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(en) Ireland, WSM*, Red and Black Revolution No 10 - Interview: Looking back on the battle of the Bins & Lessons Learnt

Date Thu, 22 Dec 2005 08:58:20 +0200


The campaign against the bin charges was one of the largest
organised mass movements of resistance to the state in recent years.
Local organising groups popped up across the city. It climaxed in the
winter of 2003, with the jailings of numerous activists in quick
succession. Here we talk to Dermot Sreenan, a member of the WSM
who has been a prominent activist in the campaign from the off.

What are the bin charges?

The bin charges are a charge for the collection and disposal of
domestic rubbish. This service was, and still is provided by the local
council. Funding which is supposed to be supplied from central
government, from our taxes, to the council for such services has
been drying up. The city manger, a glorified accountant, introduced
a charge for the collection of rubbish. It is a classic tactic, take a
public service, impose a charge, make it profitable, and then add the
final part of the jigsaw, privatise of the service.

Why would anarchists be arguing for lower taxes?

The bin-charges are frequently referred to as a double-tax, or a
stealth tax, which I prefer. You pay the same for your bin regardless
of your personal wealth. It costs over 180 euros to get your bin
collected if you earn 12,000 euros, if you earn 22,000 euros, if you
earn 122,000 euros. No matter what you earn, you pay the same
charge. In summary, it's unfair, and this bin-tax is another attack on
our class and we fought against it for that reason. At the same time
as this tax was being imposed, millions were being found in
off-shore accounts set up for the ruling class to avoid paying any tax
at all. The rich avoid paying taxes, and the rest of us have it
deducted at source.

How did the campaign start off?

The campaign started off in a room in a club, with a wide selection
of various people from different left wing groups. The Socialist Party
and the WSM had the experience of being in the campaign that had
defeated the water tax, and we knew that this tax was coming
because it had been predicted in the estimates. (The 'estimates' is
name given to the budget that the city manager put forward as the
costs of running the city for the year. In this year he had put in a new
cost for collection of rubbish.). There were representatives from
other groups there, the Socialist Workers Party, the Workers Party,
and Sinn Fein. I recollect that there was about twenty or so people in
the room, and it was decided to contest this issue with a mass based
non-payment campaign. A steering committee was set up, and we
started building the resistance to this new tax.

What was the involvement of anarchists in the campaign?

We were involved from the very start of the campaign. I was on the
steering committee for four years, being campaign secretary for the
first two. However it's one thing to have someone sitting on a
committee but far more important to us was to build real local
groups so that when the fight really came we could have every street
organised for that battle. I and a number of comrades were involved
in getting the first meetings off the ground in the area where we were
living, the Liberties. We started to ask people to not pay and not to
apply for waivers (an exemption from paying granted to those on low
incomes). We started to get a local group off the ground. We worked
closely with some people from the Socialist Party in this task. In
other areas of the city members of the WSM were taking the same
initial steps in getting the campaign and local groups going. For us it
is a very important step to get people involved in the struggle, to get
them to saying no to this new tax, to show them that resistance is
not futile. That was the only way that a real mass non-payment
campaign could be built. Many local meetings attracted hundreds of
our neighbours

Was there any involvement of globalisation/anti-capitalist activists in
the campaign?

No, not really. I think that there was a perception that the campaign
wasn't for them. Of course this is not true, but many of these
activists live in rented accommodation and it was unclear as to
whether the landlord would deal with the charge or the tenants. So
perhaps they didn't see it as affecting them. Most of the people
involved in the campaign were older, people who were settled, with
children and grandchildren, while the anti-capitalist activists tended
to be much younger. The anti-bin tax campaign was also more of a
local / community campaign. So perhaps the anti-capitalists didn't
feel that there was a place for them or that there was an easy way for
them to get involved. Also, the campaign was probably seen as being
dominated by the old trotskysist left, and many of the anti-capitalists
have a poor view of these groups, having had experience with one or
other of their various front organisations.

How did the campaign develop?

Initially we held local meetings. We would invite the city councilors
to come and meet their electorate and explain their position on the
bin-charges. Most declined to show up, so we would line up chairs
with missing councillors' names on them. Then the meeting would
discuss how to organise the area to drive up membership of the
campaign, and how to increase non-payment. Certain areas got local
groups off the ground very quickly, and these then continued to
meet, organising stalls and getting leaflets into all the streets in the
area. Some areas only ever had one meeting and never seemed to
meet again.

What strategies were used?

The primary strategy was to ensure non-payment. This meant taking
on the arguments of the local loyal Labor Party people who tried to
rubbish our campaign, and who promised that some leader or other
would get rid of the bin-charges. Labour would look after the people,
that would've been a first!

The main strategy in the early stages was to get recognised as a
campaign, to let people know that this tax was being fought against,
and to spread it far and wide and to drive up non-payment and in
turn increase the membership of the our campaign. In the later
stages when they stopped collecting rubbish we blockaded the bin
trucks, either in our estates or at the depots, arguing that they
collected all the bins or none of the bins.

What were the organisational structures of the campaign?

A major conference was held, the campaign was launched, and the
steering committee was elected and recognised. The anarchists tried
to ensure it was as democratic as possible, and we had motions
passed at conference that all major decisions should be taken at
All-Dublin Activists' meetings which would meet regularly and the
job of the steering committee would be to keep the campaign
functioning, and in the media, in the meantime.

On paper, the organisational structure was good, but decisions aren't
made on paper, they are made in rooms full (or not so full) of people.
In reality, the organisation of the campaign was poor.

Properly functioning local groups weren't set up in every area, and
the All-Dublin Activists' meetings were often poorly attended (and at
times its decisions were ignored by the steering committee).

As anarchists we wanted local groups to function properly and
organise their area for themselves. What I mean by that is that the
local people are in charge of the local group, that they are calling the
shots, they are electing their delegates to the All-Dublin activists'
meetings. For people to seize control of their own lives and to take
the fight to the authorities, the local group had to work in a very clear
and openly democratic way, with those involved taking the decisions
and acting on them. This way people could learn things like
speaking in public, drafting leaflets and convincing their neighbours
to join the campaign.

In other areas, and because of the nature of politics of their parties,
once a leafleting network was established and membership was
being collected, members of the Socialist Party or the Socialist
Workers Party were happy to represent the views of the area, without
going to the trouble of holding that many meetings

Instead of a campaign based on strong local groups, whole swathes
of the city were carved up along political party lines. Local meetings
would be organised, and depending on which party, the Socialist
Party or the Socialist Workers Party, was stronger on the ground,
that area was then run by that party. Over a period of time, the
campaign evolved where each party took charge of particular areas of
the city, and local groups were dependant on their contact on the
steering committee for leaflets and information. In some cases local
groups only existed on paper, or only existed in the sense that
someone from the steering committee would drop off leaflets to a
group of people in the area, who would then distribute them.

To make matters worse, co-operation amongst members from both
parties was poor. Meetings would happen and people from the other
party wouldn't be informed about them. So while there was a level of
co-operation between the two major trotskyite parties, the Socialist
Workers Party and the Socialist Party, but there was also a deep level
of distrust. The Socialist Workers Party felt that they had ignored the
anti-water charge campaign (which successfully resisted a similar
tax a few years previously) and in this way they had lost an
opportunity. They did not want this to happen again and so were
involved from the very start. The Socialist Party had worked in the
previous campaign, but this time had to work with the other
Trotskyist party. The steering committee was split, having members
from both parties represented

Did all local groups function like this?

In areas where we lived we tried to encourage our local groups to
meet regularly and to be in charge of their local campaign group, but
unfortunately there weren't very many of us so we could only be
active in a couple of local areas. Some of the other smaller political
groups that were involved, such as the Irish Socialist Network in
Finglas and Working Class Action in Cabra and East Wall, also tried
to build local groups that were run by local people. Later on, these
were among the most active parts of the city campaign.
Unfortunately though, the groups decided to run candidates in the
local elections. So ultimately, this lead to the most active groups still
being asked to elect someone to sort out the problem for them,
instead of sorting it out for themselves.

What did the campaign publish?

The campaign published a news bulletin that was aimed at
householders, letting them know the non-payment figures, what
moves the council had been up to, and most importantly
encouraging people not to pay. It reacted to the council's threat that
they were going to pursue people for money owed. Letters
threatening court action went out with alarming regularity, followed
by some court summonses. We produced the news bulletin with the
constant message of "Don't Panic - Don't Pay".

The council waged a very heavy and direct propaganda war against
the campaign. Very expensive council advertisements were aired on
prime time television telling people that a tsunami of waste was
coming their way if we didn't recycle. The truth was the council
didn't care about re-cycling, they just wanted money out of the
householders (for instance, initially they levied a flat charge and
didn't take into consideration how often or how full peoples' bins
actually were).

How much of a mass mobilisation was there when non-collection of
rubbish started in parts of the city?

Eventually, when non-collection started in the city, it started in areas
where the campaign was not strong. This made perfect sense from
the Council's point of view. They had all the facts and knew the
places where there was high payment (and no active campaign), and
which places were defiant (where the campaign was strong and well
supported). The sad truth was that although the campaign had
grown, it hadn't grown strong enough, and when non-collection
started it meant that there were a lot of political activists going out to
areas to try and ensure that collection of the bins took place. We
blockaded the trucks in our estates to force the trucks to take the
rubbish. A lot of people were nervous as they were being intimidated
with talk of 'breaking the law' etc. and all too quickly injunctions
preventing the blockades were granted and arrests were made.

What was the campaign's reaction to the arrest and jailing of
activists?

The campaign ended up with a lot of people arrested in a very short
space of time. This was the time when the council, ably assisted by
the state, went all out to smash the campaign. Joe Higgins and Clare
Daly (Socialist Party) got arrested out in Fingal, and they were
followed by 12 more arrests from the city campaign. I think people
were shocked at the lengths the council were prepared to go to get in
their precious tax, but road to profit has to be paved. Nearly four
thousand people marched to Mounyjoy prison. The unions pledged
their support, and to stay strong. Over a 1,000 people marched from
Cabra (a very strong part of the campaign) to the gates of Mountjoy
prison again in a tremendous show of solidarity from one area.

After this initial stand-off the Council got smarter and started doing
non-collection only from certain depots in the city. We knew that
non-collection was going to be implemented in the city area. The
campaign took a decision to attempt to blockade, to stop all the
trucks from going out on their routes, when we knew that they were
doing non-collection from a specific depot. This meant getting to the
bin depots very early in the morning, at around 7.00 am. The
campaign stated that all bins would be lifted up or none of them
would be picked up. This was the idea behind the tactic of
blockading the depots.

The campaign didn't really have the numbers to blockade all the
depots successfully, and once again the union leaders, who spoke of
support outside the prison walls, couldn't be counted on for tangible
support when this started. In short, I would say that the effect of the
arrests was to intimidate people and I think it worked.

Why and how did the escalation end?

After two days of blockades on all depots where non-collection was
happening, I got a phone call from someone on the steering
committee saying they were calling it off for the third day. I think
people were tired, but it's interesting to see how bad the decision
making process was in reality. No meetings, no real discussion. Just
a phone call saying that there wasn't going to be any pickets for the
third successive day.

Later, the Campaign took a decision to start blockading commercial
refuse collections that were run from certain depots in the evening.
This meant it was easier for people to get to them after work, and we
had some successful blockades. Injunctions, threatening jail if we
didn't leave, were read out to us and we ignored them when there
were enough of us.

After a good protest outside City Hall, I remember attending an
activist meeting. I was still on the steering committee and I
remember the reluctance of the committee to go downstairs and talk
to the activists assembled, because they hadn't a line worked out for
the tactics to be employed at this stage. I wanted the activists
meeting to decide what we should do next, that was the closest thing
we had to getting a democratic decision. There were many elements
of farce, but this was the height of it. Eventually that meeting
decided to concentrate our forces on one depot, early in the morning
and to see if we could at least block that one for the day. The
decision was passed by most of the people in the room, a clear
majority.

The following day as I cycled down in the rain to the depot, I got a
phone call from someone in the Socialist Party who fought on this
issue in Cork, and had nothing to do with the Dublin campaign,
informing me that someone else had called for another depot to be
blockaded instead. We were left with about 8 people to blockade that
depot in the lashing rain. There appears to be a scant regard for
democracy in certain parties.

The escalation ended because we couldn't sustain it, there weren't
the numbers. There weren't the numbers because when the
campaign was being built. Certain parties were happier to establish
leaflet droppers than real functioning local groups. Weak local
groups meant few people active on the ground, which meant no
numbers for the blockades.

What kind of support the campaign get from the trade unions?

I don't think there were many problems getting motions passed in
favor of the campaign. This happened in many of the trade unions,
but what did this mean in real terms? It was more difficult to get
money from them to support the campaign, so all the money that
was used in the campaign had to come from donations or
memberships.

The campaign knew that the Unions would have a very important
role to play in this fight but as usual when it really came down to the
crunch, the leadership and the officials ran away from the fight, and
into the arms of the bosses. In South Dublin we heard of union
members being ordered back into their bin depot by officials. When
we were blockading the bin depot at Grangegorman a member of the
Mandate trade union (who was also a supervisor) read out the
injunction to the campaign and warned us that we were breaking the
law.

In effect, if you were in the union, and you wanted to make an issue
of this, it didn't appear to me that you were going to get any backing
from the officials. In fact those bin workers who were deeply
sympathetic to the campaign and didn't pay the double tax
themselves, were so paranoid that they would only meet secretly
with the campaign. I think that is testimony to truth behind the
Trade Union motions in favor of the campaign. The members were
in support; the Union leadership was most definitely not going to
make this a battleground. The leadership of the Unions did what
they often do; they calmed members down and de-escalated at every
opportunity.

Did the campaign approach the bin-workers ?

Yes, we did this officially though SIPTU and also unofficially by
talking to many of the men who were living in neighborhoods where
the campaign was strong. Like I mentioned before, there were many
bin workers who were sympathetic, but they knew in their hearts
that the Union, despite having motions in favor of the campaign,
was not going to support them. The bin-workers, when they were
caught up in a blockade, were often quite cheerful and never
displayed any animosity to the activists. They would just go back
into their cabs and call their supervisor.

How did Electoral Politics influence the campaign ?

This is a good question because I think that this had an
overwhelming influence on the way the campaign worked, and
developed. The illusion was sown early on that it was the election of
Joe Higgins to the Dail that truly defeated the ''Water-Tax" seven
years ago. The anti-bin tax campaign never even reached the same
strength as the water-tax campaign and I think it's because people
believed the myth. Thousands of people were involved in the
campaign against the bin-tax, but in the end all they were asked to
do was to vote for one protest candidate or the other.

Many of the local groups were organised with an eye to the election.
The major organisers from the political groups saw themselves as
potential candidates. They were happy to often be the sole point of
contact between local groups and the steering committee and the
campaign. They didn't believe the myth, but they certainly
propagated it. They knew that if the campaign developed in this way,
that no other 'independent' candidates would emerge. Also, that if
they were the ones who brought the news of the campaign, it stands
to reason that they would most likely be the ones to stand up for the
people and represent them when the elections come

So many local areas didn't meet too often, and when they did it was
only to listen to news of how the campaign was faring. Batches of
leaflets were given to people to distribute, but they were usually just
the main campaign newsletters. In effect, local groups didn't develop
an autonomy that they required in order to give people a sense of
ownership of it. People needed to be drawing up local leaflets,
instead they were being handed ones from the steering group to
hand out. There were lulls in activity, but I think over a period of
time people didn't feel like they owned the campaign, even in their
own areas.

What lessons can we draw?

I think that the founding principals of the campaign were fine, a
mass campaign of non-payment, but it's in the structure and
application that this campaign failed and failed badly. Local groups
have to come together, function in a democratic way, and bring
others into them, and then those groups have to be federated
upwards. The way this campaign started was with 22 people in a
room. The next campaign should start with 22 people in your estate,
talking about how you are going to not pay the new tax for water, or
whatever it might be.

It should not be left up to far left political parties to divide up areas
and organise them. Sure they can have a meeting about the issue,
initiate something, but you cannot leave it to them because in a few
years they are just going to ask you to vote for them. When we
needed the numbers in this campaign we didn't have them and I
firmly believe that's for a few reasons. Real functioning local groups
were not built in enough areas, and the campaign did not spread into
enough areas of the city, and there was no real support for the
workers when they needed it from the Unions.

When an issue like this comes around again, local meetings have to
happen quickly in our communities. We cannot wait for word from
the central steering committee, we cannot wait for a central
campaign to get off the ground, what each of us can do is organise a
meeting in our areas and get people prepared for the next fight.

Working class people must seize the opportunity; they must own the
campaign from the start and view it as an opportunity to bloody the
Councils noses and put a halt to their gallop towards privatised
services.

It seems that the anarchist arguments weren't that influential in
terms of the campaign structure. Why do you think that was ?

The anarchist argument was won in terms of having a structure
where the All-Dublin Activists' meeting was the supreme decisions
making body of the campaign. If that All-Dublin meeting was
comprised of delegates from real functioning local groups, then I
think it would've worked. But, that was on paper, and campaigns are
not won on paper. The anarchists were weak, there wasn't enough of
us. We only had sustained activity in one area, and some activity in a
few other areas. In some places we only had one individual living
locally, so we weren't in a strong position in terms of influencing the
campaign across the city. So the structure was ignored, and so too
were decisions from the all Dublin meetings. The real place where
anarchists lost the argument was in the one over elections, and we
lost that because we couldn't argue it in all the areas where people
stood for elections. We couldn't hold back the stampede for
power.....

What next?

Well, it will only be a short time before we get to take them on again.
Fresh from this victory, I would only say it will be no time at all
before they dust down their plan to start charging us for the water. It
may sound ridiculous that they could attempt to charge us for a
resource we appear to be deluged in everyday, but our chance to take
them on will be at hand, and if we can learn from this, it will be our
chance to put this privatisation monster back in the box.
An archive of photos of and reports from the struggle is online at
http://www.struggle.ws/wsm/bins.html
--------------------------------------------
This article is from Red & Black Revolution
(no 10, Autumn 2005) http://struggle.ws/wsm/rbr/rbr10/index.html

Read more articles from this issue
http://struggle.ws/wsm/rbr/rbr10/index.html

Print out a PDF file of Issue 10
http://struggle.ws/wsm/pdf/rbr/rbr10.html

Back issues of Red and Black Revolution
http://struggle.ws/wsm/rbr.html#Back
====================================
* WSM is an anarchist federation
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