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.
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One thought on “Vita Cortex protestors are defending the rights of workers everywhere

  1. Fantastic Tom,brightest economic minds in the country support these workers,if they are not respected for their loyal service why would anyone feel safe committing to a company in Ireland.

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