The Vestas campaign

Some thoughts from Tony Kelly on the Vestas occupation and its aftermath. (Tony is Secretary of the Ryde and East Wight Trade Union Council. He writes here in a personal capacity.)

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First of all, may I say that the lack of union members in Vestas was not down to some horrible law set up under Thatcher. The fault lays entirely at the door of the trade-union movement, and the leaders’ idea that they can get agreements by negotiating with the management rather than speaking to the workers and persuading them of the need to be in a union.

Union leadership?

Let me tell you something about the Isle of Wight. If one looks in the telephone book, the only mention of unions are the letters NASUWT, which to the likes of you and me mean something. But imagine a Polish or other foreign worker looking in the phone book for a union. In fact, ordinary British workers most probably do not know what the letters mean. Meanwhile, every church on the island has a listed telephone number!

When the news came through that Vestas was closing, I was at a loss as to how we could assist. Finally, the Trades Councils, of which there are three on the island, decided to call a public meeting advertised in the County Press, the island’s weekly paper. It was well attended with about 40 Vestas workers turning up.

A small point: I saw a woman with a mobile phone open in her lap, which she was clearly using to relay the talks from the platform and the floor. I spoke to her in a friendly way about her actions and she told me that her son was a Vestas worker but was too nervous to come to the meeting himself. The mobile phone served the purpose of letting him take part in the meeting. Many of the workers hung about outside until the meeting was well underway and they were sure no managers had turned up.

The biggest let-down at the meeting was the Unite union officials. Telling people that after 14 weeks they would be entitled to benefits was of no use. The workers in the hall clearly were hoping to hear calls for action from a union that would lead them in a struggle, not tell them what benefits they would be entitled to.

I had the job of roving mike and, during a lull in speakers, I asked the island MP if he would like to speak and tell us how he saw the situation. He was very embarrassed and handed the mike back after saying that is was no use asking him as he did not have any answers.

Role of the Trades Council

Sad to say, the Trades Council were not a part of the occupation plans.* Possibly because a party called the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty (AWL, a Trotskyite organisation) said in their paper that we were old men that were not to be trusted. We are old! I am 72.

One form of help the Trades Council gave to the Vestas campaign was the use of the Ryde TUC bank book. Appeals for aid were answered by an amazing shower of letters. One envelope contained a cheque for £220, but only a scrap of paper which had the scribbled words FOR VESTAS. No address or any way to reply and thank the sender.

At first, the bank manager pointed out to me that only 10 cheques a day could be paid in – but after hearing that it was for the Vestas campaign, he said he would relax the rules! We had cheques from the unions for hundreds of pounds and other ones for small amounts from such groups as a choir in south Wales.

It was inspiring to see the postman knocking on our door every day with a bundle of letters with an elastic band round them. He did not have to knock, and normally he would not, but he felt the need to see how many letters contained cheques. Shortly, our postman and his fellow workers were themselves to be engaged in a battle with the management of the Post Office.

Occupation …

Once the occupation was under way, quite large crowds came daily to the Vestas roundabout, as it was called, and there were some inspiring moments, such as when mass efforts took place to get food and other items to the workers on the balcony.

One attempt took the form of a diversionary feint as far away as possible, and then a man burst through a hedge with a large bag of goodies, which he ran with to the balcony. He threw a rope up, which was seized by the workers who pulled like mad and landed the bag on the balcony just before the security and the police came running up. Inspired cheers and clapping took place from our side of the fence. The man was led away and released outside the security fence, to be treated as a hero.

There were many marches in different towns, but I fear that a loss of supporters gradually wore this form of action down. The last march attracted only a dozen Vestas workers. Most of the workers are young men with interests which do not lead to long term struggle – not a criticism of the Vestas lads this, but a view of our society. Saving for a car is more important than turning up to meetings etc.

… and after

On 16 October, the island MP, Andrew Turner, was billed to speak at a meeting attended by the Isle of Wight ‘Older Voices’, of which I am a member. The event, organised by Age Concern, could have been useful, discussing things such as insurance companies refusing insurance because of age, medicine given on the basis of age, and so on. I left the meeting in order to rally with the Vestas workers and others outside. We wanted to try and talk to the MP as he walked to the meeting; at least the Vestas lads could let Turner know they had not gone away.

I had informed some Vestas workers that Turner was attending the conference and was to arrive about 11.00am. We organised a picket with banners to meet him, consisting of two 72-year-old pensioners, two Vestas workers and two other trade unionists. I left the meeting and met the others and put our banners together. We soon became aware of a police presence, five police and a patrol car. Andrew Turner, the MP, was escorted into the hall out of sight of the good-natured picket. Realising we had been fooled, I went back into the hall, but was met by the manager and a very large ‘bouncer’, who refused me entry.

We went round to the office of the County Press and gave a reporter the story. It got published and made the MP and the Age Concern people look rather silly. Fancy paying for a bouncer to sit in a hall full of elderly people! I wonder how much that cost?

* Tony has explained elsewhere (interview with Workers’ Daily Internet Edition, 29 July 2009) that the Trades Council was, in fact, the first organisation to hold a public meeting on the issue of the pending closure of Vestas. Some of these non-unionised workers were initially quite nervous of the idea of a meeting, but thereafter gained the confidence to hold their own meeting, set up an action committee and get things moving.