Colman Cassidy, Evening Press Industrial Correspondent, 25 September 1990
The final shutdown of the 41-year old Gateaux plant last Tuesday is an indictment of the way we are.
The Gateaux saga is a classic example in its way of working class inertia turned to fury in the face of market forces – a belief that nothing can or should happen to our factory, jobs, community that isn’t democratically ordained by ourselves. It is the quicksand of innocence.
Too late the realisation dawns that yes, these are our jobs, this is our community, but no, this is not our factory. So who is to blame? Allied Lyons, as everyone now knows, is a giant multinational – with interests in Ireland. Profitable interests such as Lyons Irish Holdings – Gateaux’s immediate parent – the contributor to a “respectable” (or so we say) £6.2 million in profits last year to the group’s consolidated profit and loss account.
The reality, of course, is that despite its very profitable margins on Lyons Tea et al., the net Irish contribution from LIH is equivalent to about 1% of its British parent’s £602 million in profits before income and tax. That more or less puts Gateaux in context: the reality once again, is that for Allied Lyons, the Finglas troubles of the last few months were equivalent to an itch on an elephant’s tail. And at last the elephant has sat down.
Included in the Irish profit figure, incidentally for which the mandarins at Goldenbridge appear to take all the credit, is the £200,000 contributed by the Finglas plant.
Not great, certainly, but still a profit – something of a miracle in its way, given the inefficiencies that had been introduced in recent times by a management determined to replace human endeavour with hi-tech productivity. It’s all about cost-efficiency, or so the theory went. The dogs in the street in Finglas were eager to lap up the waste brought about as a result – and operating costs continued to spiral as the final hi-tech solution struggled with chronic neuralgia.
Ridiculous to blame the management, though, or is it? They had a job to do like everyone else. The appointed course dictated that they get their cost structures in place. Ultimately, the plant’s closure is a bitter testimony to their failure, especially since it is now known that they could have achieved not five, but 55 redundancies, in negotiations with the unions
As always the nub of the crisis was, and remains, communication, or in this case the politics of misinformation.
Dr. John Maguire, Professor of Sociology at UCC, had this to say on the subject, recently, in the Journal of the Institute of Public Administration: “Our social and political system operates though the restriction of information at least as much as through its dissemination; this is all the more the case the nearer we come to the literally vital issues involved in our living and working environment.” He could have been referring to Gateaux.
So what really happened? Nobody quite knows – or will openly admit that Finglas was, after all, expendable. Except the workers, that is. They claim that Yorkshire-produced ‘Gateaux’ cakes are on sale throughout this country, packed in Irish-made boxes. To outsiders, including the media, recrimination seems facile. Safer to talk about lost orders – and especially that big order that was lost forever, because of the alleged intransigence of a Militant-led workforce. A reasonable line for management to sell, too, to a hard-pressed Minister for Labour, for once apparently impotent in the face of events as they came to pass.
And the union? Pat Shanley, general secretary of the Bakers’ Union, bore the heat of the mid-day sun in and out of the Labour Court. His was the task of preaching reasonableness and restraint – for which he wasn’t thanked – to both sides, against the onslaught of righteous indignation fuelled by an overwhelming sense of injustice, that grew more deadly by the week.
It was the workforce, against the advice of the union leadership, that ultimately kept rejecting various peace formulae stitched together courtesy of the Labour Court – until it was finally too late. Militant’s role in this this was generously clarified afterwards by Shanley as almost incidental. He knew in his heart that the Gateaux workers, like angry children, were clutching at straws.
For here we had a workforce about to be dispersed forever, which had superb confidence – bred through generations of stable employment – in its ability to produce, as the old advertisement had it, “cakes by Gateaux, made from fresh fruit, butter and eggs”. Collectively, bakers and general operatives in the Finglas plant knew every nuance of Gateaux cake production. The anger they displayed was based on the fact that in industrial terms, they had pedigree – a bit like Guinness, before Ernest Saunders. It’s something that does not show up in a balance sheet.
This is not to sentimentalise the tragedy. Rather is it an attempt to assess the institutional fallout from losing the jewel in the crown of what’s left of industrial Finglas – after the demise of Downes’s Bakery and the manpower shakeout at Unidare. Whole families worked at Gateaux – as had their fathers and mothers before them. And in many cases, the money brought in at peak times by women casual workers, comprised the only earnings in a house where the man was unemployed.
The Gateaux tragedy is put further into context when we begin to assess the cost to the state of attempting to replace a relatively stable industry that made such a seminal contribution to the Finglas community. That £200,000 might be a fleabite in terms of total group profits, but so too, it could be argued, is the entire contribution from Gateaux’s Irish parent. That is not a comfortable thought, but it is, at least, reality.
So, too, are the increased costs of social welfare, retraining where appropriate, health services and so forth. The impact is contagious locally, for a community that has become increasingly marginalised in recent years.
The impact on Dublin, generally, is more tenuous, perhaps, in the short term, though ultimately no less serious. This may be appreciated if one reflects on the enormity of the case currently being advanced by the Ballynascanlan inter-church social issues group.
It says, in effect, that the ever-widening polarity in our cities between the haves and the have-nots, will ultimately destroy our society: those sections of the population most vulnerable to unemployment, poor housing and illness are geographically concentrated – and the problems are entrenched.
If we accept this, and the evidence is everywhere, then Gateaux Finglas is a suitable case for immediate treatment.