Given the urgency of the situation at Waterford Crystal, the local City Council was in touch with the Department of Finance on Tuesday seeking a meeting as quickly as possible with the Minister, Brian Lenihan.
A decision to send a delegation to Dublin for that purpose followed an address to the Council’s monthly meeting the previous night by three top trade union representatives. They stressed the importance of immediate, meaningful government backing and political pressure being applied in quest of such support, the next few days being critical.
The Council, fired by an impressive presentation from Sean Kelly, UNITE Regional Organiser, Noel Atkins, Shop Steward representing the factory’s blowers and Pat O’Connor, for its office and administrative staff, also pledged to enlist the aid of Waterford’s four TDs and representatives of Kilkenny County Council, given the number of crystal workers from the south of that county.
The group was to seek meetings too with KPS representatives and with receiver David Carson.
Mr Kelly told the councillors he was acutely aware he was speaking on behalf of UNITE members and their families who were suffering terrible distress, facing, through no fault of their own, financial ruin through loss of their employment, loss of pension entitlements and other contractual obligations due to them.
Calling on the Council membership to stand firm with them, he said that, significantly, they had the full support of the ICTU and had enlisted a top team of Dublin-based advisers to help fight their case.
Nevertheless, he accepted that great difficulties lay ahead for the workforce; despite the reputation of private equity companies with no long term commitments, there was no option but to give a cautious welcome to the proposed acquisition (by KPS). “That is our official position”, he said.
Equally they were adamant that, given the profitability still attaching to the crystal product, the brand and the jobs could be retained in Waterford, with pensions secured and all obligations met.
But full commitment from the government would be required, supporting that objective through financial and other means; and KPS would be required to deal with the workforce and their elected representatives through UNITE.
Demanding from government the same commitment it has shown to the banks, Mr Kelly warned that there was no room for failure and the City Council must condemn anything less than 100 pc support for the retention of “meaningful production” at Waterford.
He added: “No individual or company must be allowed walk away with part of the social and industrial heritage of this city; no more than we would tolerate the dismantling of our Viking forts and walls, should we accept the dismantling of our world famous glassworks”.
He predicted that in a hundred years time Waterford Crystal would continue to be sold in the world’s leading boutique and department stores, such was its attraction.
And he appealed: “Let it never be said that this Council, at this time, did not do its utmost in fighting to preserve the making of crystal products in this city, making the name of Waterford so famous across the globe
“The discontinuance of meaningful production at the Kilbarry site would be a disaster, not only for the workers and their families directly involved, but for the wider community and economy of Waterford and indeed the region.
“The tourist industry spin-offs from over 300,000 visitors annually to the crystal showrooms would be substantially lost, further depressing the local economy and resulting in job losses and closure of businesses dependent on that sector”.
Following impassioned addresses also by Mr Atkins and Mr O’Connor, the Council members spoke as one in support, prompting Mr Kelly at the end to remark on a sense of anger among them that such a threat should be posed to a profitable, world-brand industry that was vital to so many local families and to the economic wellbeing of the area.
Pensions time bomb
There was strong criticism of the government for not already having intervened to save the crystal jobs – particularly in light of its generosity towards the banks – given the far cheaper cost of doing that than creating new employment.
Cllr Tom Cunningham reminded Fianna Fail that following promises on which it reneged in relation to radiotherapy it ended up with only one Council member after the last local elections. “That will be as nothing compared to the response if these crystal jobs go to the wall”, he warned the leading government party.
And Cllr Joe Kelly, a crystal worker, predicted major trouble ahead on the pensions issue generally if the government did not step in to guarantee them. “It is a time bomb waiting to explode”, he submitted. “I don’t think the workers of this country are going to sit around and accept as inevitable the loss of pensions to which they have been contributing all their lives”.