February 2012        

Household charges and water charges

As the crisis deepens and the ruling elites, political and economic, continue to shift the burden onto the backs of workers, they are also taking full advantage of the crisis to push a raft of proposals previously considered unthinkable.
     Working people have been hit by increases in direct taxes, levies, and cuts in wages. Those on social welfare are being cut by stealth, as in the latest threats to community employment schemes.
     There have been numerous demonstrations against the many budget measures, the largest being organised by the trade union movement and by community and grass-roots organisations. Few if any of the protests organised by the left succeeded in gathering any significant support.
     We have to realise that at present there is no mass resistance to the onslaught on the people’s living standards. A passive sense of powerlessness prevails. Even new and creative initiatives, such as the Occupy movement, in Ireland have ended in retreat—a serious enough thought for those on the left trying to overcome this deficiency of resistance and struggle.
     The proposed household charge and water charge are the latest in a series of measures dictated by the internal troika, backed by the mass media. Their cry is “There is no alternative” other than the one being imposed by the establishment.
     They are attempting to push it through as laying the basis for a property tax in 2013 to pay for local government. Householders have to register by the end of March this year and pay €100, but this will only be the starting-point, as the amount can be expected to rise very quickly. The ESRI has stated that it needs to be in the region of €1,300 per year as soon as possible.
     From the experience of many decades it is clear that resistance to charges of various sorts, if not led and controlled by community organisations and with grass-roots support and the support of at least sections of the trade union movement, tends to fail and almost always leads to further demoralisation and depoliticisation.
     We have a number of experiences that we should draw upon. In the early 1970s, with the mass mobilisation of the civil rights movement in the North, civil disobedience was a central weapon in the struggle to push home the demands of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association. One of those weapons was the rent and rates strike. This was a product of mass political mobilisation and was a tactic to back up the demand for civil rights. That mobilisation took time and dedication to build to the point where it broke the back of unionism.
     In the South the resistance to the first attempts at introducing water charges was community-led and had the support of major trade unions. The CPI encouraged non-payment and civil disobedience. The Plumbers’ Union actively supported such actions as turning water back on after councils had turned it off, in some instances welding valves so that they could not be turned off again. Some elements on the left at the time supported people taking advantage of the waiver, for electoral reasons, a strategy that the CPI opposed as opportunism.
     The legacy of the recent bin-tax campaign shows the consequences of a different approach. In most places the campaign petered out and was reduced to a very small core, leaving many activists and their families with large bills for arrears. This has left a bitter taste in people’s mouths and a reluctance to expose themselves again to bills and fines. It also led to public recrimination among the far left, who were very active in the campaign.
     It also needs to be acknowledged that some local campaigns that had genuine community support made efforts to help people negotiate some relief on arrears, but not all, and many people were left high and dry.
     If we are to build community resistance to the external and internal troikas it is important that we have clear objectives and a strategy that mobilises people against the weakest point of the establishment. Such a strategy would bring individuals, families and communities together to act in a united way, rather than putting the pressure on individuals and families to act separately.
     Experience also points to the importance of having the organised working class drawn into supporting that resistance, in the form of at least a significant section of the trade union movement. Individual statements from trade union leaders are worthless unless backed up by the active involvement of union branches and shop stewards.
     So far, most of the meetings around the country have been well attended, particularly in rural areas, where the issue of the septic tank charge and communal water charges has provoked much anger. Some on the left have interpreted this as support also for the campaign against the household charge, but this remains to be seen.
     Some of the forces involved see the issue as giving them tactical advantage in building electoral support for the next local elections. The dominant elements in the leadership of the household charges campaign are the same as those who led the failed bin-tax campaign. These organisations have in the past shown a cavalier approach, leading workers into various dead ends. They also tend to apply the same analysis and tactics as their mother ships in London.
     The austerity measures, including household charges and water charges, are aimed at extracting as much cash as possible from the pockets of working people and by a bargain-basement sale of our natural resources and state and state-sponsored businesses. Opposing these measures should not be seen only as vote-gathering opportunities.
     Many genuine activists who wish to oppose the troika have been attempting to mobilise grass-roots actions but are anxious not to bring people into a battle that has not been thought through, with no clear strategy either for winning or for how to retreat without complete demoralisation.
     We know from the viciousness of the right-wing coalition that they will not hesitate to recoup charges from social welfare and other entitlements. They will be careful not to create martyrs but will crucify the “little people.” Community organisations and workers need to think long and hard before deciding their attitude to this campaign. A number of serious questions arise.
     • Has the campaign a strategy for defending those who come under attack from the state in the form of fines etc.?
     • Has resistance been sufficiently developed to afford protection for those engaged in non-payment?
     • Will this campaign build unity among our people, or will it sow further division and demoralisation?
     • Will it attract the organised working class and trade union support?
     • Will it build collective resistance, or will it place the burden on the individual to stand alone?
     • Can the issue be used to create differences and splits among the cosy consensus of coalition councillors and TDs, in particular those of the Labour Party?

     Communities and local committees should debate these points and view any response as being only a necessary skirmish to see how their justifiable anger can be incorporated in a bigger, long-term battle of resistance.
     The final point is this. The weakest point of the establishment, and of its allies abroad, is the question of non-payment of the odious national debt. That remains the central and strategic weakness of the dominant economic and political forces in this state. The deepening of this understanding is the necessary politicisation of a credible alternative.
     This is a contribution to what we feel is an important and necessary debate about strategy and tactics in present conditions and given the existing balance of forces in our country.

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