Revisiting the Lucas Aerospace workers’ plan

In the Guardian Anne Karpf (@AnneKarpf) wrote about Green jobs: a utopia we nearly had
on ‘workers in a failing 1970s arms factory [who] created a revolutionary jobs plan’ as a ‘positive alternative to recession and redundancy’, arguing that ‘we need their vision now’.

Four decades ago, a green way out of recession was proposed. Lucas Aerospace, a major designer and manufacturer of combat aircraft and missile systems, planned to close a number of factories and make 20% of its 18,000-strong workforce redundant. The shop stewards combine committee, representing the 13 different trades unions in the company, decided to draw up “an alternative corporate plan for socially useful and environmentally desirable production”. It sent out a questionnaire to the company’s 17 plants, as well as outside experts, asking for an inventory of skills and machinery that already existed, and ideas about what they should make.

The company’s workers – both blue and white collar – responded enthusiastically. Of the 150 ideas that poured in, the committee chose 12 to present in its 1976 plan, among them a portable life-support system, a safer braking system for buses and coaches, robotic devices for remote-control firefighting and mining, and hobcarts to help people with spina bifida get around. Some of the products look dated today; others, such as a hybrid car (essentially a Toyota Prius), were prescient; still others, such as a road-rail vehicle of particular use in developing countries, remain innovative.

She also references Marxism Today’s critique of ‘socialism in one company’.

The Lucas Aerospace workers’ plan [Wikipedia] was big deal for socialists and trade unionist in the late 70s and early 80s, but since then the idea of workers’ control of production has disappeared from the discourse, other than around workers on company boards.

There were some interesting responses in the Guardian letters page, reminding me somewhat of the UCS work-in (see updates passim) and of course the current fad for John Lewis-esque mutual ownership. The main challenge for such workers’ plans would seems to be whether the workers could take over factories with the capital investment written down, and what they might produce. On the latter, Karpf’s ideas seem rather blinkered by today’s preoccupations, and fails to engage with the new industries we might (need to) create.

[Originally posted on Facebook]

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Published by Nico Macdonald

Communication, facilitation and consultancy around design and technology

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