Mike Cooley, engineer activist, socialist and technical visionary, died aged 86 on 4 September. Mike, once the elected president of trade DATA – the Draughtsmen and Allied Technicians Association, was a dogged fighter for union democracy and the maximum possible degree of union member participation. Here Brian Parkin pays tribute to an inspiring trade union ‘leader’ who combined modesty with an urgent sense of the need to overcome worker alienation and redirect production to meeting the requirements of humanity.
I first met Mike Cooley at a union young members school in 1968. At that time the world was alight with the prospect for revolutionary change: Vietnam, insurrectionary struggles in France, the women’s movement, Stonewall, the Black Power Olympics, the North of Ireland civil rights movement and increasingly politicised strikes here in Britain – and here, in a posh and stuffy hotel in central London, a quietly spoken, impeccably polite Irish lay union official in a crumpled suit and tie addressed a room full of young workers on why all of these world events were linked to our world of work and the alienated nature of our employment.
Mike was a union official – but unlike most of the others he was an elected workplace rep. He worked as a senior development engineer at Lucas Aerospace. Once a member of the British Communist Party, he had resigned over the increasingly undemocratic, respectable and parliamentary shell that that organisation had become. But he was not in the least inclined to join what he saw as a largely student-based Trotskyist revolutionary left; rather, as he was influenced by ‘Third World’ national liberation struggles, he became a founding member of the Maoist Communist Party of Great Britain (Marxism-Leninism).
Instantly this put him at odds with the official Communist Party, who had long coveted the control of what they rightly saw as an increasingly militant white-collar union. This was partly because Cooley was instinctively a genuine advocate of union democracy, but also because he was openly prepared to work alongside other revolutionary activists (mainly the International Socialists).
The bigger picture
Like many workers in electronic engineering in the early 1970’s, Mike Cooley and his fellow workers found themselves increasingly working in what was an extensive web of ‘defence’ manufacturing. And also, with the early stages of digital engineering processes, they were facing a growing wave of job losses. In anticipation of this threat, Mike, as convenor of the national shop stewards committee at Lucas Aerospace drew up a plan to redirect arms-dedicated design and production to peaceful ends. The ‘Lucas Plan’ grew outwards with the intention of embracing workers in other companies and industries.
At this time, I was a young union rep in a workplace that was to some extent involved in the chain of arms production – but as a member of the Socialist Workers Party, I was strongly dissuaded from getting involved in Lucas Plan activities, which my industrial organiser dismissed as ‘utopian’. Nonetheless, despite my otherwise impeccable commitment to revolutionary discipline, I remained part of the Lucas Plan network. Then in 1980, Mike Cooley wrote his first book, Architect or Bee?: the Human Price of Technology. In the book’s introduction he wrote the words that inaugurated the opening of a Lucas Plan conference: ‘We have, for example, control systems that can guide a missile to another continent with extraordinary accuracy, yet blind and disabled people stagger around our cities in much the same way as they did in medieval times.’
But realising that humanity and vision needed to be united the means of transforming dreams into reality, he rapidly set about establishing a network by which the ingenuity of workers – in conjunction with community groups and radical scientists – could identify essential needs and harness productive technology to meet them. Hence designs and prototypes for portable dialysis machines and heart resuscitation equipment small enough for paramedics to use at the point of emergency need.
Despite the indifference of the union bureaucracy (as well as the Labour government of the late 1970s) to the Lucas Plan – mainly because it was a rank-and-file initiative – Mike pressed on, and in 1981 he was asked to form a social enterprise board for the Greater London Council for the purpose of setting up worker co-operatives aimed at harnessing new technologies for the purpose of training up a new generation of technology enthusiasts – often alienated young people who had received little formal education – dedicated to the application of science to human need.
Throughout his working life, he remained a Marxist, dedicated to challenging and overthrowing the lot of most workers as alienated and degraded labour. He had an infinite faith in the creative capacities of humankind, taking inspiration from wonders of the past such as the huge medieval cathedrals that were in large part the products of worker genius, designed and realised by proto-guilds that would one day become proto-unions.
Within his union, Mike often found himself on the wrong side of an opportunist and undemocratic bureaucracy when it came to awkward questions, not least on the thorny ‘Irish Question’. Born in County Galway, he was a lifelong admirer of James Connolly – a Scottish-born revolutionary who championed the cause of a united and independent Ireland. Fully aware of how the politics of all of this would rankle with the mainly Orange union membership at the massive Shorts Harland and Wolff yards in Belfast, Mike would calmly – often while under quite abusive attack – explain how all workers could never benefit from the British imperialist project that was a Northern Ireland of six counties divorced from the Republic. And this was always done without making one ounce of concession to the Catholic church – which he would then go on to condemn for its denial of abortion and contraception rights.
Also in 1972, at the time of the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders yards’ occupation, when both the TUC and the Communist Party called for nationalisation as a panacea, Mike stood up at our union conference and posed another option. Quoting (again) James Connolly, he warned: ‘The police are nationalised, the army are nationalised- and even the hangman is nationalised. And none of them are socialist.’ He was speaking in support of the amendment that the yards should be nationalised ‘under workers’ control.’
I last met Mike at a university conference in 2007. I approached him with some timidity but needlessly so, as he instantly recognised me. As ever he was warm and smiling, and with incredible precision he recalled both the good and the not-so-good times in the union. But what I noticed about him was a total absence of bitterness or rancour – which made me recall that in all those years I had known him, he had never raised his voice nor sworn at anyone in even the most bitter of disputes. And as ever, he was both optimistic and enthusiastic for our collective future.
Later, in his 2018 swan-song ode to humanity Delinquent genius: The Strange Affair of Man and his Technology, he disputed as inevitable the further de-skilling of labour, writing: ‘I disagree. The script for this finale can still be written.’ In reference to the book’s title, and in line with his own lifelong commitment to women’s liberation, he added: ‘And I do mean “man” and not humanity for it is a relationship from which women have been largely excluded – and this to disastrous effect.’
Mike Cooley, engineer, socialist and dreamer, born 23 March 1934; died 4 September 2020