Report by Martin Levy - Newcastle TUC President
The Lucas Aerospace Shop Stewards’ Combine’s Alternative Corporate Plan of 1976 was a pioneering effort by workers at the arms company to retain jobs by proposing alternative, socially-useful applications of the company’s technology and their own skills. It remains one of the most radical and forward thinking attempts ever made by workers to take the steering wheel and directly drive the direction of change.
Fearing the possibility of widespread redundancies in the aerospace industry, shop-floor trade union representatives of 13,000 blue- and white-collar workers of the 17 factories of Lucas Aerospace Ltd, under the leadership of Mike Cooley, mounted a campaign for “the right to work on socially useful products”. As a key plank in their campaign they produced an “Alternative Corporate Plan”, containing proposals for a number of new products which they hoped would both safeguard jobs and put the workforce’s skills to good use. The idea of such a plan originated from a meeting in November 1974 between the Lucas Aerospace Combine Shop Stewards Committee and Tony Benn, then Secretary of State for Industry. The proposals were developed by engagement with the workforce at factory level over a period of a year, and included:
- remote-handling gear for undersea oil-rig maintenance, fire fighting and mining;
- alternative energy technologies such as windmills, heat pumps and solar power;
- medical technologies such as artificial limb control systems, sight-substituting aids for the blind, improved life-support systems for ambulances, and increased production of kidney dialysis machines; and
- alternative transport systems, including a light-weight road-rail vehicle, powered by a hybrid petrol-electric engine.
The company rejected the Plan because of its “long-standing capability and reputation for producing a wide range of aerospace systems and components.” Today, the proposals in the Plan stand out as an enormous missed opportunity for British manufacturing, especially considering the fate of the company, which was essentially asset-stripped. In 1996 Lucas Industries merged with US company Varity to form LucasVarity, which in turn was sold to US aerospace and automotive company TRW in 1999. The Diesel Systems division was then sold to Delphi; Lucas Aerospace (by then called TRW Aeronautical Systems) was sold to Goodrich; and, after TRW was bought by Northrop Grumman, the combined automotive assets of Lucas, Varity and TRW were sold to the Blackstone Group as TRW Automotive.
While the Plan was not put in place, industrial action around it saved some jobs. In addition, it had an impact outside Lucas, both in Britain and internationally. Workers in other companies in Britain, continental Europe, Australia and the USA undertook similar initiatives, and the Plan was also supported by and influenced the work of radical scientists such as the British Society for Social Responsibility in Science (BSSRS) and community, peace and environmental activists through spreading the idea of encouraging socially useful production. The Plan’s proposals also had an influence on the economic development strategies of a number of left-wing Labour councils, for example the West Midlands, Sheffield, Cleveland and the Greater London Council, where Mike Cooley was appointed Technology Director of the Greater London Enterprise Board, after being sacked by Lucas in 1981 due to his activism. The Combine was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979 and Mike Cooley received the Right Livelihood Award in 1982.
In the Northern Region there was, among other things: an attempt, led by Hilary Wainwright, to develop a plan for the Vickers tank factory on Scotswood Road; a conference on Arms Conversion in the early 1980s, organised by the Tyneside trades councils (Peter Burnett was involved in this); and the shop stewards’ plan, Oceans of Work, for the Barrow shipyard.
The conference was organised and sponsored by: former members of the Lucas Aerospace Shop Stewards Combine; Breaking the Frame (an organisation based on the idea that everyone has the right to take part in decisions about technology); PCS; UCU; Campaign Against Climate Change (Million Climate Jobs Campaign); the Green Party; Scientists for Global Responsibility (SGR, successor to the BSSRS); Campaign Against the Arms Trade; CND; Left Unity; Quaker Peace and Social Witness; Red Pepper; War on Want; Conference of Socialist Economists; Fellowship of Reconciliation; Newcastle TUC; Walsall TUC; Medact; and Momentum.
The objective in holding the conference was not so much to celebrate the anniversary but to lay the basis for future campaigning work. It was noted that we face a convergence of crises: militarism and nuclear weapons, climate chaos, and the destruction of jobs by automation. These mean we have to start thinking about technology as political, as the Lucas Aerospace workers did. The motto was: “Together we can start creating the Lucas Plans of the future.”
The Conference Itself
Bookings had to be closed two days before the conference as it was already fully subscribed.
Mary Pearson, president of Birmingham TUC, opened the conference, and announced greetings from a number of people who were unable to attend:
- Brian Salisbury and Mike Cooley, former members of the Combine Committee, both now unfortunately with mobility problems.
- Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, engaged in Labour Party activities, who commented that “The Lucas Plan was far ahead of its time” and that it was “bold, big picture, thinking”.
There was then a 15-minute preview of the film The Plan … that came from the bottom up, still in production. After that Mary Pearson announced the death of Fidel Castro, and the conference observed a minute’s silence.
Phil Asquith, member of the Combine, gave a brief survey of how the Plan was developed. At the end of his contribution he was joined on the podium by 3 other surviving Combine members.
Hilary Wainwright, now editor of Red Pepper, said that there was “a different kind of trade unionism” in the Plan, about the purpose of labour, challenging alienation, and workers’ control. Mike Cooley, she said, always stressed the politics of knowledge, and the importance of practical knowledge. Tacit knowledge – things we know but cannot share – can be a source of power. The Lucas Plan must be the basis of new thinking – “Don’t take new technology as a given; it’s a matter of choice.”
Tony Kearns, from the CWU, referred to the unsuccessful motion on climate change, from TSSA and his own union, debated at the TUC Congress in September. There is a risk of major wars being fought over natural resources; Japanese companies have bought up large agricultural areas in Africa; climate change displacement is going to get worse; the USA is going to run out of water for agricultural production in 20 years. We need to do something different – to question the world we live in and change it. But change is not going to come from the top down, as seen by the fate of the Congress motion.
In discussion Carol Turner from CND noted that, during the lifetime of building the current Trident submarines, 57% of jobs on Trident were lost.
The opening session was followed by 3 sessions of 4 parallel workshops. The ones I attended were:
1. Community and Alternative Plans 1
Jonathan Essex of the Green Party argued that we need to map from what we think the world should be like right down to our communities, getting land allocated for community enterprise, producing plans in the community and then generating community support to get them up and running. We should challenge the plans that exist: the status quo is for infrastructure development, which tends to be ‘big’, not for a different way of living, which should be decentralised and based on jobs. We should work out how many of the 1 million ‘climate’ jobs there should be in our area, and then lobby LEPS and local councils. Examples of potential employment areas are: reuse and recycling; retrofitting and caretaking buildings for energy efficiency; renewable energy generation.
Richard Lee of London community alliance Just Space argued for bringing together alliances of tenants and residents, ‘friends of parks’ groups etc. He posed the question of how to integrate demands raised for a different vision of where we live. We should calculate the number of jobs to be aimed for, which determines how much space will be needed.
In the discussion, I was one of a number of people who called for a broader political fight, noting that local councils have already shed massive numbers of jobs in response to government spending cuts. One rejoinder was that most citizens don’t see themselves as radical. It was pointed out that the DCLG has a programme for community development, which can provide funds for community groups. Reuse and recycling can also save local councils money on 25-year incineration contracts. It was argued that the profit from solar energy parks, which currently goes to landowners, should go to local councils instead.
2. Reading Mike Cooley’s ‘Architect or Bee: The Human Price of New Technology’
First published in 1980, Mike Cooley’s book takes its title from a famous passage in Marx’s Capital:
“A bee puts to shame many an architect in the construction of its cells; but what distinguishes the worst of architects from the best of bees is namely this. The architect will construct in his imagination that which he will ultimately erect in reality. At the end of every labour process, we get that which existed in the consciousness of the labourer at its commencement.”
The workshop was led by Adrian Smith of Sussex University, author of the book Socially Useful Production (STEPS Centre, 2014, available online) and by Tom Unterrainer of Spokesman Books, which has just republished Mike Cooley’s book. Focusing on Chapter 6, ‘Political Implications of New Technology’, Tom said that it prefigures quite a few themes around today, including:
- Gender and science: scientific and technological developments are not socially ‘neutral’.
- ‘Quantification’: “There has been a tendency to suggest that if you can’t quantify something it doesn’t really exist.”
- Computerised systems and social control.
- Use of technology to reinforce ‘social norms’.
- De-skilling, redundancies and the impact on communities due to automation.
- Contradictions between human and technological development, eg “Why … design robots with pattern recognition intelligence when we have 3 million people in the dole queue …?”
- ‘The Human Appendage’: if humans are appendages to machines in the production process, what could this mean in terms of social welfare and education provision?
- Who decides what technologies we have?
We were divided into discussion groups to tackle 4 different discussion points but my group never really got to those as it included 2 former engineering shop stewards from Birmingham, both mates, who insisted on giving first hand-experience of the way their industry had gone, in particular the contrast between the less mechanised Land Rover plant and the more highly mechanised Toyota and VW.
3. Arms Conversion 2: Future Potential (looking at how to create arms to renewables jobs)
The first speaker was Molly Scott Cato, Green MEP for the South West, and author of a report into alternatives to Trident at the Devonport yard. She noted that with 11,000 workers, this is the 4th largest employer in Devon and Cornwall. The workers are proud of the yard’s historic role, so in a conversion process they need to have jobs they can be proud of.
David Cullen, of the Nuclear Information Service (NIS), spoke about a study undertaken into alternatives to Trident at the Atomic Weapons Establishment. The 4,900 staff at Aldermaston (research and manufacturing), Burghfield (warhead assembly and disassembly) and Blacknest (arms control, nuclear test monitoring) make a major contribution to the local economy. The NIS study (available online), looking at what might arise in the case of nuclear disarmament, concludes that the likelihood of outright closure is low. Warhead dismantling would take at least 4 years, and decommissioning of contaminated facilities is likely to last to the 2040s to 2050s. In the longer term, nuclear wastes would be held on site to at least the 2070s, verification and nuclear security would still be needed, and then the prospects for the AWE to move into civil sector markets are good, following the Harwell and Portin Down models of science parks promoting small enterprises.
Stuart Parkinson, of SGR, reported that there has already been a degree of arms conversion. Although, within the OECD, Britain is second only to the USA in the proportion of GDP on military R&D, government spending on military R&D fell by about 70% from the mid-1980s to 2011, and civilian science and technology gained that money. Some 50,000-100,000 jobs were switched over in that period. MoD employment figures reveal a drop of some 250,000 jobs in the military industrial sector since the end of the Cold War. However, Germany is much more sympathetic to arms conversion at local level.
In discussion, I pointed out that it was not just union leaderships who were resistant to arms conversion at Barrow. It was the yard workers themselves, fearful of what the prospects were for well-paid employment in a town which depended on only one industry. I argued that CND’s plans were too vague, and that Labour needed to come forward with some detailed plans for arms conversion, engaging the workers in the process. This point was taken up by Hilary Wainwright, arguing that there should be steps taken to establish a sort of ‘shadow’ Arms Conversion Agency now, to engage on a national basis with workers in the ‘arms’ industries, so that an incoming Labour government would have clear policies. I discussed the matter with Hilary afterwards; and ,at its December meeting, Newcastle TUC agreed to submit the appended motion to Tyne & Wear County Association of Trades Union Councils, for transmission to the Annual Conference of Trades Union Councils.
Closing Plenary: Going Forward
This session was chaired by Romayne Phoenix of the People’s Assembly, and had as speakers Chris Baugh (PCS), Molly Scott Cato MEP and Julie Ward of the Labour Party. However, I had to skip it to catch the train home. For further reports from the conference, including videos and comments, please visit http://lucasplan.org.uk/
MOTION TO TYNE & WEAR COUNTY ASSOCIATION OF TRADE UNION COUNCILS
For submission to the Annual Conference of Trades Union Councils
THE ‘LUCAS PLAN’, ARMS CONVERSION AND SOCIALLY USEFUL PRODUCTION
Conference welcomes the ‘Lucas Plan’ 40th Anniversary Conference held in Birmingham in November 2016 and agrees that the Plan was an idea from which we can learn much today.
The Plan was a pioneering effort by workers at arms company Lucas Aerospace to retain jobs by proposing alternative, socially-useful applications of the company’s technology and their own skills. 40 years afterwards, we are facing a convergence of crises – militarism and nuclear weapons, climate chaos, and the destruction of jobs by automation – which mean that we have to start thinking about technology as political, as the Lucas Aerospace workers did.
However, in the 4 decades since the Plan was drawn up Britain’s manufacturing industry has shrunk from 25% to 14% of GDP, with the ‘defence’ industry now representing 10% of all manufacturing. Britain cannot afford to lose any more manufacturing skills and capacity, and ‘defence’ workers are rightly concerned about the potential loss of jobs, for example if Trident replacement is cancelled.
In line with the outcomes of the Lucas Plan Conference, we therefore call on trades unions and the TUC to lobby the Labour Party to establish before the next general election a ‘shadow’ Defence Diversification Agency, to work closely with the Shadow Department for Industry in developing an overall national industrial strategy including the possibility of conversion of ‘defence’ capacity. The first task of this Agency would be to engage with plant representatives, trades unions representing workers in the ‘defence’ industry, and local authorities, to discuss their needs and capacities, and to listen to their ideas, so that practical plans can be drawn up for arms conversion while protecting skilled employment and pay levels. A key means for developing the national industrial strategy would be the National Investment Bank proposed by the Shadow Chancellor.
We also urge trades union councils, trades unions and the General Council of the TUC to assist the work of such a ‘shadow’ Agency if set up.