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Union battle marks a new move forward towards water privatisation

19 March 2023

Irish Water staff.

A recent dispute between the SIPTU leadership and their members in the water service marks a new offensive against workers as the government, with the support of the union leadership, begins to reverse the concessions made to the mass water charges campaign some years ago.

In August last year Cork workers protested that the SIPTU leadership had reneged on a service level agreement that retained their status as public sector workers. The issue arises from a new water services act that establishes Irish Water, rebranded as Uisce Éireann, as the sole provider of water services. The new company will be a private provider.

Workers accuse SIPTU of not honouring a service level agreement and taking away a democratic right for the workers to vote on the issue.  The union responded by saying that it was not them but rather the government that changed the agreement, that they had to negotiate within that framework, and that there was no need for a ballot as all the bureaucrats on the committee were based in water services - something the workers deny.

The tone of the union response to the workers has gradually become more threatening and it has emerged that ICTU leader Patricia King has taken up a board position with the new company.  There is no doubt about what is happening.  Water services are being fully privatised.  The next step is for resources to be sold off and the reintroduction of water charges applied to the general population.

Collaboration by the union bureaucracy should not be surprising.  They had an opportunity to insist on nationalisation at the end of the water charges campaign.  They demanded a suspension of charges but agreed the retention of Irish Water, of a charging structure and of ongoing installation of meters in households.

Now the new water services act will establish a private monopoly which will offer the opportunity for transnational investment and demand payment to fund the new system.

There is a general mood of resistance to charges, but the left response is a diversion.  The idea is that we campaign for a referendum to nationalise water. This is a legalistic and parliamentary way to proceed. If we want to nationalise water we campaign directly for that and build workers campaigns. The problem with this for the socialist groups is that it involves a confrontation with the majority of the union leadership.

The fight against privatisation is a central issue.  It is not confined to water but dominates every aspect of Irish society. The economic constraints of transnational dominance line up with European Central Bank regulations to demand privatisation of water, health and, most importantly today, housing.

The water charges campaign was above all a symbol. It was the straw that broke the camel's back. In a country with Ireland's rainfall and endless cuts and charges, paying for water was a step too far. Now we face a new round of austerity and the attacks will come thick and fast, with poverty and homelessness stalking the working class.

There have been mass riots in France over extending the pension age. Even Britain has seen broad industrial action around the cost of living and the strangulation of public services.  Why is Ireland silent in the face of wage restrictions, the collapse of housing provision and now a new threat to water? We must shake ourselves free of the smothering blanket of a complacent union bureaucracy, openly collaborating with the bosses. The starting point is to demand the basic necessities of life for the working class and reject their reduction to mere commodities left to the mercy of the market.

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