Britain’s offshore occupation: One year after the Vestas struggle

It is one year since the occupation by sacked workers of the Vestas factory on the Isle of Wight.

It was a landmark struggle which, alongside the disputes at Lindsey, Linamar and Visteon, signalled the first stirrings of a new period of industrial struggle in Britain. NICK CHAFFEY looks back at this significant battle.

ONE YEAR AGO, at the Vestas wind turbine blade factory, an unorganised group of 450 workers were summarily sacked by the Danish multinational. Rather than accept the dole and pitiful redundancy terms, the workers fought back, bringing the world’s media to Newport, Isle of Wight. On 20 July, they occupied the factory, amassed huge support on the gates every night for weeks, raised the demand for nationalisation and, with the key assistance of the RMT rail and transport union, forced the New Labour government and Vestas into negotiations over the future of the plant.

On the island, unemployment is high, masked by seasonal low-paid casual work in the tourism industry. So the expansion of semi-skilled production at Vestas meant significantly better-paid jobs and a degree of security for workers and their families. This was especially so after Vestas announced its intentions to retool and invest in Newport at the start of 2009. This was the basis on which many workers had taken the decision to buy homes on the island. The growing pressure on governments to deal with global warming and shift energy production to sustainable areas also suggested a long-term future. New Labour had talked about expanding wind farms and creating a million green jobs. At the time, Vestas was flush with profits and expanding operations internationally.

The announcement to end production, therefore, came as a shock and a bitter blow to the workers and their families. Like much of industry in Britain today, where union recognition is at an all-time low, a regime of bullying, intimidation and dismissals by management had prevented the development of a union base at Vestas. This was in spite of several attempts to organise and a small number of members in the Unite general union at the factory. As a result, the workers’ anger had no channel to be driven down.

An initial meeting had been organised by Workers’ Climate Action (WCA) which attracted a layer of workers from the factory and local community. Socialist Party members from Portsmouth attended and spoke at this event. Despite the best intentions of the organisers and speakers, little came out of the meeting. This was mainly because WCA had called baldly for an occupation without outlining a strategy for such a struggle. In the following days, we made contact with Vestas workers, resulting in further discussions about developing a campaign linked to other trade unionists on the island, and in Portsmouth and Southampton.

A layer of activists at Vestas were very determined and prepared to organise a fight-back. The key question was whether, in the short time left until the end of the redundancy period, there was time to build wider support. In the discussions, Socialist Party members raised the need to prepare for an occupation by rallying workers on the key, immediate issues: jobs and keeping the factory open, or improving redundancy terms. We also raised the idea of calling for the government to nationalise the factory if Vestas left the island.

Turning the tables

CONFIDENCE WAS BOOSTED after workers discussed the issues on the shop floor and leaflets left around the canteen gained a positive response. In addition, a public campaign was launched and a day of action held in Newport, with important backing from local trade unions and activists. This brought an added boost of publicity and showed tremendous support from the public on the Isle of Wight.

The week leading up to the occupation was filled with uncertainty. However, the determination of the workers, who had formed an embryonic strike committee, and the growing mood of support on the shop floor meant that an occupation of the factory was now on the cards. News that it had begun arrived with a phone call from the occupation itself to RMT members attending a public meeting on the environment in Portsmouth. Seizing the moment, activists left to go the island to give immediate assistance to the core of workers who had taken over management offices in the main factory building. Preparations for the occupation had been hampered by the lack of time so, initially, fewer workers joined than had been hoped for. What would now be decisive was building support for the occupation from the other Vestas workers, working-class people on the Isle of Wight, and the wider trade unions.

News of the occupation grabbed local news headlines. And, as a result of all the underlying conditions on the island, it gained huge sympathy. Throughout the day, Vestas workers came to the factory to give their support. By the evening, a large crowd of them and their families gathered outside the factory. Colin, a Vestas worker, said: “I’d never been part of a trade union. I’d never protested against anything. The guys went onto the balcony and I went down just to find out what was going on and felt it was the right thing to do. We were being treated unfairly”. This support gave a huge boost to those in the occupation, sending a strong message to management and politicians that they had a serious fight on their hands. Once the occupation began the key task was to build the maximum support and put maximum pressure on management before steps were taken to end the occupation.

Liberated from the day-to-day intimidation of bullying management and the boredom of repetitive production line work, here was a chance for workers to stand together, voice their grievances, put their demands forward and fight back. Despite all the organisational weaknesses and inexperience, the workers’ willingness to struggle, their talents and initiative, came to the fore. Combined with the key intervention of the RMT and the solidarity of other workers, trade unions and the wider community, the struggle at Vestas had a huge impact.

At times, the bosses can seem invincible and appear to have all the cards in their hands. Certainly, the Vestas plant manager was a hate-figure, despised for his arrogance and dismissive attitude towards the workforce. Conditions in the factory were poor. Deregulation and a lack of trade union organisation meant that many workers suffered serious injury from the chemicals and resins used in the production process and the lack of breaks for those who sanded the blades. It got so bad that a number of workers had made successful claims against the company for compensation through the national regulator, the Health and Safety Executive.

Once the workers had taken collective action and found their own strength, the tables were turned. Their attitude was determined and sober. At the nightly rallies, however, there was a mood of euphoria as the occupation developed and its supporters massed outside. Confidence grew as the solidarity messages, pouring in from across Britain and internationally, were read out. Mark Smith, whose phone number was distributed when the occupation began so that solidarity messages could be sent, said it “didn’t stop ringing for four days. Since then the support has been phenomenal… It boosts the way you feel about things and makes you feel like carrying on the struggle”.

Organising the unorganised

TERMS AND CONDITIONS at trade union recognised workplaces are better than those where there is no union recognition. Despite the limitations of the trade union leaderships, union recognition gives workers the means to organise collectively and force management into negotiations over pay and conditions. At Vestas, efforts had been made to organise a union, and a nucleus of members existed, but it had never been able to develop.

Union members at the plant were in Unite. Due to the unofficial nature of the action, however, rather than come to the assistance of the workers, right-wing, pro-New Labour officials pressurised local and national officers not to visit the occupation, which started on a Monday, 20 July. Instead of ignoring this pressure, expected visits from national and local Unite figures failed to materialise on the Wednesday.

A key role was played by local activists in the RMT. They had used their own experience of industrial struggle to help the workers prepare the occupation and to organise them once it had started. On the Thursday, Bob Crow, RMT general secretary, visited the occupation to give his support. This coincided with the delivery of an eviction notice to the occupiers. The rally that night was tense. Management was attempting to intimidate and strong-arm the occupation, setting up fences around the factory, sealing off the occupation from the workers outside. On the first day, local police threatened to smash in the doors, drag out the workers, and charge them for the damage. On the second day, riot police were banging at the doors with their shields: “This was very unnerving. We didn’t know what they were going to do”.

Bob Crow’s speech at the rally had an electrifying effect. He gave full support to the occupation, hammered management for its disgusting attitude in sacking the workforce, and echoed the workers’ demands for nationalisation of the factory. He also offered the free use of the RMT’s legal department to help the workers fight their eviction notice in court. Dozens of workers took RMT membership forms and returned the next morning to join the union, with scores more joining on subsequent days. On the Friday, local RMT organisers helped the workers outside form their strike committee. A solidarity committee was also organised to bring together the other activists from local trade unions, socialists and environmentalists who had come to give support. The unorganised had now become organised, not through an abstract recruitment drive but in struggle. They had signed up to a militant trade union giving material support to their action – and enormous authority to the occupation. This is the model that needs to be taken into the TUC and the trade unions as the means to organise the mass of industrial workers.

Widespread support

CENTRAL TO ANY chance of victory is building mass support from the workforce as well as winning the political arguments and, thereby, wider backing. Ultimately, the balance of forces will determine whether the employers accede to the workers’ demands: whether giving concessions is better than suffering the impact of a protracted struggle. This is not just a consideration for the company involved. Any struggle has a wider impact industrially and politically which focuses the minds of all affected. This was certainly the case at Vestas.

Early attempts to bully the occupation into submission failed and, to some extent, backfired as they increased sympathy for the workers and hostility towards the company. Withholding food, fencing in the occupiers, threats of court action and sackings were faced down defiantly. The local Tory MP, who had attended the first meeting and said it was nothing to do with him, now turned up to the factory to show his ‘support’. Delegations of workers came to the rallies from other unions – CWU (communications), Unison (health and local government), PCS (civil service), FBU (fire-fighters). During the campaign, other strikes broke out on the Isle of Wight: by bus and postal workers, for example.

Every day, teams of supporters and workers took campaign stalls on to the streets of Newport and other towns on the island, leafleted factories and visited other trade unions. The response was overwhelming from all sections of the community. Demonstrations were organised, all in preparation for the court hearing the following week – the second week of the occupation. The failure of the court to grant an eviction order was another boost to the campaign as hundreds of workers, their families and supporters massed outside the court, reminiscent of the famous victory at the poll tax hearings in the past. Welcome support came from other leading trade union figures, such as Chris Baugh, PCS deputy general secretary and Socialist Party member, who spoke outside the court.

As support had risen, confidence had grown with the idea that the government might step in and force the company to stay or even consider a buyout. The key issue of jobs remained the focus of the workers, as well as the possibility of enhanced redundancy terms. With mass support outside, the role of the RMT in forcing New Labour into talks was a significant achievement. There is no doubt that this was placing enormous pressure on Vestas. The occupation was by now front-page news in the national papers and was receiving coverage as far away as the USA and South Korea. What had seemed an easy expedient, for a multinational company to dump its workforce on the Isle of Wight, had become a formidable force.

Pressure mounts

THE FIRST VICTORY in the court would not be the end of matter. The company served a further eviction notice and sacked those in occupation. This meant they would not receive any redundancy pay. If the leadership of the TUC – or even of one or two big unions, especially Unite – had matched the courage and determination of the occupiers and the RMT, a national mass mobilisation for a national demo in Newport would have intensified the pressure on the government and Vestas. While the campaign showed the workers’ instincts in building solidarity, decisive secondary action, the sympathy strikes of other workers on the island, did not develop. This reflects the effects of the past period, the role of the anti-union laws and the right-wing leadership in the unions. In the future, this will change under the pressure of events. The dispute at the Lindsey oil refinery at the start of 2009 showed how decisive resolute, accountable leadership and rank-and-file action, including flying pickets, can be in winning struggles.

New Labour was conscious that it was entering a pre-election period, suffering from the massive impact of the recession. It was sensitive of the need to keep its support among workers and the trade unions. Its ‘green’ credentials were in tatters with the prospect of the closure of Britain’s only wind turbine blade manufacturer.

It was unclear how the occupation would be resolved. At the time, we wrote in The Socialist: “The trade union movement must step up its support for the Vestas workers. If attempts are made to physically remove the workers from the factory, a massive national trade union demonstration outside the plant should be immediately organised in their support.

“The labour movement in Britain needs to learn lessons from South Korea, where more than 800 workers have been occupying the Ssangyong car plant in Pyeongtaek since May. Despite 3,000 riot police storming the car plant to try to force them out, the occupation has continued. The Korean Congress of Trades Unions has responded by calling a two-day general strike in support of the occupiers.

“In Britain, in 1972, five dock workers’ leaders, the Pentonville five, were jailed. Immediately, a mass movement developed from below with widespread discussion amongst workers about the need for a general strike. Under huge pressure, the TUC general council called a 24-hour general strike. As soon as the government and the capitalists saw the scale of working-class opposition to the jailings, they intervened to secure the release of the dockers.

“The situation is different today in a number of respects, but any attempt to act in a similar fashion against the Vestas workers would again lead to enormous anger from workers, many facing threats to their own jobs. The trade union movement would need to harness that opposition, including organising industrial action in defence of the Vestas workers”. (Vestas – Build Mass Action for Victory, The Socialist No.589, 29 July 2009)

Taking stock

THE OCCUPATION AND campaign came close to a significant victory. But, after the second court hearing on 6 August and the end of the occupation the following day, the immediate prospects of keeping the factory open and protecting jobs had gone. Workers were given their redundancy pay and, in the minds of the majority, the fight was over.

An inevitable debate arose over the way forward. The determination of the occupiers was still strong, though they were tired physically and emotionally from their days in isolation. But, with the occupation over and unmistakeable signs at the nightly rallies that the active support of the rest of the workers was ebbing away, there was a need to take stock.

In reality, this was no longer an industrial struggle as the workers were now sacked. It was a question of how to sustain the campaign on a broader political arena. Activists could see that their cause had mass support on the island. People had been politicised by the experience, to one degree or another, and could see that there were other struggles that they had common cause with. There was a major school reorganisation taking place, for instance, which threatened to close some schools. Former Vestas workers went and gave their support on bus and post picket lines. As the Socialist Party has explained many times, the lack of a political voice for workers’ struggles effectively means that they are fighting with one hand tied behind their back. As the main parties rallied support for the bosses, workers and their supporters had no mass party of their own.

The Socialist Party and the RMT had just taken part in a coalition for the European elections, No2EU-Yes to Democracy. This was an important first step to raising the banner of a new workers’ party, with a programme of opposition to the ‘bosses’ Europe’ and promoting workers’ solidarity across Europe in defence of jobs and public services. On the Isle of Wight, we raised the idea that a political campaign should be launched, demanding the reinstatement of sacked Vestas workers, the reopening of the factory by Vestas or through government nationalisation, and the need to link up with other workers and trade unions in a wider campaign for jobs and services. In a sense, this would have formed the embryo of a new workers’ party on the island, capable of sustaining a campaign and standing candidates in local and national elections. If a new workers’ party had been in existence, it would have added significantly to the campaign. It would have also ensured that many of the Vestas workers and their wider supporters could have remained together in an organisational form to continue the fight.

As the occupation came to an end and mass involvement receded, as workers had to find work to pay the bills, the remaining activists became more isolated. With support still present, they continued to speak and visit other meetings and events to promote the campaign. They received a standing ovation in the autumn at the TUC conference, demonstrating the potential support that could have been called on if the political will had been there at the tops of the TUC.

Vestas was a positive coming together of environmental and trade union campaigns. Yet some in the environmental movement do not see or understand the significance of mass struggle, the role of the working class and the trade unions, or the need for a political alternative to the market. Others, including some on the left with a more anarchistic, spontaneous view of struggle, believe that a minority can act as an alternative to the mass movement or as a spark to ignite bigger events. This is mistaken. There was a belief among some that with right on your side, effort alone would be enough to sustain the campaign.

Putting down a marker

THE MASS FORCES of the campaign have dispersed. Like a rising tide without a dam to hold the water, on the ebb it all drains back into the sea appearing to leave little behind. In the aftermath of this significant battle, some question what it achieved. The events at Vestas did not happen in isolation and were part of a wider movement. The task is to link these struggles together to build a stronger, more powerful and sustained movement. Today’s economic crisis, attacks on jobs and the public sector, and the corruption of Westminster politics, will lead to further struggles.

Vestas put down a marker for what is possible when workers organise and fight. It showed that the spirit of solidarity was very much alive. The fight at Vestas came close to achieving its goals, further than many would have expected in the days running up to the start of the occupation. It provides important lessons for unorganised workers, trade unions and socialists which can be built on in the many industrial battles that loom. On the Isle of Wight it has left its mark. That experience will be drawn on in the future. Former Vestas workers and RMT members now work in other workplaces. As Steve Stotesbury, a leading organiser outside the factory, said: “Sometimes you have to stand up and make some noises. I’m very, very glad I did. This will stay with me for the rest of my life”.

The battles of 2009 at Visteon, Lindsey, Linamar and Vestas were the first stirrings of a new period of industrial struggle. They revealed what is possible and what is necessary in order to go forward. Most importantly: a willingness among workers to fight, the need for militant, fighting trade unions, and for a new mass workers’ party armed with a programme for socialism as an alternative to the misery of capitalism. If one small factory on the Isle of Wight can have such an impact, what could a mass, working-class movement achieve?

The Socialist Party is proud of the role its members played in supporting the Vestas campaign. It remains possible that Vestas will reopen production on the island where it retains a base. Therefore, the fight must go on, calling for the reinstatement of the workers and the payment of all outstanding redundancy money to those occupiers who were sacked. The need for jobs on the island has not gone. Neither have the skilled workers nor the need for wind turbine blades and renewable energy production. The considerable sacrifices of those who took part in the occupation will be repaid in future victories, built on the experience of the Vestas struggle.

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July 2010