Avoiding the dustbin of history a year after privatisation in Dublin


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This day last year, 16th January 2012, was a black day for Irish trade unionism. From that day bin collection in Dublin was carried out by a private firm, Greyhound, after Dublin City Council sold the business to them bringing bin collection by the city to an end after almost 150 years. The privatisation of bin collection in Dublin City Council was, among all the recent setbacks and climb downs of the trade union movement, a symbolic defeat in a heartland of Irish blue collar trade unionism. The Dublin bins have gone the way of other emblematic and once seemingly impregnable redoubts of Irish trade union stability, such as the integrity and public status of electricity supply and the sacredness of the JLC/ERO system. Unlike signal defeats further back, those at Pat the Baker, Ryanair and Irish Ferries for instance, the Dublin bins passed with only a whimper.

That the privatisation of Dublin city bin collection happened at all was a depressing development. The manner in which it occurred served only to lower the mood further. As the changeover happened some of the bin workers themselves were certainly dissatisfied with the situation and with the unions:

“Before heading out [for the last time at Davitt Road depot], the men  met for about half an hour to discuss their options. There was talk of “missed opportunities”, of how they should have balloted for industrial action before Christmas, or sat in in the depot last week, keeping the lorries hostage. They derided both council management and their unions – Impact and Siptu. Shortly after 6.30am the seven crews set out. It was minus 1 degree, and still dark….” (Irish Times, 14th January 2012)

Even though this privatisation had been flagged for ages “Dublin city’s 110 former bin-men will not be told until Friday [21st January] what their new jobs will be”. (Irish Times, 16th January 2012) This was two days after their jobs had gone! How could this be let happen in a well organised workplace represented by two of the biggest unions in the county? If the axe had to fall couldn’t the basic terms and conditions of such a change not have been negotiated long in advance of D-day? The Irish Times report continues:

“At a meeting today at the Civic Offices, assistant city manager, Séamus Lyons, told the former binmen their ‘basic pay’ would be protected following their redeployment to other departments. They may be reassigned to work in the parks, water, roads, housing or drainage sections. A number expressed their anger that they still did not know where they would be working from next Monday. Mr Lyons said … they [the workers] would hear later this week the number of vacancies in each section and, based on seniority, who would have first preference for certain positions.

Later they were addressed by officials from Impact and Siptu, who said negotiations on the cleansing allowance and redeployment would continue tomorrow. They would brief the men again on Friday.”

As the bin tax campaign always argued, the fate of the bin workers and of the citizens were always linked. A media storm focused on the effects of the privatisation on the bin charges to Dublin tenants and householders, and on the plummeting quality of bin collection (e.g. Irish Times 24 January & 4th February, 2012).

Not unsurprisingly, this produced a media din louder than anything on the effects of the privatisation on the bin workers, on trade union strength and on the rights and conditions for both Dublin City Council and Greyhound workers. However, despite the claim to the contrary in the above Irish Times report from Davitt Road depot, Greyhound was not a non-union firm, whatever about the strength and fate of that unionisation. The debacle did not reach so low as to pass Dublin bin collection from a union stronghold to a union wasteland. As others – The City Bin Co. (with an opening offer of €99, all-in, for 3 bins for 12 months) – now move in to grab, like scavengers at a city dump, some of the market from Greyhound, it remains to be seen how trade union organisation in Dublin bin collection survives this race to the bottom.

The maintenance of the municipalisation of waste disposal in Dublin city was the last stand in a restructuring process that was decisively boosted by the defeat of the bin tax campaign. A defeat that, ironically, was sealed by the refusal of trade union officialdom to support the collection of all Dublin bins (paid or unpaid) at the beginning of the campaign*. A seal that was imprinted in wax by the highest official of the trade union movement in his denunciation of the jailed campaign leaders, a repudiation eagerly afforded front page headline promulgation by the Irish Times.

It was not, as Minister Pat Rabitte has claimed, because of the anti-bin tax campaign that the state was “successful in privatising the bin service right across the city.” It was because the valiant efforts of the thousands of people in the bin tax campaign were not successful that the state was “successful in privatising the bin service right across the city.” The imposition of charges on, the commodification of, bin collection was a prerequisite of the privatisation for profit of bin collection. As Joes Higgins and the campaign said, now and constantly at the time: “Imposing charges is a set-up and a preparation of the ground for privatisation.”

The process unfolded exactly as the campaign explained it would, including the escalation of the original bin charge to what it is now (with waivers also questioned). Just as the Campaign Against the Household and Water Taxes argued that the initial charges were bound for multiple rises.

Yet this last act in the process was an act in another process too: the collapse of the unions in the face of the offensive to make workers pay for the economic crisis and the implosion of the bubble. The end of Dublin City Council bin collection may or may not be directly connected with the Croke Park deal, but it is of a piece with it insofar as hitherto unimaginable changes and cuts are passively accepted in and by the trade union movement. Changes and cuts which serve only the purpose of bailing out the banks and the ‘1%’ who cling to them, transferring wealth from working people to the fabulously rich, dismantling the gains won over decades of struggle and weakening the trade unions especially on the ground.

Without being close to the process of privatisation and of the ‘waste disposal’ of decades of trade union organisation and of 100 trade union members displaced by the privatisation,  it is not possible to ascertain exactly what happened and who in our own organisations bears a responsibility for this sorry episode. Was this another ‘reform’ eased through by union representatives? Was it the end result of workers left with little fight, or obvious alternative, by years of disillusion, demoralisation and defeat? But what is needed, to salvage even something abstract out of this, is not so much to point the finger of blame as to learn a lesson. Not a lesson from deep analysis of the entrails of this setback of minor historical proportions, but a simple and obvious lesson for all levels of our movement and especially those with some capacity left to act on it.

Nothing is sacred. If the Dublin bin workers can be replaced by Greyhound, and replaced so easily, there is nothing that cannot be taken away. Walk down Davitt Road and Collins Avenue and see the state, test the strength, of the trade union movement. We don’t need to reinforce our battalions; we need to build all over again from the bottom up. It is nearer 1913 than we ever thought.

Simultaneous with the pitiful departure of the regiments from the Dublin depots came an uplifting and sudden struggle from another old guard section, the Vita Cortex workers in the second city, Cork. But we were not going to be handed a rejuvenated army on a plate. The Vita Cortex sit-in was heroic and heartening, and stood as the herald of a possible fight back. But it was also the desperate struggle for previously secure rights which came to its own natural if uplifting end, leaving little organisation behind, even when the struggle was won and these seasoned members scattered and left the field. We have to wake up and renew our unions by beginning to make a stand in the places where we have forces we can build up, by making a stand in the workplace now, in the union sections now, on the streets now, and not when we face a do-or-die fight to get the best we can before going down the road. Dublin City Council bin collection should have been one of those places where we made a stand.

* In Cabra a very solid local campaign had excellent connections with the bin workers. So solid in fact that in areas of Cabra large numbers were still not paying six years later (2009) and their bins were still being collected.



5 Responses

  1. James O'Brien

    January 17, 2013 12:35 pm

    Good article Des.

    Just to comment on one of the political lessons of the struggle. There was a threefold, interlinked, failing: that of the socialist left; that of the union leadership; and that of the workers themselves.

    1. The failure of the socialist left to sustain a coherent socialist alternative to neo-liberalism in wider society meant the popularity of socialist ideas was fairly low, thus the sea of passive support in which unions and workers could swim was shallow.

    It is hard to quantify how important this is, but in a democratic capitalist society, it seems to be a crucial aspect of any struggle.

    It is unrealistic of us to expect much by the way of opposition since workers in general don’t interpret the world through socialist lens. Why should they act in accordance with socialist recommendations if they are not socialist themselves and the lens is more or less hidden from them?

    2. The failure of the union institutions to foster class solidarity and grassroots activity at a lower levels weakens them in the longer term.

    I presume the union leadership felt that the union didn’t have the strength to resist the process, as opposed to it being a craven capitulation.

    And I imagine they were largely correct. But why is this is case and to what extent are they responsible for it? It seems over the years that they have weakened their bargaining power by decommissioning rather than encouraging grassroots activity.

    Which, in turn, raises the question of whether a coherent socialist left, taken seriously as a serious alternative position within society,would provide the context in which that activity can be nurtured.

    It’d also be good to have a wikileaks type revelations of the contacts between senior union officials and the decision makers in the state.

    3. The failure of the workers themselves to break out of a guild-like mentality – and a journeyman one at that. It was striking, from talking to workers at the time, how cautious the majority were. They seemed to look to their union officials as a sort of benevolent commanding officer rather than as a servant.

    Perhaps it is optimistic, naive even, to expect any given group of workers to simply break from their officials. And while the arguments of the bin tax campaigners were pretty much spot on, why should any worker pay more heed to them, people who for the most part they don’t know and who weren’t identifiably associated with a publicly credible organisation.

    Again, the task of persuasion would have been a bit easier if there was a credible socialist party that was capable of normalising the campaign, its members and its message. As it was, the SP’s representatives did about as good a job as possible, but size alone is a limiting factor in influencing public discourse, particularly in a society where the media is a dreary mouthpiece for capitalist normality.

  2. kevin keating

    January 19, 2013 1:12 pm

    As one who worked in the city council during the bin charges struggle there are some missing aspects in Des Derwin’s article. I spoke many members of IMPACT and SIPTU during this period and one of the striking features of the whole fiasco was the very cautious attitude of management on the issue. The unions attitude was of a different character altogether.
    The only circular issued to the cleansing workers that I am aware of came directly from IMPACT and it was of a very threatening character. It was also extremely dishonest. The main points as I recall them were that if workers did not cooperate in lifting only those bins compliant with the charges they would not be paid their increases due under the then partnership agreement. They would be subject to disciplinary measures including suspensions and eventually dismissal. Most dishonest of all was the claim that if they did not comply the service would be privatised.
    It’s easy to see that having the threat come from the unions rather than management was much more effective method of demoralising the workforce and deterring them from action knowing that their union wasn’t behind them.
    I am not aware of SIPTU sending out similar leaflets, they didn’t criticise them, but the unions generally took the view that it was impossible for them to stop out of the narrow issue of wages and conditions and those workers who took up the issue of bin charges and the very clear privatisation agenda would not be supported.
    A side issue of this is; would the workers have been able to have been sold out so easily if they were still in their old union the Municipal Workers Union? This was a general operatives union which had been subsumed into the much larger IMPACT union, a clerical union with no tradition of struggle. Were the numerous mergers of unions in that era ever about anything other than the security of bureaucrat’s fat salaries and pensions?
    The other point I would dispute is that the campaign always argued against the privatisation of the bin collection. The campaign’s central plank was that this was an issue of double taxation (a strange tax in that you could claim a tax refund if you paid it) A glance at the material produced by the campaign would show this to be the case.
    But it is clear that the position of the government was that privatisation of public services was always top of their agenda though they were very shy about admitting it as it was not then a very popular policy at election time. The only political party to always come clean on their intentions was the Progressive Democrats. Where are they now?
    From at least the time of the Maastricht treaty privatisation of public services was not just policy of the main political parties. It was a constitutional imperative, having been incorporated into the constitution in the numerous EU treaty referendums.
    The union bosses who supported these treaties, including the ones in which we had to vote twice to get the right results, were fully aware of the privatisation implications. Their policy from way back, as pioneered by David Begg when he was in charge of the Communication Workers Union (CWU), was for employee share options (ESO’s) in the larger state and semi state companies. A strange way to oppose privatisation!
    In the likes of ESB and Aer Lingus ’s ESO’s have long been union policy so they were always talking out of both sides of their mouths on privatisation of services.
    How they became union policy is another, more mysterious matter. Given the disastrous legacy of ESO’s in Eircom how Begg is still a leading trade union official also needs explanation. Privatisation led directly to the Eircom share fiasco, the complete deregulation of the telecommunication industry, failure to upgrade the network not to mention the activity of Lowry and Dennis O’ Brien. Eircom has been declared bankrupt and the shareholders wiped out and stripped of ownership and yet another asset stripper has taken control. What a record! Begg’s last job was sitting on the board of the central bank leading up to the crash.
    The question raised by James O’ Brien, that the union leaders were largely correct in believing that the unions didn’t have the strength to resist the process is I believe mistaken. It gives them far too much credit.
    The evidence is that successive government believed they could be beaten on this issue. The stalking horse role played by the PD’s said enough about privatisation to let them know that no government could openly implement these policies without massive opposition. No government, no party could get elected openly espousing these policies. They were always cautious as to their intentions and implemented the policy incrementally and always lied as to their final goal.
    The union leader’s role was essential to carry this through; they were instrumental in making a very unpopular strategy possible. Social partnership is the process through which ‘ruling by fooling’ became possible and universally unpopular measures such as healthcare destruction were implemented. If we think otherwise the possibility of working class emancipation and socialism itself becomes a questionable goal.
    Was it possible to defeat the bin charges? Was the best possible strategy carried through by the campaign? The policy of many Socialist groups of insisting on seeing double taxation as central was, I believe, mistaken. It was not a rerun of the poll tax in Britain. Privatisation was the central issue. The left could see the relative ease of organising in the community as opposed to challenging the role of the union leaders. As the campaign developed, they also saw the possibility of building constituency organisations and factionalism and opportunism began to dominate the campaign.
    This led to crazy strategies such as blockading the workers in the depots. The main problem was the support of the union leaders for the charges and the privatisation process. It would have been more apt to blockade their offices to support the workers, but proposals from myself and comrades to protest bureaucratic collusion passed overwhelmingly at packed local meetings were met with hostility.
    Des sees the privatisation of the Dublin bins as happening last year and is surprised at the low key reaction. But the battle against privatisation was fought and lost a decade ago. The socialists needed to face up to the fact that the main facilitators of that defeat were the union bureaucracy. In the follow-up to the Irish Ferries defeat the left abandoned a consistent fight against social partnership. As a result they would never fully face up to the nature of the bin charge campaign as a battle against privatisation, would not admit for years afterwards that it had been defeated, never drew up a balance sheet or learned any lessons and, in the way of generals fighting the last war, modelled the Household charge campaign on yesterdays’ defeats.
    The relationship of the left with the bureaucracy was evident in 2003 outside of Mountjoy Jail during a Bin Charge protest on the jailing of 10 campaigners, when the campaign leadership sought to defuse the heckling by irate workers of Jack O’ Connor.
    That lessons have not been learned was also illustrated recently when a similar heckling of ICTU president Eugene McGlone occurred at the pre- budget march at the GPO in December. Hostility from the workers, arrogance from the bureaucrats, diplomacy from the representative of the household charges campaign chairing the meeting who told the crowd to be quiet so that we could be patronised.
    When will we ever learn?

  3. D_D

    January 20, 2013 8:19 pm

    There is a lot in Kevin’s comments that I agree with and I am grateful for his additional information from ‘inside the Corpo’, so to speak. I agree with much of what he has to say about the anti-bin tax campaign too, although how campaigning on double taxation, the real material effect of the charges on workers, weakened the campaign is something I fail to understand. How giving greater emphasis to a less immediate issue -privatisation- would have strengthened the campaign is something that also escapes me. My memory is that the left did raise the issue of privatisation throughout the anti-bin tax campaign.

    Kevin’s tendency to place a primary blame for neo-liberalism and then austerity on the trade union leadership is something he and I have long differed on. The far left always maintained its opposition to social partnership, though its ability to actually oppose it, particularly in a united fashion, declined.

    The heckling of union leaders at marches is a serious issue that needs far more discussion on the left. To cheer-lead it is very mistaken. Yes, a factor is a genuine angry response from “ordinary workers” to the lack of action, and indeed past actions, of the trade union leaders. Union leaders who have been on the receiving end of heckling and booing need to realise that there are consequences attached to their “brave” decisions to support unpopular cutbacks and climb downs. They need to end their aristocratic outrage at being crudely criticised by the Democracy. But how much has this factor (the noble mob) featured in the cases you cite? Among the most active hecklers, even where leaders from the left sought to defuse the heckling, there were some political activists and members of left organisations.

    For the organised left there are two questions: how can we call on the union leaders to take actions and when they do support a march, put money into it, and join the platform, then tolerate, support or even encourage a verbal barrage against them on that occasion? Furthermore, how can we co-operate with all stages of the organisation of a march, jointly organise a march in fact, and then tolerate, support or even encourage a verbal barrage against some of the speakers agreed as part of the organisation of the march? What game is being played?

    Secondly we need to ask if it is a good thing that we now have a situation where trade union leaders – of any hue – cannot address a public rally without being shouted down? To begin with, the recent barracking, at the CHAWT National Stadium rally and at the 24th November anti-austerity march, was the product of, or plugged into, an ignorance of the trade union movement, its configuration and its recent history. The speaker in the first case was Mick O’Reilly (a supporter of CAHWT) and in the second was Eugene McGlone. As it happens both together were the joint subjects of a high-profile case of victimisation by their own union leadership, with the possible involvement of figures outside their union, related to supporting workers in struggle and their general oppositional stance in the movement. Barracking Eugene McGlone as if he was a centrally influential member of the executive of the ICTU was like pillorying the robbed rather than the robber. That educated socialists should collaborate with this ignorance is disappointing.

    In any case, the substantial question for the left is whether it is a good situation or principle that trade union leaders effectively cannot speak in public in Dublin at this time without being barracked? Let’s leave over–the-top talk of fascism aside. The question does touch on Kevin’s contention that the union leaders are the enemy, or an enemy (the main facilitators of privatisation), rather than a conservative bureaucracy within the workers’ movement subject to pressure from below as well as from the employers and the state. Presuming the latter, as I do, means that, especially in a phase like the present when independent action at shop floor level is unlikely, moving or persuading or assisting union leaders to lead the members in some kind of fight back is important. The involvement of the leaders, and therefore of the official structures, authority and resources of the trade unions, is to be worked for, not their banishment from the streets. Rather than quietly smiling at the hectoring or even egging it on the left needs to tackle it among its members and supporters and provide some tactical and historical education to its followers. Rather than the shallow but ineffective satisfaction of shouting down union leaders in O’Connell Street the left should, as it does only sporadically, challenge union leaders where it matters, in the unions, at union branches, general meetings and conferences, organising majorities, or influential minorities, to overturn the uninterrupted dominance of officialdom.