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Vestas: Organise, debate, unite in action: Building the broader campaign

Submitted by Newcastle on 20 August, 2009 - 9:15 Author: By Martin Thomas
Vestas

Chairing a Vestas workers’ rally in Ryde, Isle of Wight, on 15 August, Mike Godley, one of the workers who occupied the Newport factory from 20 July until evicted on 7 August, read out web postings which attacked “outsiders” in the campaign.

The postings claimed that socialist and other activists who have come to the Isle of Wight from the mainland had manipulated the workers.

To great applause, Mike Godley refuted the attacks. The socialists and environmental activists have been welcome, he said, and they have provided valuable help to a struggle which continues to be the Vestas workers’ own.

Before the Vestas campaign started, no socialist or environmental-activist groups were visible on the Isle of Wight. Activists from the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty arrived on the island on 15 June, to leaflet and talk with workers at the Vestas factory gates, and to make contact with the not-very-strong local labour movement. (Vestas had blocked union organisation in its factories). With other Workers’ Climate Action people, the AWLers built a public meeting, jointly sponsored by Workers’ Climate Action and Cowes Trades Council, on 3 July.

From soon after that, as discussions among workers about a factory occupation developed, members of the Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP) from the mainland started spending time on the island.

From the first hours of the occupation, on 20 July, the roundabout outside the Vestas Newport factory front entrance became a gathering-point for workers and supporters. Local people from a range of backgrounds joined the crowd.

A group of four Climate Camp activists arrived for a day on Wednesday 22 July, and made a very useful contribution. As time went on, more climate-camp and other environmental activists arrived, especially after the Big Green Gathering set for 29 July was cancelled. The biggest single influx of mainland supporters, a contingent of 25 socialists, anarchists, and environmentalists from London, was organised by Workers’ Climate Action on 7 August, the day the occupiers were evicted.

Five main elements (with many overlaps and exceptions) have made up the roundabout “community”: workers; local supporters; AWL; SWP; and climate-camp people. It has done well at combining diversity with unity in action.

The SWP at Vestas has been in a different mode from at the Codnor anti-BNP protest which you will read about in this issue of Solidarity. It has worked chiefly at proving itself the “best builder” of the campaign, putting much energy into leafleting and organising for demonstrations of support on the island, and using contacts through the Campaign Against Climate Change (where SWPers hold leading positions) and the unions to set up solidarity meetings round the country.

AWL members have done a lot of leafleting and visiting workplaces too. Climate-camp activists, on the whole, have been less interested in that sort of activity, but they have made a contribution which the socialist organisations, at our present level of development, probably could not have made.

It was the first four climate-camp activists to arrive who organised the first successful “rush” through the police lines to get food to the occupiers, on Wednesday 22 July. At that time the Vestas bosses and the police were trying to block all food supplies.

Climate-camp and other non-violent-direct-action people have organised many other successful actions, most spectacularly the occupation of the roof of the East Cowes Vestas factory from 4 to 14 August. Soon most of the workers active in the campaign recognised that prejudices about these people maybe being “eco-terrorists” were misplaced. The courage, imagination, and skills of the environmentalists are making an irreplaceable contribution, helping to enlarge the workers’ (and maybe some socialists’) tactical ideas — and doing it with very few arrests.

Such cross-fertilisation of workers’ and environmentalist struggle is one of the main aims of Workers’ Climate Action, a group in which AWL has been active from the start.

One of AWL’s chief concerns throughout has been to promote and help facilitate self-organisation: self-organisation of the workers initially interested in occupying; election and organisation of a committee by the workers outside the factory; organisation of a Families and Community committee; organisation of local support groups in the different towns of the Isle of Wight; general meetings of supporters, or supporters and workers, at the roundabout.

To our mind, organisation is not just organisational. It is political. The way the working class transforms itself from a scattering of atomised individuals, each one largely powerless in the market economy and in the workplace, into a force, is by organising, discussing, and establishing an independent collective purpose and will. Self-organisation does not happen automatically. Workers have to be convinced of it.

Organisation requires collectively-decided direction. So we have also tried to assess things, without defeatism but soberly, at each stage in the campaign, to deduce best policies, and to promote debate around them.

At the same time, we have tried to educate ourselves and others, with reading and discussions about lessons from working-class history.

None of that stops us from having friendly unity in action with activists who have other priorities.

When we proposed having general meetings at the roundabout, a couple of climate-camp activists first responded: “What’s the point? The SWP goes leafleting, we do the cooking. Everyone is happy doing what they want. Why have meetings?” But once the meetings started, the climate-camp activists were very constructive. There has been more of a problem with the SWP, often quick to say: “No more talking! There’s leafleting to be done! Let’s go!”

SWP

At Vestas, the SWP has made a good positive contribution. The deficiencies of the SWP here as a serious socialist group are not lapses such as any group is bound to make, but limitations of the SWP at its best.

It has been much more concerned about using its SWP machine to prove itself the “best builder” than to argue for or promote wider working-class self-organisation. Few of its leaflets and speeches at or around the roundabout have got much beyond a combination of a few populist ideas: capitalism bad, bankers bad, anger good, SWP brilliant.

The whole method is typified by the SWP’s current “big campaign”, pushed at Vestas as elsewhere, to get people along to a demonstration at Labour Party conference on 27 September which was originally called by the college lecturers’ union UCU as a lobby for “jobs, education, and peace” but has been re-branded by the SWP as “Rage against Labour”.

Rage against Labour? The Tories and UKIP dislike Labour. Obviously this is meant to be a different “rage”. So the SWP clarifies, by stressing specific, reasoned objectives? No. The organised socialists, the SWP, are less specific about their aims and strategies than the UCU union bureaucrats! They just want to be the “best builders” of general “rage”.

The SWP has ventured distinctive ideas at Vestas on three main occasions. For 29 July, the first court hearing on the Vestas bosses’ move to get a possession order, they effectively advocated a general strike on the Isle of Wight: “every bus worker, every council worker, every worker on the ferries [to] show up at the courtroom instead of going to work”. Such talk just fills the space for proper strategic debate with unrealistic noise.

The Vestas workers and the RMT got talks with the Government on 6 August. Workers’ representative Mike Godley initially reported back, rather despondently, that as far as he could see the Government was sympathetic, doing all it could, but ineffective. SWPer Jonathan Neale told the factory gate rally that we were “halfway to victory” and needed only to clinch the commitments.

At a strategy meeting on 10 August, shortly after the occupiers were evicted, the SWP moved prematurely to shift the focus off picketing and onto a “long campaign” of meetings and demonstrations round the country.

In all three cases, the SWP soon retreated: explicitly recognising that illegal strike action would be difficult to get and should not be counted on; registering that the Government had actually committed itself to nothing; reaffirming the importance of the pickets. But no self-criticism, no direct and open discussion. Socialist Worker has airbrushed AWL and Workers’ Climate Action out of its reports on Vestas; and the SWP has quietly “briefed” its members with an inaccurate history (claiming AWL got “out of our depth” with local union officials, and needed SWP to rescue the campaign!)

The Green Party’s response has been poor. The Green Party Trade Union Group turned up with a stall for a day or so, and a few individuals who happened to be members of the Green Party have come to the roundabout, but that is it.

Socialist party, Lib-Dems, Labour

Smaller left groups (including some, e.g. Socialist Resistance, who make a big deal about their commitment to environmental politics) have done little about Vestas. Maybe you can put that down to lack of resources.

With the Socialist Party you cannot. Though not a large group, the SP has areas of strength in nearby Southampton and Portsmouth.

The SP turned up in some numbers for Vestas rallies and demonstrations for a short while, then quit. Like AWL and SWP, they promoted their own papers and leaflets. Fair enough. Unlike AWL and SWP, they showed little interest in leafleting and so on for the broad campaign.

Maybe the SP leaflets were so insightful that this matters little? On the contrary, they reflected the idea that “Marxism” means switching off your brain and using stereotype phrases like “mass action” as cure-alls. For example, when climate-camp activists got food to the occupiers, and thus forced the Vestas bosses to start providing food, the SP rebuked them. It should be done “not through short-term stunts, but by mobilising hundreds of people... to put pressure on everywhere we can”. Aha! Now we know the answer to the problem of no dinner in the St Cross factory! Mass action, “everywhere”.

Mostly, the SP leaflets were about urging us to vote SP, or for some coalition including the SP, at the coming general election. The cited grounds: that workers need a “political party [that] has sent its leaders to the picket and stands shoulder to shoulder with the Vestas workers”.

On that criterion, the SP comes out no better than the Lib-Dems. One local councillor — a maverick Lib-Dem, but a Lib-Dem — has been very active supporting the pickets. The local Lib Dem parliamentary candidate has turned up from time to time, offering vague sympathy. The Lib Dem parliamentary front bencher for Energy, Simon Hughes, came to the picket line, and (initially, at least: I think later debate swung opinion) got a favourable response from some workers and some climate-camp activists. One of the most active climate-camp people from the mainland at the roundabout is a Lib-Dem councillor in her home town.

Yet this is the same Simon Hughes that boasted when standing for London mayor that he would see off the RMT; the same Lib-Dem party that has policy to ban all strikes in “essential services”; the same Lib-Dem party that is positioning itself to form a coalition government with the Tories in case of a hung parliament.

Oddly, when workers’ committee members were questioning Simon Hughes, and local Tory MP Andrew Turner, they addressed them as representatives of “Government”, despite both representing opposition parties. Hughes and Turner did not contradict them much, since they do not disagree much with Government policy on Vestas. But that a view of “Government” as a sort of joint affair of all the parties, more or less indistinguishable in their distance from everyday life, seems plausible shows how far democracy in Britain has withered.

The Labour Party has never had a strong presence on the Isle of Wight. The Isle of Wight [IoW] parliamentary constituency has always been Conservative, Liberal, or Lib-Dem. The Labour vote there has dropped as low as 2.4% (1983), and has recovered only to 17%.

The local Labour Party has related to Vestas as if it is overwhelmed with shame about the Labour government. The most active among IoW trade unionists in support of the Vestas workers has been Unison local government branch secretary Mark Chiverton, constantly helpful, frequently on the picket line. He is also the local Labour parliamentary candidate; but he never mentions that when speaking to campaign meetings.

Richard Howard, the Portsmouth RMT branch secretary who has given tireless and vital help to the workers, especially in the first days of the occupation, is also an active member of the Isle of Wight Labour Party. You would not know that unless you questioned him closely.

Ryde Trades Council secretary Tony Kelly, also very active in support of the Vestas workers, is a member of the Co-operative Party, a shadowy “little-sister” party whose main political activity is to co-sponsor Labour parliamentary candidates (as “Labour and Co-op”). Again, you wouldn’t know it.

Geoff Lumley, the one Labour member on the county council, moved the motion on the council to back the workers. But then he accepted a Tory amendment to blur the motion. The local Labour Party has given a big donation to the workers’ fund, and brought its members to the demonstrations; but when the Labour Party banner was brought to the roundabout, it was quickly removed, apparently because of a hostile reaction. A Lib-Dem banner managed to keep its place there longer, though that too was eventually removed.

The Vestas campaign should feed into a broader battle for jobs, for workers’ rights, and for green policies, on the island. For that, a socialist organisation on the island is needed, one that can set itself to studying and educating as well as agitating, and one that promotes the self-organisation of a broader local labour movement and working-class unity in action.

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