Solidarity with Vestas occupation

Jim Moody calls for nationalisation of Vestas under workers’ control

vestasoccupationThe bid by wind turbine blade manufacturer Vestas to gain immediate repossession of its occupied factory on the Isle of Wight was rejected on July 29. The company’s injunction against the 25 or so redundant workers was refused, but they still face eviction when the full case is heard by Newport county court on August 4.

The occupation began on Monday July 20 after the 600-plus workers were told the plant faced imminent closure. On July 28, 11 of them identified by the company were sacked – they got dismissal notices together with pizzas which the company’s thoughtful bosses had delivered to the premises.

The Danish-owned Vestas Blades UK Ltd blames a lack of demand for its products for the Newport closure, whose announcement came a few days after – irony of ironies – Ed Miliband, secretary of state for energy and climate change, had announced plans to expand sources of renewable energy, especially wind power, and an expected enormous rise in jobs in the industry. Vestas was due to close down completely on Friday July 31.

Responding to this glaring contradiction, Miliband declared: “In the meantime, there must be a strategy for the Isle of Wight. Not just support for the workers losing their jobs, but a strategy to work with Vestas. It is keeping a prototype facility at the factory and we are considering an application for help to test and develop offshore blades in a plant which would employ 150 people initially and potentially more later. Alongside this, we will invest £120 million in offshore wind manufacturing and £60 million in the marine industry.”1

A prototype facility as proposed is, of course, no answer at all to the immediate loss of jobs, which will clearly hit the local economy. Miliband’s pious talk of a “strategy” is just so much hogwash. The government may have spent billions bailing out the banks (something that the Vestas workers have not been slow to mention) and no doubt would be prepared to intervene on a huge scale to prevent the demise of a major company, but, when it comes to small and medium concerns, its policy remains to let the market do as it will and the devil take the hindmost – unless forced to do otherwise by working class pressure, of course.

In this Conservative-dominated county of 140,000 – the Tories were returned even more overwhelmingly than before at recent Isle of Wight council elections – labour militancy has been less common than elsewhere in Britain. But there are concentrations of working class organisation. Ryde and East Wight Trade Union Council, for example, this month started a blog in which Vestas’s threatened closure figured prominently and stridently.2 The trades council is also collecting donations for the occupation.

Wages and unemployment rates on the Isle of Wight are notoriously bad, even when compared with areas of the mainland across the Solent in Dorset and Hampshire. Seasonal work usually only pays the legal minimum. Obviously, trade unionism on the island has a lot of catching up to do.

Right since the occupation started, management have been making threats, including loss of redundancy money. Occupied offices were physically sealed, telephone lines were cut and the efforts of outside supporters to supply food were obstructed by police. Then came the dismissal notices.

Steve Stotesbury, spokesperson for the Vestas workers, told me that, despite all this, morale among those occupying the plant is “extremely high”. Steve recalled that Vestas had negotiated for the first couple of days, but had then “walked away”. When the RMT’s Bob Crow made a solidarity visit, he called for management to re-enter negotiations, but that “has fallen on deaf ears”, said Steve. The only information from the company has been “very negative” – he summed it up as “we don’t care, we have patience”. Now that legal moves have begun, the company has clammed up altogether.

But it has been far from quiet in the St Cross Business Park at Newport every evening. “At 6 we are holding meetings for workers and families. They have proved to be an absolute cracking success. The reaction from the public has been absolutely great.” Steve puts it down to the “all for one and one for all” island community spirit.

He has essential facts and figures at his fingertips. “There are 211 wind farms in the UK, producing 2% of electricity. The government has pledged 15% renewable energy by 2020, which will mean 12,000 wind turbines. Where does the government think these are coming from if Vestas close down?” The pledge foresees half of that 15% coming through renewables such as wind turbines and half through clean coal, though there is scepticism about the latter’s technology. Legislation allowing for larger wind turbines comes into force next year.

In an interview with VentnorBlog, Leanne Godley, wife of one of the occupying workers, said: “What we need is to produce the blades in this county, reducing the carbon footprint of the turbines that will be built to fulfil the government’s objective of 15% … Vestas says that the factory could not produce blades suitable for the UK, but from what I understand at the beginning of this year employees were informed that come August they would be changing their production to suit the needs of Europe.”3

Although a few local councillors have called by the occupation and offered individual support, local Tory bigwigs have stayed away. Nor are they likely to show up, of course, despite David Cameron’s attempt to paint the Conservative Party as both caring and green. However, the loss of Vestas would have a detrimental effect on the island economy: half its supplies come from local businesses, not one of which appears to be in a completely healthy state at present.

July 29 saw a vocal demonstration outside the county court – and the rejection of the injunction was greeted by loud cheers from local supporters as well as those from further afield. Now it is essential to build up the solidarity movement before next week’s hearing. While Steve Stotesbury told me that whatever the court decided would be accepted, clearly it will be up to all the occupiers to decide their next moves. This is where solidarity comes in – a legal defeat must not be allowed to deflate the workers’ morale.

A key demand of Vestas workers is government intervention to ensure that the company survives in the Isle of Wight. Quite right. It is not as if assistance to bail out a turbine factory is so strange, after all. Only this year, Scotland’s devolved government helped save a Vestas subsidiary that was operating there. However, government intervention should not mean subsidising a failing capitalist concern. It should mean nationalisation under workers’ control.

Some novel forms of gaining and expressing solidarity are emerging. The occupying workers have started projecting propaganda onto nearby walls for the benefit of their supporters who turn up each evening, having found the necessary equipment inside the factory. Southampton Ukulele Jam4 is putting out an appeal to ukulele players to gather outside the Vestas plant and provide entertainment for those inside. And now that the police in Somerset have banned the alternative Big Green Gathering5 it looks like its participants might join what is being dubbed by Vestas workers ‘Vestival’ (the Bestival music festival takes place in the Isle of Wight in early September each year).

A last-minute injunction by Mendip District Council and Avon and Somerset police has led the gathering’s organisers to seriously consider decamping to Newport, Isle of Wight as of this week. Twenty thousand people who were expecting to turn up near Cheddar from July 29 would be quite a fillip for the Vestas workers.

Support for the Vestas workers has been strong and is growing, as is their own determination to fight. Send solidarity messages to savevestas@googlemail.com. Sign the Number 10 online petition, which has already received a large number of signatories.6 Protests at Vestas are all set to continue, and such fighting resolve deserves the solidarity of all workers.

As Steve Stotesbury proudly states, “All are galvanised in support of us. We are all fighting”.

 

Notes

  1. Letter to The Guardian July 24.
  2. ‘Vestas must pay compensation for damaging the Isle of Wight economy and social fabric’, July 28 (rtuc.wordpress.com). You can make a donation to the occupation on the Save Vestas website (savevestas.wordpress.com) by PayPal or credit/debit card, or by sending a cheque, payable to ‘Ryde and East Wight Trades Union Council’, at 22 Church Lane, Ryde, Isle of Wight, PO33 2NB.
  3. ventnorblog.com
  4. www.southamptonukulelejam.co.uk
  5. Derek Wall’s Another Green World blog: another-green-world.blogspot.com/2009/07/cops-ban-big-green-gathering-so-punters.html
  6. Petition to save Vestas, Number 10 website: petitions.number10.gov.uk/SaveVestas
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