Factory ‘sit-in’ over loss of green jobs comes to end

On 7 August 2009, a factory sit-in at the wind turbine blade manufacturer Vestas on the Isle of Wight came to an end after 19 days. The sit-in was in protest at Vestas’ plans to close the site and other nearby operations with the loss of 625 jobs. The high-profile campaign was supported by trade unions and environmental groups who called on the government to intervene to save the factory.

Background

In April 2009, Danish-owned wind turbine-maker Vestas Wind Systems announced that it intended to cut 1,900 jobs, mainly in the United Kingdom and Denmark (see factsheet of the European Restructuring Monitor (ERM)). The company blamed the job cuts, affecting 9% of its workforce, on market oversupply. Vestas stated that supply of wind turbines exceeded demand, despite the policy of European governments to increase the amount of electricity generated by green energy technologies.

Factory occupation

The move involved the closure of Vestas’ turbine plant at Newport on the Isle of Wight off the south coast of England, with the loss of 625 jobs on the island and in nearby Southampton. In July 2009, protest rallies against the factory closure took place, supported by local trade unions. On 20 July, a group of about 25 workers, reported not to be trade union members, barricaded themselves inside the factory in protest at Vestas’ plans. Other workers staged protests outside the factory after being turned away when they arrived for work.

The campaign quickly won the support of trade union leaders and environmental groups who called for the government to intervene to save the plant in Newport. Campaigners argued that the job losses at Vestas would not only have a devastating impact on employment on the Isle of Wight but that it would also mean the loss of expertise in the area of environmental technology, which is vital to fighting climate change.

The General Secretary of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT), Bob Crow, pledged his backing for the workers when he attended a rally outside the factory. RMT adopted the protesters as members and issued a number of press releases drawing attention to the occupation, claiming that company management was trying to ‘starve the protesters out’ by restricting their access to food and drink. The trade union also argued that the workers’ human rights had been infringed and made a formal complaint to the police about the behaviour of Vestas’ security guards.

The company initiated legal action to gain an injunction to end the factory sit-in but the bid initially failed when a judge ruled that removal papers had not been served in accordance with legal rules. The company subsequently dismissed 11 employees whom it identified as participating in the occupation. Vestas eventually won a possession order from the courts but the six remaining workers inside the factory refused to leave. The occupation finally came to an end on 7 August when the remaining protesters were evicted by bailiffs.

Outcome of protest action

Vestas said that, as of 12 August, production had ceased at its sites and staff had been made redundant, but that 57 employees would continue to work at the Newport factory for some months to clear and close the site. Another 40 employees reportedly found new roles in the company’s research and development facility on the island.

The campaign against the closure of the Newport factory site is continuing. RMT and climate campaigners are calling on the government to nationalise the plant and ‘prove its claims to support green energy alternatives to fossil fuels’. On 10 September, climate activists blockaded the site in an attempt to prevent wind turbine blades being removed. Later in September, a national day of action was planned to highlight the plight of the redundant workers, many of whom believe they have little chance of finding another job. According to the trade union, the workers who occupied the factory are to lose their redundancy pay and face problems in claiming benefits. A hardship fund has been set up to assist them.

Commentary

Factory occupations or sit-ins are rare in the UK. In 2009, however, two high-profile examples of this type of direct action have taken place – at the Visteon car parts company sites in West Belfast and Essex during March, and subsequently at Vestas in Newport during the summer of 2009. It is possible that the incidence of such action may increase during the economic recession, with workers affected by redundancy having fewer prospects of finding alternative jobs. Where factories are earmarked for closure, the economic impact of occupation may be limited but sit-ins can expose the companies concerned to sustained adverse publicity. In the case of Vestas, the climate change dimension of the job losses has prompted the involvement of environmental activists as well as trade unions and Isle of Wight residents in the campaign to save the plant.

Mark Hall, IRRU, University of Warwick

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