Water Workers Show Rank And File Power

Water workers in city and county councils are engaged in a large and effective rank-and-file campaign across the country.

The 6-county geographic spread and 5-month length of the workers’ actions including the use of unofficial industrial action, something we rarely see these days, is remarkable. It includes:


Street Protest Cork Sat 23 July

Street Protest Cork Wed 2 August

SIPTU Office Protest Waterford Wed 10 August

Co. Co. Office Protest Carlow Fri 19 August

Co. Co. Office Protest Kilkenny Fri 9 September

Cost of Living Coalition Cork Protest Sat 18 October

Cost of Living Coalition National Protest Dublin Sat 24 October

SIPTU and Unite Offices March Dublin Fri 14 October

SIPTU Office Tralee Fri 28 October


Thursday and Friday 20-21 October

Tuesday and Wednesday 25-26 October

Tuesday and Friday 1 & 4 November

The mounting effects of these workers’ actions and protests can be seen in at least three ways.


Last week on Friday 28 October 2022 Connect, Forsa, SIPTU and Unite launched the #KeepWaterPublic campaign as a direct result of pressure from the workers. People Before Profit supports this initiative and will campaign on it. It will put the government under pressure and exposes the government’s failure to prioritise water.

Simultaneously, we support the workers’ specific call for this date to happen before the transfer is to be effected on 1 January 2023. Minister Darragh O’Brien has said he ‘looks forward to a referendum in the new year’. This is not good enough. We should be also clear that we need a wording that genuinely keeps all elements of water provision in public ownership.

While supporting this initiative we should also be clear that the workers demand for a ballot on the Service Level Agreement negotiated by the unions must be met. And on this the workers pressure is beginning to pay off.


Unite was best known regarding water for its role in the Right2Water campaign. But it also represented water workers during that time and still does. It was involved in negotiating the Service Level Agreement between water workers’ unions, councils and Irish Water. This SLA was to last until 2026. All the unions did not offer a ballot on this agreement.

As a result of pressure from below UNITE agreed to have a consultative ballot about whether there should be a ballot on the SLA. Though limited it offered an opportunity to send a clear message and that’s what the workers have done with 89% of Unite members voting to have a ballot. Workers in other union should use this to put real pressure on their unions to have a ballot.

The contrast in approach between the UNITE and SIPTU was illustrated during the protest on October 14th. At SIPTU, the doors were locked, the staff moved up stairs into the tower and the lights were off at 2pm on the sunny Friday afternoon; at Unite, the doors were open and the new Regional Co-ordinating Officer came out to speak with the workers. 

Unite member and water worker Anthony Moore spoke. He was brief and clear- he said he wanted a ballot on the Transfer Agreement. He didn’t want ‘a vote to have a vote’ but a ‘vote now’ on the agreement which could jeopardize his earnings and will change his status as a public employee. 


The most important development for water workers is the connections they are making themselves through their actions. They are meeting other workers in the same conditions in different locations and creating new informal links in their unions and workplaces and across workplace and service areas. This means they have an space to discuss issues that affect them more directly than anyone else: their issues as workers.

It is also a space where they can organise to put pressure on their unions and reach out to workers in other areas who are not fully engaged with their campaign. There needs to be greater involvement from workers in Dublin if the campaign is to grow and be effective. Their perspective should be to strengthen their campaign among rank and file workers, keep pressure on the union leaderships, accept advances when they occur and avoid getting involved in squabbles between officials or different factions of the bureaucracy.


These workers have set an example of how worker power – through worker-to-worker workplace organising- can be developed. They have sought to unite workers across different locations and service areas and used militant tactics to get their message across. Despite difficulties their campaign is persisting and growing. Their pressure has pushed the unions into a campaign for a referendum.

There is still a long road to go in this dispute. No doubt, it’ll get tougher. But it’s the most significant workers’ story in the south this year. And the importance could not be greater in terms of rank and file workers getting organised. Up the workers. Sign the petition here: https://keepwaterpublic.ie/.

Water workers from councils across Ireland protest on the steps of SIPTU’s Liberty Hall in Dublin on 14 October 2022.