The Redirection of Production: The Lucas Aerospace Plan of the Mid 1970s

Lucas: An Alternative Plan

A 1980 critique of the reformist nature of the Lucas Plan and green capitalism by Stuart Wise, David Wise and Phil Meyler.

Submitted by Fozzie on July 12, 2023

The UK in the 1970s saw the rapid integration, particularly after the accession of the Labour Government in 1974, of rank and file shop stewards into the state educational apparatus (e.g. some of the London dockers who precipitated the UK general wildcat strike of 1972 by the mid-70s took up courses at the London School of Economics). It was paralleled by an expansion in size of trade union research departments staffed with highly qualified researchers often with top-notch degrees. This trajectory meant that rank and file trade unionism was opened up to all the mumbo jumbo of ideologies ranging from sociology to marginalist economics to ecology and what have you. Whatever radicalism was left in the shop stewards movement was finally killed off by sweet-talking academia even though such manoeuvring couldn't control an elemental explosion like the winter of I979. Nonetheless 1979 never really transcended the perspective of rank 'n' file unionism whenever any spontaneously organised body sprung up even if the union bureaucracy didn't condone it.

The Lucas Aerospace shop stewards counter-plan is a good example of production line ecology. However, the final fate of this plan is also an eloquent demonstration of the hopelessness of attempting to redirect production within prevailing capitalist social relations. Essentially, it became an affair between specialists, especially engineering draughtsmen, some lower grade managers and a shop steward elite. Instinctively and to the point, the real drudges, the manual workers showed much less interest in the project - the "primitive fear of unemployment" being more to the forefront. Really, the bottom line of the 'Corporate Plan' was only essentially concerned with smoothing the restructuring of Lucas Aerospace seeing top management was discussing all kinds of options for the future. The possibility that this can happen in a relatively unruffled manner is demonstrated by examples drawn inevitably from Capital's past and proof of the relative flexibility of the system - given good will and know-how. Some quite major reorganisation and industrial conversion would have been needed but we have seen in the relatively recent past that this is a possibility in for instance the quite rapid changeover from war-time to peace-time production, post second world war, in major industries.

At Lucas Aerospace between 1970/2, 5000 jobs were lost. Strikes and factory occupations increased. "People were desperate," recalled Danny Conway the LA shop steward from Burnley: "It was necessary to invent a different strategy". "We wanted to safeguard our jobs," said Brian Salisbury a shop steward from Birmingham. Mike Cooley a shop steward from London, pointing to the existence of Concorde remarked, how come it was still impossible to provide elderly people with cheap heating systems seeing that, "during the winter of 1975-76, 980 people living in London died from the cold"?

Sometime before that, in 1974 a combine committee was set up with the object of proposing a counter-plan. A questionnaire was sent to every branch of Lucas Aerospace and the "creativity of ordinary people" was a guiding precept in elaborating the plan. It resulted in thousands of replies proposing some 150 alternative technologies. Priority was given to use value rather than the 'market' though seeing the capitalist mode of production wasn't obviously part of the brief, the commodity form was still central to such changeover. Thus a gas-fired heat pump was proposed which would permit the most economical heating of public buildings. In fact a good many of the alternatives proposed came within the domain of energy conservation like the hybrid power pack for starting and stopping buses, cars and trains, the utilisation of hydrogen to stock energy or making wind generators. A bus-cum-train for use in country districts and on branch lines - also with a view to exporting to the third world - was proposed. Kidney machines - some 3000 units for the UK alone - and a vehicle for handicapped children were amongst other alternatives. Always the same insistent themes were uppermost: social utility, health care, the sick, aged and handicapped. But seeing the essentials of capitalism were never questioned the outcome was always going to be different to the concept, for when applied, its apparent compassion will most likely turn into its opposite. For instance, recently an eco-capitalist from Lyon has set about employing the handicapped as a labour force. Is this what is really meant by a chance in life or do the usual general work conditions and probably lousy wages prevent anything like this happening?

Some of the projects were carefully produced in the factories. Lucas Aerospace management did not recognise the plan but the press from the "Financial Times", "The Engineer" and "The Guardian" etc went into ecstasies over it and the BBC in 1978 devoted a two-hour programme to the plan. Even a US Senate Committee invitation was sent to the LA stewards - all this at the same time as ultra leftist groups like "Solidarity for Social Revolution" commended what was taking place at Lucas without adding much of a critique. The new technologies were assembled and tested at North London Polytechnic laboratories where a Centre for Industrial and Technological Alternatives (CAITS) was founded in 1978 by the Combine Committee and the Poly.

Links were also established with Birmingham University where "alternative economics" were taught. It neatly fitted in with proposals for an alternative investment programme. Thus in "The Future of Employment in Engineering and Manufacturing" and one of its major texts, CAITS could say... "Clearly, the redistribution of wealth and income is an integral part of our campaign but to some extent this is overlaid by the actual consideration of the nature of income and wealth" except throughout the same paper there had actually been no consideration of the nature of income and wealth. More to the point such redistribution is rendered superfluous by the advent of the wageless society, which again was never even raised in the latter text.

Eventually an agreement was signed in 1978 between the management and the unions. Henceforth every month a committee would meet to study the possibilities for manufacturing new commodities, er, alternatives. Up to now the sole possibility that has been studied is an energy saving pump in line one would have thought with the need for industry, ever watchful of the public sector borrowing requirement, to cut down on fuel bills. As for manufacturing kidney machines they didn't even get a look in!

Later Mike Cooley perhaps realising something was amiss with the grand plan tried to win back his shop floor following by preparing a new leaflet framed around the matter of changing working practises faced with technological modernisation effectively displacing the labour/capital relation with the man/machine equation (cf Cooley's "Architect or bee? The Human/Technology Relationship"). But neither CAITS nor the LASSCC sponsors can discuss the man machine interface without referring to capitalism. What they did was play down its effect. Thus the expropriation of the worker by capital is limited to the expropriating of "his/her skill" and knowledge of the labour process. The real issue for them then became the educational old lie: "The command relationship embodied in the managerial structure is often now being superseded by a non-personal command structure (control system) which takes as its dynamic the continual expropriation, of knowledge (our emphasis) of the labour process away from workers" ... and: "A prerequisite to effective collective action over de-skilling and work fragmentation is an understanding of the technology of control and of its underlying motor the accumulation of capital". The latter insight is then all but invalidated by quoting from another theoretical contribution by Mike Cooley, "Taylorism in the Office to Humanising the Workplace" (Croom Helm. 1977). "The scientific knowledge which predetermines the speeds of the machine and the sequential movements of its inanimate parts, the mathematics used in compiling Numerically Controlled Programmes, do not exist in the consciousness of the operator. They are external to him or her and act upon him or her through the machine as an alien force".

Yet the speed of the assembly line for instance is not external to the worker, it is not an ineluctable fact but something that is contested daily. By far the overriding factor of the adaptation of man to the machine is the control by capital over the machine. And so to adapt Cooley's philosophic idiom: if the functioning of the machine does not "exist in the consciousness of the operator" we are left with little alternative but to destroy it as incompatible with human choice. Not unexpectedly the virtues of comparatively primitive hand tools are praised. "The hand tool was entirely animated by the worker and the rate at which the commodity was produced and the quality of that commodity depended (largely) on the strength, tenacity, dexterity and ingenuity of the worker". But this idyllic fancy is contradicted by the facts; many a worker has got the sack for not using hand tools with sufficient speed and dexterity. But in this instance the speed rate has been fixed in advance and not determined by the speed differentials of particular workers meaning it is not qualitatively different from what Cooley is condemning when, describing the growing role of fixed capital as a productive force in itself.

Accordingly as Taylorism spreads to white collar occupations, the rate at which white collar workers are subjected to "alien logic systems" grows: "The man/machine interface should be an ever more important issue for workers; in order to ensure that intellectual workers can stand the pace of interaction, techniques have been involved for determining the peak performance ages of different groups of workers. Thus some intellectual workers in demanding tasks where they are interfaced with computer systems peak in their mid twenties and are at the end of their 'career' in the thirties. System designers have much to answer for in their effect on the labour process" But the systems' designer is not an autonomous individual but accountable when all is said and done to capital. If the remaining overseeing jobs become evermore exactingly arduous than that's just too bad even inevitable if the problem remains at the level of the man/machine interface. Providing there are sufficient trainees on tap the well-paid mid-thirties burnt out case can be easily replaced. However technological innovation does not stop here. The overseer's job is eventually at risk. In the production of British Leyland's Mini Metro, robots play an increasingly important part. But the final inspection is still 'manual' providing a 'classic' example of computers being used in soulless fashion - turning people into servants of the machine. In "The World of Science and Technology" in the Guardian, Sept 25th 1980, there's the following comment... "The car faces a computer terminal to have its electrical systems checked and the computer screen tells the operator what to do, stage by stage --- I am assured that theoretically there's no need for the man to be there - but the robot would cost a bomb".

What can we make of all this? A potentially explosive situation at Lucas Aerospace (and elsewhere?) was waylaid through ecological ideologies. Birmingham University is hardly the venue where proposals for the abolition of capitalism would be forthcoming. Shop stewards one or two rungs up the ladder to nowhere have become very impressed with fink lecturers on the top rungs.

More abstractly education is necessary for great conglomerations like Lucas Aerospace. As CAITS said: "There is a scramble for higher educational qualifications in the pursuance of 'better jobs' and, as the supply of these jobs is relatively small there is a large degree of over-qualification in some areas, often allied with insufficient experience. These structural imbalances in the labour market appear to be growing more severe as time goes by, the severity will increase as unemployment increases etc" However is the "scrabble for higher educational qualifications" as instrumental as the authors would like to believe? What of the growing function of higher education as a concealed form of welfare and the healthy cynicism it gives rise to - not to mention the range of fringe benefits (e.g. cheaper travel) and the right to register in a professional category on the dole which provides some immunity against pressure to take up some of the worst jobs or badly paid inconvenient part time work. As testimony to observational accuracy, the LA Combine Shop Stewards Committee note the changing function of the Labour Exchange as a de-skilling centre. "There is circumstantial evidence which points to de-classification and re-classification of workers via Employment Exchanges; skilled workers are reclassified as convenience workers or semi-skilled workers through Employment Exchanges who attempt to place unemployed workers as quickly as possible". Within the context though, it seems that the only criticism they have of this practise is that it makes the task of building up a picture of the labour market, of current training/retraining that much more difficult. But there's a more serious critique to be made of their belief in education. To emphasize the bleak utilitarianism of vocational training at the expense of the 'humanities' says much for the alliance struck up between the SSCC and departments in universities and polytechnics that still ache to take on illusions of radical stances. They come out with the familiar platitudes. "Vocational courses and projects are receiving more favour than ever before: subjects such as politics and sociology are regarded as properly subversive (sic) they do not connect with the immediate requirements of industries". One might as well argue that promenade concerts do not connect with industry. And even if the sociologist was seen as a drain on capital - an unproductive worker in its crudest most irrelevant sense - the overflowing abundance of sociological books does not mean that publishers have displayed an ounce of radicality.

At Lucas Aerospace, the ecologists and the experts called in worked hand in glove with the unions. The situation was diffused. Maybe the Combine Committee succeeded in delaying lay-offs and in delaying the restructuring of the company. Maybe the workforce lost interest in the Committee's open involvement with alternative accountancy, the universities and the experts considering what little interest the workers - and mainly the skilled and white collar at that - had in the first place. Perhaps too, increased armaments spending, saving hundred of jobs, has fed the apathy. And redundancy payments and a general just-fed-up-with-the-whole-business played its part too.

Traditionally in the UK whenever something like the modern eco movement broke out of its select settings to proselytise "with the workers" it has had a tendency to move to places in the proximity of large industrial centres. Their model allotments (& model lives) was then not so much a remonstrance to the capitalists as meant to be an example to the workers. Apart from an occasional help-mate it was not a success attracting 'deviants' as in the case of Edward Carpenter's boyfriend through the old rough trade able to express their gayness unreservedly or unschooled workers to learn more about socialism from their superiors during wholesome picnics under the elms.

Mass penetration going right into the heart of the proletariat has not been successful then or now. De-industrialization, technological change and the expansion of further education has assisted it, making possible the setting up of virtual academic enclaves within former industrial towns (e.g. Hebden Bridge in Pennine West Yorkshire). Marginality both in the sense of being surplus to the requirements of capitalist production and the former 'militant' hateful of the work conditions that actually prevail in capitalist enterprises have inclined towards the ecological incubator. However, in the context of the ecology movement the plan put forward by Lucas Aerospace shop stewards to reorient production in large-scale capitalist industries is the exception rather than the rule.

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10 months 1 week ago

Submitted by Steven. on July 12, 2023

Did you create the Lucas Plan tag for this? If so nice one!


10 months 1 week ago

Submitted by Fozzie on July 12, 2023

Yes mate :-)