I gave myself a mission to get an environmentally friendly job, something that didn’t stress me out and I could take something positive away from. I got to Vestas and realised that everyone was bullied by management. Health and safety was not up to scratch. They claimed at the start that there was no expense spared, but air extraction wasn’t good enough and people were getting resin on their skin. When I first started we didn’t have a finishing time – it was work until the job’s done. They’d just have you working more. They’d move the goal posts, make you clean the floors and so on.
Then they changed the shift pattern. We ended up doing an extra 60 shifts a year, going from four days on, four off, to five days a week. Nobody looked at the fact that this would really affect people’s lives. People had families. They had to readjust to doing nights and days, rather than solid nights and solid days. No one could do anything other than sleep and work.
There were a few cases of people trying to unionise. The overall feeling was if you joined the union you’d end up going out the door. There were a few brave people who tried it, and for different reasons they disappeared off the shop floor. Once you were a marked man they made sure they took you out.
Coming out of occupation we learnt a lot of lessons, including stuff that would have been useful before we went in! We knew it was doable; we believed we were on the right side of the law and that morally we had to act. Obviously it would have been more straightforward if we had been unionised. It was more of a struggle because people weren’t ready to stand up for themselves. We had a meeting when Ron [former convenor at the Enfield plant] from the Visteon occupation came down and spoke to us and told us that there would be massive support if we were to do something.
The meeting was overrun by climate activists versus trade unions, some saying go in there and be radical, and others saying join our union and it’ll solve all your problems.
We knew we had to find some middle ground. Just going straight on activism wouldn’t have got the right feeling for the protest and if we’d just tried to set up a union it would have failed like every other attempt. We spoke to Ian Woodland from the Unite union who used to cover the island, and he said that he tried on many occasions to get this place unionised and was pretty much told in no uncertain terms that it wasn’t going to be achieved.
On the island the private sector know that workers don’t have anywhere else to go – someone else will step into your job if you don’t want it.
It started off very quietly and it was a very slow process. We had a short protest in the middle of Newport, basically trying to “save Vestas”. In reality Vestas as a company wasn’t what we wanted to save – we wanted to save our jobs. We knew Vestas bosses weren’t anywhere near being good guys, but it was a perfect opportunity to chat with people.
Although it was raining we got a good reception. We then spoke at trade union meetings, and to people in Southampton and Portsmouth. We were told we’d have total support if we were to do anything. This sent people into meetings with a lot more confidence. It was a matter of walking away with our heads down or at least giving it a go and seeing what we could achieve. We knew support was going to be there. I don’t think any of us ever imagined the size of the support.
We knew from the start the occupation would have to be organised, otherwise it would fall apart. Once we were inside we had regular meetings. We made decisions by majority vote. Even if there was a majority vote we had discussions so people realised why their ideas weren’t the ones we were going for. It was very successful. Because of the pressure we were under and the lack of sleep, food and just general family situations, everyone pulled together and realised that, although they might not agree with everything people were saying, we all respected each other’s decisions.
We weren’t aware of Visteon until occupying started to be suggested. We read the [SWP Visteon] pamphlet, and watched the video on YouTube of the Visteon workers’ interviews. Once we were in we had a bit of a communication breakdown between what we were thinking inside and what was going on outside. The link wasn’t strong enough. Now that we’re out we can get round that.
We managed to take the rest of the factory later in the week under the noses of everyone, but maybe if we’d had a chance to do that at the start it would have been more symbolic. But we did pretty well with the area we took. We got the balcony, so we were being seen rather than just being locked inside a factory.
Greater numbers would have been useful – which we’d have got if we’d had the confidence to talk it over with more people. When we came out there were some people who didn’t even know it was going to happen. But as we weren’t unionised and people were conditioned not to stand up and fight it was a risky business to make a very big, loud, vocal call to people saying, “We’re doing this. Are you going to come with us?” Instead it was quiet words in ears. It would be different in different circumstances, but it was definitely baby steps down here.
Some people were put off and some left early because they were being threatened with legal action. The police were very intimidating over the first few days, with riot shields and rattling doors. But that settled down when they realised that it was a civil matter and that Vestas would have to go to court for a repossession order. If we’d understood the law a little better we would have known that the police were never really going to storm in. We let a policeman in at one point to look around, but I think that was probably the wrong decision.
I also think it was probably a strength that we weren’t unionised at the time. I wouldn’t suggest it – I’d push everyone to join a union. But we were aware that some unions are very passive. They watch what’s going on and try and go for the easiest way out. They don’t like to rock the boat, because some are paid a lot of money so they’re not really in the same position as workers.
Being in a union would have been a useful tool but it wasn’t going to solve all the problems. The RMT stepped in brilliantly, considering we’re not really in their sector, fighting court cases and paying human rights lawyers. It’s clear that there are some unions out there that will fight. But a lot of people stepped down after joining the union. It’s been a weakness. People thought that’s their bit done – now it’s over to them.
There’s still a lot of armchair support – people who are totally backing what we are doing but aren’t getting involved. Our best bet now is to talk to people we’ve had support from on a one to one basis and try and get them more involved, tell them that just because the guys aren’t on the balcony any more it doesn’t mean that the fight’s over. It’s a matter of keeping the pressure on because otherwise people will just fizzle out and walk away.
We’ve possibly over-fliered the Isle of Wight! So our best action might be sitting down with individuals, maybe in a bar or coffee shop, and just talking things through. It’s about making people feel they’re more useful than just to wave a flag every now and then. There’s a lot to be done, and sharing out responsibilities is the only way we’ll succeed.
The financial support that’s come in has been amazing. I think the fact that people, who have nothing to do with Vestas, are sending money, has made local people realise this is a bigger issue. We face a government that will give money to bankers but not renewable energy. This is why we will be raging against New Labour on 27 September. We must show we will not be made to pay for their crisis.
To many people it’s still a big fight that maybe they won’t win. But to find there are other people out there willing to take the fight further, and there are organisations serious about changing the system and making capitalism burn, it’s changed my outlook.
I’d identified that capitalism was the problem but I’d given up fighting it. It felt like on your own there was no chance. So this has given me, and many others, a lot more confidence in continuing to fight.
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