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Vestas: the fight is far from over
At the Socialist Party's summer camp, Mark Smith and Mark Flowers, workers who had been in occupation at the St Cross Vestas wind turbine manufacturers on the Isle of Wight (IOW), spoke to The Socialist. Both Marks are now members of the RMT transport workers' union and made it clear that the struggle will continue.
At the time of the camp the workers were preparing for the day of action on Thursday 17 September. A march is planned on the island and the workers want to make it clear that, although they were evicted from their occupation, the campaign is not going away.
Mark Smith described the occupation and the bullying tactics the company employed. This came after a long history of intimidation and harassment on the job. On the first day of the occupation the local police threatened to smash in the doors and to drag them out, and to charge the workers for the damage.
On the second day the riot police were banging at the doors with their shields. "This was very unnerving. We didn't know what they were going to do". Later Vestas' security firm hammered wedges under the doors and cable-tied the handles to see if the occupiers tried to get out. They were threatened with a charge of aggravated trespass, and denied proper access to food.
In fact, supporters at one point resorted to catapulting tennis balls stuffed with chocolates, cigarettes etc, to stave off starvation. The management had Mark Smith's number to arrange the meagre food rations but they used it to call up at all times of the day and night, threatening that the workers in occupation would never work on the island again.
Contrast this to the support and solidarity that has poured in from workers, not only from all over Britain, but from occupying factory workers in Korea, from trade unionists in Australia, the US and elsewhere. Mark Smith, whose number was distributed when the occupation began, so supporters could send solidarity messages, said it "didn't stop ringing for four days. Since then the support has been phenomenal... It boosts the way you feel about things and makes you feel like carrying on the struggle."
At this stage the main focus of the campaign, apart from the urgent fight for redundancy pay for the eleven sacked occupiers, is stopping the turbine blades that were inside the factory getting out. The blades are worth £70,000 each and around nine remained in the factory. They also hope to prevent Vestas removing the moulds used to make the blades, which are worth £1 million each. A 24-hour picket is in operation, and support continues to grow.
This required large amounts of effort as the workers were having to be out looking for new work, and had to try to get on with their lives - no easy task with only 100 jobs on the island at that point. Many of those were seasonal jobs - in bars, kitchens, care work etc which very possibly could be surplus to requirement after the holidays. And these are skilled industrial workers. It's not easy to move to care work.
The effect of Vestas closing, which contributed £13 million a year to the island's economy, is yet to be fully felt. But the effect of the new level of trade union activity is already clear. RMT Vestas workers marched down to the postal workers' picket line to give solidarity and support. A meeting to plan a day of action in support of the Vestas workers' demands had 44 in attendance, mainly trade union activists, including Vectis bus workers who are also organised in the RMT and taking industrial action, postal workers who are organised in the CWU and ferry workers.
They had also been discussing with shop owners about a possible half-hour solidarity closure. The GMB is also starting to organise some previously unorganised workplaces on the island where cuts and closures are threatened.
Vestas is known as a viciously anti-union employer. Mark and Mark described the company's drive for profit which disregarded health and safety legislation to such an extent that the, usually slow to respond, Health and Safety Executive (HSE) fined them.
So dangerous to health was sanding the blades that workers should only do it for three hours a day. However, at the Vestas plant the timers kept breaking and many spent up to six or seven hours at it. This could result in 'white finger' - a condition where workers lose sensation in their fingers and suffer damage to the nerves.
A number of workers became sensitised to the epoxy resins used in the preparation of the blades. Symptoms include a rash with nasty blisters and also respiratory problems where the resin becomes airborne. The workers said that despite health and safety legislation the air in the factory sparkled with resin dust. Sensitivity makes working in the industry impossible. Vestas tried to blame the workers to avoid compensation.
Apparently the resin is banned in Denmark so a lot of the resin work is done on the IOW. After the HSE fine the regulations were adhered to - until the pressure built up. Bullying from the top down risked workers' health.
A union workplace
Since joining the union Mark and Mark and the others became acutely aware of the difference union organisation makes. Each Vestas factory is forced to compete with the other plants for funding and investment.
The IOW St Cross plant had the highest production, particularly after workers there had been promised that the plant would be re-tooled to make blades that could be sold in the UK - if they agreed to speed-ups, shift changes which had detrimental effects on the workers' health and personal lives, and other intensifications.
Instead of job security for the workers at the St Cross factory, the workforce was shocked to hear they were expected to train the American workers to do their jobs after closure! Far from being on its uppers, Vestas, already in profit to a tune of £72 million for the first quarter of the year, was laughing all the way to the bank with rumoured plans to double the price of the blades in the US.
Now a skilled workforce will be lost. In a show of blatant profit-seeking, Vestas is opening factories in eastern Europe, where they hope to exploit cheaper wages.
Benefits and jobseeking
The sacked workers have also been shocked at the rate of benefits available. Many, on the basis of the promise of secure jobs, had taken out mortgages and now face the potential of losing their homes. With the scarcity of jobs on the island, Vestas jobseekers have been told that they risk losing their benefits if they are not willing to accept any job, including jobs off the island.
With almost 600 newly redundant workers, the island's jobcentre held an open day but Mark Smith found that he received only one suitable job offer - and that that was in Holland and even if he moved his family there he would be travelling away for three to four months a year.
Vestas had initially offered to contribute around £700 per worker towards the cost of retraining but withdrew this when they found out the government was offering grants. In any case the workers discovered that this money would have been taken from that set aside for redundancy pay.
Sickeningly, this company which has shown a blatant disregard for workers' rights, has been in receipt of large amounts of public money. Via the South East Development Agency (Seda) they had received £6 million, but apparently with no demands on job security or rights for the workers.
Campaigners have spoken to the council about the possibility of withdrawing financial support for Vestas' other sites on the island which are owned by Seda. The campaign calls for nationalisation of the threatened or closed factories factory. Given the workers' experience this could not be a 'Northern Rock style' nationalisation.
The workers would also demand a say in how the factories were run and also that the bullying management would have to go. There would also be conditions such as employing people from the island and the right to be organised in a union.
Beyond the day of action there were plans for taking the campaign to the TUC to build support and for producing a broadsheet to keep supporters up to date. Through their membership of the RMT and through the experience of their struggle, the workers said that they felt part of a bigger movement and had had their outlook transformed.
Initially they had just wanted to talk to Vestas and never expected things to turn out as they have. Their message is clear - you don't have to take what the bosses chuck at you - you can stand up and fight!
Join the Vestas day of action
Thursday 17 September
Lobby at 12.30pm and demonstration at 5.30pm outside the Department of Energy and Climate Change
3 Whitehall Place, London SW1A 2AW
26 Feb Austerity kills
Phone our national office on 020 8988 8777
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