Correspondent Sean Maher gave almost 40 years of service to Waterford Crystal. Ten years after ‘The Glass’ went into receivership, he recalls one of Waterford’s bleakest economic hours…
It was early on Monday morning, January 5th, 2009 that Waterford Crystal went into receivership, officially and permanently closing its doors at the Kilbarry site. So many people remember where they were in November 1963 when news of John F Kennedy’s assassination was announced. Equally, many more instantly recall where they were when New York’s Twin Towers were destroyed on September 11th, 2001. I will forever remember where I was when I heard of the closure of the Crystal on RTE Radio One as I crossed Rice Bridge on my way to work. It is seared into my brain. It’ll be there forever. On driving down Mattie’s Hill en route to work as I returned from the Christmas break, a nervous tension had taken me over as the bad news was relayed over the car radio.
While no one had died, the acute sense of losing your job, wages, redundancy entitlements, pensions and so much a part of your economic and social life combined, was difficult to comprehend. It was the first time in 38 years of service with what was a great employer that we were facing lockout on a permanent basis. There was a finality to the news that remains hard to explain. To my horror, I learned that Waterford Wedgwood had been placed in receivership. Trading in its shares on the Irish Stock Exchange had been suspended after the company had failed to find a buyer amid the global financial crisis that had hit the country in September 2008.
Having travelled this particular road to work so many times previously, I knew that this was set to be one of those days that I wouldn’t forget in a hurry.
Walking through the Ashe Road entrance with colleagues I could sense the despondency in the air among those present. The look on each and every face said it all.Instead of heading to our usual work stations, we all went to the canteen to get the latest on what had transpired. The canteen staff, normally the brightest and most pleasant of colleagues, were very worried looking; their usual buoyancy was missing. They’d always had the good word to say and often with great humour – but not on that particular morning. While the experience of a 14-week strike in 1990 was very painful, we all knew a compromise deal would inevitably be hammered out and everyone would return to work. This though was different. There was an air of finality about the announcement that was brutal in the extreme for workers and families alike.
Senan Sutton, Dick Moore, Robert Walsh, Patrick Kelly had, between them, provided me with lifts to work from Kilmacow during my early years in the company. That was until I had saved sufficient money to purchase a second hand car – a Morris Minor. These memories came flooding back as I began to experience what was a terminal loss for me, for Waterford and her neighbouring counties.Within minutes of arrival at Kilbarry, there were commiserations all round as we attempted to come to grips with a doomsday scenario. The reality of our situation hit home and initially a feeling of helplessness took over. Many phone calls were made and received as the news spread into thousands of homes in Waterford and the South East.
Everyone was taken aback in calculating the magnitude of the losses involved and the sense of isolation which immediately began to surround the company. Many employees were middle aged with low levels of formal education and were highly vulnerable in a redundancy situation. There were uniquely skilled for one company only in the region. They had joined as apprentices in glassmaking at a very young age at some point between 15 and 18 years of age. In serving time as an apprentice and then as a qualified craftsman, I’d garnered a range of experiences in the ‘university of life’ with an international company, a true global giant.
The plant at Kilbarry was a melting pot of accents including German, Italian and Czech, in addition to accents from across the region and island.
Sport was always a major unifier on the factory floor and the craic was always mighty when Waterford or Kilkenny were involved in a big Championship match. ‘The Glass’ was very ecumenical when it came to sport, be it GAA, soccer, rugby and horse racing, and the chat was always good humored.
There was a great camaraderie in the place. Any of us could suddenly become the centre of some ribbing about some event or incident that occurred over the Christmas period or if they had stuck their heads above the parapet and ended up on local radio or the papers. And when there was some bad news to be absorbed, the sharing of it in some way tempered the pain thanks to their empathy and sympathy. There was always also a deep well of humanity within the company extended towards those in need. There was always a readiness to respond and a widespread belief that a problem shared was a problem halved.
And the quick response culture extended to those within and outside the company throughout the city, region and country. Support from ‘The Glass’ was always immediate and gracious. It was part of who we were and the ‘Crystal’ way was always on the look out for those in trouble and who needed a helping hand.
Well, on this particular occasion, everyone was in trouble and it took some time and reflection to come to terms with this bombshell development.
That morning the sparkle was decidedly missing. As Yeats stated, “everything had changed, changed utterly”.
All unionised employees were briefed on difficulties facing the company prior to the Christmas of 2008. And while everyone were under no illusions about the difficulties facing the company, there and then there was no indication of closure. As was the case with the Titanic, the “iceberg right ahead” hadn’t been identified in time. Everyone engaged in this process was convinced that someone would intervene to find a solution, and that included the government of the day. We genuinely didn’t believe that one of the flagship brands of Irish industry would founder. Along with a number of fellow shareholders, a few weeks before the Christmas of 2008, I had attended the company’s AGM at the Portmarnock Golf and Country Club in Dublin. I remember well the early start from Mullinavat, taking a CIE bus at 6am on a deathly dark morning.
But I knew all was not right when Mr AJF O’Reilly was absent. I addressed the meeting urging shareholders to maintain the company as a going concern in Waterford. I had known that Management and Union had made out a restructuring plan for survival but my suggestion received a very lukewarm reception. On hearing the news on Monday, January 5th, coming over Rice Bridge, I knew that things were very, very serious.
Many employees had over 40 years service and had remained in the company on basis of their pension entitlements. They turned down excellent redundancy terms on several occasions from 1987 onwards. They experienced a 14 week strike in 1990, accepted severe pay cuts of up to 25%, accepted short time work and the removal of many company benefits only now to be left with nothing.
In coming to terms with the closure these reflections were churning around in many minds. The company employed many couples and families with several members and then extended families with up to 20 or more members involved. Many communities were very dependent on the company for income streams. Even though the workforce was sizeable and scattered throughout the South East, the bulk of employees were from Waterford city, living in tightly knit communities. The breaking news spread like wildfire with local radio and papers packed with interviews and analysis as to what it meant to individuals, families, communities, the local, regional and national economies. Over 200 employees had departed the company in the previous year while others had been earmarked for redundancy packages the following year. Approximately 480 employees were left in manufacturing and 220 in services.
The UNITE branch was the main organised group in the factory at the time and a meeting was called with David Carson from Deloitte Ireland, the appointed receiver of the Irish operations including the Kilbarry and Dungarvan factories. He confirmed that Waterford Wedgwood had ceased to trade and that the non-renewal of recent forbearance of its bankers had expired. Despite the efforts of the company’s directors to recapitalise and find a buyer, a solution could not be found to enable the company to remain open. The company had survived three periods of forbearance in recent times which had given UNITE and
other Craft unions hope that a buyer would be found. Despite these warnings, it came as a bolt from the blue that the company was closed. On that bleak day in January, glass blowing, cutting, engraving, sculpting , mould making, administration, marketing, sales and all other staff disciplines had their contracts severed without any further negotiation. The final whistle was blown on the contributory pension scheme which was built up over many decades.
Given the bleakness of the situation a decision was rapidly made to fight the decision to the end, otherwise individuals and families would be left destitute without redundancy compensation and pensions. Communities and businesses throughout the city would also suffer catastrophic losses leading to further closures and job losses. Many companies servicing ‘The Glass’ were also in the firing line for closure or, at the very least, severe cutbacks. Waterford Crystal was the main employer in the city for six decades: between 1957 and 87, the company experienced uninterrupted growth. Following the rationalisation between 1988 and 1993, the company had another period of profitability up to 2001. Following September 11th, 2001, the company went slowly downhill slowly until, in hindsight, its almost inevitable closure a decade ago.
On that bleak January morning, the union delivered a strong message that morning to the receiver that if a buyer could not be found they expected the government to provide support until a more satisfactory arrangement could be made to keep the company open. Further work had to be done to find an acceptable solution that would protect the entitlements of workers and take the necessary steps to return the company to profitability. Whatever was needed temporarily to keep the company going should be considered. It just couldn’t close down and everyone walk away leaving employees and families on the scrap heap.As we all know now, the union fought the good fight and took their case to the European Court of Justice. It won a landmark decision against the head on a seven to zero by the seven-strong court. It was a great result which protected pension rights for workers everywhere across the EU.
Following the closure of ‘The Glass’, there followed five years of unrelenting effort by Union Leaders, including Irish Regional Secretary Jimmy Kelly and Walter Cullen, the Dublin Regional Secretary. Both from Waterford and both former master cutters, they engaged with government ministers, leading civic personalities and the national media to galvanise support for the cause. They eventually achieved a landmark victory from which employees received a percentage of their entitlements. This came as a great relief to everyone involved and lifted a mental, financial and physical burden off the backs of so many families impacted by the closure.
It was a great boost to the local economy as weekly incomes were secured and outstanding bills were paid. It gave many people a peace of mind and a way of living out the rest of their lives in some kind of comfort and security. Many families were able to provide their children with the education they needed including third level. Others opted for alternative employment across a range of fields. However, the impact of the closure is still being felt and unemployment in parts of Waterford city, along with parts of Limerick city remain among the highest in the country to this day.