On Friday 3 July, Workers’ Climate Action and the Cowes Trades Council held a public meeting attended by around 100 people, to oppose the closure of the Vestas plant, Britain’s only wind turbine factory, on the Isle of Wight.
Two months ago, Vestas announced over 500 job cuts and is seeking to move production to the USA.
The room was packed with workers from the factory as well as people from the wider community. By the end of the meeting, there were people seriously discussing the tactic of a factory occupation to save jobs and force much-needed investment in wind energy. How did this come about?
The Isle of Wight is, for the most part, staunchly Conservative, with very little history of class struggle or environmentalism. It has one Labour councillor, no branch of any left group, and an apparently inactive Green Party branch. The previous campaign to save jobs at Vestas was very small, based mainly on a Facebook group and a petition had ground to a halt, lacking direction and the confidence to take radical action.
A small number of activists from Workers’ Liberty heard the news of the closure began getting in touch with people on the Island three weeks ago. We managed to get a hold of the few local trade unionists from the Trades Council. Most of these turned out to be past retirement age, but many with militant histories.
As impressed as these old heads of the labour movement were and as glad as they were to see a bunch of energetic young people having come down to set up a campaign, no one expected it to go anywhere. The wisdom was that this was a workplace that had never been unionised, the closure had been announced, the ball was in motion; we should try by all means but that we shouldn’t get too disappointed if we got nowhere.
Despite this, we went out and simply stood outside the factory waiting for people to come out of work, we had no leaflets other than the basic WCA ‘Climate Change is a Class Issue’ one. As the workers went past we got chatting, heard stories of people having to move house as a result of the redundancies and various attempts over the years to get trade union recognition met with victimisations and sackings. People felt betrayed, many of them young, many had thought that this was an industry with a future, many genuinely felt they were doing their bit to save the planet. All this was down the drain.
People were pissed off, all that was lacking was the sense that anything could be done to do anything, to fight back, we decided at that point to try and pull together a meeting. We got the Trades Council to sort the venue, came back to London and knocked up a leaflet.
We then mobilised a small but diverse group of Workers’ Climate Action activists (environmentalists, socialists, and anarchists) from across the country to come down.
We spent a week intensively building for a public meeting. We leafleted the gates of the two factory sites at least twice a day, did stalls in the main towns, and constantly spoke to people about their concerns – the impact of the closure on jobs and the local community, environmental concerns, the poor state of health and safety at the Vestas plants, and raised the appropriate political questions – who should determine how jobs are provided and how energy is produced? How should the transition to a low carbon economy be achieved? What is to be done about harsh management practices, job losses, and factory closures?
Working in a political environment not usually best suited to revolutionary politics, we found that our concern for jobs and the environment was immediately taken on by the many of the hundreds of people we spoke to.
Not only are Vestas management cutting jobs, they are also a highly exploitative employer. In the tradition of post-Fordist management, they sought to generate a high turnover of employees to prevent unionisation, and to prevent the workers from building up significant redundancy packages. The air conditioning in the factories is inadequate, many workers contracted contact dermatitis, an allergic reaction to the resin used in moulds, and the company operates an unofficial ‘three strikes and you’re out’ disciplinary procedure, as well as regularly denying workers days off and sick days for no good reason. The exploitation of the worker for profit provides us with an analogy for environmental exploitation and degradation.
We succeeded in talking to the local media, including BBC radio Solent, the Isle of Wight County press, and Meridian News, and we were able to voice ideas like the just transition to a low carbon economy, and democratic workers’ control of industry in forums where they had not been heard in a long time.
Using contacts made during the Visteon occupation, we persuaded the former convenor of the Enfield Visteon plant, Ron Clarke, to speak at the public meeting. Ron spoke about the experience and the tactics of occupation, telling the gathered crowds that physical control of the factory was the only way to bargain with the bosses. The experience gained by the Visteon workers, and their resounding success provided a galvanising example of what can be achieved if workers take action and stick together.
We encountered problems and obstructions from all the usual sources. Just before the public meeting, a police inspector phoned the secretary of Cowes trades council, informing him that the Workers’ Climate Action had published a piece exhorting Vestas workers to chain themselves to machinery. This was, of course, a lie. The police were, nevertheless, very visible outside the public meeting.
In addition to this, many of the speakers brought to the public meeting by the local trades council revealed themselves to be bureaucrats. They told workers to simply join UNITE and get official recognition, but were disdainful about the idea of occupation. These business unionists and social partnership bureaucrats brought little to the campaign, but they certainly alienated a lot of workers with their elitist talk of letters written to ‘Lord Mandelson’.
Despite the politically questionable character of the meeting, we managed to get workers and people on-board to expand the campaign further into the factory and the local community. The Socialist Workers Party and Socialist Party are already organising public meetings in Southampton and Portsmouth with speakers from Workers’ Climate Action and workers themselves. A protest in the centre of Newport is planned, with the possibility of a happening outside Downing Street in London to put pressure on the government.
National groups are expressing an interest in getting involved, and we are following up contacts in Denmark, where Vestas have their headquarters, with a view to encouraging solidarity actions. Watch this space for more information as it comes in.
Our actions to oppose the Vestas closure will demonstrate that, though energy and enthusiasm are essential to achieve results, we must also, as Lenin says ‘be able at each particular moment to find the particular link in the chain which you must grasp with all your might in order to hold the whole chain and to prepare firmly for the transition to the next link; the order of the links, their form, the manner in which they are linked together, the way they differ from each other in the historical chain of events, are not as simple and not as meaningless as those in an ordinary chain made by a smith.’
Already messages of solidarity are pouring in via email (email@example.com), and a motion will be circulating around trade unions who wish to offer their support to the Vestas workers. The campaign is already snowballing, but it must be held in mind that this situation could be brought into existence anywhere – at Corus, or in the car industry, or at Nortel where 2,000 redundancies were announced today. Go to where jobs are being lost, talk to a few workers, collaborate and draft a leaflet, call a big meeting. Raise the experience of Visteon. Raise the possibility of direct action: it can be done.
Workers Climate Action are holding an organising meeting in Cambridge on Friday 17 July. Come and get involved.
– Patrick Rolfe