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Wind turbine worker strike offers important lesson about solidarity

Vestas

In an effort to prevent the loss of 600 jobs, 25 or so workers are staging a sit-in at the Vestas wind turbine manufacturing plant on the Isle of Wight—off the south coast of the English mainland. Thanks to several good strategies on their part,  the most important of which has been complete openness and interaction with the media, the protesters have received a lot of favorable press coverage. For instance, the BBC ran a story about life “on the inside,” in which they asked protesters about how they keep their morale up, what they’re doing for food and where they sleep. Vestas on the other hand, has been remarkably silent—much to its own detriment—as the Financial Times of London noted.

Rather than coming out with a robust defence and a good finger-pointing at, say, market forces or government policy, the company is only issuing the barest of peeps to the media; the odd statement (sometimes emailed, from the look of it, although we were lucky enough to hear it in person) along the lines of ‘discussions are progressing’ is being given out.

Now we don’t like to gripe about companies’ PR policies, mostly because it’s usually boring to non-journalists. But some of their silence is baffling. By contrast, it is astoundingly easy to get in touch with the protesters.

In fact, as FT goes on to report, it was through the protesters that the media found out Vestas was supplying them with food. This would have been a key point for the company to brag about, since it was earlier reported that it constructed a fence to prevent people from tossing food to the protesters. But, as FT suggests, renewable energy companies don’t have the experience fossil fuel companies have when it comes to being seen as the bad guys.

More to that point, as The Guardian noted, Vestas is obfuscating the facts surrounding its reason for closing Britain’s only wind turbine manufacturing facility.

Vestas claims that the manufacturing operation is insufficiently profitable – even though its profits continue to grow – and that it exists in too complex a planning environment. Furthermore, it has been cutting back on its wind turbine activities in Britain for some time.

Here is another opportunity the protesters have seized upon. They’ve been criticizing climate change secretary Ed Miliband for making “statement after statement” about green energy, while standing by as the factory closes down. Essentially, the workers have come to realize that this protest isn’t just about saving jobs at a time of bad unemployment, it’s also about saving green jobs at a time when global emissions must be lowered.

According to a columnist for The Guardian, at least one environmental group has helped the workers make this vital connection and bolster their protest tactics.

In understanding why the occupation arose, the agitation of the Campaign against Climate Change seems to have played a role in bolstering the workers’ understanding of fighting not just to save their jobs but also to make a stand for the environment. But they also seem to have learned that previous protest outside the plant was not sufficient.That’s why the occupiers have set up their own website and organised a series of demonstrations. Protests are due to take place in London and the Isle of Wight in order to support the occupation.

This kind of issue-spanning solidarity needs to happen more frequently for protest movements to gain serious momentum. The anti-coal movement, for instance, should start working with coal miners to help improve their conditions. Anything that takes more power and profit away from the coal companies is a win for the environment. At the same time, anti-coal workers could also start lobbying government for replacement job training programs, much like the ones that were created for tobacco farmers in the south.

While it remains to be seen what will happen to the Vestas workers and their jobs, they’ve certainly managed to captivate the media and draw attention to positive ways in which a protest can be run.