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Renewable Energy and Lucas Aerospace "Workers Plans"

By Dave Elliot and Hilary Wainwright - The Multicultural Politic, October 28, 2011

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

Over the years the trade union movement has often led radical challenges to existing ways of doing things, including initiatives to improve not just the health and safety of the workforce, but also, during a period of increased worker militancy in the 1970’s, campaigns to change the direction of technological development.

One epic struggle was the Workers Plan movement in the late 1970’s, led off by shop stewards at the 17 plants around the UK run by Lucas Aerospace – which employed around 13,000 people making aircraft systems, many of them defence related. The trade unionists were concerned about job security at a time of recession in the industry- and also cuts defence spending (which they supported in principal).

They involved the workforce in a two year process of developing a detailed plan for switching to what they called ‘socially useful work’. The Plan drew on the expertise of the workforce and the skills they had, and outlined a range of new products they could work on, including medical aids, new transport systems and several renewable energy technologies, like wind turbines, solar panels, fuel cells and heat pumps. They even managed to get some prototypes built.

This was long before these technologies were familiar, and the company was not impressed by trade unionist trying to tell them what to produce. They ignored the plan insisting that only they had the right to manage. The cross-plant shop stewards ‘Combine’ committee was also seen as ‘unofficial’, so it proved hard to get support from the TUC and union bureaucracy, or even from the Labour government.

And when the political climate changed with the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979, most of the leading Lucas activists were sacked. Some of them went on to work for left wing local councils, developing similar ideas.

The GLC in London set up a series of Technology Networks linked to local colleges to provide a base for local community projects. But Thatcher then abolished the GLC. The Lucas plans wasn’t the only one. Similar ‘Workers Plans’ had also emerged at various power-engineering plants in Newcastle (Clarke Chapman, NEI Parsons) and Manchester (GEC) who were involved with large energy projects like the large DRAX coal fired power station – their alternative plans looked at things like Combined Heat and Power plants (CHP).

Meanwhile workers at the Vickers defence equipment plant (tanks and submarines) had called for the development of wave energy systems. And it wasn’t just power and defence workers- shop stewards at the Chrysler Car plant in Coventry were pushing for a move away from petrol-fuelled vehicles which they saw as ecologically unviable. But with the high tide of trade union militancy flattened in 1984 by Thatcher’s successful challenge to the Miners, the UK Unions became more defensive.

However, although somewhat reduced in power and numbers, they have of late begun to flex their muscle again- on green issues. For example the Trade Union Congress (TUC) recently called for a ‘just transition to a greener economy’. And there is still more than a hint of militancy, in the insistence that, while they are keen to support green policies, workers’ compliance can’t be taken for granted if its not done fairly. The ‘Green and Fair Future’ report says that ‘support for environmental policies are conditional on a fair distribution of the costs and benefits of those policies across the economy, and on the creation of opportunities for active engagement by those affected in determining the future wellbeing of themselves and their families’.

What next?

There is no shortage of plans and proposal for new renewable support programmes. The potential is very large. What is now needed is action to achieve it. Trade Union and Labour organisations are well place to play a role in pressing for this to happen, while also ensuring that employment conditions are protected and developed.

All parties have to bear their share of the costs, but as the TUC’s ‘Just Transition’ campaign argues, the green gains must not undermine sustainable employment in decent jobs. For example some of the green job gains in Germany have been in the East, where trade union rights have been ignored and pay levels are depressed. We have to do much better than that, if wide support is to be attracted for a green transition.

The recession may offer opportunities for change, indeed there may be no alternative but to change approach, but crisis situations, with the threat of imminent plant closures, are not usually the best time for long term planning. Most of the changes needed will require more than quick ‘fire fighting’ measure to stave off job losses. In which case, while an overall government transition plan is needed, sector by sector, it would also be wise for trade unions to have well thought out diversification plans ready at the plant level- in the tradition of the Lucas workers That plan, and the other workers plans produced by trade union groups in other sectors (including energy and vehicles), may have been repressed. But the situation is now very different. Whereas they were calling for what at the time looked quite exotic new technologies (such as solar, wind, wave systems), these ideas are now at the forefront of the push to get green energy established.

The devil is of course in the detail – building up and converting to a new manufacturing infrastructure will take planning and time. But trade unions members have a wealth of practical experience, and also, with their jobs in mind, an extra incentive to push ahead with new ideas.

Some lessons from the Lucas Workers’ Plan

Organise locally: the shop stewards were respected their capacity to defend workers wages and conditions and so support continued when they tried to move beyond that to challenge what was produced. The Plan also covered the way in which production should be organised – it was not just about products. The aim was for there to be negotiations on the plan within the normal TU collective bargaining framework. But management refused to do this, and it proved hard to get effective industrial action (go slows, strikes) on the issue- even when jobs were threatened.

Organise nationally: the shop steward combine committee was unique in covering all workers in the company across all its sites. But it was seen as unofficial and so did not get the backing of the TUC and union leaders or the Labour Party. So it was marginalised. Media coverage was also very patchy and the green movements of the day (and indeed the left) were either bemused or indifferent: it didn’t fit their agenda.

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