Thirty-five years ago, workers at the Lucas Aerospace company formulated an "alternative corporate plan" to convert military production to socially useful and environmentally desirable purposes.
There are moments when a radical idea quickly goes mainstream, creating an opportunity for a practical challenge. The idea of a "green new deal", a proposal for a green way out of recession, is such an idea.
In Britain, the workers' occupation of the Vestas wind turbine factory on the Isle of Wight in July —supported by green, trade union and socialist campaigners across the country — has provided a practical challenge to the government.
The private owners had closed the company despite it being profitable, laying off more than 600 workers.
The Vestas workers' argument to the government was: intervene and save green jobs — creating a base for further action in the same direction.
Before the Vestas occupation, Ed Miliband, the British minister responsible for action on climate change, made a welcome call for public pressure to achieve tougher action. But when faced with the Vestas workers' demands, the government showed no interest.
Was it just political caution, a wariness of giving legitimacy to a campaigning alliance that includes political forces New Labour considers beyond the pale? Or is there a deeper divide at stake?
Vestas symbolises how we cannot rely on the motor forces of the capitalist market. Here were green products but low profits; hence, in a capitalist market, the result is closure and "rationalisation".
How can the passions stimulated by the Vestas campaign be turned into the strategy we need for a socially just, green transition?
There's a need to excavate relevant lessons from the past. The words on many people's lips are "Lucas Aerospace", whose workers are remembering the plan for socially useful and environmentally desirable products drawn up in 1975-76 by workers facing the threat of closure in a company involved in military production.
They were supported by then Labour industry minister Tony Benn.
Shop stewards combine committee
Flashback to January 1975 and a meeting of the Lucas Aerospace shop stewards combine committee. The management of Lucas Aerospace was reacting to an economic crisis by cutting jobs.
Listen in as 60 delegates from 13 factories discuss what is to be done at a specially convened meeting.
The differences between their situation and that of the Vestas workers are obvious. They include the existence of a strong trade union organisation and some initial encouragement from a government minister — but on the other hand, the green movement was only embryonic.
Similarities emerge, however, and new insights can be gained as to how today's green movement can build an alliance with workers to redirect the economy towards sustainability without loss of livelihoods.
By the end of that January weekend, the Lucas Aerospace shop stewards — a powerful mix of some of the country's best aerospace designers, highly skilled shop floor engineers and so-called "unskilled" workers — had taken a pioneering decision.
They decided to go back to their workplaces and involve their members in drawing up and campaigning for "an alternative corporate plan for socially useful and environmentally desirable production".
"Let's draw up a plan without management", said Mike Reynolds, a shop steward, at this historic meeting. "Let's start here from this combine committee. It has ability not only in industrial disputes but also to tackle wider problems.
"Let's get down to working on how we'd draw up a plan, on our terms, to meet the needs of our community."
The theme of using their skills to meet social needs — and demonstrating that their skills (used mainly to make components for military aircraft) were not redundant — was fundamental to their initiative.
"There's talk of crisis wherever you turn", said Mike Cooley, a designer then working at the Willesden factory (and later sacked by the company for his involvement in the combine committee).
"We have to stand back ... for it is the present economy that has a crisis. We don't. We are just as skilled as we were, we can still design and produce things."
The combine committee sent round a detailed questionnaire to every factory to draw up an inventory of skills and machinery and to ask fellow trade union members what they should be making.
"Ideas poured in within three or four weeks", Cooley told us nearly 35 years on. "In a short time we had 150 ideas for products which we could make with the existing machine tools and skills we had in Lucas Aerospace."
These ideas illustrate in a very vivid way the principles guiding the methodology of the shop stewards. The ideas were presented as drawings and models more often than written proposals. "Can do" rather than "can analyse" was the emphasis of the combine committee.
This approach also illustrates that the Lucas Aerospace workers had a strong sense of the choices to be made in both the development and application of technology. Technology is not value-neutral; it involves choices and alternative directions.
Guided by these kinds of principles, some product ideas addressed medical needs: kidney machines for the thousands who die through lack of available equipment; a light, portable life-support system for ambulances; a simple heat exchanger and pumping system for maintaining blood at a constant optimum temperature and flow during critical operations.
Another range of proposals concerned alternative energy sources, including proposals for storing surplus energy produced during off-peak periods; solar collecting equipment for low-energy housing; a range of wind generators drawing on the workers' know-how of aerodynamics.
Others addressed the transport system and destructive nature of the automotive industry.
One proposal that was developed into a working "prototype", which they used as a form of technological agitprop, was a "road-rail" vehicle capable of driving through the city on roads and then running on the national rail network. It was capable of going up much steeper inclines than normal rolling stock.
Another idea involved a power pack with a small combustion engine that would enhance the efficiency of battery-driven cars, improve fuel consumption and radically reduce toxic emissions.
A final set of proposals were for tele-archic devices, robots that mimic the motions of a human being in real time but at a distance.
They allow workers to use and develop their skill by working with the challenges of the physical world in a way that no simple robot would be capable of — as miners, oil drillers and so on — but in a safe and secure environment.
Significantly, the plan put forward democratic alternatives for the organisation of production process, as well as the end products. By emphasising the social usefulness and environmental benefits of these products, it also challenged the profit motive in production.
Some of the products would make a profit within a capitalist market economy — some have been taken up by companies in Japan and Germany, for example — while others would not.
Implicit in the plans was the possibility of a different notion of growth, not driven by the logic of what has been called "the bicycle economy" with its driving necessity to accumulate simply to keep going.
It was a radical but pragmatic initiative, drawn up to be part of the collective bargaining process with management and government.
The Lucas Aerospace management danced around it but refused to negotiate seriously, because the alternative plan would have taken collective bargaining onto a level that challenged management's sole prerogative to manage.
The combine committee initially hoped the government would engage. Talk of public ownership was in the air. In November 1974, a combine committee delegation crowded into Benn's office to discuss the industry's future.
Benn said he didn't have the power to nationalise but stressed the importance of diversification and "producing our way through the slump".
Benn planted the seed of the idea of an alternative corporate plan. He offered the possibility of a meeting between government, the company and the combine to discuss it.
By the time the plan was ready in January 1976, Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson had sacked Benn in response to pressure from the Confederation of British Industry (CBI).
The doors of the ministry were all but closed to the workplace trade union representatives — the people who knew what could be done to produce a way out of an economic crisis and had a vested interest in seeing such plans develop.
With the challenge of diverse social forces now coming together in search of an alternative red-green economic strategy, is this a moment when that spirit of creativity and autonomy can be recombined with the organised power of the workers and citizens struggling for democratic control over the future?
What new forms could this take in the 21st century, when trade unions are generally weak and the left fragmented? What new alliances could be created as consciousness of the need for a socially and environmentally responsible alternative grows?
The Lucas shop stewards showed the most effective challenges to the dominance of the capitalist market were not abstract principles but concrete actions — creating alternative ways of doing things.
Cooley pointed out the subtitle of the Lucas plan was "A positive alternative to recession and redundancy". He said: "The underlying ideas are even more relevant now than they were 35 years ago."
"Once again we are told that for many there is no work. Just look around. There is work to be done on all sides.
"What is lacking is the imagination and courage to creatively address it."
A renewed Green New Deal that involved such painstaking attention to grassroots participation would be a worthy successor indeed. And, with the speed at which things are changing in environmental politics at the moment, who knows how far such radicalism might go.
[This article is abridged from the October/November 2009 edition of the British socialist magazine Red Pepper.]