Well, this was a first. I was about to invade a wind turbine factory.
I loitered near the entrance with around ten other would-be trespassers, trying not to look too suspicious. This was made slightly more difficult by the fact that several of my colleagues were in fancy dress, including two women in extravagant party frocks and a man in a hooded robe and grinning harlequin mask. A small huddle of bored-looking police officers were gathered between us and the factory perimeter, and we eyed them nervously as we waited.
Suddenly the call came through – it was time to move. Nicely on cue, a sudden burst of rain sent the cops climbing back into their van for shelter. We strode past the vehicle, hearts pounding, trying not to look up at the sound of the police officers furiously scrambling back out again. But too late – we were through a gap in the hedge and scattering swiftly across the factory’s concrete concourse, with police and security in hot pursuit.
We didn’t elude them for long. In a matter of minutes I was being carried bodily off the site by a couple of grumbling officers, and from where I dangled in their grip I could see the rest of the cops and the security guards similarly occupied with my friends. Then suddenly a cheer went up – the plan had worked! Our decoy invasion had drawn off all the guards, allowing a second team to sneak in through a different hedge and pass a large bag of food up to a balcony, where a group of hungry factory workers received it with delight.
This isn’t how I normally spend my Wednesday afternoons, but this wasn’t a normal situation. The factory is the UK’s only manufacturer of blades for on-shore wind turbines, and its owners are about to shut it down.
You may find this surprising – with climate disaster looming, and the UK Government announcing a massive roll-out of renewables over the next five years, surely wind power must be one of the most recession-proof industries around? It was more than a surprise to the 625 workers at the plant, when factory owners Vestas announced back in April that their jobs were going to be axed at the end of July. It was a bombshell.
The factory is based in Newport on the Isle of Wight. With 3,000 jobseekers, the island already has a higher-than-average unemployment rate of 4 per cent. The Vestas workers were meant to be the lucky ones - renewable power, touted by many as an industry of the future, seemed a pretty safe bet for their own futures. However, despite the fact that the Newport plant has been turning a handsome profit, Vestas have decided to shift production to America. Why? Because they believe this would make even more profit. Hurrah for neoliberal free-market economics!
The next twist in this strange modern anti-capitalist fairy tale came when, on the evening of July 20th, twenty-five workers entered the factory and refused to leave until the Government stepped in to save the plant.
Support for the occupation has been extraordinary. I got a taste of it first-hand when I went down to the factory last week to join the fascinating gaggle of supporters camped in the middle of the roundabout outside the turbine plant. While it’s fun to put the people down there into categories and list them - workers, locals, environmentalists, trade unionists, socialists, anarchists – this doesn’t capture the sense of unity and shared purpose that has been building on the site since the protest began. Everyone’s there because they’ve been inspired by the courage of the occupiers (who have now officially been sacked without redundancy pay). It only takes one shouted conversation through the fences to be equally inspired by their good humour and determination, too.
One of the great things about protest camps is that doing the washing-up becomes a revolutionary activity. Or so I told myself, as I sat there scrubbing mugs outside the kitchen tent and chatting to workers and their families and friends. I spent two days and two nights at the camp, and I was aware of a certain amount of suspicion at first – the Isle of Wight is not used to protest, and some residents were nervous about the arrival of hordes of eco-activists on the island. As time passed, and it became clear that we weren’t the scary eco-mob of media fantasy but a bunch of friendly folk doing our best to help the occupation, the mood improved rapidly. The fact that people from the Climate Camp were running a kitchen tent and providing a steady supply of tea and hot food definitely helped to break down barriers.
Meanwhile, I was getting a crash course in industrial dispute (from the workers and the trades unionists), the history of factory occupations (from the socialists), and life in an unemployment blackspot (from the locals). It’s a strange feeling, the crumbling of barriers and preconceptions that you didn’t even realize you had.
It’s amazing how much this campaign has already achieved. The workers have gained international profile and support for their cause, put the Government on the spot over “green jobs”, forced Vestas to pay all the factory workers for an extra fortnight, and remained in occupation for far longer than anyone expected. There’s a real feeling that this isn’t a lost cause – the workers could actually win. The Government could easily underwrite enough wind turbine sales to persuade Vestas to stay – or oversee the conversion of the plant to making offshore turbines, for which there is currently greater demand.
At the same time, the links and relationships formed between the different groups of supporters camped on the “Magic Roundabout” outside the plant feels like the beginning of something even more exciting. Preventing climate disaster will require the greatest social movement the world has ever known. A day spent working together means more than a hundred “solidarity statements” posted on websites, and there are few things more bonding than taking direct action. Once we realized that the factory management were trying to starve the workers out, people from across the camp decided to work together on the “decoy and dash” plan to smuggle food in. More food rushes have since followed. Yesterday, seven people calling themselves part of a “red, green and black” (socialist, environmentalist and anarchist) coalition superglued themselves together in the doorway of the Department for Energy and Climate Change, to demand government action to save the Vestas plant. As I write this, five more people have occupied the roof of a second Vestas building on the North coast of the island.
You can help too – if you can’t get down to the Isle of Wight, then get over to savevestas.wordpress.com, send messages of support, sign the petition, write to your local media, and organize support actions where you live.
We’ve just heard that Vestas have finally been granted an eviction order, and that bailiffs could move in at any time to remove the workers. Whatever happens next, the Vestas occupiers have already done more to defend green jobs than the UK Government’s efforts - and have moved us another step closer towards building a real social movement to tackle climate change.