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Waterford glass, Czech threats.

Waterford Glass, Czech Threats

Driving into the city of Waterford, forty-five miles east of Ardmore, I passed the new industrial park and the Waterford Crystal factory. It was closed, and pickets of the Amalgamated Transport and General Workers Union were clustered around the gates. Before 1825, when the English struck it down with an excise tax, there had been a flourishing glass industry in Ireland; by 1850 the industry was almost dead. The tax actually provoked a surge in cut glass, since the duty on this so-called flint glass-which uses silicates of potash and lead-was imposed only on molten glass in the crucibles and on the unfinished goods. The manufacturer therefore had a strong motivation to increase the value of the finished product, thus recouping his taxes, by such artifices as elaborate cutting. This became the most conspicuous feature, often carried to vulgar excess, of Waterford glass.

The old Waterford factory, once in the hands of Gatchell and Co., finally expired, but in 1948 the McGrath family revived this local industry in a shed in Ballytruckle outside Waterford. They prospered and by the mid-1980s were, with a labor force of some 3,000, one of the largest private employers in the Irish Republic. Then the McGraths sold out their controlling interest and a familiar tale began to unwind. In 1986 the company took over Wedgwood, an enterprise larger than itself. I'd stopped by the factory gate, and a couple of union organizers, Kevin Flynn and Jim Power, told me what happened next. A debt load of $370 million led inevitably to attempts to cut costs, and the managers laid off more than a thousand workers. Many highly skilled glass blowers and cutters took early retirement, with payoffs of up to $80,000. The less skilled and less senior fared far worse.

This "rationalization" was one of the most notorious pieces of mismanagement in Irish business history. In each team of blowers in the factory were men with specific skills. "There's your heavy blower and your light blower," Flynn said, "and your stemmer, ball blower, bit gatherer, jug maker." It was the same with men skilled at the art of wedge, rheontour and flat cutting. The managers retired these men without regard to specific crafts, so a team could end up with no heavy blowers, for instance, and not enough work for the cutters.

Three years later a new lot of managers was still trying to hack away at labor costs and in April took aim at the "bonanza" payment system, a perk negotiated for some workers in the palmy days of the McGrath era. The consequence was a strike by all 2,300 workers. Union strike pay of $40 a week for singles and, in state-supplied supplementary health benefits, $70 for nonworking spouses and $17 for each child hadn't made it easy. Nonetheless, Flynn remarked that the pickets looked a lot healthier than when the strike began. Glass blowing and cutting are stressful occupations, and the cutters get rheumatism from the water running over their hands. Power said you don't see too many foundrymen around town over 60 years of age. They mix in the lead sulfate, which gives the glass its brilliance.

What had really worried the workers, Flynn and Power said, was management's threat to relocate the factory to Czechoslovakia. "They told us"' Flynn said, "that no one in America, which is our main market, knew where Waterford was anyway, and they wouldn't be bothered if the glass was blown and cut someplace near Prague."

A shutdown of Waterford Crystal would be devastating to the region. Everyone is waiting for some new proposals from the Minister of Labor. I said goodbye to Flynn and Power and headed toward Ardmore. I got back there late in the evening to find that the great Henry O'Reilly, owner of O'Reilly's bar, had died a few minutes earlier, at the age of 79. Henry had been a Provo in political outlook. I remember him shouting out one night in the bar, "Let there be Thurbulence!" On the hillside in the new Catholic cemetery at his funeral an Irish piper played "Sliabh na mBan" as the east winds-the Druid wind as they call it-which brought St. Declan to Ardmore sometime in the fifth century, sent whitecaps into the bay and tossing up on the strand.

That night I got back from Waterford there was a Welshman in Keever's bar, next to O'Reilly's. He sang the "Gresford Disasterl" about a famous mining catastrophe in Wales in the 1930s. I listened to a fisherman inveighing against the Waterford Crystal workers as overpaid and tactically inept. Ardmore fishermen are an anarchic lot, united only in their hatred for a government that forbids them to catch salmon with monofilament nets, which efficiently leave less salmon for the tourist anglers up the Blackwater, many of them German and no doubt in their business lives now heading into Czechoslovakia to take advantage of cheap labor costs. The Gresford disaster was the first story my father covered for The Daily Worker. He was putting out his newsletter, "The Week"' and Harry Pollitt, general secretary of the Communist Party, conceived the idea of asking this exotic mercurist to see what had happened in Wales and to write about it for the Worker. The Welsh ballad singer finished his song:

Down there in the deep they are lying, They died for nine shillings a day. They worked out their shift and 'tis now they must lie, In the darkness until Judgment Day.
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Title Annotation:Beat the Devil; strike at Waterford Crystal in Ireland leads to threats of moving factory to Czechoslovakia
Author:Cockburn, Alexander
Publication:The Nation
Article Type:column
Date:Jun 18, 1990
Words:920
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