Socialist View, No. 14, Spring 2005

We Won't Pay Campaign


THE STRENGTH OF opposition to water charges was shown in February as 2,000 water workers took strike action and hundreds of people took to the streets in protest against Tony Blair's plans to introduce water charges and privatisation of the water service.

By Gary Mulcahy

On 9 February, water service workers enthusiastically took part in a one day strike against the water "reform" package being rammed down their throats by New Labour. What the government is implementing is a package of counter-reforms. It includes the privatisation of the water services through the formation of a so-called GoCo or Government-Owned Company. This will entail the water service being taken out of the civil service, together with the workforce's civil service status and their hard won conditions. It will operate as a privately owned company in the marketplace, initially with the government owning all shares, but it is then free to sell shares to the water multinationals who must be salivating at the prospect of the profits to be made.

Fat cat directors from multinational water companies have been headhunted to take over the GoCo. The new chief executive of the water service, Katharine Bryan, has been appointed on a salary of 150,000 a year plus bonuses. 30,000 a week is being spent on lawyers' fees while an extra 9million has been put aside for the transition to privatisation.

700 jobs are to be cut. The government claims that water charges are necessary to raise the revenue to invest in the service, but how can the infrastructure be improved when you cut over a third of the workforce?

While the preparations for privatisation are at an advanced stage, Minister John Spellar claims to be consulting with the public in Northern Ireland on the future of the water service. The deadline for submissions to the most recent Equality Impact Assessment consultation has just passed. Yet the mass opposition to privatisation and water charges expressed at earlier rounds of "consultations" has been ignored. These so-called consultation exercises should be boycotted by all organisations who claim to oppose the government, including the unions.

Water workers' strike

The February one day strike by water service workers showed the determination and willingness of workers to take action to defend their jobs and conditions. Depots and treatment works were shut down and well over 100 sites were picketed. Water service workers are organised in four unions; NIPSA, T&GWU, GMB and Amicus. However, in all these unions workers are being held back by right-wing leaderships who have no will nor ability to lead a serious battle to stop privatisation.

The leadership in these unions have accepted privatisation and water charges. They are merely interested in negotiating as best they can a deal to secure their members' conditions as part of a GoCo. But it is impossible to secure conditions and wages when a service is privatised. Even workers in the public and civil service cannot secure their conditions without a fight.

It took two years for the water service trade union group to ballot for strike action after the government announced its plans. It has no intention of organising any more strike action. The trade union bureaucracy likewise has no intention of fighting water charges. This was shown by the statement made by Tom Gillen of the ICTU in an interview with the BBC. Gillen said "I don't mind paying for water if I am not paying for the infrastructure, let the government pay for the infrastructure". This position represents an acceptance of water charging.

Others in the trade union movement have even called for people to be taxed more by the government. Bumper Graham, a NIPSA official and secretary of the Water Service Trade Union group has publicly argued for the Coalition Against Water Charges to adopt a position of calling for an increase in rates instead of water charges. It is widely accepted that years of neglect and under-investment by successive governments has led to the deterioration of the water service, not because people are not paying enough in rates. As it is, on top of water charges, the domestic and regional rates are set to go through the roof over the next three years.

We Won't Pay Campaign

The Socialist Party is playing a leading role in building the We Won't Pay Campaign. This campaign is committed to building groups in Protestant and Catholic working class communities with the aim of convincing tens of thousands of householders not to pay their water charges. A mass campaign of non-payment of the water charges is the only tactic that can defeat the charges. At the end of the day, the government and local politicians can choose to ignore demonstrations and protests, but they can't ignore a mass campaign of civil disobedience that leaves their new water company penniless and with massive bad debts.

The Coalition Against Water Charges (CAWC), organised by ICTU, decided to organise a day of action on 12 February to coincide with the water workers' strike earlier in the week. Less than a thousand people attended marches and protests in Belfast, Derry, Enniskillen and Cookstown. It is too early in the campaign to expect thousands to come flooding onto the streets. As the introduction of water charges approaches, momentum can be built and sizeable demonstrations can have a good impact. But this will not be organised by the trade union bureaucracy, it will be done from below - from the working class communities and the ranks of the unions.

Non-payment is key

Around 350-400 marched through Belfast city centre. The protests held in Enniskillen and Cookstown were organised solely by the We Won't Pay Campaign and were well attended. The most significant feature of the Belfast demonstration was the strength of the We Won't Pay Campaign (WWPC) intervention. The WWPC dominated the march and was the only campaign that had activists from the communities representing real campaigns. It showed the roots the campaign is developing within working class communities throughout Belfast. However, this was not reflected on the platform where a long list of union and community representatives spoke about how water charges need to be stopped, but not one speaker called on people to refuse to pay water charges.

Communities Against the Water Tax (CAWT) were applauded by union bureaucrats from the platform for their role in building opposition to water charges. CAWT is essentially a coalition of the Northern Ireland Anti-Poverty Network, the Cliftonville Regeneration Forum and the Socialist Workers Party.

The Northern Ireland Anti-Poverty Network (NIAPN) represents many organisations. Among its affiliates are Fianna Fail, a party responsible for introducing water charges in the South. Another affiliate to NIAPN is the Northern Health & Social Services Board that is responsible for privatising parts of the NHS.

NIAPN is completely dependent on state funding. It is also against non-payment. Instead of calling on people to refuse to pay water charges, it has said it will defend people who do not pay water charges. It is clear that NIAPN will not build non-payment.

Communities Against the Water Tax has attempted to build by working through existing structures like community groups and District Councils. Like the Northern Ireland Anti-Poverty Network, most community groups are also dependent on government funding to survive. In fact there is a vast "community" industry throughout the North that in effect acts as a local bureaucracy in the communities. Many of these are also not genuine community groups, in the sense that the community democratically controls and funds them and uses them as campaigning bodies. In a lot of cases, they are controlled by right-wing parties and paramilitaries.

However, there are genuine community groups that are independent and organise local campaigns in the community. But even then, a mass non-payment campaign cannot be built through such existing structures. It requires an independent mass membership-based campaign that is democratically organised in the communities and has layers of activists building on the ground. By organising meetings through District Councils, illusions can be sowed in the will of right-wing politicians to fight water charges. It is important to point out the real role of the main parties.

DUP MP Peter Robinson was recently quoted in a debate (16 March) in Westminster saying that the We Won't Pay Campaign is calling on people to refuse to pay water charges. He stated that his position was not "won't pay", but we are already paying. Yet, he went on to demand that water charges be introduced over a three-year period and the regional rate should be frozen. He was then followed by UUP MP David Burnside who argued that metering should be examined. This is the true position of the DUP and UUP - with some trivial alterations, water charges are acceptable. The SDLP and Sinn Fein also agreed to water charges both in the Assembly and at council level. Both these parties now claim to oppose water charges, but what is their plan to beat them?

These parties are opposed to a mass campaign which is democratically organised in the communities and, crucially, which extends across the sectarian divide uniting Catholic and Protestant communities.

The We Won't Pay Campaign continues to spread into more areas across Northern Ireland. There is massive anger and a militant mood in working class areas that are embracing the idea of mass non-payment.

The building of the We Won't Pay Campaign into a mass cross-community campaign that can challenge and defeat the water charges will also have wider political consequences. Many working class people would experience a practical example of how working class united action between Protestants and Catholics is the most effective way of fighting the right wing policies of New Labour, the DUP, Sinn Fein, the UUP and the SDLP. Some will also be won over to the idea of building a new mass working class party as a force that can offer a real alternative to these green and orange sectarian parties.

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This article is from the Spring 2005 edition of Socialist View (it was printed in late March '05).

The contents list for this issue is here, with the back issues here.