Author: Ian Davies

From airplane wings to ventilator parts

Hilary Wainwright


This week, thousands of government-approved ventilator components will be manufactured by workers for an Airbus factory that normally makes aircraft wings. The organisation of the conversion process is impressive in itself, especially the role of the trade union branch that organises the 400 aircraft- turned-ventilator workers, but it is also a hopeful indication of the possibilities of converting a high-carbon to a low-carbon economy. With short-haul air travel unlikely to recover fully after the eventual end to the lockdown, the experience illustrates how we might move to the low-carbon economy needed to avoid a climate catastrophe without major loss of jobs.

More than this,it also points to the importance of a well-unionised workplace for the efficiency of such a transition.

Airbus is part of Ventilator Challenge, a consortium ofleading engineering companies that are collaborating to dramatically increase the production of an existing but slightly tweaked ventilator model produced by the smaller Oxford-based company, Penlon. The Broughton site of Airbus, in north Wales, which normally makes wings for commercial aircraft, has just been converted into a speciallyadapted, sterile environment for ventilator components.

Government announcements of the project list the well-known company names: as well as Airbus, there’s Rolls Royce, Ford, Siemen and others. But theydo not mention the workers and trade union organisations who have been working day and night to make production as speedy as possible.

These workers are not only highly skilled and committed to adapting their skills to meet the needs of the current emergency – all of the 400 or so working on ventilators have volunteered to do so. They are also very well organised and therefore able to quickly turn their collective productive capacity to a public purpose.

The current health emergencyis generating unprecedented public awareness of those on whose labour our lives and those of our loved ones depends. The volunteers staffing the different shifts to ensure 24/7 production of ventilators are another group who deserve to be included in our Thursday applause.

Most of the 4,600 workers at Airbus’s Broughton site are members of the factory branch of Unite. There are 80 shop stewards, who meet once a week to discuss problems arising from production and how to iron out any difficulties in the current conversion process. They have negotiated a shift system to keep production going 24/7. On this basis the union then asked for members to volunteer for the ventilator project and has been involved in every stage of its establishment. The union’s 60 health and safety reps played a key role in ensuring that the conditions of the production process protected workers from virus infection as they do their life-saving manufacturing.

The union reports that it has a good relationship with the company. After all, in the present context, they are working for a common cause. And if they hadn’t responded to the ventilator challenge, the company would have no work and workers’ futures would be even more uncertain. Markets for airplanes have gone with the lockdown on air travel.

Whether the market will ever fully recover is questionable.The businesses who provide airlines with their most lucrative customers have seen the time and cost savings of online meetings; and ordinary travellers may be reassessing their entire attitude towards air travel as they become more aware of about the social and environmental consequences as well as the health risks.

The present crisis has revealed our global social interdependency to an extraordinary degree. We are witnessing a life-and-death global emergency at close, sometimes too close, quarters. It is almost like a drill for the consequences of climate change and is likely to encourage many people to change their personal behaviour to avoid a repeat of tragedies on a potentially even bigger scale than the present one.

If, for whatever reason,markets do not fully recover, the interests of the union and the company, or at least Airbus shareholders, might diverge. The company  can relocate its capital to any of itsother activities – defence, space or helicopters – even if that might involve layoffs at Broughton. Capital is mobile.

But workers have families and roots in a place and with them a sense of belonging. They have an interest in keeping their jobs. The experience of producing a socially useful product for a public service is attractive and even if the demand for this particular ventilator falls as the virus is contained, these workers know their skills and productive capacity are not tied to commercial aircraft. There are alternatives that are not so environmentally and socially destructive. For these aerospace workers, exit from lockdown might be an entrance to being part of a transition to a much safer world.


During the 70’s trade union organisation at grass roots level developed to the point when Shop Stewards Committees backed by their members, faced up to and fought management. Decisions were being made, at times supported by Government, to reduce workforces and drive down workers wages and conditions. While not being able to influence the decision making process, the unions reacted by taking action, such as striking, in an attempt to prevent management getting their way. Sometimes they were successful, other times they were not. Overall this industrial unrest had a detrimental effect on workers, industrial development and the U.K. economy as a whole. In these circumstances Governments felt it necessary to intervene by introducing legislation. They had two options, the first being to control the unions ability to cause, what they saw as disruption of the industrial process. The second option was to introduce industrial democracy into the workplace and so enable the workforce, through its elected trade union representatives, to play a part in the decision making process. Initially  they pursued the first option.

The first attempt to control the unions was initiated by a Labour Government in 1969. A White Paper “ In Place of Strife” was produced by Barbara Castle,  although supported by Prime Minister Harold Wilson, it was opposed by the Trade Unions and the Labour Cabinet  and was subsequently dropped.

The second attempt was by a Conservative Government in 1971. The Industrial Relations Act aimed to weaken the Trade Unions by using the National Industrial Relation Court to grant injunctions and so prevent industrial action being taken. It was opposed by Trade Unions who refused to recognise the court. Five workers who took industrial action were sent to prison for refusing to use the court. The Pentonville Five were later released on the orders of the Official Solicitor following widespread unrest.

After a major dispute with the Miners, Heath the Prime Minister, went to the country hoping to get the support of the electorate in taking on the unions. Labour won the election in 1974 and immediately repealed the Industrial Relations Act.

In 1975 a Committee of Inquiry was set up by the Labour Government with the aim of introducing more democracy into the workplace. This initiative was a response to the European Commission seeking to harmonise worker participation in the management of companies across Europe. The Government saw the offer of industrial democracy as part of a Social Contract being offered to the unions in exchange for low wage increases. The Committee of Inquiry included representatives from the unions, industry and the wider community,  it was chaired by Professor Alan Bullock with the terms of reference being:

“Accepting the need for a radical extension of Industrial Democracy in the control of companies by means of representation on Boards of Directors and accepting the essential role of trade union organisations in this process and to consider how such an extension can be achieved”

As a result of their deliberations the Committee of Inquiry produced a majority report recommending that every company that employed 2000 or over should ballot those employees and if 50% plus of them were in favour, then employees elected through the trade union machinery should have representation on Unitary Boards, equal to shareholder representation. Other board members, which would be jointly agreed, would represent the wider community.

A minority report produced by the Inquiry employer representatives recommended that employee representation would include non union representation and have less influence over decision making. A minority report drawn up by the employer representatives was a watered down version, but nevertheless was relatively radical.


The C.B.I. and the T.U.C rejected the proposals and the Bullock Report and its recommendations were shelved as the Social Contract collapsed leading to the renewal of unrestrained free collective bargaining. The so called Winter of Discontent followed and this in turn led to the election of the Thatcher Conservative Government in 1979. Anti-union legislation followed during the Thatcher years and beyond, drastically reducing the Trade Unions ability to function effectively on behalf of working people. Its now recognised that U.K. has the most anti-union legislation in Europe.

The Labour Governments policy not to extend democracy into the workplace was taken at the time when workers, started to take the initiative themselves in not only protecting their jobs but also the industries they worked in. This positive approach, when faced with redundancy, resulted in a number of initiatives, for example:-

  • The Upper Clyde Shipbuilders work-in
  • The Triumph Meridan Motorcycle Co-operative
  • And the Lucas Aerospace Combine Shop Stewards Corporate Plan which I was involved in.

Looking back, if the Bullock Report proposals had been agreed and implemented, the above initiatives could have been supported within a legislative framework and prospered, serving as examples for others to follow. If we had had the authority of a legal framework, as recommended by Bullock I consider, as Combine shop stewards, we would have had a better opportunity to bring about changes within the company. For example, in the areas of product development, investment policy and the future strategy of Lucas Aerospace. We all know the dangers of operating at Board level, as we would have been, within the Capitalist system. Given that, as shop stewards, we negotiated on a day to day basis, giving us sufficient experience and political nous to operate at that level. Like all negotiations, the outcome may have resulted in compromise, but to my mind that would have been a risk worth taking.

That was the past, so what about the present and the future. As stated above the UK has the most anti-union legislation in Europe. So a future Labour Government will need to introduce employment legislation to protect its workers, at least, to the same level as in Europe. Also, given that its being forecast that the future introduction of New Technology could result in a huge loss in employment opportunities, the Bullock Report proposals should  be revisited, and possibly revised to take account of present day employment practices, and so enable a collective democratic decision be reached on how such a complex issue should be dealt with. That is just one important example. Generally, workers through their trade union representatives should have the same rights as shareholders in running and controlling their companies. Democracy in the workplace is long overdue and should be introduced when the opportunity next arises.

Brian Salisbury

Just Transition: Read the arguments and join the debate

Blog post by Sam Mason

“Our aim must be a new kind of globalisation from below – a transitional solidarity that offers alternatives to the mass of working or would-be working people, deepening their involvement and building their power.” Transformative trade unionism and low carbon futures – Jacklyn Cock and Hilary Wainwright, 2015

Addressing the threat of climate change poses enormous challenges for workers. Together with increasing militarisation, automation, low wage and precarious work, our rapidly changing climate raises valid questions about the future of the world of work.

This is not new terrain as technological changes or the need to address environmental risks arguably goes back to the dawn of the industrial revolution. But climate change poses a different question, and with it, a potentially different – transformative – response.

The Paris climate agreement reached in December 2015 for the first time saw a global consensus on reducing greenhouse gas emissions with the aim of limiting global average temperature to well below 2 degrees Celsius – or better 1.5 – on pre-industrial levels. However, to achieve this, we urgently need to transition from a fossil fuel to a zero carbon economy.

Workers are key to this transition but understandably resistant when jobs and livelihoods are threatened. A nexus of ‘jobs versus environment’ which needs to be resolved if workers aren’t going to end up paying a disproportionate price for the transition.

For a salutary lesson in this we need look no further than the destruction of the coal industry and its impact on coalfield communities in the 1980’s and 1990’s. With more than 250,000 jobs lost, the Labour commissioned 1998 Coalfields Task Force reported that they had “been left in no doubt about the scale of deprivation and decline” with coalfield closures leaving a “legacy of high unemployment, social deprivation and environmental degradation.”

The trade unions demand for a Just Transition seeks to ensure that workers, their families and communities, are not left to pay such devastating costs for the restructuring of the fossil fuel economy today. Every sector of the economy is affected by the shift to a zero carbon future – energy, manufacturing, heavy industries like steel, transport, construction and health and other public services. These sectors all have high levels of union membership. Every union has a stake in this transition.

As a concept, just transition dates back to worker displacement linked to soldier demobilisation programmes. But the origins of the term as we know today is linked to the ‘sunsetting’ of jobs in the US as use of toxic chemicals were phased out under pressure from environmentalists in the 1980’s.

Today, a hotly debated clause of UN climate negotiating texts, just transition has become a shorthand in the labour movement for a series of demands to protect workers in the transition to a low carbon economy:

  • Greener jobs – sustainable, decent work and terms and conditions
  • Social protections – income support, re-training and redeployment opportunities, pension security for older workers, and help for communities to adapt to climate change
  • Support for innovation and technology sharing to enable a rapid transformation of energy and manufacturing opportunities
  • Worker representation and consultation
  • Fair distribution of costs and recognition of social and human rights
  • Social dialogue with all relevant parties including collective bargaining with workers and unions for workplace change

A Just Transition was a ‘topline’ priority for the trade union movement led by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) at the UN climate talks in Paris, and is recognised in the Preamble to the agreement by way of the following text:

Taking into account the imperatives of a just transition of the workforce and the creation of decent work and quality jobs in accordance with nationally defined development priorities

Paris Agreement 2015 –

A more expansive approach however sees just transition as a transformative process for economic and social justice, going beyond market based solutions and negotiating a transition within a framework of green capitalism.

In the transformative scenario a just transition will:

  • Design out the inherent inequality and injustice of the capitalist system
  • Create climate jobs that lower greenhouse gas emissions, are unionised, and pay a living wage
  • Socialise ownership and democratise productive processes and energy generation as part of a wider transition to different forms of energy production
  • Put workers and their communities at the heart of a transition based on social needs including in domestic and health care sectors
  • Rebuild the strength of organised labour and the interface of labour to nature.

The global one million climate jobs campaign led by trade unions is an attempt to start this transition by creating jobs that lower greenhouse gas emissions. In the UK through the creation of a National Climate Service – akin to the NHS – the government would oversee a transitional programme building the wind turbines needed for renewable energy; retrofitting and insulating homes and buildings to make them more fuel efficient; invest in an integrated public transport network run on clean fuel; provide workers with the training and skills needed for a zero carbon economy.

We can also learn from the experience of the Lucas Aerospace workers on how to develop a just transition that looks afresh at what we produce and who a ‘modern’ industrial society is for, its ownership and control. And one that recognises the extraordinary people that make up society – workers, carers, pensioners and so on – that have ideas, experience and knowledge to build a just and transformative transition based on labour and peoples terms, not capital.

Sam Mason