Southern Ireland The anti bin tax struggle

The most significant battle this government has faced since its re-election has been on the bin tax. This is not just an attempt to get workers to pay more, it is about establishing a system of local charges in order to lay the basis for the privatisation of services. The capitalist establishment are united and determined to impose this tax which for them is a battering ram for their neo-liberal offensive. By Kevin McLoughlin

Average non-payment stood at between 60% - 70% in the four Dublin County Council areas which meant that hundreds of thousands of households were participating in the boycott. On a week to week basis hundreds of campaign activists across Dublin worked to build support for the anti-bin tax campaign.

The Socialist Party felt the government chose bin charges as the basis for the re-introduction of double taxation in Dublin for tactical reasons. They believed they had the measure of our support. In Fingal, the Council prepared for the battle by taking on and "battering" the bin workers, imposing new work conditions. The workers' unions did little to defend them against these attacks. The government felt they could successfully withdraw the refuse collection service and create a waste crisis. They knew that uncollected bins would create a difficult situation for campaigners and non-payers.

The key tactic of the councils and the government to defeat the campaign of non-payment of the bin tax was non-collection of the refuse of non-payers. During the anti-water charges campaign, the councils attempted to disconnect non-payers water. However, the anti-water charges campaign successfully stopped the disconnections or were able to organise reconnection. As easier and more straight forward task than organising for the disposal of refuse from tens of thousands of households.

To come up with an action plan to deal with uncollected rubbish which at the same time put the councils and government under real pressure would not be easy. It was essential that the anti-bin tax campaign developed tactics that gave confidence to the communities that they could effectively fight the councils. The imposition of non-collection would change the time frame for the battle and open up a period of weeks or a couple of months when either the campaigns would force the council to retreat or the tendency would be for people to pay the charge as the only realistic way of disposing of rubbish. It was vital to employ tactics that would cause the maximum disruption and impact but which could also involve as many people as possible.

The Socialist Party proposed the blockading of bin trucks in the communities. We knew that a conflict with the state was virtually inevitable. The outcome of the battle would be dependent on the number of residents that the campaign could mobilise to actively participate in the day to day struggle to stop non-collection.

Direct action against non-collection

Understanding the significance of non-collection was essential in psychologically preparing the campaign and its activists for the battle. Even when legally the councils had to collect the rubbish of non-payers, we correctly anticipated that the law would be changed. For us the task was always to try to build a campaign capable of fighting non-collection.

Unfortunately others in the campaigns fundamentally mis-read the line of the battle and overly emphasised the tactic of fighting the councils and the government through the courts and trying to win the battle with an electoral strategy. These sections of the anti-bin tax campaign failed to respond decisively when non-collection was imposed, some in reality were absent from the field of battle precisely at the time when it was most needed.

Generalised non-collection was imposed in Fingal on Wednesday 10 September 2003. Around the same time a very limited form of non-collection was implemented or threatened in Dublin City, South Dublin and Dun Laoghaire/Rathdown. The government decided to take on the campaign in Fingal where the campaign was strongest. Their gamble was that if they could defeat or severely damage the campaign in its strongest area, then the other anti-bin tax campaigns would be easier to defeat. Part of this strategy was also based on a belief that non-payers in other council areas would be intimidated into paying the charges.

It was clear, however, that the councils consciously avoided implementing widespread non-collection in the four council areas simultaneously so as to avoid a united mass response. They wanted to isolate the Fingal campaign.

During the battle in Fingal, we argued that the blockading of bin trucks should take place in the other council areas in order to maximise the pressure on all the councils and the government. If we allowed Fingal to be isolated, it and the other campaigns would be weakened. For us it was crucial to stop the councils employing a divide and conquer tactic.

No one could have predicted the viciousness of the attack from the political establishment and the state against the Fingal campaign and the Socialist Party in particular. The imposition of High Court injunctions and the arrest and jailing of Cllr. Clare Daly and Joe Higgins TD (Socialist Party elected representatives) was an attempt to intimidate and physically repress a working class movement with a level of state force not seen in decades.

Jailings begin

After Joe and Clare's imprisonment on 19 September, it was vital that all the campaigns respeonded with militant direct action. The jailings were a major attack on the anti-bin tax campaign as a whole. The jailings had a major impact on the conciousness of the working class. Working class people were disgusted that two honest, hard working campaigners for working class people's rights were in jail whilst politicians and businessmen who had been involved in corruption and defrauded the state of millions in unpaid taxes walked free. The Socialist Party recognised that if there was not a significant generalised response, all the anti-bin tax campaigns would be adversely affected and the councils and the government would be strengthened.

On 22 September 5,000 marched to Mountjoy prison in the most angry, working class protest that Dublin had seen in years. A number of communities throughout the other three council areas responded and organised blockades of bin trucks. After Joe and Clare were jailed, people became nervous about participating in protests. However it is a testament to peoples resolve that when the issues were explained properly, notwithstanding the danger of the courts and jail, the necessity to increase the disruption of the bin service was invariably understood and endorsed. Unfortunately the disruption to the service tended to be confined to where the campaign was strongest and was not widespread throughout the four council areas.

Notwithstanding the role that individual members of Sinn Fein played in the campaign, it was not any surprise that the party itself played no significant role in the battle. Sinn Fein will of course be claiming the opposite come election time.

More shocking, attempts to escalate the action were hampered by a number of lefts in leading positions (including officers of the campaigns) in the Dublin City and Dun Laoghaire campaigns, particularly the Socialist Workers Party. At best these people displayed extreme nervousness and conservatism. At worst, they resisted and tried to block direct action at precisely the time when it was necessary.

Their outlook was very pessimistic, essentially they didn't have any real confidence that working class communities would participate in real civil disobedience and direct action. Their real position was that we should concentrate on the local elections in June 2004 to strike a blow against the bin tax, where they obviously hoped to use the issue and the campaign for their own self interests to get elected.

Rather than seeing the tactics of blockades and direct action as representing the best way of fighting the bin tax, they seemed to operate on the utopian hope that non-collection would not be implemented. When it was implemented and when the campaign responded by trying to ground the service, they feared the struggle would be brought to a head too quickly, that the campaign could be defeated quickly which would of course diminish their electoral chances!

This political opportunism was explained with arguments like "an escalation would be premature at this point; that activity showed be maintained but that blockades should only be organised in areas affected by non-collection; that people would not understand why the campaign was causing disruption while the councils were willing to collect bins in their area; that blockades were losing the campaign support". In other words that people wouldn't be able to understand, after all that had happened, with workers' representatives in jail, the need for co-ordinated militant action so that the campaign didn't fall into the trap of divide and conquer. Fortunately the views of the SWP and the other conservative elements in the campaign were out of step with the attitudes and understanding of the majority in the working class communities.

At this stage the councils recognised that the outcome of the battle was still open. They jailed Joe and Clare to intimidate non-payers and the campaign activists. But at the same time they were very careful not to go over the top and they waited a full three weeks before imprisoning anyone else on Thursday 9 October; just two days before the protest march called by the Dublin Council of Trade Unions (DCTU).

Trade union leadership sit on the fence

In the three weeks since Joe and Clare were jailed the momentum behind the campaign had diminished as shown by the turnout of 3,000 on the DCTU march. Of course the trade union bureaucracy tried to use the turnout to justify their lack of action on the grounds that the mood wasn't there. Calling a march three weeks after the jailings, when Joe and Clare would be released within a week, hardly gave working class people confidence that the unions were going to respond in a serious way to the bin tax or the attacks on the right to protest.

This battle had now changed from being simply one against the bin tax. It had become a battle between the genuine anti bin tax campaigns who represented working class communities and the government and the state. There was huge opposition to the tax and in particular the jailings but the campaign didn't have the social weight in society to organise mass mobilisations and thereby imbue the working class with a confidence that we could now defeat the government. An official trade union demonstration on the second Saturday after the jailings would have been an altogether different matter and would have given a real momentum to the battle. It was precisely the potential for this battle to explode which led the union leaders to betray it.

Shutdown of the service

Even before the DCTU demonstration it was clear that the unions were doing their best to resist the massive pressure that was coming from their members. That's why the Socialist Party, independent of the union bureaucracy, raised the demand for a "Day of Action" on the following Tuesday, 14 October. The aim was to blockade all seven bin depots covering the whole of Dublin and shut the city's refuse service down. The call for the "Day of Action" was issued by Socialist Party Cllr. Ruth Coppinger at the DCTU demonstration.

As it turned out the entire service was shutdown on the 14 and 15 by blockades that represented a high point for the movement. The authority of the anti bin tax campaign had been massively increased because of the struggle and people being prepared to go to jail. That coupled with poor relations between the management and the bin workers meant that the workers respected and even supported our pickets. The pressure on the councils and the government was massive as indicated by the onslaught against the campaign in the media. Unfortunately over a month after the battle had started and in the absence of a decisive move by the trade unions, in particular SIPTU belief that the campaign could succeed wained.

At the same time the campaign in Fingal was being pushed back after over a month of a bitter battle. On a daily basis, anti-bin tax activists and Socialist Party members blockaded and thwarted the bin service. Bin trucks had been held in some communities for nearly two weeks with residents maintaining a 24 hour picket. Despite the massive disruption that the activists had caused and the support for the boycott of bin tags, the campaign was unable to mobilise enough people to actively participate on a daily basis to ground the refuse service.

The campaign was hampered by the fact that the majority of the campaign supporters were at work precisely when they were needed to blockade bin trucks. Even people who still completely opposed the tax began to tag their bins as the only way of getting rid of their rubbish. It is a tribute to the residents and the activists in Fingal, given everything that was thrown at them, that active resistance to non-collection continued for two months.

During the two day blockade of the bin depots (14 and 15 October) and immediately after, there was an avalanche of attacks on the campaign from every section of the media and the establishment. Fifteen people were at this point in jail and there still hadn't been a significant response from the trade unions. This had an important negative impact on the campaign.

The attacks from the councils continued and correctly more depot blockades were held in the last week in October. Union officials from SIPTU and IMPACT intervened with the bin workers with the conscious aim of sabotaging their support for the campaign. While many workers wanted to continue to support the campaign, they knew the union bureaucracy would not defend them against retribution from council management. To blockade the depots in these conditions, with a heavy handed intervention by the gardai, would have needed significant numbers of protesters. The blockades delayed the service for hours on the last Wednesday and Thursday of October but we didn't have the numbers necessary to hold the line and the Gardai physically forced the bin trucks out. Subsequently and defiantly, seven more residents were jailed for three weeks and fined for blockading the South Dublin bin depot.

Since then, non-collection was imposed in the South Dublin area using a Fingal style tag system on 2 February 2004. Again a mass boycott and direct action resistance were organised for a period of weeks. While the numbers of protesters were very respectable, they weren't enough to give the activists the confidence to impose the blockades as had happened previously. Essentially the same process took place as in Fingal but over a more condensed timeframe. Even though people have recognised that the campaign has been pushed back, opposition to the tax and support for the campaign that had been waged remains strong. More than four months after its high point, a similar mood of support for the campaign is reported in Fingal.

Dublin City and Dun Laoghaire / Rathdown areas will be next in the firing line. It is possible that non-collection will not be implemented before the local elections in June. It is crucial that the anti-bin tax campaigns in these areas use whatever time they have to build up their base of support in the communities and get more activists involved.

The Socialist Party along with many genuine activists showed that they were prepared to fight, stand their ground, and even go to jail in order to fight the bin tax. The Socialist Party has played and continues to play a fundamental leading role in the anti-bin tax campaign. Some accused us of pushing things too far. What we attempted to do was provide a clear honest explanation of what was needed to win this battle. We believe our tactics, our militancy and political arguments increased people's confidence and fighting spirit. It was necessary at different times to test the resolve of the councils, the police, the courts, the bin workers and the unions.

In such a difficult battle there was a danger of pushing certain tactics too far and becoming isolated. However the bigger danger was not pushing the struggle far enough, and for some, the SWP included, they decided not to fight at all. The tenacity and courage that so many working class people showed was inspirational. If the trade union leaders had demonstrated a fraction of their fighting spirit, the bin tax and in fact this government would be gone by now.

Support in working class areas

An RTE national poll indicated that the bin tax in Dublin was the 7th worst thing for people in 2003. It was seen as being worse than the war on Iraq and was only beaten by long standing, national issues like political corruption, housing and child abuse. In a rare moment of wisdom Joe Duffy (RTE radio presenter) stated that the bin tax was all about class. In an opinion poll in the Sunday Tribune in late October 38% of people in Dublin said they supported the anti bin tax campaign. This meant that a majority of working class people in the capital city supported the campaign and its direct action tactics. Working class people saw that the bin tax was part of the general assault by the government and therefore supported miltant resistance.

In working class communities the bin tax struggle has huge support. It more than any other situation summed up their experiences in post Celtic Tiger Ireland. The jailings and the attacks on the democratic right to protest have impacted on people's political consciousness

Twenty two ordinary working class people were prepared to go to jail. This shows that if the trade union leadership had put its full weight behind the anti-bin tax campaign that it could have mobilised tens of thousands into actively taking on the government.

The community-based direct action tactics and the determination of local residents to struggle against the bin tax battle has laid a marker for future struggles. Fundamentally, it also shows that we need to struggle to transform our unions and to remove the dead hand of the bureaucracy which refuses to defend working class people.

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This article is from the Spring 2004 edition of Socialist View (it was printed in late March '04).

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