Amid the 1970s economic crisis in Britain, Lucas Aerospace workers, threatened with redundancy, developed a plan for socially useful work. It’s an idea whose time has come.
Earlier this year, when the coronavirus started to spread, the supply of hospital ventilators was at crisis point. Within weeks, sectors as diverse as Formula 1 engineering and vacuum-cleaner and military-hardware manufacturers had switched to turning out medical equipment.
It did not escape notice that the speed of design and testing in these industries could be applied to more beneficial products. Yet why does it take a worldwide pandemic to encourage socially useful activities?
The idea is not new. September 2020 saw the death of Mike Cooley, the pioneering engineer and trade unionist who in 1976 led workers in the British aerospace industry to develop the Lucas Plan. Confronted with the loss of thousands of manufacturing jobs due to restructuring, they demanded the right to socially useful production.
The plan—based on the skills, experience and needs of workers and their communities—took a year to complete and included market analyses and economic arguments, as well as ideas for retraining and new management structures.
Redundancies waste society’s most precious asset—the skills, ingenuity, enthusiasm, energy and creativity of workers. The plan proposed more than 150 alternative products, including wind turbines, heat pumps, hybrid cars, better braking systems and kidney-dialysis and portable life-support machines. It was ahead of its time, designing items to protect the environment as well as people, and attracting attention around the world.
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Role of new technology
Consideration of socially useful or satisfying work inevitably impinges on digitalisation, new technologies and their impact on ways of working. Karl Marx famously noted: ‘In the handicrafts and manufacture, the workman [sic] makes use of a tool, in the factory, the machine makes use of him.’ Well before contemporary innovations in automation and digitalisation, workers were already experiencing alienation.
Of course, it is not technology per se that is the problem but the way it is developed and applied, for example largely excluding women from design decisions. Rather than enabling the soul-destroying deskilling of labour, it could allow people more time for constructive activities. Rather than furthering the never-ending pursuit of ‘growth’, it could be dedicated to socially useful ends.
Marx also said that what distinguished the worst of architects from the best of bees was the capacity to imagine. And Cooley outlined two alternatives: either human beings will be reduced to working like bees under the systems imposed on them, or they will be the architects of new advances in human creativity, freedom of choice and expression.
‘It is not only factory workers who may experience alienation. Whenever workers are in a position in which [they] … cannot control the uses to which their work is put, they are alienated,’ argued John Graves in Liberating Technology. ‘People’s sense of life, of fulfilment and of purpose … can derive only from doing work with a definite objective, in a given social context, involving certain human interactions of relationships and having a certain value.’
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Such value can be found in unexpected places. Interviewing steel workers in Britain in the 1970s, Polly Toynbee found they were proud of their furnaces, however unpleasant and dangerous, because they believed steel was a vital resource and their work mattered. The same applied at one time to coalmining.
Trade unions’ demand for ‘quality jobs’ implies not only decent pay and good working conditions but also job satisfaction. But can job satisfaction be equated with socially useful work? The notions of respect for people and the environment, work-life balance, freedom of choice, creativity and a sense of purpose should be central to both.
This requires a re-evaluation of many tasks, especially of women’s traditional caring work and the fulfilment it offers at home and professionally. One striking aspect of the coronavirus crisis has been the dedication of care workers—invariably women—in residential homes, often at the expense of their own safety. The many examples of carers self-isolating at work—cutting themselves off from their own families for weeks—to protect elderly residents, go beyond professional obligations. We have seen carers in tears after the deaths of individuals to whom they had grown close. Prioritising socially useful work means a fundamental reassessment of the value of jobs that have always been low-paid and low-status.
At the same time, climate-conscious young people are increasingly demanding jobs that avoid further environmental damage and offer them a sustainable future.
How to do it
Enabling workers to take more control—to be architects instead of bees—would make work more satisfying and more ethical. Work organisation in companies, from online platforms to production lines, is largely designed for the convenience and profit of employers. Greater worker influence could help to generate human-centred design choices, as well as eroding the barriers between high-skilled employees and those carrying out low-paid and tedious tasks. Inevitably, some jobs—however socially useful—are likely to be boring and arduous. It is the organisation and control of such work that makes the difference.
The best way to strengthen workers’ voices is through trade union organisation. Existing systems for worker participation, such as European Works Councils and seats on corporate boards, offer an initial step forward.
But sometimes direct action is necessary. Following the military coup in Chile in 1973, employees at the Rolls Royce plant in East Kilbride, Scotland, discovered that engines from their factory were going to the dictatorship. They refused to work on them. During a period of four years, they managed to ground half of Chile’s air force.
Other options include workers’ co-operatives and social enterprises, which are increasing in number and range of activities across Europe. Recent EU research finds tens of thousands operating in Belgium, France, Germany and Italy.
Back to the future
Accounts of the Lucas Plan experience tend to view it as a product of the 1970s—a time of real hope of social progress. Yet the desire to dedicate one’s labour to something worthwhile remains more relevant than ever in the context of Covid-19 and continues to inspire new initiatives.
As the 2020 travel lockdown started to affect the aviation industry, in the first three months of the pandemic Airbus suffered a 55 per cent drop in year-on-year revenues and predicted the loss of 15,000 jobs. At its headquarters in Toulouse, 3,400 workers—many of whom had been with the company for decades—were threatened with redundancy.
In response, l’Atécopol, a collective of more than 100 local scientists and researchers, put forward its own proposal. Recognising the lack of certainty about the aviation industry’s recovery, coupled with the damage it inflicts on the environment, the plan foresees no return to business as usual. ‘That is why we believe that it is high time to open a difficult but clear-headed debate on the reconversion of the sector and your companies.’
It calls for a public-service objective, to prioritise the common good, like health services and public transport. ‘Responding to the essential needs of our population, far from market injunctions and imperatives linked to economic growth and international competition, would make sense, for you and for our society,’ it concludes.
The pandemic has forced society to stop and reflect on what is really needed for the health and wellbeing of all. Guns or ventilators? This opportunity to step up the demand for socially useful work must not be missed.
This is part of a series on the Transformation of Work supported by the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung