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Lucas Aerospace -- When workers said `no' to military production, `yes' to green jobs

Photo by Alex Bainbridge.

By Rob Marsden

August 22, 2009 -- Socialist Resistance -- Today, the twin drivers of economic recession and the possibility of catastrophic climate change are beginning to push working people towards action. A series of small-scale but high-profile occupations of threatened factories, not just at Vestas wind turbine plant but also at Visteon car plant, where 600 workers took on the might of Ford and won a greatly enhanced redundancy package, show what is possible. In the 1970s workers at Britain's Lucas Aerospace went even further. We look back at the lessons of Lucas Aerospace.

It is clear that if we are to avert catastrophic climate change by moving rapidly to a low-carbon economy, certain industries will have to be wound down or drastically scaled back, for example, the power generation, aviation and car industries. However, rather than this leading to a net loss of jobs, efforts must be put into creating new green jobs or ``converting'' old jobs.

Whereas the priorities of global capitalism dictate the closure of the Isle of Wight’s Vestas wind turbine factory, we ought to be opening or converting hundreds of factories to produce the hardware for harnessing renewable wind and solar energy, and employing tens of thousands of skilled engineers from other industries and training new engineers for the future.

Socially useful production

We had a brief glimpse of how such a transformation might be achieved at Lucas Aerospace in the 1970s, when workers, faced with job losses, drew up their own alternative plan for how they could run the company and turn it over to producing socially useful and environmentally friendly products. Whilst the Lucas Plan never came to fruition, it has important lessons for future struggles to place the working class and the trades unions at the heart of the fight to save the planet.

The Lucas Aerospace conglomerate was one of Europe’s largest designers and manufacturers of military aircraft systems and hardware, with more than 18,000 workers and 15 factories across the UK, centred on Birmingham. Half of its business was in the production of combat aircraft and missile systems for NATO.

Formed in the early 1970s, through a series of takeovers and mergers, it enjoyed government sponsorship to create a strong and efficient aerospace company.

When Lucas management put forward plans to ``rationalise'' the company by sacking up to 20 per cent of the workforce and closing a number of factories, in order to compete on the European market for lucrative NATO contracts, the principal opposition came from the powerful Shop Stewards Combine Committee (SSCC).

The SSCC had grown in importance through the rank and file wage militancy of the early 1970s. Crucial to its success was its ability to call solidarity actions across the whole of Lucas in support of local disputes, such as in 1972 when a three-month strike over pay by workers at the Burnley plant was supported by workplace collections and stoppages across the combine. Management capitulated with a greatly increased wage settlement for the Burnley engineers sparking a round of action for increased pay across the whole of Lucas Aerospace.

Beyond militant unionism

The response of the SSCC to the proposed job losses was to go far beyond the norms of militant trades unionism as, in 1976, it put forward an alternative corporate plan for production across the company. The plan, which had been drawn up by workers on the shopfloor, argued that Lucas should shift from a concentration on military hardware production to the making of socially useful goods. It was two years in the making and drew on the technical expertise and detailed knowledge of the production process of the workforce.

Altogether it contained more than 150 ideas with detailed plans, filling more than 1000 pages. Lucas Aerospace already had a small stake in high-tech medical equipment and the plan sought to develop this as an alternative to weapons systems.

Some of the key elements of the alternative plan in the medical field were:

  • Expanded production of kidney dialysis machines, which Lucas already built, together with research into more portable models.
  • Manufacture of a life-support system for use in ambulances, based on a design by a former Lucas engineer turned medical doctor.
  • Development of a mobility aid for children with Spina Bifida. The ``Hobcart'', as it was called, was actually designed and built by Lucas workers and advance orders for several thousand units were received.

Mike Cooley, a senior designer at Lucas Aerospace and local chair of the technical union TASS, wrote:

“Lucas would not agree to manufacture [the Hobcart] because, they said, it was incompatible with their product range… Mike Parry Evans, its designer, said that it was one of the most enriching experiences of his life when he delivered the Hobcart to a child and saw the pleasure on the child’s face. For the first time in his career he saw the person who was going to benefit from the product he had designed, and he was intimately in contact with a social human problem.” [1]

While the issue of climate change and environmental degradation did not occupy nearly so importance a place in the popular consciousness as it does today, the problem of oil supply was a live issue (following the so-called “oil-crisis” of 1973) and the Lucas workers' plan focused extensively on the development of alternative, renewable energy.

Plans included:

  • Efficient wind turbines, drawing on existing expertise in aerodynamics.
  • Solar cells and heat pumps.
  • The “Power Pack”, which coupled a small internal combustion engine to a stack of batteries to create cars with 80% less emissions and 50% greater fuel economy.
  • An efficient method for small-scale electricity generation for use in the developing world.
  • A vehicle like a train but with pneumatic tyres allowing it also to travel on roads. Such a vehicle could navigate inclines of 1 in 6, compared with 1 in 80 for a conventional train, offering a huge potential saving against the need to build tunnels or make deep cuttings to lay rails. A prototype was successfully tested on a railway line in East Kent.

Bosses reject needs before profits

However, the importance of the Lucas Plan is not just in the specific technologies and products it proposed but in the questions it raised about production under capitalism and the vision it offered of a new society in which human needs come before the blind pursuit of profit.

Predictably, Lucas Aerospace management opposed the plan. The new product ranges did not fit with the company's existing portfolio. Furthermore, the very idea of the workers collectively articulating their views about company policy in this way, challenging management’s right to manage at a fundamental level, was anathema to the Lucas' bosses.

Whilst significant sections of the labour movement paid lip-service to the concept, the Lucas Plan was to remain a dead letter. The Labour government lauded the plan in public -- indeed, the initial idea for the plan had arisen from a meeting between the Lucas shop stewards and industry minister Tony Benn [2] --- but Labour failed to put its money where its mouth was. It had its own priorities which did not include socially useful production but did require strong military and aerospace industries as part of its fulfilment of NATO obligations.

Long months of negotiations over the plan, meetings with ministers and union officials to win concrete backing for it, gradually sapped the militancy of the Lucas workers. SSCC leaders became increasingly detached from the workforce and workplace organisation began to wither.

With the plan effectively kicked into the long grass, and the influence of the SSCC on the shopfloor in decline, management was determined to break its influence. Lucas Aerospace pushed forward with the job cuts, and activists, including many of the most prominent members of the SSCC and those most associated with the alternative plan, were victimised and sacked.

Climate change

Today, the twin drivers of economic recession and the possibility of catastrophic climate change are beginning to push working people towards action. A series of small-scale but high-profile occupations of threatened factories, not just at Vestas but also at Visteon where 600 workers took on the might of Ford and won a greatly enhanced redundancy package, show what is possible.

It is the role of socialists to participate in these movements, drawing the links between the economic crisis of capitalism and the environmental crisis, and using the lessons of past struggles to offer ideas and leadership to take the struggle forward.

[This article first appeared at the website of Socialist Resistance, a British socialist group and newspaper.]

References

1. Cooley, Michael: Architect or Bee? The Human/Technology Relationship, South End Press, 1982.

2. Coates, Ken: Work-ins, Sit-ins and Industrial Democracy, Spokesman Books, 1981.

Comments

Lucas Workers socially useful production Plan

Thanks for reminding us all of this visionary plan by Lucas workers. I was a UCATT member at the time and I remember the presentation of the plan to the Hackney Trades Council. It won our support then, but I think the TUC and union leadership were very afraid of it and it was "put to bed". Let me know if I have remembered this to the detriment of the TUC, but I think not.....
We need such plans again.In fact we need these sorts of workers now.

First of all, thank you for

First of all, thank you for this! I agree with Miriam, we do need such plans again, we do need these sorts of workers!

We need to pay attention to everything among us, especially the "green job" and green in general.

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