Train cooperative on track in SW England?

Paul Gosling reports:

Electrification of the London to Swansea rail line is good news for public transport users in the South West and the Government’s approval for Network Rail to meet the £1 billion cost is a demonstration of real commitment not just to the rail system, but also to combating climate change.

But for many people away from the main urban centres, what is needed is more than just faster journey times to London. They demand connectivity that reduces rural isolation, makes journeys faster, cheaper and easier and improves the economic prospects of smaller towns and villages.

This is where Go! Co-operative comes in, which is not only one of the newest co-ops to be established, but also the most recently established train operating company. Its prospectus for raising capital is about to be published, with the ambition of raising a quarter of a million pounds over the next two years.

Go! Co-op intends to be the fifth train operating company taking advantage of the principle of open access to rail lines that is enshrined in legislation and which is intended to increase the provision of services by sharing existing lines. This provision enables additional services to operate alongside the main rail franchises. Existing open access rail operators include Heathrow Express and Hull Trains.

However, Go! Co-op would be the first open access train provider running as a multi-stakeholder co-operative that brings together the interests of commuters, workers and the communities that would be served, via their local authorities. It is backed by some heritage railway operators.

The co-operative’s business planning is already well developed, thanks to seed-corn funding supplied by Co-operatives UK and the Co-operative Group, through the Co-operative Fund, backed by practical support from the Somerset Co-operative Services.

Go! is looking at various routes, including local branch line operations and longer cross country services. Some of these involve open access services on Network Rail lines, while others would operate in partnership with heritage rail and other independent railway owners.

At this stage, it is not possible to say which routes will be pursued — detailed studies on line capacity and passenger demand are needed first, as well as more negotiation with potential partners.

The chair of Go! Co-op is well known co-operative activist, Tim Pearce — the South West regional organiser for the Co-operative Party until he retired three and a half years ago.

“Existing train services run to London,” explains Mr Pearce. “Our intention is to serve other communities that don’t have good connections to anywhere. Cross-country connections are important. We are looking to potential routes in the south of England on existing rail networks.”

The Go! Co-op initiative has been given extra impetus by the recent publication of the Association of Train Operating Companies’ (ATOC) document Connecting Communities, which supports the principle of much improved connectivity for isolated communities by making greater use of lines that, at present, run few services. “We are interested in underused and also closed lines and closed stations, but that’s a lot of money,” says Mr Pearce.

“We are interested in the electrification, but that is a long time ahead, at least five years. It does raise interest in the rail network and the South West is getting a fairer crack of the whip than it has in the past.

“We want to develop routes in the South, but including the North. We are hoping to develop routes from the South to the Midlands, servicing the West Midlands conurbations, developing links where they don’t exist.

“We are trying to raise money from potential commuters and from councils along the rail lines. We will run it as a multi-stakeholder co-op.

“The communities that benefit will have control over the service. We envisage a scenario where the guy who pushes the trolley can be on the board. I have been very impressed by the results of [societies’] board elections where you get electricians and so on elected to the board.”

Mr Pearce’s involvement in the project arose from a motion put forward to Co-operative Party Conference in 2007, which called for the mutualisation of Network Rail. “We have made some progress there,” says Mr Pearce. “We still hope to get a result from that and are fairly optimistic.

“We then organised a conference last year [on Network Rail mutualisation]. That was successful. It had a lot of rail people and Co-op people there. Basically the idea [for Go!] started to gel about that time and because of that conference.” With that momentum established, one of the founders the project — Alex Lawrie of Somerset Co-operative Services — invited Mr Pearce to get involved.

The timetable for progress is as impressively ambitious as the project itself. The co-op has already been authorised by the Financial Services Authority to raise the funds. It is also working with the FSA to develop rules that allow for withdrawable and transferable Industrial and Provident Society share capital raised from members and outside investors. Outside investors will have enough voting power to protect their investment, but in accordance with co-operative principles the passenger and employee members between them will have effective control.

Go! believes, given the example of the major fund raising achieved by windfarm co-ops, that it can raise the necessary investment. Assuming it does so, it hopes to gain route authorisation some time next year and begin services in 2011.

Ultimately, Go! has aspirations even beyond this — its motivation is to improve connections between communities, not just to run rail services. So it would also like to be involved in running bus services that feed the rail services and perhaps operate bike hire and car clubs.

It is one of the most impressive and ambitious co-operative projects to come forward in many years. But it is also firmly grounded in a sense of realism — it deserves wide support.

Bring the troops home, says Lance Corporal Joe Glenton

It’s not easy to speak out on your own – let’s hope that more members of our armed forces will join Joe Glenton and return home safely to their loved ones.

John Millington reports in the Morning Star:

A British soldier who is refusing to return to Afghanistan has handed in a letter to Downing Street calling for the withdrawal of all British troops.

Lance Corporal Joe Glenton, from the Royal Logistics Corps, says he will not return to Afghanistan on combat duty to fight “an unjust war.”

Mr Glenton, who joined the British army in 2004 and has already done a tour of duty in Afghanistan, believes that politicians should not put British soldiers’ lives in danger unnecessarily.

In a strongly worded letter to Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Mr Glenton acknowledged the suffering of British soldiers and their families but also the damage done to the “noble people of Afghanistan.”

“I have seen qualities in the Afghan people which have also been for so long apparent and admired in the British soldier,” he states in the letter.

“Qualities of robustness, humour, utter determination and unwillingness to take a step backwards.”

Continuing this war, Mr Glenton’s letter adds, “will only lead to more heartbreak within both our societies.”

Mr Glenton, who is married to trainee lawyer Clare, will face a court martial on Monday, with further proceedings to follow.

If found guilty on charges of desertion, he faces up to two years in prison and a permanent record.

As the soldier from York delivered his letter to Downing Street, a huge scrum of photographers and journalists was lying in wait.

Running the media gauntlet with calm and composure, Mr Glenton articulated his reasons for not returning to Afghanistan.

With senior military figures in full desert camouflage looking on disgruntledly, Mr Glenton stood defiantly for pictures outside the Ministry of Defence with his wife and anti-war supporters.

Speaking to the Morning Star afterwards, Mr Glenton said that he had been “amazed” at the amount of support he had received even from people “he did not know.”

Revealing how his opinion of the war had changed, Mr Glenton said: “I thought I was going over there to help the people of Afghanistan.

“But we are not helping them by splattering them all over the place.”

Mr Glenton added that he believed the aim of the occupation was to “dominate a strategically important country so oil could be extracted from the Caspian Sea.

“That is not why I signed up,” added an emphatic Mr Glenton.

Brave Vestas workers are sacked – but the fight goes on

For over a week now Vestas workers on the Isle of Wight have occupied their employer’s offices in an effort to stop the factory closing and their jobs being shipped overseas.

A workforce that wasn’t unionised, that had no experience of such a campaign, have shown how workers in England can struggle and gain support nationally (from many trade unions and environmental activist groups) and internationally (South Korean workers in the same situation have sent solidarity greetings).

These workers have now been sacked.

We need to show the government and Vestas how much this annoys us.

Our brothers and sisters in Scotland had 20,000 people marching in Kilmarnock last Sunday to protest job losses at profitable Diageo’s Johnnie Walker plants.

We can do the same for the Vestas workers!

Socialist Worker reports:

The workers have released a statement, which was read out at the protest outside the plant this evening. They said, “We all received letters to tell us that we had been sacked with no redundancy money. This has not deterred us in any way. We are now fighting for everyone else. Come to the court tomorrow. Bring your friends and family, and spread the word.”

Steve, one of the occupation’s stewards, read management’s letter to the rally. It stated that the workers had been sacked for “gross misconduct” as a result of their industrial action.

Steve said, “We will fight this all the way. We will not rest until the workers get what is rightfully theirs. They have fought for all of us. We will show the world that they are heroes.

“We have one message for the Vestas management: ‘We are here to stay.’ Please come to the court tomorrow. We will be putting on a show of strength there to show that workers in the Isle of Wight will not roll over.”

Vestas occupied!

Socialist Worker reports:

A group of workers have occupied the Vestas plant on the Isle of Wight. Their brave stand is in defence of 600 jobs under threat and to keep production going at almost the only British producer of wind turbines.

The government says it plans to create a million “green jobs”. Meanwhile, in the real world, this wind turbine factory is being closed and Labour does nothing.

All 600 workers at the factory face redundancy.

The factory is the largest employer on the island.

Rush messages of support to 07980 703115 and 07970 739921 and 07733 388888.

E mail Messages to savevestas@gmail.com

Demonstrate Save Vestas, Save the Planet, support the occupation. Friday 24 July, 5.30pm, St Thomas Square, Newport Isle of Wight

Save Vestas!

First a report from Workers Climate Action, who have displayed tremendous solidarity in their efforts to assist the struggle of Vestas’ employees:

On Friday 3 July, Workers’ Climate Action and the Cowes Trades
Council held a public meeting attended by around 100 people, to oppose
the closure of the Vestas plant, Britain’s only wind turbine factory,
on the Isle of Wight.

Two months ago, Vestas announced over 500 job cuts and is seeking to move production to the USA

The room was packed with workers from the factory as well as people
from the wider community. By the end of the meeting, there were people
seriously discussing the tactic of a factory occupation to save jobs
and force much-needed investment in wind energy. How did this come
about?

The Isle of Wight is, for the most part, staunchly Conservative,
with very little history of class struggle or environmentalism. It has
one Labour councillor, no branch of any left group, and an apparently
inactive Green Party branch. The previous campaign to save jobs at
Vestas was very small, based mainly on a Facebook group and a petition
had ground to a halt, lacking direction and the confidence to take
radical action.

A small number of activists from Workers’ Liberty heard the news of
the closure began getting in touch with people on the Island three
weeks ago. We managed to get a hold of the few local trade unionists
from the Trades Council. Most of these turned out to be past retirement
age, but many with militant histories.

As impressed as these old heads of the labour movement were and as
glad as they were to see a bunch of energetic young people having come
down to set up a campaign, no one expected it to go anywhere. The
wisdom was that this was a workplace that had never been unionised, the
closure had been announced, the ball was in motion; we should try by
all means but that we shouldn’t get too disappointed if we got nowhere.

Despite this, we went out and simply stood outside the factory
waiting for people to come out of work, we had no leaflets other than
the basic WCA ‘Climate Change is a Class Issue’ one. As the workers
went past we got chatting, heard stories of people having to move house
as a result of the redundancies and various attempts over the years to
get trade union recognition met with victimisations and sackings.
People felt betrayed, many of them young, many had thought that this
was an industry with a future, many genuinely felt they were doing
their bit to save the planet. All this was down the drain.

People were pissed off, all that was lacking was the sense that
anything could be done to do anything, to fight back, we decided at
that point to try and pull together a meeting. We got the Trade’s
Council to sort the venue, came back to London and knocked up a leaflet.

We then mobilised a small but diverse group of Workers’ Climate
Action activists (environmentalists, socialists, and anarchists) from
across the country to come down.

We spent a week intensively building for a public meeting. We
leafleted the gates of the two factory sites at least twice a day, did
stalls in the main towns, and constantly spoke to people about their
concerns – the impact of the closure on jobs and the local community,
environmental concerns, the poor state of health and safety at the
Vestas plants, and raised the appropriate political questions – who
should determine how jobs are provided and how energy is produced? How
should the transition to a low carbon economy be achieved? What is to
be done about harsh management practices, job losses, and factory
closures?

Working in a political environment not usually best suited to
revolutionary politics, we found that our concern for jobs and the
environment was immediately taken on by the many of the hundreds of
people we spoke to.

Not only are Vestas management cutting jobs, they are also a highly
exploitative employer. In the tradition of post-fordist management,
they sought to generate a high turnover of employees to prevent
unionisation, and to prevent the workers from building up significant
redundancy packages. The air conditioning in the factories is
inadequate, many workers contracted contact dermatitis, an allergic
reaction to the resin used in moulds, and the company operates an
unofficial ‘three strikes and you’re out’ disciplinary procedure, as
well as regularly denying workers days off and sick days for no good
reason. The exploitation of the worker for profit provides us with an
analogy for environmental exploitation and degradation.

We succeeded in talking to the local media, including BBC radio
Solent, the Isle of Wight County press, and Meridian News, and we were
able to voice ideas like the just transition to a low carbon economy,
and democratic workers’ control of industry in forums where they had
not been heard in a long time.

Using contacts made during the Visteon occupation, we persuaded the
former convenor of the Enfield Visteon plant, Ron Clarke, to speak at
the public meeting. Ron spoke about the experience and the tactics of
occupation, telling the gathered crowds that physical control of the
factory was the only way to bargain with the bosses. The experience
gained by the Visteon workers, and their resounding success provided a
galvanising example of what can be achieved if workers take action and
stick together.

We encountered problems and obstructions from all the usual sources.
Just before the public meeting, a police inspector phoned the secretary
of Cowes trades council, informing him that the Workers’ Climate Action
had published a piece exhorting Vestas workers to chain themselves to
machinery. This was, of course, a lie. The police were, nevertheless,
very visible outside the public meeting.

In addition to this, many of the speakers brought to the public
meeting by the local trades council revealed themselves to be
bureaucrats. They told workers to simply join UNITE and get official
recognition, but were disdainful about the idea of occupation. These
business unionists and social partnership bureaucrats brought little to
the campaign, but they certainly alienated a lot of workers with their
elitist talk of letters written to ‘Lord Mandelson’.

Despite the politically questionable character of the meeting, we
managed to get workers and people on-board to expand the campaign
further into the factory and the local community. The Socialist Workers
Party and Socialist Party are already organising public meetings in
Southampton and Portsmouth with speakers from Workers’ Climate Action
and workers themselves. A protest in the centre of Newport is planned,
with the possibility of a happening outside Downing Street in London to
put pressure on the government.

National groups are expressing an interest in getting involved, and
we are following up contacts in Denmark, where Vestas have their
headquarters, with a view to encouraging solidarity actions. Watch this
space, and the Workers’ Climate Action Website (www.workersclimateaction.co.uk) for more information as it comes in.

Our actions to oppose the Vestas closure will demonstrate that,
though energy and enthusiasm are essential to achieve results, we must
also, as Lenin says ‘be able at each particular moment to find the
particular link in the chain which you must grasp with all your might
in order to hold the whole chain and to prepare firmly for the
transition to the next link; the order of the links, their form, the
manner in which they are linked together, the way they differ from each
other in the historical chain of events, are not as simple and not as
meaningless as those in an ordinary chain made by a smith.’

Already messages of solidarity are pouring in via email
(savevestas@googlemail.com), and a motion will be circulating around
trade unions who wish to offer their support to the Vestas workers. The
campaign is already snowballing, but it must be held in mind that this
situation could be brought into existence anywhere – at Corus, or in
the car industry, or at Nortel where 2,000 redundancies were announced
today. Go to where jobs are being lost, talk to a few workers,
collaborate and draft a leaflet, call a big meeting. Raise the
experience of Visteon. Raise the possibility of direct action: it can
be done.

Workers Climate Action are holding an organising meeting in
Cambridge on Friday 17 July. Come and get involved. The WCA website
should have more details soon.

And this weeks’ The Socialist reports on the situation on the Isle of Wight:

Save jobs at Vestas wind turbine plant

Over 600 workers at the Vestas factory on the Isle of Wight are on the brink of losing their jobs after the company announced they intend to move production of wind turbine blades to America. The workers have been offered an insulting redundancy package of less than £1,000 and at a public meeting last week a call for action was raised.

Ben Norman, Portsmouth Socialist Party

The meeting, called by the Isle of Wight trades council and a local campaign group called ‘Workers Climate Action’, was attended by around 150 people, made up of Vestas workers and local residents.

The ideas raised by the seven speakers, none of whom were Vestas workers, varied enormously. Members of ‘Workers Climate Action’ called for immediate direct action and factory occupation. Speakers from the trades council simply urged workers to join their local union.

These demands are not enough, especially as the factory bosses do not recognise the trade unions. Members of the Socialist Party raised the need for a clear programme of demands to accompany coordinated action and urged both the meeting organisers and the workers to learn the lessons of Lindsey, Visteon and Linamar.

The job losses at Vestas are not unique on the Isle of Wight. There has been a 15,000 increase in the number of people forced to claim unemployment benefit since last year.

Currently the island is the lowest wage economy in the UK. Closure of a factory of this size would be a disaster for the entire Island.

The workers of the island will not find allies in the bosses or even in their elected MPs.

Tory MP Andrew Turner effectively turned his back on the workers by saying: “My job is not to solve this problem!”

The representative from SEEDA, the regional development agency, said that although they have a budget in excess of £169 million, there was no will to use it to save Vestas jobs.

One member of the trades council even announced that they had written to Peter Mandelson to petition him to save the plant.

We say that the answer will not be found with Lord Mandelson or an unelected government quango.

We pledge our support to and call for clear demands for the workers of Vestas, including:

  • No to job cuts.
  • Re-invest in the factory – Keep production going.
  • Full trade union recognition.
  • Take the factory into public ownership under democratic workers’ control and management.
  • Form an action committee to take the campaign forward.
  • Organise a demonstration on the Isle of Wight as soon as possible to build solidarity for the Vestas workers.
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