The unsunny southeast

Bausch & Lomb is cutting jobs and wages in Waterford, a city already hit hard by unemployment, where ‘survival is the new success’

Sat, Jun 7, 2014, 01:00

Last March in the Dáil the local Fine Gael TD John Deasy gave a devastating summary of Waterford’s plight. In the past five years the numbers on the Waterford Live Register more than doubled. Of the State’s five cities, Waterford is second only to Limerick as a black spot, with more than 25 per cent unemployed, according to the 2011 census.

He listed the industries and enterprises that have shipped out in the past year alone – Diageo, Honeywell Process Solutions, Citibank, Essentra Packaging, Intacta Print and B&Q, among others – while pointedly noting Waterford’s “notable omission” from the IDA’s job-creation figures for 2013 while Cork got 141, Galway 705, Limerick 289, Dundalk 504. He quoted one local estimate that about 200 IDA jobs were lost, net, in Waterford in 2013 (including at Bausch & Lomb).

The fear of further job losses is profound. “If Bausch & Lomb go, you can put a f***ing For Sale sign across the bridge,” says a city man. “It would be cataclysmic.”

So far, so familiar, perhaps, for many large devastated towns around the country. Where the tales diverge is in this city’s social and economic history. At one time Waterford seemed to have it all: a swathe of historic buildings declaiming its status as Ireland’s oldest city, a flourishing seaport, an affluent workforce and the prestigious brand of Waterford Crystal as its beating heart.

Merchant class

How did it go so badly wrong ?

As a port city in the 1800s it had a merchant class that reputedly made it the highest consumer of port in the British Empire. But where Cork, for example, managed to retain its merchant princes, Waterford did not. “The city then became hugely dependent on a small number of industries, and they became heavily unionised,” says Dr Frank Dolphin, founder of the outsource-services provider Rigney Dolphin – a large employer in the city’s industrial estate – and chairman of Dublin Midlands Hospital Group.

The touchstones were the Port of Waterford and Waterford Crystal. A former glassworker, now in employment, agrees that “maybe the unions back then were a bit too demanding and not inclined to listen . . . There were other problems, but I’d say the unions carry some of the blame for what happened in the end.”

A Waterford son recalls the dads from the Glass who could afford to take their families on holidays to Majorca, sometimes twice a year, when others had to save for at least two years just for one. The benefits kept on flowing, from cheap cars to televisions, bought at a discount.

The city’s port was rarely out of the news, meanwhile, with stories of “dead men’s wages” and other scams as its fiercely militant union leaders finally embarked on a disastrous strike that continued for 13 years and, some would say, ceded vital trade to Cork that would never return.

In the meantime Waterford elected a Sinn Féin – the Workers’ Party TD in February 1982, a rare flower outside Cork and Dublin.

It all copper-fastened the city’s reputation for high militancy, radical politics and elevated expectations. When the word “reputation” is dropped into discussions about Waterford’s downward spiral, as it often is, this is what it means.

Time ran out

Some believe that the Glass’s time ran out anyway, that the generation that bought expensive hand-cut crystal to put in the dresser had gone, replaced by one “more interested in the gin than the glass”, in Dolphin’s phrase.

But an employer also mused about what would have happened had the Glass employers looked for a 20 per cent pay cut. “We know what the answer would have been.” That’s just as some down the golf club even now, according to another, are muttering that Bausch & Lomb was “more ahead of the curve than elsewhere in benefits and wages, with the extra day off and that sort of thing”.

That old perception of militancy and inflated expectations is proving hard to shake, however baseless it may be. “When was the last strike in Waterford? I can’t remember,” says Dolphin.

Eddie Mulligan can’t remember a strike here, either, but recalls three in Dublin in recent times. (Again that sense that Waterford is unjustly maligned.) “In Bausch & Lomb, everyone there is looking for mediation. I think we’ve moved on. No one is talking about militant action.”

Michael Walsh, the city and county manager, agrees. “I’d say we’re a decade away from those issues.”

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