Sunday, July 19, 2009

Workers' Fightback: Update 11

How bitter the irony must have been for workers at the UK’s only wind turbine factory last Wednesday.

That day, Energy and Climate Change Secretary Ed Miliband announced that the government intends to invest more than £100 billion over the next decade, increasing the proportion of energy obtained from renewable sources from by 13%. Most scientists and many campaigners say we need much faster reductions in the global use of fuels that cause catastrophic climate change, but some gave the declaration a cautious welcome.

However, seventy-five miles south, Wednesday also saw workers at the Vestas factory on the Isle of Wight produce what is scheduled to be their last batch before the factory closes. Almost six hundred staff at the Newport plant and a related facility in Southampton will be made redundant at the end of the month, because the government intends to take advantage of cheaper labour in China, Denmark and Germany.

While the Vestas case is vitally important to the particular workers involved, it also shows how the working class struggle against the profit motive and the struggle for environmental sustainability are fundamentally one and the same. While wave and solar power will arguably play a larger role in slashing carbon emissions, it clearly does not make sense for a single wind turbine factory to close, anywhere in the world. Indeed, many must be opened. What is more, in an environmentally sane system, factories in China, Denmark and Germany would be making products for use nearby, not for global transportation.

But all is not lost at Vestas. Workers’ Climate Action – a group organising for class-based solutions to the climate crisis – seem to have a catalysed a defiant reaction from the non-unionised factory employees. The founder members of WCA were from the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, but the group includes activists from diverse left backgrounds. According to The Commune:
“Workers Climate Action members made contacts on the island through union networks and using the internet. They travelled to the island, and begun to talk to workers outside factory gates, finding bitterness, but resignation. Slowly, they began to agitate and gather contacts, built a meeting in conjunction with the trades council, and are living on the island, cooperating with groups of workers who are now considering an occupation.”
The AWL reports that:
“We encountered problems and obstructions from all the usual sources. Just before the public meeting, a police inspector phoned the secretary of Cowes trades council, informing him that the Workers’ Climate Action had published a piece exhorting Vestas workers to chain themselves to machinery. This was, of course, a lie. The police were, nevertheless, very visible outside the public meeting.

In addition to this, many of the speakers brought to the public meeting by the local Trades Council revealed themselves to be bureaucrats. They told workers to simply join UNITE and get official recognition, but were disdainful about the idea of occupation. These business unionists and social partnership bureaucrats brought little to the campaign, but they certainly alienated a lot of workers with their elitist talk of letters written to ‘Lord Mandelson’.”

Vestas workers will need encouragement and solidarity in the days and weeks to come. For more information, there is a ‘Save Vestas’ blog, and a ‘Save Vestas, Save Jobs, Save The Planet’ Facebook group.

Over the Channel, there was a significant victory for crane-platform manufacturers striking for redundancy payouts. Fifty-three workers had been laid-off by JLG France, in response to the economic collapse, but the entire workforce downed tools for three weeks, and this was combined with direct action such as blocking a high speed train, and threatening to explode four cranes with gas canisters. The sacked workers have now been promised 30,000 euros each (about £26,000). French workers have resorted to increasingly militant actions over the past several months, including a series of ‘boss-nappings’, where managers have effectively been held to ransom by furious labourers.

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