The Answer is Blowing in the Wind
by Aidan Barlow
It was a warm and blissful summer’s day on the Isle of Wight, and workers at the Vestas factory, which specialises in wind turbine production, arrive to work. They had, on the face of it, every reason to be happy and contented workers. Vestas boasts ‘it is important all our employees… enjoy a high level of well being’. Vestas also claims to be ‘the world’s leading supplier of wind power solutions’ [i].So the benevolent capitalist employer not only cared for well being, but could surely bestow ‘plenty of work’[ii] for its truly happy workers to engage in. What could possibly go wrong to shatter this harmonious illusion?
The bliss was shattered by Vestas, who planned to sack 625 workers at the Isle of Wight plant, describing how there was ‘no market’ for the products being made. This absurdity, at a time when demand for green energy is essential, exposes the capitalist system and its inherent contradictions. The environmental imperative to construct wind turbines and the desperate need to save the planet mean nothing when short-term profits of the capitalists are threatened.
The reaction of the workers was not to sit back and accept the reasons for redundancies. They clearly understood the importance of keeping their jobs, as Vestas is one of the largest single employers on the island. They were not prepared to tolerate the harsh reality of unemployment, which has spread throughout the world, leaving millions of workers in desperation. Instead, the workers called upon the government to nationalise the plant, and to do so, employed the tactic of occupation.
Occupation has a colourful history within workers struggle, and once more today, workers are learning the lessons of its effectiveness. They are seeing the power of their direct action, as workers in Russia did during 1917, Italy in 1920, and also in America by the CIO union in the car industry during the 1930s.[iii] It proved the potential of occupation as a method for workers’ demonstrating their own collective power. In more modern times, there was a spate of occupations which emanated from France and Belgium following from the events of 1968.[iv] In Britain, there was a spate of industrial sit ins through the 1970s.[v]
The occupations are all the more relevant when we see the increase in the use of this tactic recently. By no means is Vestas an isolated incident. At the end of 2008, workers at the Prisme factory in Dundee were made redundant, and chose to take direct action to fight back. Consequent to their action, they were able to establish a worker’s co-operative at the plant. Similarly, Visteon workers occupied their workplaces, winning major concessions from their former employers with increased redundancy pay. It certainly shows how direct action gets results. However a question remains as to whether the current examples during recession truly represent workers becoming radicalised.
I feel the radicalism of workers has been and is being demonstrated by the fact that these struggles are taking place independent of recognised trade unions. Workers themselves are taking the direct action initiative. Furthermore, radicalism of workers was also demonstrated at Vestas where Liberal Democrat MP Simon Hughes was jeered for not supporting the workers action. This is no surprise, as workers are not interested in hearing spurious liberal rhetoric. Liberals do not understand the shaking impulse of our time, or how the heart beat quickens with the bravery and courage of direct action. One Vestas worker described how the ‘occupation made me feel alive’.[vi] It is this legacy of struggle that is bequeathed to us from Spartacus; it is a spirit that resides within us from struggles such as the peasants’ revolt, the French Revolution and Peterloo.
The Vestas workers are showing how radicalised people can become amidst a capitalist crisis. Prior to the event, little prospect of such militant action seemed imagineable, but workers united together, and brought together the whole community to support the direct action. They faced tough battles against the capitalist legal system, scurrilous police tactics [vii] and manipulative Vestas media relations. Their action presents us all with a stark choice, to accept the path of neo-liberal capitalism as it meanders through the desolate wasteland it has created, or to resist.
Resistance is spreading, and the action at Vestas demonstrates that workers’ hearts can be moved to stand up to resist capitalist desolation, and instead move into a future based on human need. Indeed, this year saw occupations across university campuses following Israeli aggression against Gaza, and universities such as SOAS have also seen occupations against redundancy and deportations. Furthermore, it is not just universities that have used occupations; there are countless other examples of people using the method. For example, people have taken the action to defend much-loved primary schools from closure, such as at Wyndford[viii] and also at Lewisham, and workers at Thomas Cook have also taken similar measures in Dublin. People are employing the method to resist capitalist cuts to services, at a time when they are most needed.
Therefore in conclusion, the struggle at Vestas very much proves that the neo-liberal agenda can be resisted and challenged. Vestas can be a revitalising beacon to inspire many future struggles. The action has united workers, and acts as a light to future struggles. It teaches us a valuable lesson, that when there are problems in the world; we must be prepared to engage with them, and not leave the problems to those who have failed. History is within our hands, and from the collective thoughts, words and actions, we can create a better world to bequeath to future generations.
[ii] Robert Tressell: The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, quoting the conservatives pledge for ‘plenty of work’.
[vii] Green party position. http://www.greenparty.org.uk/news/22-07-2009-police-tactics-at-Vestas-occupation.html