By Adam Ford
Jubilant ex-Vita Cortex foam packers finally left their factory last Thursday, bringing their marathon five month workplace occupation to an end. The occupiers declared victory when their former employer – entrepreneur Jack Ronan – finally coughed up an undisclosed sum as compensation for the redundancy he had announced before Christmas.
A fortnight ago, I reposted a celebratory excerpt from the campaign’s blog, which lauded the new “Larkins and Connollys” amongst the ex-colleagues – now comrades – and their supporters both in the local community and throughout Ireland.
It is absolutely right that we should toast the Vita Cortex occupiers. Their relentless determination to succeed has won them a significant amount of money, precisely because they took a large measure of control over their own struggle on a non-hierarchical basis, and showed a willingness to take direct action. There can be no doubt that they wouldn’t have got a penny had they simply vacated the factory, lobbied MPs, and held a rally here and there. Instead, they took control of one of Ronan’s resources, and refused to cash in that bargaining chip until they extracted a ransom from the capitalist.
However, once the immediacy of the victory has worn off, the group will nevertheless have to confront a bleak future. Ronan is estimated to have paid each worker just three weeks of pay for every year in which he has extracted profit from their labour. Those with the longest service record have won more than a year’s pay, but it is they who will face the hardest task finding work in a shrinking Irish economy.
According to the World Socialist Website, the Services, Industrial, Professional and Technical Union (SIPTU) brokered the deal precisely at the point “when discussions were taking place within the occupation about the need to broaden and expand the protest”. This would have caused great alarm within the SIPTU bureaucracy, which has worked hand-in-glove with the government and employers to impose drastic cuts in Ireland over the past few years. When it came, the deal was well short of the occupation’s original demands, but it was successful because SIPTU had used their small influence to isolate and wear down the occupiers over the last few months:
“SIPTU’s push to wind up the dispute was in keeping with its role from day one. Union officials combined rhetorical support with seeking at every point to isolate the struggle. When he visited the Cork factory during the first week of the occupation, SIPTU head Jack O’Connor claimed that he would mobilise workers nationally in defence of the laid-off Vita Cortex staff in the new year. But no action was ever taken, or even proposed, by the union. Instead, they directed the workers to focus their efforts on fruitless protests at the local offices of IBEC, the Irish employers’ organisation, as well as protest stunts at the home of Vita Cortex directors. The stated aim of this campaign was to exert moral pressure on the owner, Jack Ronan, to settle the dispute.”
The story of Vita Cortex should be spread far and wide. An understanding of the occupation’s strengths and weaknesses is vitally important for the planning and execution of future disputes in the UK, Ireland, and around the world.