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Lucas Aerospace Company

Moving the trade unions past fossil fuels

Samantha Mason interviewed by Gabriel Levy - People and Nature, August 9, 2017

The Public and Commercial Services union (PCS) has launched a pamphlet, Just Transition and Energy Democracy: a civil service trade union perspective, urging trade union support for the transition away from fossil fuels and restructuring the energy system under public ownership. In this interview SAMANTHA MASON, PCS policy officer and main author of the pamphlet, published in May, talks about combating the pro-fossil-fuel lobby in the unions and the Labour Party, and how to unite social and environmental movements.

Gabriel Levy (GL). Could you describe the PCS’s long engagement with energy and climate policy, which has culminated in the Just Transition pamphlet?

Samantha Mason (SM). We have been engaged with climate change issues, and increasingly with the whole energy debate, for about ten years. This has in large part been due to motions coming to conference from the grassroots membership, and an assistant general secretary, Chris Baugh, leading on this, which has enabled us to develop our policy and campaigning agenda.We participate in meetings with other industrial and energy unions, mainly through the Trade Unions Sustainable Development Advisory Committee. [Note. This committee was set up as a joint government-union forum after the 1997 Kyoto climate talks, but government participation dried up under the Tories. It is now a meeting place for union policy officers, and latterly, industrial officers.]

Some of the unions there represent workers in the fossil fuel and nuclear sectors, so while we’re supposed to look at sustainable development issues, they have been more concerned with pushing fracking [that is, hydraulic fracturing, a mining technique that has been used to raise natural gas production in the US, and some people think might do so in the UK] as part of the TUC’s so called “balance energy policy” – supporting nuclear, natural gas, Carbon Capture and Storage, and the Heathrow third runway. [Note. See for example the TUC Powering Ahead document.]

We have real problems with this, as PCS is opposed to almost everything in the policy, on the basis of our national conference decisions. We have had a divide opening up between these pro-fracking unions on one side, and the PCS, and other unions who want to develop a policy for both social change and environmental change, on the other. The TUC says their policy is a result of Congress decisions. But they do little or nothing to take the debate forward.

Interrogating digital capitalism

By Gabriel Levy - People and Nature, July 10, 2017

The ways that capitalism uses technology as a means of control was discussed on Thursday evening in London, at a meeting organised by the Breaking the Frame collective.

The meeting was called “Interrogating Digital Capitalism”. Ursula Huws, who researches technology and labour at the University of Hertfordshire, started her talk by arguing that terms such as “digital capitalism” and “biocapitalism” are unhelpful. “I prefer to talk about capitalism”, she said.

Capitalism uses technology at each stage of its restructuring, after recurrent crises, Huws argued. She pointed to three main ways that it uses technology for social control.

  • Technology is used to “simplify and standardise work processes” and sometimes – but not always – to substitute for labour.
  • Technologies are used to control work processes, and for surveillance.
  • Technologies are used to “create new commodities, bringing new areas of human activity into alienated, commodified relationships”. This included the “formalisation of the  information economy” and the “commodification of domestic labour”.

Huws talked about the role of internet-based employment platforms in the “gig” economy. With her colleague Simon Joyce, she last year published research suggesting that up to 5 million people in the UK have been pulled into the “gig economy”.

In a recent article about Uber introducing driverless cars in Pittsburgh, USA, Huws argued that “this kind of restructuring tends to create new jobs, even as it destroys others. Driverless cars may do to professional drivers what washing machines did to laundry workers. But capitalism, disruptive as ever, carries on as usual.”

Huws argued at the meeting that those hired via sites such as Freelancer, Upwork or Clickworker – often to do work conducted in isolated settings such as window cleaning or other domestic tasks – will find it harder to organise collectively than the Uber drivers. who have played a front-line role in worker organisation of precarious workers.

Richard Hall of De Montfort university spoke about the Cybernetic Hypothesis, published by the French collective Tiqqun in the mid 1990s. (An English translation of the document is here.)

Richard argued that cybernetics is “a systemic, structural and secular response to the issue of maintaining stable forms of accumulation and avoiding crisis inside capitalism”. (He has put notes from his talk on his blog.) He quoted Tiqqun’s assertion that cybernetics is “the tool by which capitalism has adjusted its capacity for disintegration and its quest after profit to one another”.

During discussion, Bob Hughes – whose book The Bleeding Edge, on technology and inequality, was published last year – argued that a critique of technology needed to acknowledge not only the dangers inherent in its use by capitalism, but also its potentialities for socialism and for human development.

Utopia: Industrial Workers Taking the Wheel

By Hilary Wainwright - Red Pepper, January 12, 2017

Back in the 1970s, with unemployment rising and British industry contracting, workers at the arms company Lucas Aerospace came up with a pioneering plan to retain jobs by proposing alternative, socially-useful applications of the company’s technology and their own skills. The ‘Lucas Plan’ 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.

Forty years later, we are facing a convergence of crises: militarism and nuclear weapons, climate chaos and the destruction of jobs by new technologies and automation. These crises mean we have to start thinking about technology as political, as the Lucas Aerospace workers did, and reopen the debate about industrial conversion and economic democracy.

‘What so inspires me about the Lucas Plan is the democratic egalitarianism which runs through its every part – the work processes, the products and even the very technology they propose.’

This egalitarian ethic inspired Laurence Hill to make the Lucas Plan the focus of this year’s annual gathering of Young Quakers in Lancaster, up the line from the Trident nuclear submarine yards in Barrow. Eurig Scandrett from the Scottish Green Party made it the theme for Green Party trade unionists because ‘it is the most inspiring example of workers on the shop floor who get self-organised and demand to make what humanity needs.’

The fact that the plan was defeated has not diluted its capacity to inspire. For Eurig Scandrett, its defeat demonstrated that ‘it is the vested interests of the military-industrial machine which is the problem, and that workers liberating their collective brain is where the solution lies.’

A new Lucas Plan for the future

By David King - Morning Star, November 26, 2016

The ideas pioneered by the Lucas workers are just as, or more, relevant now than in the 1970s, and there are strong political similarities in the situation.

As in the ’70s, we have an economic crisis caused by unjust economic policies and the failure of successive governments’ industrial strategy.

As usual, this has hit the working class hardest, and anger over this is being channelled into racism against immigrants. Now, the environmental effects of industrial capitalism are far more evident than 40 years ago, already creating wars, militarisation and widespread concern about insecurity.

Finally, introduction of new technologies threatens structural unemployment on a scale considerably greater than the ’70s.

The Tory government’s response to the economic and political crisis, despite continuing to publicly espouse neoliberal principles, looks a lot like a classic Keynesian economic stimulus package.

In the last few months it has made decisions to move ahead with a range of industrial infrastructure megaprojects — Hinkley C, fracking, HS2 and the Heathrow third runway, as well as pressing ahead with spending £200 billion on Trident renewal.

A key element in the case for all these projects is the jobs that they will generate or preserve, although the jobs estimates are bound to be inflated, while the price tag will be massively underestimated.

Compared to the ’70s, far fewer jobs will be created in this way because, due to automation and mechanisation, they are all highly capital rather than labour-intensive.

The Lucas Aerospace workers’ idea of socially useful production suggests a far better way forward.

What if the workers were in control?

By Hillary Wainwright - Red Pepper, November 2016

Back in the 1970s, with unemployment rising and British industry contracting, workers at the arms company Lucas Aerospace came up with a pioneering plan to retain jobs by proposing alternative, socially-useful applications of the company’s technology and their own skills. The ‘Lucas Plan’ 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.

Forty years later, we are facing a convergence of crises: militarism and nuclear weapons, climate chaos and the destruction of jobs by new technologies and automation. These crises mean we have to start thinking about technology as political, as the Lucas Aerospace workers did, and reopen the debate about industrial conversion and economic democracy.

‘What so inspires me about the Lucas Plan is the democratic egalitarianism which runs through its every part – the work processes, the products and even the very technology they propose.’

This egalitarian ethic inspired Laurence Hall to make the Lucas Plan the focus of a recent national gathering of Young Quakers in Lancaster, up the line from the Trident nuclear submarine yards in Barrow. Eurig Scandrett from the Scottish Green Party made it the theme for Green Party trade unionists because ‘it is the most inspiring example of workers on the shop floor who get self-organised and demand to make what humanity needs.’

The fact that the plan was defeated has not diluted its capacity to inspire. For Eurig Scandrett, its defeat demonstrated that ‘it is the vested interests of the military-industrial machine which is the problem, and that workers liberating their collective brain is where the solution lies.’

The broad outline of the Lucas Aerospace workers’ story was familiar enough in the mid-1970s. Workers faced redundancies, got organised, resisted and insisted that their skills and machinery were not redundant. But here they went further. They drew together alternative ideas with those of supportive academics and, with the encouragement of Tony Benn (then industry secretary in the Labour government), produced their ‘Alternative Corporate Plan for Socially Useful Production’, illustrated with prototypes. Management refused to negotiate. The government, under pressure from the CBI and the City, made gestures of a willingness to talk, but would not move against management. The plan was never implemented, or even seriously considered, although commercial companies elsewhere picked up some of the ideas.

So what are the lessons we can draw from this past experience of ‘ordinary’ people organising and sharing their practical knowledge and skills to illustrate in the present the changes of which we dream? Some of the main ones are discussed below.

The Lucas plan and the politics of technology

By David King - People and Nature, October 26, 2016

The Lucas Plan: how Greens and trade unionists can unite in common cause

By David King - Breaking the Frame, November 2, 2016

Forty years ago workers at Lucas Aerospace created a detailed plan to transition out of the arms industry and into green, sustainable products and technologies, writes David King. it never happened, yet the Lucas Plan provides a blueprint for similar initiatives today to build a deep-rooted, broad-based movement for social, economic and ecological progress.

One problem that environmental campaigns against harmful industries such as nuclear power and weapons, fracking, arms, etc. often face is opposition from trade unions and local people concerned about the impact on jobs.

But as an inspiring initiative by workers themselves in the 1970s showed, it doesn't have to be that way. 2016 is the 40th anniversary of the Lucas Plan.

No, there's no connection to the eponymous Green MP! It was a plan by workers at the Lucas Aerospace arms company to convert the company's production to socially useful products. Amongst their ahead-of-their-time ideas were wind turbines, heat pumps, and hybrid car engines, which are now in widespread use.

At a conference in November trade unionists, environmentalists and peace activists are coming together to celebrate the anniversary and take forward more recent workers' plans like the Million Climate Jobs campaign. We hope the conference will give new impetus towards a 'people's transition' to sustainability with social justice.

Socially useful production

The Lucas Plan came about not as the result of activism from the peace movement, but as a positive response by the Lucas workers themselves, to save their jobs, in the face of recession and planned government defence spending cuts. In the early 1970s the workers at Lucas had organised themselves into a cross-union Combine Committee, which had already been extremely effective in fighting redundancies.

The Combine Committee worked on the plan throughout 1975, when it circulated questionnaires to the workforce requesting product suggestions which answered a social need and could be produced using the workforce's existing skills and technology. Emphasis was also to be put on the way the products were to be made, making sure that workers were not to be deskilled in the process of producing them.

150 product ideas were put forward by the workforce. From them, products were selected to fall into six categories: medical equipment, transport vehicles, improved braking systems, energy conservation, oceanics, and telechiric machines.

Can Autoworkers Save the Climate?

By Lars Henriksson - Jacobin, October 2, 2015

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.

At the COP 19, the even-more-depressing-than-usual climate summit that took place in Warsaw in 2013, one small ray of light made it through the dark corporate clouds that were otherwise suffocating even the slightest effort to address the ongoing environmental disaster.

On the last day of the conference, an unusual alliance was formed as environmental organizations and trade unions together walked out of the venue under the banner of “Enough Is Enough.” Sick of the meaningless talks, they stated:

We are now focusing on mobilizing people to push our governments to take leadership for serious climate action. We will work to transform our food and energy systems at a national and global level and rebuild a broken economic system to create a sustainable and low-carbon economy with decent jobs and livelihoods for all. And we will put pressure on everyone to do more to realize this vision.

If not entirely unique, this action nevertheless promised a new hope for a climate movement that never recovered after its (greatly exaggerated) expectations cruelly disappointed at the summit in Copenhagen four years earlier. The relationship between trade unions and environmentalists has often been strained, if there has been one at all. More often than not, those claiming to defend the earth and workers’ rights are operating at a crossroads, sometimes colliding in head-to-head confrontation — especially when jobs are pitted against environmental interests.

I found myself in that squeeze when the financial crisis hit the auto industry in 2008. The previous year, Al Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, and climate change topped worldwide headlines. But with the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers and the auto industry in free fall, the climate crisis quickly disappeared from general discussion, even more so among auto-industry workers. Profits (disguised as “jobs”) were the main issue, not the complicated and distant phenomenon of global warming.

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.

1976: The fight for useful work at Lucas Aerospace

by Kevin Doyle - Based on an article first published by Workers Solidarity in the Summer of 1988, Workers Solidarity Movement

In the 1970s workers at the Lucas Aerospace Company in Britain set out to defeat the bosses plans to axe jobs. They produced their own alternative "Corporate Plan" for the company's future. In doing so they attacked some of the underlying priorities of capitalism. Their proposals were radical, arguing for an end to the wasteful production of military goods and for people’s needs to be put before the owners’ profits.