Can unions wean the US off its military-spending addiction?

In Andover, Mass., IBEW members at the defense contractor Raytheon yell at workers crossing the picket line during a strike over job security and benefits. Photo via In These Times.

The coming months appear to hold the best hope for cutting United States military spending that we’ve seen for a decade. Spending cuts are in the air generally, and, if the recent debt deal’s “super committee” doesn’t come to an agreement about other things, $600 billion stands to be pulled from the Pentagon’s budget. Even Colin Powell said earlier this year that the time for such cuts has come, and that it can be done. We’re spending more than ever, and it doesn’t seem to have made us any safer.

The question, though, is exactly how to make such cuts happen, when defense contracts have become such a cornerstone of the country’s gasping-for-dear-life manufacturing sector, strategically placed among congressional districts to ensure political support locally and in Washington. If this stranglehold is to be broken, it will take more than mere deficit-reduction fever; it will take alternatives—proof, for these communities, that they can get by by making something else.

At The Nation, the Institute for Policy Studies’ Miriam Pemberton eulogizes Claudette Munson, a factory worker for Unisys Corp. who fought to mobilize union power to convert American industry away from building weapons. She and other workers organized and brainstormed to try to stop their factory from making parts for nuclear submarines.

Writes Pemberton:

She began spending her breaks and lunch hours leaning on her members to fill out a survey soliciting their ideas on what else their skills and the machines they worked on might be adapted to make. The survey generated about 100 new product ideas, some of them plausible (computer controlled manufacturing systems, automobile electronics, computer controls for light-rail transit), others less so (a quality TV to beat the Japanese models, smoke detectors, hearing aids)—plus a smattering of political commentary (“This is mostly fantasy because mass-transit is not on the political agenda and with the right-wing Republicans in power nobody gives a damn about the environment.”)

The grant paid for a consultant to evaluate, hone and supplement these ideas into a set of 12 proposals. They were divided into Transportation Control and Management Systems, including High Speed Rail and Intelligent Vehicle Highway Systems (IVHS); Environmental Information Systems, including remote sensing and smart irrigation systems; and adaptive technologies for the physically disabled.

Despite years of effort, Munson had only a little success in driving her own company toward conversion and away from defense contracts. But she did stir up a lot of trouble in the process, and helped to put conversion on the agenda at union conferences around the country.

[Mother Jones] magazine credited her with making “conversion a litmus test for Minnesota politicians hungry for labor and progressive votes” and becoming a national spokesperson on the conversion issue. Munson predicted that conversion would prove to be the next in a long list of gifts from the labor movement to American society. “Unions led to the forty-hour work week and OSHA,” she said, “so if anybody’s going to make jobs conversion happen, we’ll do it.”

Munson’s optimism is encouraging, though it’s not clear how realistic it is. US workers, unionized and otherwise, are fighting for dear life right now, and more and more they seem to be losing the capacity to organize against corporate bosses. Many workers paid for by federal contracts earn very little money and receive no benefits as it is, and are struggling just to get by.

Still, her example is an essential lesson in the two necessary ingredients of any effort to get this society to stop making so many weapons: grassroots organizing, together with the means to invest American resources and workers in something else—something creative rather than destructive, something more worthy of people’s imagination and effort.

Did someone say “green jobs“?

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