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How the Vita Cortex workers held on for 139 days (and why Twitter mattered)

The 32 Vita Cortex employees took turns working 8 hour shifts at their former employer until a negotiation was reached. Kevin Curran finds out how they did it.

Image: Vita Cortex Online Campaign

Last Thursday, an agreement was finally reached in the Vita Cortex dispute, more than four months after workers had begun a sit-in. Kevin Curran spoke to the workers to find out what kept them going – and how they lasted so long.

ON 16 DECEMBER last year, the 32 employees of Vita Cortex Cork finished their last day’s work for the company where they collectively had worked 847 years.

Several colleagues had already left the plant with a redundancy package of 2.9 weeks for every year served. The .9 was an additional redundancy payment on top of the two weeks per year worked which is statutory under Irish employment law.

The 32 remaining workers in Vita Cortex Cork were told that they would receive the 2.9 like those who had left previously if they agreed to work until the factory ceased operations and when all orders were fulfilled. When the final day arrived, the workers were told by management in the plant that no redundancy payments would be handed out as NAMA had frozen the funds to do so.

With the company claiming an inability to pay redundancies, the state Social Insurance Fund paid the workers the two weeks per year worked that they are statutorily entitled to. The 32 workers made the decision that they would not allow the multi-millionaire owners walk away from their obligation of the additional .9 that they were promised, and so on the day they were made redundant, they began a sit-in at their former plant to force the owners to meet this obligation.

On Thursday, after 139 days of the sit-in and numerous failed attempts at mediation, a settlement was reached between the ex-workers and the directors of Vita Cortex. Although the end of the dispute is now in sight, the sit-in in the factory will continue until the agreed payment is received. However, Greg Marshall an ex-Vita Cortex worker who has given 37 years’ service to the company said it was not just about the payments outstanding.

From day one, we said that we want to see legislation passed to prevent what happened to us happening again. We tried to keep that as one of the main messages put out in our campaign as well.

Darren O’Keeffe, who ran the online campaign – something new in Irish industrial relations – likened the workers to being in the Alamo.

“I know people laugh when I use analogies like the Alamo, but these 32 workers were standing up for every other worker in Ireland, in a situation which will shape the face of Irish redundancy practises for several years,” he said.

If the workers had given up and gone home, it would have been a major signal to employers about what they can get away with as regards redundancy payments in this country.

The ex-workers stayed on the sit-in for 5 months. Over that time Christmas and Easter passed, babies were born, relatives and some of the workers themselves became sick. However, they stayed in the factory on 8 hour shifts for all that time.

The use of the volunteer online team of Darren along with Veronica, the daughter of another ex-worker,  is one of the landmark features of this industrial dispute.  The campaign on Twitter, Facebook and on a blog allowed the public to connect to the workers on a human level and attracted nearly 13,000 followers over the 3 different pages. The online campaign led to words of support from famous names from all walks of life, such as Alex Ferguson, Noam Chomsky, Mary Robinson and Des Bishop.

Greg Marshall recognised the work that was done through social media:

A lot of us would be of the age that we wouldn’t know about social media, [but] when we looked at messages from all over the country they gave us the strength to keep going.

Darren added how the online campaign also kept the campaign relevant in the media and allowed for the ex-workers to organise events quickly. “Our first rally at the factory was organised by putting an event on Facebook. Over 500 people showed up on a day’s notice. I found that when people engaged online they remained committed and in touch with the campaign.”

The large online campaign created a community of people who constantly supported the campaign with generosity in various forms. Greg named a few examples of kindness shown to the ex-workers

We had a pensioner come every week with soup and sandwiches; a local take-away called Zico’s delivered food to us every night. We had people who came down one Sunday from Moy, Co. Tyrone. As well, people from all over the country came in and wish us well. When people come and say ‘you’re doing this for us’, it keeps you going.

With the end of the campaign in sight Greg hopes that some lessons are learnt from what he and his fellow protestors went through. “All we hope is that this type of situation never happens again and legislation is put in place to help workers in Ireland. Employees should be recognised for the work and time they put in to a company, it’s not only bosses that can walk away and say ‘thanks very much’. I hope that lesson has been learned.”

Read: Full coverage of the Vita Cortex dispute >

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Kevin Curran

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