ parties such as Sinn Fein, keen to present themselves as a radical voice standing up for the workers, in reality have a policy of capitulation. Not only have they capitulated on the national question and supported British rule, they want to export a tax regime where the workers pay the vast majority of taxes and company tax is pegged at 10% from South to North. Their history in government in the North is one of privatisation and Private Finance Initiatives. As a party that basis itself on nationalism rather than class it doesn’t even need to be bribed to vote Fianna Fail and automatically climbs into bed with them!
The most the working class has been able to achieve is a few ‘independent’ representatives who see their role as immediately selling their vote in return for priority treatment for their own area. It doesn’t take long for the value of their vote to fall, and in the meantime the idea of working class independence has gone down the tubes.
Joe Higgins represented a possible alternative and did not sell his vote in this way, but the Socialist Party’s right-wing views on the national question and its willingness not to challenge the trade union bureaucracy have greatly dulled the impact of his tenure in the Dail.
There is widespread anger in the working class at the attacks they face and their inability to translate their votes into policies that can benefit their class. However there is little understanding of the need for a new party of the working class and what would distinguish it from the failed experiments of the past.
So the bin charge campaign, when launched, was unusual in that it was an initiative of the Marxist left – the Socialist Party and then, later, the Socialist Workers Party. These parties had far too small a base to advance the campaign. The only hope for success was to advance rapidly outside that small base and win the support of much larger layers of workers and help them to organise independently. Right from the start the possibility of this sort of advance was seriously handicapped by the absence of any commitment by these groups to a broad and democratic campaign.
Both groups had years of politically sectarian practice behind them where the over-riding priority was building their own organisations through routine recruitment rather than from organic growth of a mass movement. The key element of their practice was to launch campaigns controlled by their own group and exclude other political organisations in the hope of garnering support for themselves. As a former member of the Socialist Party, John Throne, pointed out, even at its best this policy left them seriously isolated from the working class as a whole. Shifts in consciousness could see Sinn Fein go from nowhere to a sizable electoral force while the Socialist Party bent every nerve to possibly get another TD in four years, maybe another in the four or eight years following.
As far as the campaign was concerned the left’s history and routine methods of operation had the unfortunate effect that they had either forgotten or rejected all the lessons in the history of the working class movement about how to build and expand broad campaigns. What was organised was a loose alliance of their own sectional campaigns – a diplomatic agreement that they would cooperate together to run a loose movement based on a federal structure where each kept largely to their ‘own’ areas. Significantly, these were essentially electoral constituency areas and the desire of each group to develop an electoral base was to remain a potent background factor throughout the campaign. Essentially the groups agreed not to interfere with each other and policy was made behind the scenes in private discussions.
For example, in the Donnycarney area, the SWP/SP alliance called a meeting in 2001, at the early stages of the campaign. There were no local speakers and the platform dismissed calls from the floor for a local committee to be set up or to recruit any of the local activists present to the existing committee – even though the area boasted a lively community sector with many working-class activists. The platform asked for money for a legal fund and then closed the meeting. They did not return to the area until the upsurge in the campaign in 2003 – 2 years later!
There were three immediate results following from the left’s method of organisation:
• Large sections of the working class, organised in their own areas, found that there were no real democratic structures through which they could communicate with other workers and they found themselves excluded and ignored.
• There were no democratic structures to discuss the issues and develop strategy. As a result, workers in the areas that were organised and had a left presence found themselves constantly frustrated. There was for example no Dublin-wide democratic structure to debate and decide policy or to plan and implement strategy.
• The secret understandings between the Socialist Party and Socialist Workers Party and their willingness to extend these understandings to include Sinn Fein and the trade union bureaucracy meant that the campaign was driven not by the needs of the campaign or the needs of the class but the competing needs of the left, the union bureaucracy and groups like Sinn Fein who hoped to preserve and extend their electoral base.
Under these pressures the strategy of the campaign lurched back and forth. Initially the strategy was ‘don’t pay!’ Activists toured the estates asking residents to sign up to a campaign of refusing to pay the charges. Residents were asked to pay 6 euro towards a legal fund. Their leaflet exclaimed ‘Only 1 in 6 have paid the Bin Tax.’ It explained that ‘the Corporation’s threats against non-payers are just bluster. It would take them 100 years to take all non-payers to court.’ Ironic? A sick joke? Whatever way one looks at it the real experience of the campaign was to show how misguided such views were.
The weaknesses of such a strategy should be evident. Relatively few activists were mobilised compared to the widespread support that was evident. The vast majority were left passive and isolated, open to any sustained assault by the authorities. Above all they were misled when asked to support the campaign. The leaflet said ‘Don’t pay, join the campaign for €6/€3 per household. This money is used to build a legal defence fund, so that we can answer the City Council’s threats.’ The collection of the 6 euro legal fund indicated that a legal defence existed that could be tested in the courts. In fact no such defence existed. Events since have indicated that, as might have been expected in the absence of any mass threat from the working class, the courts showed an absolute lack of restraint in punishing activists and upholding capitalist property rights. Such was their confidence that they jailed the most prominent leaders first, elected representatives of the Socialist Party, yet no one seemed to register the significance of this.
But the left had another chance to extend the campaign. The administration of the bin charge was in the hands of the Corporation. If the Corporation could be forced to vote down the charge then the whole process would be stymied, if not completely stopped. Dutifully the left began to lobby the councillors, especially the Labour and Sinn Fein councillors who claimed to be defenders of the working class. This lobbying was a very diplomatic affair, with the left firmly closing its eyes to the fact that both parties had already voted in bin charges in other council areas. This was an important point. The leverage over councillors was not the strong lever of joint opposition to the charges, but the relatively weak one of the councillors wanting to avoid blame. It was a classic situation where a campaign at the base, asking those who voted Labour or Sinn Fein to mobilise, could have maximised pressure.
Even the relatively weak pressure of the campaign was sufficient to throw the result of the Corporation vote into doubt. Alarmed, the government lost no time in letting everyone know that Dublin City Council would be suspended if it voted the wrong way. Stuck between a rock and a hard place, the councillors found a way out. Selected Sinn Fein and Labour councillors went missing before the vote, ensuring a majority for the measure while simultaneously allowing the parties to claim opposition.
The Corporation battle brought into focus the inability of the campaign to recognise defeat or to discuss strategy. The battle had thrown into relief the size of the offensive and the determination of the government. They were willing to suspend democratic rights of elected representatives in the Dublin area if that was what was necessary. They were able to do so because the campaign was weak and because none of the parties in the corporation were genuinely in opposition to the charges. The outcome could not be discussed because the campaign did not mobilise the majority of workers willing to fight, fragmented those who did into constituency areas without real communication and kept the dead hands of the Socialist Party and Socialist Workers Party at their head.
Things went downhill rapidly. Threatening letters went out from the Corporation. The campaign put out posters in response – ‘Don’t panic – don’t pay’! A lot of people began to panic and a lot paid.
The response of the campaign was instructive. All along it had stressed individual action at the price of collective action. The base of the campaign had been individual workers deciding on their own to pay or not pay the bin charge. This weak base began to fragment. The alternative was to begin to target the mass organisations of the class This wasn’t even considered. Instead the campaign came up with a new form of direct action involving much smaller groups of individuals – the bin blockade.
The issue here was quite simple and illustrated the unwillingness of the left to face up to the political tasks that confronted the campaign. The government had brought in the bin charge without effective opposition. They had forced the issue through Dublin Corporation. Now they needed to enforce the charge. The mechanism of enforcement was to be the bin workers themselves. They were to be instructed by management to collect bins only from those who paid the charge. This put the union bureaucracy in the spotlight. With their support the workers could easily reject management instructions. Without their support they left themselves open to dismissal. In fact there was an absolute failure to provide that support. Some bureaucrats suggested that workers could refuse if health and safety issues were involved, but this proved to be empty verbiage designed to get the bureaucracy out of the spotlight.
The tasks of the campaign should have been clear cut. They should have demanded that the union leaderships instruct their members to work normally and oppose bin workers being forced to act as bailiffs. The campaign should have battled to organise workers in support of such a campaign. The charge, once applied, automatically allowed commercial groups such as Oxigen to tender for the service. In effect the union bureaucrats were ordering their members to commit industrial suicide by opening the door to the privatisation of their jobs. The left strategy was to ignore totally the scab role of the bureaucracy and target the workers themselves by blockading lorries and depots – incredibly this was the tactic even in areas where the bin workers were not operating the non-collection policy!
This was justified by all sorts of contradictory and confused arguments. Some activists realised the difficulties in winning support while stopping people’s rubbish being collected but others claimed that the blockades were ‘to put the blame for uncollected rubbish squarely on the council’ (K McLoughlin, SP) They were also justified on the grounds that they kept the issue alive – a real admission of failure that was obviously unconscious since the activists still proclaimed the success of the campaign. More generally the blockades were about causing as much disruption as possible to the council but this ignored the consequence of arrests which at one point were justification for the blockades and later the reason for calling them off.
The blockades were justified as solidarity with those areas facing non-collection, stopping them from being picked off, but this was admitting that the blockades in these latter areas could not be maintained. How could smaller blockades over a wider area be different? They were called solidarity blockades but who decided that the rest of Dublin’s workers were to engage in this sort of solidarity. What attempts were made to even inform, never mind win over and get the active support of, these workers? The blockades mobilised dozens rather than thousands and were as pure an example of the substitutionism involved in ‘direct action’ as could be imagined. They were called and called off without even the knowledge of all those in the campaign. The blockades were seen by activists as a sign of militancy but were also justified as putting it up to ICTU to get a resolution which handed the issue over to the bureaucrats!
The structure of the campaign made it difficult to adopt a rational policy. Decisions were made by the left organisations. They co-ordinated policy through back-door diplomacy. Rather than a rational campaign structure ‘activists meetings’ were held. The only issue was organising further activity and political and strategic discussion was avoided. Activism became the criterion for success and the meetings degenerated into boasting sessions. As the campaign went on more and more bizarre claims about the level of activity in local areas were made, while the real issues of strategy and defence passed the activists by. Local working class militants, who quite frequently introduced a note of sanity into discussions were usually absent – either because they were unaware of the meetings or because they were unable to attend because of awkward timing, such as Saturday evening.
Fight to the death.
At this point the campaign appeared to be on its knees, although this did not appear to be apparent to the left. The non-payment strategy had failed and only a small fraction of those originally involved had become active in the blockades – a strategy that contained all the weaknesses of the initial campaign on a smaller scale. The struggle against the bin charge appeared to be over.
That’s what the state thought, and the state forces moved to bring the process to a decisive end. Socialist Party TD Joe Higgins and Claire Daly, a local Socialist Party councillor, and 13 other activists were jailed for up to 21 days for defying a court injunction not to join blockades. The left groups made the obvious point about the hypocrisy of a state that can hold endless inquiries into the most flagrant corruption and theft by capitalist politicians, extending to Taoiseach Haughey, while failing to find even a single figure guilty, and at the same time applying the utmost rigours of the law to left demonstrators.
Having made that point the campaign had to quickly come up with a realistic strategy rather than abstract moralising. All the contradictions in the campaign had come to a crisis point. The state had thrown down the gauntlet and if the campaign came up with a realistic defence strategy then the whole struggle could be relaunched and explode into new life. Otherwise the campaign was doomed.
The possibility of such a fightback was made clear when a demonstration of 3,000 workers, organised hastily, took place following the arrests. However the leadership of the campaign remained innocent of any defence strategy and never went beyond roaring moralisms into the wind. The nearest they came to a strategy was the proposal to step up the bin lorry blockades and that everyone should go to jail and block up the judicial system. This is a strategy that can be successfully applied by mass campaigns. For those without a mass base it is simply an elaborate form of suicide. It was an even quicker road to demoralisation and collapse when it became clear that the Socialist Party itself was not going to lead a kamakazi strategy. Joe Higgins and Clare Daly did not return to the picket line and the full-time officers of the Socialist Party did not step forward. In their absence the courts took even more repressive steps against the working class activists at the base, adding savage and crippling fines to jail terms. The only other defence strategy advanced by the campaign was protest demonstrations. Not surprisingly, these got smaller as time went on.
The Trade Unions
A keystone to understanding the whole campaign is to understand the nature of the left’s incapacity in the face of the state’s attack. It’s not that the left had no response. What it was, was that the left had a traditional response – an appeal to the working class, primarily through the trade union structures. What happened immediately after the first arrests was that the trade union bureaucracy went on the offensive on the side of the government and launched a devastating denunciation of the bin charge campaign. David Beggs, general secretary of ICTU, issued a statement immediately after the arrests condemning the campaign in terms that clearly justified and supported the state attack. This was a lot more than mere bombast. Beggs made it clear that he was not speaking for himself, but for the whole union bureaucracy. IMPACT and SIPTU leaderships had accepted management dictats that their members would penalise non-payers of the bin charge and had put themselves on the other side of the barricade to the bin charge campaign. This left the Socialist Party and SWP in a dilemma. They had for years been moving to the right in their trade union work, with a policy of co-operation with the bureaucracy. Did they now move into opposition or roll with the punches and work behind the scenes to lobby for a kinder and gentler approach?
None of this was for discussion in the campaign. On the streets the activists were treated to rant and bombast. The decision on whether or not to mount a genuine attempt at defence was taken in back rooms. The nature of that decision was immediately evident. Shortly after the initial arrests a petition for trade union action was issued in the North, signed by Socialist Party members and supporters. No similar petition was issued from the activists in the South and the Northern petition was quickly dropped. Trade unionists who approached Socialist Party members asking about solidarity work were met with an embarrassed silence or the suggestion that they collect some money.
Militants from the Donneycarney and Coolock campaigns who proposed a picket of Liberty Hall in Dublin to protest trade union collaboration found consistent attempts to talk out their proposals. The corruption of the campaign was made evident from the fact that the Liberty Hall proposal was taken through two local mass meetings and then strangled by left organisations that had already ensured that no proper democratic forum existed for open discussion of alternative strategies for the campaign. Supporters of Socialist Democracy found themselves under political attack from Socialist Party members for supporting the picket. A Socialist Party member chairing the last major demonstration before the proposed picket garbled the announcement so that it appeared not to be a campaign activity but to be applicable only to SIPTU members. Interestingly enough, in as far as there was a microdebate about the possibility of a strategy of opposition to collaboration by the trade union bureaucracy, the stragey met with strong support from sections of the working-class audience and hostility from the organised socialist movement.
With the left silent there was a bizarre period where the small left within the bureaucracy appeared far more radical than the socialist organisations themselves. While the socialist organisations kept silent the TEEU leadership strongly opposed the ICTU stance and Mick O’Reilly of ATGWU denounced David Beggs in the strongest possible terms.
The problem with this is that the left bureaucracy on its own will not effectively lead struggles. Members of the left bureaucracy inside the unions balance uneasily between the bureaucracy and the rank and file membership. They are themselves united with the right of the bureaucracy, with which they will not break, and ask for unity of rank and file militants with themselves - which inevitably means unity with the right. By themselves they find no necessity to move from that middle position and tend to be strong on rhetoric and weak on action. This is illustrated generally by the absolute failure of the trade union opposition to provide any coherent resistance to decades of betrayal. Each new social partnership agreement leads to a flurry of activity and vote-counting. When the deal is pushed through even this ‘resistance’ disappears.
A more specific example of the role of the left bureaucrat is shown by the history of Mick O’Reilly himself. He was locked in a long battle with ICTU and the leadership of his own union over charges of misconduct within the union. It was generally accepted that the real cause of dispute was his relatively mild criticism of the Partnership agreement and his willingness to go further than the rest of the trade union critics and actively recruit rank and file militants who broke the terms of partnership. The result was a long battle, but it was carried out in secret and resulted in a behind the scenes deal where Mick and fellow bureaucrat Eugene McGlone were demoted but kept their salary at the higher rate! At no stage was there any appeal to the working class or any attempt to build an ongoing opposition.
In describing the nature of the left bureaucracy we are not suggesting for a moment that militants should not work with them. In fact V I Lenin, in an illuminating analysis, said that they were simultaneously the facilitator of new struggles and also the biggest factor acting as a brake on struggle. What is absolutely essential is an independent layer of rank and file workers who can push these bureaucrats in a direction that they will not go of their own accord, not as an objective in itself but as a by-product of asserting their own control of the struggle.
The Socialist Party and Socialist Workers Party were offered one last chance to turn around the campaign. Dublin Trades Council organised a demonstration in support of the bin charges opposition and against the jailings. Unfortunately, with the socialist organisations having decided by default not to oppose the collaborators at the head of the trade union apparatus, the left bureaucracy were left on their own and decided to organise a demonstration that would unite protester and scab, with Mick O’Reilly calling for trade union unity in the middle. The organisers drew the line at inviting David Beggs of ICTU, who had in any case sharpened ICTU’s support for the government and condemnation of the workers protesting and those in jail. They did however invite Jack O’Connor of SIPTU, who was doing much greater damage to the campaign by instructing his members to obey management instructions to act as bailiffs and refuse to collect bins from non-payers.
The results were illuminating. Thousands turned out for the demonstration. O’Connor was met with sharp hostility, with a group of workers loudly denouncing his betrayal and tearing up and throwing their SIPTU cards at him. The longer he spoke, the more clearly he presented the bureaucrats case, the more intense and widespread grew the worker’s opposition. Mick O’Reilly appealed for a hearing for the SIPTU leader and for unity. A group of SWP members nearby looked confused. Were they supporting the workers or the bureaucrats? There was no such confusion amongst the ranks of the Socialist Party. Their time in bed with the bureaucracy went further back. Ruth Coppinger, the Socialist Party chair of the meeting, ignored the betrayal of the bureaucracy and the vocal protests of the workers to call for yet more bin blockades.
The silence of the Left
The implications of the demonstration were far more far-reaching than the momentary embarrassment caused by workers denouncing the SIPTU leadership. By their silence and their decision to effectively oppose any attack on the ICTU scabs they were by default handing over strategic control to the left bureaucracy. In the absence of pressure from a left-led campaign this section of the bureaucracy began to drift to the right, putting flesh on the bones of the ‘unite with the scabs’ proposal they had unveiled at the Trades Council demonstration.
The next section of the history of the campaign is swathed in secrecy, taking place far from the streets and in fact, far from the memberships of the left organisations, deep in the recesses of the trade union bureaucracy. The main outlines are clear. The proposals for unity were brought to ICTU who, given that they had sharpened their attacks on the bin charge campaign, were not long in seeing the approach as in fact the white flag from their opponents. They immediately demanded surrender. There could be unity if the campaign halted the bin lorry blockades.
What happened immediately afterwards is a matter of record. A sequence of events took place that had a remarkable similarity to what has become known as the ‘choreography’ of the Good Friday Agreement – a series of steps, the result of secret diplomacy, which are meant to provide resolution but in practice end with a disastrous shift to the right.
The sequence was as follows.
At 5-30 on Wednesday ----, just ten days after the Dublin Trades council demonstration, a group of districts led by the Socialist Party and Socialist Workers Party issued a statement calling off the bin blockades. It was characteristic of the undemocratic nature of the campaign that this statement was not circulated or discussed by all the areas involved, nor was there any attempt to call a conference or assembly of the campaign.
That evening the ‘friends of the bin tax campaign’ in the left bureaucracy brought the case of the campaign to ICTU. They had acceded to ICTU’s demands and had persuaded the socialist groups to call off the blockades. Now it was payback time. ICTU had to support the demands of the campaign. The ICTU bureaucracy has had a long experience of street fighting in its role as police enforcement over the working class. You demand that your opponents lie down. When they do it’s time to kick them in the head and make sure the dog is dead. And so it proved in this case. After hours of debate ICTU finally issued a detailed statement. It revisited all the points in David Beggs original scab statement and endorsed each point. The final points, ‘supporting’ the campaign, said that ICTU would speak to the government about taxation generally and that they would oppose the government sending protestors to jail as long as the protestors didn’t protest outside the law!
The campaign had got nothing. Its whole strategic line of march, mistaken as it was, had been torn up by the left organisations. Their strategy of relying on the trade union bureaucracy had failed beyond all definitions of failure. This passed without comment. The campaign had never at any time had a democratic structure. The left strategy had never been put forward for democratic debate. It was implemented in back rooms, out of the gaze of the rank and file. The fog of confusion following what was in reality the collapse of the campaign was, for many militants, little different from the fog that had accompanied all the twists and turns of the campaign. Their reaction was to walk away.
After a week of stunned silence the announcement came from on high. The campaign was to resume with blockades of bin depots. The protests began again, shrunk to a hard core with a high proportion of political activists. Even then the campaign had limited success, due to the solidarity of many bin workers. True to form the left ignored the fact that the trade union bureaucracy’s lack of support meant that bin workers themselves had no protection if they defied management. As before the issue of defence against state attacks was not even discussed. More militants went to jail with an extra helping of savage fines, supported by tiny protests that simply showed up the weakness of the movement and its inability to even point the finger at those collaborating in the state offensive. Protests ceased entirely in Fingal, the home of the campaign, and gradually wound down. To the last gasp the left maintained its habitual dishonesty and distortion of democracy. Militants were told to meet in their local areas and discuss how to regroup. The possibility of a shared discussion that might learn some lessons from the struggle was obviously too much to contemplate.
A footnote was put on the campaign by a half day conference held in Dublin at the beginning of December. The meeting, supposed to represent the interests of the vast majority of Dublin workers, numbered around 100, the majority political activists, and clearly didn’t represent even the relatively large numbers who had taken part in the campaign at one point or another.
There were two points worthy of note about the conference. The first was the Panglossian certainty that all was for the best in the best of all possible worlds. The campaign had been advancing steadily and would continue to advance. There was no recognition of the need for a political discussion or strategic review, or that such a debate was even necessary. The second element was the introduction of a new secret weapon – the local elections. Candidates would stand advancing the demands of the campaign and force a change of direction.
There was no discussion of how the failure of a mobilisation on the streets would be rectified by the much weaker weapon of electoral intervention or how candidates would answer all the political attacks the campaign had always ignored. It was not made clear how the candidates of the campaign were to distinguish themselves from parties like Sinn Fein who swore, fingers crossed, that they represented the interests of the working class.
Astoundingly there was little discussion of the industrial dispute ongoing between SIPTU and the already privatised part of the bin service, Oxigen, even though an Oxigen worker addressed the conference. The workers were demanding union recognition. SIPTU were demanding that the Corporation, who had handed out the contract, insist on trade union rights. The Corporation responded that they had no responsibility for the private sector. The dispute went right to the heart of the bin charge campaign and the betrayal of the trade union leadership. Their case had been that the bin charge was the best way to protect public service jobs, conditions and rights and safeguard levels of service to the public. The Oxigen dispute wiped out absolutely the ICTU, SIPTU and IMPACT case. Not only that, the nature of SIPTU statements indicated clearly that they believed that they had a sweetheart deal that would keep up their union subscriptions while every thing else went to pot.
None of this was discussed. Only a living, democratic, politicised movement could have held those discussions and the bin charge campaign had never broken out of the shell of the diplomatic alliance between the differing socialist groups. The meeting in December was in the context of this diplomatic alliance and the main element of business was to extend the weak collaboration forward to the local government elections. There the candidates will be Socialist Party and Socialist Workers Party members and supporters, with policies and methods of operation so alike that only the purest of distilled political sectarianism keeps them apart.
With those policies their election or non-election should be a matter of indifference to the working class. The lesson of the campaign, in common with all struggles over the past two decades, is that advancing the struggle involves democratic rank and file organisation willing to confront the trade union bureaucracy and their betrayals.
The socialist groups appear bent on taking the same (politically) unserious approach to the elections as they have to the campaign. They seem intent on standing as anti-bin tax candidates, justified presumably on the basis that the elections are local ones. This betrays their electoralism. Socialists do not take their cue from the character of the elections otherwise we would have very little to say in any of them since we state openly that the real power in society lies outside present day elected bodies. This is even clearly true of the councils where councillors have no effective control over implementation of the bin charge since the government has legislated to make sure that elected representatives are incapable of implementing popular wishes.
More generally elections are not a vehicle for delivering real change but a means of educating workers about what sort of society they live in, what the alternative is, what tasks face workers and what they can do about it. Local or national elections just change the method of presentation. In both it is the international and national issues of importance that socialists give a working class perspective and programme for. To reduce the tasks facing the working class to the bin charges, a campaign that has been lost, is to betray the crassest electoralism and economism. Yet this appears to be what the groups are intent on doing. The small constituencies that they have built up will not therefore partake in the educational process that they need.
For socialists elections are about persuading workers that they ca only make gains through mass struggle. Now however the message from the left is that elections are the means to compensate for the failure of that struggle.
No sooner was the conference over than the real world intruded. Bin charges were increased in the Dublin City area . The government opened new fronts through privatisation drives in Dublin Bus and Aer Rianta. At the beginning of the campaign a majority of Dublin householders were strongly opposed to the charges and were worn down in a long process of intimidation by the state. Given effective organisation and leadership this is a campaign that could have been won.
The tragedy of the campaign is that if it had involved a majority of the working class the weaknesses of the left would have been swept aside and if it had involved the left only the campaign itself would have been irrelevant. The tragedy was that it involved a large enough layer of the working class that the left was put to the test. It was a test they failed miserably.
A number of those involved in the campaign will find ways to dismiss the account in this statement. They will dismiss it as sectarian, an attempt to slag off left groups by an even smaller left group claiming that it has the answer. That’s not the case. We in Socialist Democracy do not argue for a moment that we had at hand an infallible blueprint for winning the campaign. We freely admit that we are too small to have had any significant impact on the development of the struggle. In any case the offensive has been ongoing for 20 years and it will require tremendous effort to turn things around.
What we do argue is that the
political arguments we make are central issues in advancing the struggle.
What that means is that win, lose or draw in any struggle there remains
a core of working class militants with better skills, better organisation
and a better understanding of the tasks before them. The first step along
this road lies not in agreeing that we are in the right, but simply that
the points made are important and that they deserve debate – the debate
the bin charge campaign signally failed to hold.
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