When workers planned production: the Lucas Aerospace plan
The south east region of the TUC recently showed a film about the Lucas Aerospace shop stewards’ committee who, 35 years ago, produced a plan to make socially useful products instead of the weapons of mass destruction they made for their employer.
The Lucas shop stewards were facing mass redundancies and plant closures. But part of their campaign against the job cuts was an imaginative plan for socially useful products which they could use their skills to design and make. Their ideas and approach inspired many workers at the time.
The film was produced 35 years ago by the independent television company ATV.
Bill Mullins, an ex-senior shop steward at Rover Solihull, reviewed it for the Socialist.
About 200 people attended the showing and the film was followed by a question and answer session with a panel of trade unionists including an ex-convenor of Ford Dagenham and Hilary Wainwright, author of The Lucas Plan, first published in 1981.
The film was produced for a mass TV audience but in general it treated the subject with the seriousness that it deserved.
It showed the shop stewards debating among themselves about their plans to produce a range of products – from kidney dialysis machines to a rail/road vehicle that they designed in collaboration with a neighbouring polytechnic.
It also tried to show the reaction of the Lucas bosses but they refused to be filmed. Instead we heard a sound recording from the managing director, squirming as he tried to claim that that the shop stewards’ plan was a non-runner.
Even now, after all this time, you can hear our ‘betters’ in the tone of his voice. He says “but there is no alternative” to producing what we do, ie fighter plane parts and rockets for the military.
Ahead of their time
Some of the shop stewards’ ideas were far ahead of their time. For example their ideas for a hybrid car which ran on electricity as well as petrol.
The stewards’ socially useful alternative products were not something thought up overnight. They were the result of four years of discussion with their members in the 13 plants that made up the Lucas Aerospace combine committee.
The film showed meetings in Burnley, Birmingham, Wolverhampton and Willesden in London. It also showed other battles against redundancies, with a meeting organised by the Liverpool trades council in 1978 against the closure of the Triumph factory in Merseyside.
What stood out to me watching the film was the efforts that the shop stewards made in trying to get support for their ideas.
They met with Labour politicians and trade union officials but you could see that they did not get very far.
They got a frosty reception from Ken Gill, who later became general secretary of the trade union TASS [now part of Unite].
Maybe this was because Ken was a hard line Stalinist, while the chair of the combine committee, Mike Cooley, was a Maoist who had split from the Communist Party of Great Britain.
The stewards commented that the union officialdom demanded that they go through the official machinery ie the confederation of shipbuilding and engineering unions. To do this, the stewards said, would have meant their project was dead in the water from the beginning!
In the film the shop stewards explain how, at meetings with Labour government minsters, they were given the run-around and fobbed off to the ministers’ underlings.
It should be said the first minister they met was Tony Benn and they received his support, but it was not long before he was replaced by Eric Varley, a right winger.
Benn had said that he did not have the political authority to force Lucas to listen to the shop stewards but would do his best.
In the discussion after the screening I asked if the combine had called for Lucas Aerospace to be nationalised.
I explained that this is what we did in British Leyland (BL) at about the same time. We called for BL to be put under public ownership with workers’ control and management.
Hilary Wainwright, who had called the Lucas plan a “new kind of trade unionism”, said that nationalisation was not enough and “hadn’t worked”.
The ex-Dagenham convenor disagreed, especially after a member of the audience said that you needed capitalists to invest in the first place. “Tell the National Union of Mineworkers that nationalisation didn’t work, look at the health and safety of miners before and after nationalisation” he said to applause.
My personal view was that the Lucas combine did not put enough emphasis on the political question of who owns and controls Lucas Aerospace.
If they had, then the necessity of the nationalisation of the whole Lucas combine under workers’ control would have been seen.
This would have included, not just the aerospace arm, but also the motor component arm as part of a programme of nationalisation of the whole motor industry.
This was something we demanded at the time of the BL crisis. The Militant pamphlet produced at around this time said it all: “no to subsidisation, yes to nationalisation of BL”.
The Lucas workers’ ideas resonate even more today – as was seen at the time of the Vestas factory closure on the Isle of Wight a couple of years ago.
There the workers made green and socially useful products, wind turbine blades. But the factory was still closed by the company.
The Socialist Party called then for the nationalisation of the company as part of a ‘green fuel’ industry run under workers’ control and management.
The old saying still goes: “You can’t control what you don’t own and you can’t own without nationalisation”.