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

Flyer for the Lucas Plan conference in Birmingham on 26th November 2016.
Flyer for the Lucas Plan conference in Birmingham on 26th November 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.
The environmental crisis is, at root, a crisis in the whole system of industrial capitalism. The Lucas workers' ideas represent both a social and a technological paradigm for how to go forward.

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.

Apart from the green innovations mentioned above, one famous outcome was the road-rail bus, designed to be smoothly transferable between the two systems, and improve public transport particularly in rural areas.

Although the plan was rejected by the company, which, rightly, realised that it was a threat to its own 'right to manage', the Plan became internationally famous and emulated around the world. The Combine was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979, and Mike Cooley, a leading member, received the Right Livelihood prize in 1982.

Until its abolition in 1986 by Margaret Thatcher, the ideas were taken up by the Greater London Council, which established 'technology networks' intended to foster participative technology design, involving communities and users of technology, such as disabled people.

The environmental crisis is, at root, a crisis in the whole system of industrial capitalism. The Lucas workers' ideas represent both a social and a technological paradigm for how to go forward.

Dinosaurs or allies?

As a result of 40 years of neoliberal propaganda against trade unions, many people in the green movement have internalised the image of trade unionists as 'dinosaurs', concerned only with their own self-interest, and uncaring about the environment.

The Lucas Plan shows that, at the height of their supposedly illegitimate power over national policy, the trade union movement was capable of inspiring initiatives, in which they understood that their own interests were the same as those of the environment. The more recent Million Climate Jobs plan, and the broader trade union initiative of Just Transition shows that most trade unionists want to be allies to the environmental movement.

Because of class differences and the way that capitalism sets up greens and trade unionists against each other, many people in the green movement adopt a position of moral superiority towards workers in harmful industries who are unwilling to give up their jobs.

It's much easier to take such positions if your own livelihood doesn't depend upon it. What is needed is government support for such industrial conversion plans, something that has been lacking in mainstream politics for a long time, but is now back on the political agenda.

But there is a deeper flaw in the thinking of much of the green movement: the conviction that saving the planet is simply a matter of getting rid of dirty old technologies and industries and replacing them with clean, new, green ones.

Of course, technological change is vital, but the technology-focused strategy which tries to ignore politics and social issues can become just as technocratic as the mainstream industries and policy-makers that have caused the problem.

Are we going to impose green technologies on people in the same way that corporations impose e.g. GM technology upon us? In extreme forms, this technofix mentality can lead to, e.g., support for nuclear power and climate engineering as 'solutions' to climate change.

In reality, everything is connected to everything else, including technology and society. So instead of top-down technocratic 'solutions', what the green movement needs to do more than anything else is to reach out to working class communities.

We need to overcome the jobs impasse by working with trade unionists for new local and national economies that give people a livelihood. And to do that, we need to be on their side, in their day-to-day struggles to make a living and feed their families. That means making political commitments that many greens feel scared of, but there is no shortcut.

After all, how are we going to save the world without having working class people, who are still the majority of the population, on our side? As the anti-fracking campaign has found, making connections with grassroots working class communities brings a depth and strength to a movement that other green campaigns can only envy.

Technology, workers, and climate change - a deeper lesson

The Lucas Plan also has a lesson for the green movement about technology, in fact it's a lesson that many on the Left have also forgotten.

Although the aspect of the Lucas Plan that is best remembered is arms conversion, the Plan was part of a broader struggle of trade unionists in the 1970s against the way in which industrial technology is designed to reduce the need for workers' skills, and eventually automate their jobs out of existence.

This inbuilt tendency of industrial capitalism has accelerated for the last 40 years, through the ongoing digitalisation of everything. Now there are predictions that digital technology will eliminate 50 percent of the jobs in the economy over the next 20 years, potentially creating incredible hardship and social upheaval.

Of course, despite its 'clean' image, digital technologies are heavy industrial technologies, consuming vast amounts of resources (and starting wars over them), creating huge waste and pollution, and using inconceivable amounts of energy.

The Lucas Aerospace workers' emphasis on human skills-based production rather than automation, and production for real social need, are in fact green as well as socialist ideas. If we want green technologies, the place to go is to skilled workers, rather than to companies that design technology for profit first.

The environmental crisis is, at root, a crisis in the whole system of industrial capitalism, and it requires us to go back to basics about how we produce things that people need, without destroying the environment. The Lucas workers' ideas represent both a social and a technological paradigm for how to go forward.



David King is a former biologist and coordinator of Luddites200, and co-organiser of Breaking the Frame.

The conference on the Lucas Plan 40th anniversary will be held at Birmingham Voluntary Service Council (138 Digbeth, Birmingham, B5 6DR) on November 26, 2016. Book tickets here.

It is organised and sponsored by: former members of the Lucas Aerospace Shop Stewards Combine, Breaking the Frame, PCS, UCU, Million Climate Jobs Campaign, Green Party, CND, Left Unity, Scientists for Global Responsibility, Campaign Against Arms Trade, Quaker Peace and Social Witness and Red Pepper.

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