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. Rob Marsden looks 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- employing tens of thousands of skilled engineers from other industries and training new engineers for the future.
We had a brief glimpse of how such a transformation might be achieved at Lucas Aerospace in the 1970’s when workers, faced with job losses, drew up their own Alternative Corporate Plan of 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 bears 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 over 18,000 workers and 15 factories across the UK, centred on Birmingham. Half of its business was in the production of combat aircraft and the Sting Ray missile system for NATO.
Formed in the early 1970’s, through a series of take-overs 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% of the workforce and closing a number of factories, in order to compete on the European market for lucrative NATO contracts, the principle opposition came from the powerful Shop Stewards Combine Committee.
The SSCC had grown in importance through the rank and file wage militancy of the early 70’s. Crucial to its success was its ability to call solidarity action across the whole of Lucas in support of local disputes, such as in 1972 when a 3 month strike over pay, by workers at the Burnley plant, was supported by workplace collections and selective, 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.
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 shop floor, contended that Lucas should shift from a concentration on military hardware towards the production 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 over 150 ideas with detailed plans filling more than a thousand pages.
Lucas already had a small stake in hi-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)
Whilst 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 plan focused extensively on the development of alternative, renewable energy.
- 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.
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’ management opposed the Plan. The new product ranges did not fit with the companies 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 Alternative Plan was to remain a dead-letter. The Labour government lauded the Plan publicly – indeed, the initial idea for the Plan had arisen from a meeting between the stewards and Tony Benn, then Industry Minister (2)- but failed to put its money where its mouth was. It had its own priorities which did not include socially-useful production but which 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 shop-floor in decline, management determined to break its influence. They 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 dismissed.
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.
- Cooley, Michael: Architect or Bee? The Human / Technology Relationship, South end press, 1982
- Coates, Ken: Work-ins, Sit-ins and Industrial Democracy, Spokesman 1981