World and Nation

The Factory’s Closed, But the Workers Keep Showing Up

What do you do when your employer announces that your company has shut down and that you no longer have a job, effective immediately?

You can take the fatalistic approach and stay home, one more unhappy immigrant in the vast land of the unemployed. Or, like the employees of the Waterford Crystal factory here, which ceased operating in January, you can go to your workplace, occupy the building and refuse to leave.

“We said, ‘You’re not going to stop people from coming to the place they’ve worked all their lives, where their family worked, and where they have built up the brand themselves,’” said Tony Kelly, 51, describing how a crowd of angry employees prevailed on security guards at the headquarters to unlock the front doors and let them in, on Jan. 30.

A total of 480 people lost their jobs here that day, joining 200 Waterford workers who were laid off in 2008 and thousands more in other companies around Ireland, where the once-powerful economy continues to implode.

Many heard the news by letter or text message. Some of them have been at the headquarters, on the edge of the city of Waterford, continuously since then, socializing, drinking coffee, playing cards and worrying about the future.

They want the factory to open again, of course, and they want to make sure they still have pensions. Even that might be too much to ask for. But beyond the financial issues lies something intangible, something rare in these days of easy-go jobs: a deeply emotional attachment to a place of work.

“Nobody has heard of Waterford in America, but just say, ‘Have you heard of Waterford Crystal?’ and everyone has,” said Ian Paul, who has worked here for 42 years, since he was a 15-year-old apprentice, and whose father worked here before him, for 36 years. “You can forget Waterford if you don’t have Waterford Crystal.”

The company itself is not going to go away. Last month, KPS Capital Partners, a private equity company based in New York, announced that it planned to buy Waterford Wedgwood, Waterford Crystal’s parent company. KPS said it had no comment about the events at the factory.

The Kilbarry factory would not be part of the sale. But one possible plan would have local business leaders, helped by the Irish government, building a new, smaller factory and an improved tourist center that could employ at least some of the laid-off workers and be a draw for visitors.

Those negotiations are continuing. The crystal company has posted huge losses in the past few years, and much of its manufacturing is already done in factories in cheaper countries abroad. The workers fear that all their experience and all their expertise, not to mention the long history of crystal-making in Waterford, are in danger of disappearing.

“If it’s mass-produced, the craftsmanship we have here could be lost forever, so we’re fighting for that as well,” said Paul, whose job was to repair specialty items like sports trophies.