Ireland: Hundreds of workers occupy Waterford Crystal plant

Nationalisation a necessity!

Last Friday, when word leaked out that the receiver was planing to close Waterford Crystal (in Waterford, Ireland’s fifth largest city, on the southeast coast) on Monday, 2 February, its workers instinctively went directly to the Waterford Crystal Visitors Centre.

Extra security staff were brought in by the receiver in preparation for the closure announcement. If the receivers thought this would be enough to quell the anger of the workers over the announcement that this historic and world famous company was about to be closed, they were mistaken. The workers put manners on the hired bouncers and forced their way into the building.

If the receiver was allowed to close Waterford Crystal, at a stroke he would have made 500 manufacturing workers unemployed. The workers, who built Waterford Crystal over many years, would also have seen any chance of substantial redundancy payments disappear, as a company closed in such circumstances has no obligations its employees.

Within minutes, three hundred workers were in occupation of the premises. The workers’ instinctive response presented their union, Unite, with a fait accompli. The closure of the plant would have facilitated the companies that the receiver has been in discussions with regarding taking over Waterford. With the company shutdown, US-based KPS Capital and Clarion Capital would have been able to re-employ who they chose at qualitatively lower wages and poorer conditions.

A private take-over of Waterford, possibly with state assistance, is probably seen by most workers to be the most likely way of maintaining the plant on some basis. However, in part, the occupation is also a blow against the idea of diminished pay and conditions for those workers who may remain under new owners.

Waterford Crystal has been in debt and difficulty for years. However, the core business of making quality crystal glass products for export remains very profitable. The main problem has been debts that have accrued from management’s leveraged purchases of other companies. Now the workers, whose skilled craftsmanship made Waterford and its crystal glass products world-renowned, are to pay the price for reckless, profit-hungry mismanagement.

Thousands hold rally

A quickly convened support rally held outside the plant in Waterford town, last Saturday lunchtime, attracted two thousand people, despite the monsoon-style rain that fell throughout the day. Members of the Socialist Party, including Joe Higgins, a TD (MP) from 1997-2007, travelled from Dublin to participate. Our leaflets and a written statement from Joe calling for the nationalisation of Waterford Crystal were eagerly snapped out of our hands.

The serious and angry mood at the rally could have been cut with a knife. Two union representatives and officials spoke before they were to go to Dublin to attend a meeting with the receiver. Up until now, the main approach of the union has been to hold negotiations with the receiver and the two interested companies on the terms and conditions of new ownership, but progress has been slow. The union has now ended its negotiations with KPS who it believes are simply interested in asset stripping and robbing the company’s name.

Whether these companies will want to buy Waterford as a going-concern, unless they can slash the workforce and pay and conditions, is doubtful, and that means that the situation is unclear.

The occupation, however, could potentially change the course of events. The same banks that caused untold devastation to the economy and people’s lives appointed this receiver. If the receiver refuses to rescind his decision, the occupation could continue and the pressure will increase on the government to intervene.

Some of the workers, particularly those with decades of service, were prepared to take redundancy but only on the basis that the money offered took due account of what they put into the company and what is needed to live on in these depressionary times. There may be attempts to deal with the different concerns of workers separately and, in doing so, take groups of workers out of the struggle and weaken those remaining. The workers should stand united, with nothing agreed until everything is agreed, whether that is decent redundancy payments or guaranteed jobs on proper pay and conditions.

Long after Saturday’s protest finished, we returned to the plant to talk to workers in occupation. One of our placards that read, ‘Socialist Party says: Nationalise Waterford Glass!’ which Joe Higgins had earlier strategically placed in the building reception area so anyone entering the building would see it, remained on its eye-catching throne.

As we came to the area where the workers were seated, we saw many were actually reading and discussing our literature. It was clear at the rally that some of the workers desired the nationalisation of the plant, though they probably thought it was unlikely to happen.

There can be no trust in the receiver, or in KPS Capital or Clarion Capital. The longer the occupation goes on, the more difficult it may be for a smooth transfer to new ownership. The workers’ action is a blow to the plans of these bosses and it may cool their ardour for a take over.

It is crucial that the occupation is consolidated. On Sunday 1 February, all 700 workers attended at the occupation and held a meeting. The workers, in conjunction with the local Trades Council, agreed to produce a leaflet with a view to building public support for the struggle. A key focus for the union, agreed by the majority, at the moment, will be to push the government to give financial inducements to some private company to take over the factory and keep 300 jobs or so.

Instinctive occupation

However, it is potentially very significant that at the push of some of the workers, the idea of the plant being nationalised is to be raised in the mass leaflet. It is not accidental that there has been an instinctive occupation and support for nationalisation in this factory. There is a long and strong tradition of struggle and support for left/socialist ideas among Waterford Glass workers. Nationalisation does represent a real alternative in this crisis.

In Dublin, on Saturday, while the protest in Waterford was taking place, a Socialist Party street stall calling for the nationalisation of Waterford Crystal was swamped by passers-by who wanted to sign the petition and show their support for the workers’ action. All seventy copies of The Socialist newspaper on the stall were quickly sold. This huge potential support for the struggle in Waterford Crystal must be developed throughout the country and, indeed, on an international level.

Based on the occupation, if the trade unions launched a national campaign for the nationalisation of the plant they would get a huge response. A real future for Waterford Crystal and its workers cannot be retrieved from this crisis on the basis of relying on the likes of Clarion Capital. In Waterford Crystal and in Ireland, generally, where companies are collapsing and unemployment has soared to record levels within months, the reliance on private bosses must be ended. Nationalisation, under workers’ control and management is now a necessity.

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