Page last updated at 11:29 GMT, Friday, 7 August 2009 12:29 UK

Sacked workers resort to sit-ins

By Martin Shankleman
Employment correspondent, BBC News

The sleepy town of Newport on the Isle of Wight is a world away from the bustling south Korean city of Pyeongtaek.

Vestas protest
The Vestas workers are part of a worldwide tendency

But they have one thing in common: both have been the sites of high-profile factory sit-ins.

The workers occupying the Vestas turbine factory on the Isle of Wight were no doubt surprised when they received a message of solidarity from South Korean strikers, who had seized control of the main car plant of Ssangyong Motors near Seoul.

The Korean protesters use more vivid language than their English counterparts to explain their occupation, warning, "Dismissal is murder and we are struggling to stop this murderous act."

Yet the tactics of the two groups are the same - to embarrass the management and put pressure on the company to force a change of heart.

The protests are part of a growing trend around the world of workers taking matters into their own hands to fight their case.

Taking to rooftops

Sit-ins had become largely unheard-of in recent years in the UK, until the Visteon car parts firm declared itself bankrupt in March this year.

Hundreds of employees staged rooftop protests at the company's plants in West Belfast and Essex and refused to come down.

At first, the management dismissed the demonstrations, assuming they would peter out.

Worker occupying Ssangyong plant throwing fire bomb
The South Korean car workers fought pitched battles with police

But when national media seized on the story and highlighted the treatment of the workers, who said they were given an hour's notice of redundancy, the dispute rapidly escalated.

After six weeks in the spotlight, the management bowed to the pressure and offered an improved pay-off deal.

At the same time, workers at the Vestas factory were considering how to fight the impending closure of the company's wind turbine factory on the Isle of Wight, with the loss of 600 jobs.

Inspired by the success of the Visteon sit-ins, a group of about two dozen Vestas workers entered the plant on Monday, 20 June, sealed off the management offices and declared their own occupation.

While the disruption caused by the protest was slight, as the factory was scheduled to close anyway, the organisers realised the true value of the protest lay in the attention generated by the unfolding story.

The RMT union, which adopted the protesters as members, released a string of news announcements to provide a continuing narrative on the occupation. It claimed management were trying to "starve the protesters out".

The union consulted a lawyer to see if their human rights had been infringed, then made a formal complaint to the police about the Vestas security guards.

The embarrassment for the both Vestas and the wind turbine industry was immense. Negotiators hoped that the corporate discomfort would translate into an improved offer for their members facing redundancy.

Mounting frustration

Meanwhile, the sit-in protests continue to spread.

The latest example has been in Dublin, where police were called to eject workers employed by Thomas Cook travel agency, who were pressing for improved redundancy payments following the closure of three shops in the Irish capital.

They had occupied the offices for four days, forcing the company to seek a court order to evict them.

The mood has even spread to the US, where 500 staff at a suit factory in Des Plaines, Illinois, authorised a sit-in over a threat the company's creditor might close it down.

Observers believe this new mood of militancy reflects the intense frustration at the ineffectiveness of traditional methods of industrial action.

Many union leaders in the UK complain bitterly at the restrictions imposed on them by the employment laws introduced when Margaret Thatcher was prime minister in the 1980s.

Sympathy strikes have been outlawed, under the rules on secondary picketing. The process of calling an official strike is lengthy and a legal minefield. Failure to follow the rules on balloting and notification can result in court action and fines.

So given the continuing impotence of trades unions around the world when faced with challenging the plans of large corporations, it is hardly surprising that a growing number of workers see sit-ins as the most direct and effective way of registering their protests. It is likely we should expect more.

Print Sponsor

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Visteon workers vote to back deal
04 May 09 |  Northern Ireland
Thomas Cook workers are released
04 Aug 09 |  Northern Ireland

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