Gene Kerrigan reports on the campaign involving the 11/64 branch of Waterford Glass at Kilbarry.


1. The containers

The containers were being shifted out, but it took a few days before it dawned on anyone that this might be significant. Then someone noticed they were disappearing, one by one. What was happening had strike written all over it.

There had been eleven containers scattered throughout the Waterford Glass factory at Kilbarry. Three of them could be accounted for by the normal flow of products, the other eight had been just sitting there for months. Each one held a few hundred thousand pounds worth of the finest cut crystal. The company had to stack the stuff somewhere, but some of the shop stewards reckoned a bit of psychological warfare had been going on for the past few months.

The containers and their stock of unsold glassware, sitting malevolently in full view of the workforce as they blew, cut and polished more crystal, were a physical reminder of recession. Used to be that the stuff had hardly cooled before it was whipped off to decorate the living rooms of New York and Ohio. In recent months, no negotiation on wages or conditions had been complete without someone on the management side of the table referring to the containers. They had become pieces in the game. Now they were being moved off the board.

Waterford Glass is the biggest handmade crystal operation in the world, with a reputation to match. The Rolls Royce of glass. The workers there are one of the best organised, best paid, most self-assured sections of the population on the island. They are the biggest single-industry workforce outside the six counties. It was no accident that they assumed a leadership role in the fight against tax inequity.

In the second week of April, with the temperature of the conflict between workers and government rising, the management of Waterford Glass began shifting the containers. It could be, reckoned the shop stewards, that there had been a sudden craving for crystal in Ohio. Or it could be that management was gearing up for a strike and didn't fancy having two or three million pounds worth of glass on the wrong side of the picket line.

So far, management had cooperated with the "loan" strategy, staying neutral in the workers' tax war with the government. Now, on Thursday April 14 personnel manager Bertie Rogers told the stewards that was it - end of story. From next Thursday PAYE and PRSI would be deducted.

Immediately, the stewards began tracing the containers that had left the factory. Some were still in Ireland, some in Liverpool, some in Scotland; The stewards put the word out through their union that the glass was to blacked, frozen in place. No one touches it until we sort this out.

2. We Have No Mandate

Donal Nevin, General Secretary of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, was getting more fidgetty by the minute. His voice was rising. No, no, he couldn't put anything into the statement to the press about civil disobedience, about strikes, about ... no, no, no, the media would be on the phone all day asking what does this mean what does that mean. No. Anway, this meeting hadn't a mandate .. well, okay, the Waterford delegation had a mandate, but ....

One thing he could guarantee: it mightn't mention all these things, but it would be a strongly worded statement.

The meeting, at the ICTU headquarters in Raglan Road, Dublin, had been going on for almost three hours. Usually, a meeting of the ICTU's Trades Council Coordinating Committee attracts delegates from about seven trades councils. The previous meeting, on April 9, had had delegates from twelve councils. This meeting, on Saturday April 23, had delegatesfrom nineteen trades councils from around the country. The meetings of April 9 and 23 were discussing the tax campaign.

The ICTU is the trade union movement's central body - in theory. It is the body which negotiates with, lobbies and presents arguments (and strongly worded statements) to the government. In practice, the ICTU bureaucracy is somewhat removed from feeling at rank and file level, being largely made up of full-time professionals. Meetings such as those of the Trades Council Coordinating Committee serve to acquaint the bureaucrats with a whiff of what is happening in the sweaty armpits of industry.

When the tax protest began with stoppages at Dublin airport in 1979, followed by the Dublin Trades Council's call for a work stoppage, the ICTU was strongly opposed to such a politicisation of the movement. The first tax protests were unofficial. Apart from the ICTU, the trade union movement has no central mechanism for calling its members out and the response to the call for a work stoppage in March 1979 surprised everyone. Without cohesion, literally thousands of individual workplaces had discussed, decided and struck on the tax issue.

Now, in 1983, the ICTU was backing work stoppages. By then, of course, there had been several gear changes at shop floor level.

3. Matt Writes A Letter

In the second week of March of this year Matt Merrigan, District Secretary of the Amalgamated Transport and General Workers' Union, sat down and wrote a letter. It was an angry letter. Merrigan is from the brusque and straightforward school of trade unionism. He rubs shoulders more comfortably and affectionately with his members than with the mohair suits in the corridors of power. He has served at all levels of the movement and still exhibits a radicalism and clarity which many of his peers have lost or never had. He is a socialist.

His letter wasn't part of any plan or campaign. He had argued, negotiated and marched in vain on the tax issue and had decided that such tactics were a dead loss. And he thought he should tell his members so. The letter was a shot in the dark.

The crux of the letter was a suggestion that the unions "should campaign" for a boycott of PAYE and levy deductions and that support for such a campaign should be sought from the clerical staffs who make up wage packets. And that any victimisation of such staffs should be met with immediate industrial action.

Dear member
The work stoppages and demonstrations over the PAYE/PRSI rip-off in the past three years have apparently been lost on this Government and more especially the "Labour" Ministers in the Government. Whilst one should use demonstrations and work stoppages as part of a consciousness raising exercise to point up the anti-working class nature of the tax code, something more effective is necessary.

The letter was sent to all branches of the ATGWU in the Republic.

4. The Glass

Waterford Glass is the city's lynch-pin. Properly titled Waterford Crystal, the factory is part of the Waterford Glass Group, which employs about 6,000 people and includes such firms as John Hinde and Switzers. The company employs 2,700 people in the glass industry, 450 in Dungarvan - thirty miles from Waterford - and the rest in Kilbarry, in Waterford City.

Glass making is highly-skilled work, with a five year apprenticeship. Waterford Glass functions on piece rates and a bonus system, an extremely complicated one which the average glass worker can reckon quicker than Garret FitzGerald can work out an opening budget deficit. The average age in the factory is 30, the average wage for general workers is about £180 per week. Cutters and blowers can average two or three hundred, a master cutter can pull £350 a week. If you're a cutter you make that kind of money by sitting hunched over a spinning wheel for hour after hour making precision cuts on glass that it took you five years to learn.

When you work a piece rate or bonus system you know exactly how you get your money, know precisely how many minutes at the furnace or at the wheel it took for you to earn that punt, know precisely how many hours you've worked for nothing. In "The Glass", the joke is that come Wednesday, that's it, folks, from here on we're working for the government. Go over a certain rate and you have to work like hell at that wheel to rack up three hundred quids worth of glass - in order to get a hundred into your hand.

Say you're on maintenance - there's four hours extra work going on Saturday morning. By the time the government has taken its cut you're talking about six quid. And you had to drive
in fifteen miles. Take away the cost of the petrol and the aggravation and you've got enough for a pint. And half the cost of that is tax.

Some time before his death in 1981, the Waterford Glass managing director, Noel Griffin, made approaches to the government on the issue of tax reform. Absenteeism in the glass factory is phenomenal - it wouldn't be unusual on anyone day if three hundred people stayed home. Once you've earned a certain amount the rate of return just isn't worth those hours in the noisy heat and dust.

The government talks about productivity, say the stewards in The Glass, and the workers are willing as long as they get the rate for the job. But the government's economic policies are choking productivity.
Gripes about tax are nothing new in The Glass. A year ago the stewards asked the union's solicitor to examine the constitutionality of the tax system. The glass workers had been out on the tax marches along with the rest of Waterford. Nothing seemed to matter to the government. Any government.
A year ago some ATGWU workers at the docks in Waterford asked the Harbour Commissioners to withhold their PAYE. Go away outa that, said management, or we'll get the Guards for ye.

5. The Brothers And Sisters Of The 11/64

When Matt Merrigan's angry letter arrived in Waterford the glass workers were looking for leadership. They had marched and argued and waited while the ICTU issued strongly worded statements. Nothing had changed. Merrigan's letter merely suggested that unions "should campaign" for the tax withholding strategy. In the glass factory they were ideally placed to take up the strategy right away.

The ATGWU is based in Britain (which comes in handy when you want some containers blacked immediately at Liverpool). Its branches in the Republic are numbered with the prefix II. Thus, the production workers' branch at Waterford Glass is the 11/64 branch, the branch at Dungarvan is the 11/111.

The glass workers are highly paid not alone because of their skill and the fact that the firm has been a successful one. The 11/64 branch is superbly organised. There are 40 shop stewards in the factory, with their own union office on the premises. There are two full-time convenors in the factory, who receive their wages from the firm but who work full-time for the union. All of these are elected directly.

Traditionally, the 11/64 has given the lead in initiatives in Waterford, has set the trade union standards. The factory has had just one strike - over ventilation problems - and that lasted less than a week. With a strong union organisation there was never much need to go all out.

The 11/64 Branch Committee discussed Merrigan's letter, decided this was a good idea, the kind of thing they'd been looking for. An alternative to marching. They decided to hold an open branch meeting in' the Tower Hotel on Tuesday March 22. In the meantime, they approached the Waterford Glass clerks to see what the score was as regards withholding PAYE and PRSI.

Traditionally, there has always been some distance between production and clerical workers in large firms and Waterford Glass had been no exception. However, in 1977 the clerks in the factory had their own union problems and in a confrontation with management had asked for the 11/64's support. They got it - and with the 11/64 muscle behind them the clerks had won without a strike. Since then there had been a close relationship between the 11/64 and the clerks' branch, the 11/104.

The clerks were agreeable to withholding the deductions and a Joint Shop Stewards Committee, embracing delegates from the 11/64, the 11/104, the 11/111 (Dungarvan) and NEETU (craft workers) was formed. About three hundred mem bers of the 11/64 attended the meeting in the Tower Hotel and they voted for the campaign to begin.

6. Once More Onto The Street,

Last January the ATGWU and EEPTU put forward a motion at the Dublin Trades Council calling for a work stoppage prior to the Budget. It was defeated 82-78. The ICTU were lobbying the government, some unions wanted to see how the Budget would go. There was rage when the Budget showed no inclination on the government's part for a change in the system.

With pressure building up at shop floor level there were renewed calls for a work stoppage. John Carroll of the ITCWU was making militant noises on TV, calling for a half-day stoppage.
When the first tax march was called for by the Dublin Trades Council in March 1979 the ITCWU leadership, like the ICTU, were uneasy about a march held during working hours. They called for a march outside working hours, on the Sunday before the Trades Council demo.

Now, in 1983, the call for a half-day stoppage was seen in Waterford as the equivalent to that Sunday march in 1979 - a soft option, a less militant proposal which might drain support from the more militant action.

As the rank and file lost faith in the foot-slogging once condemned by their ICTU leaders and sought more militant action - those leaders rushed to propose more footslogging. The Dublin Trades Council, with much moaning of here-we-go-again, agreed to the half-day stoppage for April 13. The Waterford Trades Council rejected the call and announced its own stoppage for April 20 - not in response to the national call, but as support for the glass workers. Even the local ITGWU branches rejected their own leadership's call for a stoppage and announced support for the glass workers.

The national stoppage occurred on April 13, with about 150,000 workers around the country joining in - two-thirds of these in Dublin. The march in Dublin made its way over the usual route, as usual a somewhat muted affair with just a few sparse trotskyist groups attempting to raise a chant. Down George's Street towards Dame Street and the capitalist citadel of the Central Bank - and the ITGWU band up front, playing that fine old working class tune, Hello Dolly.

7.  You Must Be Joking

The Waterford Glass tax withholding campaign had begun six days before the national marches, on April 7. It was simple. The firm's wage system operates by computer. There are six clerks whose job it is to operate the system, all are members of the 11/104 branch. When they received the information for the new PAYE and PRSI year beginning in April they refused to write a new programme for the computer. Management was told that if there was any comeback against the clerks the 11/64 would hit the bricks.

Welcome to the computer age.

Management, with the tax system screwing up productivity, was sympathetic to the campaign but was looking over its shoulder at the law. The "loan" device was suggested. They would give the workers a loan equivalent to average wages, that might keep the law happy. The stewards said they didn't care how management worked things the computers wouldn't get the new programme and it was up to management to work out how to pay the wages.
By Friday March 25, almost two weeks before the taxes were withheld, support had been rolling into Waterford Glass. From Hollister in Mayo, from Ford in Cork, from the Clare Trades Council, from the Irish Sugar Company in Carlow, from other factories in Waterford. The glass workers had never seen their campaign as an isolated one. Without similar action from other large groups of workers it would peter out.

In the cutting shops in Waterford Glass the noise is thunderous. Many cutters wear ear muffs, some wear earphones and listen to the radio all day. Now, they were listening to the news bulletins, waiting for the word that one other big workplace, somewhere, anywhere, had taken similar action. But there are only two ways of getting your taxes withheld - if the company agrees to do it, or if the wage clerks are with you.

There were attempts in several large workplaces, including Ford of Cork and the ESB, to withhold tax but they did not receive the support of the wage clerks. In one factory on Waterford Industrial Estate management told the stewards point blank that the firm was in trouble and depending on large orders from government departments - no deal. In one firm in a town ten miles outside Waterford the steward went to management and demanded that PRSI payments be withheld. He was greeted with a horse laugh. "You must be joking! We haven't paid PRSI for two years!"

While firms have little difficulty in withholding tax when they have cash flow problems there was a sudden profusion of reasons why it was now impossible. The wages were done through the computer in Dublin, or the computer at the parent firm in Holland, or a specialist computer firm in Cork. Forcing a company to withhold tax requires the determination and organisation to sincerely threaten a strike - and the fortitude to face a long strike. While the messages of support for The Glass had been many, few if any other workforces had the organisation, the will or the support of the wage clerks necessary to follow through.

Then, someone noticed the containers were moving.

8. The Elder Lemon

About a month before the tax withholding campaign got under way Barry Desmond addressed a Labour Party meeting in Tramore, just down the road from Waterford. The Workers' Party picketted the meeting but a couple of glass factory shop stewards went along and passed the picket to hear what the man they call - not at all affectionately - the Elder Lemon had to say.

Desmond told about the dire straits the nation is in. About how every Christmas the private jets fly in from Chicago and Frankfurt and Tokyo and the hard-faced men of the IMF step off and ask the Irish government how much it will need to run the country next year. This year, he said, the jets had not arrived.

Santa Claus passed us by.

He spoke of how the national cake is divided up, told the meeting in detail how and why the divisions are made. The two glass factory stewards told Desmond they were sick and tired paying taxes under the present system. And what's more, they didn't agree with his model of how the cake is divided up. That too needed changing. Desmond said they'd made a pertinent point.

Now Barry Desmond was, in his turn, about to confront the glass workers. On Sunday April 10 he went on RTE and said that he had made "detailed inquiries" which established that PAYE and PRSI would after all be paid by the glass workers. Monday's Independent put its full trust in the Minister:

'The loan granted to 2,700 Waterford Glass workers was not taxfree after all, began its front page lead. An editorial inside said, "Now that the "loan" device has turned out to be a phantom ... "

A wave of rage swept Waterford Glass that morning. Some workers wanted to strike immediately. Others wanted to know if their stewards had deceived them. Others wanted to know if management had deceived them.

It turned out that Desmond's "detailed inquiries" had been two questions asked of the managing director of Waterford Glass, Owen Kealy, by an official of the Department of Finance. The second question, which not surprisingly drew an affirmative answer, was would the company meet its legal obligations. The first, troublesome, question, was what was the loan equivalent to?

The answer - a factual one - was that the loan was equivalent to two and a half weeks net pay. It was also equivalent to two weeks gross. And equivalent to a video recorder. Or a washing machine. The question was meaningless. Since wages are calculated on a piece rate and bonus system, management had only made a rough guess at what was due when making the loan. Since the computers were shut down, with the new programme unwritten, there was no way that tax could have been deducted or accurate wages calculated and paid. The company had fudged the issue, having found itself between a rock and a hard place - and Barry Desmond had made the best propaganda he could of an ambiguous situation. With the side effect of inflaming the workforce.

One effect - whatever the aim of Desmond's statement, was to cast doubt on the genuineness of the glass factory fight, having a dissuading effect on workers who might be thinking of joining in. At that stage, with the difficulties workers around the country had found in withholding their tax, the manoeuvre was hardly necessary.

The major effect was to consolidate the glass workforce. Only three hundred or so had turned up at the meeting which started the campaign and stewards had the delicate task of gauging from their members' attitude on the shop floor how far the majority was prepared to go. Now, after Desmond's intervention, there was no doubt.

9. Changing Gear

At a meeting at 3pm on Friday April 15 Waterford Glass management, in the form of Owen Kealy and Colm O'Connell, confirmed to the Joint Shop Steward Committee what Bertie Rogers, personnel manager, had said the previous day: the company was stopping the loan facility. Kealy told the stewards he was sympathetic to their stand but claimed that the shareholders were on his back. The company had given the stewards two weeks to launch their campaign and garner support and publicity. That was enough. He suggested they use the vague statements being made daily by Alan Dukes and Labour Party TDs about their concern about tax as an excuse to call off the campaign.

The stewards said such government statements were not good enough. The campaign would continue in one form or another. For a start, they had a strike mandate if the company refused to cooperate.

On the following Monday, April 18, the Joint Committee met in the union office at the factory. The wage clerks had received the information for the new programme, they wanted an assurance that they still had full backing. They got it and refused to run the programme.

The 11/64 committee then went to management and said we believe you're having some trouble with the clerks - we want you to know that we still want our wages. Management was in a corner. They couldn't run the wage programme, couldn't sack the clerks without having the whole factory hit the streets.
That night there was a meeting of about 120 shop stewards from over thirty firms in Waterford. The meeting was called by the Trades Council to work out ways of supporting and broadening the campaign. Only the Norco stewards could report that they had managed to get taxes withheld - obviously another tactic had to be found if the campaign was to spread beyond the glass factory.

The meeting was frustrated by the fact that there had not been a general meeting of glass workers to decide on the new tactic - should it be an all-out strike, a two-day strike, an overtime ban - what? The meeting decided to wait until the 11/64 gave a lead - in the meantime it passed unanimously, a resolution giving full support to whatever the glass decided

10. A Regal Meeting

Tuesday April 19 was all meetings. First, the branch committee of the 11/64 deciding on a two-day a week strike. Then the Joint Stewards Committee to endorse this. Then a full meeting of all the stewards in the factory to discuss tactics. Finally, at about two o'clock, word was put around that a general meeting of glass workers would be held in the Regal Cinema at 4pm.

It was an extraordinary meeting. Within two hours of the meeting being called two thousand people left the Regal, now abandoned to bingo. They were sitting in the aisles. It was the galss factory. One speaker was against the strike and blamed the company "for landing us in the shit". A woman complained that there was an anti-company clique who ...aaaaaggghhhh! went the meeting.

The proposal for a two-day a week strike was carried with, at most, three dozen votes against, the strikes to begin on May 2. The blacking of the containers was lifted. There was no need any longer, the campaign had gone into a different gear.

11. Heading for a downer

Donal Nevin wanted to know, "Is there any point, then, in thinking about Mayday demonstrations?" The general secretary of the ICTU was suggesting to trades council delegates that they might like to get their members marching on the streets. The meeting decided there might be.

The meeting began with delegates reporting from various parts of the country. There were suggestions that the trades councils could organise civil disobedience - in the form of refusals to pay the extra charges being levied by local councils. More suggestions for strikes, one-day, two-day, whatever you're having yourself. At the previous meeting, on April 9, Limerick delegates had suggested organised lobbies of TDs' clinics, piling the members in. Harassment of TDs.

Waterford's ITGWU branches had discussed similar action - demanding that TDs state their position publicly. There were suggestions that the trades councils might stand candidates at the local elections on a PAYE ticket.

A suggestion that there be another "downer", a work stoppage, on May 19 was discussed. The majority seemed to agree, but Donal Nevin said that wasn't his reading of the consensus. Anyway, delegates seemed to be talking with their political hats on and anyway ... this meeting was simply consultative, didn't have a mandate, couldn't call for a strike. The Waterford delegates pointed out that they did have a mandate and suggested that the other delegates should ensure that when they came along to the next meeting they too would be mandated to speak not just about but for their members.

Donal Nevin said that he hoped the meeting wouldn't end on a sour note. He would issue a strongly worded statement.

12. "Our moral obligation"

"... the obvious inequity of permitting people who make large sums of money by speculation and through capital gains, to escape the tax net so that they can live on those gains while other people must earn their money the hard way and pay full taxation.

"We have a problem in this country because our taxation code in this and other respects is so inequitable that many people convince themselves they are under no moral obligation to pay tax and act accordingly where possible.

" ... the fact is that in Ireland our confidence in the tax system and in our moral obligation to pay tax has been undermined by the way in which some people so evidently manage to evade tax."

The speaker was Garret FitzGerald. He was speaking to the Dail. On November 25, 1970. Thirteen years later, on the eve of the Waterford campaign, Liam Kavanagh announced that demonstrations aren't necessary, the government is well aware of the inequities which exist.

The glass factory shop stewards were scheduled to go to a meeting of shop stewards in Dublin on Tuesday April 26 and then a meeting of Waterford shop stewards the next day. The 11/64 has a campaign fund and a second decision at the Regal was to visit other workplaces in Waterford and elsewhere, to gather support. Watch this space.