Workers' Weekly On-Line
Volume 48 Number 8, March 24, 2018 ARCHIVE HOME JBCENTRE SUBSCRIBE

Militarisation of the economy

Looking Back on the Lucas Workers' Plan
against Militarisation of the Economy

The Lucas Aerospace Shop Stewards in 1977

This January marked the 42nd anniversary of the Lucas Workers' Plan, still famous in many quarters. In opposition to militarisation of the economy, a stand was taken by the workers at Lucas Aerospace against war production.

Lucas Industries plc was a British manufacturer of components for the motor and aerospace industries. Based in Birmingham, at its height it was a monopoly in the sector, though it has since been rendered defunct through a series of mergers and acquisitions, with the Lucas trademark now owned by German monopoly ZF Friedrichshafen. It had one of its aerospace factories in Shaftmoor lane in Hall Green, Birmingham, which dated back to 1938 when it housed gas turbine equipment. There is nothing left of the factory now: it was demolished and the site now stands empty. The military production, though, has remained. Lucas Aerospace workers moved to a new hi-tech site in Solihull in 2013, built at a cost of £60m.

In 1976, during that decade's deep economic crisis, the narrow self-serving plan of the management of Lucas Aerospace was to cast into redundancy a fifth of its workforce of 18,000 and close a number of factories. In response, the cross-union shop stewards committee, formulated an alternative plan with the full involvement of the workers. This was a plan for "socially useful and environmentally desirable production".

Despite the fact that they were heavily involved in military production, the workers and their elected shop stewards were conscious of the need to end production for military purposes and envisaged a future of peaceful production at their plant. At the time, production relied at least in part on state support and was divided roughly equally between military and civilian contracts. Workers argued that public money ought to be spent on production for pro-social rather than military aims.

Workers at Lucas Industries, Shaftmoor Lane branch, Birmingham, 1970. Photograph: /Lucas Memories website,

The workers' initiative was based on the workers' own experience, harnessing their knowledge and skills while utilising experts such as scientists and environmentalists, and centring on the needs of themselves, their communities and their environment. It pointed to a different way of planning, or carrying out production, and of different aims.

This had to be learned in practice: the shop stewards had first turned to the research community and received a very limited response. When they turned to their own forces, the workers themselves, and sought the assistance of academics in that context, it took just a year to formulate their fully worked-out alternative plan, from what alternative products to manufacture to the training required. It also included proposals on reorganisation to bring together the practical and theoretical knowledge on the production line versus the design shop.

The level of detail and seriousness of the Lucas Workers' Plan was unprecedented. The Financial Times (January 23, 1976) called it "one of the most radical alternative plans ever drawn up by workers for their company". It received international media coverage and was even nominated for the 1979 Nobel Peace Prize.

The workers' aim was to create a movement, going beyond the perspective of workers at a particular firm protecting their jobs. One of the leaders of the initiative, a designer sacked from Lucas for his activism, said they intended to "inflame the imaginations of others" and "demonstrate in a very practical and direct way the creative power of 'ordinary people'".

Shaftmoor Lane, Lucas Aerospace Factory in 1977

The workers organised shows and events to educate others, eventually leading to the establishment of the Centre for Alternative Industrial and Technological Systems (CAITS) at North-East London Polytechnic, and networked with other related activism, including in other countries, particularly in Germany and Scandinavia.

Though the anti-social offensive with its neo-liberal ideology launched by Thatcherism at the end of the 1970s sought to sweep aside all such workers' consciousness and organisation and leave all technological development to the monopoly-dominated markets, the experience of the Lucas Workers' Plan shows that working people can provide solutions to the problems, crisis and militarisation facing the economy and society.

In particular, central to their concerns was the issue of control over both the production process and, importantly, the motive of production. The Lucas Workers' Plan was a manifestation in practice of the workers' right to a say over the direction of the economy in favour of socially useful production. It showed what workers have the potential to achieve. It was therefore of no surprise that the Plan was rejected by the company and the government; it stood in direct opposition to their outlook, aims and status quo. It showed that there is an alternative to the militarisation of the economy based on the workers' independent aims. What is necessary is the power to implement that alternative.


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