This day last year, 16th January 2012, was a black day for Irish trade unionism. From that day bin collection in Dublin was carried out by a private firm, Greyhound, after Dublin City Council sold the business to them bringing bin collection by the city to an end after almost 150 years. The privatisation of bin collection in Dublin City Council was, among all the recent setbacks and climb downs of the trade union movement, a symbolic defeat in a heartland of Irish blue collar trade unionism. The Dublin bins have gone the way of other emblematic and once seemingly impregnable redoubts of Irish trade union stability, such as the integrity and public status of electricity supply and the sacredness of the JLC/ERO system. Unlike signal defeats further back, those at Pat the Baker, Ryanair and Irish Ferries for instance, the Dublin bins passed with only a whimper.
That the privatisation of Dublin city bin collection happened at all was a depressing development. The manner in which it occurred served only to lower the mood further. As the changeover happened some of the bin workers themselves were certainly dissatisfied with the situation and with the unions:
“Before heading out [for the last time at Davitt Road depot], the men met for about half an hour to discuss their options. There was talk of “missed opportunities”, of how they should have balloted for industrial action before Christmas, or sat in in the depot last week, keeping the lorries hostage. They derided both council management and their unions – Impact and Siptu. Shortly after 6.30am the seven crews set out. It was minus 1 degree, and still dark….” (Irish Times, 14th January 2012)
Even though this privatisation had been flagged for ages “Dublin city’s 110 former bin-men will not be told until Friday [21st January] what their new jobs will be”. (Irish Times, 16th January 2012) This was two days after their jobs had gone! How could this be let happen in a well organised workplace represented by two of the biggest unions in the county? If the axe had to fall couldn’t the basic terms and conditions of such a change not have been negotiated long in advance of D-day? The Irish Times report continues:
“At a meeting today at the Civic Offices, assistant city manager, Séamus Lyons, told the former binmen their ‘basic pay’ would be protected following their redeployment to other departments. They may be reassigned to work in the parks, water, roads, housing or drainage sections. A number expressed their anger that they still did not know where they would be working from next Monday. Mr Lyons said … they [the workers] would hear later this week the number of vacancies in each section and, based on seniority, who would have first preference for certain positions.
Later they were addressed by officials from Impact and Siptu, who said negotiations on the cleansing allowance and redeployment would continue tomorrow. They would brief the men again on Friday.”
As the bin tax campaign always argued, the fate of the bin workers and of the citizens were always linked. A media storm focused on the effects of the privatisation on the bin charges to Dublin tenants and householders, and on the plummeting quality of bin collection (e.g. Irish Times 24 January & 4th February, 2012).
Not unsurprisingly, this produced a media din louder than anything on the effects of the privatisation on the bin workers, on trade union strength and on the rights and conditions for both Dublin City Council and Greyhound workers. However, despite the claim to the contrary in the above Irish Times report from Davitt Road depot, Greyhound was not a non-union firm, whatever about the strength and fate of that unionisation. The debacle did not reach so low as to pass Dublin bin collection from a union stronghold to a union wasteland. As others – The City Bin Co. (with an opening offer of €99, all-in, for 3 bins for 12 months) - now move in to grab, like scavengers at a city dump, some of the market from Greyhound, it remains to be seen how trade union organisation in Dublin bin collection survives this race to the bottom.
The maintenance of the municipalisation of waste disposal in Dublin city was the last stand in a restructuring process that was decisively boosted by the defeat of the bin tax campaign. A defeat that, ironically, was sealed by the refusal of trade union officialdom to support the collection of all Dublin bins (paid or unpaid) at the beginning of the campaign*. A seal that was imprinted in wax by the highest official of the trade union movement in his denunciation of the jailed campaign leaders, a repudiation eagerly afforded front page headline promulgation by the Irish Times.
It was not, as Minister Pat Rabitte has claimed, because of the anti-bin tax campaign that the state was “successful in privatising the bin service right across the city.” It was because the valiant efforts of the thousands of people in the bin tax campaign were not successful that the state was “successful in privatising the bin service right across the city.” The imposition of charges on, the commodification of, bin collection was a prerequisite of the privatisation for profit of bin collection. As Joes Higgins and the campaign said, now and constantly at the time: “Imposing charges is a set-up and a preparation of the ground for privatisation.”
The process unfolded exactly as the campaign explained it would, including the escalation of the original bin charge to what it is now (with waivers also questioned). Just as the Campaign Against the Household and Water Taxes argued that the initial charges were bound for multiple rises.
Yet this last act in the process was an act in another process too: the collapse of the unions in the face of the offensive to make workers pay for the economic crisis and the implosion of the bubble. The end of Dublin City Council bin collection may or may not be directly connected with the Croke Park deal, but it is of a piece with it insofar as hitherto unimaginable changes and cuts are passively accepted in and by the trade union movement. Changes and cuts which serve only the purpose of bailing out the banks and the ’1%’ who cling to them, transferring wealth from working people to the fabulously rich, dismantling the gains won over decades of struggle and weakening the trade unions especially on the ground.
Without being close to the process of privatisation and of the ‘waste disposal’ of decades of trade union organisation and of 100 trade union members displaced by the privatisation, it is not possible to ascertain exactly what happened and who in our own organisations bears a responsibility for this sorry episode. Was this another ‘reform’ eased through by union representatives? Was it the end result of workers left with little fight, or obvious alternative, by years of disillusion, demoralisation and defeat? But what is needed, to salvage even something abstract out of this, is not so much to point the finger of blame as to learn a lesson. Not a lesson from deep analysis of the entrails of this setback of minor historical proportions, but a simple and obvious lesson for all levels of our movement and especially those with some capacity left to act on it.
Nothing is sacred. If the Dublin bin workers can be replaced by Greyhound, and replaced so easily, there is nothing that cannot be taken away. Walk down Davitt Road and Collins Avenue and see the state, test the strength, of the trade union movement. We don’t need to reinforce our battalions; we need to build all over again from the bottom up. It is nearer 1913 than we ever thought.
Simultaneous with the pitiful departure of the regiments from the Dublin depots came an uplifting and sudden struggle from another old guard section, the Vita Cortex workers in the second city, Cork. But we were not going to be handed a rejuvenated army on a plate. The Vita Cortex sit-in was heroic and heartening, and stood as the herald of a possible fight back. But it was also the desperate struggle for previously secure rights which came to its own natural if uplifting end, leaving little organisation behind, even when the struggle was won and these seasoned members scattered and left the field. We have to wake up and renew our unions by beginning to make a stand in the places where we have forces we can build up, by making a stand in the workplace now, in the union sections now, on the streets now, and not when we face a do-or-die fight to get the best we can before going down the road. Dublin City Council bin collection should have been one of those places where we made a stand.
* In Cabra a very solid local campaign had excellent connections with the bin workers. So solid in fact that in areas of Cabra large numbers were still not paying six years later (2009) and their bins were still being collected.