Saturday, October 1, 2016

The Lucas plan revisited- ahead of the curve

With the 40th anniversary of the Lucas workers celebrated alternative plan coming up, the Breaking the Frame group, has, with others, organized a conference in Birmingham in November. It aims to link the experience of radical trade union groups then, trying to redirect the technology focus of their companies to create sustainable, socially useful work, with similar current campaigns: http://lucasplan.org.uk 

The Alternative Corporate Plan produced by shop stewards from the 13 Lucas Aerospace plants in the mid 1970s outlined a series of socially useful projects that they felt could secure employment on a sustainable basis. The company was heavily reliant on defence orders and the Labour government of the time was cutting back and there were threats of large scale redundancies. The cross-plant cross-union shop stewards ‘Combine’ committee thought that, to avoid that, the companies resources and their skills could be used on alternative products. The diversification plan they produced included medical aids, new transport systems and a range of alternative energy technologies, then very novel, including solar and wind technologies. The idea was that the public funding saved from the defence cuts could be retargeted to socially useful production along these lines.

The overall plan was resisted by the company management, who objected to being told what to produce, although some prototypes were developed under pressure from the trade unionists or by supporters independently. For example, an absorption cycle gas-fired heat pump, based on an early Open University idea, was built by Lucas at its plant in Burnley, with some middle management actually being quite keen since there were prospects of a joint OU/Lucas research grant from the (then) Department of Energy. A 15kW prototype was tested, but no funding emerged and the idea was not followed up. See p22/23 in this report:  http://oro.open.ac.uk/19946/1/EPMK_Aug_09.pdf 

Heat pumps are nowadays very widely used, although very few gas fired heat pumps have been built - the 150kW (th) one currently used at the OU is a rare example. See: http://modbs.co.uk/news/archivestory.php/aid/9841/__65279;Ener-G_teams_up_boreholes_with_absorption_heat_pumps_.html

Most heat pumps are electric powered and designed for use in individual homes (and the OU has surveyed them). That approach is backed by government, partly as a way to use the excess nuclear electricity they will have at night from the proposed new nuclear plants at Hinkley etc.  There are all sorts of problems with that- the power grid couldn't supply enough power to take over from ordinary gas central heating (which is their plan)! Gas heat pumps would be better- the gas grid is already there. And they would also be bigger, and more suited to community heating. That was very much to Lucas plan’s credo - not small eco-toys for middle class houses, but large efficient systems for council high rises.  It’s arguably what we should be doing now. It’s the same for many of the other ideas that were in the plan.

The political point is that this group of workers could identify what was needed in the communities to which they belonged- and they had the skills to make the technology. But they didn’t have the power or money to make it happen-and the Labour government offered warm words but little practical help. The official trade union bureaucracy was also less than helpful- the Combine committee was an unofficial grass roots organisation which they did not recognize. Then, in 1979, Maggie Thatcher was elected and launched a major attack on  the trade union movement, culminating in the defeat of the Miners. Many of the Lucas activists were sacked or moved on and the battle for radical product diversification was lost. There had been some other similar ‘workers plans’, following on from the Lucas plan, for example in power engineering (Clarke Chapman and Parsons in Newcastle, backing CHP) and in defence (Vickers in Barrow, with wave power being one idea), but they too were side-tracked.  40 years on it’s still the same. What actually emerges is what government and corporate leaders think is best. Though some now do think that renewables are a good idea!

The Lucas campaign may have failed, but the idea lives on, with, in the current context, one focus being the development of alternatives to employment on projects like the proposed Trident nuclear submarine system renewal.  With UK coal plants closing there is also a need to develop alternative employment options for staff in that sector, and the same would be true when and if the nuclear programme is abandoned. What the Lucas campaign showed was that it is possible for the workforce themselves, rather than external experts or technocrats, to develop plans for the future, and arguably better plans, more attuned to needs rather than profits.

The need for better plans for sustainable energy and other environmentally appropriate technologies is now if anything even clearer. But are we any more ready for that politically than in the 1970s?  Some of the ideas from the Lucas plan had been taken up by radical local authorities, notable the GLC via its local Technology Networks, but they too were seen off as politics swung to the right in the 1980s. With trade union power much diminished and local councils on the defensive, as yet, no new power base exists, although the renewal of grass roots support for Labour, and the growth of wider green movement, may change that.  We may see at the Birmingham conference…

Catch up on Lucas: www.theguardian.com/science/political-science/2014/jan/22/remembering-the-lucas-plan-what-can-it-tell-us-about-democratising-technology-today

The academic journal Science as Culture recently had a special issue on ‘Contested Technology’ (Vol. 25 No.3), which includes my paper on ‘The Alternative Technology movement: an early green radical challenge’ identifying links to and conflicts with the Lucas workers plan campaign and practical focus.  There were some ideological differences, with the ‘AT’ movement more inclined to small-scale experimental projects, the Lucas plan more concerned with meeting the needs of existing mainstream communities. In the extreme this revealed a class-based conflict, with one Lucas Combine member disparaging some of the AT movements proposals as ‘gimmicks for individual architect built houses’ and ‘playthings for the middle class’. Is that still the case? Or have both sides now moved on?

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