SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Socialism Today 131 - September 2009

Vestas occupation: fighting for the future

THE OCCUPATION of the Vestas wind turbine factory in Newport, Isle of Wight, hit the front pages and television news in Britain and worldwide. On Monday 20 July, 25 workers began an occupation that lasted 18 days. In this short time, a non-unionised workforce brought government ministers and an intransigent company to the negotiating table to hammer out the factory’s future.

The loss of 450 jobs in Newport, and 150 in Southampton, was a huge blow, especially to the Isle of Wight where unemployment is the highest in the country. The mood for action was also fuelled by anger at a profitable company throwing hundreds of workers onto the dole when the New Labour government had made a commitment to wind energy and creating 400,000 green jobs. Though the occupation has ended, the campaign to save jobs at Vestas and secure a future for wind turbine manufacturing on the island continues to grow, building support across the trade union movement and wider communities. Pressure is piling on the government and all parties to address the issues of rising unemployment and renewable energy in the run-up to the general election.

In July, with just a few weeks of production left, hopes were low among a small group of Vestas workers who wanted to fight back. But, from a small meeting in a pub in Newport with local activists including members of Portsmouth Socialist Party, plans were born and the occupation took shape.

Talking to any workers from Vestas you can hear what working for this multinational company was like. Virulently anti-union, it operated a regime of bullying management, with many workers dismissed without notice and workers always looking out for work elsewhere. Health and safety was disregarded and on one occasion the company was fined for negligence resulting in health problems for a group of workers. The political hand of Vestas was revealed in its participation in a bid to set up a school academy. No doubt its compassion for children on the island has been put to question by the decision to sack their parents first.

Without prior organisation and trade union recognition, preparations were made to organise the occupation on the issue of redundancy pay, which was pitiful in most cases, and with the aim of developing a campaign to save jobs and the future of the factory. As a campaign support meeting in Portsmouth was taking place, news came through that the occupation had started. Led by local reps of the Rail, Maritime and Transport union (RMT), activists headed straight to the island to begin building support for the occupation.

The following day, other Vestas workers began gathering at the factory in solidarity. A committee was initiated to link the workers in the occupation to the picket outside. On the Wednesday evening the first mass rally took place, followed by further rallies of hundreds of workers, their families and supporters. In no time, a tented village sprang up on the roundabout outside the factory, with activists camped out in support.

So began a stand-off between the occupation and picket and the Vestas management. Day by day management issued threats that were defiantly faced down by the occupation, to cheers from the pickets outside. Like a game of poker, the workers won each hand and confidence grew. The resolve of Vestas workers was bolstered by visits from Unison, FBU, CWU, PCS and POA members, together with solidarity messages from across Britain and internationally.

Undoubtedly, a key development was the intervention of the RMT, initially through the efforts of local reps from Portsmouth and the Isle of Wight, who gave advice and support. Decisive, however, was the arrival of RMT general secretary Bob Crow on Thursday, coinciding with the issuing of the court summons to the occupation.

Some Vestas workers had previously joined Unite, but there was no presence on the picket line from Unite reps. The official backing of a national trade union, the RMT, lifted the struggle to another level, enormously stiffening the resolve of the workers. Mirroring the defiance of the occupation, Bob Crow pledged the support of the RMT’s legal team to fight the court summons. The RMT’s stance will be felt across the trade unions. Vestas RMT members will be forming part of the union’s delegation to the TUC congress in September.

While the occupation has ended, most Vestas workers feel that their stand is a victory in itself. Previously bullied and unorganised, they are ten feet taller, and as determined as ever to fight on. Many workers are appealing their redundancy payments and some are considering court action over the company using the remaining employees to carry out the work of sacked workers. A key issue is the reinstatement of the eleven occupiers who were victimised and sacked. The RMT is taking this up.

The general view emerging is that Vestas is mothballing the factory and preparing to reopen as the European market develops. This has further fuelled workers’ anger that they have been thrown on the dole by a profitable company that may reopen in the near future. Workers are struggling to find other jobs and face the nightmare of unemployment. As recently as January, Vestas made a commitment to invest in the future of the Newport plant. On that basis, many young workers and their families took out mortgages and made plans that are now in tatters.

Vestas is now facing an organised group of workers, backed by a militant trade union and with huge support on the island and among trade unions across Britain. Vestas reported second-quarter profits of £67 million (The Guardian, 19 August). The government’s commitment to green jobs and renewable energy has been exposed as cheap talk.

If Vestas refuses to restart production and re-employ the workforce, the RMT demand for nationalisation must be carried through. If Vestas will not accede to this, the government should force through a compulsory purchase order with compensation to shareholders only on the basis of proven need. The support that has been won in the trade union movement needs to be mobilised to full effect, backed by a political campaign to pressure the government to act. Vestas workers are discussing the idea of standing in the general and local elections on the island. A victory for Vestas workers will be a victory for all workers.

The marvellous struggle has confirmed the arguments of the Socialist Party that, in the face of an economic crisis, workers are forced to struggle to defend jobs and pay. We predicted that, through struggles like those at Vestas and elsewhere, activists would rebuild a fighting trade union movement and that a new generation of young class fighters would come to the fore. We were always confident that such battles would raise the consciousness of workers of their own power and also the political need for a new workers’ party to fight for their future. Like those at Visteon, Lindsey and Linamar, the Vestas workers are a beacon for the future.

Nick Chaffey


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