At the end of September, the Morning Star published a letter I wrote that reflected the different approaches taken by the SWP and the AWL to the Vestas dispute after the end of the occupation - AWL emphasised building the blockade of the factory, SWP, building the political campaign 'in the country'.
Back the workers
Sunday 27 September 2009
Readers will know by now that the Vestas company has removed most of the remaining blades from its Newport factory, using the might of the state to do it.
Scores of police dismantled the marine gate blockade at 6am last Tuesday. Although we protested as the blades went, the massive police presence meant we could not stop them being loaded on to the barges.
For the workers, the blockade had been their main source of leverage against the company. It had been hoped that if it could be maintained, the company would negotiate, including paying 11 sacked workers their lost redundancy pay.
Now the workers and supporters, including other trade unionists, are planning a campaign for jobs on the island - green jobs, preferably, with companies that are prepared to negotiate with unions, unlike Vestas.
Vestas has been an important political campaign and an important industrial struggle, with previously unorganised workers having the courage to fight militantly over jobs.
I have been disappointed with the priority the campaign has been given in the last few weeks. It was clear that the blockade was important for the industrial dispute, yet the mobilisation by the labour and socialist movement for it has been poor.
I am struck by the contrast in the resources mobilised to get people to demonstrate at Labour Party conference - Rage Against Labour - and those mobilised to get people to the Isle of Wight to support the blockade in the past few weeks.
As the jobs cull worsens and public-service cuts bite, as pockets of workers decide to resist, the labour movement must gear itself to delivering physical support to such struggles.
The Labour Party can ignore demos.
Bosses and parties cannot ignore workers taking industrial action.
The SWP picked up the criticism and 'replied' to it at the end of an article summing up the significance of the dispute, by Tom Walker, in Socialist Worker (2171 3 October).
The Vestas struggle has changed the debate about green jobs: fighting for green jobs
The occupation in August and ongoing campaign by the Vestas workers has electrified both the climate change movement and the struggle for jobs.
Vestas bosses finally removed some equipment from the wind turbine factory on the Isle of Wight last week.
It is a tribute to the Vestas campaigners that it took the company two months – and the back up of the police – to do this.
The workers demanded that the government nationalise the factory and save all 600 jobs. From the first day, other workers on the Isle of Wight supported the occupation.
Thousands of pounds poured in from union branches and supporters across Britain.
There were protests, meetings, rallies and mass leafleting in 20 towns, and two national days of action. Vestas workers toured Britain, speaking to the thousands who came to listen.
The campaign had an impact far beyond the numbers involved. And the occupation came close to forcing the government to act.
In fact at one point, the government told the workers that it even asked Vestas if it could buy the factory. Vestas worker Mike Godley explains, “They said they’d offered Vestas money but they wouldn’t sell. They said they’d tried to get investors in there to take it over but Vestas won’t allow it.”
The government wasn’t willing to stand up to the company. But the fact that it tried to buy the factory shows the enormous pressure the workers put it under.
That’s remarkable when you consider that there were fewer than 20 workers occupying the factory.
In the end the small numbers involved meant the company was able to victimise 11 of the occupiers, sacking them with no redundancy pay.
But the size of the occupation was not the workers’ fault.
Mike explains, “We got grassed up to the managers. So we ended up being forced to go for it with the people we could get together at a few hours’ notice.”
The Vestas workers had been directly inspired by the Visteon car parts workers’ occupations in Enfield, Basildon and Belfast.
They had wanted and expected an occupation on a similar model with hundreds of workers taking the entire factory, controlling an entrance that could let new people in – and occasionally let some occupiers go home for proper meals and sleep.
But in the event the Vestas workers faced the choice between a small occupation or no occupation at all. They were right to go for it.
Without the occupation, most people would never have heard of Vestas.
The job losses would have just added to the mounting casualties of the recession. And the occupation won solid results – with better redundancy pay for most of the sacked workers.
But the occupation was difficult for the workers. They found themselves sealed away behind a steel fence, living in managers’ offices.
Supporters had to fight just to get any food through police lines.
With such a heavy-handed response from the company and the state, just keeping the occupation going was an act of defiance.
But the Vestas workers went much further than that.
The occupiers used phones and the web to organise even though they were trapped inside.
And the campaign made sure that they did not feel isolated by holding mass rallies outside the factory.
At the peak, hundreds of workers were turning out to support them.
And dozens of activists came to camp outside the factory.
Unfortunately, when the occupation was broken up after a legal ruling, the campaign had difficulty sustaining this momentum and media coverage.
The initial success of the Vestas workers in occupying with small numbers led others to try their hand in support, occupying everything from rooftops to barges and paths outside the factory.
But lacking the mass support of the workers’ occupation, they faced an even harsher and swifter police response.
This culminated in last week’s use of force to get £750,000 worth of wind turbine blades out of the factory.
Some activists – though not the workers – have criticised the focus on building solidarity nationally instead of busing in protesters to help picket the factory.
But the national campaign has helped to pile pressure onto the government and raise the issue of “green jobs” much more widely.
To their credit the RMT union got the Vestas workers’ fight raised at the the recent TUC congress. Labour climate change minister Ed Miliband was clearly rattled when he spoke.
He was forced to announce millions of pounds will go to creating “green jobs” and to join in the applause when Vestas workers stood up in protest and delegates gave them a standing ovation.
But if a little heckling can put Miliband on the defensive, just think what a difference a national day of action involving solidarity strikes would have made.
The trade union bureaucracy must bear responsibility for the lack of this kind of action.
Of course many union leaders applauded the Vestas workers at the TUC congress, but the stark reality is that despite lots of grassroots support, almost the entire trade union leadership left the workers to fight alone.
The Vestas campaign has shifted over time from the direct issue of the factory itself to the wider questions of green jobs. This means that it will continue to be at the centre of climate change debates and action in the run up to the Copenhagen climate change summit in December.
The Vestas workers’ fight is a landmark in both the struggle against the recession and the battle for the planet’s future.
The campaign for justice for the remaining 11 workers without redundancy pay continues.
And the Vestas struggle shows that climate change will not be solved by mealy-mouthed statements from world leaders – it is workers who have the power to take the future of the planet in their hands.
I submitted a comment to this article on the website - which they did not approve: it is below. They have printed ONE reply in the latest issue of SW (2172, 10 October) correcting their over-eagerness in blaming the leaders of other unions for letting down the Vestas workers.
Unions do back Vestas
I would like to correct an error in your article Where now for the Vestas campaign? ('The Vestas struggle has changed the debate about green jobs', 24 September).
In it you say, “Trade union leaders, with the exception of the RMT, have so far refused to back the Vestas workers’ fight.”
That is not correct. My union, the UCU, was one of the first to get involved in the dispute, and sent a national officer to the Isle of Wight before the occupation even began.
Our general secretary Sally Hunt wrote a letter to the Guardian calling on the government to intervene. We have given national backing to the occupation and demands for nationalisation.
Other unions have also supported the dispute at a national level and continue to campaign on behalf of the Vestas workforce.
Graham Petersen, UCU National Environment Coordinator
My comment on Tom Walker's article:
the trade union leaders bear responsibility for not calling a national day of solidarity with Vestas workers, and for a lot more besides. We bear responsibility for our own actions, sometimes for making the wrong call. I think the switch to building support in the country and away from building the blockade was a mistake.
I think with a stronger blockade Vestas would have come to some kind of deal. We could have had a small victory - along with Visteon, another practical example that fighting over jobs can win you something.
Vestas planned to come on Friday 4 September but, seeing the size of the blockade, backed off. After that, the blockade got smaller - at least, it got no bigger. Vestas, with the Isle of Wight council and the police, made their plans. They came back when they were more certain of winning. On Tuesday 22 September, they won. They got blades out.
The Vestas campaign was about workers taking action to defend jobs, green jobs. The tremendous campaign in the country grew from that, and not the other way around. It was at its high point during the factory occupation and thereafter it was ebbing.
In politics now we are moving into a new period, where workers are taking action - they are, small pockets of them, fighting job losses. The labour movement and socialists have to see supporting those struggles - ultimately, physical tussles with police, company security guards and so on - as our key job. Diffuse political campaigns get their strength from those battles and not the other way around.