How Vestas workers became a power

Submitted by AWL on 30 July, 2009 - 3:01 Author: Martin Thomas

It all started on 15 June, when a small group of young members of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty set off for the Isle of Wight. They had read in the press about the planned closure of Britain’s only wind turbine blade factories, operated by the Danish-based multinational Vestas at Venture Quays, East Cowes, and St Cross, Newport, on the Isle of Wight.

They had discussed it among themselves and with other AWL members. They had cast around for contacts to give them a first foothold on the Isle of Wight.

It wasn’t easy. The Isle of Wight — both a local-government county and a parliamentary constituency — is a safe Tory seat, and has been nothing but Tory or Liberal or Lib-Dem back to 1945. Even in 1997, Labour got only 13% of the vote there. The towns are small (Ryde, the biggest by a slight margin over Newport, has 26,000 people). There has been no recent activist-left presence. There is no active local Green Party.

The island has many advantages as a base for industrial production. The wind turbine blades from the bigger Vestas factory at St Cross — 40 metres long, difficult to transport by road — can be loaded straight from the factory onto barges to go up the River Medina and over to Southampton docks for shipment all over the world. But prisons are among the island's biggest employers; an unusually large proportion of the population is retired; unemployment is high; a lot of local jobs are seasonal in the tourist trade; and many enterprising young people leave to seek wider opportunities on the mainland.

The young AWL members pitched their tents on a campsite. They made contact with some elderly activists who kept the Ryde and Cowes Trades Councils ticking over, and with the island's one Labour county councillor.

They began visiting the factories at the shift changes, handed out leaflets, talked to the workers. They found a lot of anger against the Vestas bosses, but as yet little confidence that any fightback against the closure was possible.

The AWL members made it clear that they were not there to substitute for the workers’ own action, or to push workers into doing anything that they did not want to do. But they did want the workers to have a chance to discuss collectively what they might do, with all the options before them — rather than each one, individually, feeling helpless in face of the collective, organised power of the bosses.

With a wider circle of Workers' Climate Action activists mobilised to come to the island, they leafleted in the main towns as well as at the factories for a public meeting on 3 July, co-sponsored by Cowes Trades Council and Workers' Climate Action.

A hundred people came. Ron Clarke, a former convenor of the Visteon Enfield plant, spoke about the gains made by the workers’ occupation there. But many of the other speakers, established labour movement officials, thought workers could do no more than join the Unite union — there was a handful of members in the factories, though Vestas had stamped on all attempts to unionise seriously — and write letters to the Government.

The campaign still hung in the balance. About half a dozen workers gave contact details to the AWL members saying they were interested in further discussion about how the closure should be thought. Over the weekend 4-5 July AWL member Ed Maltby emailed and phoned them. Only one replied. He agreed to meet and talk, and then pulled back, saying he wasn't ready for that yet.

By Tuesday 7 July Ed was phoning the AWL office to say that he was returning home for a bit to recoup his energies. The half-dozen workers had his contact details, and messages from him, and he would return to the island if they showed interest.

As his train approached Waterloo station in London, Ed got a phone call from a worker asking for a meeting that evening between him and a number of workers from his shop. Ed got off the train at Waterloo and took the first train back to the Isle of Wight in order to make the meeting. A group of workers who wanted to discuss active resistance to the closure had been formed, and gradually grew by passing the word on individually.

Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP) members came to the island to join the campaign against closure. On Saturday 11 July some workers joined a session of leafletting and petitioning in the centre of Newport. After AWL summer school on 11-12 July, where Vestas was a big theme, more AWL members came to the island.

By now the Vestas bosses knew that something was afoot, but not what.

More and more workers got involved. But the dominant reaction at the factory gates to our leafletting was still — and would continue to be, right up to the day before the St Cross factory was occupied — that it was “too late” to do anything about the closure; or, putting a brave face on the big blow to Island jobs that the Vestas closure would be, that they were glad no longer to have to work under the Vestas regime, and just wanted to take their redundancy money and go; or that in principle some action might be a good idea, but they didn't want to risk losing their redundancy money.

Already the rumour was widespread that the Vestas bosses’ plan is really just to mothball the St Cross factory for maybe two or three years, until demand for wind turbine blades in Europe picks up again after the current economic crisis.

Vestas has blamed the closure plan on the crisis, and government responses to it, rather than any long-term lack of wind-turbine demand. They own the St Cross factory, rather than leasing it. It is one of the larger factories on the island, so the short-term chances of a lucrative alternative use seem poor. Thus the “mothballing” story seems plausible.

And even sensible, if Vestas profits are your main or only priority! Only, you can’t “mothball” people for two or three years!

On 15 July Energy and Climate Change minister Ed Miliband published a White Paper about renewable energy, and calling for 7,000 more wind turbines to be built in the coming years. (Britain currently has about 3,000 in operation or under construction). The Vestas closure looked even more absurd and unscrupulous.

The redundancy money was poor — twice the statutory minimum. The St Cross factory has only been open nine years, and only a handful of workers have been there since the start, so most workers have had only a short time with the company and stand to get only a few hundred pounds in redundancy pay. But, at that stage, even that small pay-out seemed a lot to risk.

A positive, but still uncertain, gathering of workers on 19 July got closer to discussing definite plans. We brought in AWL members with experience of working as trade-union organisers to give workers information on the legalities and logistics of different tactics.

That meeting also formulated demands. Although leaflets had been headlined "Save Vestas", that was not really what the workers wanted. They were glad to be rid of the Vestas bosses. The demand was formulated for Vestas to hand over the plant to the Government, and for the Government to continue production by nationalising the plant under new management. Workers who still wanted to leave should get better redundancy pay.

That meeting also featured a bizarre cross-purposes argument. Someone seemed to suggest hanging a huge Union Jack over a factory building. Socialists immediately responded that it would not be good to repeat the “British Jobs For British Workers” stuff that marred the engineering construction strikes. Workers shook their heads. No, no. The East Cowes factory has a huge Union Jack painted on its waterfront wall, and the discussion was about hanging a banner against the closure over it, to cover it.

On Monday Vestas’s top boss, Paddy Weir, got wind of the plans for occupying at least one of the factories, as eventually he was bound to. Evidently he didn’t feel sure of himself, so he did not do what a confident boss would have done, and immediately sack the workers whom he suspected of organising action (shrugging at the thought that Vestas would eventually have to pay them money for unfair dismissal, after an industrial tribunal). He just bawled them out, perhaps thinking on the basis of previous experience that would be enough to intimidate them.

However, there was now a clear risk that Vestas bosses would make new security moves to block an occupation. In preparation for the factory closing down the bosses had already changed the normal shift patterns as from Monday 20 July, telling both night shift and day shift to come in days and then sending out a lot of workers to do courses or job-search while the remainder worked on finishing the remaining blades and on clear-up.

They might tell more workers to stay away. There was already talk of the bosses bringing in new, extra security guards from 20 July. They might change the locks and security codes.

So on Monday evening, 20 July, a group of workers started the occupation, entering the St Cross factory between shifts and taking control of the management offices. There was no extra security to block them.

Because the occupation started earlier than the workers had expected, some who had wanted to take part were unable to join in. In the event, that wasn’t so bad, because it left a group of more determined and confident workers to organise the majority of the workforce outside the plant.

On Monday evening, Paddy Weir soon turned up at the factory, in a rage. Very quickly there were masses of police there. Weir spoke of getting the police to throw the workers out, and had to be convinced that legally he couldn't do that.

From then until the Wednesday the bosses tried one hoax threat or ultimatum after another to try to throw the workers off balance. Time and again the workers were told that they had “one hour” or “two hours” to leave, or else they would suffer terrible reprisals.

The occupying workers stood firm. At 7.45am on Tuesday morning, the rest of the workforce turned up for the start of the shift. Some had been phoned and told to stay away. Those who arrived — at the Venture Quays (East Cowes) plant as well as at St Cross — were told by managers standing on the police line to take the day off (paid) and come back “as normal” on Wednesday. The bosses were scared that if they let the workers into their workplaces, they would face another occupation in the East Cowes plant, and a bigger one at St Cross.

At that point the managers thought they could end the occupation within one day. They did not have the measure of their workforce at all. In disarray, Vestas bosses would say nothing to the media until the end of the week. One reporter, from the Times, had the phone put down on him when he tried to get a comment.

Some workers arriving on Tuesday did just go home, saying that they did not believe that the occupation could achieve anything, and that their only concern was to keep their redundancy money. But a large number gathered outside the front entrance at St Cross.

The mood there was sympathetic to the occupying workers, but also, at that stage, uncertain about what could happen next. Although AWL people had never sought to push workers into doing anything they didn’t want, only to create opportunities for them to discuss collectively and to have all the options before them, one worker told us: “I’m just here to see that no harm comes to my mates inside as a result of them being riled up by people like you”.

Over the next day or so, the mood changed. Eventually, on the Tuesday morning, we were able to get a meeting of the workers outside the factory entrance to elect a committee. We tried to help the workers to organise a rota — so that each worker would have set times to be outside the factory — though at that stage it didn’t really work.

Workers went off to buy food to take in to the occupiers, and a gazebo to provide some protection from the rain to workers and supporters outside. (It rained a lot from Monday evening onwards, and throughout the week!) After some thrashing around to find an office for the workers' committee, one of the committee members brought his camper van to the site, and de facto that became the committee office.

Gradually, the minority action of the occupying workers generated an active majority among the workers outside, a collective will to resist. On Wednesday evening, at what became the regular 6pm rally at the factory entrance, we heard of yet another ultimatum to the occupiers. The speaker asked the rally: “What do we want to say to the lads inside? Stay, or go?” All the workers, including those who the previous day might have said that their only real concern was to get the occupying workers out safe and sound, yelled: “Stay!”

On the Tuesday, a rush at the police lines had got a few extra workers into the occupation. After that, the police were even more vigilant, and stopped food being taken in to the occupiers.

That police blockade was eventually broken on the Wednesday, on the initiative of some Climate Camp activists who organised a large number of people to walk calmly through the lines of police and security guards to below the balcony of the management offices and throw the food up.

The police knew that when it came down to it they had no legal authority to use violence against people peacefully walking across the factory forecourt, and there were not enough of them to block everyone by just standing in the way.

After that, the police put up fences around the front entrance. Ironically, they were fencing the management in as well as us out. In disarray, the Vestas bosses were paying their own workers to picket them and erecting fences to reinforce the picket lines!

It might take only a bit of further protest to push the police into erecting similar fences at the back entrance; and then the only way for the bosses to get stuff in or out will be through the “marine gate” through which blades are usually taken to be loaded onto barges for transit to Southampton, across a cycle path which is a public right of way and not Vestas property.

The Vestas bosses knew that they could not get away with starving the workers out, so on Wednesday evening they said they would now supply food to the occupying workers, and from Thursday morning the food came through.

The Wednesday evening rally also organised a “Families and Community” committee to support the workers.

On Thursday morning, 23 July, the dispute reached the national press front-page headlines (the Independent). That same day, Ed Miliband felt under sufficient pressure to write a letter to the Guardian making excuses. The police and the Vestas security guards changed tactics, becoming much more low-profile.

The gathering in front of the the factory entrance was settling down. The roundabout opposite the factory entrance filled up with tents. The Socialist Party was arriving to join the AWL and the SWP in supporting the workers. Climate activists, and a miscellany of other people, turned up too.

The local Labour parliamentary candidate (and Unison local government branch secretary), Mark Chiverton, was there a lot of the time. The Lib-Dem parliamentary candidate, Jill Wareham, also turned up briefly to offer support. The Tory MP, Andrew Turner, turned up, was roasted in front of TV cameras by workers’ committee member Steve Stotesbury, went in to the factory to talk to the bosses, and came out unwilling to say more than a few whispered words to the media.

One local Lib-Dem councillor, Adrian Whitaker, a recent convert from the Tories, has been at the factory entrance all hours of the day and night, usually with some of his six young children with him, helping to clear up and cook, wearing an RMT hi-vis vest...

Local RMT activists had been there since the start, and other unions were quick with support. The local FBU arrived on Tuesday morning with an immediate donation of £150. On Thursday, RMT general secretary Bob Crow came down; on Friday, the RMT started recruiting Vestas workers; by the weekend, a number of full-time organisers from the RMT national office had been posted to Vestas.

The workers' committee got more organised. Increasing numbers of people went out from the factory entrance to leaflet and visit workplaces and campaign in the towns. Increasing numbers turned up to the 6pm rallies. Confidence grew.

Up and down the country, solidarity meetings and protests have been organised by supporters, including giving Ed Miliband a hard time wherever he appears. This work is being co-ordinated in part by the savevestas.wordpress.com blog.

On Wednesday 29 July Vestas went to court to get a “possession order” against the occupiers, but were knocked back until 4 August.

On the eve of the court appearance Vestas sent in notice of sacking to 11 named workers with their evening meal.

The next big date is 31 July, when the factories are scheduled to cease operation and the workers to be made redundant. The factories can hardly be physically closed down then, since they still contain about three-quarters of a million pounds worth of blades yet to be finished, and anyway a “clean-up” team was due to work through August.

Some workers may accept their redundancy money, spend it, and then distance themselves from the struggle. But at present a large number of workers are determined to continue, and time is, on the whole, on the workers' side, not the bosses.

It will be crucial not to allow the occupation and the demonstrations outside the factory entrance to become “routinised”, so that media interest fades and workers drift away under the usual pressures of everyday life. We need discussion on creative and imaginative tactics to keep the Vestas bosses and the Government off-balance.

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