BRIAN SALISBURY and PHIL ASQUITH look back 40 years to a landmark project where aerospace workers redeployed their skills to make products of social use
THIS year is the 40th anniversary of the Lucas Plan, the pioneering plan by shop stewards at Lucas Aerospace to save their members’ jobs by converting the company from arms production to socially useful products.
The plan met with worldwide acclaim, sparking an international movement of workers’ plans and was nominated for the Nobel Peace prize in 1979.
A conference in Birmingham on November 26 will be celebrating the anniversary and applying its ideas to current challenges including Trident, climate change and artificial intelligence.
This is the inside story of the Lucas Plan.
In the 1960s, the Labour government set up the Industrial Reorganisation Corporation to encourage company mergers, investment and rationalisations.
But workers found that Harold Wilson’s “white heat of the technological revolution” was simply burning up their jobs.
Additionally, the principles of “Taylorism,” the fragmentation and deskilling of the production and design processes, in order to reduce workers’ power and bargaining strength, was being widely implemented. All of these factors impacted upon us at Lucas Aerospace.
Compounded by Labour’s 1974 manifesto pledge to defence cuts, there seemed much more grief to come.
At Lucas Aerospace, we decided to set up a shop stewards’ Combine, which was a representative body of staff and manual worker unions on all the 15 sites throughout the UK.
The Combine had a number of successes, especially the winning of the Burnley strike; the underpinning victory was its survival and growth in the face of neutrality at best and hostility at worst, from most of the official trade union establishment.
In 1974 Lucas Aerospace, along with other aerospace companies, announced the need to restructure the company as a consequence of “increased international competition and … the need to introduce new technology.”
The idea of the Combine’s Alternative Corporate Plan came about as a result of a meeting held with Tony Benn at the Department of Industry in November 1974. The Combine’s internal liaison officer Ron Mills pointed out that if trade unionists work to the same criteria as the company’s accountants, they become part of the problem.
So we decided to draw up a plan based on our own criteria — a plan to save jobs by making products to meet unmet social needs. Workers in the military industries have always been presented with a false choice: weapons production or the dole, when the real choice should have been between weapons production or socially useful goods.
Mike Cooley, a member of the Combine, argued that “the only way in which we could be involved in a corporate plan would be if we grew it up in a way which challenged the private profit motive of the company and instead talked of social profit.
“It is an insult to our skill … that we can produce Concorde but not enough heaters for pensioners who are dying of the cold.”
There was a lot of uncertainty about embarking upon a voyage into completely unchartered waters. There were no trade union manuals. We would be walking a tightrope, but what was the alternative? The plan, when complete, would have to be placed in a collective bargaining framework.
Following the Combine’s decision to draw up the plan, work began in January 1975 and took around a year. Initially the Combine approached outside organisations for product suggestions.
After receiving only three replies (which were exceptionally helpful) from 180 outside bodies, the Combine circulated questionnaires to the workforce. We asked for inventories of machine tools, workforce composition and skills. However, the questionnaire also asked for alternative products and alternative ways of running the factory. Machine tool inventories and skill mix were used for planning: this was done by management as a business function. To produce the plan we had to think planning, thus encroaching on management’s fiefdom.
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.
The nature of the process was exemplified at the Bradford site where over 50 projects were submitted to the corporate plan committee, but the company’s suggestion box at the entrance to the factory gathered dust. Most of our sites established a corporate plan committee. The committees circulated information and questionnaires, put up posters and held discussions, often in the pub, and mass meetings.
Members were asked for ideas — their jobs might well depend on the outcome. Self-interest is a great motivator. A meeting in Burnley overwhelmingly accepted the joint shop stewards’ recommendation to base the fight on the Alternative Plan. Some 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. Specific proposals included, in the medical sector, an expansion of 40 per cent in the production of kidney dialysis machines, which at that time were being manufactured at the Neasden site.
In the energy sector, proposals included the development of ahead-of-their time environmentally sound products like heat pumps, solar cell technology, wind turbines and fuel cell technology. In transport, a hybrid power pack for motor vehicles and road-rail vehicles.
Later, the Combine produced a road-rail bus, which toured the country. The proposals were rejected out of hand by Lucas Aerospace management, indicating they would not diversify from aerospace work, even though they had clearly indicated that aerospace work was in decline. Of course, they felt — rightly — that the Alternative Plan threatened their “right to manage.”
The Combine’s Alternative Corporate Plan received worldwide support from a multitude of organisations, including those that would not normally support trade union activity. Combine shop stewards attended numerous meetings in Britain and made visits abroad to Sweden, Germany, Australia and the US.
In 1981 Cooley received the Right Livelihood award, the money from which he donated to the Combine. While individual trade unions and the Labour government supported the Combine’s plan in principle, there were neither the structures in place, nor the political will, to put pressure on Lucas Aerospace management to negotiate with the Combine to implement the plan. An opportunity was lost to make a company receiving public money accountable to the community which it served.
Forty years on, the products we put forward in our workers’ plan are now mainstream. Meanwhile Lucas Aerospace no longer exists, parts of it having been sold off. Like other British-based manufacturing companies, Lucas Aerospace was a victim of poor, unaccountable management and a sad lack of successive governments’ industrial strategy. The issues of technology and arms conversion raised in the Lucas Plan are even more relevant today.
At the Birmingham conference we will be looking at the new agenda for how trade unions can work with communities for socially useful production and democratic planning, in order to create a sustainable and just society.
We showed how people’s livelihoods can be safeguarded without relying on socially and environmentally harmful industries, and that workers have the knowhow to achieve that.
Forty years on it’s heartening to see that the plan has withstood the test of time and that a younger generation of people are carrying it forward.
Brian Salisbury and Phil Asquith are former members of the Lucas Aerospace Combine shop stewards’ committee.