From International Socialism, 2:6, Autumn 1979, pp. 85–96.
Transcribed by Marven James Scott.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
In the last few years, when redundancies have been threatened because of cuts in public or private expenditure or actual overproduction, groups of workers have often come up with the idea of “alternative plans” for their company or industry. In Britain, Lucas Aerospace Combine Shop Stewards Committee (LACSSC) blazed the path which workers at G.E.C., Parson’s, Scragg’s, Vickers, Massey Feruson, B.A.C., Rolls Royce, Singers and Chrysler have followed. In Italy, France, the U.S. and Scandinavia, the concepts of alternative production, alternative technology and workers’ plans have received considerable attention from workers’ organisations.
The Transport and General Workers Union, AUEW (TASS), the Confederation of Shipbuilding and Engineering Unions, APEX, and the TUC have all given official or semi-official backing to the idea of the drawing up of such plans (see, e.g. the TGWU Record, July 1979, p. 15, APEX’s Office Technology and the TUC’s Employment and Technology). The Communist Party and the left of the Labour Party are also beginning to incorporate ‘alternative plans’ with in their political programmes and strategy. On the continent revolutionary and centrist groups, especially in Scandinavia, are giving ‘alternative production’ a central place in their political theory and practice (see, for example, the document by F.K. (Sweden) in International Socialism 2:5).
It could well be the case that workers’ plans and the alternative economic strategy will be the twin pillars for the edifice of left reformism over the next few years. For these reasons it is important that revolutionary socialists formulate a view of such developments and subject the actual experience of campaigns around alternative plans to critical scrutiny.
Since the events around Lucas Aerospace have achieved considerable publicity and are heralded in many places as a significant breakthrough by the labour movement, this article will concentrate on that experience, analysing why it was that particular group of workers who adopted the alternative plan strategy and what lessons can be learnt from their struggle.
On the face of it, revolutionaries should totally support LACSSC: it is a combine Committee of shop stewards representing all the 11,500 workers at Lucas Aerospace, the plan promotes the idea of workers taking decisions about organising production and dis-cussing the products to be made, environmental problems are taken seriously, and there is a vitality and enthusiasm about the campaign which is all too often lacking in other areas of activity. These positive features combined with the often negative reactions by the state, management and union leaders would surely lead revolutionaries to be unable to oppose the ‘Plan’. Perhaps this view is best summarised by a shop steward at the Burnley Lucas Aerospace plant:
“with the czars in the trade union movement, the Government and the Company continuing to viciously attack us, we simply must be on the right lines”. (quoted by Phil Asquith in Science for People, No. 42, p. 12)
The strength of this attack should not be underestimated; the Company has attempted to establish and negotiate with a ‘rival’ Combine Committee, the Government has claimed that management were considering the plan when they had adamantly refused to do so, and Ken Gill, the General Secretary of AUEW-TASS, at the time when redundancies and victimisations were being threatened, stated that the ‘Plan’ was not official policy and therefore union time and resources should not be spent on it.
But before we all go back to our work places to draw up ‘alternative plans’ it is worth looking at some of the other reactions to the LACSSC Plan. Lord Beswick, a Minister of State at the Department of Industry, greeted the Plan in June 1975 as “the most impressive piece of work from trade unionists I have seen”. He was not alone, the Journal Industrial Management in its January 1976 issue, stated that “What has happened at Lucas is likely to be a forerunner of a development which will ultimately affect the whole of British industry”. And the bosses’ paper Financial Times, in the same month, welcomed the Plan as “one of the most advanced yet prepared in the U.K. by a group of shop stewards ... one of the most radical alternative plans ever drawn up by workers for their company”.
Since 1975/76 members of LACSSC have been invited to participate in numerous conferences, seminars, TV programmes and films in Europe and America. In early 1979, LACSSC was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize (won in previous years by Kissinger, Begin and Sadat!), and a model resolution was canvassed for support among trade unionists and others which read –
“I wish to nominate LACSSC for the following reason: that their initiative represents a constructive and creative means of converting arms production facilities to peaceful uses without causing undue economic and social dislocation.” (my emphasis – DA)
The reality of the situation since the launching of the Plan is that there was a confusing jumble of reactions and campaigns around the Plan and to try to see why this is so, three areas will be discussed: the Plan itself; the development of Lucas Aerospace; and the rise of the alternative technology movement.
In 1975, the Lucas Aerospace Combine Shop Stewards Committee who, at the time, represented all 13,000 manual and staff workers in the seventeen U.K. Lucas sites, launched their “Corporate Plan – a contingency strategy as a positive alternative to recession and redundancies”. For them:
“The objective of the corporate Plan is twofold. Firstly, to protect our members’ right to work by proposing a range of alternative products on which they could become engaged in the event of further cutbacks ... Secondly, to ensure that among the alternative products proposed are a number which would be socially useful to the community at large”
But what of the politics of the Plan?
“Perhaps the most significant feature of the Corporate Plan is that trade unionists are attempting to transcend the narrow economism which has characterised trade union activity in the past and extend our demands to the extent of questioning the products on which we work and the way in which we work upon them.”
“We believe this Corporate Plan will provide an opportunity for Lucas Aerospace to demonstrate whether it is really prepared to take its social responsibility seriously or not.”
Over 100 products were proposed for the Plan and twelve of them were researched and developed in some detail – these included a “Hob Cart” for child victims of spina bifida, a retarder braking system for lorries and coaches, and solar heating panels.
This “Plan” did not drop out of the skies nor was it the idea of some hippies from a Welsh Commune; it evolved as a response to the threatened redundancies resulting from cuts in defence expenditure. The Combine Committee was faced with two problems. On the one hand, they were in favour of defence cuts, on the other they were opposed to any redundancies and “recognised that the traditional method of fighting for the right to work has not been particularly successful”. Their solution was to initiate widespread discussion of the Plan among the workforce and then present it to management as a test of their “social responsibility”.
Lucas Aerospace, a section of Joseph Lucas Industries Ltd., is Europe’s largest designer and manufacturer of aircraft systems and equipment. Through acquiring (interests in) competitors both at home (parts of AEI and English Electric) and abroad (Auxilec of France, P.L.U. of Germany), Lucas Aerospace became a multinational company and the only company in the world capable of producing, on its own, a whole range of aircraft instrumentation.
At the time of the publication of the “Plan”, the Aerospace section employed some 13,000 employees and, since it was a world leader in a highly technology/science-based industry, their employees ranged from totally unskilled machine minders and floor cleaners, through to graduate scientists and technicians and even some research and engineering staff with PhDs. Over one third of its annual turnover is devoted to research and development and as a consequence of this there were approximately 2,200 engineers, designers and draughtsmen, i.e. scientific and technical staff in the workforce. (For a much more detailed history of Lucas see the Counter-Information Services Anti-Report: Where is Lucas Going?
Over the last decade Lucas Aerospace, like many other companies who relied on defence contracts, has suffered from the cuts in arms (public) expenditure. In the years 1970–75 the workforce was reduced from 18,500 to 13,000 through “natural wastage” and “voluntary redundancy” (Lucas Aerospace management have seldom used “compulsory” redundancy). The pace of work has been forced up and the level of skill has been pushed down. It was these circumstances and the recognition of the need for an organised fightback that provided the motivation for the formation of the Combine Committee, which linked together the scientific, technical and manual staff.
The world market for aerospace products is extremely large, dominated at the consumer end by a relatively small number of national state governments and at the production end by a few large multinational companies. The aerospace industry is also highly technology and research-intensive. The figure of 33% of turnover devoted to research and development in Lucas Aerospace is typical of the industry and compares with a research-intensity in the construction industry of approximately 1%.
One of the prevalent myths of the twentieth century is that introducing technology into an unmechanised, or semi-mechanised industry does two things – firstly, it de-skills and makes redundant the manual workers and, secondly, it creates a whole new set of “interesting”, “skilled” technical jobs which could be filled either by retrained manual workers or by the graduates from polytechnics and technical colleges. In other words, technological advance makes possible the raising of the general level of skill in the workforce. As Harry Braverman in his book Labour and Monopoly Capital (Monthly Review Press, 1975) has shown, this idea, though held in high esteem by bourgeois sociologists, is an inversion of reality. The sort of technology which a capitalist firm develops is designed to increase not the skill of the workforce but the profits of the shareholders. The two do not go hand-in-hand but are, in fact, mutually contradictory. As Andrew Ure, a propagandist for industrial capitalism, wrote in 1835:
“(The industrialists aim to stop any) process which requires peculiar dexterity and steadiness of hand ... from the cunning (skilled – DA) workman (and) put it in charge of a mechanism so self-regulating that a child may superintend it ... the grand object therefore of the manufacturer is, through the union of capital and science, to reduce the task of his work people to the exercise of vigilance and dexterity (appropriate to a child).” Philosophy of Manufacturers)
The same pressures that come to bear on production in general in capitalist society also bear on the production of science and technology under capitalism. Thus, in an economically and technologically competitive context such as the aerospace industry, research and technology become more capital intensive – gone are the days when a scientist was a person with a telescope, a ruler, a pencil and some paper. Scientific and technical workers today will be “aided” by computers, spectrophotometers, VDUs, and more capital equipment. All this scientific instrumentation is increasing in cost and decreasing in life-span, hence the scientific and technical workforce is being forced to work at a faster and faster rate. Work study which used to be confined to the shop floor with the occasional foray into clerical occupations is increasingly being applied to the laboratory and the design office.
Essentially the processes resulting from increased capitalisation which have affected skilled workers since the Industrial Revolution have, since the war, begun to transform the lives and consciousness of scientists, technicians and engineers. Large scale redundancies frequently involve a significant proportion of such workers. As new technologies, especially, of course, those which are micro-processor based, are introduced into the production of technology, scientific and technical workers are replaced by machines or, as management often puts it: their jobs are “technologically rationalised”.
Shift work, virtually unknown in the “scientific community” before the war is becoming commonplace. The activities of scientists in the office, laboratory, industry and academia are being brought under the control of the stop-watch and the “standard time for the job”. As well as this intensification of work there is also de-skilling, division of labour and fragmentation of skills within the occupations of science and technology. Whereas thirty years ago a designer might design, with others, a car or an aircraft, today specialisation has reduced the design task to the production of drawings for thousands of individual components.
Control by management, often through the marketing division, of scientific and technical work presses science more and more closely into the pursuit of profit and away form serving real social needs. The job of the scientific worker is increasingly bounded by the fear of redundancy, the process of de-skilling, control by management and the routinisation of work. In short, scientific and technical workers are being proletarianised.
This objective proletarianisation is not without impact on the consciousness of scientific and technical workers. Some have become politicised and radicalised and expressed their change in attitudes and circumstances by becoming militant trade unionists (e.g. ASTMS is Britain’s fastest growing union), taking industrial action and forming combine committees with manual and office workers as at Lucas Aerospace.
The changing class position of this sector of the workforce is, it will be argued, crucial to an understanding of the nature and shortcoming of the Plan but first another thread in the story needs to be followed.
The late 1960s and early 1970s saw two divergent social phenomena. On the one hand throughout Europe there was a rising tide of worker militancy, on the other, both in the United States and Europe, people, mostly middle class, began to take seriously problems of environmental destruction, resource depletion and the hegemony of technological rationality in society. Despite some attempts to bridge the gap these two “protest movements” remained separate and based on two distinct social groupings.
The concern about pollution, de-forestation, the oil shortage, nuclear power, etc. became solidified into what can loosely be called the Alternative Technology Movement (ATM). This movement was inspired by a group of writers, who though having differing political origins, all pointed their fingers at technology as the key cause of the problem (for example, see T. Roszak: Making of the Counterculture, J. Ellul: The Technological Society and H. Marcuse: One Dimensional Man). The solution within either the reactionary individualism of Roszek or the Utopian socialism of Marcuse was “alternative technologies” that were labour-intensive, ecological and socially useful. With the rising unemployment of the 1970s, the ATM was rekindled – alternative technologies/products through being labour-intensive could be the salvation for workers made redundant by capital-intensive technologies. The most progressive wing of the ATM saw this as their way into the labour movement.
But the problem is not technology itself but capitalism and capitalist technology. Mary Whitehouse blames TV for crimes of violence, the press blame droughts for the famines of Sahel and Bangladesh, President Carter blames the finiteness of the world’s resources for the oil crisis. All are asking us to look away from the real target – capitalism.
It is capitalist relations of production, distribution and exchange which bring about redundancies, oil shortages, criminal violence and starvation. Different contraceptives, irrigation schemes, abundance of oil and alternative technologies do not change the structure and effects of capitalism. It is only when we have a socialist society that real choices about alternatives (products, energy sources, technologies and contraceptives) can be made. (It is interesting to note that it is not “politically advanced” countries where the Plan idea has been taken up, but those with a strong, often anti-working class alternative technology movement – USA, Sweden and Germany.)
What I have tried to do is outline the three currents that led to the formation of the Combine Committee and its subsequent launching of the Corporate Plan. Lucas Aerospace was deeply affected by defence cuts and had a long tradition of product innovation, its scientific and technical workforce was in the process of proletarianisation, redundancies had been unsuccessfully resisted and the ATM offered a solution to environmental and social problems.
The launching of the Plan has led the Combine into long and sometimes bitter fights with trade union leaders, the Communist Party, Lucas Management and the Labour Government. These fights should not be minimised, and it should be recognised that, at least in part, much of the bitterness of the fights arose from the attempts by members of the Combine Committee to build a strong, confident rank-and-file controlled workers’ organisation within Lucas Aerospace and a determination not to be cowed by the company, union or state machines.
So how should revolutionaries assess the impact of the Plan, how do we evaluate campaigns, strategies, etc.? The key question for revolutionary socialists is does it encourage self-activity of rank and file workers, does it give workers more confidence and more sense of organisation, does it enhance the building of an independent revolutionary organisation and of revolutionary consciousness? The questions are clear and our answers must be honest. The costs of the wrong strategy are all too often a stultifying disillusionment and despair.
Most severe defence cuts affected Lucas Aerospace before the Plan was launched, and it could well be that the return of a Conservative Government will enhance the fortunes of the company. In the early 1970s, LACSSC had a deserved reputation for aggressive militancy on a whole range of issues, especially that of health and safety at work and involvement in some of the early “cuts campaigns”. How has the Plan affected this situation?
The primary aim of the Plan was to reduce redundancies. In 1975 the Company asked for 45 “voluntary” redundancies at its Marston Green plant, despite the launching of a mini-Plan, 37 were immediately taken up by workers. Later on that year 480 sackings were threatened, the Combine Committee retaliated by threatening industrial action and as a result a Joint Union-Management Working Party was set up. But it wasn’t until late 1978 that the first real test came: the Company threatened 2,000 redundancies on Merseyside, the Combine achieved considerable publicity through an alternative plan: nevertheless 1,500 jobs were lost, the remaining being saved, not by alternative production but by Government investment.
Of course, it isn’t just the number of jobs lost or saved which are a mark of the confidence and organisation of a group of workers; after all, hundreds of thousands of redundancies have taken place throughout Britain, including many in strongly organised workplaces. So what of the other issues – the bread-and-butter struggles around wages and conditions? The history of the last seven years has been one of falling real wages and low national wage settlements, nevertheless some sectors have pushed for and won considerably improved rises – Lucas Aerospace is not one of these exceptions. Wage rates in Lucas Aerospace are about average for the engineering industry and below many other companies. (Information gained from Financial Times and Income Data Sources.)
The Combine Committee used to have a good record on struggles around health and safety, indeed they were one of the first groups of shop stewards to set up a science and technology advisory service over hazards at work. But whereas in the past the Combine Committee provided a lead in this sort of fight and was held up as a model for other workers to follow the same cannot be said to be true today. Much good work continues to be done but LACSSC is no longer in the “health and safety” vanguard.
Similarly in other areas – cuts and racism – the work of LACSSC does not stand out. Involvement of Lucas workers in “cuts campaigns” around local schools and hospitals appears to have lessened over the last few years – their contribution now appearing to be to discuss health services in terms of potential markets for products proposed in the Plan. The anti-racist struggle appears to consist of consistent work by a few committed individuals and general anti-racist propaganda from the Combine Committee – but organised activity round the issue, for example, LACSSC is not a sponsor of the Anti-Nazi League, appears to be lacking. (Information for the above comes from reports from activists in various campaigns, the Morning Star and back copies of LACSSC’s newspaper Combine News.)
Overall the militancy and confidence of the early years of LACSSC seems to have declined – the fate of LACSSC appears no different to that of many other shop stewards’ committees despite the existence of a well-developed, highly publicised alternative plan. It could well be that, counter to the motives and aspirations of its leading proponents, the Plan has acted as a diversion. Certainly in workplaces which have followed the “Lucas path”, this seems to be the case. For example, a shop steward at Vickers who used to be a very active militant now claims he has to go to evening classes, rather than be involved in the union, so as to keep up with developments in alternative technology. (Interviewed by author, Nov. 1978.)
The Plan mistakes the question of what is controlled for who is to control and according to what interests. The questions of cars or buses, nuclear power or solar power, aerospace components or heat pumps must be raised “this side of the revolution” but, in fact, can only be democratically answered in a socialist society. As Dick Jones, an AUEW member in Coventry, said at a conference in 1978:
“Even if the Lucas Plan was emulated in every factory, every plant, it would not bring about socialism.”
The Plan is a substitute for activity and deflects from the task of building a workers’ fightback against capitalism: a workforce that does not have the muscle to win a wage claim is hardly likely to win the demands for changes in production. The failure of the fight against redundancy reveals the weakness of workplace organisation and confidence: the set of demands embodied in the Plan would require the same weapons to enforce as the “simple” demand for the right to work.
Frequently, however, the defence of the Plan strategy is carried out not on the basis of organisational advantages but of its value as an exercise in consciousness-raising amongst the generally unpoliticised workforce. But even here there are dangers. Firstly, and most importantly, the Plan doesn’t take up the issue of the structural social, political and economic imperatives operating on a firm like Lucas Aerospace. The question of why capitalism doesn’t produce socially useful products is side-stepped in a way similar to the alternative technology movement. Of course, LACSSC, and most especially the socialists on the Committee, recognise that Government support would be needed to implement the Plan. But it is precisely in this area that we can see how the Plan dovetails into the whole alternative economic strategy being proposed by Tony Benn, the CP and the left-reformists. Dave Elliott, an ardent supporter of the Plan, outlines in a Young Fabian pamphlet, The Lucas Aerospace Workers’ Campaign, how the Plan can help fill out the framework of planning agreements, industrial democracy, workers’ participation and Labour Party national industrial strategy:
“... there has been a gradual attempt by trade unions to subject corporate policies to collective bargaining influence – to make the decisions made by company executives and boards more accountable and put some flesh on the idea, often espoused by management, of ‘corporate social responsibility’. Indeed this is the essence of the TUC’s 1974 proposals for industrial democracy and one aim of Tony Benn’s ‘planning agreements’. It is also central to the proposals for industrial democracy outlined in the Bullock report ... the Corporate Plan essentially implied a shift of funding from the Ministry of Defence to other government departments and, perhaps, the NEB ...”
As Stuart Holland, one of the architects of the planning agreement concept has commented, “if there was a real commitment to industrial planning, the Lucas Corporate Plan could form the basis of a planning agreement with Government through which its proposals could be implemented.”
Left reformism may well be strengthened by giving workers a place in state capitalism through the development and articulation of alternative plans, but such is not the road to international revolution by the working class. Secondly, the Plan panders to the “professionalism” of scientific and technical workers. Manual and clerical workers have been almost totally uninvolved in the development of alternative, plans. Scientific and technical workers are posed as the new “alternative experts” so that, for example, where there is only a very small technical workforce, as in Singer’s, management consultancy firms are invited in to prepare “workers’ plans”! In Britain and Scandinavia it is members of technical unions (in Britain, especially AUEW-TASS) who have pushed and promoted the plan concept. In the light of the proletarianization of this section of the workforce it is hardly surprising that scientists and technicians who feel a legitimate concern about producing useless goods or weapons of destruction should look for what they conceive of as “socially responsible” outlets for their skills and training – but this is not socialism but a refined form of craft elitism.
The situation is reminiscent of Sweden where union safety representatives were given (no struggle to win) wide ranging powers of investigation assessment and action and where rank-and-file workers feel no need to engage in activity over health and safety as it can be left to “their” experts – a process very damaging to the building of working-class self activity and self-emancipation. The dominance of scientific and technical (and therefore, male) workers on LACSSC and in the alternative plans movement generally has also led to an attitude of trying to solve political problems by “technological fixes”. For example, heat pumps are seen as a way of alleviating hypothermia amongst old people and combined heat and power packs are proposed as solutions to the problems of energy supply in under-developed countries.
These “pitfalls”, combined with the possibilities of management using alternative plans as glorified suggestion boxes, of workers being held responsible for sectors of production under capitalism, and of reformist illusions in the state, make alternative plans not a solution to the problems of capitalism but a prop to its continuation. Indeed the recognition of such pitfalls would require a level of politicisation of the workforce, the lack of which is the very rationale for the Plan.
Revolutionaries have always argued the case for alternative production in one sense: revolutionary propaganda and theory is based on the idea that in a socialist society production will be for need and not for profit. Devoting time, energy and resources to drawing up detailed plans for such production in a capitalist society will ultimately be disillusioning and demoralising at best or strengthen capitalism at worst. The LACSSC plan is subtitled “a positive alternative to recession and redundancy” – yet the only real alternative is socialism, not in one factory or every factory or even in one country but internationally. This is the task which raises the central question of the conquest of state power – a question that remains unasked and unanswered in the Plan.
The Plan has raised some vital questions, not least the nature of science and technology in capitalist society, and many sincere socialists have committed themselves to strategies involving workers’ plans: but the mixture of third worldism and syndicalism which gave birth to the Plan, opposes workers Plans and co-ops to the task of generalising struggle. The Plan was drawn up for the workforce of Lucas Aerospace and though nods are made towards wider social and economic changes being necessary, workers are drawn towards parochial and nationalistic notions as evidenced by their spokes-people’s constant referring to Britain’s resources, the British state and multinational threats, this political complexion could also help explain both the lack of activity relating to political events “external” to Lucas and the labelling of certain sections of the Lucas management as “progressive”.
The importance of the Lucas experience is not confined to the workforce involved. As stated earlier thousands of workers (both revolutionary and reformist) have looked to the Plan strategy as a model to guide their political practice. An honest debate about the successes and failures needs to be opened up on the left. The Plan is posed as an alternative to traditional methods of shop-floor struggle: the lessons of 1968–73 must however be learnt, not dismissed. Consciousness, even if it is raised, is not enough. A confident, organised working class is essential for the creation of a society in which workers can truly formulate and decide between alternatives.
Last updated on 4.7.2013