Retooling the war economy: Connecting labor, climate and antiwar movements

Nov. 2019 Antiwar panel
Nov. 9 panel at Middletown Community College (from left to right): Miriam Pemberton, David Ionno, Mitch Linck, and Jim Braisile.

By DAVID KIELY

On Saturday, Nov. 9, an otherwise unremarkable fall New England day, over 120 anti-war and climate activists gathered at Middlesex Community College in Middletown, Conn., for a conference on war production in the state. The one-day conference, titled “Retooling the Connecticut War Economy: How We Can Build Good, Green Jobs & infrastructure for Human Needs & Peace,” featured a broad range of speakers to talk on climate, jobs, and the Connecticut war economy.

Speakers included Medea Benjamin, co-founder of CODEPINK; Miriam Pemberton, a former researcher at the National Commission for Economic Conversion and Disarmament, and the Peace Economy Transitions Project; Dave Ionno, a member of Vietnam Veterans against the War and Veterans for Peace; and Jeremy Brecher, a labor historian and current research policy director at the Labor Sustainability Network and a leader in the CT Roundtable on Climate and Jobs.

Connecticut has a large section of its economy dedicated to war production. Electric Boat (General Dynamics), UTC, and Sikorsky Aircraft (Lockheed Martin) stand among the largest employers of Connecticut, and those companies have thousands of smaller subcontractors throughout the state. Over 1100 firms and institutions in CT have contracts with the Department of Defense. In 2011, these firms were given over $12 billion worth of contracts from the DoD and DHS. By 2018 that number was $26.5 billion.

While billions are spent on securing U.S. interests, the U.S. military is the largest polluter and among the largest emitters of greenhouse emissions in the world (https://www.newsweek.com/us-military-greenhouse-gases-140-countries-1445674). According to a recent study, “If the U.S. military were a country, its fuel usage alone would make it the 47th largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world.” The connection between war production and climate, and the necessity of these movements to work together was emphasized throughout the conference.

The alternative to defense technology is often green production. As policy director of the Labor Sustainability network and leader in the CT Roundtable on Climate and jobs, Jeremy Brecher describes how to transition to green jobs. Contrary to the belief that jobs or climate were on opposing sides, Brecher provided insights into how these two concerns are linked. Workers are concerned with the environment, they live in communities that are affected by environmental destruction and they consider the future of the planet.

The proposals of the CT Roundtable on Climate and Jobs include the creation of jobs for offshore wind, and for mass transit. Brecher’s paper “18 Strategies for a Green New Deal”  (http://18strategies.labor4sustainability.org/) proposes attaining full employment for the 20 million unemployed, the right of workers to retraining and building stronger labor rights including good union jobs for all. Brecher provides further examples for how we can transition to an ecologically sound economy without losing jobs, and links the needs of the climate movement to the requirement of eliminating military spending. Along with other panelists such as Miriam Pemberton there were examples for how we can transition away from an economy based on fossil fuels and war production. Their examples allow activists to explore demands for the movement and realize how close we are to a better world. What remained was a political will to do so.

Mitch Linck, a climate and antiwar activist who ran as a socialist against Democrat incumbent Chris Murphy in 2018, spoke about his time in the Marines in Iraq. He focused on considering the systemic problems of war and imperialism, and spoke about his time in Iraq, saying: “One moment stands out where everything kinda turned upside down. My unit was patrolling in Fallujah Iraq. Some kids, maybe 15 or 16, took some pot shots at us and ran off. I wasn’t much older than them, just 18 at the time. We took cover in a house and this realization swept over me. That I had more in common with those kids, despite growing up in completely different cultures, speaking different languages, having different religions. I had more in common with them than anyone who decided we should be there shooting at each other. That I had more in common with them than the orchestrators of the war in Iraq.”

That realization left a lasting impression on Mitch. His time in Iraq led him to question what the real point of the war was. Many young people fought in the Iraq war and other wars for idealistic reasons. They wanted to make the world a better place, they wanted to free people from tyranny and bring democracy. Yet, in reflecting on what it means to join the U.S. military, Mitch said, “Fighting in a war doesn’t let you decide its purpose, or even your own role [in it]. When you fight for the American military you fight for the rule of American capitalism worldwide.”

At the end of the Iraq war the U.S. military presided over the country. The United States appointed Paul Brenner to become the Coalition Provisional Authority of Iraq. Brenner became the chief executive authority of the country, despite having little to no training on Iraqi politics, the language or culture. As noted by David Harvey in his book, “A Brief History of Neoliberalism,” Brenner enforced “… the full privatization of public enterprises, full ownership rights by foreign firms of Iraqi businesses, full repatriation of foreign profits … the opening of Iraq’s banks to foreign control, national treatment for foreign companies and … the elimination of nearly all trade barriers.

“The orders were to apply to all areas of the economy, including public services, the media, manufacturing, services, transportation, finance, and construction. … Strikes were effectively forbidden in key sectors and the right to unionize restricted. A highly regressive ‘flat tax’ [an ambitious tax-reform plan long advocated for implementation by conservatives in the U.S.] was also imposed” (pg 6).

The end of the Iraq war and the unilateral rule of Brenner demonstrated the reasons for the invasion. The discussions about liberty, freedom, and democracy meant liberty for capitalists, freedom of trade and the dictatorship of capital over everyday life. The United States and other imperialist countries seek to open up countries to their capital, for investment and exploitation. They use the loose labor laws to exploit workers, dominate consumer markets, and extract resources for processing and sales elsewhere.

Arms manufacturing aids this capital expansion, but the technology does not have to be used for war. Some of the largest employers in Connecticut, Electric Boat, Sikorsky, Pratt and Whitney and Collins include among the most advanced technologies. They have knowledge in super alloys, advanced composites, precise sensors and data logging systems, control systems, hydraulics, and more.

The combustion chamber in a jet engine can get hot enough to melt rocks. Far hotter than the fatigue limit or melting point of any metal, and yet not only do jet engines not melt, they are among the most powerful and most reliable machines humans have ever created. Submarines, and helicopters require advanced sensors and controls to stabilize themselves, they involve controls that must precisely respond to pilot inputs.

The current class of submarines being built in Connecticut, the Virginia class, are longer than a football field and powered by a nuclear reactor that produces over 30 megawatts, or enough to power roughly 10,000 homes. Each of these technologies requires millions of hours of research and development. They require advanced knowledge of metallurgy, manufacturing, composites, fluid dynamics, heat transfer, and control theory. They require thousands of highly skilled fabricators, machinists, welders, tool and die makers, and mechanics. Together, these workers build the most technologically advanced, sophisticated and reliable machines in the world.

Shifting production is not idealistic or utopian. If any one of these company’s board of directors decided to shift production, it could happen overnight. A new business unit would be created, there would be some re-training, retooling, and a reallocation of resources, but there is nothing unique about the fluid dynamics of submarines, jet engines, or helicopters that couldn’t be applied to wind turbines. Nor is the advanced metallurgy and composites exclusive to these machines. As shown by the presenters of this conference, much of the technology already exists, it just needs to be reoriented and retooled to fit human needs rather than building useless stockpiles of the most advanced technology available. Worse than that is if these stockpiles become active weapons of human destruction.

However, as stated by speakers such as Mitch, none of these changes will happen on their own. The entire economy of war production, the factories and research facilities will not transition to useful jobs, unless there is a mass movement that can challenge those in power. The antiwar and climate movements must be independent of both political parties. The power of these mass movements doesn’t come from getting the attention of the politicians in power. Rather, the power of these mass movements comes from demonstrating their ability to control and run society.

Mitch gave the example of the Vietnam war: “What happened in the Vietnam war? It [ended] because the soldiers on the ground said: We aren’t doing this anymore. … [T]hey had the support of the antiwar movement at home. [T]hose two things linked made an uncontrollable military, and if you have an uncontrollable military you can’t wage a war. [T]hat’s what we need now. … When millions of people are in the streets we decide what happens, and … we can decide that our needs are important. … We need a sustainable planet, we need good jobs at top union wages. We need to convert our system to one that sustains us. Not one that strips our planet of what [we] need to survive.”

Today’s movements should recognize that their political power lies in the masses of ordinary people and workers. Since we build the machines, we design the machines, and we operate and repair the machines, we can also be the ones to decide to stop and build something else.

 

 

 

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