International Union Rights: Architects or Bees

Forty years ago, a novel plan developed by workers in the UK was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Threatened with the closure of their Birmingham factory, Lucas Aerospace employees from seventeen plants formed the ‘Combine Shop Stewards Committee’ and in 1976, drew up a detailed blueprint proposing an alternative to manufacturing weapons: the facilities should be transformed and retooled to manufacture socially useful products, including wind turbines, solar cell technology, hybrid power packs and electric cars. The suggestions were dismissed and ridiculed by the company’s management as hippy pipe-dreams.

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Although the Lucas Plan emerged in a period of peak influence of British unions, the Combine itself was an unofficial trade union body, and received scant support from the Labour Party or official trade union structures of the day. In the decade that followed, both the structures and influence of British unions were to be decimated by Thatcherism, with the dismantling of collective bargaining and myriad restrictions on industrial action. While union power in the 1970s did not succeed in bringing this farsighted initiative to fruition, the subsequent loss of union power did much to insulate control of industrial policy from the ‘fanciful’ initiatives of any workers who believe that industry should serve the common good of society, rather than merely lining the pockets of rich. With the recent electoral defeat of the Labour Party, any hope that workers’ voice in the UK may soon experience a radical revival have been – at least temporarily – dashed…

The Lucas Plan nevertheless continues to provide inspiration to new generations of trade unionists, today faced with the manifold threats of a deepening ecological crisis, structural unemployment, as well as the negligence of employers and governments alike. As noted in the Combine’s original proposals, the Plan’s ‘most significant feature’ was its attempt ‘to transcend the narrow economism which has characterised trade union activity in the past and extend our demands to the extent of questioning the products on which we work and the way in which we work upon them’.

In this issue of IUR, we proudly offer a platform to contributors taking these challenges seriously, who offer both insights into the impact of climate change on labour, and solutions to navigating this global, existential crisis that is already eclipsing all others. Barely a day passes without new, dire warnings of catastrophes to come. The consequences of one hundred fifty years of steadily escalating fossil fuel consumption are palpable: rising temperatures, flooding, wildfires, drought and famine... To ensure that global warming does not exceed ruinous tipping points and temperature rises remain below 1.5°C, the international community has to agree on and implement an urgent pathway towards rapid decarbonisation. The clock is ticking, but progress under the auspices of the 2015 Paris Agreement is not at all encouraging.

In light of paralysis at the top, the Lucas Plan continues to hold an important lesson: the ambition and commitment of workers often outflanks that of the regulators and policymakers who are mandated to address such pressing issues. As one engineer and member of the Combine, Phil Asquith, put it in a 1980 publication: ‘[W]e shall have to make the profound political decision as to whether we intend to act as architects or behave like bees’. Today, in the face of imminent ecological collapse, the question of choice has been overtaken by the imperative of radical transformation: even the bees are dying out. Workers must participate in designing the architecture of the new decarbonised economy, both to safeguard their collective rights and to ensure that this essential transformation actually occurs. The enabling rights of freedom of association, collective bargaining and industrial action have never been more vital.

Ciaran Cross, Editor

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IUR journal brings together the latest news, views and information on trade union rights worldwide, covering key issues from varied perspectives. IUR has an accessible format that is appreciated around the world by an audience of trade unionists, legal practitioners and academics. The journal is available in print and digital formats, with an online archive dating back to 1993.

Previous editions:

IUR 224 ChinaIUR 221 South KoreaIUR 212 Minimum WageIUR 223 Right to Strike

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environmentalism in Just Transitions

Ensuring human rights underpin
the global energy transition

Link to reportThe future is public transport
Interview with ALANA DAVE

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Australian workers’ climate action:
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Managing change to a zero-carbon
economy in Europe

ICTUR in Action: Interventions
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Philippines, South Africa, Thailand

Fertile ground for unsustainable
development in Brazil

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Link to reportThe climate justice movement,
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Link to reportUN Binding Treaty for Transnational
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The International Centre for Trade Union Rights

Established in 1987, ICTUR is a non-profit organisation
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