Diary of an engineer: Blockade week and the future

Submitted by AWL on 19 October, 2021 - 4:05 Author: Emma Rickman
Engineering plan

I speak to one of the Extinction Rebellion (XR) coordinators over the weekend to ask about potential anti-incinerator action at my workplace.

XR: “We’ve not planned anything in this city. XR Zero Waste are targeting Edmonton and other places in the south — I’ve not heard about anything here. To be honest our XR group is barely holding it together, and they’re quite a tame lot.”

Me: (laughing) “Well, my company are shitting themselves anyway.”

We talk about the attitudes at the plant, and the confusion with the Insulate Britain action. XR activist tells me about the conflict over Insulate Britain, who are an XR splinter group. He’s furious with them for doing such a dangerous, confusing direct action while the Police and Crime Bill is still being debated.

The following Monday the blockade is still discussed daily, with more posturing: “I’ll run them over, tree-hugging idiots!” My main worry is that if activists do show up, one of the plant workers will attack them. Even the overworked and underpaid industrial cleaners are taking the idea of protest very personally.

Management are fixated on the school climate strike gathering. I overhear a comment:

D: “These are the kids that wear designer clothes, and have their parents drive them everywhere in SUVs? And get allergies because they’re so coddled and sensitive? They care about the climate?”

My silence at the “jokes” has got some people’s backs up; they realise I’m sympathetic. Two of the fitters stop talking to me, and others bring up the action then give me filthy looks as if expecting me to justify myself. I ignore this, but I try to think of ways we could get activists and workers talking:

Me: “If activists do show up, why not invite small groups in to talk to us? We think they don’t know about district heating and what goes on here — so why not show them? Give them a plant tour?”

G: “We can’t do that, because if we invited one or two people in, that gives the whole group permission to come on site — they can’t be done for trespassing after that.”

Me: “What about talking to them at the gates?”

G: “Company policy is not to engage in discussion of any kind. We can take their leaflets and recycle them, but no one is allowed to talk to them or distribute their literature.”

I hand out radios to the security guards who have been hired for the week — young black men who look extremely bored. I tell them their instructions: if anyone enters the gates, to radio the control room, who will call the police; the guards themselves are a just a deterrent.

Me and other non-operators are instructed to work from home for two days, but I do a quick check of the gates during my lunch break just in case — no XR blockade shows up, and the school strikers have their rally in town as planned. I’m impressed that just the threat of blockades in other cities has provoked a week’s worth of anxiety for company management, and thousands of pounds of expense for security.

An activist from PCS Green New Deal contacts me and we have a serious chat about jobs and conditions in the waste sector, and the politics in my city. They tell me the action against Edmonton incinerator drew in activists from all over the community and led to a street closure.

“Let’s keep talking,” she assures me “we need to address the jobs issue and we need to keep talking to workers if we’re going to get anywhere.”

XR Zero Waste are protesting the construction of new energy from waste plants across the country; capacity is set to double. The full report is worth a read here

• Emma Rickman is an engineer at a Combined Heat and Power plant

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