Britain/Poland: Interview with Polish Vestas occupier

“We will fight on”

You were the only Polish worker who took part in the occupation of the Vestas factory on the Isle of Wight in the fight against the liquidation of jobs. What were the events leading up to the closure of the factory?

"A year ago there was a proposal to expand and transform the factory, switching production to a slightly different technology and developing the factory etc. Last year we were asked, or rather forced, to accept a change in working conditions – from a system of 4 days work/4 days free, to a normal three-shift system. Many people didn’t agree to this, so it was put to us in the following way: either you agree or there is the door. This was because we didn’t have a trade union at the company. As soon as someone joined a union they were fired. In practice, they always found a reason to fire you from one day to the next. However, the majority stayed. As there isn’t much well-paid work on the island, the employers thought they could always find people. So we tried really hard. We had a three month trial period to see if we could cope with the new system and we succeeded. At the end of the year, another change was announced: “We are going to expand the factory”, they said. It turned out that the company had had much success. They paid us bonuses in recognition of the fact that we coped with the change and managed to do everything smoothly. Three or four months later, a meeting was announced. I had applied for a holiday but was refused without being given any reason why. We expected they would announce the next expansion of the factory. It turned out to be something completely different. We were told, “The market in the UK is not robust enough, there is not enough interest in renewable energy, for example wind turbines, so we will move production.” They decided to move to America, because they could make bigger profits there, or in China. So they decided to abandon the UK."

What was the workforce’s reaction to the news?

"At first, nobody really understood what we had been told (I don’t know if it had been on purpose, but the loudspeakers were so bad that we couldn’t hear what was being said from 10 metres away). It was only as we were leaving that they gave us a copy of the announcement where it was written that the factory was to be closed down. We went to the pub to drown our sorrows."

Vestas occupatoin

What were the first things you did to defend the factory?

"At first, we were furious that we had to work through these 3 months, which should have been a period of negotiation. At first, we wrote a petition and collected a lot of signatures, more than enough, as the response was huge – amongst the workforce, families and local inhabitants. The petition also circulated around other workplaces. On the island, if you lose your job, then tomorrow your friend could lose his job. That’s what is happening at the moment. As a result of our closure, the firm across the road, which produces polymers and glues which we use at work, lost a huge customer. The company which supplied us materials will also be making redundancies.

After the petition, there were protests, speeches and appeals to the government. We tried everything that we could do legally. From the first weeks when the redundancies were announced, we were doing something. We really did everything we could. We tried to exhaust every possible option before we decided to occupy the factory."

How did the occupation come about?

"As I said, many meetings were organised. At one meeting, I learned that there was a plan for the workers to take over the factory, but someone had betrayed our plans to the owners. The manager had begun to suspect us and collect the papers of those involved. So we didn’t have much time. Me and another man shouted, "let’s go now!". Everyone who took part in the meeting was supposed to go home for the things we needed; clothes, sleeping bags, food, and simply enter the plant. In the end, after the meeting, more than 20 people entered the plant. I was the one who entered first. I kept the security guard talking so that the others could get in. Events moved very quickly and within 10 minutes, everything was barricaded (including me on the outside! – in the excitement of events, my colleagues forgot to let me know when I could go into the factory – I didn’t manage to get in until the next day with three other employees).

The factory was surrounded by the police and we were threatened with dismissal and various other repercussions. Unfortunately, several people decided to leave, afraid of losing everything. In the end, we were eleven. From the first day, they tried to intimidate us. Because of the police, we could not sleep, someone was always running around, banging. We didn’t know what was happening. But we decided to hold out.

The second night, we let a police officer in to check if there was any damage – it was intended as a pretext to break the protest. Of course, nothing was destroyed. We knew that if there was any damage, it would cause us problems. The policeman tried to convince us that this was the end, that if we refused to leave he would have to arrest us. We stayed inside. Then we shot into the limelight as the media became interested in us.

For the first three days, Vestas refused to allow anyone to deliver food to us. They told us: the food is on the outside, “if you want it then go out and get it” (if we had gone out we wouldn’t have got back into the factory). We wanted to stay in the factory. The food, ordered from a restaurant, was stopped at reception. This went on for three days. In the end, people managed to force themselves past the police tape and throw food to us on the balcony. After this happened, the company decided to put up a 2-metre fence. Ultimately, they decided to provide us with food: a sandwich and fruit for breakfast, and the same thing for dinner.

We had to survive on this (I lost almost 20 kg and someone else had to go to hospital because of low blood-sugar levels). Although there were still attempts to deliver food to us – some people dressed up in various costumes to distract security and a second group, in accordance with a plan, attached a bag with food to a rope which we had prepared. This raised our morale.

We had a few smokers inside, so people from outside threw us tennis balls with tobacco and papers inside, as well as pen drives, portable Internet etc… many balls didn’t make it. After a week, at the reception, there were about 50 balls with different contents (e.g. heads of toothbrushes, sweets etc.). It was funny."

I see there was a lot of support for you from the outside….

"Oh yes, we didn’t expect that at all. In England, trade unionists and activists are reluctant to cooperate with each other, you’re red, green or anarchist – everyone has their own agenda, each working in his/her own way. Vestas was different. Different people began to work together. If you were an anarchist, you supported us because we were rebelling; if you were green you saw that it was about renewable energy; if you were a trade unionist you saw that workers’ rights were being violated. Activists of various tendencies were found there, even UNICEF supported us, due to the fact that we were not receiving food.

However, politicians and the local government distanced themselves from us. Neither the Labour Party nor the Liberal Democrats wanted anything to do with us."

There were demands for nationalisation and workers control of the factory, weren’t there?

"Yes, that’s right. Many times in various countries such actions have been taken. We know how to run production, so why not? We argued that since the state can buy banks despite the fact that they are still in debt, why not nationalise something profitable? This company reported a net profit of £58 million in the first quarter of this year, and a turnover of more than £200 million. This company has financial resources worth about €1 billion. After all, it can spend that money on whatever it wants, on any investment it wants. So we started to ask "what the hell is going on?" Why is no one interested, even though a profit can be made? Why not invest in Vestas? After all, clean energy is not a stupid idea!

We had strong signals, especially from The Guardian and The Times (English daily newspapers) that the government and local council had held talks with Vestas management behind closed doors. They probably knew about their plans – to close the plant down, expand it, and in 4 years, hire people again – several months before the announcement of the closure. They thought workers would wait for the work regardless of how long it would take. That would leave only the salaries of the executives to pay for, and they would always have skilled people ready to work.

The Government declared that it supports us in our fight for higher redundancy pay and so on. However, they are not interested in saving the company or in nationalising it. Their statements seem ridiculous to me."

In France ‘68 the slogan, ‘The bosses need us (the workers), we don’t need them’ was used. When I hear you I get exactly the same impression…

"Exactly, that slogan is spot on!"

You had a lot of support locally and from abroad. Who supported you?

"The Danish government (Vestas is a Danish firm), workers from the Vestas in Italy, and activists from Germany. There was support from Spain, Sweden, Africa, Japan and Korea. The New York Times reported the plan to relocate the factory to the US. Our case was raised in the European Parliament. The government and Vestas refused to comment. We destroyed them in the media."

What is the employment status of workers who took part in the protest now?

"We have been dismissed without the right to redundancy pay. All the money we were supposed to receive has been lost. We are left practically without anything to live on. The fact that we were sacked means that we cannot apply for any benefits. In addition, we have been informed by the trade unions that we could find ourselves on the so-called employers’ blacklist – this is something unofficial which is circulated among employers. This could be a big problem for us. Our names are well-known because of the publicity we received."

What are your plans for continuing the protest?

"The protest continues, we are still fighting to keep our jobs. We would like the factory to be taken over and continue to produce wind turbines. The government could buy the factory and by implementing certain changes we could continue production with new technology. We are capable of doing that, we have skilled people working who have been there from the birth of the factory, who adapted to each change in technology and could start production with our eyes closed. We also want to be reinstated, for our dismissals to be reversed so we can regain what we have lost financially. We have a long struggle in front of us. We are also waiting for the findings of the labour court."

You won’t give up your struggle?

"Oh no! There’s no chance of that."

In the occupation there were 20, then 11 people involved. How did the rest of the workforce react?

"Lots of people supported us. But some have families, small children, debts etc. Out of necessity, they couldn’t afford to take part. Those of us who entered the factory were more desperate and more assertive. We fought not only for ourselves, but for everyone. The response was tremendous, but unfortunately not as big as we wanted. People who sold us out to the management sent us threats at the beginning. Then when the case became widely known, they tried to apologise and help us, but we don’t want anything to do with them."

How did your relations in the factory change? How did your own outlook change?

"I can’t say a bad word about the people I was inside with. They are as close to me as my own family. The same goes for the people who were on the outside. A tremendous number of people supported us. Regarding the change of outlook, everyone understands that they had to say NO to bullying treatment from the management. They persecuted us. If you were a woman, they always made sexist comments. If you were a Pole, they didn’t hesitate to throw it back in your face. If you were old, had a child, or were ill – management always found something to use against you. It was inhumane treatment. We realised that we could not be intimidated and that we really could win this fight! People got stronger and stronger during this action. I believe that we will succeed."

You were the only Pole who occupied the factory, but you weren’t the only one who worked in the factory. Were there any anti-immigrant incidents?

"During the occupation, a self-proclaimed speaker for ‘British jobs for British workers’ appeared outside the factory. It caused much outrage, both inside and outside the occupation. The Vestas workers almost stoned him! The workers shouted that what he said wasn’t true, that I was inside the occupation and they started to chant my name."

What can we do for you in Poland?

"It doesn’t have to be anything really big. We mainly want to publicise our case. So a picket or a poster outside the Vestas head office in Poland (the firm has offices in Inowroclaw, Gdansk and Szczecin) could attract the attention of the Vestas workers about what is happening. Their jobs could be next to go! The government says it invests money in ecology but now it has announced the construction of a new nuclear power plant. If these plans succeed, it might turn out that wind turbines are not needed and there will be more cuts. We don’t just leave the country for work. The same work is done in Poland too, so if something happens there, we will help them! We also want to feel that we are not alone. Throughout the occupation, there were protests in Denmark, Spain, Italy, Germany, Sweden and the USA. We want to draw attention to what is happening. The bigger the protest, the more pressure is put on the employers and the government."

I had a ready-prepared question – in hindsight, do you think your protest was justified? But I can see that…

"If you asked me if I would enter the factory again, I would answer without hesitation. One of the guys was preparing for a car rally around Britain. He lost a lot of weight during the occupation. After the protest he went on the rally and at every stop, the media, activists and trade unionists were waiting for him to give him support. It became a strong element of the campaign. I have no regrets about what we did whilst we were inside.

If we give up now, we would be stopping half way. From the beginning, they were predicting our defeat because of the isolation of the protest, lack of publicity etc. The best proof of the publicity we got is the fact that I am talking to you today! We will fight on."

Well, I wish you success, thank you for the interview!

"Thanks, we will fight on!"

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September 2009