Vestas workers and supporters speak out

Submitted by AWL on 30 July, 2009 - 1:15

Doug Green is a locked-out worker from the stores department at the Vestas St Cross factory.

Initially, we had our doubts it was going to work. The further we go into this, the more the confidence is going to be built.

What’s built my confidence? Public support; support from my family; the press coverage; and the number of people we’re getting down here to support us.

This week has reinforced our view on what sort of people we’re dealing with in the Vestas management. We knew they were bastards before, but this has reinforced it.

I have been in a union before. I was in Amicus when I worked at British American Tobacco in Southampton. The union was absolutely cracking.

Here there was no union. But I took the job. I decided to bite the bullet. It’s a job.

You can’t fault the RMT for their support for us. You could ask: did any union need to get involved? They could have said that they had their own members to deal with, and couldn’t stretch to help us too.

As it’s turned out, they’ve helped inspire us — to convince us that common people can organise and can fight for themselves.

The main thing now is to get the Vestas management and the Government into negotiations. If the Government crack, we can get them into negotiations.

The occupation has united the workforce as nothing else has been able to do. Before now, the different departments — stores, finishing, moulding — would all keep to themselves. If we were to get back into the factory now, it would be fantastic.

What sort of management would we want? I don’t know. We certainly can’t have the management we’ve got now. I suppose I’d say, any sort of management as long as it treats us fairly.

A management elected by the workforce? Would that work? I don’t know. Maybe it could work.

Phil Blair is a member of the RMT stewards’ committee for the locked-out workers at Vestas.

I don’t know, to be honest, what sort of management we’d want if we can get the factory nationalised.

When we had three months to go, people were working more or less normally. It wasn’t until it became close to the end that people started to realise the scale of that, and then, I think, most people thought it was too late, there was nothing we could do.

I hadn’t even thought about nationalisation until someone suggested it. I hadn’t thought of it as an option for us to keep going.

As for management — the line managers we deal with on a day to day basis are good people, as a rule. My manager from the East Cowes plant is really good.

It’s only the top management, the overbearing big-brother management, that we have a problem with. Right up to just below Paddy’s level [Paddy Weir, the chief works manager], the managers were all recruited from the shop floor.

I’ve been with the company for three years. For the first two years or so I was under the impression that it was Vestas head office in Denmark that said that we couldn’t have a union. It was only when the talk of redundancies came up that I realised that Vestas workers in Denmark have a really good union.

People who have tried to organise unions here have been penalised, basically — put under pressure, pulled up under other pretexts.

I didn’t really understand unions and what they could do for you.

The last few days have been really positive. Until two days ago I didn’t realise that Ed Miliband wants 5,000 more blades in this country — which is five years’ work for us. I now think it is possible to convert the factory into one that produces the blades we need.

A management elected by the workforce, and paid no more than other workers? Yes, that could be a good thing. I think you get a better workforce with a happier workforce.

Jackie Hawkins is an environmental and peace activist, and an Independent councillor on Newport Parish Council.

What’s surprised me most over the last week is the solidarity from the residents of the Isle of Wight.

What made it happen? I suppose it was you guys coming over and convincing the Vestas workers that this was possible.

If this factory stays, and the people can keep their jobs, then that’s great. If at the very least they can win a decent redundancy package, then at least they will have options.

The island is a poor economy, and 600 jobs is a lot to lose.

Yes, some ongoing collective organisation could come out of this. There are lots of environmental issues on the island. I suppose, ultimately, idealistically, it would be great if this kind of community-minded action could prevent the [county] council from making decisions on behalf of the residents without consulting them.

Martine Warris is a technician in the resin bay in the Vestas factory at Venture Quays, East Cowes; Kelly Dalchin is an office worker at the same site, and was previously a finisher.

I’ve been really encouraged by the amount of support we’ve got form outside the company. But there still aren’t enough Vestas workers involved. There should be more down here at the occupation. Everyone’s sympathetic, but they’re afraid of losing their redundancy money.

They’re scared because normally Vestas never negotiate. It’s like when you apply for internal vacancies; you get turned down but don’t really know why, they do what they like and provide some feeble excuse. We have a very secretive HR department. When we complain about “jobs for the boys”, it’s not just a gender issue.

What’s your reaction to the occupiers being sacked?

It’s disgusting. [Martine and Kelly said this in unison!] [Managing Director] Paddy Weir has no guts – he’s a traitor to the workers. We heard he was going to open a bistro on the Island, or move over the the R&D side. He’s definitely got some deal, the way he’s been behaving.

Outside support has been brilliant. We wouldn’t have got this far without it. The Isle of Wight is very conservative; this has started to challenge that, but it’s reassuring that this is now a national and worldwide issue too.

Martine: I joined Unite just a week before the occupation. But we’re both in the RMT now. So are the occupiers. Unite has been totally unsupportive — why should people join if it’s going to do nothing? There’s no point in unions if they’re not prepared to fight and back you up.

Before the occupation, Unite was criticising the workers for not joining, saying we weren’t willing to fight to save our jobs. It was a real kick in the teeth, but we’ve shown them now.

The RMT has been excellent; Richard [Howard, RMT Portsmouth branch secretary] has been fantastic, and Bob Crow is the kind of person you need, giving us a lot of confidence.

If the factory is nationalised it should be run with a lot more feedback from the shopfloor; listening, instead of bullying. We need a management who support workers and listen to us.

They always says it’s “our” company, but it’s not true at the moment.

No one has to be forced to work hard; most people like working hard, but not when you’ve got a manager bullying you.

I suppose the managers have to have higher wages, but not that much higher. The key thing is they should be accountable and listen.

To give an important example, they’ve pushed us onto shifts we don’t want. The current shift patterns at Newport mean you hardly ever get enough rest. People objected but they just wouldn’t listen.

The workforce is mainly male. I [Martine] used to work in waste management, but I got tired of sorting the rubbish; I wanted to work in production. I kept getting turned down, until I got a job in the resin bay. But the catch was that it’s combined with cleaning work. The bin work is paid less, and they’ve used this to keep my wages down.

Women are only about ten percent of the workforce, and the company’s attitude is very tokenistic. They employ a woman now and then to look good, to the government or whoever.

The lads on the shop floor are fine though. They don’t treat you differently at all. On the other hand, there’s not been many women involved in the occupation. There were a few at the early meetings, but it’s been mainly men since then.

Cohan Tyler is a 14 year old school student from Wootton, near Newport.

This is the first struggle I’ve been involved in, and I’m amazed how many people have mobilised to support it, and come down to the Island. We had 300 people at the rally on Friday, which was brilliant.

Vestas should be run by the workers —so that they have rights like good sick pay. How it should be run hasn’t been discussed much, but it’s very important.

A lot of people don’t really believe we can save the factories, get them nationalised — they think the best we’ll get is more redundancy.

Hopefully that view is changing though, as the campaign goes on.

It’s not been that easy mobilising young people, particularly since school term has ended, but a lot of people realise the implications for jobs here. If Vestas closes, it will increase unemployed 20 percent — from 3,000 to 3,600.

With the credit crunch, it’s hard enough for young people to get jobs on the Island already. We have hundreds of people applying for one job, sometimes. All that’s available is shops, paper rounds, perhaps cafes or hotels if you’re lucky.

If Vestas win there’ll be less unemployment — and it will be harder for other companies to lay people off. It will help the economy, but more than that I think it will encourage other people to fight. They won’t be able to say “It didn’t work at Vestas”.

It’s been really great how people have come down here to support us, the AWL and other socialists and the trade unions.

Sean McDonagh is a member of the RMT stewards’ committee for the locked-out workers at Vestas.

If we can win the nationalisation of the factory, I would like to see it run as a workers’ cooperative, with elected managers paid the same as the other workers.

Steve Stotesbury is the main spokesperson for the RMT stewards’ committee for the locked-out workers at Vestas

Initially, after Vestas announced the closure, a lot of people were disgruntled workers, but no more.

After having a talk between ourselves as things came to a close, a lot of us came to think that we could do something positive.

So public meetings were held. We got enough support. And the factory was occupied.

The attitude to the occupation of the workers outside the gates is: “Yes, stick to them! Go and screw them as they’ve been screwing us!” They’re all up for it. They appreciate what everyone inside the factory is doing, and show it by turning up at the gates to give support.

We didn’t have a union before. But, with help from the RMT, who have provided a great deal of guidance, we have been able to organise. They’ve taught us how to protest in a peaceful and orderly manner, but one that is strong enough to achieve our goals.

I’ve never been in a union before. Before Vestas, I worked at Gurit [a factory just across the road from the Vestas St Cross site which produces resins and composite materials]. Before that I served an apprenticeship in engineering, and was a groundsman in a nursery. None of those places had a union.

I’ve grown up in a generation that has been de-unionised. Before this, I never really had an opinion about trade unions one way or the other.

Now I’m convinced that unions are really important. They can unite the workforce, galvanise everyone’s feelings, and turn them into action. They can make your workplace better and your working conditions suitable.

The Government pays £3,000 [special redeployment]. When the redundancies were announced on the island, that kicked in, and the government waived the six months’ unemployed qualification period because the island is known as an unemployment blackspot. But the criteria are still too hard. For example, you get up to £3,000 funding for a course that lasts eight weeks, no more; you can only follow one job choice, you can’t train for six weeks as a HGV driver and two weeks as a chef; the onus is on the individual to find the course, and apply, to show that there is likely to be a job at the end of it, etc.

We want more flexibility in the way this is applied. The government has suggested they will look at this.

The management don’t speak to the unions. The told the network representatives [people used to volunteer for this from the departments] that they were dissolved, but got them back in later to talk to them again. How it worked was not that they would get information from the reps, but they would just give them innformation to pass on to the workers.

Our call for nationalisation: just mentioning this makes the government nervous.

If we reopened negotiations on redundancy pay, more of the people who support us but are not active — perhaps through anxiety that they jeopardise the little that they have been offered – would be drawn in. Vestas Blades UK is a satellite operation – they had a lot of local flexibility in the way they managed. They were not nice; people learned to keep their heads down. Still people don’t want to put their heads above the parapet, although they can see that nothing bad has happened to us.

About Miliband’s announcement of £6 million for research and development on the island: that is nothing new, that was announced ages ago. It doesn’t have anything to do with us here.

They were happy to nationalise the banks, but when a private company announces it is moving production elsewhere because they can make more money elsewhere, the government does nothing.

It’s a curious coincidence that a few weeks ago the government announced £526 million for investment in carbon capture and offshore wind technology. Vestas here is involved only in the onshore wind business. When Vestas heard that there wasn’t money for their line of business it was basically toys out of the pram. That seems to be a lage part of why they have decided to go.

They have gone off in a sulk. In fact, this place could be up and running again in a couple of weeks, we’ve got the skilled labour here.

We are the spokespeople for the guys inside. Whatever they decide to do, we will go with it. If they tell us to jump up and down on one leg out here we will do it.

At Visteon, after the court case when the company had got its possession order, the union played on the fears of the workers to persuade them to leave. You must have discussed how you are going to handle this situation.

We have had some discussions; basically, we’ve told the guys inside, you are all mature adults, it’s up to you to decide what you want to do. We won’t do anything that will threaten your safety. You have to decide what you want to do.

David is one of the occupying workers.

Nothing that Vestas has done has surprised any of us. We stopped being surprised by anything that they do a long time ago.

It’s become more about fighting for what you believe in, no matter the cost, and less about the money side of keeping the jobs.

It’s not about winning or losing now, it’s about standing up and showing that you can stand up and people will support you.

We are surviving day by day. The situation is so fluid its not worth us worrying about what might happen. We just keep calm and get ready every time something does happen to get together and organise ourselves with the right response.

We can be a model for other workers by talking them about doing something when they feel strongly about things and that it’s right to do something. Other workers should know that whatever you have been offered or not offered in terms of money, that that doesn’t need be the big worry. The support is out there if you make a stand.

This occupation has been a huge learning curve with us being trapped inside. The first few days were pretty intense, and we can pass on lessons to others. Mostly I think we can show it is possible to do this despite the difficulties we have faced, which have been different to other occupations.

There has been some talk outside about Vestas being a British factory and the jobs should be for British workers. How do you feel about that?

I think it should be kept in context and not twisted. Yes we are fighting not to have these jobs moved elsewhere in the world when the government said it wanted to create more jobs of this type, but we believe strongly that a British worker is any worker who works in Britain regardless of where they have come from or if they were born here or not.

If they work in Britain then they are a British worker. It is as simple as that.

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