How a factory sit-in turned viral

With no media or PR advice, Vita Cortex built up an 9,000-strong support base in 20 countries — because people believed in their cause, writes Eoin English

TWO social media experts, one of whom has a direct family connection to Vita Cortex, played a key role in making the 160-day sit-in global news.

Darren O’Keeffe, who is pursuing a master’s in political marketing at UCC, and his friend, Veronica Marshall, who works in social media in Dublin and whose father Greg was among the sit-in workers, were behind the Support the Vita Cortex Facebook page, the workers’ Twitter stream, and their blog.

Without a shred of media or PR advice, Darren and Veronica built an 8,000-strong national and international community of support for the workers spanning 20 countries.

“When you believe in a cause, and it’s just, then there is no need for PR consultants,” said Veronica.

Their online campaign helped secure messages of support from high-profile figures including Noam Chomsky, Mary Robinson, Paul McGrath, and actor Cillian Murphy, among others. It prompted comedian Des Bishop to post video messages of support from his Twitter account.

But while it helped garner support and sympathy for the workers’ plight, the online campaign created certain difficulties for those involved in direct negotiations on behalf of the workers.

Experienced union officials like to keep their cards very close to their chests while negotiating. Positions are never revealed. The mood is always neutral.

The Siptu officials representing the workers readily admit that it was one of the most difficult cases they have ever been involved in.

While the motives of those involved in the online campaign were genuine, the union officials say privately that certain tweets and posts on the Facebook page, especially at critical times during delicate talks, did nothing to help the workers’ position.

Nevertheless, the online campaign played a key role ensuring that the sit-in remained a live, almost daily news item — more so in newspapers such as the Irish Examiner and the Evening Echo, and on local radio — for the duration of the dispute.

It started with a Facebook page, set up just before Christmas, which encouraged people to wish the workers a happy Christmas and happy new year.

It attracted more than 300 likes in just 36 hours and had more than 1,000 fans by Christmas Day.

The page name was changed soon afterwards to “Support the Vita Cortex Workers” as plans for a sustained online campaign were drawn up.

And despite the fact that few of the workers were bloggers, Facebook or Twitter users, Veronica said they had a very clear vision of how they wanted the campaign to be managed.

“They wanted a two-way conversation with the outside world,” she said.

“We didn’t want it to be scrappy. The workers wanted a single message coming out. They wanted every message of support to be replied to, and they wanted to thank everyone who supported them.”

It was to feature regular daily updates, photos from inside the plant, worker biographies and at times, deeply emotional video diaries.

And so with Darren working on strategy, and Veronica on day-to-day maintenance, it took off — as of yesterday, the page had almost 9,000 likes.

A breakdown of figures shows that about 7,000 of the people following the workers’ plight on Facebook live in Ireland.

Of the remainder, about 300 are in Britain, 200 in the US and Canada, and 80 in Australia.

There are hundreds of fans across Europe, including five in Norway, as well as a high concentration of fans in Moscow.

Seven people in Japan and three living in Malaysia have also signed up to the page for regular updates.

The gender breakdown is roughly 55% female to 45% male, with 60% of the workers’ Facebook followers aged between 25 and 45.

Veronica said the campaign allowed people around the world to “build relationships and really connect” with the workers.

She said it was crucial that the online campaign blended with the traditional media, including newspapers, to ensure the workers’ story reached as wide an audience as possible.

Links on the Facebook page to the media coverage helped to keep the issue live in the wider public eye.

Veronica said it was relatively easy to garner support for the workers’ plight.

“The workers are articulate, and the Facebook page let their personalities come out,” she said.

“When you speak the truth, it can’t be picked apart. And people chose to buy in to that.”

Veronica described the Facebook page as a “scrapbook”, a snapshot of Irish industrial relations history, which would stand as a testament to the workers’ struggle long after the issue had been resolved.

2011

* Sept: Plans to close the Cork plant are announced. Siptu begins negotiations with the firm. It says a redundancy package of 2.9 weeks’ pay per year of service, paid to previous workers, is central to talks.

* Nov: Concerns mount when Nama, which has frozen several assets of Vita owner Jack Ronan, says it cannot release funds in the bank account of a sister firm to pay redundancy.

* Dec 16: The Vita Cortex plant on the old Kinsale Road in Cork closes. The workers begin their sit-in.

* Dec 25: Workers and their families attend Christmas Mass in the plant’s canteen.

2012

* Jan 6: The workers’ plight is highlighted on The Late Late Show.

* Jan 12: The workers are joined by trade union activists for a rally outside Leinster House.

* Jan 17: The Labour Relations Commission (LRC) chairs talks between the workers and Vita Cortex management. A strategy to end the sit-in is agreed.

* Jan 20: Talks resume but end without success when Mr Ronan fails to hand over an asset to Nama that would allow it to release the frozen funds.

* Jan 23: Workers mount a peaceful protest outside the home of Vita Cortex director, and former non-executive chairman, Sean McHenry.

* Jan 30: Workers take their campaign to the gates of Mr Ronan’s 300-acre stud farm in Co Tipperary. He denies the company agreed to pay the ex gratia payment.

* Feb 3: Day 50 of the sit-in. Taoiseach Enda Kenny meets a delegation of workers in Cork and tells them he is taking “a personal interest” in their plight.

* Feb 6: Nama insists there is no conflict of interests after a photograph emerges of one of its executives on a cycling holiday in South Africa with Jack Ronan.

* Feb 7: Details emerge of a letter sent to Siptu by Vita’s legal representatives, requesting the workers leave or face legal action.

* Feb 11: 5,000 people march in Cork City in support of the workers.

* Feb 13: Alex Ferguson backs the workers.

* Feb 17: Christy Moore headlines a benefit gig for the workers.

* Feb 21/22: Mr McHenry describes the picketing of his home as “blackmail”. Employers’ group Ibec accuses Siptu of “a pattern of misrepresentation” of the facts in the bitter row.

* Feb 23: Cork actor Cillian Murphy writes in support of the workers.

* Feb 28: Enterprise Minister Richard Bruton meets a delegation of workers. He says he will continue to work for a resolution.

* Mar 1: The workers reject a €185,000 redundancy offer made by Ibec on behalf of the company. Siptu call it a “derisory offer”.

* Mar 2: Hundreds attend a candlelight rally at the plant, with poet Theo Dorgan and singer songwriter John Spillane among those to perform.

* Mar 3: Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore meets the workers and pledges his full support. “I am now going away to see how I can use my good offices to try to help and get a resolution,” he says.

* Mar 6: Vita management criticises the workers for rejecting money pledged from the personal resources of its directors and shareholders. Siptu calls for meaningful talks to end the dispute.

* Mar 8: There are hopes of a breakthrough after Siptu accepts LRC invitation to attend talks. Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams visits the plant.

* Mar 9: Vita workers Greg Marshall, Timmy Burke, and Denis Ryan get a standing ovation from the crowd at Turner’s Cross before the Cork City game against Drogheda Utd.

* Mar 12: Siptu attends the LRC in Dublin after which the LRC says it will make its position known at the weekend.

* Mar 16: LRC tells Siptu that there is, as yet, no basis for direct discussions between the parties.

* Mar 23: The workers and union agree to a proposal from the LRC to engage in a new mediation process. It comes on the eve of the 100th day of the sit-in.

* Apr 19: Company pulls out of the mediation process. The mediators conclude there is no basis for a mediated settlement and issue guidance containing recommendations to both sides which they say would represent a fair and equitable basis to resolve the protracted dispute.

* Apr 20: Workers vote to accept the guidance and urge the company to do so.

* Apr 27: Vita Cortex issues a statement rejecting the recommendations.

* Apr 30: Workers meet in Cork to determine their next course of action as high-level behind-the-scenes talks take place.

* May 2: Siptu officials and workers reps hold face-to-face talks with Mr Ronan and Ibec officials. A deal is finally hammered out.

The deal is put to workers that night at a meeting at the Metropole Hotel. They fully endorse the deal, bringing an end to the sit-in. It is day 139.

* The occupation of the plant continues until funds are fully paid to all former workers.


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