Nearly nine months after the Government refused to give Waterford Crystal a €39m loan guarantee, the State is ready to at least part-nationalise the glass-making firm, which has been under occupation by workers since a Receiver ordered the local plant’s shut-down last weekend.

Staff are continuing their sit-in at the factory five days after David Carson of Deloitte Ireland deployed security personnel to shut up shop.

Meetings have been taking place non-stop in the interim involving the Irish government, unions, the Receiver and two prospective buyers of the business. However, employees, who stand to lose personal fortunes in wage, redundancy and pension payments, are still in the dark as to what the future might hold.

The mother of all ‘Glass’ crises was sparked by the Receiver’s abrupt announcement on Friday that manufacturing, already reduced to a three-day week, was to cease completely and 480 production workers were being made redundant with immediate effect. Notice was only delivered to their homes by hand that evening.

Though no crystal is being made, on the advice of their union employees have been turning up for work ‘as normal’ since 6am on Monday – some maintaining the furnace; others guiding tourists around the factory and showrooms.

Waterford Minister Martin Cullen has expressed ‘cautious optimism’ that one of Ireland’s flagship indigenous industries can be rescued – though he’s emphasised it will be far from easy given the “complexities” involved, not least the massive pension fund liabilities the company is saddled with.

Coinciding with this week’s Government’s marathon talks with the social partners on public sector cutbacks, the high-level discussions on Waterford Crystal’s future were ongoing last night.

However, Mr Cullen, who together with Tánaiste and Enterprise Minister Mary Coughlan has met both potential purchasers, insists the State isn’t interested in backing a token visitor attraction, but wants to ensure that a proper manufacturing presence is developed to safeguard jobs and “one of the top five brands worldwide.”

He wasn’t willing to go into detail about the “very, very difficult” negotiations taking place, for fear of “putting people offside or raising false expectations,” and rated their prospects of arriving at an outcome that “hopefully all sides will be happy with” as “not bad – but it will take some time yet”. 

Workers are supporting the Saturday midnight bid made by US-based Clarion Investments, a consortium involving the respective former CEOs of Waterford Crystal and Waterford Wedgwood plc, John Foley and Peter Cameron.

Mr Foley, “devastated” when he had to step down as Crystal CEO last month, made a low-key arrival at the local plant on Monday morning for private discussions with the Receiver and stayed there all day, briefing union bosses.

Clarion say their bid, which may well relate to the Crystal division only, would retain around 300 jobs at the factory, at least 200 in manufacturing high-quality stemware and new crystal lines, with a guaranteed 10-year contract in the offing if a deal can be struck. More than 700 workers were employed at the plant as of last Friday, 480 of them in manufacturing.

Minister Cullen said the Government wants to maintain the Waterford brand in Ireland and is ready to invest through various State agencies in a sustainable manufacturing and tourism presence. “We’re not happy just to have a nice shop at Kilbarry.”

Thus Clarion’s proposal “would seem a stronger proposal from our perspective for Waterford,” he vouched, in that the consortium are convinced the visitors centre was capable of doubling its numbers of visitors from 350,000 to 700,000 a year.

While even the best case scenario wouldn’t see the full current complement of employees retained, given the current climate, “if you were to come into Waterford [today] and announce 300 jobs we’d all be cheering at the bridge,” he said.

However, Unite Irish Secretary Jimmy Kelly alleged that until Monday morning John Foley’s efforts to gain access to the offices to “look at the books” were resisted by the Receiver.

This has led to conjecture that Mr Carson, who was brought in by the parent company’s lenders after banks lost patience, may be more favourably disposed to a deal with KPS, with whom an ‘in principle’ purchase agreement was signed within days of the receivership process starting; though Deloitte said they would continue taking to other interested parties. 

‘No option’

Unite regional organiser Walter Cullen, whose union represents 90% of the workforce, says his members are happy to discuss the Clarion bid and believes the Government should nationalise Waterford Crystal rather than allow the offer from KPS – whom the parent plc were in talks with before a Receiver was appointed three weeks ago – go through.

He said he’d been told by the Receiver that KPS are only interested in the brand name and would most probably shift all production to cheap labour markets like Eastern Europe.

Mr Carson abruptly pulled the plug on production at 3pm last Friday, sparking a hostile reaction from the hundred-or-so workers on-site. They immediately rallied and took over the canteen and visitor gallery areas amid scuffles with security men.

The Receiver, who was accused of “going back on his word” to keep the plant running and union leaders informed, met Government Secretary General Dermot McCarthy and Irish Congress of Trade Unions general secretary David Begg, as well as local union leaders, in Dublin the next day.

Afterwards he said he’d no option but to cease manufacturing given that the monies he’d borrowed to continue production at Kilbarry were now spent. He anticipated an early conclusion to negotiations with the parties interested in acquiring the companies’ assets.

The round-the-clock sit-in since has been maintained by rota, with groups of 60 staying overnight and 200-or-so by day. Local shops have been keeping those ‘on shift’ well supplied food and drink, while families have been providing fresh blankets and sleeping bags.

“They have conducted themselves throughout with dignity and respect for the property,” Walter Cullen said after a meeting of 700 present and former workers on Sunday voted unanimously to continue their vigil indefinitely. “It is a shame such respect was not shown by the receiver when he chose to close the plant on Friday and proceeded to advise people by a lottery of letters whether they had a job to go to.

The unite official added that the response from the community “shows that this is more than a job, more than a plant. It is a community built by generations of Waterford people.” 

March today 

Over 2,000 current and past employees and supporters gathered for a rally at the factory on Saturday to show their solidarity. A march is planned for 4pm this afternoon (Wednesday) from AIB on Paddy Browns Road to the Crystal carpark.

Worker Milo Lavery said: “I hope every citizen and worker in Waterford that possible can gets out on the streets and shows their solidarity with the ordinary people of Waterford.”

Jimmy Kelly, who’s been locked in talks for days, as well as attending the social partnership parley in Government Buildings, said he’d received assurances “from the highest levels of Government” as to a State acquisition of the visitor centre if necessary as part of an overall rescue plan. “The workers are willing to make this work and the Government have stood by us with support at this crucial stage.”

But he was unable to reveal details of a possible buyout by American investment group Clarion Capital – which wasn’t music to the ears of those staging the sit-in. Workers also asked pointed questions of visiting Government politicians, including Martin Cullen.

Mr Cullen said he could fully understand the emotions of employees, who were left “looking at Armageddon” after Friday’s sudden shut-down. While it would be good to get to a point where an ‘occupation’ is no longer necessary, “I understand that people who are in danger of losing everything need something to hold onto.”

Dublin picket 

A 13-strong group of workers travelled to Dublin by train yesterday (Tues) morning where they mounted “a peaceful demonstration” at the offices of Deloitte & Touche for two hours.

After Gardaí were called when four of the picketers entered the lobby, two of the protestors, including Waterford Council of Trade Unions (WCTU) President Tommy Hogan, a former Glass cutter and shop steward who was made redundant after 40 years’ service in 2008, had a short ‘informal’ meeting with representatives of the financial consultancy firm.

“There was no trouble but we left them in no doubt as to how we feel about the actions of their partner David Carson in dumping 480 people… we are not human waste that can be set aside when we are surplus to requirements.

We put it to them that Deloitte is interested in one thing only, making it [Waterford Crystal] as attractive as possible to who they sell it to and to increase their own fee.”

He added that if a buyer can’t be found, “we expect this Government to take this into public ownership on behalf of the people of the south east region and of the country.”

Walter Cullen said the Dublin picket’s aim was to alert Deloitte’s 1,100 Irish staff about “the poor manner in which David Carson and their company have handled the situation in Waterford Crystal since last Friday.”

The sit-in at Waterford was a direct result of the Receiver’s “shamefully” heavy-handed actions in closing the plant and sacking 480 manufacturing workers “with no discussion, no contact or no respect for the working people who generated sales of €180 million for the company in the United States alone last year. Maintaining the plant as a going concern is essential to keep hope alive in the bids that have been made. If Deloittes are not willing to do that then we will,” he said. 

Rocha ‘snubbed’ 

Designer John Rocha, who has had a successful relationship with Waterford Crystal since 1995, said he was very saddened by the current situation.

Speaking on RTÉ yesterday, he said he had recently finished a prototype for a new design, which was intended to be launched later this year and produced in 2010.

Mr Rocha said he had made a few failed requests to speak with the Receiver, something he found quite upsetting. He believed Waterford, which he likened to Guinness in international brand terms, “absolutely” had a future, and described what’s been happening as “a sin.”

A ‘Save Waterford Crystal’ campaign set up on the social networking site, Facebook, has over 2,000 members registering their support so far.

Unite has established a special support fund to take voluntary donations which have been flooding in from local residents, businesses and organisations.

They can be made at any branch of Ulster Bank (AC 10379438 Sort Code 98-64-20), at the Unite offices on Keizer Street, or in person at the Crystal Visitor Centre.

“We have been overwhelmed by the support of men and women throughout the country,” said Walter Cullen. “The plight of workers who have been dumped without anything after 40 years of service has struck a chord with people. While banks are thrown every lifeline that can be found, our members at Waterford have to fight their own corner. The support of good people has kept our spirits high. We are enormously grateful and we remain optimistic that the fight to save Waterford will succeed.”