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Waterford Crystal Factory Shut Down

Workers clashed with security guards and mounted a sit-down protest Friday after bankruptcy officials shut down their world-famous but debt-crippled factory.

DUBLIN, Ireland (AP) -- Waterford Crystal workers clashed with security guards and mounted a sit-down protest Friday after bankruptcy officials shut down their world-famous but debt-crippled factory.

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, employing more than 3,000 people at three Irish locations at its height.

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. Consumer tastes also have increasingly favored lighter, more practical glassware.

On Friday, David Carson, the receiver still negotiating with two U.S. private equity firms, said in a statement 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.

The Waterford Crystal factory's unionized workers discovered their fate Friday when the afternoon shift was blocked from entering the factory. They tried to force their way in past private security guards who were reinforced this month at the plant to deter labor unrest.

Witnesses said one worker was cut during scuffles, and at least one plate-glass window was shattered, before police intervened to separate the two groups. Some workers got into the building during the melee and joined comrades from the day shift who were refusing to leave.

Walter Cullen, the spokesman for Waterford Crystal workers represented by the Unite labor union, said Carson had told him by phone that he could not wait any longer for an American "white knight" investor.

"He told me he had run out of money, and this was why he was making the decision," Cullen said. "I reminded him that he had broken his word. He had promised not to shut us down like this without warning or negotiations to explore alternatives."

Cullen said the protesting workers would leave the factory "only if the decision of the receiver is reversed."

The Associated Press left e-mails and phone messages with the receiver and other Waterford Wedgwood officials, but no messages were returned.

Eleven of Waterford Wedgwood's 14-member board of directors has 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 production in its traditional heartlands -- crystal in Ireland, China in England -- and shifted crystal production overseas to Eastern Europe and china to Indonesia.

But Waterford Wedgwood still needed to keep borrowing money and floating new shares to pay its bills, and hit a brick wall last year amid tightening credit markets worldwide. The Irish government refused to underwrite any private bank loans, and O'Reilly and Goulandris decided that 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.

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