Converting swords into...

IssueOctober - November 2016
Feature by Dave King

On 26 November, a wide range of groups are organising a Lucas Plan 40th anniversary conference at Birmingham Voluntary Service Council. It is 40 years since the workers at the Lucas Aerospace arms company proposed making alternative socially-useful products, while retaining jobs.

The conference will both celebrate the achievements of the Lucas workers and, we hope, reinvigorate a movement for arms conversion and democratic control of the economy. The Lucas Plan showed that traditional trade union concerns about the impact upon workers’ jobs of closures in harmful industries such as arms manufacture, nuclear power, and so on, could be met.

In the early 1970s, the workers at Lucas organised themselves into a cross-union combine committee which was extremely effective in fighting redundancies. In 1975, the combine circulated questionnaires to the workforce requesting product suggestions which answered a social need. Some 150 product ideas were put forward by the workforce in six categories: medical equipment, transport vehicles, improved braking systems, energy conservation, oceanics, and telechiric (‘distant hand’) machines.

Specific proposals included an expansion of 40% in the production of kidney dialysis machines: the combine ‘regarded it as scandalous that people could be dying for the want of a kidney machine when those who could be producing them are facing the prospect of redundancy’.

Although the plan was rejected by the company which, rightly, realised that it was a threat to ‘management’s right to manage’, the plan became famous and was emulated around the world. The combine was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979.

Get together

Much has changed since the 1970s, but the need for conversion of arms manufacture to socially-useful production is as critical as ever. Britain is now committed to spend £200 billion on Trident renewal, but the Trident debate, as well as Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s backing during his 2015 election campaign, has put arms conversion firmly back on the political agenda.

What inspired people in the 1970s was the way in which the Lucas Plan overcame the way in which workers and peace and environmental activists are set up against each other by the capitalist system. Such an approach is needed more than ever in a situation of environmental crisis and looming armed conflicts.

Many feel that the underlying crisis of industrial capitalism requires a complete rethink of how we produce the goods and services that people really need. But such a rethink of both technological and economic systems can only happen through the know-how of workers, as a crucial part of a participatory and democratic planning process.