The Vita Cortex factory in Cork closed on 16th December and the workers refused to leave without the €1.2 million compensation promised in September when Vita Cortex management announced plans to move production to Athlone, County Westmeath.
They rejected a subsequent offer of €1,500 each, calling it “Scrooge-like”, and vowed to continue occupying the foam rubber plant until they received the payments, amounting to 2.9 weeks per year of service for each worker.
Vita Cortex is a subsidiary of holding company Vita Five Five Ltd, chaired by multi-millionaire Tipperary businessman and property developer Jack Ronan. Ronan has justified the Cork closure on the grounds that the plant had supposedly been losing profitability since 2009.
However, local Fine Gael TD, Jerry Buttimer has commented that: “A web of inter-company transactions has been carried out over the last number of years which has effectively stripped the assets from the Cork company. This looks like it has been a planned and orchestrated move by people controlling the companies.”
To make things more complex, some Vita Cortex's assets, which comprise three industrial properties in Cork, Belfast and Dublin, and €2.5m of Vita Cortex cash on deposit, have been caught up in the National Asset Management Agency (NAMA), the 'bad bank' set up by the previous Fianna Fail government to buy up liabilities from Irish banks.
Ronan secured a €10m loan from Anglo-Irish Bank five years ago to buy Vita Cortex from its previous shareholders and in late 2010 this loan was moved to NAMA. The €2.5m in cash deposits are contained in an AIB account in the name of another subsidiary, Vita Cortex (Dublin) Ltd, and are being held as security against the debts of the parent company.
Vita Cortex management have been demanding that NAMA release the money but the agency's CEO, Brendan McDonagh, maintained that the agency “cannot simply use assets belonging to one company to make payments to another unrelated company with which it has no financial relationship.”
Despite the supposed legal separation between the Cork plant and its holding company, Labour TD Ciaran Lynch has alleged that specialist equipment was removed recently from the Vita Cortex in Cork to a factory in Athlone with links to Vita Five Five Ltd.
Such corporate accounting is deliberately unclear but it could be that Ronan is trying to get the taxpayer, through NAMA, to pay out by demanding the redundancy money is paid from the frozen account, rather than leave the shareholders of the holding company or the Cork plant liable. If indeed Vita Cortex (Cork) Ltd is legally separate from Vita Five Five Ltd it should presumably have received payment for the specialist plant equipment sent to Athlone. Alternatively, Ronan could be delaying so that the workers are paid through state guarantee schemes, which could take up to two years. In any case, the bosses need to open the books so that the web of transactions can be firmly traced. Last Thursday the Vita Cortex workers made demands to this effect.
The factory occupation has caught the imagination of local workers and hundreds of supporters held a solidarity demonstration on January 2nd. It has also caught the imagination of Occupy Cork activists who have occupied an unused building on Oliver Plunkett Street in the city, with plans to turn it into a community resource centre.
Speaking to Solidarity, Occupy activist Eoghan MacMahon said: "The Occupy movement in Cork is fully behind these workers. We were thrilled to see direct action like this happen, as it shows that the Irish people are beginning to wake up and say no, this isn't right."
He also expressed scepticism about the professions of support from trade union leaders, noting that 'Ireland's trade unions have been far too resistant to actually mobilising people in the last few years and resisting the cuts...Too many people are too comfortable in the union bureaucracy to really rock the boat yet.'
The workers have received support from the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) general secretary, David Begg, and from the president of the Services, Industrial, Professional and Technical Union (SIPTU), Jack O'Connor, who visited the factory on Christmas Eve and promised to 'mobilise' the SIPTU's members in the new year.
Begg and O'Connor have been central to the social-partnership 'Croke Park Agreement'. As the general secretary of the Association of Higher Civil and Public Servants, Dave Thomas, gushed recently to the Irish Times, social-partnership has meant that 'for almost two years – despite the sacrifices that have been made, the cuts endured and the impact of previous reductions in pay and entitlements – the Republic has, in large part, enjoyed industrial peace.' It is a tragic commentary on the state of parts of the Irish labour movement that he meant this as a good thing (!) rather than a disastrous shackle on the labour movement.
As such, workers should not take the assurances of Ireland's union bureaucrats at face value. If workers really want to help the Vita Cortex workers they should establish a campaign based, of course, on the trade unions but more importantly, on rank-and-file structures independent of the bureaucracy.
Some demands for the broader labour movement should be 'open the books!' to reveal the shady accounting practices often used by capitalists- think Ford/Visteon in 2009 when Ford transferred liability to its subsidiary to avoid paying out on pensions. Also, rather than merely lose the jobs in Cork, workers should go further than asking for their redundancy payments to demand, as in Vestas occupation two years ago, the nationalisation of the factory under workers' control.
Socialists must struggle to connect this dispute to wider demands for the nationalisation of the banking system under democratic control and supervision in order to tap into the widespread anger felt against the network of property developers, financiers and the government intent on making Irish workers pay for the capitalist crisis.