The Vestas factory on the Isle of Wight was Britain’s only significant producer of wind turbines – and one of the biggest employers on the island. But despite government promises of “green jobs”, bosses there were able to suddenly close the factory, sacking 600 people.
The Vestas workers’ response was to occupy. Their battle to save their jobs – and save the planet – has inspired people looking to fight back against the recession and climate change. It has sparked solidarity protests and meetings across the country and around the world.
Vestas workers Mike Godley, Ian Terry, Tracey Yeates and Phil Moor spoke to Socialist Worker
What was it like to work at Vestas?
Ian: I came down from London to get an environmentally friendly job. There were all sorts of aptitude tests, and when I finally got in I thought I’d done something special.
But it wasn’t as good as it seemed. In the interview we were told everything was driven from the bottom up – workers could give their ideas, you know. That it wasn’t just a job. That turned out to be a load of rubbish.
When I started they were using floor sanders on the blades but there was no way they could suck up the dust.
I was an environmental rep. But there was no emphasis put on the environment there at all!
Tracey: Yeah, I’d liked the idea that I’d be working for a green company that was local to me, but you know what it’s like when you read job ads – everything’s rosy and it’s the best job in the world. When you actually start, you see another side.
I got quite involved in health and safety and thought I could improve things. However, it seemed if it suited production, management would let things be done that weren’t good for health and safety.
Yet if they were trying to get rid of somebody, they’d watch them like a hawk and come down really hard on them on health and safety grounds.
Phil: The part of the factory I worked in was where the two halves of the blade are glued together. You’re jumping in the mould when it’s only just been turned off from 50 degrees.
It was making me ill. Before I worked there I was fine but now I’ve got problems with my knees, my neck and bad shakes.
I’ve never worked anywhere like it. There just seemed to be no respect for anything or anyone.
Ian: It wasn’t a nice place to work. We’ve been fighting to save our jobs but we want the factory run by someone else.
How did people react when they told you the factory was closing?
Mike: A few months before that, they’d made an announcement saying they were going to convert the factory to new technology and that we were going to have our jobs for years to come. So people went out and got mortgages and cars and all that.
Tracey: I was really excited because we were going to learn new things.
Then they came and said it’s not happening.
Mike: They turned around and said, “actually, we’re sacking you all”. It was a big shock.
Ian: Then we had two months where not much happened. People understood what was going on but didn’t think we could really do anything about it.
What did you think about the idea of occupying the factory?
Phil: I picked up a couple of leaflets that talked about that, but I wasn’t involved with any of the serious discussions about the occupation. I just thought, no one’s going to do anything. The attitude in there was always every man for himself.
Mike: The turning point was when I got a phone call from a friend who was a team leader on another shift. He said, “We’ve got a plan and we need more people from your team. Come along to this meeting.”
I was doubtful, but I went along. Afterwards I said, “Yes. I think this is what we should do.”
Tracey: To be honest it was only after they occupied that I thought that occupying could make a difference. I’d read the leaflets, but thought nobody was going to get involved.
So did everything go to plan?
Ian: The plan wasn’t something we could broadcast. So we had small meetings in people’s houses and pubs. We didn’t know who could be trusted.
Mike: On Tuesday morning we were going to take the factory. We were going to go into work, and then hand out the leaflets saying, “We are occupying this factory”. We thought it’d be that simple.
On Monday we were doing some last minute recruiting but two of the people we spoke to grassed us up.
Me and Ian got pulled into the office, and the manager said, “What’s this I hear that you’re going to occupy the factory?”
Ian: The managers said, “Look, we’re cleverer than you. How stupid do you think we are? Did you really think you’d get away with it?”
Mike: Those who grassed us up were people we’ve worked with for years, we thought they were our friends. It was a shock when they went to the managers.
Anyway, we had an emergency meeting as soon as we finished work. We said it’s not going to happen tomorrow, it’s got to happen today.
So we went home for 20 minutes, got all our stuff and then came back.
How did you get in?
Mike: We sat in the picnic area at the back of the plant and waited for people to arrive.
Ian: By chance, one of the managers rode past on his bike with his wife and kid. He saw us with the ropes, chains and sleeping bags and camping gear. We wanted to hold on to see if others were coming, but we knew that management had heard about our occupation plans, so we had to go there and then.
Mike: We split up into two teams to try different doors. There were five on my team and the rest were on the other. So we went round trying all these doors.
Ian: I think we tried every door in the factory but we couldn’t get in. Panic was setting in. The last one we tried was the one we managed to get through – the front door. I just clocked in like normal with my swipe card.
Mike: We ran straight in, upstairs, into a room, in the dark. And we hid behind this door. We didn’t have the chains or ropes, nothing – the other team had them.
So we waited and rang them. We said, “Where are you?” They were still outside. Seb went to check whether the coast was clear and try and let them in but he got locked out! Luckily he got in the next day – he was one of the three people who rushed the gate.
Phil: A few hours later, somebody texted me and said quick, turn on the news and I saw that they’d occupied.
What was it like inside?
Ian: The first couple of days were hairy. Security were storming the building. Police were coming in with riot shields. They were rattling doors.
Mike: It was chaos. We were trying to secure the doors, and for the first two days I had about two hours sleep.
Once we were in, I was just waiting for that moment when they’d come and get us out. And there weren’t even 20 of us inside, there were 14. We wanted the managers to think there were more.
Ian: At one point we had about 50 people ready to occupy. But we were rushed into going in – and if you were there at the right time, you got in.
Mike: The media coverage was just unbelievable. I got a phone call from my brother-in-law in South Africa. “You’re on the news here,” he said. I heard we were on the news in America. We were in the New York Times. It was absolutely crazy.
How did the workers outside the occupation feel?
Tracey: When they occupied I thought, they’ve made a real stand here and they need our support. I never believed they’d be in there for so long. It just shows if people work together what can be achieved. I was outside the factory every day.
Phil: I said to myself, if they’ve had the balls to go in and do it, I’m going to make sure that I support them. I got involved as much as I could but assumed they’d be in there for a couple of days at the most.
We had support from a lot of people and different groups. Initially there was quite a division between us. But as time went on, and people started to get to know each other, those barriers started to break down.
Mike: When I came out of the occupation, I thought we’d done a lot of work by being in there but everyone on the outside was really tired.
After doing the organising for a week, I was shattered too. I thought, why is the workload not more shared out? We had a meeting and the workers agreed to start a committee.
What do you think of the response around the country so far?
Ian: I went to London to speak to a postal workers’ union meeting. They gave me a great reception. It was massive – around 300 or 400 people – and I just tried to encourage them to stick up for themselves.
I think it shows how many people are interested in fighting for jobs and the climate.
Tracey: I spoke in Norwich. I’d never have dreamed of doing that off my own bat. But someone said, “We need people to go and talk, can you go?”
There were several different unions represented there. I gave a brief history of myself, and what was happening with our struggle.
The response was unbelievable. I came back with about £250 in donations and promises of future support. It went into the local paper up there so we got publicity too. It’s essential that we carry on doing that kind of thing.
Phil: I spoke to a trade union meeting in Oxford and I’ve tried to encourage others to do the same. You can see our fight as just being here on the island, but when you go and speak to people in other parts of the country you find out that they’re really behind you. You realise it’s bigger than just the Isle of Wight.
Ian: It keeps up the pressure on the government too. Hearing the government talking about green jobs all over the place is like nails down a blackboard. They obviously didn’t care about our jobs being lost.
Have you heard anything from the government?
Mike: Me and another of the workers, Sean, went up to London to have a meeting with Joan Ruddock, the minister from the department of environment and climate change.
We sat there and they walked over, all these big people in this big government building. And Sean’s nudging me going, I can’t believe this. And I’m like, I know. All of a sudden we’re sat here with the government, crazy.
They said they’d offered Vestas money but they wouldn’t sell. They said they’d tried to get investors in there to take it over but Vestas won’t allow it. They said they’d offered money to keep it open but Vestas won’t take it.
This company only came to the island for the money – it’s had a five year tax break. Then it decides to pack up, leaving the local economy in ruins. If I was the government I’d say we’re not going to hand you money if you treat people like this.
What’s happening with the campaign?
Mike: The campaign has grown so much bigger than we could have ever imagined.
It’s about the government not keeping their promises, and it’s about renewable energy and global warming, and it’s about green jobs and the island economy… it’s got so many meanings this campaign, it’s taken on a life of its own.
Tracey: The next national day of action is on Thursday 17 September. People can show their support by putting posters up, talking to other people, popping out in their lunch of hour… there’s lots of ways.
Mike: We put the date of the day of action back because we wanted to give people a bit of time to organise things.
For example, it would be excellent if teachers taught our curriculum for the day – all about climate change and things like that.
Before the occupation, climate change wasn’t big on my agenda. Paying the bills, providing for my family – that was my motivation. But now it’s opened my eyes to the bigger picture.
And it’s taught me how to do all sorts of things that I couldn’t do before. It’s helped me become more organised in myself. It’s changed my life completely.
Tracey: I’ve learned not to judge people as quickly. I went into Vestas thinking they’ll be good employers – in hindsight I don’t think they are.
Also – how do I say this without sounding rude? – some of the climate change people and the socialists, I thought, “Do I really want to get involved with them?”
But I’ve met some lovely people during our campaign – people that now I’d consider friends. I think I’ve learned a great deal.
Phil: I think this has changed me for the better. Doing the talks here and there – I mean, I’m the last person you’d expect to do that because I’m terrified of speaking in public. It’s made me feel more confident.
What would you say to other workers losing their jobs?
Mike: I’d say to them, go for it. Organise yourselves – “organise, occupy, fight for the right to work”.
Don’t try to work out every little detail. Things don’t go to plan anyway. Just figure it out once you’re in there. If you sit there worrying about what happens if this happens and what happens if that happens then you’ll wait around forever.
Get in, and once you’re in contact everyone you know. Friends, family, the lot – that’s what keeps it going.
Tracey: I’d say, you can fight. Don’t just roll over and accept it. You might not win, but you’ll feel better for fighting.
Ian: If you fight, you might lose or you might win. But if you don’t fight, you’ll definitely lose.
And if we can do it on the Isle of Wight, it can be done absolutely anywhere.