An extract from Andrew Murray’s latest Stop the War pamphlet, The World at War: A Trade Union Issue

Stop the War fully understands the concerns of the trade unions about the run-down of manufacturing industry across Britain. Communities throughout the country have paid a high price for the loss of the skilled work such industry once provided. The decline in manufacturing employment has been unremitting under governments of both parties, as companies have sought higher profits by transferring production to cheaper labour centres elsewhere in the world.

Arms spending is obviously not the only means to secure the manufacturing investment which is required. There are many other ways to secure the same outcome in terms of jobs and skills, some of them in fact championed by the TUC.

There is a rich tradition of union-led planning for defence diversification, perhaps the best known being the ambitious 1970s Lucas Plan. The Lucas Plan was a ground-breaking union-led proposal to protect jobs threatened by redundancy at Lucas Aerospace. A full 50% of Lucas’s output was reliant on military contracts but significant redundancies were threatened due to defence cuts. A multi-union combined shop stewards’ committee drew up a plan which proposed to save jobs by converting workers’ skills and facilities to new products.

The plan aimed to “protect our members’ right to work” and propose alternative products that would be “socially useful to the community at large”.

Among the 150 proposed alternative products that Lucas could produce were several that have now become mainstream: wind turbines, hybrid car engines, cheap heating systems and medical products such as dialysis machines. The alternative plan for Lucas proposed by the workers gained widespread support and became an international cause célèbre for the ideas proposed, the roles of workers in promoting socially useful products and in their challenge to the right of managers to manage.

The Lucas Plan was ultimately unsuccessful in securing the cooperation from the company’s management, but it was undeniably successful in providing inspiration and a benchmark case for defence diversification.

Defence diversification has a different reality in other countries however, and important case studies are available from Germany, Italy and South Africa, amongst others. The United States has a strong track record, investing in defence diversification programmes that offer a region-based, community-orientated programme that puts the emphasis on empowering local communities to choose how to use resources to help themselves.

There are a number of long-running projects to mitigate the impact of base closures and also to assist diversification to either military or non-military business. These are known as the Defence Industry Adjustment programme, run through the Office of Economic Adjustment (OEA). The OEA model has a four-stage process for diversification that has been applied successfully in many cases.

So there is actual experience of diversification taking place internationally. What these initiatives show is that where the political will exists to make diversification happen, it can happen – and be successful. That is what has so far been lacking in Britain. Britain has been shedding arms industry jobs in huge numbers for many years but the government has never adopted a formal strategy for arms producers to diversify away from military work. The government’s main response has been the promotion of arms exports, but this section of UK arms industry jobs has continued to decline regardless.

There are also wider economic benefits from reducing spending on military projects and investing in other forms of production. As military spending has become increasingly capital-intensive it produces relatively few jobs. A University of Massachusetts study found that if the US government invested $1 billion in alternative civilian sectors rather than on military production, it would generate up to 140% more jobs. Investments in clean energy, health care and education also create a much larger number of jobs across all pay ranges, including mid- range jobs and high-paying jobs.

In fact, we have actually had significant experience of defence diversification here in Britain in the last few years, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The first year of the pandemic opened a window of opportunity where it was clear that society and the economy could be run in different ways; we saw an increase in social solidarity, in state intervention to support jobs, and changes in production to meet people’s needs. Defence diversification rapidly came to the fore. Urgent health needs meant that government shifted production within weeks – essentially an extremely fast-paced industrial programme to scale up production of medical ventilators – with important lessons for conversion away from fossil fuels and arms.

In early March 2020, the government called on British industry to scale up ventilator production. This was met by rapid and successful industrial conversion to meet the urgent need. Many of the companies involved did not have a track record in the design or production of medical devices. Significantly, they included arms corporations – such as Babcock and BAE Systems; automotive companies – both those involved in mass production vehicles, such as Ford and BMW, and motor racing teams, such as McLaren; and aviation giants – such as Airbus.

This experience showed that production lines can be repurposed when needed for alternative forms of production. In other words, defence diversification is not a utopian fantasy as some would suggest – it can be brought into being in a matter of weeks.

The experience of this shift in production during the pandemic shows the wisdom of the TUC Congress motion, passed in 2017, which called on the Labour Party to establish a shadow Defence Diversification Agency. The 2022 TUC Congress decision to overturn this policy is deeply regrettable and work to reverse the decision is ongoing, because the point of such an agency is to put defence diversification at the heart of a wider industrial plan that redirects resources towards things we need.

The purpose is not a top-down approach but to ensure a voice and role for trade unionists within that process, to listen to the ideas of workers for practical alternative plans. Such an agency would also provide a transition programme to protect skills, employment, pay and pensions, to enable redeployment into new jobs, including in the renewable energy sector, to deal with the accelerating climate crisis. As one speaker stated in the 2022 TUC Congress debate: “Workers across the defence industry have skills that could be redeployed in the green agenda and have proper decent good quality jobs.”

Now is the time for trade unionists and the anti-war and peace movements to come together and use their strength and organisation to fight for such changes and develop them further: towards a new zero-carbon economy founded on the principles of peace and security for all.

Click here to get your copy of The World at War: A Trade Union Issue now

08 Mar 2023 by Andrew Murray

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