Swords into ploughshares; planes into ventilator parts

The speedy switch in from producing airplane wings to ventilator parts at a north Wales factory holds out an example for a transition to a low-carbon economy, writes Hilary Wainwright

June 5, 2020 · 7 min read
Image by Tom Lynton

With the UK coronavirus crisis at its height, a research and development facility at a north Wales aircraft factory was converted in a matter of weeks to an assembly line producing components for up to 15,000 ventilators for the NHS. More than 500 Airbus workers, previously employed on the production of aircraft wings, turned their skills to working round the clock, seven days a week, as part of a consortium to produce 1,500 Penlon Prima ESO2 ventilators each week. The workers took on responsibility for producing about half of the components for the ventilators, including flow meters and absorber units.

The organisation of the conversion process, the speed at which it was achieved and the flexibility of the workforce in adapting to the challenge, is hugely impressive. This was due in no small part to the role of the trade union branch that organises the aircraft-turned-ventilator workers. And as well as its contribution to the battle against Covid-19, the conversion offers a hopeful example of the possibilities of moving from 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 climate catastrophe without a major loss of jobs. Of special significance, the conversion points to the importance of a well-unionised workplace for the efficiency of such a transition.

Public purpose

Airbus was part of the ‘Ventilator challenge’, a government effort to get leading engineering companies to redirect their skills and production capabilities to help meet the anticipated shortfall of hospital ventilators. Most either failed to get off the ground or were stood down when supply needs were met. The Airbus workers’ contribution was directed towards a dramatic increase in production of an existing but slightly tweaked ventilator model produced by the smaller Oxford-based company, Penlon.

Part of the Broughton site of Airbus, which normally makes wings for commercial aircraft, was converted into a specially adapted, sterile environment for the production of the ventilator components.

In government announcements of the Ventilator Challenge, well-known companies name-checked alongside Airbus included Dyson, Rolls Royce, Ford and Siemens. The role of the workers and trade unions in working day and night to make the Airbus production conversion as speedy and efficient as possible was barely mentioned.

These workers are not only highly skilled and committed to adapting their skills to meet the needs of the current emergency (all of the 550 or so Airbus employees working on ventilators 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 Unite convenor, Darren Reynolds, goes so far as to say: ‘Without the union, it would have been chaos, lots of problems without any procedure to resolve them. We’ve built up a tried and tested organisation and established procedures for solving them.’ He cites the all-important issue of workers’ health and safety in turning the Welsh government-funded Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (part of the Airbus site) into an adapted sterile environment. ‘Our health and safety reps have been able to pre-empt the problems and solve them in advance,’ he says.

The Covid-19 emergency is generating unprecedented public awareness of those on whose labour our lives and those of our loved ones depend. The volunteers staffing the different shifts to ensure 24/7 ventilator production are another group who deserve to be included in our Thursday evening 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 and how to iron out any difficulties. They 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. Its health and safety reps played a key role in ensuring that the conditions of the production process protected workers from virus infection as they undertook life-saving work.

The union reports that it has a good relationship with Airbus management. 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 had no work and workers’ futures would be even more uncertain. Markets for airplanes have gone with the lockdown on air travel.

Navigating the new normal

Whether the market will ever recover is doubtful. The businesses that provide airlines with their most lucrative customers have noted 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 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 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.

If pre-existing markets do not recover, the interests of the union and Airbus shareholders, might diverge. The company can relocate its capital to its other activities – defence, space or helicopters – even if that might involve layoffs at Broughton. Capital is mobile.

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

Alternative production

There is nothing new about the idea of converting production for the benefit of humanity. Famously, the book of Isaiah, written some 2,700 years ago, declares, ‘They shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.’

Recent attempts to implement this aspiration include the alternative plan for socially useful production by the workers of Lucas Aerospace, led by their shop stewards’ combine committee, in the late 1970s (see ‘The real green new dealRed Pepper October 2009). There have been many similar initiatives since by local trade union organisations, the latest being an attempt to save the Harland and Wolff shipyards, Belfast, in 2019 with proposals to make wind power generators instead of military ships.

These have all been knocked back by managers protective of their prerogatives and governments reluctant to take the side of workers. The example of Lucas Aerospace in particular continues to inspire  people, however, especially as the need to convert industry to a low-carbon economy becomes greater. The Covid-19 crisis has made conversion a matter of urgent necessity and trade unions have been up to the challenge, as the Airbus experience illustrates. The new challenge as we come out of lockdown will be how to build this experience by converting to low-carbon production before the climate crisis reaches its peak.

Hilary Wainwright is the founding editor of Red Pepper

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