Wednesday, March 25, 2009

As the following article from the Irish Times says, the occupation of the Waterford Crystal factory in County Kilbarry Ireland has ended, unfortunately with little gained for the workers.
Workers left bitter and resentful after calling off action:
SOME HUDDLED in groups discussing the day’s events, others quietly took down posters; the rest said their farewells to each other.

The Gallery showrooms attached to the Waterford Crystal plant at Kilbarry had been, more or less, a home to its occupants over seven weeks. Under other circumstances, such as saving all 480 jobs at the plant and solving the complicated pension issue, the end of the occupation would have been celebrated. This was not the case yesterday.

Crystal blowers Billy Kelly, Nicky Hayes and Willie Dwyer were devastated. “It’s very sad and it’s a bitter pill to swallow,” said Mr Kelly, who has worked at the plant for 30 years. “The Government didn’t come on board with this whatsoever, we were on our own. The gun was put to our head . . . We had no choice, the union’s back was against the wall.”

Hayes, who has 28 years’ service with the company, spoke of the plant as a tourist attraction.
“There was 300,000 people coming through here each year, they had to eat somewhere, they had to drink somewhere for the few days they were here,” he said. “The reason they came to Waterford was because of Waterford Crystal,” he added.

“We’re off the tourist trail and we’d often bring up and [let] them blow a glass and they were just absolutely amazed; they just couldn’t believe it. We got loads of letters from people around the world, and photographs.”

Dwyer, a blower of 38 years, said: “It’s gone now and I can see no way of it ever coming back.”

The sunny weather seemed to mock what was the hardest of days for so many. Unaware of the problems at Kilbarry, tourists continued to arrive.

An hour earlier, at the Tower Hotel in Waterford city, workers, ashen-faced yet simmering, left a long and “angry” meeting of Unite union members.

The possible withdrawal of a €10 million ex gratia pot for workers over certain “issues” was the “gun” the workers spoke of.

Waterford Congress of Trade Unions president Tom Hogan said it was “a long and difficult meeting” and “people agonised over the proposals”.

Liam Meagher, a furnace operative at Kilbarry for over 20 years, said: “The new crowd (investment group PrestigeCo) will produce high end stuff; KPS will sell it on, and the new buzzword is that it has the fingerprint of Waterford.

“Literally, that’s all it has.”
This article appears in the print edition of the Irish Times
Here's another take on the end of the occupation, this time from the local newspaper Waterford Today.

Attention turns to pension entitlements as Crystal sit-in ends :
The Waterford Crystal sit-in may have ended but the feeling of bitterness on behalf of the workers has not subsided as the issue of pension entitlements remains unresolved.

Legal challenges against the Irish government in the European courts could very well be the route that unions and workers will have to take in order to achieve a resolution for those who lose out from the pension crisis.

Members of the main trade union at Waterford Crystal, UNITE, voted to end the sit-in as well as accept recommendations by the Labour Relations Commission which also includes a plan to keep 170 jobs, less than half of the 480 workers who were let go by the receiver, David Carson, nearly two months ago.

The vote to end the sit-in was ratified by approximately 90 per cent of those workers in attendance at the Tower Hotel last Sunday though there was residual bitterness by workers at the current state of play regarding the redundancy terms and pension conditions. However, union officials stressed that the deal they accepted was the only one on offer.

The sit-in was entering its eighth week when workers voted to end the occupation of the visitor centre. The 10 million euro offered to the workers as part of the deal is widely known to be far short of what is needed to make up the ex-gratia payments.

Much of the deal outlined in in report by Labour Relations Commission Director of Conciliation, Kevin Foley, touched on some possible assistance by a local business consortium led by Nicky Fewer (Prestige Co) to secure the presence of the brand in the city. The coming weeks will see further negotiations between the parties but the sit-in, which even attracted the attention of documentary film makers from the United States to the union meeting last Sunday, has ended. However, a spokesperson for the Waterford consortium said yesterday (Tuesday):
"A group of business leaders from Waterford have confirmed that they are at the early stages of exploring the possible viability of resuming crystal manufacturing at Kilbarry, Waterford. The group stressed that the process is at an early stage and any more detailed comment would be premature at this point in time".

The Mayor of Waterford, Cllr Jack Walsh welcomed the news that the sit-in had ended, saying: While recognising that this leaves many families in a very difficult situation, I welcome the fact that the workforce has accepted the recommendation of the shop-stewards that the Kevin Foley report be accepted. It hopefully secures jobs for 176 workers directly with the possibility of further employment if the plan by local business leaders to secure a manufacturing presence is successful. The issues surrounding the pensions of Waterford Crystal workers are crucial and I hope that ICTU will be able to achieve a positive outcome,".
Thus the occupation has ended, with little in the way of satisfaction for the workers concerned. It's hard to say who is the main villain in the piece. The receivers played their hand with consummate skill, and whatever the justice of the situation where the workers and their pensions are shuttled to the back of the queue of creditors the law as it stands is on the side of business. The receivers had all the time in the world to sit and wait as the morale of the occupiers and the will of the union to dole out strike pay gradually diminished. In the end the union had nothing to say to its members other than to recommend that they accept the deal offered. The government, of course, was quite dodgy about the matter of the pensions as well, and the articles above allude to the fact that the workers and their union may have a legal case against Dublin in the European Court.
The present outcome was preordained as soon as the initial momentum of the occupation turned into a waiting game. The legal cards and the financial ability to wait were all on the bosses' side. The only thing that could have saved the situation would have been the resumption of production under workers' control ie taking over the plant and trying to run its distribution themselves. Whatever the law may say the ability of the government to enforce it is constrained by public opinion, and at the beginning public opinion was solidly on the side of the occupying workers.
What the present situation shows is not that the tactic of workplace occupation is futile. In other times and places it has worked very well. What it does show is that there are many situations where the only realistic course is to go full tilt and "repossess" the workplace in question, not just hold out for a slightly better deal. Waterford was definitely just such a case.

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