by Simon Basketter
Workers at the Waterford Crystal factory in Ireland have delivered a powerful example of how to take on the recession – they are occupying their plant to keep it open.
The factory is owned by Waterford Wedgewood, which went into receivership on 5 January. The receiver suggested that the plant move to a three-day week.
Workers were reluctant to go along with this and were suspicious of the motives behind it. Many believed that the factory would close as soon as they were out the door. It turned out the receiver had the same idea.
Last Friday afternoon the receiver declared that manufacturing would cease immediately at the Waterford factory – with the loss of 480 jobs out of a 700-strong workforce.
News that the plant was closing was greeted with anger by workers. The union was only told of the immediate sackings when it directly asked if the rumours were true.
Tony Kelly is the Unite union’s chief shop steward for Waterford Crystal. He told Socialist Worker, "The plant is on a three day week – so they chose Friday afternoon because it isn’t a production day.
"I was driving home when I heard the news and drove back to the plant. Over the phone we agreed we had to get inside."
Workers texted and rang round each other, urging as many as possible to get to the factory. The receivers had already hired in private security guards to secure the site.
"The security tried to stop us getting in – but they failed," one worker told Socialist Worker. "They closed the doors, but there were too many people. We stormed our way in – some 400 workers entered the plant.
"We’ve been in occupation since 2pm on Friday. Food, money and support have been flowing in."
The occupation is on six-hour rotating shifts with up to 100 workers on each one. The Starry Plough – the flag of James Connolly and the Irish labour movement – was raised over the plant.
A rally was held outside the plant last Saturday. Over 3,000 people turned up to show their support despite torrential rain.
Across Waterford taxis stopped running, while shops and businesses closed for an hour in solidarity.
A van was touring the area to hand-deliver letters telling the Waterford Wedgewood workers that they had been sacked.
It was spotted on one estate and chased away – so many workers have yet to receive official notice of their dismissal.
Tom Hogan is a former Waterford glass worker and president of Waterford trades council. He told Socialist Worker, "People are just saying, ‘Thank fuck somebody is doing something!’ They used to go home to their fires at night and contemplate which window in the dole office they were going to line up at. But the occupation has turned that mood around."
A worker from the occupation added, "The bosses thought people wouldn’t fight because they were too fearful. People are fearful – but they are also very angry."
John joined the company in 1962 and worked at the factory for 46 years before being made redundant just before Christmas.
He told us he had received the statutory portion of his 55,000 euro redundancy package – but was still owed 30,000 euro from the company. "We’re going to stay here for the long haul. We have nothing to lose," he said.
One of the workers’ demands is that the Irish government guarantees that all previously agreed redundancy payments are made.
Joe, another worker in the occupation, told Socialist Worker, "We’re staying until we get the receiver’s decision to close the plant reversed.
"We want there to be an opportunity for someone to come in and buy this company and save jobs. And we want reasonable conditions for any that have to leave.
"Most of us have put in between 20 and 40 years of service. We are not being thrown on to the scrapheap by a receiver appointed by some accountant."
Within 24 hours there were talks between the unions, the government and the receivers. As Socialist Worker went to press a number of firms were looking to buy the company and at least one is promising to keep 300 of the jobs.
As one worker told Socialist Worker, "They are private equity companies, which isn’t good – but we can fight them over conditions if we keep the manufacturing plant open.
"At the very least we want money from the government to guarantee pensions and redundancy money. If the private sector won’t keep open the plant, then it should be nationalised."
People across the trade union movement – and in particular, workers at the Wedgewood plant in Stoke-on-Trent which is owned by the same company – should draw two lessons from the Waterford occupation.
They should be wary of what little promises to look after workers really mean when a company goes bust.
And they should be inspired by the example of Waterford workers, who have shown that you can fight back and turn the situation around.