I remember first hearing about a wind turbine factory on the Isle of Wight being shut down at the Workers’ Liberty conference back in May.
We decided that someone should go down there. Why did I volunteer? We’d been talking about “voluntarism” — the necessary element in socialist politics of making things happen by will-power and initiative.
I travelled to the island on 15 June with two other AWL members, Ed Maltby and Pat Rolfe, and stayed for a couple of days to make contact with local labour movement activists.
Members of the local Trades Councils had been campaigning around Vestas, but without making much headway. Local Labour councillor Geoff Lumley offered his support, but was unwilling to get involved in very militant action. We met the local Unite full-time official, Brian Kent. When we raised the idea of holding a public meeting he told us we were “pissing in the wind”.
We also stood at the factory gates trying to figure out what the shift times were and talking to anyone we could find. Eventually went back to London to work from the AWL office to mobilise activists to bring to the Isle of Wight to build for the public meeting which we had decided on despite Brian Kent’s advice.
We all had very little experience building industrial campaigns, but it was good to know that we could phone the office for practical advice from older comrades.
We returned to the island again with a list of people who would join us over the coming days. I think there were as many as eight people at one point and we managed to cover a lot of space, leafleting in towns and at both factories in Newport and Cowes.
As we stood outside factories, I began to learn how to talk to people about their work and that it’s most important firstly to listen. In many cases you start just by repeating back to people what they’ve already told you, and convincing them that it’s important and useful to be angry about mistreatment.
Our initial activism had already put management ill at ease. Paddy Weir, the boss at Vestas, had come out one day to try to intimidate me and another activist, Benny. I think he was honestly surprised to see someone standing up to him, and he had absolutely no reply to the fact that he hadn’t provided adequate health and safety gear for the workers, some of whom were suffering from skin disorders because of the resin they worked with.
The day of the meeting approached, and I began sleeping less and less. I didn’t know what to expect.
In fact, over a hundred people came and the majority were workers. Four police officers came to stand outside the meeting; they had been warned to expect a “breach of the peace”. Management had put extra security on at the plants over the weekend after the meeting.
But in some way the meeting was very disheartening. It was overly weighted with union bureaucrat speakers who went on for too long about joining a union... so that the workers could be helped to find other jobs.
Ron Clarke, former convenor at Visteon Enfield, and Ed Maltby spoke from the platform and offered a straightforward message on the importance of an occupation. When a discussion at the back amongst the workers began, independently of the chair, it was quickly quashed.
We attempted to speak to as many people as possible, but we ran in to the same perspective time and again; “I’m up for it, but no one else will do anything, it’s not possible”.
We managed to get contact details for a few workers, mostly young people who were getting very low redundancy payments. Eventually a small group of five workers began to meet and discuss tactics — and to grow.
At the AWL summer school on 10-12 July Pat Rolfe said he thought there was a twenty percent chance of an occupation. Only eight days later, the occupation was on. I returned to the island hours before the occupation began. I rushed down to the factory to see what was going on and found a group of people milling around outside and banners hanging from windows inside.