The Anti-Raybestos Manhattan Campaign

Date:

The Raybestos Manhattan Corporation moved to Ireland in the mid-70s. A campaign opposing their operations began almost immediatly. It was a long and protracted struggle that eventually ended in victory. This article examines the campaign against the mulitnational and the lessons that can be learned from it today.In the Cork area in the late 70s, an important struggle developed against the US multinational corporation, Raybestos Manhattan (RM) . RM manufactured a range of products for the automotive industry and came to Ireland at the behest of the Irish state’s Industrial Development Authority (IDA). Then, as now, the IDA was at the forefront of a long-standing government initiative to attract multinationals to Ireland for the purposes of economic stimulation and ‘job creation’ . Cork was no stranger to this type of development and prior to WWII companies such as Ford Motor Cars and Dunlop Tyres had located in the area. More recent to these, a newer brand of industry had come to the area, typified by the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer. What marked RM out as different was their use of the controversial substance asbestos.

A campaign opposing RM’s move to Ireland began almost immediately. It lasted five years and was protracted and sporadic. Although there was never a decisive showdown, the informal alliance that emerged succeeded in embroiling RM and the Irish state in a series of skirmishes which ultimately ended in the plant’s closure in November 1980.

Although the Irish branch of RM was never intended to be a major player in terms of the worldwide asbestos industry, their defeat in Cork was nonetheless an important milestone in the international battle against the asbestos industry and its unsafe practices. Today that industry is in retreat, although it should be stressed that it is far from defeated. While asbestos mining, processing and use has certainly ceased in the EU, the USA and in Australia, there continues to be significant problems in all these regions related to early death and chronic long term illness as a result of having either worked (or having being been in close proximity to those working) in asbestos mining or processing. Moreover in economies such as India, Russia, China and South Africa, to name just a few, asbestos still poses a major problem for workers and their families; regulation is weak, information is denied to workers, and companies continue to avoid the chronic health problems which inevitably plague their workforces. Further information on the ongoing battle against asbestos use is available from The International Ban Asbestos Secretariat (IBAS) .

There are a number of reasons to look back on the Cork struggle at this time. On the one hand it was successful and it is important to celebrate that. However the manner of the victory was also significant and continues to have relevance today. To cut a long story short, the anti-RM campaign was one of the few environmental struggles in recent times, in Ireland that is, where community and environmental activists made significant common cause with the corporation’s workforce – a factor that was to be significant in terms of the outcome. In the period since RM’s defeat this level of solidarity has rarely been repeated. The Irish State has repeatedly split environment based struggles along class lines. By advancing the argument that ‘jobs are more important than scenery or air quality’ it has been able to cripple the arguments of those questioning the arrival of ‘dirty industry’ on these shores. The anti-RM campaign for the most part avoided this, and while it must be conceded that there were specific reasons for this, important lessons can nonetheless be taken from the struggle.

TIMELINE

The Raybestos Manhattan Corporation announced their intention to build a production plant in Ovens, eight miles outside Cork City, in September 1975. Although the initial planning application to Cork County Council (CCC) made no mention of asbestos, it soon emerged that the controversial material lay at the heart of its planned manufacturing operation. RM intended to ‘import over 300 tonnes of chrysotile (white) asbestos annually’ and this was to be processed and used in the manufacture of 10 million car brake pads (containing 25-50% chrysotile), which would be for export to West Germany’s car manufacturing market. The venture at Ovens promised to create 600 jobs and towards this RM was granted substantial state aid totaling almost £700,000 – about 7m in today’s money – as well as lucrative tax breaks and write-offs once production commenced.

At the time a lot was made of RM’s expertise in the area of asbestos handling and of their promise to build a ‘state of the art’ plant that would be safe and clean. This promise together with the backing of the IDA, Cork County Council and local business concerns, meant that RM were quickly granted permission for the plant’s go-ahead. However opposition quickly emerged. Though at the time detailed information was not available (in the way that it is today on the Internet) there was nevertheless general public awareness that asbestos posed a significant hazard, particularly in small amounts once airborne . The Ovens Action Group (OAG) was formed to highlight these issues and the concerns of local residents. It saw action almost immediately when RM, in early 1976, applied for planning permission to create and maintain a dump for waste from their plant at a location, also in Ovens, adjacent to the proposed plant site. During this application process it emerged that RM’s plans for the disposal of asbestos waste were far from ‘state of the art’ and simply involved RM dumping dry slag containing asbestos fibre into trenches that would subsequently be covered by earth. This revelation alone, indicative of the casual attitude RM took to asbestos, did much to undermine local faith in the multinational. In the subsequent furore and in an effort to allay mounting concerns, RM agreed to ‘encapsulate’ the waste asbestos fibres in pellet form prior to dumping; they also agreed to install filters on the air extractor fans at the plant.

These concessions did not satisfy the Ovens residents. RM was neither able nor prepared to guarantee that no asbestos fibres would escape into the local environment from its operations. Accordingly opposition hardened against the dump and the plant itself, although this was met by an onslaught of criticism from media and business interests locally and nationally, all of whom were hugely favourable to the venture. Never shy of politics, the IDA too joined battle and were prominent in making the claim that the success of the RM venture was key to its longer terms strategy to bring more chemical and pharmaceutical industry to the Cork area. Interestingly, the IDA and business interests were also supported by vocal elements of the ‘official’ trade union movement and in one notorious action the OAG was challenged by a picket organised by ITGWU official (and Sinn Féin The Workers Party activist) ‘Doc’ Doherty . Receiving prominent local media coverage, the ‘trade unionists’ declared they were ‘pro-jobs’ and dismissed the OAG as middle class residents overly concerned by the property value of their houses.

As work began on the construction of the Ovens plant in 1976, RM and the IDA were in a quandary since a dump for waste from the manufacturing cycle was crucial to the success of RM’s venture in Ireland. Fearful however of the increased polarisation in the Ovens areas, Cork County Council (CCC) stepped forward and proposed locating a dump outside the Ovens area. Eventually they pin-pointed a site near Ringaskiddy in Cork Harbour about 20 miles from Ovens, on the far side of Cork. Here CCC owned sizable portions of land all of which was zoned for industrial development. Pfizer Corporation and Penn Chemicals were already located in the area and unlike Ovens, the harbour location, despite its picturesque qualities, was not ‘a green field’ site.
However opposition in the Ringaskiddy area was also immediate and stiff . Following a large public meeting organized by the Ringaskiddy Residents Association (RRA) a defiant plan involving pickets and the withdrawal of children from schools was established to prevent any effort by CCC to locate an asbestos dump in the area. Various reasons were cited including the proximity of the proposed dump to a number of schools in the area; however there was also anger that Ringaskiddy was considered suitable for the dump site even though it would not in itself derive any direct benefits from the manufacturing venture in terms of jobs and local investment, all of which would accrue to Ovens.

Nevertheless, despite the opposition and a number of legal challenges, RM and CCC were granted planning permission for the construction and use of the dump in the Barnahely area of Ringaskiddy in September 1977. Immediately round-the-clock pickets were placed on the proposed dump site and early efforts by the IDA and the CCC to construct basic infrastructure at the site – fencing and so forth – were thwarted when defiant pickets prevented access declaring ‘We want justice not asbestos’ . A High Court injunction, restraining named locals from picketing the proposed dump site, was subsequently applied for and granted. However when the IDA and the CCC next tried to gain access to the site, less than a fortnight later, the RRA retaliated by withdrawing local children from the school and organising a mass blockade . Once again the CCC and the IDA withdrew.
The standoff dragged on until late October of that year. With the Ringaskiddy residents standing firm, the IDA now found itself in an invidious position. Pressure was mounting and even RM, who in general was careful in their dealings, began to moan, complaining about rising costs and ‘uncertain futures’ . Responding to this pressure the IDA upped the ante in a widely publicised statement in November . Drawing attention to the blockade at Barnahely, they argued that ‘if the dump is not used, the law is openly and successfully flouted and defied. It becomes another major negative in the list of points which international companies consider when looking at Ireland.’ It went on to declare that the anti-RM protests ‘were seriously jepoardising the establishment of heavy, export oriented industry at Ringaskiddy’ – an area, that it pointed out, had been earmarked for long term development, including the construction of a deep water berth.
In late November 1977, after talks between the RRA and the IDA/ CCC, the impasse was broken. An agreement was reached clearing the way for the dump at Barnahely to be used on ‘a strictly interim basis’ . Although the agreement was extremely restrictive from the IDA’s point of view it got them out of a serious bind. In return for their cooperation the Ringaskiddy area was given commitments that included funds to establish a green belt and other ‘amenities’ in the area; the community would also be prioritised when it came to future job creation initiatives . Lastly the asbestos dump was to be temporary and the IDA/ CCC gave an undertaking to remove the dumped asbestos waste at a later time when a proper dump site was operational.
Production at RM’s Ovens plant now commenced. However, due to startup delays, RM did not actually attempt to make use of the new dump site until May of 1978, almost six months after the ‘interim’ agreement was brokered. By then, it seems, the agreement had fallen through with both sides accusing each other of reneging on their side of the bargain. Now, once more, round-the-clock pickets were placed at the gates into the dump site and when RM finally attempted to gain access, they failed when a lorry containing waste was turned back.

On Monday May 15th a RM truck returned. However this time it was escorted by 25 Gardaí . Faced with a mass blockade that included large numbers of local children, the police battoned their way through, forcing access to the designated dump site. Nine people including seven children were taken to hospital. One man suffered concussion and one woman suffered a broken leg. It was a traumatic event that was to leave a mark on the community for years to come. On this occasion, RM and CCC succeeded in gaining access, however it was at a very high price. In addition, on the night of the confrontation, in what much of the media dubbed to be ‘a sinister development’, bagged asbestos waste, left by RM at Barnahely, was removed by activists and transported back across Cork county to the RM plant in Ovens. It was left at the front gates. Further adverse publicity followed and the dispute gained national notoriety when the Government was forced to issue a statement decrying the opposition and calling on RM to ‘stand firm’. It reiterated its support for the Garda-led action when it declared that ‘The Government must ensure that the law is upheld’ .

Following the violent and brutal confrontation with the police, dumping at Barnahely was temporarily halted. It resumed however after a new and more substantial agreement was concluded with the RRA. This new pact, based on the restrictive agreement reached between the RRA and IDA/CCC in November ’77, granted to the IDA and CCC a much greater licence to dump asbestos. Although it conceded the right to local residents to inspect the dump for statutory compliance, in reality this was limited to what could be observed from the outer perimeter. In sum, this new deal marked a defeat for the non-violent resistance and the campaign of mass blockade which that been the mainstay of the RRA’s opposition. Local activists conceded that the combination of Garda brutality along with a carrot and stick approach by IDA/CCC had left local opposition divided and unsure as to how to proceed; the agreement was an organised retreat.
RM and the IDA had finally got their way: the plant at Ovens was up and running and a ‘de facto’ dump at Ringaskiddy had been secured. If there was one fly in the ointment then it was the revelation – emerging as the Gardaí batton-charged at Barnahely – that former employees at one of RM’s plants in New Jersey in the US, were taking a class action suit against their former employer seeking compensation and punitive damages for ‘injuries to health’ sustained while working for RM. The suit alleged that the supply and use of asbestos by RM (and its supplier Johns-Mansville) ‘was based on callous, greedy motives without due concern of the health risks to those who would ultimately come into contact with it’ . The plant at the centre of the law suit was closed in 1972 following the imposition of stringent new industrial safety laws in the US. It furthermore emerged that RM only began talking to the IDA about a move to Ireland in the year following that plant’s closure (1973) and that the IDA had been aware of ‘the problems’ at the closed New Jersey site. Even though RM and the IDA vehemently denied that there was any connection – and with it the concession that RM were turning to Ireland because of its lax health and safety standards – the news about RM’s past cast a further shadow over the Ovens operation, where local residential opposition to the plant had not abated .

SWEET DEALS

The multinational corporations that arrived in Ireland from the 70s onwards were a mixed-bag. Some like Eli Lilly, the pharmaceutical manufacturers of Prozac, who set up near Kinsale in Co Cork were anti-union as a point of principle but many others, such as Pfizer and Penn Chemicals for example, were content to work with the unions (both general and craft) whom they saw as compliant and ‘sensible’ for the most part. Unions such as the ITGWU in particular benefited from this arrangement, since in effect they got ‘the contract’ to provide unionised membership to these multinational corporations ahead of the competition. What oiled this overall arrangement was the generally higher wages that were often paid by the multinationals at that time. This coupled with the persistent threat of unemployment and emigration – which plagued most families in one way or another in this era – ensured the practice of ‘sweet heart’ deals continued well into the late 1980s.

Arriving in Ireland in 1976, RM happily fell in with an agreement that allowed the ITGWU to represent production workers at its Ovens plant. As was also the norm at the time – and still is no doubt – the corporation generally proceeded to employ younger and less experienced workers in order to avoid the problem of ‘importing’ bad (i.e. union) practices into the plant from day one. Initially, it seems, bearing the above in mind, things went according to plan for RM at Ovens. Production began and while the vast majority of the workers at the plant were aware of the controversy surrounding RM and asbestos, there was no trouble. Management relied heavily on the argument that the Ovens plant was one of newest and best in the world, extolling its virtues with pamphlets and films . Furthermore, since few of the workers were from the Ovens area, there was not much likelihood that any of the workforce would be exposed to the ‘anti-asbestos’ lobby who were still laying siege to the site.

However things did not continue like this for two important reasons. Firstly, there was the presence of the Noxious Industry Action Group (NIAG), a Cork alliance of environmentalists. In No Global , Robert Allen quotes an activist in NIAG, Sue Barker, who describes NIAG as a group “that had no formal membership, no executive or committee structure, no elected secretary, treasurer or chairperson’. NIAG’s membership overlapped with the then active local anti-nuclear group which was mobilising against a government proposal to situate a nuclear power plant at Carnsore Point in Co Wexford .

NIAG was opposed to RM from the outset. However what was crucially important about its opposition to toxic industry was that NAIG’s analysis was primarily anti-capitalist in content. NIAG’s leaflets and propaganda highlighted the drive for higher profits and the need to escape environmental restrictions – which impacted on profits – as the key reasons for the RM’s relocation to Cork. Naturally, as part of this analysis, NIAG didn’t see the workforce necessarily as part of the problem (see further discussion below). Instead, from the outset, NIAG operated with the clear idea that the workforce could be on their side. They made efforts to speak to the then wary and undoubtedly defensive workforce and in due course this was to pay off.

The second reason for the radicalisation of the RM workforce was their own experience. They may have been inexperienced at the outset but working at the plant quickly changed that. Production priorities meant that RM’s management soon made obvious and objectionable changes to safety practices. For example, a sprinkler system designed to damp down asbestos dust broke down so often that management eventually abandoned repairing it at all. Safety guards on other equipment were removed, again because they slowed production . And the practice whereby workers moved easily from the production floor into the canteen with no effort made to limit the spread of asbestos fibres also raised concern. The overall problem was exacerbated by the reality that RM had been forced to abandon exporting into the West Germen automotive industry due to new regulations which came into force before the Ovens plant was operational . Instead RM had to turn its focus back to the US market where it seems competition was more cutthroat. The overall consequence was a downward impact on profitability which in turn drove an under-pressure management to take more chances with safety. This in turn led to growing anger on the production floor.

In other words, a series of new forces began to gather around the Ovens plant and these came to a head in 1980, about two years after production commenced.

The final stages in the anti-RM campaign opened with a dramatic own goal by the US multinational. On April Fools' Day 1980, a local activist in Ringaskiddy who had gone to the Barnahely dump site observed open bags of waste casually lying around inside the fence. He contacted a photographer and pictures were taken showing the bags and their contents, which included QA rejected brake disks as well as containers holding raw asbestos . In the subsequent furore RM was forced to cease dumping at Barnahely. A reluctant CCC investigated and RM was fined, having been found to have violated six different conditions of the dumping agreement it had entered into with the Council. In fact CCC officials found large amounts of pelletisied asbestos waste lying on open ground at the dump. As a result of this discovery – due in the main to vigilance by a Ringaskiddy activist – strict new dumping conditions were imposed on RM. The incident was significant also in that it led to a further decline in the corporation’s standing even, it seems, among its supporters in the IDA who were gravely embarrassed by the episode.

As the Barnahely incident played out in the media, a new and more damming controversy broke at the Ovens plant itself. In late May, the nightshift walked off the production floor and placed pickets on the plant’s gates; the morning shift consequently did not go in to work . It quickly emerged that the issue at stake was a leak of asbestos dust. In a statement to the media a shop-steward at the plant stated that the leak was substantial and visible to the eye (giving an indication of the concentration of dusk in the air). The workers went on to claim there had been ‘four or five’ similar leaks at the plant in recent times . Moveover, they alleged, RM’s management was doing little about the sources of the leaks, nor were they giving the matter the due attention it warranted. Union-management talks followed and the pickets were lifted. However the ‘unofficial’ action continued when the next shift refused to go into work. The workers wanted more definite assurances and in particular they wanted a Department of Labour inspection of the plant; this was eventually promised and production resumed .

NIAG’s work at the plant, it seems now, was paying dividends. Strange though this may seem, heretofore, there was no precise information available to the workers about the gravity of the dangers associated with asbestos dust. NIAG stepped into the breach and provided this. The result was that, as awareness of the dangers posed by asbestos became more widely appreciated, it led, in turn, to production floor anger at the safety shortcuts and the casual attitude of management to the issue of safety. Less than a week after the first stoppage, a second and more intractable dispute broke out at the plant. Following another spillage of asbestos, workers once more took ‘unofficial’ action . Management immediately closed the area of the plant affected and proceeded to clean up the leak. They invited the workers to return to work but once again no one showed . Despite a media blitz the workers voted to remain out on strike until they saw the contents of the Department of Labour report into conditions at the plant. At first the inspector claimed this was not possible since he could not do a proper inspection until work had resumed but the workers held firm . In mid-June, the dispute now almost two weeks old, the inspector conceded that he would be able to make ‘an interim’ report available for the workers to see . Following the inspection of this interim report by the workers, production resumed .

END GAME

In October of 1980, just two and a half years after opening and without warning, Raybestos Manhattan called a press conference in Cork and announced that they intended to close their Ovens plant a month later, at the end of November . In making the announcement, Gabriel Ferrucci, President of International Operations at RM, denied that the persistent opposition to the plant at Ovens was a factor in the corporation’s decision. Instead he pointed the finger at the severe economic downturn, then impacting heavily on car manufacturing in the US and Europe. He stated that “the recent and deep recession in the US automotive industry led to the decision to close, as there were no other markets available” . Later in his statement Ferrucci thanked the Irish Government which he said had 'extended all possible facilities to our corporation in the difficult times we experienced”.
A severe decline in profitability lay at the centre of RM’s decision to pull out of Ireland. In part this resulted from the serious contraction in car manufacturing that occurred at the time; for example Dunlops, the Cork based tyre manufacturer, went on a three day week shortly before RM made their announcement. However, aspects specific to the anti-RM campaign at Ovens, also played a key role. Important among these was the increased awareness and concern over safety, backed up by the combatative workforce, that had slowed production at Ovens. Furthermore RM (see above) due to the initial delays in the plant start-up, were not in a position to export into the more profitable, though more stringent, German market. In effect RM’s profitability in Ireland had been adversely affected by the opposition and this in turn had influenced RM’s decision. The ‘special’ situation that RM had encountered in Cork was further reinforced by the revelation that the Cork plant alone, among all of RM’s worldwide operations, was targetted with closure; elsewhere the cutbacks imposed were limited to a reduction in the numbers working at particular sites.
Within a month of the announcement, RM had ceased production. In fact no more than 150 jobs had ever been created at the Ovens plant. To assist the wounded corporation the IDA organised to purchase the redundant plant at Ovens from RM for €4 m – a bill the taxpayer eventually paid for. The Barnahely dump site – with its buried asbestos – was closed and asbestos remains there to this day; a source of concern and irritation to local residents. For the workforce it was onto the dole queue which in 1980 was lengthening by the day. Workers from the plant subsequently suffered blacklisting .

In aftermath of Ovens, though not solely because of it, RM’s fortunes also went into decline. In the 80s the corporation was assailed by an avalanche of claims taken against it. It attempted a number of elaborate financial Houdini acts to avoid its responsibilities but these were eventually thwarted in the main due to the scale of the claims against it. The corporation despite being financially ruined has never paid for the damage it did to so many lives and families. It was eventually restructured and today survives as Raytech and its various subsidiaries.

ANALYSIS AND LESSONS

With hindsight it can be seen that the anti-RM campaign was composed of three distinct, though clearly related strands – the community opposition to the plant itself in Ovens; the community opposition to the asbestos dump in Ringaskiddy; and the workers’ opposition to RM inside the plant. All three strands played an important part in the final victory – each contributed different elements to the opposition.

Ringaskiddy: The opposition to the asbestos dump in Ringaskiddy was hard-fought and bitter. Local opposition was so strong and unified that eventually RM and the Irish state were forced into taking repressive action. In effect this led to the defeat of the community opposition but it was a pyrrhic victory for the IDA and RM for the simple reason that the bitter dispute over the dump raised the profile of the campaign hugely. Eventually, and specifically due to this struggle over dumping, the campaign of opposition to RM made national headlines, a fact that drew more and more adverse attention to the IDA and RM’s record.
The campaign in Ringaskiddy relied primarily on a strategy of direct action – blockades and pickets were the mainstays of opposition. Legal avenues were also used but unlike in the campaign at Ovens, the community in Ringaskiddy was able to mobilise sufficient numbers of people to make their demands heard and felt. The resulting stand-off dragged on for nearly two years and had unforeseen and adverse consequences for RM and the profitability of its Ovens operation.

Ultimately, however, the State felt the challenge of the opposition at Ringakiddy and moved against it. They overcame the local community using violence and it must be conceded that this worked. In the aftermath, after the attack by the Gardaí, many people felt they could no longer participate. The blockades, in other words, had been breached and the campaign in the Lower Harbour went into reverse. It is worth noting at this point how self-limiting this resistance can be if it is advanced as the only pillar of opposition. A mass blockade is indeed a bulwark as long as it is solid, but once faced down – by the State – it can easily give way to a rout. Indeed it was only when the campaign against RM developed in a different direction in time – in the plant itself – that the reverse suffered in Ringaskiddy was halted.
This is not to say that the defeat in Ringaskiddy was complete; far from it. Important elements of the campaign did survive and it was due to vigilant supervision by anti-dump activists that a significant blow was struck once again in mid-1980 when it was brought to the attention of the CCC that RM was flagrantly flouting dumping regulations. The restrictions placed on RM after this fiasco were serious and undoubtedly contributed to RM’s sense that the tide had turned in Cork.

In respect to the Ringaskiddy opposition, it is needs to be noted also that, from the outset, it was an all-class alliance. In effect what this means is that the opposition was composed of different strands that put different prices on the opposition that they offered. A small but significant section of local business people with links to FF were instrumental in brokering the deals that traded safety for jobs and local amenities; they too had concerns about the health aspects of a local dump but they also knew that the overall plan being advanced by the IDA and the CCC (for the Lower Harbour area) would in time offer them small but nonetheless significant business opportunities. Others again were not prepared to compromise under any circumstances but many did grudgingly accept that jobs (and better living standard opportunities) might have to be traded; it was either that or emigrate. In respect of this particular aspect, it would seem obvious to draw attention to the fact that this structural weakness will always be a key feature of community based campaigns around these and similar issues. For class struggle activists involved in campaigns of this nature, these limitations should be kept clearly in mind at all stages so that the pitfall are either avoided, circumvented or deferred (for as long as is practical).

Ovens: The campaign of opposition at Ovens was less dramatic than that at Ringakiddy. Although it was strong and ever present it was immediately tied up in the difficulty of attempting to halt an actual construction project; this was never going to be easy. Simply put, the Ovens end of the campaign was never going to be in the same league as that at Ringaskiddy; at Ringaskiddy a dump was being opposed and there are – no matter how one looks at it – few merits to having a dump in your backyard; a manufacturing plant, at least, can be window-dressed.
The Ovens opposition relied heavily on participating in the planning process and on taking legal actions against RM but eventually all these methods were exhausted. A radicalisation then took place among those in the area as the health concerns escalated and deepened. At Ovens the key foci for this radicalisaton were around the issues of local democracy – i.e. the lack of it – and health and safety. Although the efforts of NIAG were initially scoffed at, the group’s propaganda eventually gained influence in Ovens as the campaign went on beyond production start-up. As mentioned above an Ovens Women’s Action Group (OWAG) was formed to overcome the conservative and increasingly ineffective OAG. Explaining the origins of the OWAG, a spokesperson pointed out: ‘There is no way we could beat them Raybestos in the courts. We felt we could only do it through local pressure, using the media and direct action’ . Significant protests took place at Ovens and, as pointed out above, RM’s managing director was blockaded on a number of occasions and was roughed up at least once. Overall though the opposition at Ovens never looked like a serious threat once all legal avenues were exhausted. This is not to minimise what was done there but only to reemphasise that opposition – no matter how heartfelt – can sometimes be ineffectual.

The Workers’ Opposition: The opposition from inside the plant was clearly very important. It is difficult to establish for certain without further research if the workers’ opposition at the plant was a case of ‘the straw that broke the camel’s back’ or whether its impact was more decisive and central. It would seem to be more the latter – that is that the workers’ action and militancy impinged directly on productivity and profitability.
As mentioned above, once production started in 1978, RM, for a number of reasons, found themselves with their backs to the wall – a lot sooner than they had imagined. The fact that the workers were able to decisively defeat them over the issue of safety – via the two strikes in May and June of 1980 – meant that RM were tied down in terms of their ability to offset other factors adversely affecting their profitability. This ties in somewhat with RM’s track record. Being typical capitalists they were prepared to use asbestos and make money from it, but as soon as they weren’t making money from it they tried to move on swiftly to either another place or another product. Loyalty was not one of their attributes and so it was to be in Cork.

This is not to take from the vital role that the workers’ opposition at the plant amounted to. What was noteworthy about it at the time was that it was clearly a rank and file, production floor led action based on the physical reality of having to work and live with asbestos. The union officialdom did its level best to dampen down the anger of the workers and smooth over the cracks even when there was ample evidence that RM was playing around with workers’ health. But, clear about what was at stake, the workers stood their ground. It is probably worth pointing out that this mood of defiance by the workforce was in keeping with the time. Even a causal glance at the newspapers from this period shows that the late 70s were, despite everything, a period of important militancy and self-confidence among Irish workers. A huge number of disputes occurred during the time. Some were sectional but many were not. What is abundantly clear is that there was a willingness by workers to take action.

NIAG and its influence: The Noxious Industry Action Group played a vital role in the anti-RM campaign. The essence of this was the link that it was able to build with the new workforce at the plant. The issue – asbestos and the hazard it presented – was, to an extent, a good basis on which to establish such a link, nevertheless this should not detract from the group’s achievement.

Most notable about NIAG’s intervention was that it cut through the anti-worker bias which is always present in campaigns which involve a manufacturing plant or refinery being physically imposed on a locality. There is a basis for seeing the workers in such prospective ventures as ‘part of the problem’ (the ‘they are making good money at our expense’ argument). NIAG were able to counter this, putting in the work that eventually allowed for common cause to be established.

NIAG’s intervention is also noteworthy in terms of what it entailed. As a group it was never in a position to be anything other than ‘an influence’. Its numbers remained small and its politics were always far to the left of the mainstream anti-RM movement. Its key activity was not its actual involvement in direct action – the numbers for these actions were there in any case – rather it was in articulating a course of action and activity that encompassed all the key players who could oppose RM and the IDA – i.e. the workers and the community together. This highlights once more the oft repeated observation that it is not necessarily size that matters, rather it is ideas and having the right ones for the right time that can be decisive.

Interestingly, though, NIAG’s breakthrough was not built upon in the Cork area. NIAG itself dispersed and in time a broad-based organisation called the Cork Environmental Alliance (CEA) came to the fore in the region. By 1987, when Penn Chemical workers (also in the harbour) were involved in a bitter dispute with their employer (now GlaxoSmithKline) over an attempt by the corporation to break the union at the plant, the workers chose to alert the mainstream media rather than the CEA about a number of environmental violations that they knew about. In other words, the old division was still present. In any case the CEA – a pressure group rather than a direct action orientated organisation – had no clear idea of how to deal with workers from the chemical industry, or how to build links with them.

A Worsening Climate: A key lesson of the anti-Raybestos Manhattan campaign (i.e. that effective common cause can be established between workers and environmental activists in fighting multinational corporations) was, for the most part, lost to the next generation of environmental activists that followed on from NIAG. There are a number of objective reasons for this – not least the decline in working-class self activity in the Republic. In 1980s the neo-liberal war on the working class (‘Thatcherism’ etc) took off. This, allied to the impact of the downturn (and with it emigration), led to a sharp fall in class confidence. This problem was further exacerbated by the impact of accelerated globalisation which vastly increased the power and manoeuvrability of multinational capitalism, decisively shifting the balance of power towards capital and away from labour.
Within the environmental movement there were also changes. As the 80s progressed, the focus of environmental activism (in terms of ‘what is the problem?’) shifted significantly – and to the right. Capitalism was no longer seen as being mainly the problem, rather it was, per se, ‘human activity’. This shift in focus arose from the growing influence of ‘deep ecology’ politics within green/ environmental circles. The impact of this was to downplay class-based analysis and action when it came to environmental problems: workers and bosses were seen as just two sides of the same coin.

Miscellaneous Points: (1) Although the Irish state received a bloody nose at Ovens and Ringaskiddy, the overall effect was not significant. The state continued to use a heavy hand throughout the 80s and 90s when it came to imposing its will on local communities – a point that is undoubtedly hammered home by events in Mayo around the issue of the Corrib Gas field . In one respect though the anti-RM victory probably pushed the Irish state away from the ‘dirtier’ end of the chemical industry sooner than it might have wished – such was the ferocity of resistance. This is supported by the fact that in later years Ireland’s so called ‘environmental flexibility’ was not a major reason for multinationals to relocate here . Far more important were the tax concessions and ancillary benefits – the plentiful supply of educated workers etc. (Or so they claim – perhaps the matter is for debate?)
(2) The imprecise and undulating nature of ‘campaign work’ is highlighted in the victory against RM. The campaign had different aspects to it which took prominence or receded into the background in a way that could not be predicted or be prepared for. At a number of junctures it seemed as if the campaign against RM was not as such ‘over’, as rather ‘going nowhere’. For a period even, after the Garda assault on the community at Ringaskiddy, it even seemed as if the campaign was defeated. Of course, it revived. Nevertheless it is emphasises once again that such campaigns can be draining and demand resolve and resources that are often well above the norm.
(3) The fact that the campaign against RM developed on a number of fronts turned out to be a real bonus. Of course this happened by accident but nevertheless we can see that a conflict on many fronts presents difficulties for the establishment and did so too for the multinational itself.
(4) Although RM was careful about PR, on a few key occasions the mask fell. These episodes – the flouting of dumping regulations and the flagrant abuse of health and safety strictures inside the plant itself – provided the anti-RM campaign with valuable encouragement at periods when it was dearly needed. The value in underlining this for the future is to re-emphasise the opportunities that always exist when fighting multinationals. Often they will shoot themselves in the foot for reasons that anarchists well understand: despite image management, corporations are crudely anti-democratic and operate by command; the nature of the beast shows through.

CONCLUSIONS

The anti-RM campaign is an important and, in many ways, an overlooked victory. In terms of how the victory was achieved, two aspects deserve to be highlighted and remembered.

Firstly, it was a campaign in which common cause was sought and established between workers and community activists. The role of the NIAG group in building this was crucial. As a group it was active and intervened in the campaign with an ‘anti-capitalist’ viewpoint and analysis. There is much to be learned from this example. Not only does NAIG’s activism point us in the direction of an effective stragegy of opposition, it also holds out the possibility for the building of a longer term movement, linking community and worker interests, in opposition to capitalism’s assaults on the environment.

Secondly, the anti-RM struggle offers us a very solid and valuable example of the importance of direct action. At Ringaskiddy where the anti-dump protest was pre-eminent, it was the basis for effective resistance. In the plant itself it was the means for driving home to the Raybestos Manhattan Corporation that it could not get away with its greedy and unsafe practices.

Ultimately, the combined effect of numerous actions forced Raybestos into an irreversible retreat. And so a corporation notorious for its ‘callous, greedy motives’ was sent packing.

Like what you're reading?
Find out when we publish more via the
WSM Facebook
& WSM Twitter