Real trade unionism in action – right2water

The type of class-conscious and politically active trade unionism that the Trade Union Left Forum has advocated at many of its meetings, and in its publications, is truly on display and being built in the Right2Water campaign.

The 1st November saw the second national protest against the water charges and the potential privatisation of what should be a guaranteed, universally available public resource. It is estimated that between 150,000 and 200,000 people took part. This follows the 100,000 who marched on 11th October as well as the daily militant class struggle being fought in communities throughout the country, led in the main by self-organised working people.

The Right2Water campaign, led by five unions of both the private and the public sector (Mandate, Unite, CPSU, CWU, and OPATSI), has provided a broad national platform for a variety of groups, parties and communities and has maintained a progressive and impressive unity, despite attempts by some to break it.

This is now clearly and without doubt the biggest and most militant mobilisation of working people this country has seen for some time. As trade unionists it is wonderful to see unions take a leading role in the national campaign and beginning to build alliances within the movement but also with community groups and tens of thousands of workers who are not members of any union.

It is not pleasant to have to draw attention to the role of the leadership of the largest union in the country, SIPTU; but while it organises for justice in society and fairness at work, its absence from a campaign where unions are actively campaigning and building towards these goals is regrettable. Many thousands of SIPTU members are active in this campaign on the ground but by the leadership not endorsing Right2Water they are playing into the hands of a right-wing Government.

The intervention by the general president of SIPTU, Jack O’Connor, the day before up to 200,000 mainly working class people marched in support of the Right2Water campaign on 1st November, was particularly unhelpful. His criticism on Newstalk (the radio station owned by Denis O’Brien) of the Right2Water campaign and calling for “realistic” policies was regrettable. Calling for concessions, such as “water tax-credits,” to placate opposition to a tax that the trade union movement in general correctly labels as regressive, only assists those seeking to undermine the momentum of a working class mobilisation not seen since the PAYE marches of the late 1970s and early 1980s.

O’Connor’s call in the wake of the mass mobilisation of 1st November for a Referendum on public control of water supply is welcomed. However, it will only be effective if it is followed up by an acceptance that the ongoing water commodification process overseen by Irish Water must be stopped immediately.

A constitutional amendment to secure water as a publicly owned universal resource, paid for through general taxation is a proposal that the TULF will give full consideration to as this struggle develops. We must remember that water charges were beaten in the 1980s and mid-1990s; and if we are to make this a lasting victory, a constitutional amendment may be the demand to mobilise around.

The TULF take seriously also the impact the closure of Irish Water, which was formed as vehicle for privatisation and as such can have no constructive role to play in the supply of a public resource, will have on public service workers who have been transferred to its control and these workers should be secured in employment as part of public water provision in the future.

Denis O’Brien’s role in this growing political struggle is crucial. He owns the main water meter installation company and so is the not so hidden hand behind the offensive on working class communities who are resisting their imposition. He is also a major link between the Fine Gael party, and the present government, and the international neo-liberal agenda which seeks to attack democratic ownership wherever it is found. As the current struggle develops its clear class nature will see an intensification of the focus on O’Brien and his cohorts.

Members of Unions not involved in the Right2Water campaign must begin to challenge their own unions to become involved and strengthening the campaign and the resistance movement. On this basis the TULF will shortly launch a petition for union members to sign to encourage those unions not involved in the right2water campaign to join it and strengthen this working class mobilisation.

The combined strength of progressive unions and local communities, playing a heroic role facing constant harassment and brutality from the Gardaí, has the potential to transform this country. This alliance is crucial, and must be built on. Unity must be maintained. Political education and demands must be expanded, within unions and communities, to secure water as a resource, to win this once and for all, and to strengthen our class in other areas of struggle.