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Just can’t take it anymore

Unite leads way as Irish unions reject ‘water tax’
Alex Klemm, Friday, July 17th, 2015

Unite is at the forefront of Ireland’s Right2Water campaign, which has mobilised hundreds of thousands of people in the Republic against yet another austerity tax: water charges.


Although significant concessions were squeezed from the government last year, the campaign for complete abolition of this hated ‘water tax’ continues.


Just last week, the unions affiliated to Right2Water took the campaign to the Biennial Delegate Conference of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions – and won.


Up to now, Right2Water had been supported by five unions (Unite; retail workers union Mandate; the CPSU, representing lower-paid public sector workers; the CWU; and plasterers’ union OPATSI).  Other unions were ambivalent, while the country’s two largest unions rowed in behind government claims that water charges were necessary to allow the Irish Water utility to borrow off-balance-sheet.


On a fittingly damp day in Ennis, Co Clare, the argument came to a head following a motion proposed by Unite member Tom Hogan on behalf of the Waterford Council of Trade Unions calling on Conference to reject water charges and campaign for a referendum to ensure that Ireland’s water supply remains in public ownership.


An amendment was tabled which effectively nullified the WCTU motion – and the debate was on.


The five Right2Water unions were supported by Northern Ireland delegates who feared that, if Congress adopted a pro-water charges stance, the rug would be pulled out from under their own long-running campaign to prevent water charges being introduced in Northern Ireland and ensure that NI Water remains in public ownership.


Following a passionate but comradely debate, the Waterford Council of Trade Unions won the day – and the Irish trade union movement is now committed to opposing water charges.


“Unite became involved in the Right2Water campaign because this is an issue that affects every single one of our members,” explained Unite’s Ireland Secretary Jimmy Kelly.


“After six years of austerity, water charges have lit the touchstone of public anger – and that was very clear from the debate in Ennis.  Working people just can’t take any more.”


Tipping point

Unite education officer Brendan Ogle, one of the Right2Water campaign coordinators, agrees that the imposition of water charges was a tipping point.


“For years, commentators had been asking why the Irish people didn’t protest,” Brendan said.


“Austerity cut after austerity cut seemed to be met with grudging silence.  But then the Government launched an attack on a basic human right – our Right2Water – and silence turned to fury.


“Under the umbrella of the Right2Water campaign hundreds of thousands took the streets of our town and cities.  None of that could have happened without the involvement of Unite and the other Right2Water unions.


“Now, the Irish trade union movement is united in its opposition to water charges – and that means a lot to communities campaigning on the ground.”


Jimmy Kelly believes that the debate in Ennis went far beyond water.  “The anti-water charges movement is really about austerity,” he said.


“It’s no coincidence that the ICTU conference opened with a standing ovation for the people of Greece.  Trade unionists know that, as in Greece, austerity is ripping the heart out of communities and out of our economy.


“By voting to oppose water charges, we were voting against austerity and all it implies.  But motions are one thing – now we need to translate that opposition into action for political change.  After all, water charges will only be abolished by a progressive government – and our task is to create the conditions for a progressive government to come to power.”


That is a mammoth job in a country where a weak and fractured Left has traditionally allowed two right-wing parties to alternate in government – but the Right2Water unions have not shied away from the challenge.


On May Day, they launched public consultation process to develop policy principles around which progressives can unite.  That process is continuing, and meanwhile Right2Water is mobilising for another mass demonstration on August 29 – this time, with the implicit backing of the whole trade union movement.




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