Vestas workers and supporters speak out

Submitted by martin on 16 August, 2009 - 6:36

Interviews with workers and supporters from the struggle against closure of the Vestas wind turbine blade factories on the Isle of Wight.

Chris Ash is a worker at the East Cowes Vestas factory, and was one of the occupiers in Newport.

The last three weeks have not just changed my views, but changed my life. Before, I was just a normal worker. I came into work, I did the job. I didn't really care what I was building. I got paid and I went home.
Now I understand that we're doing something for the future, for our kids and our grandkids. It's going to help change the future of the world if we can get this factory nationalised or we can keep it open.
I have no regrets about taking part in the occupation. I'm proud of myself and what I've done. Everyone calls me a hero. I don't feel myself to be a hero, but I certainly wish I could do it all over again with what I know now.
I think a lot of unions have got involved in this because it is a green issue. They haven't been able to speak out before because they need the workers to step in. It has brought a lot of unions together, where before they were just out for themselves.
We need to build up a lot more support, and get a lot more people campaigning to push the Government and the councils.
Wind turbines are important for the future. We're certainly not giving up the fight.
I didn't know much about socialist and environmental activism before. I thought it was a matter of "tree-huggers" and "eco-warriors". Now I have a lot of respect for the campaigns and the actions of the people who have come to help.
I've worked for the company for three years. You get treated like rubbish. To the management, you are just a number; you're not an individual.. You get screwed over at every opportunity.
In the occupation, they sent us our termination of contract notices with a slice of pizza. When they served the injunction, they went round posting it through people's letterboxes, harassing people's families. They made no attempt to talk to us directly.
When I first came across people talking about resisting the closure, I didn't think much of it. I only got involved in the two or three weeks before the occupation. I think a lot of other workers' views changed in the same way.
We came to be friends rather than just colleagues, to stand together and to look out for each other. It's brought the island closer together. Five of the other people who were in the occupation I didn't even know before, and now I would count them among my best friends.

Ian Terry is a worker in the finishing shop at the Vestas Newport factory, and was one of the occupiers.

I'd say that the views I have now have always been there, but now I've see the chance of a fightback, rather than giving up. I've always thought the way things are run was wrong, but before, I'd never seen a chance for people to stand up together and change things.
It's a matter of organising workers to stand up for themselves. The anti-union laws are against us, but the numbers are in our favour, and we have to make sure we get those laws changed.
The main priority now is building people's confidence, highlighting to people that they are not on their own, and that together we can be much stronger.
I knew, working for Vestas, that the management were wary of unions. I don't think I realised just how important unions are. After the miners were smashed in 1984-5, a lot of people's confidence in unions went down. But there are still good unions out there, willing to organise the workers and take up the fight for them.
Unite, I think, has been poor because it is too closely affiliated with Labour. They didn't want to rock the boat.
But that can't be all of it. You've had unions affiliated to Labour who have supported you well, and unions that aren't affiliated to Labour who haven't. Isn't it also a question of the degree of democracy and accountability in the union, and the strength of the rank and file?
Yes, you have to make sure the people making the big decisions in the unions can understand the workers' struggles rather than being paid big salaries. The same goes for politicians, doesn't it? They'd be reined in a lot more if they were in the same economic position that we're in. At present there is obviously a big gap between the full-time union officials, and the lives they're able to live, and the workers they represent.
In this campaign, a combination of many different reasons to fight has brought everyone together. People have started to realise that everything is affected by the rule of profit - how profit dictates how things go.
The reason why Vestas have been able to do what they've done is that the market is run for profit, not for people. As in the unions, the people at the top are comfortable. They don't have to think about the people who are being affected by job losses or wage cuts. Human beings aren't brought in to the equation.
When industry is run for goals other than profit - when it is run for the usefulness of the things it builds and the good of the people it employs and of the environment - that is much better. More money would be delivered back into the community.

Jacqueline Sheedy is one of the activists who occupied the roof of the smaller Vestas factory in East Cowes from 4 to 14 August.

When I came to the Isle of Wight, I wanted to use the skills and commitment I have to support the workers. We found that the workers really wanted to get that East Cowes building occupied in some way, so it was a way we could support the workers.
I'm glad we did it. I had a great time. Up on the roof, the days passed very quickly. That is partly because everything took a very long time - even walking from one place to another, because it's a sloping roof.
We brought lots of books up to read, but we never had time to read them. We had workshops on various skills, like knot-tying. We tied pallets to the side of the roof, so that we could have somewhere flat to sleep. At the end we had a computer and an internet connection up there.
We collected masses of rainwater in a tarpaulin, we heated it in black bin-liners, and on the day of the Cowes Week fireworks, I was able to have a shower with that water. It was the most memorable shower I've ever had!
Most of all, we spent lots of time talking. It was a real mixture of people up on the roof - some, like me, who had been activists for a long time, and some much newer activists.
I've been an environmental and social justice activist for about 20 years. I'm not affiliated to any particular group.
It excites me that workers can take action in their own workplaces as they have done here. We felt that there are certain things that we, with our experience, can bring to a campaign like this, and we wanted to be part of it.
We learned a lot of the intricacies of the campaign when we were up on the roof. We would talk to the managers, from the roof, almost every day. In fact we discovered that we had more common ground with them than we thought, in opposing the planning laws and Nimbyism that stop wind-turbine development.
After we came down, we went to the constituency office of Andrew Turner, the local [Tory] MP. It was just shocking. He says that he is really into green energy, but he doesn't like wind turbines because they are ugly.
From the roof, we could see the beautiful Solent, but on the other side of the coast there is a huge oil refinery. The Government can get away with building oil refineries and things like that all over the place, yet you can't build a wind farm!
People have just got to change their attitude to wind turbines, and drop this idea that they are ugly and a blot on the landscape. What do they think is going to happen in 20 or 30 years, when climate change takes hold even more than now.
Quite a lot of people were slightly disappointed that we came down, because they know how the media works, and they thought the media would use it to say that the campaign is over. When the boys came off the balcony [at the Newport factory], they said the campaign was over.
It's total rubbish. The campaign is now in a new phase. Workers are going round the country and inspiring other workers and activists to take action. As for me, I will go to Climate Camp and talk to other activists there about my experience about how we can build on this coalition and support other workers in their struggles.

Mark Smith is a worker in the finishing shop at the Newport Vestas factory, and was one of the occupiers.

Without a doubt, the last three weeks have changed my view of the world. Firstly, on the question of unions. I'd probably never work at a place that didn't want a union, or I'd be very wary of it.
We've had support from all different types of people who I'd never thought would support us, people who don't even know us. It's been really good. And they all get along together, they're all pulling towards the same objective.
Those of who came from the mainland came because we saw Vestas as part of a bigger battle about jobs, about workers' rights, and about the future of the planet...
You're spot-on about that. That's what has brought a lot of people to support us. People can see that from the point of view of the future of the planet, it's dire closing places like this.
I'm glad I went into the occupation, even though so far I've lost money from it. If I'd done nothing and just walked away, then six months down the line, and for the rest of life, I'd be kicking myself, thinking about what we could have done. It comes to a point where you have to stand up and fight for what you believe is right.
If you don't stand up and fight, you just get pushed around.
Now we have to keep up the pressure on Vestas and a lot of pressure on the Government - keep everything going, build on what we have already achieved, make it bigger and bigger.
We have to get everybody, nationally, to pull together, for us and for themselves. If workers stick together in the future, and we all stand up and support each other, then we can change things.
You've seen different unions reacting differently in this campaign...
I joined Unite before the occupation, purely in order to have legal assistance. But then Unite didn't turn up at all, for a long time, and when they did, they weren't that interested. Unite people had been told not to get involved.
RMT did turn up, and have been a lot more militant. It's a question of the relation between what you say, and what you're actually willing to do.

Tracey Yeates is a worker in the finishing shop at the Vestas Newport factory, and a member of the RMT workers' committee.

The last three weeks have taught me that if people work together, we can get things done, and we can, as a group, make a change. Perhaps before I would have turned away. I think it's changed me as well as my opinions.
I've come to realise how much of a bad employer Vestas were. Before, I tended to believe what the management said and not what the workforce was saying. But now that is changed.
What's made the difference? I suppose at the start it was because you, the activists from outside, showed us how we could do something. Then we had our own way of doing things. If everyone puts their own unique bit in, it makes a bigger picture, doesn't it?
With Vestas, it is the first time I've ever worked for a company. I was always self-employed before, and I worked on my own - I was an area manager for Betterware UK - so I looked at things a different way. It suited me when the children were younger, because I could work from home, but then when they grew up, I looked for something else, and since I'd always been green-minded, I came here.
I don't believe the company should be allowed to do this. They have no regard for their workers or for the community.
It's difficult for me to say how this has changed my view of unions, because my husband used to be an active trade unionist, a TGWU branch official, at Ford in Southampton, and it seemed to me like he was always out on strike.
The RMT seem to be quite well-organised. My husband is a prison officer now, and he is in the POA, and they don't seem to be well organised or have any clout.
Myself, I don't think I would work again for an employer that didn't have a union. I would definitely make sure I was in a union before I worked anywhere else.
Now, we've got to make sure that the lads who were in occupation get reinstated. That has got to be number one priority. I want see green jobs on the island, of some sort - if it can't be Vestas, then somebody else.
I worry for the future of the island community. We already have an ageing population here. As jobs go, young families will move away, and before we know it, schools will be closing.

Lanah Moody is a student at Ryde High School. Her father Justin Moody was one of the occupiers at the Newport factory.

The last three weeks have been incredible. I've not really had anything to do with environmental activists and all the political groups before, and it has opened my eyes. Reading the socialist papers, I now know that we don't realise how much happens, all over the world, that we don't hear in the mainstream news.
And I've seen how hypocritical it is, the way the Government is running the country.
My dad did talk to me about it before he went into the occupation, but at first I didn't really know what to think about it. The first few days were absolutely mad. And now the campaign has spread much further, all across the world. It has even been mentioned in the New York Times.
Now we have to keep going, keep spreading the word, getting in more people, making the campaign stronger, coming up with new ideas. We can't just let it fade away. We have to be persistent.
All of my friends basically agree. At the end of the day, it's our generation that depends on the future jobs. We're all worried that we may have to move off the island. The campaign has made people re-think everything. A couple of my friends have helped me with leafleting. I'm going to try to make sure that some of them come to some meetings with me and come to understand more of the politics involved.
I've always wanted to get into politics anyway, so this has been my way in, learning by intuition. There haven't been any political groups or environmental groups on the island before, but there should be.

Jackie Hawkins is a local environmental and peace activist.

What's most surprised me over the last three weeks is that people have remained solid, that they have stuck together and not drifted away.
The main priority now is new ideas; keeping the campaign fresh so that it does not stagnate; staying positive and keeping in mind that we can win.
In the Isle of Wight, the [Tory] council have an "eco-island" policy, and keep bleating on about how they want it to be a world-reknowned green island. They should grasp this opportunity and keep the factory open, as well as bringing more green jobs to the island.
This campaign has got a community together. All sorts of people have contributed by donating food or equipment for the picket.
There is a community building, and I'm hoping that when the planning application for [wind turbines on] Cheverton Down comes up in October, we can outnumber the Nimbies. I would like to see a lot of people turn up at County Hall that day.
In the last couple of months, there have been a lot of socialist and environmental activists coming from the mainland to support the Vestas workers. What do you make of what we've done?
It's been great - something I've wanted to see for a long time. The island is a very conservative area. I don't mean only politically conservative: people tend to be wary of mainlanders.
I was nervous at first, because I'm originally an outsider myself, and I know the attitudes you can encounter. But in fact the people from the mainland have been very well received. I haven't heard any negative comments. That's brilliant, absolutely brilliant.
This is not just an island issue. It's not just nationwide. It is international. Yesterday I heard that we'd had support from young people in Australia.
It's fantastic, the way it has gone international. Maybe the revolution is going to start on the Isle of Wight. I wouldn't have dreamed it..

Mark Chiverton is secretary of the Isle of Wight Unison local government branch, and the Labour prospective parliamentary candidate for the Isle of Wight constituency.

We've had good support for strikes and industrial action on the island before, but certainly not this kind of campaign. This is unique, both in its national and international profile, and in the sheer courage, persistence, and commitment of the Vestas workers themselves.
We need to continue to build support, and get more island people involved.
This campaign can be a catalyst for some very positive things on the island. It shows that a group of relatively unorganised workers can achieve great things. A key lesson is that the unions need to be organising and recruiting more, and not just in our traditional areas of strength; and rebuilding links through Trades Councils.
Our local Unison members have been very supportive. We have had quite good numbers attending rallies and demonstrations, and beyond that a huge amount of interest and support behind the scenes. There's been no criticism at all of the branch's position of support for the Vestas workers.
We need to keep up the pressure on the local [Tory] council and the Government. The local Labour Party can have a role to play here.
In some ways it has been a difficult time for the Isle of Wight Labour Party. We have had large numbers of people at the demonstrations, as well as working behind the scenes to get channels of communication to Ed Miliband, but it's been embarrassing for the Isle of Wight Labour Party to be in a position where the Government comes out with a commitment to lots of new green jobs but won't save the wind turbine blade factories from being closed.
The Isle of Wight council and the local [Tory] MP have been lamentable in terms of pandering to Nimbyism.
The Government has invested strongly in terms of research and development, but in terms of manufacturing jobs, the response is inadequate. I'd like to see public ownership of the Vestas factories to tide production over until such a time as wind turbine demand picks up.
If the Government is set against that strategy, I think it's essential that there is urgent dialogue between the council, central Government, and the business community, to make sure that the Isle of Wight can continue to show a strong level of employment in green jobs and can preserve the skills that the Vestas workforce has got.
I'd call on other Labour Parties across the country to come on board for this campaign. I know a number of Labour MPs have signed an Early Day Motion [supporting the Vestas workers, initiated by John McDonnell], but it would be good to see one or two Labour MPs come to the island and talk to the Vestas workers.
It is very important for the credibility of the Labour Government that it responds positively to this campaign. Huge sections of the thinking public see the Government's stance on green jobs and on Vestas as a contradiction.
I'm sceptical about the Lib Dems claiming to support this campaign. I think they are quite opportunistic, saying different things in different places and at different times. I would recognise that one or two local Lib Dem activists have spent a lot of time on this campaign, but I believe that the wider labour movement needs to be spearheading the campaign.
I want to see a Labour government rather than a Lib-Dem government, but I want to see a very different sort of Labour government from this one - one that is in touch with its grass roots and one where there is much more vibrant and active grass-roots and trade-union campaigning which it responds to positively.

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