Vestas: sparking the struggle, seeing it through

Submitted by martin on 23 September, 2009 - 2:35 Author: Bob Sutton, Dan Randall, Ed Maltby, Martin Thomas, Stuart Jordan, Vicki Morris

On 20 September, two days before police finally broke the Newport factory blockade, some of the AWL activists who have been involved in the Vestas campaign talked over the experience.

This is a longer version of this text than in the printed paper.

Geographically, Britain is specially well placed to use wind energy as a renewable, zero-emissions alternative to fossil fuels. On 15 July, Energy and Climate Change minister Ed Miliband published a White Paper about renewable energy which called for 7000 more wind turbines to be built.

Yet Britain's only wind-turbine blade factories are two, owned by the big Danish-based multinational Vestas, on the Isle of Wight. Or rather, were. After telling workers in 2008 that they would be re-equipping the factories for a more advanced production process in 2009, on 28 April Vestas bosses announced that they were ending production on the Isle of Wight, keeping only a research and development operation. 600 jobs would go.

The factories were not unionised: attempts to recruit workers into the Unite union had been repressed by management. But, after a campaign of leafleting and meetings, workers occupied the bigger factory, at St Cross, Newport, on 20 July. They demanded that Vestas hand over the factories to the Government, and that the Government nationalise them and continue production.

Vestas refused to negotiate. Government minister Joan Ruddock met workers and the RMT union, which many workers had joined after the occupation started, on 6 August, but offered only warm words.

On 7 August Vestas finally got and enforced an eviction order against the workers. It sacked 11 of those who had occupied, thus depriving them of their redundancy money.

Since 7 August workers and supporters - local people, environmentalists, socialists from AWL and SWP - have maintained a 24-hour picket at the factory's front gate, and more recently also at the marine gate, the gate through which blades and other large items have to be moved in order to go on barges and be taken to Southampton.

On 22 September, large numbers of police finally steamed in to clear the marine gate and open the way for Vestas to remove blades which had been trapped in the factory since the occupation started.

Leon Trotsky on the rules for revolutionary socialism. "To face reality squarely; not to seek the line of least resistance; to call things by their right names; to speak the truth to the masses, no matter how bitter it may be; not to fear obstacles; to be true in little things as in big ones; to base one’s program on the logic of the class struggle; to be bold when the hour for action arrives..."
The Transitional Programme, 1938

Martin Thomas: The Vestas bosses announced that they were going to close the factory on 28 April. But there wasn't much campaign against the closure until three AWL members travelled to the Isle of Wight from 15 June.

There aren't many examples in our experience, or any other experience, of a factory occupation being triggered by a small group of people coming and giving out leaflets and talking with the workers. So – what allowed it to happen, and what are the lessons?

Dan Randall: The lessons are multi-faceted, but a fundamental one for me is to do with the AWL itself. It was the culmination of a number of years of serious work around this question – the theoretical work on ecology we'd done, looking back at classical Marxist ideas about the metabolism between humanity and nature; the activist work around Climate Camp and helping build Workers' Climate Action; our general culture around producing workplace bulletins and having an industrial perspective. That's all part of the DNA of the AWL. It's what equipped Ed, Pat Rolfe, and Dan Rawnsley to go down to the Isle of Wight and do what they did.

The SWP were sniffing around the factory before we were but gave up because they couldn't see quick results. What we did was not something that any left group could have done given luck.

Stuart Jordan: The conditions were pretty ripe for an intervention. Vestas was one of the biggest private employers on the Isle of Wight, an area with very high unemployment. It was sacking 600 workers after treating them badly while they worked there.

Ed Maltby: Things depended on the qualities of the small group of workers inside the factory who first approached us.They had a particular mentality, a sort of militant sensibility. It hadn't come from previous trade union experience. It was more a "cultural" thing. Some of them had travelled widely. They'd read. One was interested in permaculture.

I hadn't even heard of Vestas until the AWL conference at the end of May. But other comrades had done research, and equipped me, Pat and Dan Rawnsley with a list of contacts.

I felt that we were acting as carriers of the AWL's ideas, of the AWL's industrial strategy. We had learned from seeing comrades involved with the Tubeworker bulletin which AWL members on the London Underground produce and what we'd done in the student movement as Workers' Liberty members.

Bob Sutton: We didn't start with a ready-made highly-developed ability to help workers organise – but we did know what doing that looked like. We had an idea in our heads of what we should be doing, and in the course of the struggle we've very much grown in our ability to make that idea a reality.

I've been very involved in the AWL's environmental work, but I'm not sure how critical that was. I'm not sure it would've been so different had we gone to a washing-machine factory. Our environmental perspective was more something that "kicked in" after the initial stages.

Vicki Morris: Persistence was central. It's illustrated by the story of 6 July. Three weeks after starting the campaign, and three days after the big meeting on the closure, on 3 July, Ed had drawn a blank with all the workers who'd suggested at the meeting that they might be interested in talking further about resisting the closure. He decided to return home for a break.

As his train got in to Waterloo station, he finally got a phone call from a worker interested in talking. So he turned round at Waterloo and went back to the Isle of Wight again.

That persistence makes you very tired sometimes, but you have to accept that class struggle has its own logic and rhythms and you've got to bend to them.

Persistence is also central to our attitude in the campaign as a whole. We're seeing it out to the end, seeing it through with the people who started it.

Ed: The fact that we "chose" Vestas was to do with our ecological ideas. While we were engaging with workers there, the work we'd done on seeing workers' control as central to an agency for solving ecological crisis allowed us to deal with issues that we encountered, such as the incredible wastefulness of the company, like the fact that workers were more pissed off with the poor health and safety than they were with many other issues.

Because we were able to draw analogies between capitalist environmental degradation and capitalist-workplace degradation of workers' bodies, we were able to respond intelligently to a lot of the issues raised.

Also, the experience at Vestas has allowed us to teach a lot of environmental activists about some basic socialist ideas – especially people in the Climate Camp movement. We've given the notion of workers' struggle as an agency real grip.

Bob: We did punch above our weight. I suppose you could describe that as being a bit off-balance in terms of the resources we put into Vestas as against other campaigns.

Our ecological politics added a dimension to our solidarity, and provided very quick answers in the conversation you have, when coming from outside the Isle of Wight, about "why do you see this as your problem?" The implications of climate change raise revolutionary politics very quickly.

Bringing in Ron Clark from the Visteon occupation to the meeting on 3 July was, I think, a key catalyst.

Dan: I first found out about Vestas through another AWL member in Sheffield, Louise Gold. She told me about it, and then the first thing she said was "let's go to the Isle of Wight." I'm proud that approach is part of the culture of the AWL.

We did all the initial work knowing that the organisational gain we stood to make probably was very minimal. We got the rest of the left involved. We knew that our profile as an independent socialist voice might be swamped, but we did it because it was the right thing to do. We base our activity on what the struggle needs.

Martin: We should recognise there was a lot of luck in it. We might've done it all and had nothing happen.

It shows the merits of being off-balance. If you try to do everything in a balanced way, you'll just give a few seconds' attention to every struggle. It's quite common with us, as with other socialist groups, that we'll go along to a campaign, give out a leaflet, sell a few papers and come away again. We're a small organisation and our resources are spread thinly. Vestas shows what you can do if you put in more sustained effort.

But the story of what happened between 15 June and the occupation starting on 20 July isn't just the story of the AWL relating to the Vestas workers. It's also the story of how the initial group of workers who started discussing resistance to the closure, after 3 July, became larger and began to change the thinking of a larger body of workers.

As late as the very day that the factory was occupied, on the gates you still had most workers saying "yeah, it's bad, but nothing can be done". But there was a process by which one group of workers changed the thinking of another.

It's important not to see the workforce as a homogeneous mass. Or to see us as a homogeneous mass, because we were changed by it, too.

The end of the first phase of the campaign was the public meeting, sponsored by Cowes Trades Council and Workers' Climate Action, held on 3 July.

Stuart: That meeting had to be "legitimate". It had to have the look of a respectable labour movement affair. Unfortunately that meant a lot of full-time officials who saw their job as talking down any prospect of struggle. But it was important that Cowes Trades Council was hosting the meeting, and Ron Clark was on the platform, and he had something different to say.

It's always a problem being pro-trade-union with non-union workers when you know how large the weight of conservative officials is in the unions today. But on the whole, I don't think the meeting played out at all badly.

Bob: The involvement of other people from Workers' Climate Action – people like Sam Wade from the IWW – was important in building that 3 July meeting.

Ed: In the course of the campaign, Patrick Rolfe and I have kept on repeating a quote from Lenin about the importance of finding the next link in the chain and grasping it. That was something we had to do at that meeting.

When I stepped off the podium, and when workers started looking disgruntled and leaving in disgust after the speech from John Rowse, the Unite national trade group secretary, who told everyone Unite would help them sign on the dole, I remembered something Ron Clark had taught me earlier in the week about the importance of identifying potential leaders.

I ran around with my little notebook taking numbers, making contacts, talking to workers about things that could be done next, like building up a telephone list and sounding out people on the shopfloor.

Martin: After the meeting, you had the period from 3 July to 20 July, when the occupation started, and then the first phase of the occupation, to 24 July, when RMT full-time officials arrived.

The period 3 July to 20 July was mostly about the initial group of workers who got in touch with Ed meeting collectively, talking to other workers, drawing new people in, building momentum. Eventually, on 20 July, someone snitched to the management. The management tried to intimidate the workers who they thought might be involved in trying an occupation. The workers decided that they had to move quickly, quicker than they would have done otherwise, and occupy before management changed the locks or tried something else pre-emptive. They occupied on the evening of 20 July.

We were very much helpers at that stage, canvassing other trade unionists on the island for support, leafleting on the streets, trying to brief workers on what's involved in organising an occupation.

On the morning of Tuesday 21 July, we were in front of the factory with lots of workers milling around. The workers were not there as a picket line. They had turned up to work as usual. Managers had told them to go home again, but they wanted to stay around to see what was happening.

Dan: On 21 July, I think we were right to make a priority of getting a committee elected by the workers outside the gate. That was important in terms of the ownership of the dispute and making sure the dispute was led by the workers themselves.

Martin: Looking back on it, I think that on the evening of the 20th we should have spent more time talking among ourselves and working out precisely what we needed to do in the next few days.

At the time I thought we would have Unite officials down within a day or so, trying to take over. I was keen to get a workers' committee elected because I figured the workers needed a collective way of asserting themselves and trying to retain control.

It hadn't crossed my mind that Unite wouldn't show up at all, and that RMT would arrive instead. Richard Howard, secretary of the Portsmouth branch of the RMT, was there very quickly, and played a very important role. We didn't expect that. The weekend before we had tried to phone him to see if he was supportive but had been unable to reach him.

What would we have done if the RMT hadn't turned up? I think we would've approached some other union – probably the local GMB branch – but in any case it was really important that the workers were organised before full-time union officials came in.

Those first few days were tremendous. On the morning of Tuesday 21st the workers were a crowd milling around outside the factory, concerned to see that no harm came to their workmates who were occupying, but mostly not at all sure what they might do about it or what might come out of it. By the evening of Wednesday 22nd, the workers at the gate were a collective force, determined to support the occupation and see the struggle through. We also got a "families and communities" committee set up, though that never really worked properly.

We started to have regular meetings run by the workers. But mostly they were just one person making a speech, reporting what was going on inside the occupation. There wasn't debate among the workers about strategies. We had the idea of extending the picket to other gates at the factory, but it was never openly debated in the meetings.

I wonder whether we should have been pushier. We dealt with the issues by talking with lots and lots of workers individually and hoping that our arguments about opening out the meetings and extending the picket would reach a critical mass. We saw it as central to develop the workers' control of their own struggle, and we knew there was some apprehension among the workers about "outsiders". We didn't want to seize a megaphone and start preaching.

Those were proper concerns, but maybe we acted too much as a sort of "think tank" in that period, and we should have been pushier.

Ed: It's clear-cut from the political point of view is that we should have fought harder for sovereign meetings to be held. We tried to do it, and I don't know what success we would've had if we'd tried harder. Maybe it just had to take some time for that idea to percolate through a workforce with no experience of union meetings, let alone democratic and lively union meetings.

After the RMT full-time organisers arrived from RMT head office, they started organising worker-only meetings, distinct from the general meetings of everyone at the factory gate. At the time I saw worker-only meetings as a good move, potentially better for the workers developing their own independent voice.

In fact, however, the worker-only meetings were just briefings on legal matters from the RMT organisers, not debates among the workers on strategy.

Bob: The big lesson of this is that a politics of working-class self-emancipation involves giving people the skeletons and structures to organise themselves.

Dan: Bob is right, but I think we found it quite difficult to combine being the people who focused on tactics, strategy and information with making ourselves visible as an independent political element, with independent activity, that people might want to join. SWP full-timers were pretty relentless about talking to people about joining the SWP; and SP organisers arrived and immediately seized the megaphone to make long speeches about general anti-capitalism and the claimed virtues of their National Shop Stewards' Network; while we downplayed that sort of thing in favour of trying to get serious conversations about what needed to be done next.

Martin: There was a paradox. Our focus was on trying to help get a stronger organisation of the workers and a serious discussion of strategy. Because that was our focus politically, we weren't saying much along the lines of "we will do this for you", though in fact we did lots of practical-help things. The SWP, both because they are a bit bigger than AWL, and because they really didn't care much about workers' self-organisation or have any particular ideas on strategy, could come across as having a lot to offer because they could ply workers with invitations to go off and speak at Campaign Against Climate Change meetings here, there, and everywhere.

Lots of tremendously positive things happened in those few days between 20 and 24 July, but the workers' committee still wasn't functioning well at the point when the RMT arrived. It depended on a very small number of workers, so run off their feet with emergencies that they had little time to think, and they didn't organise meetings of all the workers where debate took place.

Bob Crow came to the factory gate on Thursday 23rd, and by Friday 24th the full-time officials from RMT head office were there.

Ed: The RMT was giving very useful support to radical, militant action. Even those workers who were in the occupation and initially reluctant to join the RMT after they came out now speak very positively of it. But the RMT was still basically functioning as a service provider, not an agency to help workers organise themselves. The RMT officials could've used the worker-only meetings to help the workers develop their own strategy, to take more conscious control of the dispute. They didn't. Then on 8 August, when we eventually marched into the grounds of the factory, beyond the security fence, the RMT officials soon told everyone to get out again.

Dan: I think there was also a problem about the activity outside, in that period from 20 July to the eviction on 7 August, being run just as a support operation for the workers in occupation, "the boys on the balcony". Not enough was done to get Vestas workers who weren't in the occupation to get more involved and take a bit of ownership over the dispute.

Martin: The paradox was that, when the RMT officials kept saying "the workers have to decide", that actually had an anti-democratic effect. Often the workers were not well-informed about what the RMT leaders were doing and thinking. It would have been better if the RMT had said to the workers: "this is what we think should happen", and had a debate about it. Promoting workers' control over their own disputes is not about standing back and saying "oh, we won't bother you". It's an active process.

We should've made much more of the general argument for strike committees. We have put a lot of effort into getting strike committees organised in disputes on the Tube, and fighting to get the RMT top leadership to respect them. We have an amendment to the RMT's rules, to be debated at the upcoming conference, that says that every dispute should be run by a strike committee.

In the period when the RMT officials were on site and the occupation was in progress, from 24 July until the eviction on 7 August, a lot was centred around the two court hearings, on 29 July and 4 August, where Vestas sought legal authority for the eviction.

One of the things we were arguing in that period was that we should prepare for an eviction; that we should plan in advance for an eviction not being the end of the dispute, but a signal to escalate the picket of the factory into a blockade.

On 9 August, two days after the eviction, there was a big meeting of workers and supporters at the Southern Vectis club in Newport. Mark Smith argued at that meeting for moving to a blockade. We argued for it. The SWP put all their emphasis on calling demonstrations on days of action - 12 August and 17 September - but didn't argue against a blockade.

So, a big meeting agreed to move to a blockade. But as it turned out, we didn't have the organisation to make it happen in the next few days. There were only a token few people at the back gate of the factory. Momentum started to ebb.

Ed: Should we have risked looking "pushy" and maybe putting some people off by fighting harder for the tactics and the strategy of blockading the factory? Maybe, but there are limits to what we could have achieved from a position of not having an AWL member inside the workforce.

Also, by that time some of us were very tired, and the most active workers were very tired too. The gulf between the campaign deciding something and it actually getting done was becoming deep. That was a big organisational flaw.

Bob: A new workers' committee was elected at that 9 August meeting, and one of its members was designated as responsible for organising the extension of picketing. But within two days he wasn't on the island - he was off for some days, speaking at meetings on the mainland, without anyone being chosen to take over his organising job.

There was a long-standing policy of "pillaging" key activists, by both the SWP and the RMT, to take them off to do speaking tours and the like, which made it very difficult for the workers' committee to function systematically.

Vicki: There was a certain inertia about the camp at the roundabout outside the factory's front gate by this point. People had settled in to organising the camp almost as an end in itself. It took something of an effort to re-focus on the industrial struggle that was still going on.

Ed: Although no-one at the 9 August meeting argued against blockading the factory - or against working to extend the blockade to the other factory, at Venture Quays in East Cowes, where activists occupied the roof from 4 August to 14 August - I suspect that the extension of the picket from the roundabout was seen as something that was a bit ultra-left, a bit adventurous. We hadn't fully won a political argument with the workers about using their industrial muscle to build a blockade.

Martin: A lot of the workers were very impressed by the publicity they got. After all, most people never get on the front page of the papers at any point in their lives. They don't get Government ministers agreeing to meet them. They don't get front-bench politicians, like the Lib-Dem Simon Hughes, coming to offer them warm words.

I suspect a lot of workers thought that if they could just keep up the coverage, they were going to win by sheer force of publicity. The SWP very much played on that, with their emphasis on the days of action as the key focus, and their huge over-valuation of what government minister Joan Ruddock said when she agreed to meet the RMT and a couple of workers on 6 August.

Ed: A lot of the workers regarded themselves as protesting, rather than attempting to get the company in a headlock. And there was a line coming from the SWP leadership that the important thing was creating a noise, putting up a flag, creating a photo-opportunity as a focal point for a campaign of public meetings.

Martin: So, after the eviction on 7 August, we didn't really move to an effective extension of the picketing. The action at the factory remained mostly confined to the camp on the roundabout, which wasn't blockading anything.

That was bound to lead to some loss of momentum. The day of action on 12 August was disappointing on the Isle of Wight. The main demonstration on that day, in East Cowes, was smaller than earlier ones, on 8 August or at the court hearings.

12 August was quite well supported elsewhere. Yet, as we kept on saying at the time, a scattering of meetings, demonstrations, and stunts is good, but not a way to force concessions out of a hardline employer or a government. That's what we, as AWL, spend a lot of our time doing - meetings, street stalls, small demonstrations. We think such activity is very important to raise awareness and build long-term campaigns. But we don't fool ourselves that it will force the capitalist class into concessions.

On 14 August, workers got their redundancy money. It had been postponed from 31 July. Thanks to the occupation, all workers had got two and a half weeks' extra pay and some had extra redundancy money.

We said that the redundancy money could tip things one way or the other. People could see the payment as finishing the story - "the protest was good, but it's over now". Or it could tip people into thinking that they now had nothing to lose and becoming more ready for radical action. In the previous weeks workers had been inhibited from joining the occupation at the Newport factory, or starting one in the East Cowes (Venture Quays) factory, because they feared, with obvious good cause, that such action could lose them their redundancy money.

In fact, with the redundancy payments on 14 August, things tipped towards an ebb rather than a revival. Too much momentum had been lost for them to tip the other way.

Of course, that's to do with the general state of the labour movement. If there had been solidarity strikes, things would have been different. Even if there had been proper delegations of trade unionists visiting the picket line, rather than individual union reps or branch secretaries coming to give support or donations, that would've changed things.

In the event, the campaign was quite heavily reliant on an unstated idea that publicity alone would force Vestas and the government to move. No-one wanted to argue against the strategy of blocking the blades held in the factories. But we got a lot of workers saying that Vestas was happy to let the blades sit there for many months, and wouldn't care about the value involved, £700,000. That has turned out to be untrue, but it was another way of saying: "I don't really see the point of the blockade."

Bob: Again, it's the same question of the campaign not having clear forums where people can get an overview. Questions like this – blocking the blades, extending the action to Venture Quays – were dealt with in a way where people were licensed to go off and do things if they wanted to, rather than making clear collective decisions.

I remember getting very conflicting reports about how much the blades were worth and whether Vestas was bothered about them at all. Most workers have no clear picture about the business decisions of their employer. The "open the books" line of argument should've been made much more central.

I think it remains clear that the industrial leverage in this dispute is the blockade of the marine gate. Our ability to sustain that remains to be seen. But in a crucial week, six workers were taken to the TUC Congress to conduct a bit of propaganda amongst the trade union bureaucracy instead. The different opinions and perspectives have never really been debated out.

The RMT officials never showed any interest in the blockade, and in the last couple of weeks, crucial for the blockade, there have been no RMT officials on the island.

At a Campaign Against Climate Change meeting in London on 7 September, Bob Crow appealed for donations to the workers' fund as a way to help compensate the eleven occupiers whom Vestas sacked for the loss of their redundancy. He was implicitly saying that the use of the fund for campaigning was secondary and that he didn't see the RMT as using the blockade to push Vestas to reinstate the redundancy money.

Vicki: It's important now to mobilise enough people to go to the blockade so that when the crunch comes, there's enough people there to make a good showing. The company might offer something – that's one scenario. Another scenario is that they'll come for the blades and get the police in to clear the marine gate. If it comes to that, we want at least thirty or forty people there for that experience rather than just a dozen.

Martin: I think winning reinstatement for the eleven is still possible. The blockade should be seen not as a gesture, but as a tactic with a particular aim in mind. It's important to have a realistic assessment of what can be won now, and what can't be.

It's also important to start at this stage to develop the next stage - about rebuilding the labour movement on the Isle of Wight, especially through the Trades Councils, and organising a proper campaign for jobs. The tax office and Gurit, a factory just across the road from Vestas, are already cutting jobs. Jobs are likely to be cut with the schools reorganisation now under way. The postal workers' dispute is about job cuts.

There are practical things to be done and work on them has to start as soon as possible, so that the people who've stuck the Vestas dispute out to the end go on to the next stage with some energy still fresh, rather than staying on this stage until they're so exhausted that they have to step back.

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