Your Labour, Their Labour Power: the right to useful work


Lucas Aerospace has done well out of the many wars and other “conflicts” that the British government and others have been involved with. As one of Britain's largest arms manufacturers, with weapons production in the UK and globally, they were no doubt pleased to see the British government deplete their inventories so that they could develop some new products. Through the 1970s the workers at most of Lucas Aerospace's British plants were agitating, proposing and planning for some socially useful new products to replace the Weapons of Mass Destruction the company relies upon still for its profits.

The Right To Useful Work has been a cry for workers since the 1600s. Peter Linebaugh shows how weavers led the opposition to management introduction of new technologies in Britain in the late 1600s, and one of their number, John Mason "looked to a time when men would not 'labour and toyl day and maintain others that idleness'. Karl Marx, of course, expressed it passionately: 'Capital is dead labour, that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks.

William Morris, Socialist, designer, agitator, writer and much more, put the case most famously in a paper delivered in 1884, and later published by the Socialist League. "Useful Work versus Useless Toil" sums up what many workers feel about the products they work on or are made redundant by. As Morris put it, "there is some labour which is so far from being a blessing that it is a curse; that it would be better for the community and for the worker if the latter were to fold his hands and refuse to work". That is what some at Lucas were feeling, but it is very hard in our society to do that as your very life depends on toiling on. The actions by the Combined Committees of Lucas Aerospace were prompted by the threat of mass redundancies as Lucas sought to move offshore.

book cover


The protest was not just about boosting redundancy pay though. The workers sought to introduce the production of socially useful products, and came up with designs and production systems to do this. As the man who became the main spokesperson of the Shop Stewards Committee, Mike Cooley put it in his book "Architect Or Bee? - The Human/Technology Relationship "the alternatives are stark. Either we will have a future in which humans are reduced to a sort of bee-like behaviour, reacting to the systems and equipment specified for them, or we will have a future in which masses of people, conscious of their skills in both a political and technical sense, decide they are going to be the architects of a new form of technological development which will enhance human creativity and mean more freedom of expression."


Cooley would endorse Morris when he says, "we must win [our livelihoods] by toil of some sort or degree." We also need rest, which "must be long enough to allow us to enjoy it".


Morris' key point then came, which Cooley's statement above echoes: "I have said that Nature compels us to work...It remains for us to look to it that we do really produce something, and not nothing, or at least nothing that we want or are allowed to use. If we look to this and use our wills we shall, so far, be better than machines."


Cooley and the Lucas workers were at the forefront of the introduction of what is now commonplace - computer aided design - and he confronted the issues from the view that computers were not a sudden isolated industrial phenomenon but a part of the technological continuum of the past 400 or so years, Something that those who rave about the Internet and E-business should bear in mind.


Cooley began with the view that the way computers are designed and introduced must be looked at in terms of the "political and ideological and cultural assumptions that society has given rise to." He and all the shop stewards and workers were confronting a rise in unemployment in the UK and also a widespread view that nuclear war was a real possibility, and Europe would be the battleground.


Lucas management from 1971 planned the first round of "restructuring", and unions initially argued for pension reforms. In 1973 all 13 Lucas sites affiliated to the Combine Committee, representing 13000 workers. Also the world wide recession was gathering steam at this time, to hit with greater force soon after will the oil price shocks.


This committee lead the drive that drew up detailed plans for socially useful products and new forms of employee development. The plan was put forward as an alternative to redundancies and to arms production. As Wainwright and Elliott put in their book about the actions, "The Lucas Plan - a new trade unionism in the making?", [I]n doing so they demonstrated in a most practical way how people without any official power might reverse both the drive towards militarism and the growth of unemployment."


The company refused to negotiate on the Plan, and the Labour government (re-elected in 1974), after Tony Benn had been removed from the Department of Industry, accepted the company's view.


Does this sound familiar to those who "ordinary" people who lacked official power but who campaigned so hard against the second Iraq War? Lucas Aerospace was no doubt urging Bomber Blair on. If the alternative was adopted 30 years earlier, in the face of oil threats, many tragedies and lies could have been avoided.


The workers continued to agitate and organise, but the election of the Tory government with its aggressively conservative agenda and strong-anti-union position, created the conditions were Lucas management could attack the combine with support form the government.


Peter Linebaugh put the struggles now and over many years in the right framework when he asks in "May Day at Kut and Kienthal", "peace, yes; but we left aside the eight-hour day and socialism. Is that why we failed to stop the war?" Lucas Aerospace workers failed to stop the bombs, but they did not have enormous protest action behind them either. Morris again, put it well, and in a way all the writers and activists quoted here would agree with - "civilised states...are composed of three classes - class that does not even pretend to work, a class which pretends to work but which produces nothing, and a class which works, but is compelled by the other two classes to do work which is often unproductive. Civilization therefore wastes its own resources, and will do so as long as the present system lasts."


What is to be done was a question Morris asked and answered in many of his talks. In this speech he did outline how a system that would replace the present class robbery would work. He acknowledged that some unpleasant labour would remain but it would be limited and would still be useful. "Labour to be attractive, must be directed towards some obviously useful end.... The element of obvious usefulness is all the more to be counted on in sweetening tasks otherwise irksome, since social morality, the responsibility of man towards the life of man, will, in the new order of things, take the place of theological morality, the responsibility of man to some abstract idea." [failings of gender by Morris].


With all this in mind, we go to the meeting of the Lucas Aerospace Combine Committee in 1975, where Mike Cooley is saying


"There is talk of crisis wherever you turn. I think we have to stand back from that crisis for a few moments and see where we are in relation to it. For it is the present economy that has a crisis. We don't. We're just as skilled as we were; miners can still dig coal, bricklayers build houses, and we can still design and produce things". Jack Gunter, a shop-floor worker from a Lucas Aerospace factory in Birmingham, drew some conclusions: "We now have a two-fold job: we need to change the concept of what we mean by nationalisation; and we need to prepare a plan about the sort of organisation and company we want."


This meeting was in the context of Lucas having cut its workforce from 18000 to 13000 in 5 years. Shop stewards had battled to get a fairer deal for workers but the company had always basically followed its plans. The time had come for alternative plans. Nationalisation had been a strategy that British Labour had used before, but it did not do anything for job security or real involvement by workers in decision-making. Tony Benn urged the workers to get involved in developing corporate strategy instead. Whether he had in mind the sort of approach that eventuated I doubt.


The Plan, as it developed throughout 1975 came largely from the workers. The Committee did send out a call to all sorts of engineers, scientists, academic specialists for ideas on alternative goods to produce, but received a small number of responses.

The plan relied, in part, on the use of the technologies in the aerospace industry. For example, "since the emphasis in aerospace is always on minimizing weight and size, some aerospace "remote control" expertise might also be expected to be relevant to the problems faced in the design of improved artificial limb controls."

Some other aerospace technologies were also seen to be useful in windmill design, an area that has since developed rapidly as an alternative energy source. Other alternative energy ideas involved domestic solar heat collectors. Robotics in aerospace were reconfigured for use in firefighting equipment and mining operations for example.


The workers also discovered an array of alternatives "in the bin" of Lucas management. In the times of full employment in the 1950s and 1960s, Lucas had wanted to keep their technical people on staff even when there were no defence contracts, so they allowed them to develop civilian products in the lean periods. A heat pump, a guidance system for a road-rail vehicle and brake retarders for buses and trains were developed to prototype stage in the period.

The impact of young people on the thinking of experienced engineers at Lucas was also a factor, as Wainwright and Elliot show. Cyril Silverton at the Hemel Hampstead site showed this in his comment on why the idea of an alternative corporate plan struck a cord:

 "Hearing my sons and their friends talk about industry worried me...Young people see industry as authoritarian and wasteful; lacking social purpose. I thought the Combine Committee's Corporate Plan would help overcome that image, and I made several proposals."

Connections between the workers and their communities also impacted on the sorts of alternatives that developed. For example at Wolverhampton there was a long established connection between a nearby handicapped children's centre and a charity club based in the factory based in the factory. In 1966 one of the apprentices designed a vehicle which could be used by children suffering from spina bifida. Lucas would not consider it, even when the Australian Spina Bifida Association placed a large order.

The plan was presented to the Combine in October 1975, at a time when unemployment in the Midlands was 10%.

The Committee proposed these and other products, and they also came up with a set of criteria for socially useful production. This criteria stipulated that:

· the product must not waste energy or raw materials, neither in manufacture or use

· the product must be capable of being produced in a labour intensive manner so as not to give rise to structural unemployment

· the product must lend itself to organizational forms within production which are non-alienating, and without authoritarian giving of orders. Instead, the work should be organized so as to link practical and theoretical tasks and allow for human creativity and enthusiasm

Employee development in skills and decision-making were part of the Plan. A transitional strategy fro the company as it shifted to the new production system was also developed.

The involvement of workers in decision-making was the major reason that the management was so steadfastly opposed to the Plan, and why  when Thatcher came to power, it brought the full weight of management power on to the workers. Cooley was sacked, this was ten years after one of the originators of the Combine plan, Frank Wood, was sacked by Lucas. Management had its mystique, and that couldn't be taken away. Those on huge executive salaries use this mystique to justify their pay packets. The workers at Lucas, by direct experience, discovered "that management is not a skill, a craft or a profession but a command relationship, a bad habit inherited from the army and the church."

This attitude is inherent in most organisations including unions. Jack Mundey, Bob Pringle and Joe Owens discovered this in their proposals that all union officials go back on the job after three years as an official. The right and the left of the union movement for such an idea savaged them. How much chance did the Lucas workers really have? The context of the times, the hopes and dreams of the 1960s, when the utopian alternative seemed to be able to become reality drove the vision. That such ideas seem pipe dreams today shows the way the ideological climate has shifted from the left.

Cooley published his book on the human/technology relationship in 1980 where he looked at the human machine interaction, the Lucas plan and some social projections. Some years later, after he had worked at the Greater London Council under the Labour Party leadership of Ken Livingstone, he published a new edition of the book, in which he reflected on the experience of implementing some of the alternative management and economic ideas in the London area. Cooley expresses his frustration with the lack of practicality and assumed superiority of the tertiary educated people who he was working with as they interacted with the "ordinary" workers of the city.

The Corporate Plan drawn up by the Combine expressed the limits of what they were doing, but also the way forward. The Lucas Combine Committee said:

"It is not the assumption of this Corporate Plan that Lucas Aerospace can be transformed into a trailblazer to transform large scale industry in isolation. Our intentions are more modest, namely to make a start to question existing economic assumptions and to make a small contribution to demonstrating that workers are prepared to press for the right to work on products which actually help to solve human problems rather than create them."

Lucas Aerospace continues to make weapons of mass destruction that have created fear and enormous health problems for the many victims of military might around the world. Many of the alternative products that the workers of the company proposed could have gone along way to improving the health, lifestyle and well-being of those who made and those who used the products. Corporate greed drove the choices of the company as the ideological rollback of such alternative ideas gained pace in the atmosphere of fiscal crisis that was so useful for the right from the mid 1970s. It is necessary for workers to remember the traditions of alternatives that the Lucas Plan was a part of so that we can see, as William Morris put it in another speech, "How We Live and How We Might Live." Mike Cooley again echoed Morris:

"The future has yet to be built by people like you and me and we do have real choices...As we design technological systems, we are in fact designing sets of social relationships, and as we question those social relationships and attempt to design systems differently, we are then beginning to challenge, in a fundamental way, power structures in society."


For details of all this see:

Mike Cooley. Architect or Bee? the Human/Technology Relationship (Sydney: TransNational Co-operative, 1980 and the revised edition, subtitled The Human Price of Technology (London: Hogarth Press, 1987)

Ken Coates (ed). The Right To Useful Work: planning by the people (Nottingham: Spokesman Press for the Institute for Workers' Control, 1978)

Peter Linebaugh. The London Hanged: Crime and Civil Society in the Eighteenth Century. 2nd edition (London: Verso, 2003)

Peter Linebaugh. Against Defeat, Laughter: May Day at Kut and Kienthal. at

William Morris. Useful Work Versus Useless Toil; and; How We Live and How We Might Live. In Political Writings of William Morris, edited and introduced by A.L. Morton. (London Lawrence & Wishart, 1979)pages 86-108 and pages 134-58

 Hilary Wainwright and Dave Elliott. The Lucas Plan: A New Trade Unionism in the Making? (London: Allison & Busby, 1982)




Lithgow State Mine Banner exhibit

Banners return to Lithgow

Lithgow State Mine Bathhouse

Over the past 5 years Sydney Trades Hall has developed an excellent relationship with the Lithgow State Mine Museum, particularly through the work of Ray Christison from Lithgow, a heritage expert and keen secretary of the Mine Museum. The museum itself has an excellent display in the old Mine Managers office, as well as much mine equipment from various eras, and a new pithead funded by the Mineworkers Trust (CFMEU Mining a keen supporter). The old bathhouse is a magnificent "shed" and its interior is an excellent spot to display the banners in all their glory. The museum has a website here:

The exhibit is up until at least October 2014

banners lithgow

Sweden: community and unionism

Sweden can be an inspiration to labour movements the world over, as it has had community unionism for over 100 years, creating a vibrant caring society, rather than a "productive" lean economy.

Sweden in the second part of the 19th century: a country of mass poverty, a country of mass emigration, still on the threshold of industrialisation. The enormous migration into the cities has just started. The natural resources are still underdeveloped.

 1899 Swedish May Day celebration

The first socialist forerunners had made themselves heard, the flow of ideas from the continent had reached our border

Less than one hundred years later: a modern industrial state, one of the richest in the world. A modern welfare state with a far reaching social security system, schools for everyone, exceptionally low unemployment despite fluctuations in the world economy, a people owning more cars, more telephones, more colour television sets than most, a people who travel more than perhaps any other people.

Two pictures. Two worlds. But the leap from one to the other is short.

Object of the Week: Samuel Rawlins and the Gasworks

Samuel Rawlins and the Gasworks

rawlins certificate


 Samuel Rawlins was the founder of the Gas Employees Union, and remained involved with the union from the 1880s when it was founded at Mortlake (the first gasworks in Sydney) for 60 years


His family donated to the Trades Hall this certificate, as well as a large collection of photographs of the union executive and early union members on site. Trades Hall holds these banners. There are also many letters from the union executive and union members thanking him for his assistance in lots of situations over the years. He was a big part of federating the union as well.


The Ones Who Know (that doesn’t include you peasant)

“In actual fact the work ethic has become obsolete. It is no longer true that producing more means working more, or that producing more will lead to a better way of life." 
Andre Gorz

The late great Alexander CockburnThe late great Alexander Cockburn wrote an article many years ago about the way we absorb insanity without realising it. His short piece “Balancing Acts” (republished in Corruptions of Empire, Verso, 1987, page 379) for The Nation in 1984 says it all. ” Are you more likely to tolerate drivel than you were 4 years ago? I think the answer is yes. 4 years of Reagan has deadened the senses against an uninterrupted barrage of nonsense.

Union Badge Collection on ABC Collector Program

Watch the video as Bill Pirie discusses  his trade union badge collectionFor generartions, Bill Pirie’s family has been involved with trade unions.  Born in Dundee, Scotland, not only were his parents union members but his grandparents too. Here, Bill discusses his badge collection featured on the ABC TV's Collectors program.  He explained a time when in Great Britain unions came to an agreement with shops that they wouldn't sell goods unless they carried a stamp guaranteeing their union origin. Manufacturers then wouldn't be able to sell goods to outlets unless they carried the stamp.  Badges were produced to mark specific stoppages.  Watch the video.