Monday, June 20, 2022

The former Waterford Crystal site in Kilbarry.


The Phoenix opinion column has been running in the Waterford News & Star for more than 30 years


IN the 37 years this column has been in existence, a lot of water has flown under the industrial relations bridge in Waterford. Fingers and toes would not be enough to count the number of businesses that have come and gone for all sorts of reasons. The good ship Waterford has been holed below the water line on many occasions. You can blame or point the finger at who or what you like, but everyone would have to admit that the economy of Waterford has been damaged and at a low ebb for some time after the closure of Waterford Glass at Kilbarry and the financial crash in 2008.

In recent times Waterford has begun to show signs of real vitality with new industry arriving and established places like Bausch and Lomb adding significant numbers of new jobs. It’s also fair to say that wage and salary levels in most of these new industries are very good and that the industrial relations climate has been quite benign for at least a decade.


‘All anyone in Waterford needs to do to see what can happen to any industry is go to Kilbarry and look at the wreckage of the Glass factory offices. It’s a chastening sight’


The current cost of living increases and price inflation caused by energy price increases, the war in Ukraine and other factors have upset the national and international economy. The days of low interest rates and low cost borrowing may also be coming to an end. The impact of these trends on the Irish economy is just beginning to make itself felt and the wider international outlook has become darker in recent months. Even Covid has not gone away, you know!

My father used to say that Waterford did not “do” trade unionism very well, that we never learned to be cute, in that Irish way, about how we do our business. Sometimes a small and vocal minority of so called activists got more publicity in the local and national media over relatively trivial disputes than their numbers and influence ever warranted. Anyway, all anyone in Waterford needs to do to see what can happen to any industry, no matter how large or how profitable it is presumed to be, is to go to Kilbarry and look at the wreckage of the Glass factory offices and the huge vacant site behind them where the factory itself used to stand. It’s a chastening sight and a reminder that thousands of jobs can vanish.

Retail data in the USA suggests that females are responsible for the majority of retail decisions. Most men I know hate shopping anyway, but a lot of the constant social media criticisms of retailing in Waterford and the supposedly poor choice and lack of variety seems to be from local women. Making a huge jump of logic, one may presume that staff from Bausch and Lomb, a fair number of whom are female, would be among the complainants. The logic also suggests that retailing in our city centre was in a poor situation because of the state of the local economy and the low level of disposable income following massive job losses in the 2008 to 2011 period.

When jobs are lost in any number, any local economy takes a huge hit from the loss of spending power and the multiplier effect which follows that spend. If people don’t have disposable income, they don’t buy houses or cars or comparison goods or whatever you’re having yourself. It’s interesting to note that fashion chain Zara have bought the whole Debenhams store in Blanchardstown Shopping Centre to create a huge new store. What a boost it would be to Waterford were something similar to happen in City Square. Yet we all know the saying that retail follows, it does not lead. In other words, it follows demand and demand is created by disposable income.

When Waterford Crystal finally closed in Kilbarry, memory suggests that there were 850 people employed there. No one is suggesting that B&L will close, but it’s worth thinking of the economic impact of the company at this time. Bausch and Lomb has 1,600 employees and that number has been arrived at after years of growth. No one ever hears of a 1,600 person IDA job announcement. Companies start small and grow organically. B&L has been growing strongly in recent years with a lot of investment arriving on site. That success is due in no small way to the local workforce. That’s why it’s so sad to see industrial action of any kind, even of the very limited form we have seen at present. Strikes, when they persist, can quickly change the atmosphere in any business. They sour relations between people on all sides, even between workers themselves. Anyone who recalls the Waterford Crystal strike of 1992 will know how that went. Lifelong friendships were soured and embittered, even in families.

The B&L action has thus far been relatively limited and of short duration. A quick resolution will enable fences to be mended and allow the company to develop further. At the time of writing a meeting of management and union was proposed for Friday, June 17. Hopefully by the time you read this, the impasse will have been broken and B&L will return to normal. If it should happen otherwise, then the situation quickly becomes like the man who jumped out of the 100th floor in the Empire State Building in New York. As he passed the 50th floor on the way down, he thought to himself, alright so far!

It was interesting to read the local political reaction to the B&L action. Matt Shanahan expressed legitimate concern (which we all share) for the jobs and reminded people of past industrial closures. He received little thanks for his trouble. David Cullinane professed himself to be a trade unionist and sides with the workers. I presume this is Sinn Fein speak for saying nothing that might lose the party any votes in the next election? Our government reps seem largely silent, which is also no surprise. Dr. John Martin Hearne wrote the seminal history of Waterford Glass. His saddest note was about the low level of educational attainment of the workforce and their subsequent difficulties in finding employment. It will be interesting to see what 1,600 local workers of a newer and different generation decide to do with their future.

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By Phoenix
Contact Newsdesk: 051 874951

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