|Volume 49 Number 21, November 16, 2019||ARCHIVE||HOME||JBCENTRE||SUBSCRIBE|
November 27, 2009, marked the end of the Vestas dispute on the Isle of Wight, the day when the encampment on the traffic island, famously dubbed the "magic roundabout", outside the factory was finally evicted. The occupation of the plant had ended on Friday, August 7, 2009, when workers refused to be removed by police and bailiffs. Instead, those who had barricaded themselves inside the offices were seen abseiling down two stories from the balcony; one worker even jumped the two stories, facing injury rather than be handled by bailiffs.
It was in July that year that 25 Vestas workers began a sit-in to try to save the factory from closure with the loss of more than 600 jobs. Months of struggle ensued, culminating in their eviction from the factory following a court order prompted by the company.
The Vestas occupation became widely admired, inspiring poetry and cartoons; prompting meetings and rallies through Newport, as well as manifestations of solidarity across the country and even internationally. There were actions held at Job Centres, somebody scaled a crane in Southampton, and a song became popular: "The Boys on the Balcony" by the group "Seize the Day", known for their anti-war and pro-environmental stands.
The occupation invigorated politics on the Isle of Wight and breathed some new oxygen into the Trades Councils and trades unions and their day-to-day affairs. Attention to the struggle caused politicians such as Ed Miliband and Caroline Lucas to visit the "magic roundabout". The late Bob Crow, then General Secretary of the RMT, was a regular visitor, rousing people with solidarity speeches. On the first anniversary of the struggle, the roundabout was re-occupied. Many Isle of Wight councillors supported, and activists from groups such as Workers' Climate Action took part. The speeches informed the people that the fight for jobs, justice and the climate is far from over on the Isle of Wight and beyond, a sentiment that resonates ten years later.
The workers at Vestas had taken the bold step of occupying the offices of the management of Vestas Blades UK. It was against the arbitrary decision by the Swedish monopoly owners to close what was actually a profitable plant, the biggest private employer in an area of high unemployment, in a time of recession. The decision was made to close a factory that had been producing blades for wind turbines on a would-be "eco-island" just at a time when people were talking about investment in green technology, one year after the financial crash of 2008.
One slogan of the Save Vestas Campaign at the time was: "Save Vestas, Save Jobs, Save the Planet". At the same time, a huge banner was displayed prominently on the factory gates on which were inscribed the words: "Whose Factory? Our Factory! Whose Blades? Our Blades!" It was pinned to the gates in front of the "magic roundabout" for all passers-by to see. It epitomised the outlook of the working class and workers in occupation. This banner was carried at the head of a blockade organised in August 2009 and co-ordinated with the workers who had occupied.
In a statement at the time, the occupying workers said: "We believe that wind energy belongs to the people, and that it is workers who have built this factory and made these blades. It is our side that have demonstrated the determination to guarantee the future of renewable energy and the creation of socially useful jobs for all. It is long overdue to take back the power from the likes of Vestas and the politicians who work to defend their profits."
After the eviction, the Newport site was picketed 24/7, seriously disrupting and delaying the company's plans. As well as protests, the campaign held regular educational events and outreach work to bring ordinary people together to champion their right to socially useful work, with a union recognition and freedoms. For a month after the eviction of the occupation, there was daily leafleting of the remaining workforce with information.
After these events, Vestas was challenged continuously, and still are to the present day. Vestas denied workers their legal right to redundancy and some still have not received adequate compensation for their families. The RMT union continued to appeal against their dismissal. A series of forums was organised by the workers in the aftermath. They summed up the campaign and occupation, discussed public ownership and the way forward, as well as important issues concerning climate change, political representation, jobs and services. Afterwards, Vestas workers embarked on a speaking tour of the country, talking in Nottingham, London, Plymouth, Bristol, Cardiff, Leeds and Sheffield.
The Ryde Trades Council, which had always played a prominent part in the struggle and had huge affinity with the occupiers, said that only the working class can save the day on the Isle of Wight. In summing up, it said amongst other things:
"With Vestas closing, the crisis on the Isle of Wight has been exacerbated. Hundreds of jobs at Vestas and related suppliers and indeed the local economy are all affected. The issue on the island is how it can be led out of this crisis. Only a workers' movement, organised and conscious, can solve this serious problem. Only the working class can save the day on the island.
"Vestas workers are a contingent of the working class as a whole. The capitalists want to deny this, separate them and marginalise the workers who have disrupted their peace. The big monopolies are the cause of the crisis in the first place. They are the ones that take more out of the island economy than they put in. They are the ones who up sticks and move out… What is needed is more put into the island economy than is taken out. This means investment in social programmes and not handouts to the rich. This is the experience of Vestas.
"The working class on the island need a workers' movement that is conscious and organised. It requires the Vestas workers by their side to develop this process. Workers are becoming more aware of their role. They are not making it a point of departure whether anyone is socialist, communist or green. Socialists and environmentalists put forward their views to solve the crisis. Yet the working class are becoming aware of their special position as the arbiters of change. Only the working class can save the day and develop a programme to lead the people out of the crisis."
In those days, the Vestas workers were raising the issue of empowerment, decision-making and control. They were developing their ideas about the direction of the economy and suggesting possibilities for alternatives. When they raised the issue of intervention and public ownership and control, the government of the day refused, saying that the government could not reverse "commercial decisions". Of course, this was and is the neo-liberal outlook. They were acting in the name of the state and private big business. These were the privileged decision-makers. As people said at the time: "Can't or won't?" They acted in the name of private property and not on behalf of the democratic rights of the people involved, which is why the workers wanted decision-making to pass into their own hands. There is no such thing as "Can't". Companies can be told to change, and monopoly right can be restricted.
The Vestas occupation has shown that the workers can discuss, decide and take decisions when they feel empowered to do so. Despite the closure of Vestas on the Isle of Wight, the struggle is one of those which points the way forward to what can happen when human beings seize the initiative and organise.
The Deeds of the Vestas Workers Live On!
(With thanks to the Ryde Trades Council - the RTUC - for its contributions to this article)