Ireland: Lessons of the Waterford Crystal plant occupation

Nationalisation was the only option!

The following article looks at the eight week long workers’ occupation of the Waterford Crystal plant in Ireland, which ended in March after the workforce reluctantly voted to accept a "deal". This took place as the Irish economy, once the ‘Celtic Tiger’ and capitalist model for small countries everywhere, dramatically collapses further. The economy is now contracting faster than any other in the developed world. The collapse of the property and construction sectors, the world economic crisis and unfavourable sterling-euro exchange rates are all contributing to skyrocketing unemployment. Over 11% of the population are claiming unemployment benefit and it is expected to reach 17% next year. Irish GDP is expected to fall by 8.3% in 2009 – the biggest economic contraction in an industrialised country since the 1930s. Government debt is expected to rise from 41% of GDP to 58% in 2009 and to 70% in 2010.

These figures indicate the era of mass unemployment, wage cuts and social destruction that will hit every part of Ireland. As the article below shows, working people are prepared to resist attempts to make them pay for the crisis of the boss’s system, but this needs bold, decisive leadership, which the current union leaders failed to provide at Waterford Crystal.

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Lessons of the Waterford Crystal plant occupation

An eight week long occupation of the Waterford Crystal plant in Ireland ended after the workforce reluctantly voted to accept a "deal" in March. One worker at the end of the four hour long meeting that resulted in the end of the occupation said that he felt the deal was "like a gun to the head" of the workforce.

There were 708 people working in Waterford Crystal, now there will be only 176 jobs and some of them are only guaranteed for six months. The so-called ‘redundancy fund’ is a miserly €10 million, which to be divided between more than 800 workers and ex-workers. The workers’ pensions (affecting 1,800 people) are still in a mess and the fund is €120 million short.

This deal will mean that the world-renowned Waterford Crystal brand name has been purchased by the venture, or more accurately vulture capitalist company KPS which will use it to sell glass products in its shops and on the market. The crystal that KPS will sell as "Waterford Crystal" will not even have the fingerprint of a Waterford crafts-worker on it.

The occupation of the factory began at the end of January, after the company’s receiver Deloitte and Touche (D&T) unceremoniously informed the workers that they were to be sacked with almost immediate affect. This was despite the fact that some of the workers had worked at the plant for more than forty years. Shamefully, D&T tried to enforce this decision by hiring a security company to physically threaten and assault the workers when they sought to defend their jobs and livelihoods at the beginning of the occupation.

The workforce instinctively took over the plant and began an eight week long sit-in of the gallery facility, as part of their struggle to save their jobs and the manufacturing of crystal at Kilbarry.

From the outset, many of the Waterford Crystal workers called for the government to nationalise Waterford Crystal. This was a viable company and there is a world-wide demand for its product. According to one worker, there were sales of $180 million in the US, last year.

The leadership of Unite, the main trade union at Waterford Crystal, was also for nationalisation. However they never seriously pursued this demand. From the beginning of the occupation until the end, the Unite leadership put all of its energy into getting a private multinational to take over the company.

Yet it became clear from early in the process that the only private buyers interested in Waterford Crystal were venture capitalists intent on making a quick profit at the workforce’s expense. No capitalist multinational, whose primary interest is profit, was ever going to take over Waterford Crystal, guarantee a significant number of jobs, maintain wages and conditions and pay out decent redundancy payments and cough up the €120 million to shore up the pension fund. It was always the intention of KPS and Clarion to take whatever they could from Waterford Crystal and cast the majority of the workforce and pensioners aside.

The only option from the outset that could have saved all of the jobs at Kilbarry and that would have been able to "rescue" the pension fund, and also take Waterford Crystal forward as a viable and profitable company, was nationalisation.

The leadership of Unite only really spoke of nationalisation as a last option – in the event that a private buyer could not be found – and that somehow the government would then have to step in! The position adopted by the Unite leadership, of effectively ruling out nationalisation, played a major role in the defeat of the Waterford Crystal workers.

However, throughout the occupation and struggle of the Waterford Crystal workers, they received support from the majority of people in the Waterford region. They also received solidarity support from workers all over the world.

Against the backdrop of the nationalisation of Anglo Irish Bank, the €7 billion bailout of AIB (Allied Irish Bank) and the Bank of Ireland and the €90 billion bailout of property developers and banks, a credible campaign for the nationalisation of Waterford Crystal could have been built that would have received the support of the majority of people in the Ireland.

“We need to wake up and put a stop to this”

The world class skills and talents of the craft workers at Waterford Crystal, along with the other staff, could have then taken on responsibility to run the company. Waterford Crystal, freed from the shackles of profiteers, like Tony O’Reilly, could have been democratically run by the workforce and would have had a future.

The destruction of Waterford Crystal will have a major impact on the wider economy of the Waterford region. The Fianna Fail and Green Party government should be condemned for refusing to nationalise Waterford Crystal and are also to blame for the hundreds who have lost their jobs. But Fianna Fail and the Greens were never going to willingly nationalise the company – this goes against their neo-liberal ethos.

Nationalisation could have been achieved if a real battle by the leadership of the Unite trade union had been fought which mobilised the support for the Waterford Crystal workers that existed throughout the country and beyond.

As Donie Fell (Waterford Crystal worker) said in an interview with The Socialist [newspaper of the Socialist Party (CWI) in Ireland]: "We need to wake up and put a stop to this. We have to stop being afraid to say nationalise. Our unions have got to stop pandering to the bosses and do what they are supposed to do, represent us, that is why we pay them".