In recent weeks, we’ve been discussing how there needs to be a greater role for the public sector to blunt the negative effects of the market and ensure our societies are best serving the whole population. But that can’t simply involve nationalizing services and continuing to run them as top-down enterprises. Workers and communities need to have the power to remake their workplaces and institutions.
Due to the United States’ inability to contain the virus, Canada may be even more exposed to the coming economic fallout than much of the world. But given the degree of economic damage that’s already been caused, this collapse presents us with a collective choice about the kind of economy we want to build in recovery.
The notion of workers having a hand in deciding the future of their workplaces and industries is not unheard of, but their plans rarely get implemented because they lack the decision-making power under capitalism.
One of the best examples of this is the Alternate Corporate Plan produced by the workers at Lucas Aerospace in the United Kingdom in the 1970s, popularly known as the Lucas Plan. The main output of Lucas Aerospace was components for fighter jets, but workers were facing job cuts as the company was bringing in new technologies and Taylorist principles to deskill the production process as the government cut defence spending.
Instead of accepting their fate as inevitable, the shop stewards set up the Combine Committee to have the workers develop a plan to diversify the company’s business. It brought together blue- and white-collar workers at all 15 worksites, made an inventory of all equipment and skills, and collected 150 product ideas from workers focused on what writer Dave King refers to as a “positive socialist vision of production for human need, not war.” These included wind turbines, heat and power systems for social housing, and kidney dialysis machines, which were in short supply.
The plan was hailed by British socialists and had an impact beyond the country’s borders. It helped inspire other bottom-up planning initiatives in the U.K., even though the plan itself was ultimately not implemented as it didn’t get the backing of the rest of the labour movement.
However, there are now attempts to revive the Lucas Plan as the technology sector is becoming increasingly radicalized. As Canadians, we should also recognize that this isn’t simply something that happens across the pond; workers at home have been imagining better futures for their communities.
We already discussed one of these plans in a previous issue. Delivering Community Power is a joint initiative by the Canadian Union of Postal Workers and the Friends of Public Services to imagine what a better Canada Post might look like. Post office corporate leaders haven’t adopted the plan, but it presents a vision for how the post office could better serve communities across the country with financial services, funding for green initiatives, community hubs and improved programs for seniors.
Part of that vision is a new fleet of electric postal trucks, which is linked to another workplace plan. After General Motors announced it was closing its factory in Oshawa, workers proposed the federal government buy the plant and invest $1.4 to 1.9 billion to retool it to produce electric vehicles for government agencies, including Canada Post.
The federal government showed no interest in the plan, but in early April workers demanded the plant be converted to produce masks in light of the pandemic and the inadequate stockpile of protective equipment. On April 24, the government announced it had signed a deal with GM to do just that.
But these plans don’t just exist in the public and manufacturing sectors. Oil and gas workers have also developed plans for a better future.
In the 1970s, workers at Local 594 in Saskatchewan prepared a National Energy Policy that was ratified in 1980. The plan called for Canada to be self-sufficient, banning imports and exports of oil and gas to protect the environment for future generations. Public ownership would be prioritized instead of giving foreign multinationals the power to direct energy policy in their interests, and the profits would be reinvested in low-cost transportation, conservation programs, and research and development for solar, wind, and bio-mass energy. Oil workers would also be taken care of with a safety net and transition program when the sector was eventually wound down.
As these examples show, workers have the knowledge and the ability to plan for the future of their workplaces and industries. Innovation and future-thinking is not reserved for billionaires who take credit for all the work of the people who labour below them. However, workers’ plans and ideas get dismissed because they prioritize long-term interests and bettering society rather than the short-term benefit of corporate leaders and shareholders. That must change.
Perspectives from around the world
Joël Laforest, producer of Alberta Advantage, explains how the federal government decimated the EI system and robbed the workers who contribute to it.
John Clarke, a retired organizer for the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty, explains how the federal government’s pandemic response involves a carrot for bosses and a stick for workers.
Linda McQuaig, author of The Sport and Prey of Capitalists, explains how Alberta capitulated to Big Oil in the 1990s after previously having higher royalties and an energy company partially owned by the public.
David Macdonald, senior economist at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, argues the pandemic shows Canada can afford to build a zero-carbon economy. (There are some great graphs in this article.)
Nick Slater, writing for Current Affairs, argues all public spaces should be nationalized and held in common, not segregated into “Zones for Elites and Zones for Plebes.”
Huw Morgan, a New Zealand-based writer, describes how a small student magazine helped build a socialist common sense in Norway.
Gavin Jacobson, commissioning editor for the New Statesman, explains the relevance of Alfonso Cuarón’s 2006 film Children of Men to the present moment.
On this week’s Tech Won’t Save Us, I spoke to Curbed’s urbanism editor Alissa Walker about how Elon Musk’s Boring Company has evolved, what it’s up to in Las Vegas, and why tech is distracting us from a better future of transportation. I also wrote about why we never needed micro mobility companies to improve urban transportation for CityMetric.
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