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greengalloway

As all that is solid melts to air and everything holy is profaned...

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Alternative radical technology

Interview with Dave Elliot.

Could you tell us how you became part of the Lucas Aerospace movement and how the movement developed?

What practically happened, was that the Lucas Shop Stewards Committee emerged - which is a very unusual body, you have to remember. Lucas Aerospace had 17 factories scattered around the country: London, Luton, Birmingham, Burnley - oh, half a dozen others. Big, at least 1,000 - 2,000 - 3,000 people working at each of them. I think there were about 13,000 people altogether, something like that.

And in British trade union history there's always been a tension between craft-based unions, or skill-based unions, and general unions across groups of workers. The radical view has usually been that - well, across trades organisations are more politically important because they provide a collective which is larger than just individual, sectoral interests. And if it's across many plants as well within the same combine of company, that's quite powerful - of course, even more powerful if it's across lots of sectors as well, right.

So although there's been a split between approaches in trade unionism always in this country, the craft unions were sometimes the most militant because they had a knowledge of their own skills and a usually more clear consciousness of their own role in the world. Whereas the general unions were usually more prone to being co-opted and twisted. Some say. But for whatever reason, the Lucas shop stewards decided the only way to organise in the future was across all trades and across the whole combine, all 17 factories. So the white-collar and blue-collar workers' unions sort of grudgingly decided to join together - which, believe me, is no easy thing, because each factory had a long history of separate unionism between engineers and white-collar workers. You know, they wouldn't talk to one another usually. But the Combine Committee managed to get them together on each site and then across the whole thing - hence the words Shop Stewards Combine Committee. And the sort of issues they focused on were collective issues across the whole group, not just ordinary things like wages and conditions - traditional stuff - but first of all health and safety. Remember, this is the early 1970s, and health and safety issues were very big in those days. There wasn't much in the way of legislation. What actually emerged, if you happen to know your history, was the Health & Safety At Work Act 1974 as amended, which now sounds trite and old-fashioned but at the time was the high-watermark of trade union achievement to get a sort of national agreement on. It was no longer possible for management to maim and kill its workforce - it was a real step forward! And many people said that was Wilson's government's height - best thing they ever did. In the same way as people now say that the best thing that Blair did - we all know what the worst thing he did was! - but the best thing he did was the minimum pay. You know, in trade union terms that's probably been the only thing they got out of all that. Anyway, having got their feet on the ground in health and safety issues, they had sort of made contact with a few experts in universities. There were a few characters in various universities. Not so much universities, actually, as polytechnics. North East London Polytechnic, which comes to mind. And people like Charlie Clutterbuck, whose name figures in the history, who helped a lot on technical advice for the Health & Safety campaign against asbestos. And they were quite impressed that there were experts they could call on who were on their side in universities and colleges.

So they got in touch with me at some point and said, 'Well, you know all about products and engineering, and you know about all this energy stuff, don't you.' I said, 'Yes, a little bit, yeah!' They said, 'Well, we're thinking that the company's talking about or looking like it's going to talk about mass redundancies. And we want to resist this.' And I said, 'Well, you just go on strike.' They said, 'Well, no point, really. I mean, that's what they want,' they want to shut the factories down, you know! And at that time there was also this movement of factory work-ins, factory occupations, people taking over factories at the point of when a company was about to close them - which again had its limits, because you were sitting on a failed asset, basically. You could argue very strongly that the assets could be redefined and - but you're in a very weak position, because whoever's funded it initially presumably had withdrawn their support and the capital has run away. All you'd got was the physical building. At various points - I don't know if you know that bit of history - there were tens of thousands of workers occupying factories in 1976/7/8/9, that sort of thing - it was a big movement. Some of them -

In England only?

Just in England - and Scotland! Oh yes! The famous ones were the shipyards up in Glasgow - UCS it was called. But there were dozens. I made a film at the time. We went round there just to film examples. Most of them were thinking, 'Well, the best we could hope for is a co-op.' But us on the left would say, 'Well, yes, co-ops are very nice, but six years down the road you'll have to be competing with the other co-ops. You'll do exactly the same as the capitalist logic says, which is to cut your wages in order to compete. What's the difference? Unless you actually own more than just the capital at this particular plant, you can't control the market. It's the market you're up against, not so much - well, rival bits of capital. You know, co-ops, to our mind, were a bit of a deflection. Given that no one was talking about challenging the status quo, this was not going to be a revolution in which all the capital was seized and the government was taken over by radicals and - you know, this was not a revolution! This was just an advanced form of trade union bargaining, right! In which case we'd do it as an advanced form of trade union bargaining, i.e. you present demands to management as to what products they should be making in order to avoid job loss. The Lucas workers' leaders said 'Job loss is our problem. We're going to lose the jobs. I know you don't care, management doesn't care whether he sacks half its workforce. Presumably it'll start up another factory in Brazil or something, you know! But we do care. And we've got a vested interest in maintaining our jobs.' So what they did was survey the physical assets, what the plants had in terms of tools and machines like that, and what skills they had. And they did a sort of Domesday Book sort of detailed assessment of all the assets. 'Cos the shop stewards on site they know everybody. They're the sort of people that wander round the factory as of right - they can very rapidly build up a picture of the company. And they did a sort of audit of the company.

And then they sent a super-suggestion scheme around all the factories, invited everyone to put in proposals. Has anyone got any pet projects which they'd thought of, which they wanted? And all the little old grey-haired engineers from Burnley who'd come with, you know, a little box file with lots of yellow documents: 'Well, I did this when I was 25. I thought we could -' you know. Hundreds of ideas came out. I mean, some of them were crazy; some of them were not crazy. Some of the younger ones were obviously up to speed. I mean, some of these workers were top-end of the aerospace high-tech front - you know, unions like the draughtsmen's union. These were people as advanced technically as you'd get anywhere! So they asked me and a few other academics that they'd got in touch with also. And we got into various smoke-filled rooms and had big meetings. There's a big old country house up in Yorkshire called Wortley Hall. And we all gathered in this place once every six months or so, and produced all these documents. And I produced a report laying out all the energy things. And I mean, this was really challenging for me, because at that time the sort of things people were talking about was hippyesque stuff, basically: Welsh hill farms, small wind turbines, micro-hydro, bit of solar collected on the roof, and biogas - all really nice cuddly small-scale technology. And the Shop Stewards Committee, you could tell, were not going to be impressed, 'What?!' No, no, no, no!' So I had to dig a bit deeper.

So I started reading up about it, and this forced me to do a lot of work that I wouldn't have done otherwise. And I discovered that in the small print in back files in odd corners in government departments, what was the Department of Energy, had a small team doing this. And I went to one of their conferences and picked up some documents that they'd thrown away, literally from the waste bin!

I had lots and lots of stuff. I put it all together and produced this document, which actually, reading it thirty years later, is very good still, you know, [laughs] putting together all these ideas but retranslated it away from the fringe small-scale stuff. And the Shop Stewards Committee had a look at this and went, 'Yeah, there's some ideas. Some of these - yeah.' Example: Lucas the company had manufactured a small wind turbine, Joseph Lucas, a little thing for outback use, remote sites. The stewards said, 'Oh, we've already got a wind turbine'. On aeroplanes there's a machine that scoops off the wind in a little slot on it - it goes internally; a little turbine inside the aeroplane. This is for auxiliary power, if the aircraft loses battery backup. Most of the electricity in an aircraft comes from the engines, so like a car - there's a dynamo. But as emergency backup they have a little air scoop with a small turbine which provides enough power for the cockpit instrumentation and flight equipment, not like passenger lights and air conditioning! 'Let them rot!' But! But there's a ducted fan wind turbine, which is very advanced, you know. And they built this. And electric vehicles were the sort of thing we'd come up with. And I think it was Joseph Lucas who produced a small battery car. But they'd given up on it. But when you looked in their files, there were lots of ideas. So that the upshot, after about a year they shifted all these things through, laid them on top of a sheet with all the skills on and the plant and equipment and things - there was mapping as well. Burnley's very good on - Burnley did most of the prototyping work. It did one-off of things. It was used to do original projects -perhaps making three in a row and then testing them. They could do a lot of the development work on these. And we came up with quite a detailed plan, which is in about ten volumes - it's about that thick; and was never made public. All they made public was a thing, which you might have seen, which is called The Corporate Plan, which is much less detailed but has most of the rhetoric in there. The leading character in all this was Mike Cooley, who was the top shop steward, convener of stewards and head of combine at the time, who was a very bright man.

So the next thing to do was to put it to the workforce. So they held meetings on site, every site, and they held, you know, meetings and put it to the workforce and said, 'Look, you know we've had meetings before about wage bargaining. You know, we're going to put a 5% wage claim in. Well, there's a new one!' You know what the company says, that the reason for the redundancy problem was the Labour government's decision to throttle back on defence spending - which is a good thing!'

Partly 'cos they were overspent and the IMF had closed in on the UK - do you remember, they'd stepped in and said, 'Britain's got to cut its cost to meet its…' I wish it would happen now, in fact. It may well do. I mean, there's talk about dumping Trident and so on, but very much the same situation, in fact. It's interesting. Our current situation in this country - very similar to what it was in 1975 or '6 or something, isn't it?

So they said, 'Well, this is fine. We support the defence cuts, you know. On the other hand, our jobs are there'. Most of the aerospace jobs - not all - about half would be defence-related. They were also making things for the airbus and civil aircraft. But well over half - it depends how you measure it, but probably the most profitable projects, 'cos they're all cost plus profit-projects anyway, so they're much more lucrative, are defence contracts. Now, the stewards said, 'we always agree with cuts in defence, but obviously we need something to replace it. So these social projects, socially useful projects, you know, are the ones that we're recommending', that 'Are you with us?' sort of thing. And it got overwhelming support. 'Yeah, well, of course, if a union's going to try something, oh well, we'll back it!' 'Well, this may get nasty,' they said, ''cos I mean, management may not accept this stuff, you know. We know they always talk about suggestion schemes - these boxes in a corridor with cobwebs on that you put things in! But we're doing that really now, on large-scale. On the other hand, what we're doing is telling the management what to produce in their factories, and they won't like it!" 'So, they said, "we may have to use industrial muscle to back it up. So would you be prepared to take industrial action on the basis of the plan?' Most people said, 'Yeah, what's the alternative?' 'Well, we're out the door." They said, 'Yeah, okay, we'll do that!' So off they trot to the management. They present it across the two-sided negotiating table, and the management was trying to put round tables in, but they said, 'We want the square table! That's decided!'

So they plant it on the table. The management would say, 'Very interesting! We'll take it away.' And a few months later they produce, the management produces a response, which says basically - how do I put this politely: 'Go away and do something unpleasant to somebody!' It says it in nice terms, but it said basically: 'Lucas is a company based on high-tech products, like aerospace products. We know how to do this. This is our natural market. We have the sales, i.e. we've got government contracts locked in. We don't have to model the market or anything, we just cash government cheques! If there are any other products that are available to us, we would already have done it. Go away. We know what we're doing. Who are you?'

More voluble members of the management team said things like, 'It's management's right to manage. The right to manage. You keep talking about the right to work - fine, well, we'll accept that.' It's a nice dialectic. They said, 'We agree with you, you have this interest in the right to work. Fine! We have the right to manage. And you're not telling us what to make. If we do so, why are we here?' So the shop stewards said, 'We often ask that question ourselves! What do you actually do, apart from sitting in the management canteen and going on big trips around the world? We've never worked out what you actually do; Haven't seen you much on the shopfloor. You know where it is? Down there!' [laughs]

You have to remember the feeling in this country at that time was that shop stewards - this is the peak of the militancy of the shop stewards' movement in the UK - they almost ran the factories. Management wouldn't dare to go on the shopfloor without asking the shop stewards. If they came down, everybody'd just stop: 'What are you doing down here?' 'I've just come down to talk.' 'Oh! If you like, yes, all right, but…' The management would walk around. They weren't running the factories; the shop stewards would control everything! Not always - a lot of this is bravado, but some of it was true, you know. A lot of managers would be very frightened of stirring up anything. They'd just keep well away from the shopfloor.

So the shop stewards felt like they managed the factories anyway, so why didn't they go the whole hog? In sociological terms this is a sort of creeping incremental move towards social control that some syndicalist theorists had sounded off a lot about in the 19th century, you'll remember! But it was sort of happening. And when management… one or two managers quietly… I mean, you have to remember the culture in places like Burnley: there may be a class war going on, but areas like that, they probably all drink together, a bit, still. Even junior managers are probably fairly close to the ordinary workers…

And one or two junior managers would come across in the pub and say to shop stewards, 'There's some very good ideas in there! And if we can help at all, it's our jobs too, you know! And maybe we could find a way round this. If we weren't quite so confrontational about it, maybe we could find a way round this.' And they'd say, 'Yeah, but can you guarantee the jobs?' 'Well, no. We can save a small project as a lifeboat for some of us.' 'No, no, no, no! It's all or nothing.' But one or two quite sensible managers sort of were helping out on the sly, you know. Anyway, this brings us up to 1979 now. The campaign - the stakes are raised by the managements. There's a sort of phoney war period for a while then.

There was a long period of both sides girding their loins for what was an obvious showdown at some point, right. They tried one or two tricks. They had some sort of control over the shop stewards about how many hours they could take off at work. In theory shop stewards got 10 hours a week for union work, going off to do courses and things like that. And these were often on a grace-and-favour basis, especially the course-type things. So they started withdrawing these rights and just ratcheting up a bit of resistance. And they overstepped the mark at one point and precipitated a walkout at one factory, when one shop steward was told he couldn't do corporate plan work on company time. He said, 'But this is company work!' 'Well, that's a matter of definition!' 'I say it's company work! This is to save the company. This is not trade union work; it's company work!' 'No, no, trade union work,' you know! And so those sort of little battles.

And it was reasonably friendly for a while. Then '79 Thatcher gets in, November '79 - date etched on our memories, right. Within months attitudes changed completely. The management felt emboldened. Trade union legislation was put in to tighten up on things. So then they sack all the leading shop stewards - Mike Cooley, Ernie Scarbrow, from each of the sites. They'd pick each site off one by one. The top guy at Burnley, the top at Willesden, the top guys. Ernie Scarbrow was the Secretary of the Committee, the Combine Committee. His wife died during this period. And the day after she was cremated they invited him in for interview and asked him to move from Willsden to Hemel Hemptead many miles away - and he refused what they said was promotion and he retired. And he's a middle aged man, large, red face, sideboards, trade unionist and a lovely man. Solid as they come. He was almost in tears. It was horrible!

Mike Cooley, who's a senior design engineer, got offered a training job well below his skill level. Those sorts of things. They'd say, 'Well, we offered him - it's a bit of reorganisational stuff, you know.' They seemed to be confident now with the Thatcher government behind them that they could fight it out. And the stewards tried to organise a strike - well, they did: they had walkouts. In 1981 this was. And most of the sites came out. But it was - oh, it was lumbering up for the miners' strike of a few years later - '84, you remember the miners' strike? And the trade unions are feeling very exposed suddenly. They knew they'd got a very different situation - they'd got no Labour government. The Labour government during the period before then had not been conspicuously helpful, neither had the National Trade Union movement either. They had been pretty much on their own. But now they realised they were totally on their own! So they couldn't resist. Mike Cooley was sacked.

Why wasn't the trade union movement as a whole sympathetic to this?

I'll go back over that period. I talked earlier about trade union traditions of craft as a general way of organising, right? The TUC was always ambivalent about this. It had supported and been created by the craft unions, you know, the skill-based union. But increasingly its main membership were the big general unions: General Municipal and Boiler Makers, you know, Transport & General Workers' Union. They were all gobbling up the smaller unions. Anyway, so they'd become increasingly multi-union. But this is already unstable enough for them. They realised they had to organise across industries more effectively. So they set up things like the CSEU: Confederation of Shipbuilding & Engineering Unions, which was a confederation that the TUC has. And there are similar confederations in other big sectors. And that's the way they though they'd get it under their control. So it was a sort of syndicalism versus guild socialism! Syndicalist structure - big blocks of branches and the individual unions underneath, right?

Combine committees, bottom/up combine committees, organised by workers themselves across plants, weren't recognised. They were treated as unofficial and actually dangerous, because these members from all different unions - the general secretaries of the unions meeting in Congress House] had no line of control over them, you know! These are anarcho-syndicalistic, evil things! [laughs] And they were really hostile. It didn't help that Mike Cooley had been President of TASS, which was an early version of the Draughtsmen's Union. And TASS had then been taken over by a Communist Party member called Ken Gill, who was very militant, but had a traditional CP in approach. There was a slightly doctrinal debate too. I don't know if you know about English political history, the factional disputes between the various brands of Trotskyites and various - anyway, it got in the way a little bit.

Although the Combine Committee was really not political in that sense at all; it was not led by the Socialist Workers Party or anything like that! It was very much… I mean, Mike Cooley was obviously Marxist-trained and had immaculate credentials as a leftwing theoretician, but he was not heavy with it. He is not a Party card-carrying person. And they were all sort of to the left of the Labour government, obviously, but I wouldn't say any of them were insurrectory Left at all. But the media, of course, called him a Maoist - that was the simplest label they had! [laughs] But the trouble was he tried to go to China! [laughs] And the Chinese wouldn't let him in. It's a joke …! So we ran the headline in the magazine I ran it at the time: 'NO COOLEYS IN CHINA!' Anyway, some anecdotes for you to entertain yourselves with!

But from the TUC's point of view this was just a dangerous movement. So they would not support it. What they suggested, after being pushed a lot… I mean, ordinary trade union members and Labour Party members went to Labour Party Conferences. You know, the issue was raised: 'We have a motion in support of the Lucas workers' brave struggle! Card vote and - would T&G put up its two million vote? No! So I think it failed - it couldn't get through, you see, 'cos they said, 'Well, we can't support an unofficial combine committee." So eventually I think the Labour leadership had a talk to the TUC leadership, 'Look, something's got to be done about this!' They said, 'We'll put it through the CSEU (Confederation of Shipbuilding & Engineering Workers). They should submit their documents to them and we'll go through channels.'

So the Combine Committee rehashed all the document and put it into the CSEU, which then became extremely bureaucratic about it and eventually produced a big fact report, which was about all that happened! It just sat on it, basically, sat on it. And then they said, 'Well, we support this wonderful example of British spontaneity and original thinking and, we support this all the way! We give all support except actual anything credible! So by the time Thatcher got round that was the way it was. Most of the trade unionists in the combine had lost faith in the leaders of the trade union movement. They said, 'You know, look, here we are doing exactly what we're supposed to do, and we get no support whatsoever from them' They went to see Tony Benn, 'cos Tony Benn was allegedly the leftie sort of Minister of MinTech at one time, and then briefly head of the Department of Energy.

And he was massively supportive. You know, this is just the sort of thing he likes. But he said, 'I'm only a Minister and I can only do so much.' The Labour administration at the time had come up with this idea of planning agreements. It was that the trade union sides should be able to get corporate agreements on a tripartite basis. The government had set up this thing called Neddy: National Economic Development Organisation: NEDO. And little Neddies by sector, like the aerospace sector. And they produced planning agreements, i.e. a sort of long-term corporate strategic agreement between government and companies - which was sort of his idea as a sort of government intervention, but with a little bit of TU input too . So maybe you could submit the Lucas plan to that. But who sits on the trade union side? Well, the TUC! [laughs] Absolutely buggered! You're not going to get anywhere there! They weren't having it. Company wasn't having it, Labour Party wasn't having it, Labour government wasn't having it, the trade union movement leadership wasn't having it. So they knew by about 1979 that they were on their own. Mike Cooley said, 'We're on our own, lads.' You know, it was all lads, it was nearly all male.

At about this point I handed over partly to Hilary - Hilary Wainwright, who has since become the leading light on the Left. And the Research Council helped. In those days it was called Social Science Research Council - when there was such a thing as Social Sciences! As Maggie Thatcher said, 'You can't have a social science - it's a contradiction in terms, 'cos (a) there's no such thing as society, and (b) it's not a science.' So now it's called Economic and Social Research Council. They got rid of the word 'Science'! And the good old SSRC coughed up some money for her to spend, whatever it was, three years. So she spent three years working with the combine on a day-to-day basis. And I spent a bit of time - well, I was already involved, but I pulled out a little bit at that time. But I then made a film. We made an OU half-an-hour documentary on it all.

Anyway, so that moves us up to Hilary and I doing the book. Mike Cooley by this time was sacked. Phil Asquith sacked from Burnley. And Scarbrow. I think about twenty-odd altogether got the boot. The thing had collapsed, basically. In the 80's, and leading up to the time of the miners' strike, I think it was, they started sacking people at Lucas. And I didn't follow the story that much, but the company started introducing some of the products [laughs] in desperation! Not very seriously. And Lucas is a spent force these days. I mean, it contracted dramatically - Lucas Aerospace this is. The car side of it, which is the Joseph Lucas & Son, made batteries and electrics for cars. But that's on the skids too.

But when Thatcher came in and then the unions could see, you know, the world was changing and there was big unemployment, did they not then re-evaluate perhaps the value of this kind of initiative? So were there any other attempts: did any of the other unions start to play with these ideas?

The other trade unionists around the country heard the Lucas plan and said, 'This is an interesting new strategy.' But there were limits. 'Cos I mean, Mike Cooley, to the extent that he was a political person, was saying things like, 'Were we actually meaning to win? If you really, really think the company would have given in and let us produce these workers' products?' he said. 'Nah! We're doing it to demonstrate the limits of capitalism. So this is a big educational exercise.' Yeah. People could see reasonable demands being made by reasonable people in a reasonable way, backed up by trade power if necessary, you know. And they can see, 'Why is this? Why can't companies make kidney machines?' or, the energy issue was not that big in those days psychologically, 'cos it was not on the front of people's mind, but you know, some of the socially useful products were sort of dripping in pathos! Mike would go around hospitals and they did sort of see, they said, 'Look, this guy is going to die within six months 'cos they haven't got enough kidney machines.' And he said, 'We could knock one up in half an hour!' you see!

And we went round some housing estates in London and, you know, mould on the roof. Electric ceiling heating - remember electric ceiling? The most appalling idea anyone ever came up with! All the heat disappears, a tiny bit bounced down from the roof. You get mould all the way round, walking up to a thing like this, he'd say: 'This is stupid! We could make things to make this - you know, it's easy! All these problems are - you know, our engineers could solve all these problems overnight!' People hobbling along with canes and walking sticks. 'And with our telecheric systems, we could have a telecheric remote arm/leg system put together! We know how to do this!' So there was a real gut feeling and they had all these skills. 'Yeah, we make fighter bombers and missiles and things, but we could do all this sort of stuff.' I mean, I'd much rather do that, wouldn't you?

A lot of the unionists were - I'm not saying pacifists; no, although some signed up to a sort of CND-esque sort of worldview, but not militantly. But when it - they would say, , if it's my choice, I'd rather be working on things that would help people rather than things that kill people - wouldn't anybody! Some of the peace movement took over the Lucas campaign and tried to present it as 'horny-handed sons of toil demonstrating in favour of pacifism'. They weren't. At the beginning of the Corporate Plan, if you actually read it, it said: 'If the company could guarantee us jobs on aerospace and defence systems, fine.' It said that right at the front, to make it clear.

And then they said, 'But they can't. So we're doing the following.' Other trade unions - or the shops stewards' groups; not so much trade unions - faced with similar sorts of problems, reached the same sort of conclusion. Again, I happened to be involved - as I got more involved with the energy stuff, partly - I mean, I wasn't particularly interested in energy initially; it was just that the Lucas experience had forced me to get on top of all this stuff. And I got quite annoyed too, 'cos I thought… I used to - I happened to have worked in the Atomic Energy Authority and been a nuclear engineer, and my degree is in Nuclear Physics and things, and I'd done energy. But that's all. And the more I looked at this other stuff, 'This stuff's very good! Why don't we hear about it? Why do we hear about all this nuclear stuff all the time?' So the more I thought about it, I thought, 'This is silly! This nuclear stuff is dangerous, expensive' - you know, all these arguments, 'And this other stuff is much, much better. Why, don't we hear anything about this!'

I started going much more pro-renewables. I'm talking to trade unionists in the energy industry - I mean, Lucas was not really into it. By that time it was mostly based in Newcastle: Clarke Chapman, AEI, GEC C.A Parsons, the big engineering firms, who made the big parts of power stations, you know: 200 foot long - steel shafts for the turbines. Vertical jig-borers to build them and that's 40-foot machines! So I went up there to talk to the shop stewards at C.A Parsons, and we had a very nice lunch - liquid lunch! And went back to the shopfloor, a little room, and they said, 'What was it you were thinking we could make instead?' And I said, 'Windmills!' 'Out! There's the door! Sod off! Look at that machine there, look! Look at it! How can we build windmills?' Their idea of windmills was little, tiny! And there were other things. Yeah, combined heat and power. At the moment all the power stations were operating at 30% efficiency, chucking out all the energy into the sky. 'This is pretty silly, isn't it!' 'Well, yeah.' 'Well, you can use it all or, well, half of it and put it down pipes, big pipes, and heat up cities and things.' And other people had been saying the same things in Newcastle particularly, and had set up a campaign for district heating, like they have in Scandinavia.

And the stewards at Parsons were a bit more enamoured of that, although the plants were a bit smaller. But the showdown that occurred then - and this was sort of parallel with the Lucas story, right - was that the forward-ordering programme that the Central Electricity Generating Board has, the CEGB (the nationalised company) had meant that the power industry was on, effectively, cost plus contracts just like the defence industry. Every year someone from the Department of Energy phoned up Parsons and said, 'We'll be needing another power plant this year,' you know. 'Yeah, right' - or the other way round, actually: they were going like, 'We'll need another two gigawatts a year." Every year they built two gigawatts, which is one big, you know, Drax B type. And if you go up the motorway from London to Yorkshire, you just pass them one after another! They're huge.

The Drax hadn't been ordered at that time, but it was on the planning horizon. And the shop stewards at Parsons said, 'Yeah, but we've got Drax B,' you see. And they said, 'Yeah, but that would waste two-thirds of the power.' 'Yeah, I know, but it's on the order books. It's jobs for another five years at least, building it!' And then the government started getting a bit wobbly about it, because it became very clear that after the oil crisis all the UK energy demand fell off rapidly, you know, as everywhere. And the government after a while realised that they didn't need another power plant! So when Parsons and the rest rang up and said, 'All right for another two gigawatts, then?' they said, 'Er, well, no, actually. No, we don't actually need it. 'What? We've got 30,000 people up here waiting to build it!'

And anyway, there was a big trade union campaign emerging, led by the TUC 'cos it was traditional, and the CSEU, for Drax B. And they won. And it was said by Tony Benn at the time, 'We know we don't need it, but…' So we were - in terms of forcing the alternatives on, you know, we were sort of a bit blinded out by this, you see, 'cos they'd get this contract for another five years. And so when we went up again they said, 'Well, thanks for the help, but we don't need it anymore.'

Five years later the industry, effectively, collapsed. 'Cos after Drax B there was nothing else, you see, really. Nothing else. And now they're all gone. But for the next five years they suddenly realised that - and they phoned me up! Rushing up and down saying, 'This CHP stuff you're talking about - oh, and those windmills!' And they set up a campaign, at Parsons. And Clarke Chapman set up their own, so-called Workers Plans. It's the same sort of thing. Much less talked about. Same sort of documents-

Right. But it came from the workers?

Less so than in the case of Lucas. Lucas had a long time, they had plenty of time - it would take to about two years. And it was, as much as anything is, genuinely participative, you know, there really were groups on each site. But when you're talking about the shop stewards meeting and calling a gathering on Tuesday night in the bar, you know, I guess half a dozen people turning up - it's not exactly grass-roots involvement! There was certainly more grass-roots involvement at Lucas than there would be at Clarke Chapman - partly 'cos they were in a rush. And also the idea was now established: you know, they hadn't got to reinvent the wheel. And as they took a lot of stuff from people like me again, though I don't think I had that much effect on it, because when they looked at these things, they looked at my ideas basically and said, 'Mm, yeah, heat pumps and…' The funny thing is, thirty years on or whatever it is now, twenty years on, all this stuff now is front end of the agenda! (Yes, absolutely)

We were ahead of our time! Some work on heat pumps had actually been done at Lucas- as well as on some other projects during the period - when stewards were still partly in control of the factories. They had decided to start producing some of the products anyway. Because the shop stewards pretty much ran the place, they could - they called them 'foreigners' - you could do work in the plant. They just signed it off. I mean, the storeman signs off bits of equipment to each, you know - 40 square foot of whatever, sign it off. Management wouldn't know what was going on anyway. Hours are a bit harder, 'cos they go in timesheets, but they probably wouldn't notice, scribbled changes. But they actually managed to get some company support for the idea of heat pumps at Burnley- since there was a possibility of research funding for it. The heat pump was designed here at the OU. Heat pumps usually use electricity. You know, the fridges, they run like a fridge in reverse. You put the fridge and the heat pipes on the outside and you use electricity to pump heat into the house. You get three times more heat extraction using electricity that way. But that's all using electricity. The idea we came up with was to use gas instead. 'Cos there are gas fridges - there are some, used for caravans. Why not a gas-fired heat pump? It's lost in antiquity now, the advantages of it, but there were some! Ah, not noisy. 'Cos an electric heat pump like a fridge, that's noisy, 'cos the heat pump would run continuously pumping heat into the house, and you'd have a motor running, which is annoying, you know. But there are silent fridges now, most of them. So a gas-fired heat pump, which would have little flames inside boiling ammonia up and would be silent.

So anyway, the shop stewards came down and met the OU researchers. They took the plan up to Burnley. They knocked up the device.

And what did they do with them finally?

It was very much a prototype. I mean, it was very big, for a start, 'cos it was about the size of a telephone box, you know! Bigger, in fact. I've got a photograph of it somewhere. But just basic. We couldn't do it here - we haven't got the resources. But they'd got tools and things like that. Sadly no more cash was forthcoming so I think it was lost.

But another guy, Richard Johnson from a London College, got this idea of a hybrid vehicle which would run on rails and roads as well. It had rubber tyres, but little wheels that come down and sit on the rails, so you could just drive onto the road with your rubber tyres or drive onto the railway and little cams would drop down, and you could drive. When you did the logistics it did make a lot of sense in England. In Germany and lots of continental areas, your trams, the lightweight trams they have, they go into towns and out into the countryside and pick up speed. We can't do that 'cos our cities have all been - they ripped out all the trams a long time ago. But this thing would be a hybrid - you could have it running at high speed in between dedicated rail and between towns, and then off the rail and drive round the town. They built it, got the whole bus and just fitted the kit! Covered it with Lucas Combine stickers and used it for trade union campaigning work! It was wonderful! You didn't realise that? A full-size single-decker bus, you know with Lucas Aerospace shop stewards, socially useful product Mark 1! They built a few other things too. But no one was pretending we could go anywhere far with this.

What happened next after that? Mike Cooley then went on to be recruited by Ken Livingstone to head up a thing called GLEB, Greater London Enterprise Board, part of the Greater London Council, which had £2 million I think a year from the rates; the pre-Community Charge idea that people paid. 2p in the pound went into the local government. And it was meant for building toilets and, you know, public facilities, but actually adds up to quite a lot of money for somewhere like London! I think it was about £20 million for the GLC altogether they had. £2 million of that they gave to GLEB. And the idea Mike had was to do the same. He would go and ask the community what they want in the way of things we can help with. Well, trouble is, what they mostly wanted was decent healthcare, decent public transport and all the other things, you know. Well, that's not our area - you know, social provisions.

So what they set up was a whole series of technology networks. Each polytechnic in London was invited to set up an interface with their local community. South Bank Poly, as it was then, NELP and some of the others, dedicated ideally a room on the street with a plate-glass window, to invite people from the community in. And it happened, it really happened. There were eight, I think it was, eight leading TechNets. I took a year off the OU following the story, went down there to help set up one called the London Energy and Employment Network based at South Bank Poly.

When was this?

This - right up to the point when Maggie Thatcher shut us down, which was - oh, must be about '80s. I'd say '83//4/5/6, something like that, yeah.

And then she goes to the GLC -

They just annulled the election, yeah, of a mayor. Just shut the GLC down. It was amazing! Amazing! Anyway! But we do, we had - again, Mike and the rest, Ken Livingstone and Mike and I, I remember we used to meet at parties and the joke was that they were coming for us! We'll all end up in the White City stadium with guys on the top and - in a football stadium, just like in Chile, 'cos that had just happened in Chile, you know! 'So let's do what we can while we've got the resources!' We had real resources, you see, millions of pounds

And it worked fairly well. The TechNets, there was a lot of enthusiasm. The polytechnic staff would throw their lot in. They'd say, 'Oh, we'll help anybody! You know, we've got really lots of engineering expertise there.' And classic, you know: a cycle shop owner in South London came up with this idea of an electric bike with a hub motor in the wheel. And he sort of built a rough prototype, and brought it up to the TechNet and said, 'I'd like to build some proper prototypes.' And they said, 'Fine. This would be really cheap. We could sell 'em by the thousands. So we set up in a lab, built I think ten of them. It only cost - it cost about £30,000 or something. We took them to Raleigh. And we had the same problem as at Lucas: Mike and I sat around talking about this a lot. 'What are we trying to do?' he said. 'Capitalism doesn't work, right. So we're trying to help it, are we? The problem of risk seems to be their problem. They won't take risks inventing new products, 'cos it's too expensive. And so we babysit them - we take the product to them, we show them that it works, and we "Here's the market! Look, put these two things together. All we want you to do is to use your assets - you seem to have owned them for some reason or another! - to make these things. Isn't it easy! Look, product - market!" Workforce is on our side, we can guarantee the workforce will work, you know. What else do you need?'

So in that case they just didn't want to take the risk? There was a risk issue?

Well, I mean, the GLC were saying, 'What we'll try and do is, our job is to try and protect the conditions of people that live and work in London. And we'll do anything we can to help. We've got the money. We'll put risk capital in,' effectively. 'Should we be doing this? Well, I mean, no one else seems to want to! The capitalist system's meant to take risks - that's the only reason we think it's there, is to take risks!

I mean, you could have a philosophical debate, but some people really thought it could work. And some of the Lucas ideas have sort of taken root - well, they took root in the TechNets until they were closed down. And outside London the Sheffield people set one up in Sheffield called Sceptre. The Birmingham people set one up, a TechNet, in Coventry Poly as it was then, called UDAP: Unit for the Development of Alternative Products. So these were where the shop stewards went - these were all led by shop stewards from the diaspora of Lucas shop stewards around the country, they all set up these TechNets in local authority and Polys working together around the country - all over Newcastle, Birmingham, out of London - until they were all shut down with the shift of the Right.

But just going back to Raleigh. Raleigh weren't interested. I mean, they weren't prepared to take the risk?

They were managers like any others. I think they didn't like being told what to make. And also, well, maybe there's a little bit of the 'not invented here' syndrome. But it may not be as simple as I'm making out, you know. It may be that… We happened to have done a study of - I mean, I'm not a great bike expert, but my colleague down the road is, and happened to have done a study of innovation. And innovation in bikes goes through a clear phase. I mean, I did a lot of work on innovation theory here, right. And if you look at the history of pushbikes in the Edwardian or whatever time, there's this blasting of innovation. 200 different designs. And suddenly they collapsed down within 20 years to one design: the Raleigh of what was - simple, you know. And that's dominating for the next 100 years, until suddenly 1970-something the Moulton appears: a small-wheeled, foldable bike. Suddenly, whoom! And all the bike shops are full of many different bikes -, all these hobby bikes. So suddenly everything changed. But within a few years that stabilises and they just got out of that cycle, they were back into consolidating on their five or six fixed products. They weren't interested in exploring anything new. And there are hidden innovation tramlines like that. There's a lot of theorising about that. This was paradigm innovation, paradigm cycles, things like that. And we'd hit the wrong point. I don't know if we had hit the right point - I mean, like now maybe, the doors need to be opened to some of these ideas again.

Yes, I was going to ask: do you think that given all this concern, at least in terms of what politicians and others say, about climate change and the necessity to have new technologies - that these ideas could be taken up more easily today even by the trade unions and even through official channels?

I don't think that's true, you see. I mean, if there is a radical lesson in Lucas, you do need a lot more organisation and expertise than they realised.

Really? Technological expertise?

Yes. I think - I mean, some of us felt a bit guilty going up there. We'd go to sort of mass meetings, shop stewards groups, and have a chat, you know, 200 of them turn up at a meeting. And say, 'It's all right, lads, we'll just build windmills,' you know. And having now spent the next 30 years … trying to get this to happen for other reasons, it's not easy! And you need organisation. None of us - well, we didn't leave anything behind. That's what worries me. What the old TUC brass, when I used to know some of the nicer ones, who knew about what was going on, really understood. I remember in the lift - I was going basically to the TUC building a lot - someone said, 'You'll come back in 20 years' time and you'll be in this lift, and you'll understand why we're saying all this because the lift will still be here! The TUC building will still be here. What are you going to leave…?'

Well, but you did. You did. Because, as I said, we did interviews with different trade unionists, the official ones and in almost every interview they said 'Lucas Aerospace. Something like that has to happen. Because the idea of transforming production, of doing useful things, that are not damaging for the environment but on the contrary - I mean, that was probably the only time where it got so far, you know, as you told. And that's why people are still talking about it and trying to learn from it, to see what can be learned from it for today. So you left something behind already! Reading through the book, one of the impressions that I got - one of the real strengths was it was obviously bottom/up - it was grounded. And the role of communication with unions, there was a lot of cross-union communication. That's the impression that one gets. And as a consequence of that, there was quite a lot of solidarity. And in fact when that started to break down, then things started to fall apart a bit. But it seems that the notion of unions talking to each other in ways that perhaps they hadn't done before, perhaps don't do now so much, was an essential part of that.

Twitter! Yeah, there was that. It was interesting, the whole meetings thing. I mean, you got manual and clerical all sitting drinking, talking to each other. That was interesting. So you get those sorts of connections between groups that don't meet normally. So that's what was good about the trade union contacts, that breaking out of the particular sectional divisions. There's not enough of that. Not enough of that. Well, all these people were doing OU courses as well and that sort of thing. And I mean, I could see why they want to shut the OU down - it's dangerous.

I had in the back of my mind, if we had these networks, when times get rough you could call on them to help. But when the Lucas thing happened, right, I was very much on my own. Although there were lots of people in the alternative technology movement in the Sixties and Seventies, you know, when I approached them on Lucas and said, 'Look, here's our chance to do something real!' They said, 'Trade unions, workers - what's that got to do with us? We're trying to get away from that sort of thing!' They really didn't want to know. Or they didn't see it, I thought, 'Well, this is a chance to make this stuff - you can make this thing real, you know, not just sort of talk about it or do it in your backyard amateur stuff; this was all big. But they just said 'Oh, don't want to know!'

I got very little help. And the shop stewards said that too. They … mentioned it a few times. They did put out an invitation to help. But maybe, if maybe more outsiders understood what was going on they could have joined in. A little bit what I tried to do since then is build up this thing called NATTA, and that went to energy people, who I hope you can call on when you need them, there are people around. And that's available. It's a pleasant and positive thing to do: going around and arguing for renewables. So that's what this thing called NATTA was; still is. We produce this. It's on the web. That's provided me with an amazing resource, because it forces me to assemble this every other month, so it's really bang up to date! It's grey literature: it's breathless warts-and-all coverage. We'd never get any of this published in a proper journal, 'cos it's all too honest! And it's fairly reliable. I mean, it's accurate and quick. There is nothing else like it. If you're in need of a sort of update on renewables, politics with a sort of fairly radical line, then that's what you need.

There's a hell of a lot of crosscurrents floating from overseas. The big crosscurrent is still the fundamental one about whether you can crack climate change by technical means anyway. A whole lot of the Greenies, serious Greens, would argue that you probably can't and that you need to change, we need to change. Lifestyle stuff and massive reduction in quantity of production.

But even if you can get the technology right, there's still a human interface. And often you find that with the introduction of new technology we don't use it properly. So it's negated.

Well, absolutely, yeah! You certainly can't ignore that. No, I mean, I'd be the last person to say that! Peter Harper, who's my old friend from Undercurrents in the early days, he took off to Wales and set up the - well, he expanded the Centre of Alternative Technology. And he's entirely of the belief that the technology is fine, that's easy. But we also have to get our heads together and change ourselves and our lifestyles.

2 Comments:

Blogger John Eden said...

this is great Al - thanks for posting it! I think the workers demanding to produce more social products were referred to in one of the situationist "Spectacular Times" pamphlets but I'd never read anything this detailed.

9:11 am  
Anonymous Phil asquith said...

From Phil Asquith21 st March 2013
Re the above article. I certainly was not sacked from Burnley. Our power base was much too strong. I left Lucas without pressure to join Sheffield City Council in 1982 to help implement its manifesto to produce socially useful products under the leadership of David Blunkett. Best wishes to Dabe and Ruth. asquithphil@gmail.com

12:10 am  

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