In gathering here today Comrades, we are historically filling more pages of the story of the Vita Cortex Injustice where once upon a time, the main characters of the fable, clocked in every morning, worked in the factory amid the foam – among the big luxurious rectangular blocks of blue and yellow and pink in a draughty dreary warehouse. They did this devotedly for years, some for myriads of time – 42, 44 and 47 years. And like the main players in any storyline, they expected to live happily ever after.
However there was an unexpected twist in the tale, and 32 protagonists found themselves cast in the midst of a storm of dishonesty. Promises made in September were reneged upon in December and workers who had dedicated lifetimes of hard graft and toil were cast aside in favour of greed.
In George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” written in 1943, we meet a character called Boxer; Boxer was a horse who committed himself completely to hard work. Whilst his motto was “I will work harder”, even when it was impossible for him to exert his energies any further, his reward was somewhat like the reward of the workers on the Kinsale Road; when he was no longer needed by his bosses, the pigs, he was sold and killed; and the pigs bought whiskey with the profits.
Another book entitled “The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists” by Robert Tressell, written about one hundred years ago, is a bleak account of the capitalist system and it focuses on the exploitation of workers at the cruel hands of bosses who use workers as mere commodities in order to achieve personal maximum profits, gained from the frantic toil of the worker. This book emphasises the concept of the unscrupulous employer who possesses the ultimate supreme power to deprive workers’ children of bread, rather like the situation in Vita Cortex, the week before Christmas.
In 1913, Larkin spoke about workers being flung on “the human scrapheap” when they were of no further use to their establishments. Larkin called for the oppressed to stand up for themselves – in this instance, a century later, our Cork workers instinctively knew they had to stand up for their rights. Almost a 100 years after the Dublin lockout, we have 32 workers locked into a dispute while they live in inhumane conditions and relative social isolation while the rest of the world applauds the workers.
Today, we congregate here as part of this extraordinary narrative, it is not a work of fiction but a statement of fact in the future history of industrial relations in Ireland. What has unfolded since December is a chronicle, updated daily, etched in ink, which can never be erased.
The 32 workers at the centre of this saga are the most unlikely people one would ever expect to find at the centre of any controversy. Their long lengths of service testify their commitment to hard work. Like the ordinary man in Christy Moore’s lyrics, the men and women of Vita Cortex have “shown loyalty through the bad times and the good, never missed a day, nor went on strike for better pay, never asked for a lot, were always happy with what they got”. They were unknown entities, who are not dissenters or agitators, people who would have never crossed our paths except for the injustice exerted on them. They are humble, ordinary simple people, “nothing special, nothing grand”, and that is meant as a mammoth compliment.
They do not want fame or distinction – they simply want what was promised, they have taken a principled stand and will not give up now. Some are embarrassed by the situation they find themselves in, yet are astounded by the support of the public.
They have been hurled in the middle of bizarre circumstances – Absolutely bizarre in that we have workers who cannot work, a paymaster who refuses to pay, politicians who are full of sympathy yet claim their hands are tied in relation to the point nine, a public looking on 58 days later wondering why human beings are left living in third world conditions, where six people have suffered pneumonia and one has been hospitalised; the Taoiseach says money is on the way, and yet we wait; we live in a country where we can’t afford health or education and this redundancy bill may lie in the hands of the taxpayer. It is the responsibility of our government and the wish of the workers that all accounts, companies and tax returns relating to Jack Ronan are investigated – those who can pay should pay. It also seems extraordinary that switching assets to a wife’s name may allow someone to plead poverty.
Since the 16th of December, the lives of the workers have been on hold. They have devoted all of their time to voluntary factory imprisonment. At the start they each spent 22 hours a day in the Kinsale Rd plant in shock and bewilderment at the evil actions of man. They have been prized apart from their spouses and families and have remained in wintry miserable conditions where steel and cold concrete is the shell which tries to detach the inside from the outside.
A newly born baby was brought to visit the factory in a Santa hat as his grandfather did not have the time to visit his grandson; children play darts in the canteen as they call to see their relations on a Sunday evening; Sons whose mothers are in their 90s spend very limited time with their parents; the mother of a 15 month old boy can’t tuck him in any night or read him a bedtime story because she is at the factory; and it is extremely abnormal that a mother of three should blow out her birthday candles in a cold canteen, before going downstairs to sleep on damp foam on a freezing factory floor, while mice rummage through plastic and water gushes and gurgles loudly while it gathers in floods beside the makeshift bed. This is how one worker spent her birthday, sleeping in the same arctic conditions as she had done for the previous 47 nights. Others find it impossible to sleep and only manage to doze for an hour on a seat in the dead of the night. It isn’t right that one man drives an almost forty mile round trip each day, getting home every night at 1 am, when petrol is expensive and he doesn’t earn any wages.
People who want to work sit around in total boredom – a walk downstairs, a visitor or the necessity to empty the dishwasher causes eyes to light up as it provides a temporary moment of relief.
What has kept the workers going? It has been the overwhelming expressions of support received from citizens of all ages and locations in Ireland as well as messages from all over the world. People’s gestures have kept spirits floating – some have travelled 300 miles to pop in to say well done, or when a family sends four packets of soup and a letter, it is inspiring. Mass cards, lottery tickets, cakes, money, sandwiches, dinners, snacks, chips, pizzas, warm jackets, cards, minerals, biscuits and ketchup have arrived. One lady lit 32 candles in the church as her contribution to the cause. The public are fully behind the dispute; this is clearly evident today as people have travelled from Dublin, Belfast, Sligo and other counties. Every neighbourhood in Cork is represented on the streets today, in solidarity with our friends from Vita Cortex, whom we admire, support and encourage until justice prevails.
The precedent of 2.9 weeks’ pay has existed in this company, there was never a doubt about the amount; and as stated at an angry public meeting held in the factory a few weeks ago, 2.9 is very little to ask for. Claims have been made by Jack Ronan that other jobs are being jeopardised by the actions of the workers; the workers vehemently deny this – the ruthless actions of the owners have caused all of this.
Support has called round to the canteen in other forms also; it is not all doom and gloom. There have been cookery demonstrations, mass and massages. Musicians have entertained and dancing skills are improving. Alcohol is forbidden and no one smokes inside the premises. School children have visited and can’t understand why the workers are not downstairs 24 hours a day bouncing on the squishy foam. South Korean TV came for interviews on Day 50 and journalists continue to follow events. Over 7,000 people from all over the world keep up to date with proceedings on Facebook on the page entitled “Support the Vita Cortex Workers”.
As we continue into the future, there are two options – to surrender or to maintain the vigil. Surrendering without adequate entitlements will never be a consideration; this fight will continue – the flames of passion, determination and principles will remain lighting until righteousness is restored. When tyranny is replaced with honesty, the workers will return home.
The implication for every other worker in Ireland is at stake. Employers may take advantage in other similar situations and may also plead inability to pay if this affair is not resolved in a satisfactory manner. Before the last budget, the state paid 60% of redundancy payments, since the first of January, this has been slashed to 15%. Not all employers are bad, but for the aforementioned reason, many rogue companies may also claim financial difficulties. The bill must not ultimately rest with the tax payer, and employers must live up to their moral obligations.
The Cork Council of Trade Unions have organised a public meeting in the factory, a protest in the factory grounds and this march in Cork today. This campaign will have to escalate if there is not a breakthrough soon. The workers have already gone to Tipperary to protest, the next time, thousands of us may have to accompany them. Contrary to the popular song, it isn’t that far to Tipperary. We can make our way to racecourses, stud-farms, supermarkets, shopping centres, crèches, sister foam factories and businesses connected with the Ronan dynasty.
One fourteen year old girl, suggested on her visit to the factory, that we should engage in a postcard campaign, thousands of us could all sign and stamp ready-made postcards and post them to Tipperary; it was also suggested that workers in Cork, Munster or Ireland could engage in a campaign of assistance by with-holding work for an agreed period of time in a working day in support of the plight of the 32 workers.
As I move towards the end of my speech I wish to draw your attention to a protest which took place in 2003. Fifty six workers in a tannery in Clonmel, Co. Tipperary took part in a sit in at their company’s premises for at least thirteen weeks. The employees of Ronan’s Dudley’s Mills also protested on the streets of Fethard with a caravan. Their grievance was as a result of unacceptable redundancy offered to workers when the company claimed it was withdrawing from the tanning business due to an unusual excuse, the situation in Iraq was blamed. Most staff had given loyal service ranging from 10 to 44 years. Most were at the upper end of the scale and many had given over 30 years’ service. The Tánaiste at the time said it was inappropriate for her to intervene in the dispute. Staff stood on the streets with signs which read
- “Ronan’s price for loyalty – Betrayal and Dole”.
- “You sold us out, now pay us off”.
- “Ronan’s tannery closed. Hard Work, no redundancy, hard luck, no thanks.”
- “Ronan’s way to get workers out on the cheap”.
- “Wanted fair redundancy for life time loyal service”.
- “Our only crime- trusting Ronan”.
- “Our trust and loyalty Gone, Gone, Gone.”
This was 2003, nine years ago. It is a parallel of the events in Cork since the 16th of December 2011. The situation must be resolved and this must never happen to workers again. We do not want a repetition of this in ten years’ time.
It is reminiscent of the world created by Charles Dickens in his novel ”Hard Times”, published in 1854 where workers are not valued and are referred to as ‘hands’. The factory owner is called Bounderby, a callous, self-centred, liar and a fraud. The Victorian industrialized story has a familiar ring as we take part in our own localised story.
The trouble is, we don’t know what page or chapter of the book we are on, we don’t know if we are still at the start of the storyline, the middle or the end. We don’t know when we can turn the final page, but we do know that this yarn should never have been told, this plot should have finished at the beginning, when Jack Ronan ought to have lived up to his promises and looked after his loyal, hardworking, innocent and honest staff.
They have been so dignified in their struggle and we will remain faithful in giving our unflinching galaxy of support for as long as it takes.
President – Cork Council of Trade Unions
Saturday, Feb 11th, 2012