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The Right to Useful Work

In her article for the Guardian, Green jobs: a utopia we nearly had, Green jobs: a utopia we nearly had, Anna Karpf revisits workers' plans for their enterprises to produce socially useful goods, which unleashed much creative energy during the 1970s and continue to resonate to this day.

"Four decades ago, a green way out of recession was proposed. Lucas Aerospace, a major designer and manufacturer of combat aircraft and missile systems, planned to close a number of factories and make 20% of its 18,000-strong workforce redundant. The shop stewards combine committee, representing the 13 different trades unions in the company, decided to draw up "an alternative corporate plan for socially useful and environmentally desirable production". It sent out a questionnaire to the company's 17 plants, as well as outside experts, asking for an inventory of skills and machinery that already existed, and ideas about what they should make.

The company's workers – both blue and white collar – responded enthusiastically. Of the 150 ideas that poured in, the committee chose 12 to present in its 1976 plan, among them a portable life-support system, a safer braking system for buses and coaches, robotic devices for remote-control firefighting and mining, and hobcarts to help people with spina bifida get around. Some of the products look dated today; others, such as a hybrid car (essentially a Toyota Prius), were prescient; still others, such as a road-rail vehicle of particular use in developing countries, remain innovative.

The plan generated enormous excitement. The MP Bob Cryer described its strategy of jobs for peace instead of destruction as "one of the most important moral crusades that this country has seen in the 20th century ...
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The Right to Useful Work, edited by Ken Coates, has a section on Shop Stewards' Alternative Industrial Plans which includes Mike Cooley's landmark essay on 'Design, Technology and Production for Social Needs'. The Institute for Worker's Control Pamphlet, Lucas: An Alternative Plan sets out how the workers proposed to change the company's operation in order to produce transport systems, braking systems and other sophisticated manufactures.

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