Taking sides in the Vestas dispute
Patrick Hayes reports from the Vestas factory occupation on the Isle of Wight where greens and workers made uncomfortable bedfellows.
Climate-change activists have never shown much interest in offering solidarity with workers. In fact, most of the time environmentalists demand the closure of factories and mines and industries that pollute the environment, and give little thought to the impact such closures will have on workers’ lives. Yet now, climate-change activists have suddenly found a workers’ strike they can support.
When news broke recently that Vestas – the only major manufacturer of wind turbines in Britain – was planning to withdraw completely from the UK, the internet was abuzz with activist groups calling on people with ‘organisational experience’ to head down to the Isle of Wight, where Vestas is based, to agitate amongst the workers. Five hundred jobs would be lost as a result of Vestas’s withdrawal. The message of the activists was: ‘Save Vestas, Save Jobs, Save the Planet.’
Unlike the recent spontaneous occupations of the Visteon car parts factories in Belfast and Enfield, and the occupation of the School of Oriental and African Studies over its collusion with immigration officials in the deportation of cleaners, the occupation of Vestas had been planned in advance with guidance from political groups.
However, when the occupation to defend jobs finally began – at 7.30pm on Monday evening – it still caught many people by surprise. Winnie, an enthusiastic young woman who worked in the Vestas restaurant and is now acting as a makeshift union representative, tells me the workforce was not properly unionised; management had allegedly made it clear that there would be consequences if the workers tried to organise. ‘I heard yesterday evening that they actually started the occupation, and I thought “Ooh I didn’t actually expect that to happen”’, says Winnie.
‘It wasn’t supposed to happen until the end of the week’, another Vestas worker explained. ‘But we heard that [the manager] had got wind of our plans, so we decided to act as soon as possible.’
Of the 500 workers due to be made redundant at the end of the month, 21 who ‘really believe in this issue’ decided to take part in the occupation of the first floor of the Vestas factory in the St Cross Business Park in Newport on the Isle of Wight. The rest of the workers were called by management and told not to come into work.
a ‘green new deal’.
However, despite the torrential rain, around 80 of these workers decided to demonstrate outside the factory on Tuesday to show their solidarity with the occupiers. There had been ‘a small rush’ in the morning, where a handful of workers managed to break through and join the occupation, but after that the closest anyone could get to the factory was the small roundabout on the road outside – the building itself had been rendered inaccessible by reams of police tape and watchful riot police. The police had ‘rattled the doors’ a few times, I was told, but said they had no plans to interrupt the occupation – yet.
Since the occupation started, Winnie says there has been unanimous support from Isle of Wight residents; donations have been coming in from various people and institutions on the island. Some of the local buses had posters saying ‘Save Vestas workers’ tacked to their front windows. One worker, Matt, who had been part of the occupation on Monday night, pointed to the successes of other work-related occupations this year: ‘We’re not doing this because it’s just a good thing to do or because it will make you feel better. These things actually work!’
Those taking part in yesterday’s picket expressed their gratitude to the climate-change activists who have been engaging with them over the past month and encouraging them to undertake direct action to defend this important wind-turbine industry. Around 20 members of the Campaign against Climate Change (CaCC) were at the picket, holding posters and placards declaring that we all face a ‘climate emergency’. One CaCC activist said: ‘I think this is a flashpoint. There have been three other workers’ occupations in Britain this year, but this one has a lot more media [than them]. I think it’s jobs and it’s climate change: it’s all people’s fears.’
While the Vestas workers themselves were united in the aim of defending their jobs, there appeared to be deep divisions among the environmental activists. Some, such as Jonathan Neale, international coordinator of CaCC, actually defended growth and the right of ‘everyone to have a job’, yet he also emphasised the need for cleaner forms of energy to allow people to live fuller lives. Others, however, talked idealistically about the ‘Blitz spirit’ in wartime Britain – when people pulled together and lived more frugally – and were firmly against any ‘grand projects’ that might try to sustain, let alone develop, the current levels of modernity in Britain and other Western nations.
A worker tries to cross the police line with bags of
food for the occupiers.
There was a unique aspect to the Vestas protests, in comparison to other strikes and occupations that have occurred sporadically this year: moralising. Amongst both some of the striking workers and all of the climate-change activists, there was a palpable sense that these jobs – which involve the creation of parts for wind turbines and windfarms – represented the future and were cleaner, better jobs, and thus more worthy of defence, than other professions. ‘We’re a green company and this is what the future’s supposed to be about. Green energy and looking after the planet’, said one protester.
Some of the climate activists shifted awkwardly when I put it to them that their campaigns to close down coal-fired power stations or restrict new forms of transport and road development would cost jobs. ‘Obviously we support workers in the dirty industries too’, said one, unconvincingly. ‘They can’t be expected to realise the importance of campaigning [for environmental issues from the outset]; we need to support them in their jobs first and then raise their awareness of the need for a just transition’, he said, rather patronisingly, depicting ‘dirty’ workers as people who should be defended only so that they can later be re-educated in the Green Way.
Vestas is immensely profitable; it is leaving the UK because it is cheaper and more efficient to install new machinery in factories overseas. Most of the protesters at yesterday’s solidarity demo seemed to agree that the government should live up to its rhetoric about ‘green jobs’ and step in to nationalise the Vestas factories. Referring to Nissan and General Motors, the protesters said: ‘If governments can bail them out, they can bail us out too.’
Protesters gather outside the Vestas factory to
support the workers’ sit-in.
Several Vestas workers freely admitted that using the rhetoric of ‘saving the planet’ and creating ‘green jobs’ was the best way that they could get the government’s attention and lobby for its support. As one of the makeshift union reps claimed: ‘There are people here [in the factory] who actually don’t believe in climate change and don’t believe in wind turbines… There are a lot of people who take the job for what it is: a job.’
Now, desperate to save those jobs, some of the workers are using the kind of language that is likely to make an impact these days: the language of climate activism. In the process, they are effectively disavowing their own interests – their right to work, to earn a living, to live decently – and instead claiming to represent the interests of the planet or the future.
The difference in the demands of the workers and the climate activists was telling. Banners hanging from the occupied part of the plant declared: ‘Forced to occupy to save our jobs.’ In contrast, banners hung up by climate-change activists preached: ‘Time for a Green New Deal’ and ‘Climate Emergency: put people to work to cut carbon now’.
The protest at Vestas captured the hypocrisy of some climate-change activists, who support ‘clean’ workers but not ‘dirty’ workers, and also revealed a glaring contradiction between the politics of environmentalism and the politics of workers’ protests. Environmentalism elevates the imagined interests of the planet above everything else. And because the planet, as represented by its self-selected spokesmen in CaCC and other groups, apparently requires sacrifice, a smaller carbon footprint, fewer polluting industries and less production and consumption, its ‘interests’ trump the real interests of working communities – who, of course, want to keep their jobs and to live fuller, richer, more materially wealthy lives. They used to say in the old days that one had to ‘take sides’ – so it is today, though the choice now is between siding with some static idea of a vulnerable, needy Gaia or with living, breathing human communities who want more stability and prosperity.
‘A lot of the people working here have got families, mortgages, they are going to lose their houses’, said Matt. And that is why they should be supported: not because they are ‘saving the planet’ or because they are better than other workers, but on the universal basis that people should have access to work and full, comfortable lives. The events at Vestas really show what uncomfortable bedfellows greens and protesting workers make. The workers at Vestas and the small numbers of workers who have gone on strike elsewhere in Britain want more; greens always want less.
Patrick Hayes is a co-founder of the IoI Current Affairs Forum and volunteer co-ordinator for the education charity WORLDwrite.
Previously on spiked
Patrick Hayes reported on the Visteon factory occupation. Tim Black found a striking spontaneity at the Lindsey oil refinery dispute, and saw a blow against austerity struck by the London Tube workers. Mick Hume looked at the February Lindsey oil refinery dispute. Dave Hallsworth reflected on leading a major strike in 1982. Elsewhere Rob Lyons found the Kingsnorth climate camp to be one of uncritical conformity. David Perks called the eco-protestors at Drax in 2006 radicals for austerity. Or read more at spiked issues British politics and Economy.
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