Trade unionists and activists gathered at Soas in London on Friday evening to share stories from the recent wave of occupations and discuss the next steps for the growing resistance.
Speakers from the occupations at Vestas, Thomas Cook and Visteon told of their experiences. They were joined on the platform by the Right to Work Campaign and Campaign Against Climate Change, which came together to issue a call to action.
Jessie Fenn, an organiser for the TSSA union, was part of the Thomas Cook occupation in Dublin. “The struggle came directly from the workers,” she told the meeting. “These were mostly young women. They’d not been involved in anything like it before.
“Once it became clear that the shops were going to close we balloted for industrial action. The result was 100 percent in favour. Then three managers arrived from England and said ‘we’re closing you down now’. The workers said ‘no you’re not’.
“It’s the most emotional and inspirational experience I’ve ever been involved in. These women were naturals. We supported them as a union but really they did it themselves.”
Jessie told of the mutual solidarity that the occupation had built between groups of workers. “The Dublin dock workers who were on strike came to support us. And on Monday the Thomas Cook workers are going down there to support them.
“We’ve had workers around the world staging protests for us. The level of support has been really surprising.”
Ron Clark, from the Visteon occupation, agreed that the strength of solidarity with occupations has been incredible. “You get a bit shocked,” he said. “We had so much support from all over. You think, there’s only a few of us and we’ve caused all this.”
He spoke about how the experience at Visteon shows that the Vestas fight is now in a critical stage. “When you leave the occupation, morale can drop. They need to keep picketing, and you all need to keep going down there.
“They can win—if anything they’ve got a better hand of cards than we had. That plant should be nationalised.”
Charlie Kimber, for the Right to Work Campaign, said, “It’s a privilege to be on this platform. This is a group of people who have transformed the situation in Britain and Ireland.
“They’ve changed the sense that when they come for your job there’s nothing you can do. Suddenly the notion of occupation is in the air. It’s not just something that happens in France — we can have them in London or Dublin.”
Phil Thornhill of the Campaign Against Climate Change, spoke about the importance of the Vestas occupation. He said, “The climate emergency is real, it’s desperate, and we need to do something.
“We need to do big things very quickly. That means green jobs. And that could get us out of the recession. The government needs to make that real.”
Seb Sikora, one of the Vestas occupiers, then told the meeting his story. He got a massive round of applause before he’d even said a word.
Seb talked about what life was like at Vestas before the occupation. “It’s a hard, physical job,” he said. “When they announced we were switching from four days on, four days off to five days a week, they said if we didn’t agree, there’s the door.
The workforce was demoralised and in no mood to fight, however far managers pushed them. But the betrayal many felt at the closure of the factory, combined with the insultingly low redundancy packages of a few hundred pounds, lit a spark of anger.
“I came to a meeting on the Monday,” said Seb. “They told me they were planning to take the factory. But someone had already grassed them up. I shouted out, ‘why not do it now?’ And so we went home and got some stuff.
“At 5.30pm, someone had to go first, and it was me. But when they barricaded themselves in they accidentally locked me out, so I spent most of the first day at home.
“The next day a few activists were running around in front of the plant. So while the police were chasing them I just went and walked in.”
Seb then spent two weeks in occupation. Life inside the factory was hard, but there was a spirit of camaraderie. “The managers were trying to starve us out,” Seb explained. “People threw tennis balls with food in. But they couldn’t throw! The security guards collected something like 50 tennis balls.
“The next day people started coming to the balcony with food. Then the steel fence went up. But some of you know about all the little victories we had, getting the managers to bring us food.
“Unfortunately all of us inside got sacked with our dinner. We’ve lost everything. But if you asked any of us if we’d do it again, we’d do it again.”
Speakers from the floor exchanged ideas about what could be done on the national day of action in solidarity with Vestas workers this coming Wednesday.
“We’re asking everyone to do something at 12 noon,” Seb told the meeting. “People have all sorts of ideas, but let’s start small.
“Down tools for half an hour or an hour. Put a banner outside—not only for us but for everyone who’s struggling to save their jobs. If we keep doing that, it could have a tremendous effect.”
National day of action in solidarity with Vestas workers
Wednesday 12 August
Organise whatever action you can for 12 noon