Week In Review

A Weekly Column by Bill Onasch
July 30, 2009

Too often we mark anniversaries of wars, coups, or assassinations–necessary reminders of past set backs and affirmation of continuing the struggle. I was fortunate to be able to attend celebrations in Minneapolis this past weekend that marked the 75th anniversary of the 1934 Teamsters strikes victory in that city--events that were full of joy and inspiration.

I also enjoyed meeting up with old friends from my twenty-year residence in the Twin Cities as well as meeting some subscribers to our e-mail list for the first time. I expect to post online, and send to the e-mail list, an article on this celebration tomorrow (Friday).

Be Wary Of Free Pizza
The lads occupying the office area of the Vestas plant on England’s Isle of Wight welcome the food parcels supporters bring them. One, however, not only contained a pizza, fruit, and a soft drink; enclosed as well was a letter from the company telling them they would be fired, denied severance pay, and possibly jailed.

As we reported in the last WIR, a couple of dozen workers at this wind turbine plant spontaneously staged a sit-down to try to block the plant’s scheduled shuttering tomorrow, with a loss of over six hundred jobs–a devastating blow to this island community of a little more than 100,000. Hundreds of workers have stood vigil outside the plant gates and have supplied food and other necessities to the brothers on the inside.

Danish-based Vestas is the world’s biggest producer of wind turbines used in electricity generation–and the only such manufacturer in Britain. But this essential tool for clean, renewable energy is not being run by idealistic tree-huggers. Vestas is a no-nonsense multinational corporation seeking to maximize return on their investment. Becoming impatient with Britain’s slower than promised pace of building wind farms they decided to shift production to the USA.

Last August, after getting some lucrative handouts from state and local development bodies in Colorado, Vestas announced they were building two plants–one for blades, the other for the nacelles to which the blades are attached to gears and shafts–employing a total of 1350. They also said at the time they would likely build a third plant to build the towers the units rest on. Production is expected to start early next year. They did not announce at that time that this economic “expansion” was actually a runaway from England.

The press also reported last summer that this “green” corporation had rejected using a rail connection to their plant for shipping the eight-ton, 140-foot-long finished product. Instead they plan to use oversized-load diesel trucks on the highway.

Before the announcement a few weeks ago of the closing of their plant the English Vestas workers were grateful employees and had not unionized. Their anger galvanized them in to emulating sit-downs they had seen in Britain, Ireland, and, of course, France. The Rail, Maritime & Transport Workers (RMT), one of Britain’s most militant unions, has agreed to represent them and has helped rally support. Also playing an important role in building solidarity are several environmental and ecosocialist groups.

There is, of course, a major difference between today’s sit-downs in Europe and the American sit-downs that helped build the CIO in the 1930s. The Goodyear, General Motors, and Armour plants occupied by the CIO were going concerns that the bosses wanted to get back in production. Most contemporary sit-downs are protests against permanent plant closings--very difficult for isolated local unions to reverse. But there are exceptional victories from time to time even in these situations such as the way UE workers were able to save the Republic Windows plant in Chicago.

Public sympathy for the Vestas sit-downers is strong enough that the cops have shown a very low profile and a local judge is dragging his feet on signing an eviction order–guaranteeing at least another week of the sit-down. Ultimately the courts will likely uphold the property rights of the employer and the cops will do their job enforcing court orders. The sit-downers have declared their intention to remain nonviolent.

But even if the sit-downers are forced out without a deal the support of unions such as the RMT will further add to the company’s difficulty in moving their equipment. The closing will be much more costly and protracted than if the company had offered at least a reasonable severance package to their workers and some compensation to the community to soften the impact of the lost jobs.

In one sense this is another all too common episode of corporate greed casting aside disposable workers. But there are some important new factors involved as well.

• These are the “green jobs” that should be the path out of the Great Recession. But these jobs, paying mediocre wages, have proven no more secure than jobs in auto, steel, or any other sector of manufacturing.

• We shouldn’t expect Vestas to be any better corporate citizen in Colorado than they have been in England.

• While British construction of wind farms has fallen far short of projections this is not because there is no need for them. Massive increases in clean, renewable energy sources are urgently needed in Britain and every other nation of the world.

• The substantial mobilization of environmentalists and ecosocialists in support of a workplace struggle is an encouraging development that needs to be replicated on a global scale.

• The English struggle drives home the reality that the capitalist market economy cannot carry out the necessary genuine green conversion that the climate change crisis demands. The solidarity movement around Vestas is correctly raising the demand that the British government nationalize the plant and operate it under worker control to fulfill a plan to expand wind-power generation.

The battle at Vestas has been big news in Britain with extensive coverage by the BBC, Guardian, and Independent. As expected, there has been next to nothing about it in the mass media on this side of the Atlantic. Even more discouraging is the silence of unions, and environmental groups such as the Blue/Green Alliance, Sierra Club, and Friends of the Earth. The mainstream union and environmental bureaucracies remain as committed as ever to partnership with the corporations wrecking our jobs and biosphere. They have no interest in the class struggle approach reasserting itself in Europe.

The Vestas workers should inspire us to expand our vision and mobilize for action. We need to build a working class based environmental movement, a working class based political party, while reclaiming our unions as fighting organizations. The alternative is unthinkable.

In Brief...

¶ Congratulations to our friends at the Heartland Labor Forum radio show on KKFI on winning another award from the International Labor Communications Association. “In Coal Blood: The Kansas Coal Fire Debate,” produced by Shawn Saving, took top spot for “long audio program.”
¶ Single-payer advocates are gathering in Washington today, Medicare’s “birthday,” for lobbying and a rally in support of HR676.
¶ Hats off to 24,000 Toronto municipal workers for winning an honorable settlement after six weeks on the picket line.
¶ Last time we reported on the Missouri DNR withholding their knowledge that late spring runoffs had produced dangerous levels of e-coli in the Lake of the Ozarks. We can now update you that Health magazine has named one of the top resorts on the Lake, Osage Beach, as America’s fourth-healthiest beach vacation spot.

Yesterday we resumed posting on our Daily Labor News Digest, updated by 7AM Central, Monday-Friday.

That’s all for this week.

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