Trade union leaders warned tonight that the direct action seen at the Vestas factory was likely to be repeated elsewhere as workers refused to “bend their knee and accept their fate” in the face of mass redundancies caused by recession.
The sit-in at the Isle of Wight wind turbine plant was the latest in Britain, they said, and was part of a wider trend of militant tactics being used as far afield as the US, South Korea and China.
In France, where such tactics have been more common, the manager of a British company was taken hostage by workers today in a dispute over redundancies. About 60 workers at Servisair Cargo at Roissy airport in Paris prevented the director, Abderrahmane El-Aouffir, from leaving the firm’s offices after he refused to meet their demands in the latest case of so-called “boss-napping” to hit France.
The four day Vestas sit-in, which is an embarrassment both to the world’s biggest turbine manufacturer and a government trying to launch a low-carbon jobs revolution, follows a similar occupation in April at three Visteon (car parts manufacturer) plants in the UK in addition to action at Waterford Crystal in Ireland and Prisme Packaging in Dundee.
Tony Woodley, the joint general secretary of the Unite union, whose members were involved at Visteon, said: “I think it is absolutely understandable and justified for workers to fight back where they feel there are no other alternatives and employers act badly.” Asked whether he thought that Britain could see more sit-ins of the type seen at Vestas, where the staff are not unionised, Woodley said: “I would not be at all surprised. Labour laws do not protect people here and it’s all too quick and easy for employers to sack people.”
Bob Crow, the general secretary of the RMT union, who addressed Vestas workers yesterday, said: “The Vestas occupation, and the action at Visteon earlier this year, show that workers under attack can develop tactics that drive a coach and horses through the anti-union laws rather than just bending at the knee and accepting their fate.
“Occupations are immediate, focused and high profile and can force a dispute right into the headlines at short notice. ”
In all cases of such action, the workforce came away with either improved severance arrangements or a reduction in the number of planned job cuts, trade union leaders said.
One of the more unexpected sit-ins outside the UK involved a company called Republic Windows and Doors in Chicago where a traditionally peaceful workforce bit back after managers announced a shutdown.
Workers, who assembled vinyl windows and sliding doors for a market hit hard by the housebuilding recession, refused to leave the premises, saying they were given three days instead of the legally required 60 days’ notice of closure and were owed holiday and severance cash.
Even though the staff were breaking the law when they took action last December, they won support from Barack Obama, then president-elect.
“When it comes to the situation here in Chicago with the workers who are asking for their benefits and payments they have earned, I think they are absolutely right,” Obama said.
Union militancy of this kind in the US is rare but 500 staff at the Hartmarx suit factory in Des Plaines, Illinois, authorised a sit-in over a threat that the company’s largest creditor may close it down.
In South Korea, up to 600 car workers are continuing with a two-month occupation of a plant in Pyeongtaek, south of the capital Seoul. They are in dispute with their employer, Ssangyong Motor Company, which has been in court-approved bankruptcy protection since February.