In the 1970s, workers at Lucas Aerospace proposed saving the company by producing technologies that fight climate change instead of waging war — showing how workplace democracy can solve the crises of capitalism.

Members of the Lucas Aerospace Combine Committee, photographed in 1977.

In January 1976, workers at the Lucas Aerospace Corporation produced one of the most radical documents in Britain’s economic history. The Alternative Plan for Lucas Aerospace — known as the Lucas Plan — was a bold strategy to reorient the company away from the production of weapons towards the production of socially useful commodities. The company was struggling to compete with emerging aerospace giants in the US, Japan and Europe, and Lucas found itself in trouble: management had spent the previous decade trying to ‘rationalise’ the sprawling enterprise, introducing successive restructuring plans, all of which included mass layoffs, but nothing was working.

Some hoped for a last-minute nationalisation, but the UK economy wasn’t exactly in rude health either and workers quickly realised that nationalisation was not on the table. The message was clear: Lucas’ fate would be decided by ‘the market’. Trade unionists from across the organisation went to Tony Benn, one of the foremost democratic socialists on the British left, who was then the Secretary of State for Industry. He reaffirmed that nationalisation was not on the cards, but gave the workers another suggestion: why not come up with their own plan to save the firm?

Shopfloor Ingenuity

At first, the trade unionists wrote to academics, policymakers and local government officials seeking advice, but only three bothered to respond. So, they went to their own workers for ideas instead. The response was astounding. Lucas’ workers came up with hundreds of ideas about how to transform the company into a viable, and socially useful, organisation. More than 150 ideas for new products were brought together into the final document, which also contained detailed information about the human and technical resources the firm could draw on, market analysis, and a step-by-step plan for transitioning towards the new way of working.

The ideas workers proposed were divided into five categories: ‘medical equipment, transport vehicles, improved braking systems, energy conservation [and] oceanics’. Some examples included expanding production of kidney dialysis machines, constructing wind turbines, researching solar cell technology and developing a hybrid power for cars. These were extraordinarily radical and farsighted ideas at a time when human-induced climate change was only first being discussed. Notably, none of the ideas was related to military technology, which had thus far been a major part of the work done at Lucas: the workers were turning their backs on the production of destruction.

Management was stunned, as were many ministers in the UK government. Workers from across the organisation had banded together, overcoming the geographical, technical and cultural barriers that divided them, to create a plan that would simultaneously save their jobs, transform Lucas Aerospace and capture the imaginations of working people all over the world. For this reason, the plan was rejected by the firm’s senior managers, who could not wrap their heads around the idea that the workers they were used to controlling could demonstrate such ingenuity. The leaders at Lucas Aerospace preferred to see their organisation die rather than hand it over to the workers.

As one MP put it:

It took the shop stewards three years to meet the management to discuss the corporate plan, because they were challenging the hierarchical nature of our society, which is that the bosses shall make the decisions and the workers shall accept them, and woe betide workers who question those decisions and perhaps even produce better ones.

Architect or Bee

The Lucas Plan was an extraordinarily ambitious document which challenged the foundations of capitalism. In place of an institution designed to generate profits via the domination of labour by capital, the workers at Lucas Aerospace had developed an entirely new model for the firm: one based on the democratic production of socially useful commodities. It was almost as if the workers had never needed managing at all; as though they were creative architects, rather than obedient bees.

In fact, a trade union leader at Lucas, Mike Cooley, later wrote a book entitled Architect or Bee: The Human Price of Technology. Cooley was an Irish engineer at Lucas and one of the architects of the Lucas Plan. He was such an effective union leader that Lucas Aerospace fired him in 1981 for ‘spending too much time on union business’. Afterwards, Cooley continued his work on socially useful production with the Greater London Corporation. He is remembered as a pioneer of the ‘human-centred design’ movement. In 2018, in the foreword to Cooley’s book, Delinquent Genius: The Strange Affair of Man and His Technology, Irish President Michael D. Higgins referred to him as ‘the most intelligent Irishman, the most morally engaged scientist and technologist Ireland has sent abroad’.

Cooley had a view of ‘ordinary people’ that was diametrically opposed to that of thinkers like Hayek and Keynes. In fact, he believed that he had never met an ‘ordinary’ person in his life. Everyone he knew, all the people with whom he worked, had ‘extraordinary … skills, abilities and talents’, as the Lucas Plan showed. For Cooley, the great crime of capitalism is that ‘those talents [are] never used or developed or encouraged’.

Cooley’s democratic socialism fitted the spirit of the 1970s. The new social movements, which had emerged out of the protest movements of the late 1960s, were challenging traditional hierarchies in the Labour Party, the labour movement and society more generally. Rank-and-file workers were disappointed with what little progress had been made on wages, working conditions and the broader political demands made by the unions after a decade of successive Labour governments. Both groups were increasingly disillusioned with the top-down, bureaucratic approach to nationalisation that had become characteristic of the post-war consensus.

Many on the new left saw worker democracy as a way to bridge the gap between the protest movements of the 1960s and the institutional strength of the labour movement. Meanwhile, many on the ‘old left’ saw the plan as a way to reinvigorate the tired post-war consensus. The peace movement saw it as an example of how to destroy the military-industrial complex without alienating workers. Farsighted environmentalists saw it as a model for transitioning towards a green economy without any loss of jobs. And everyone from Marxists to anarchists saw it as a fantastic example of how to build worker power and socialise production without the support of the capitalist state. Even more liberal-minded commentators conceded that the workers at Lucas Aerospace had achieved something quite remarkable.

In this time of turbulence, the actions of the workers at Lucas Aerospace were like a lightning rod for radicals everywhere. While the British political class played up the threats to order and stability posed by weed-smoking hippies and striking workers with Soviet sympathies, the British left coalesced around the Lucas Plan as a very real and practical example of what could be achieved when working people drew on their collective skills, solidarity and creativity.

The Neoliberal Response

Then came 1979. In her first term, Thatcher radically restructured the UK economy. She waged war on the UK’s unions while also privatising whole swathes of the public sector and releasing finance capital from the chains imposed by the post-war consensus. The shift in government undermined the labour movement in general, and the Lucas Plan specifically. Cooley was ‘effectively sacked’ for his activities in 1981 and the Plan, which workers had been organising behind the scenes to implement, foundered.

Where the workers behind the Lucas Plan had laid the foundations for the development of an economy that respected the dignity, creativity and autonomy of workers, Thatcher instead used her control over the state ruthlessly to reassert the power of capital over labour. Cloaking her project in the language of freedom and autonomy, she crushed one of the most innovative and ingenious examples of democratic production the world had ever seen. The success of the neoliberal movement ensured that ‘individualised consumerism rather than collective services and a democratised state and economy became the main legacy of working-class struggles during the twentieth century.’

In 1996, after successive rounds of reorganisation and restructuring, Lucas merged with an American company to form LucasVarity PLC, which immediately announced cost-cutting measures that led to 3,000 job losses. Three years later, the merger was reversed when LucasVarity was purchased by the US company TRW, which carved up and stripped the company in the shareholder value revolution of the 1980s, and then sold the remnants, now known as TRW Aeronautical Systems, to US manufacturing company Goodrich Corporation two years later. In 2012, Goodrich itself was acquired by United Technologies for $16.5 billion, which merged Goodrich with an existing subsidiary to form United Aerospace.

A few years later, United Aerospace had something of a shock when, a plane for which it had provided many components nosedived out of the sky. United supplied Boeing with avionics, cabin components and mechanical systems for the 737 MAX, and one of its subsidiaries — Rosemount — had supplied Boeing with the faulty angle of attack sensors that had played a role in the two crashes. A month after the Ethiopian Airlines Crash, United Aerospace announced that it could lose $80 million worth of earnings as a result of Boeing’s decision to cut production of the 737 MAX.

In 2018, United Aerospace acquired Rockwell Collins and merged UTC Aerospace systems — the part of the company that can trace its lineage back to Lucas Aerospace — to form Collins Aerospace. Collins continued to have a strong relationship with Boeing, providing inputs for its Boeing Business Jet 737 MAX — the private corporate version of the 737 MAX. In 2020, UTC was merged with Raytheon Technologies, one of the largest multinational aerospace and defence conglomerates on the planet.

What was once Lucas Aerospace, whose workers had been at the forefront of a movement to create a new mode of production based on democracy, sustainability and social utility, had by the early twenty-first century become a subsidiary of a sprawling American conglomerate deeply enmeshed in the military-industrial complex which was supplying corporate jet parts to a company whose unbridled greed led it to manufacture planes that fell out of the sky. There is no better illustration of the two paths we faced as a planet during the 1970s: total domination by capital, or sustainable, socialised, democratic production.

The economy that produced the 737 MAX disasters is no less centrally planned than that which produced Lucas Plan; the main difference is that fifty years ago workers had an input into the planning process, which is now dominated by corporate executives, bureaucrats, politicians and financiers. The choice we faced in the 1970s was a choice between democratic, socially useful production and the extraction of profit at any cost. It was the choice between a society in which workers organise themselves to produce kidney dialysis machines for a public healthcare system, or one in which bosses direct workers to produce corporate jets for a company that, in a just society, would have been found guilty of corporate manslaughter.

This is an edited extract from Vulture Capitalism by Grace Blakeley (Bloomsbury)

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