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Proletarian issue 31 (August 2009)
Workers occupy Vestas as economic crisis deepens
The green shoots of British working-class resistance.
The Office for National Statistics has just trampled all over the fictitious ‘green shoots of recovery’ with another bundle of dire economic indicators.

The crisis deepens ...

In the three months to May, the official number of jobless rose by a record 281,000, making a grand total of 2.38 million. Across the board, 7.6 percent of the workforce is now unemployed.

With young people heavily overrepresented in the dole queues, and the number of long-term unemployed going through the roof, we see the prospects of a whole generation of young workers blighted and an economy facing deep stagnation.

A separate BBC survey recently revealed that two out of three people interviewed knew somebody who has lost a job through the recession, and four out of ten feared losing their own jobs.

... as does workers’ resistance ...

Faced with the real consequences of the overproduction crisis, more and more workers are getting fed up with a trade-union leadership that remains tied to the apron strings of the Labour party and are opting for strikes and other forms of direct action to counter the naked class aggression encountered at the hands of employers.

Postal workers continue to go on strike against management plans to prepare Royal Mail for privatisation under the guise of ‘modernisation’. Strikes, or the threat of strikes, resulting earlier in the reinstatement of Rob Williams in Swansea, have more recently secured the reinstatement of Errol Maison, a shop steward at Whipps Cross University hospital in London’s East End.

And resort to the tactic of occupying plants declared ‘surplus to requirement’ – notably at Prisme Packaging in Dundee, Waterford Crystal in Ireland and Visteon’s three plants – has grabbed the headlines and forced at least limited concessions from previously intransigent bosses.

Now the largely non-unionised Vestas workers are setting a sterling example in their battle to defend jobs (and the environment) by occupying their closure-threatened windmill blade factory on the Isle of Wight.

... opening new avenues for political work

Strikes and occupations in themselves do not constitute a revolutionary challenge to capitalism, it is true. Even Barack Obama, when he was running for the White House, gave guarded support to the Chicago workers who had occupied their windows and doors factory sooner than be robbed of their severance pay.

But the training in struggle that such experiences afford – not least the experience of the active treachery of the Labour party and its fifth column within the unions – cannot but weaken the hold of social democracy upon organised labour, creating the conditions under which the argument for the establishment of socialism and an end to wage slavery can begin to find a ready audience.

The Vestas occupation

Faced with the threat of imminent closure of the Isle of Wight wind turbine plant by its Dutch owners Vestas, with 625 jobs at stake, the occupation by threatened workers began on 20 July. The employer’s response was to sack 11 of the occupying workers and begin court proceedings to oust the occupants forcibly. The eviction notices were smuggled in along with the pizzas, which, for form’s sake, the company had provided.

Despite the face-saving charade of passing token amounts of food through to the men, the company has in effect adopted a policy of starving the occupiers into submission, employing security guards to block supporters’ efforts to get food through, and, more recently, erecting a wire fence to block access.

One man had to be hospitalised in consequence of the semi-starvation conditions, with a dramatic fall in his blood-sugar levels. Meanwhile, supporters have reportedly breached the fence and are trying to get food through.

The workers’ bold action has inspired a broad wave of support, from environmental campaigners as well from trade unions, notably the RMT. Such has been the level of popular support on the island that Newport County Court has not yet felt able to make itself the open accomplice of Vestas’s bully-boy tactics.

On 29 July, the court refused to grant them a possession order, judging it more politic to adjourn the case till 4 August. On 31 July, the company combined a step back with an attempt at divide and rule, provisionally withdrawing redundancy notices from all but the 11 already declared sacked.

Background

The Vestas management want to cut a total of 1,900 jobs across northern Europe. They argue that, since there is more demand for wind farms in the States than in the UK, it makes no sense to keep the plant open here.

But in the USA, the future of a sane renewable policy is no less at the mercy of a market dogged by eroding demand. The obscenely wealthy T Boone Pickens has stopped bragging about the 4,000 megawatt wind farm he was going to build in Texas – the biggest in the world, it was claimed. Now demand has dried and the project is on hold.

China, by contrast, this year overtook the US as the world’s largest market for wind energy. According to the International Herald Tribune, China “is now building six wind farms with a capacity of 10,000 to 20,000 megawatts apiece, using extensive low-interest loans from state-owned banks”. It seems that in China there is no problem in getting bank loans for vast modernisation projects that are to the evident benefit of the whole population, as well as the environment in which they dwell.

Meanwhile, in Britain, national energy policy is dictated by the market, completely at the mercy of the anarchy of capitalist production, with empty promises of “400,000 new green jobs in the next five years” just so much chaff in the electoral wind. The government’s definition of ‘green’ jobs is sufficiently elastic to include both bin men and venture capitalists, and the £6m bribe to Vestas provides no guarantees for employment, now or in the future.

So stung was the local Tory MP, Andrew Turner, by one of the proposals put forward in a meeting with the striking Vestas workers that he felt impelled to rail against it in the local paper. The proposed solution, “for the state to build factories and to dictate to private businesses when, where and how they should operate them”, struck this gentleman as “based on discredited, far-left ideology”. He reproved the delegation, pointing out that, “unless there is a change in the law [!], the idea was dead in the water”.

We should thank Mr Turner for raising this question in the press. Could it be that some readers of The Island Pulse might actually warm to the idea of a planned socialist economy, when faced so starkly with the consequences of the unplanned anarchy of capitalism? Might some not be prompted to wonder precisely which ideology it is that is truly “discredited”?

What you can do

We reproduce below some of the solidarity actions urged by campaign organisers.

•    Make a donation to the campaign online at savevestas.wordpress.com

•    Promote the campaign in your union branch. Send signatures/donations to Tony Kelly, Secretary, Ryde and East Wight Trades Union Council, 22 Church Lane, Ryde, Isle of Wight, PO33 2NB. Email tony.kelly97@virgin.net

•    Send a message of support from yourself or your branch by email to savevestas@gmail.com, or by text to 07980 703115 / 07970 739921 / 07733 388888

•    Organise a demonstration of solidarity. Take a photo with a placard that reads ‘Save Vestas’ and email it to savevestas@gmail.com
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