DUBLIN, Ireland (AP) – Bankruptcy officials shut down the debt-crippled Waterford Crystal factory Friday, provoking a furious response from workers who jostled security guards and vowed to occupy their world-famous workplace indefinitely.

Union leaders warned that more than 200 workers would refuse to leave the factory in the city of Waterford, southeast Ireland, until the receivers handling Waterford Wedgwood PLC’s bankruptcy proceedings reversed the closure.

The approximately 650 remaining Irish employees at the iconic plant had already been reduced to working part-time as the company negotiated with potential American buyers to take over part or all of the business.

Waterford Crystal is widely regarded as the most famous producer of hand-cut lead glass worldwide. Founded by a Czech immigrant in 1948, the crystal plant enjoyed growing success in the 1980s and 1990s, and at its height employed more than 3,000 people at three Irish locations.

Traditionally Americans account for about half of Waterford Crystal sales – a key factor in Waterford’s failure to record a profit since 2002, when the U.S. dollar fell into chronic weakness versus the euro. The company also has battled high Irish labor costs versus growing Eastern European competition, while consumer tastes have been shifting in favor of lighter, more practical glassware.

The Waterford Crystal closure is the latest sign of a growing financial crisis in Ireland, where the central bank forecast Thursday that the economy will shrink 4 percent this year and unemployment will jump to a 13-year high as the collapse of the housing market hurts the wider economy.

David Carson, the receiver still negotiating with two U.S. private equity firms, said in a statement Friday that all Waterford Crystal workers had been laid off with immediate effect and the factory – including its tourist center, one of Ireland’s top tourist attractions – would be closed indefinitely.

Carson held out hope that both the factory and visitors center might eventually reopen under new ownership. Later, he said the tourist center probably would reopen soon but not the factory.

Waterford Crystal’s unionized workers discovered their fate Friday as rumors spread by e-mail and cell phone text. Afternoon shift workers and hundreds of other Waterford employees past and present converged on the plant – but were barred by private security guards whom the receiver had hired to deter labor unrest.

Irish national broadcaster RTE broadcast footage showing the crowd trying to push its way into the tourist center, a guard pushing one man into a plate-glass wall and partly shattering it, and union officials appealing to “the lads” to calm down. Police who later intervened reported no arrests and no serious injuries during the scuffles.

Instead, the city’s shops began donating food, drinks and other goods to help the protesting workers extend their protest – for how long, nobody seemed certain.

Workers’ relatives arrived with pillows, sleeping bags and duvets and union officials drew up rosters designed to keep at least 100 protesters inside the building through the weekend.

Walter Cullen, an official from the Unite labor union that represents Waterford workers, said Carson had told him by phone he couldn’t wait any longer for an American “white knight” investor.

“He told me he had run out of money,” Cullen said.

Nonetheless, Cullen said the protesting workers would leave the factory “only if the decision of the receiver is reversed.”

Eleven of Waterford Wedgwood’s 14-member board of directors resigned this month, including its two major investors, Irish publishing magnate Tony O’Reilly and his brother-in-law Peter Goulandris. The pair personally invested more than euro400 million to keep the company afloat in recent years – and today own more than half of Waterford Wedgwood’s virtually worthless stock.

The company in recent years has slashed operations in its traditional heartlands and shifted production overseas. Waterford-branded crystal increasingly comes from Eastern Europe, not Ireland, while Wedgwood china is crafted chiefly in Indonesia, not England.

But Waterford Wedgwood’s red ink kept rising. Its perennial struggle to borrow money and float new shares finally reached breaking point last year amid tightening credit markets worldwide. The Irish government refused a company plea to underwrite private bank loans, and O’Reilly and Goulandris decided someone else must lead the next bailout.

Waterford Wedgwood filed for bankruptcy protection Jan. 5, and a week later more than 350 people were laid off from the Wedgwood china side of the operation. Earlier this week, the Waterford side of the business stopped making payments to more than 250 recently laid-off workers, compounding its longer-term failure to pay full pension benefits to retired glassworkers.

The company has identified a U.S. private equity firm, KPS Capital Partners of New York, as the leading bidder for undisclosed parts of Waterford Wedgwood. A second New York-based firm, Clarion Capital, joined the negotiations last week and met Waterford workers Thursday but has yet to confirm a formal bid for any assets.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.