Vita Cortex protestors are defending the rights of workers everywhere

Tom O'Connor - Economist & CIT lecturer

It is hard to understand how 32 workers with 847 years of loyal service to a company called Vita Cortex are now sitting in for 136 days in order to receive the remaining 0.9 weeks redundancy payment per year, a very modest demand by any standards.

Yet the Vita Cortex owner Jack Ronan, who is involved either as an owner or director of 27 companies, has refused to pay, despite his significant fortune. The estimated cost of the 0.9 weeks redundancy is €372,000 which represents only a small fraction of Ronan’s wealth.

Prior to Christmas, Vita Cortex workers were led to believe from Mr. Ronan that they would receive the modest 0.9 weeks per year extra redundancy payment, slightly more than two weeks statutory redundancy, which he could recoup from the state.  Consequently, they raised no objections to the movement of assets out of the company.

Mr. Ronan’s father in-law, Sean Mc Henry, the ex-owner of the company, was trusted by the workers. Yet he has also failed to deliver. He is still Chair of the board at Vita Cortex. Mc Henry is one of the old wealthy families in of Cork city which go back generations. These are known as ‘merchant princes’.

Merchant princes guard their wealth jealously. They marry within their own class and they strongly believe the old adage that ‘there is no sentiment in business’.  It is clear that Mr. Ronan is not the sentimental type. He claims that he is not legally compelled to pay the 0.9 weeks.  So, he has decided he won’t.

It doesn’t matter to him that 32 workers have given 847 years of service to the company.  On average, each worker has given 26. 5 years to it. Many have given it their whole working lives and have over 40 years service. This obviously counts for nothing in the mind of a hard-nosed businessman.

Neither does it matter that these 32 human beings have spent 136 days and nights, 24 hours a day, sitting-in at the plant. The inhumane conditions don’t matter. The cold is of no consequence. The endless nights trying to sleep on hard floors are but a trifling matter. The fact that some workers have been hospitalised with respiratory problems due to the conditions doesn’t matter a jot to Mr Ronan.

Their plight resonates strongly with that of the 25,000 Dublin workers in the 1913 lockout. The Vita Cortex workers need their full redundancy out of economic necessity. Yet, they are been told by Mr. Ronan that they have no right to this redundancy, though they know better themselves. They are forced in to desperate measures to defend their entitlements, in the face of a ham-fisted employer. The tactics of Mr. Ronan to break the workers’ will, bears a strong similarity to that of William Martin Murphy in 1913, and are described well in the words of James Connolly:

““In 1915 the employers of Dublin and Ireland in general are employing the weapon of starvation in order to compel men to act against their conscience. The same weapon, the same power derived from the same source……………..The great lock-out in 1913-14 was an apprenticeship in brutality—a hardening of the heart of the Irish employing class” (1)

Mr Ronan’s heart is hardened against the plight of the Vita Cortex workers.  Yet, these workers are real people. Their lives are real. Their families are real. Their anger is real, as is their bronchitis, pneumonia, frustration and anxiety. Most of all, their suffering is real. They feel let-down, used and abused ,by a company which is happy to put them on a scrap heap and force them to try to grind out a result, at a tremendous personal cost to themselves.

Yet, in the words to Phil Coulter’s song, The Town I loved so Well: ‘their spirits are bruised never broken’. They will continue to sit in for as long as it takes to be granted the redundancy to which they are entitled. They will achieve the social justice which they so richly deserve.

Yet, this is an even bigger injustice than the Vita Cortex Workers. The hardening of the hearts of Irish employers at the 1913 lockout is starting to become increasingly commonplace in Ireland. In addition to the Vita Cortex Workers, those at Lagan Brick have endured a similar faith. Previously, La Senza workers were being refused fair redundancy terms. Two years ago, the Thomas Cook workers were stormed in their offices at daylight with a heavily pregnant woman in their number.

Workers in Ireland, their families, or anyone living here who has any sense of fairness or concern about  pay, working conditions, or workers rights to  fair redundancy payments, need to stand up now and fight the cause of the Vita Cortex workers.  The defeat of a just cause such as this,  would send clear signals to other employers to jump on the bandwagon of worker exploitation.

If certain employers feel that workers and unions are now effectively neutered, it is obvious that they will go on the offensive, just like Mr Ronan.  The obvious consequences would be: lower wages; poorer working conditions; less non-statutory redundancy settlements; demands for more work for less pay; less holiday entitlements; more casual work and a rapid decline in workers’ rights.

Unions can only do so much. Every person has an obligation to speak out: amongst their friends; at home with family; in pubs; clubs; societies; at union meetings; on the streets; in communities and anywhere people gather. Any indifference to the cause of the Vita Cortex workers can only be socially reprehensible. The rise of the Nazi party in Germany in the 1930s was facilitated by an indifference by the general population to the growth in Nazi power, with disastrous consequences, as told in the poem ‘First They Came’ by  Pastor Martin Niemoller

First they came for the Communists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Communist
Then they came for the Socialists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Socialist
Then they came for the trade unionists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a trade unionist
Then they came for the Jews
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Jew
Then they came for me
And there was no one left
To speak out for me.

The message is obvious: Speak out! Protest; telephone radio programs; go to the marches; join the protests organised by the campaign for the Vita Cortex workers.  To date, people in Cork, Ireland and even globally have shown tremendous support. We need a final push. Despite 136 days, we cannot give up or become indifferent. A victory for the Vita Cortex workers could prevent YOU becoming a victim also. It would prevent an escalation of the onslaught on workers’ jobs and their families which is being orchestrated by IBEC and a growing number of unscrupulous employers.  The time to act is NOW.

Notes

  1. Connolly, James (1949), Labour and Easter Week; a Selection from the Writings of James Connolly. Dublin, Three Candles Press, p121.

“You are here inside your head all the time and we know you are here in spirit. Dont you ever feel bad about that.”

The Vita Cortex workers and their heroes – Part one

The online campaign team spent the best part of Wednesday in the factory canteen chatting with the workers about the idea of the hero. It just came up in conversation, and as these things do, it took on a life all of it’s own. It is very clear that the workers are more than a little uncomfortable with the ‘heroes’ label that has been attributed to them over the last 133 days. I remember, about 3 weeks into the protest, Jim Power turning to me and saying “We never set out to be heroes. We just want what we were promised and what we deserve. That’s all.” He seemed genuinely unsettled at the thought of people seeing him in that light and he wasnt best pleased when I replied “Go away boy! you love it! Where’s your red cape?”  The slience that followed spoke volumes and I feel that he was weighed down by the thought. It was unchartered waters for a group of people who have spent their days working to look after their families, pay the mortgage and put food on the table.

Now over four months on I found myself sitting next to Jim again. In order to erase the awkward looks and rolling eyes thrown at me for asking if they believed in God (it wasnt the time or the place) I asked them who their heroes have been down through the years. This immediately seemed to be more fertile ground for a conversation.

“That fella there,” said Jim pointing proudly to a badge of George Best on the lapel of his jacket ” there has never been a footballer like him and there never will be again. Maradona, Messi and Ronaldo are brilliant but this guy was something else!” I am too young to have seen George Best live, in the moment and in full flight, but the conviction in Jim’s voice convinced me that he was indeed the greatest. I tried to ignore the fact that Jim is a fanatical Manchester United fan.

Jim's George Best badge

I was about to bring that up when Connie Griffin leaned across and said “Gandhi.”

I let out an involuntarily laugh and replied “what?”

I was just surpised because I really didnt expect it. “Some man to stick to his principles and he never gave in. I like that in somebody. He was a real leader. Maybe I would have chosen somebody else if I had not gone through this over last four months. But  he was an inspirational person.”

When he finished explaining Iimmediately felt sorry for laughing. He was dead serious – Gandhi and Connie linked by an unshakable belief in having right on their side. It was a nice feeling to be sitting there.

“Joanne O’Riordan is my hero anyway… That teenage girl from Millstreet who was born without limbs….she just gets on with her life. And we think we have problems? Im telling you we dont know what problems are compared to that child. She is going to speak at the United Nations this month. She is mine.”

Those were the words of Cal O’Leary from across the table as he was stirring a cup of tea. I thought it was amazing that a man who has been through a quarter of a year of struggle could remember the story of a girl for whom he clearly has immense affection. But it made sense because while these workers are being dehumanised, they have never once lost their sense of humanity. I didnt respond. There was no need. I just did my job and took down what he said.

As I was writing I noticed Henry O’Reilly staring down at his shoes. He had been silent for the whole conversation. I watched him and imagined that he was thinking about the landscape his own battle – the chemo, the procedures, the medical opinions, the impact on his family and on himself. The “Big C” hit the O’Reilly household in mid January and Henry has been fighting a war on two fronts ever since. We have become very good friends and sometimes the injustice of his situation blindsides me at random times during the week. It is easy to be angry. It is harder thing to be a man of Henry’s calibre. I look at him until he realises that I am watching. He glances over and smiles.

“Mine is it?” asks Henry. “Darren, my heroes are these guys sitting here in front of me and that is God’s honest truth. I cannot believe that they have stuck it out for so long. I have no right to be called a hero by anybody. I have not been here every day for the last four months. But those guys sitting across the table are my heroes for not letting this cause die. I wish I could be here with them everyday.

Henry stopped talking and the only sound that could be heard in the canteen was the heaviness of his breathing. Cal O’Leary walked over and put his hand on Henry’s shoulder and said “We know you would be here with us every day if you could Henry. We know it boy.”

Cal looked him in the face, pointed at his temple and continued “You are here inside your head all the time and we know you are here in spirit. Dont you ever feel bad about that.”

In all my thirty years it was one of the hardest things that I have had to witness . It was beautiful and traumatic. It was like kissing the girl of your dreams and being stung by a wasp at the same time – hard to concentrate on the pain or the joy. You would just have to accept the misfortune of your circumstances. Let it be.

I glanced back over at Jim power. He shook his head at me and turned to look out the canteen window. Life was out there on Pearse Road.

Darren O’Keeffe is the Coordinator of the Support of the Vita Cortex Workers Online Campaign

We will remember the Cherry Blossom Trees

It is Spring now.

If some of you reading this have never been to Pearse Road, Spring means one thing, the cherry blossom trees are in bloom. They stand tall like us, magnificent in their beauty. They sway in the wind and bend with it but remain unbroken. They have been there lining the street as long as any of us can remember.  For everyone in Ballyphehane they are part of the local landscape and history, for us at Vita Cortex they are an intrinsic part of our memories.

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It is Day 129 now.

The cherry blossom trees on Pearse Road are like sentries guarding the road to the factory; our home, once our workplace now a prison of sorts. It is hard to imagine a day when this will be over. But that day will come. We will tell the story of our lives at Vita Cortex to our children and grandchildren. We wonder what pieces of 44 years will survive in the dusty corners of our memories longest. Will we remember Eleanor running around with schedules and sales orders arranging deliveries? Will we recall Helen humming at her sewing machine or Cal arriving on his bike at dawn to collect a truck? In years to come will we still hear Greg directing trucks in and out of the yard or Kevin singing rebel songs on the factory floor? Will it be Denny on his forklift or a young Martina smiling and full of news as she arrives for her shift that we see in our minds eye? Will we hear the hum of the machines, the click of typewriters, laughter coming from Sheila, Maurice and Henry in the office?

Will we remember the tragedies that befell us over four decades? Loosing wives and husbands, co-workers taken from us too soon, sitting by the phone praying together and waiting for news after Big Jim’s accident and Eleanor’s illness. Will it be those days in the 80s, when the economy was in turmoil and we moved to 3 days a week that spring to mind? Or will it be the good times? Big Jim dressed as Santa at the Christmas parties, supper dances, Greg and Eleanor having their usual hilarious arguments, weddings, babies born, the prosperity of the 90s returning the hum of busy machines to the factory floor, the deepening of friendships that will last beyond forty years.

Through all of these, seasons would come and go and when Spring came the cherry blossom trees would once again guard the street, watching over all of us as we worked. Greg recalls bright mornings arriving at the factory and marveling at their beauty. For Alan, Jim and Cal after tiring journeys and long delivery schedules the branches bending over with the weight of the blossoms meant they were finally home. The lads in the yard recall the petals blowing everywhere on windy days, showering the trailers in pink confetti. Many people who have moved away from Ballyphehane, as far away as Australia, have told us that the cherry blossom trees and the Vita Cortex trucks form some of their earliest memories of home.

When this is over we hope the memories we have will be good ones; the strength of our friends, the 5000 strong crowd supporting us in Patrick Street, the children’s paintings in the canteen, the days of hard work on the factory floor, the feeling of accomplishment and self-worth after sales orders were met and delivered, the sunny spring days. We will remember Vita Cortex as it was. We will remember the smiles of our friends.  We will remember the cherry blossom trees.

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Nottingham Forest Star, Andy Reid, Sends Letter of Support to Vita Cortex Workers

Dear Workers,

I was extremely saddened to hear the news of the ongoing situation at Vita Cortex and cannot imagine just how difficult it must be for you all at this moment in time. I admire the courage you have all shown and would like to express my 100% support over what I am sure will be a testing few weeks.

Andy Reid - Nottingham Forest FC

I have followed the dispute closely via the media back home and gave nothing but admiration for the courage and fortitude you have shown throughout it – especially the way in which you have stood up for your rights and the redundancy payments you are entitled to. The way that you have refused to bow to the pressure you have all been under speaks volumes for you all.

Stay strong and rest assured that Ireland is behind you and your struggle for what is right. If there is anything I can do please do not hesitate to contact me.

Best Wishes

Andy Reid

Nottingham Forest Football Club

 

Four Months of Protest – December 16th to April 16th

After 4 months of protest, it seemed fitting to recap on the journey somehow, but how do you sum up over 120 in sentences and paragraphs? How do you find the right words? We couldn’t if we tried.

Ansel Adams once wrote, ‘When words become unclear, I shall focus with photographs’ so that is what we will do. Here are 4 months, 123 days, 32 people, hundreds of emotions and thousands of memorys in photo diary

Our First Profile Picture December 23rd, there were only 300 fans on the page but it got 188 likes!

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Christmas 2011

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Family and Friends gather in the canteen after mass

ImageJim’s grandson James, 4 weeks old that day comes to visit

 

 

The First Rally on January 2nd with over 600 people

ImageLucas supports his aunt Catherine and Uncle Kevin at the rally

 

January 11th – Jimmy Barry Murphy visits the factory

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JBM on one of his many visits presents Jim with a jersey signed by the Cork Hurling team

 

 

 

January 12th The Rally at the Dail

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The convoy all ready at 6am

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Former VC worker Martha Dennehy makes her voice heard at the Dail

 

The 2nd Cork Rally January 14th

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Our favourite picture of the whole campaign

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Crowds gather to listen to the speeches

 

February 2nd, a cold, windy day – one of many protests in Tipperary

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Helen and Catherine take the fight for justice to Tipperary

 

February 9th Students from Kenmare Community College visit the factory

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February 11th The Protest in Cork City – the biggest protest the Garda ever remember in Cork

 

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Another favourite photo taken by Sarah O Leary

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Despite the rain, 5000 people gathered to support the VC 32

 

February 16th Protesting at IBEC

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Christy Moore and Declan Sinnott Gig in Support of the VC 32 February 17th

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Jim on stage with Declan and Christy (taken by Richie Tyndall)

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Christy chats to the workers after the gig

 

February 18th Paul McGrath, Spike O Sullivan and the Cork City FC team visit the factory

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Baby James is not impressed by Paul!

 

March 2nd a host of Cork musicans, singers and poets perform at a night time vigil at the plant

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Some kids keep her lit at the vigil despite the cold

 

 

March 8th Gerry Adams visits the workers in the canteen

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March 9th the workers are invited to attend Cork City FC’s opening match and get a standing ovation

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March 24th, Day 100, Photographer Conor Buckley captures some timeless images for us

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This photo of Denis is one of our favourites

 

March 28th – 104 days and spirits are still high, dancing to Declan Ryan

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March 30th the workers are invited to watch World Champion Katie Talyor fight

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April 16th, Day 123,

As a mediation process is about to start we look at old photos and remember what this is all about, us workers who have given our lives to a company we love, fighting for what we believe just. Stay with us.

 

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My Hopes for the Coming Days

Hope springs eternal they say, so we can but hope for a just and equitable settlement which would allow us all to move on with our lives.

It would be easy to be pessimistic given the history of this struggle. The ex-employees have bought into this mediation mechanism with a willingness to accept the process as a positive step forward. I hope that this sentiment applies to all the participants equally and that the receipt of closure will enable both employees and employer to focus on their respective futures. However, if the recommendations from the mediation talks fail to be accepted by all parties, we all feel a moral justification in continuing this struggle.

I personally will continue my struggle with cancer and hopefully will make a full recovery in time. I have no other option as I wish to watch all my grandchildren grow up and reach adulthood. So here’s to being 85! Only 25 years to go, but who’s counting.

I have noticed in all the ex-employees a continued pride in having worked for Vita Cortex and I myself still find myself being proud of the products we made and the colleagues i have known over the years. I also wonder how I will eventually adjust to not having daily contact with those colleagues.

Henry and his wife Marion and daughters Sarah & Leah enjoying a family birthday

I recall Barry Twomey (rip) talking to me about the need to prepare for retirement as it could be a very traumatic experience.  Unfortunately, for some of us in the current economic climate this is not optional but mandatory retirement which will be very traumatic both financially and socially. However, as in our working lives I believe we will all be there to support each other in the future.

This experience has changed us all to lesser and greater extents. I think it will be seen to have deepened friendships and also created one or two political activists in the process which of itself is a good thing. I am now beginning to better understand that the true strength of a democracy lies in the willingness of its citizens to struggle to protect it and not to simply accept the dictates of political parties and vested interests -or in simple terms “you get the government you voted (or couldn’t be bothered to vote at all) for” and they can now do whatever they wish for the next five years which is a very long time in anyone’s life.

Thank you all for your support. It has been amazing.

Henry O’Reilly is a Vita Cortex worker with over forty years service. He is currently battling cancer and he is doing extremely well.

A Visit to Vita Cortex

The figures one, one and four were propped on the canteen window, showing Cork City and beyond that it had been 114 days since their ordeal had begun. The walls and cupboards were adorned with posters, pictures and cards of well wishes from families, friends, schools, sports teams and celebrities.

Following the dispute through the media and the Vita Cortex 32’s online campaign, I knew that the attitude of the former Vita Cortex workers was one of hope, pride and determination. However, I did not realise that this attitude, this strength would be so prominent and consistent throughout their everyday lives at the factory. For me, the casual conversation, the laughs and the jokes were harshly complimented with the stark realisation that these men and women had paused the normality of their own lives to dedicate themselves to the cause. I spoke to Greg Marshall from Fairhill, he had worked with Vita Cortex for 37 years. “We just want what we feel we justly deserve. That’s all we’re looking for, is a bit of respect,” said Greg quietly.

I took my recorder in hand and followed Connie Griffin on a tour of the now silent factory floor. Connie is from Ballyphehane and worked with Vita Cortex for twelve years. He is planning to get married next year. Machines, boxes and foam products lay still and untouched. Letters, papers and pens were scattered across the office desks, ghosts of the busy days that were once lived and enjoyed in the factory.

I stood still as Connie showed me the foam mattresses the women had been sleeping on. The air was cold, a draught ran down the length of the room and the mattresses lay bundled beside a heater. “We had to turn off the heater because of the noise,” Connie said, “but you can imagine being down here with the wind blowing, you can only imagine.”

Greg, a man who made me laugh more than a few times, sat at the canteen table and told me his story, complimented by comments from Tommy, Maurice, Denis and Cal. I spoke to Eolan Ryng, a supporter from Bishopstown, about watching the workers’ fight for justice on a weekly basis. I listened to Darren O’Keeffe tell me how himself and Veronica, Greg’s daughter, set up the online campaign initiative. The recorder ran for my college project but did not distract me, the stories of these 32 men and women could hold a person’s attention for hours on end.

Their fight for justice, their determination to receive what they are owed and their courage in the past four months framed the evident friendship and respect the Vita Cortex workers have for one another. The canteen is a place of happy memories for the VC32; lunchtimes and a cup of tea were looked forward to during their working days at the factory. It is bitterly ironic that it is in this room now that they wait, determined not to give up.

The class of 2012 will graduate this September, some of us naively optimistic about the working world that awaits us. For me, the VC32’s fight for justice will set a precedent for the future, securing a better society for us all to work in. They are not just fighting for their own 32, they are fighting for the futures of Ireland’s youth.

“What are you most looking forward to?”, I asked.

Greg paused. “Not passing the doorstep of this place again. Getting on with my life, to be honest. I’ve sent out cv’s, I’m hopeful like all the rest of the thousands”.

I learnt more on Saturday, April 7th, 2012 at the Vita Cortex factory about life, determination and fighting for what you believe in, than I had in years at college.

Keep Her Lit guys, I wish you all the very, very best.

Denise Calnan is a final year Journalism student at University of Limerick. She visited the factory on Saturday, April 7th, to research the dispute for an assignment. The views expressed are her own.