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The sound of breaking glass

Waterford Crystal was established in 1783 by the brothers George and William Penrose with the aim of creating crystal “as fine as any in Europe... in the most elegant style”. This the Waterford Crystal company did, using the skills of gifted workers until 1851, when the company closed under the burden of heavy taxation. It was revived a century later and the crystal manufactured by Waterford (now Waterford Wedgewood) is very fine indeed. Elegance of craftsmanship may not be enough however to save the plant this time round.

For once again the Waterford Crystal enterprise is in crisis with 480 out of a workforce of 700 to be made redundant with the possible loss of their pensions and without compensation. However, this time there is active resistance as the workers are at present staging an occupation of their factory and intend to remain for as long as it takes to either have the company nationalised, or to maintain it as a going concern until a buyer can be found.

There are no fewer than 100 occupying the visitor gallery at any one time with a rota system in use to maintain a round-the-clock presence there. In the last few days 12 of the men from the Kilbarry plant have also been occupying the Dublin offices of Deloitte in protest at the way they were treated by Deloitte partner David Carson, who was appointed receiver of the collapsing company in January.

Their action is certainly courageous and has won support from the Windows and Doors workers in the US and from other workers world-wide. Windows and Doors, it will be remembered, was the company that was occupied by its employees last year in Chicago. But there is something that unites both companies apart from their similar interests as workers. The same bank that withdrew credit lines from Windows and Doors, the Bank of America, has now done something similar to Waterford Wedgwood. That and the recession led Waterford being taken into receivership.

The Irish government has done nothing so far to assist, seemingly impervious to the enormous loss of such a high prestige enterprise. Waterford Crystal is virtually a national monument; something of the heritage of the country would be lost, this time possibly forever. It is not as if the company were not profitable, for in 2008 the company generated sales of €180 million in the US alone, not to mention the money it brought into the home country and the south-east region in particular. Tourist revenue accounts for a large chunk of the business and over the decades it has drawn an enormous number of visitors to the city of Waterford, as well as being a site of constant and reliable employment in the area.

The feeling of disappointment arises from the workers aiming at this point no higher than either attracting the interest of a buyer, or failing that, getting the Irish government to take it into state ownership. There is no talk of the employees taking it over and managing it themselves, as they certainly could, or of forming a cooperative. Nothing but the conventional business model is being considered here. This is understandable, for livelihoods are at risk and the possibility of finding other employment is low.

The union involved, Unite, is of the same mind as the workers in not being able to get beyond the business-as-usual mentality. The general secretary of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, David Begg restricted himself to basically warning that if Waterford Crystal were closed down that this could “discourage potential investors from buying the plant.” So once again expedience and the easy option is likely to render a fine craft and many fine craft workers totally expendable for want of a radical response and a little imagination. While Unite undoubtedly strongly supports the struggle, an opportunity to reach out for a genuinely exciting and inspiring outcome will be squandered unless the aspirations of the struggle are raised.

Fiona Harrington
5 February 2009

Nick says:

This is a disaster, the loss of these jobs and the skills associated with them, even overseas, will short change future generations and should be a matter of National concern!

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