Waterford Crystal management had ambitions to expand and borrowed money to buy companies, using Waterford and Wedgwood to fund their debts. As the debts got larger they were harder to repay. When the Bank of America called in their loans we went into the receiver’s hands and became victims of venture capitalists, KPS Capital Partners.
On 29 January the union committee was meeting and only essential staff were in the plant as we were working a three-day week. The lads got wind that something was afoot with the receiver. Despite all the promises to keep us informed, he decided to close the factory and put us on the dole. The union got together, quickly made a few phone calls and got some of the lads to come. They broke in, had to push some security men out of the way and duly decided to sit-in.
So we’re still in here, now into our fourth week. It is being run on six-hour shifts and we try to get 100 people on each shift. The local community is supporting us. Local bakeries are delivering fresh bread every morning, the dairies are delivering milk, there’s a poultry farm delivering eggs, the pizza companies drop in stuff and even the chippers deliver bags of chips. We won’t have any work but we’re going to be fat!
The local trades council is also supporting us. We’ve had two protests. The day after the sit-in began more than 2,000 people turned up in the rain to offer support. Then they organised a very noisy and angry 8,000 strong march. There were others there who were working three-day weeks themselves – one gave us €1,370 she had collected off her shift in the Honeywell factory.
Pensioners are dropping in anything from a fiver to €50, and business individuals giving up to €700. There’s a great community spirit.
Pensioners who left with up to 45 years service are now facing retirement with their pensions completely gone and the remainder of their severance pay won’t be paid. The pure greed of the global capitalists wiped it all out in one fell stroke. Also our pension fund is in danger of becoming insolvent as the Irish government was lax in implementing a European Union directive to protect private pension funds against insolvency.
Since the occupation our union, Unite, with the support of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, has been in discussion with the government. There is progress, not just for us but for every worker with pension funds in similar difficulties. This could affect as many as 90,000 workers.
Also the receiver and KPS, who initially said they had no responsibility for our situation, are now offering an additional €10 million in severance and 240 jobs. There is also a party expressing an interest in leasing one of the furnaces, giving additional jobs. It’s not perfect but if we had just left with our heads bowed on 29 January we would have lost everything. The occupation has moved things. The proof is there.
During January 1,500 people a day were made unemployed in Ireland. People made fortunes on the construction bubble. Everyone knew the bubble would burst, other than the government, for some strange reason. Now the taxpayer is having to carry the can.
The government is now using the national pension fund to bail out the very banks and developers that caused the bubble to burst. Yet it won’t consider nationalising Waterford Crystal, and just offers grants to the new capitalists who have come in to wipe out jobs.
There is also a big tourist industry here. Waterford attracts 350,000 visitors each year with spin-off employment in hotels, restaurants and pubs. Now all that’s been wiped out at the whim of five or six sharks from KPS.
Bank of America has been bailed out by the US taxpayer and then uses the money to cut jobs. I would like to see politicians wake up and realise neoliberalism is dead and globalisation means a race to the bottom. If they can nationalise the banks why not nationalise key industries and keep people working? They are more than just factories – the life of the whole community is at stake.
There is a great lesson in the current situation for young people – if you want to change society you must be organised. DF
Donie Fell is a Unite member and a worker at the Waterford Crystal factory in Ireland
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