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The Workers Who Wanted to Stop Making Weapons and Start Waging War on Climate Change

In the 1970s, workers at a defence manufacturer in Lancashire came up with a radical idea to start making things that would be better for society.

by Casper Hughes
05 March 2019, 2:47pm

By now, it's pretty clear that to have a chance of saving our planet from the threat of climate change, something pretty drastic needs to happen. The great news is that the people who run the country are hell-bent on making things worse (fracking was recently given the go-ahead in Lancashire) and are intent on ignoring those who will have to suffer the consequences.

As our politicians are so hopeless, who might we look to for inspiration? How do we deal with the biggest problem the world has ever known?

The answer may lie in a little known experiment called the Lucas Plan, thought up by workers in the factories of Lucas Aerospace in Burnley in the 1970s. The plan was a reaction to the threat of job losses caused by the "white heat" of the technological revolution promised by Harold Wilson in the 1960s. The period saw increased automation, which – along with the long-term decline of the manufacturing sector – resulted in a period of growing unemployment (ring any bells?). The Labour Party’s promise to cut the defence budget in the 1974 election further threatened the workers’ livelihoods, as defence equipment had accounted for 70 percent of the company’s output.

"During that time jobs were haemorrhaging at a great rate," says Phil Asquith, one of the younger workers involved in the Lucas Plan. Now aged 70, Asquith is an ambassador of sorts for the project. "There was all sorts of struggles going on trying to protect jobs, such as sit-ins and occupations. But with one or two notable exceptions they all seemed doomed to failure because the struggles were based on the continued manufacture of things people didn't want, or had become too expensive because of globalisation."

So with prompting from Tony Benn, Labour’s secretary of state for industry at the time, the Lucas union shop stewards committee (known as the Combine) came up with an alternative plan. Rather than agitating through the union to keep jobs on existing production lines, the workers would draft up their own set of proposals for products the Lucas factories could make with all the expertise they had accrued.

These products would be socially useful. If the government would buy weapons from Lucas, why wouldn't they buy things society actually needed? "The whole notion of arms conversion and redirecting defence expenditure to more social, beneficial ends had been talked about by academics, the peace movement and a lot of people in the Labour Party for donkey's years," says Asquith. "But the Lucas Plan was the first time hardnosed technologists and machinists on the shop floor had got hold of the problem: we won’t make X anymore, but here are the blueprints for making Y. That was one of the great landmarks of the plan."

After sending questionnaires out to the workforce, approximately 150 new products were proposed. The plan received widespread national and international support, as well as a unanimous endorsement at the Labour Party conference. But despite the thousands of extra hours put into the proposal, rather predictably, Lucas Aerospace management gave it short shrift. The proposal was also kicked into the long grass by the Labour government’s department for trade industry (with Tony Benn no longer at its head) and ignored by the trade union bureaucracy. Lucas Aerospace was to go the way of much of British industry, and closed completely in 1996.

Despite the plan’s nominal failure, its legacy remains, and the issues it addressed are "still with us, writ larger", says Asquith.

Among the 150 products it proposed were wind turbines, hybrid power packs and electric cars, alongside heat pumps and improved kidney dialysis machines. Forty years before our current crisis, the Lucas Plan workers were coming up with the ideas for technologies that could potentially save us from our environmental nightmare.

The company had dismissed these products as luxury goods for the "brown bread and sandals brigade", but it’s the Lucas workers who have been vindicated by history. "Even in the mid-1970s we were drawing attention to the dangers of unlimited CO2 emission, although we called it thermal pollution then," says Asquith.

The workers' environmental inclinations weren’t just confined to global warming. They took issue with single use plastic too. "We made it pretty clear in our plan that the notion of design for a throwaway society and built in obsolescence cannot go on because of the planet’s finite resources," says Asquith.

Many are now using the prescient Lucas Plan as inspiration for dealing with the problems of today. Sam Mason from the civil service union PCS is involved in the New Lucas Plan Project. The campaign hopes to facilitate a just transition away from harmful industries to jobs that deal with climate change.

"The IPCC report [which warned we have 12 year to limit a global temperature increase] was a wake up call and a real spur to action," says Mason. "Now more than ever we need eco-socially useful production. We need to re-skill and re-train workers who are focused on fossil fuel energy jobs to do things we desperately need."

Much of the country’s trade union bureaucracy is resistant to this change. Some parts of the movement are protecting jobs at the expense of the climate. The GMB union, for instance, has actively campaigned for fracking to go ahead in the UK because of the jobs they say it will create.

However, Mason is hopeful that unions can be won over with proposals for alternative jobs. "You can’t have a situation like you had in the 1980s, where coal miners were kicked out and those communities remain devastated from the 250,000 job losses," she says. "If you go to Barrow-in-Furness and places like this, they tend to be very dependent on one industry in that area, one company, such as defence manufacturer BAE systems, which has a huge presence in the whole community. So you need to build something; you need to build this diverse economy and alternative jobs for workers."

David Wearing, an expert on the Gulf states, believes a move to diversify away from producing arms will have to happen as some of our biggest customers grapple with climate change. "Britain's arms export industry is increasingly sustained by sales to the Gulf, but if we're to avoid catastrophe, Gulf oil must stay in the ground, in which case the petrodollars buying UK arms will dry up," he says. "The need for diversification is therefore not only both moral and practical, it's also unavoidable, so the planning needs to start urgently."

It’s possible to imagine an alternative present in which the Lucas Plan’s workers' vision had taken hold, leading to a totally different society where global warming didn’t ominously hang over us. Instead, we had Thatcherism and 30 years of intense capitalism, and denial, inaction and exacerbation of the environmental problems it was storing up. Perhaps a younger generation shorn of our cynicism and sick of politicians’ obfuscation can provide the solutions – and use the Lucas Plan as a blueprint.

@casperhughes2