On 20 July, a couple of dozen young workers at the Vestas wind-turbine factory on the Isle of Wight occupied their factory after the management had decided to close it with the loss of over 500 jobs, with about another hundred going on the mainland.
This action occurred outside the framework of a trade union; indeed the mainly young workforce were for the most part not in a union. By their action they demonstrated combativity and a degree of self-organisation that is a characteristic of workers facing factory closures and unemployment.
Some three weeks after the occupation was started, the fight was lost. This was in the face of a combination of trade unionists, leftists and environmentalists - all using the actions of this relatively naive workforce for their own agendas and ends.
For the company, producing these particular turbines is unprofitable in Britain; therefore, through the logic of capitalism, the factory has to close. Ed Milliband, Secretary of State for climate change and energy, was clear about Vestas: if they can't make a profit then they close. Obviously, such considerations don't apply to industries essential to the war economy, BAe for example, which continue to receive massive state subsidies.
A surfeit of friends
At the announcement of the Vestas closure, all sorts of activists descended on the Isle of Wight. Whatever their subjective intentions, the majority contributed to the isolation of the struggle and its incorporation into campaigns about nationalisation and climate change.
Workers were worried about their jobs and also about the state of the planet. The activist invasion, full of self-appointed ‘organisers' of workers, could only undermine the potential of the struggle. Calls for nationalisation amount to asking for one boss to be replaced by another. The idea that capitalism can be reformed so that the very real threat to the planet could be removed is laughable. Protests at Peter Mandelson's house got publicity but didn't advance the struggle an inch. On the contrary such stunts detracted from the potential of the struggle to extend to other workers.
That's not to dismiss everyone who went to the Vestas plant. There were genuine expressions of solidarity from individuals and other workers going to the plant. Jason Cortez, a Solidarity Federation member who writes on Libcom, was one, and some of his observations were very useful for grasping what went on inside and outside the factory.
But it wasn't just the left-wing and green activists that sabotaged this fight: the RMT trade union also parachuted in its troops, initially in an inter-union dispute with Unite (that had some minimal influence in the factory) and then to try and take over the struggle and use it in publicity for an RMT recruitment drive.
Jason Cortez talked of the union, after initially seeming to impulse the fight, taking over inside the factory, first of all restricting meetings to the workers and union officials and excluding family, the community and other elements expressing solidarity. In this way it cut off a wider discussion that had to confront the need to go to other workers. He noted that the factory next door, itself threatened with closure, an obvious target for solidarity, was largely ignored.
At the ignominious end of the strike, the RMT union arranged a ‘tour' of the mainland, dragging selected strikers and their families around the country for more publicity for the union as well as generalising the ‘green' campaigns of the bourgeoisie; the trade union and green circuses combined under one Big Top. These youngsters started a struggle that was hijacked more or less from the beginning and ended up with some of the workers acting as pawns in a union recruitment campaign.
As for the question of the environment, the government's claim to be creating half-a-million green jobs is a lie. The sum they have put up for investment in the offshore wind manufacturing industry is £180 million, with the usual large chunk going in consultancies. Some capitalists will make money and employ some workers within this industry. But even in the most optimistic scenario, both for Milliband's plans (like Obama's in the US), ‘green' jobs will not even begin to replace the millions of jobs that are gone and going. These new jobs will be a drop in the ocean and will not contribute to the alleviation of working class conditions which can only worsen. This industry needs massive investment, most of which is not forthcoming; and where it is, the state capitalist measures needed to promote green technology, the subsidies involved, will be paid for by higher prices and higher taxes - further attacks on workers living standards.
Day of action after the end of the struggle
While the Vestas struggle is over the campaigns of the leftists continue. For example, Socialist Worker (5/9/9) says that "One Sky TV report on the Vestas occupation said, ‘There is a real fear in some quarters that occupations like Vestas are becoming a new form of industrial relations.'" If workers' struggles are stuck in individual plants then the ruling class has nothing to fear. In the struggle against closures workers will often start their fight by occupying their workplace. This can be an excellent basis for a struggle, as a place for holding meetings and as a springboard for the extension of the struggles to other workers.
The ‘day of action' planned by political parties, green campaigners, trade union and other activists for 17 September looks like it could be a celebration of the isolation and defeat of the Vestas workers, when their initial struggle showed workers' self-organisation against the attacks of the capitalist class.