Workers Demand Production for People

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Workers Demand Production for People

by Steve Cavrak

‘Science for the People’ Vol. 8, No. 6, November/December 1976, p. #
Steve Cavrak is a longtime member of SftP. Interested in alternative technology and workers control. he is now teaching courses in radical environmental studies at Franconia College in New Hampshire. He is also organizing a new SftP chapter there.

The working class in the developed countries of the West forms a major part of the population. Yet since World War II, workers, especially in the industrial unionized sector, have not made serious widespread attempts to challenge the prevailing economic structure.

Traditional union leadership, with or without the consent of the rank and file, seems to have emphasized material, bread-and-butter issues over nonmaterial concerns. In negotiating contracts, it is not the pay raises but the demands for control over the workplace, grievance procedures, occupational health and safety issues, and worker input into management decisions that get thrown out when it comes down to signing papers.

At Lucas Aerospace Corporation in Britain, workers have made specific, detailed demands that go beyond the usual material ones. These demands, if implemented, have the potential of seriously challenging the present economic system. The overall goal of their plan is to guarantee all workers meaningful jobs producing socially useful products. In many ways, it is reminiscent of the idea of “defense industry conversion” spawned during the Viet Nam War period, but is potentially more far-reaching.

The Lucas Aerospace Corporation is a large British industry employing 13,000 people. Its major business consists of supplying a wide variety of mechanical and electrical systems to the aircraft industry. The parent company, Lucas Industries, controls a number of other firms, and is a major supplier of electrical components for automobiles manufactured in the United Kingdom. As is characteristic of a high technology corporation, Lucas Aerospace is organized to produce small batches (several to a hundred) of items with a high degree of precision. Its workforce includes some 2,000 engineers, draftspeople, and technicians. The workers in the majority, however, are highly skilled manual laborers operating about 5,000 machine tools.

The employees of Lucas Aerospace are represented by the Lucas Aerospace Combine Shop Stewards Committee. This union includes as members all Lucas employees. It is “unique in the British Trade Union Movement in that it speaks for the entire spectrum of workers by hand and by brain, from laborers to senior technicians and engineers.”1

As is the case with most aerospace industries, much of Lucas’s business depends on either defense contracts or commercial contracts sensitive to luxury spending. Both of these sections of the British economy have experienced cutbacks as part of the wider economic crisis. Lucas has reacted to this slowdown by laying-off large numbers of workers. In the last five years, 5,000 workers out of an original 18,000 have been laid off. Many of these layoffs are the result of the elimination of what are called “redundant” jobs through industry reorganization.

Lucas workers and British workers in general have been involved in a number of bitter fights against these “redundancies.” Rather than approaching each of these layoffs individually, the workers have organized their struggle around a “right to work” campaign. The Lucas workers use the “right to work” slogan to assert their rights to perform work; it is the obligation of society to provide jobs for every worker.

The workers at Lucas, however, have extended this notion beyond that of a traditional job. They want the work to be meaningfully structured, i.e., neither alienating, dehumanizing, nor fragmented, and provide socially useful products as well. In mid-1975, the Lucas Combine Committee began to formulate an impressively detailed, multi-volume alternative corporate management plan. This plan shows that Lucas Aerospace can be transformed so that no worker need be laid off. The plan emphasizes the conversion of Lucas Corporation away from a defense industry orientation. In addition to outlining changes to the product line, the committee’s plan addresses the alienating methods of production, documenting concrete alternatives and detailing how these can be implemented within Lucas’s capabilities, and how they would be economically viable. In announcing the plan, the Lucas workers emphasized that the “initiative for the plan came entirely from the workforce itself, through the Combined Shop Stewards Committee, and as such was completely independent of the normal considerations of a large company of this kind.””2

Another important aspect of this plan is the invitation to people outside the Lucas workforce to participate in developing the list of alternative products. This constitutes a unique form of “market research” which would allow the plan to directly respond to the needs of the larger community. In addition to addressing national needs, the committee wanted to develop plans for products useful for the developing nations. The Lucas workers recognized that many of the capital intensive technologies are often inappropriate to the needs of Third World countries.

The combine committee’s plan was announced in January of this year. In addressing the range of alternative products, the plan was organized into five technical sections detailing the new products. The proposal contained plans for a number of items familiar to the alternative technology movement (which in Britain has strongly supported the Lucas workers), including components for solar heating, windmill electrical generators, fuel cells, and energy conserving braking system for buses. In addition, it included a number of “high technology” items such as remotely controlled machines for fire fighting and underwater use. increased production of kidney machines, and plans for airship “vectoring” of railroad vehicles. The plan details how the production of each of these products can be accomplished with Lucas’ current facilities and working force.

In addition to these proposals for new products, the plan speaks to important social and political issues in an introductory section. The plan points out that “there is something seriously wrong about a society which can produce a level of technology to design and build Concorde, but cannot provide enough simple urban heating systems.”3 This has its roots, the report states, in the way the skills of scientists and technicians are misused. The combine committee felt that “scientists, engineers, and workers in these industries have a profound responsibility to challenge the underlying assumptions of large scale industry; to seek to assert their right to use their skills and ability in the interest of the community at large.”4

A large section of the plan is concerned with the internal structure of the industry. It sees the problem lying in not just the specific products manufactured, but also in how the production process itself is organized. Besides addressing the general problems of alienating and dehumanizing working conditions, it tackles the specific problems of providing more opportunities for women and for the retraining of older staff.

The Lucas Combine plan, then, has several elements which are missing from most alternative technology schemes. It is not a reversion to a “do it yourself’ subsistence society, but one addressed to the needs and aspirations of the industrial workers who produced it. It allows these workers to develop their skills to the fullest. engages them in the production of socially useful products and gives them control over their own work in an industry reponsive to social need rather than private profit. By recognizing that the economic and environmental problems we face do not lie in industry per se but in the social organization of industry, the plan is able to present a sensible and viable alternative.

The plan is so attractive, that is seems that Lucas Aerospace could adopt major segments of it and grow as a profitable, capitalist firm. The actual response of Lucas management, however, indicates that there are elements of the plan which are just too dangerous to implement. On May 6th, they responded to the combine’s plan by rejecting it. In framing their rejection, they stated that Lucas “intends to concentrate on 1ts traditional business which involves development of aircraft systems and components for the aerospace and defense industries … Lucas Aerospace maintains that aircraft are obviously socially useful. We need aircraft for defense.”5

For the owners and management of Lucas, producing aircraft is indeed socially useful: the “socially useful” product in this case being private profits. If profits get squeezed by declining business, the firm merely has to lay off a few more workers. In fact, while Lucas was rejecting the worker’s plan, they were simultaneously announcing the layoffs of 273 more “redundant” workers.

The rejection by Lucas management may not be final, however. Growing popular knowledge and support may force a change in parts of the management’s decision. In any case, as workers in other industries become aware of these events, it is probably not the last time these kinds of demands will be raised in such a concrete and detailed manner.

The threat to Lucas Aerospace, and the reason for their rejection of the plan. is not in the visions of alternative products and alternative technolgies it presents. Rather it stems from the radically different idea of industry it furthers: an industry where the workers understand, plan, and control their own work. This vision, whether it is called workers’ control, industrial democracy, or self-management, threatens not only the particular interests of Lucas Aerospace. but that of the present capitalist class as a whole.


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  1. “The Lucas Letter,” Undercurrents, Number 12, p. 14, September-October 1975.
  2. “The Lucas Letter,” Undercurrents, Number 12, p. 14, September-October 1975.
  3. “Lucas Workers ‘Look to the Future,’ ” Undercurrents, Number 14, February-March 1976, p. 3.
  4. “Lucas Workers ‘Look to the Future,’ ” Undercurrents, Number 14, February-March 1976, p. 3.
  5. New Scientist, May 1976