Connected Research

Union policy research in the 21st century

Sacked by pizza delivery

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Eleven workers peacefully occupying the Vestas Windsystems wind turbine factory on the Isle of Wight in protest at the closure of the plant and the loss of 625 jobs have been sacked by pizza delivery for taking part in industrial action. The sackings – which the workers have lodged appeals against – mean that they will not qualify for redundancy pay.

The pizza was part of a regular food delivery being sent into the workers, who are occupying one floor of the building, by the management of the plant after the decision to put up a chain link fence up to prevent other workers from throwing food up to the workers staging the occupation. It also follows direct discussions between the workers involved and a management representative on Thursday last week – without which the letters could not have been delivered – and when the workers were told of the company’s course of action. The company was in court today to seek to secure a possession order on the factory which will allow it to send bailiffs in to remove the occupying workers. The workers have said that they will leave peacefully if that occurs – but the court’s decision to refuse the possession order on the grounds that the case had not been prepared correctly, with a further hearing now scheduled for next Tuesday, 4 August, is a welcome stay of execution (as well as an interesting demonstration of judicial independence, with the judge being highly critical of the paperwork).

The decision to close the factory was made back in April on the grounds of lack of orders, since which time the company has been engaged in a consultation exercise. Vestas has not commented on the protest but has released a letter justifying its actions.

This is an eye-catching protest, for a number of reasons:

1. The workers involved appear not to be union members, although RMT has provided support and practical assistance. There are a number of points which could be made here about union organising initiatives and the benefits of being in a trade union in this situation, as Johanna Baxter does elsewhere.

2. There is very little tradition of such direct action in the UK, even amongst unionised workers, certainly in contrast to France, where direct action including ‘boss kidnappings’ feature more strongly, as Adrian Askew, General Secretary of Connect, pointed out recently. Back in the 1970s, when union militancy was more widespread, factory sit-ins were more common and there were some legendary examples (UCS) but, apart from the Caterpillar workers’ production of the pink Caterpillar in 1987, more recently they have been almost non-existent. As Gregor Gall argues, perhaps there should be more.

3. Green power ought, in the context most recently of the government’s low carbon plan amidst earlier initiatives on renewable energy, to be a growth area. The plan indicates that 40% of the UK’s energy in the future will come from low carbon sources, including renewables, and joined-up thinking would question the closure of a wind turbine plant in this context at a time when manufacturing jobs are being lost to the recession. Questions do therefore need to be asked as to why Vestas is now closing its wind turbine plant on the Isle of Wight. The electoral change in local councils in England and Wales in May may, if Emma Burnell is right about the political divide in terms of approval of wind farm projects, provide some clues as to Vestas’s decision – at least in the UK (the ‘lack of local political action’ was referred to by Vesta directly). The plant supplies products not just for the UK but for the whole of northern Europe – it is a lack of orders right across this part of the continent that has led to the decision to close the plant. And that’s puzzling.

4. The government this week provided £6m in cash to Vestas in support of a new R&D facility on the Isle of Wight – which will support some additional jobs – but this is a separate issue from the closure of the manufacturing plant (and, it would seem, provided to a different Vestas company). R&D is required to deal with some of the typical objections to wind farms – though perhaps not the one that inspired Chris Madden’s very funny cartoon. So, this is good news – albeit with an orientation to the future rather than to the present.

In the meantime, to return to the present, the campaign to Save Vestas goes on, with workers calling on the company in the light of the court’s decision to refuse the possession order now to negotiate with them. That clearly should happen but, in the meantime, the political fight looks as though it needs to be taken to Europe as well as to Westminster.

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Written by Calvin

29/07/2009 at 2:01 pm

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