History shows us who really holds the key to a sustainable post-COVID-19 economic recovery

1 JULY 2020

History shows us who really holds the key to a sustainable post-COVID-19 economic recovery

Over 40 years ago, industrial workers in the UK tried to stall their impending redundancies by developing a suite of ‘socially useful’ products their company could manufacture. Could similar worker-driven innovation be the key to Australia’s post-COVID-19 economic recovery?

Co-authored by: Dr Sarina Kilham, Lecturer in Agricultural Extension and Rural Sociology in the Charles Sturt University School of Agricultural and Wine Sciences; Stephen Rix, formerly Project Manager at the Evatt Foundation and Public Sector Research Centre at the University of NSW and the National Labour and Economic Development Institute (NALEDI) in democratic South Africa; and Dr Michael Paddon, formerly Director of the Public Sector Research Centre at the University of NSW and most recently, Adjunct Professor at the Institute for Sustainable Futures at the University of Technology, Sydney.

As Australia experiences the social and economic ramifications of the COVID-19 crisis, in addition to the underlying, slowly unfolding climate crisis, this may be the time to remind ourselves of some lessons from the past. History can always provide us with lessons, even if not all the answers.

Over 40 years ago, workers in a United Kingdom-based international aerospace company, Lucas Aerospace, were facing redundancy due to forces of industrial restructuring. They decided to pool together their own ideas for a future using their existing workforce skills and capital.

Their basic idea was simple: ask everyone in the workforce across the different plants in the UK to come up with ideas of what they could produce based on their technical and practical knowledge and expertise … but with an important twist. Lucas Aerospace was predominantly an arms manufacturer selling to the UK government. The Lucas Aerospace Combine Shopstewards Committee – a trade union committee representing every skill and profession across all the company’s sites, asked, ‘rather than making armaments, what could we produce which will be socially useful?’.

This question is a prompt to us in 2020. Communities have a wealth of knowledge and expertise which comes into play during crises. This knowledges, network and expertise could be aggregated to create a group of people who can identify, analyse and envisage solutions to the challenge of creating the ‘new normal’ in our post-COVID-19 future.

The Lucas Aerospace workforce came up with 150 socially useful products they knew they could make. The Combine committee consolidated these practical ideas into its own corporate plan for the company and, to ensure the product ideas were feasible, they developed prototypes through collaborations with two tertiary education polytechnics.

At least two of the products became large and growing industries: wind-generated electricity and battery-operated motor vehicles.

Several of the processes and ideas involved in producing the plan were taken up by some of the largest local councils in the UK, including London and Sheffield. They used the combined knowledge and expertise of workplaces and residential communities through consultative processes to make alternative plans to meet society’s needs and ensure work, all in anticipation of a more sustainable future.

Their plans for new, socially-useful and sustainable products were totally rejected by Lucas Aerospace management and the government as too ‘hippy-like’. Current political leadership has echoes of this sentiment, if not the actual terminology, in our national and international responses to the practical things we can do to mitigate climate change.

But if a small group of trade unionists from the UK in the 1970s can offer us a lesson in history, it’s that the knowledge and expertise of people in the front line – the nurses, firefighters, teachers, cleaners, grocery store workers, farmers and others on the land — are already telling us what the future could and should look like.

For instance, the Green Jobs for the Illawarra Action Plan (2009-2013) was developed by trade unionists, residents and researchers for a sustainable future under climate change. The action plan included major retro-fit of public buildings, community wind power generation, the establishment of Wave Power Technology, specialised manufacturing courses by TAFE, expanded bush care and Landcare-type initiatives in consultation with Indigenous communities, and employment in green jobs. Despite its radical and feasible action plans, so little political attention was paid to this initiative that it is likely to be re-launched in 2020.

Worker-led initiatives are showing us alternative business models. The Victorian-based retail consumer cooperative, ‘Cooperative Power’, involves a major union encouraging its members to consider joining the co-op and switching to an approved retailer with sound ecological purchasing policies. Cooperative Power was initially promoted on the basis of being a cheaper option - supplying electricity at wholesale prices - but is aiming long term to become a not-for-profit retailer in its own right, using its funds to assist members with solar and battery installations, exploring demand response options, and linking both home-owning and house-renting members into virtual power plant initiatives.

Among the founding member organisations is the worker-owned cooperative Earthworker Energy Manufacturing, which offers locally-made solar hot water systems for homes and businesses. While not directly tackling the transition to renewables, this initiative started at a community and worker level as people tried to figure how to create dignified and sustainable livelihoods for Victoria’s Latrobe Valley community as the region’s power industry changed.

What marks out these examples of community initiatives is the way in which employment, environment, workers and citizen organisations are linked and need each other, and how they do not need to see environment and jobs as contradictory objectives.

Developing economic strategies based on existing knowledge and expertise is not, and never has been, a job-versus-environment issue, despite the political slogans and blustering.

As Australia transforms its society and develops post-COVID-19 transition strategies, it’s worth listening to the trade unionists from nearly half a century ago. A half-hour version of a documentary about their plan is available on Vimeo.

Media Note:

To arrange interviews with Dr Sarina Kilham, please contact Rebecca Akers at Charles Sturt Media on mobile 0456 377 434 or news@csu.edu.au

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