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Labor Unions Must Take on Conversion from War to Peace Economy
By Bill Shortell
Shortell is an official with the International Association of Machinists in Connecticut.
Diverse forces are now converging in an attempt to carve up the military budget. These are (1) those who would cut it to reduce the deficit. There is considerable logic on their side. The solvency of the nation, in many people's eyes, is threatened by the size of the debt compared with our GDP. About 30% of our government runs on borrowed cash. The same proportion can be applied to the military budget.
Then there is growing group (2) that wants to "Move the Money" to much-needed social services, like health and education, and also to repair our crumbling infrastructure.
There is also a powerful group (3) who would not reduce the military budget at all. This group somehow imagines the continued military usefulness of fighter jets, nuclear subs, etc, even though they rarely argue this. They instead generally justify continued military spending because of the millions of jobs and billions in profits that it creates.
TIME FOR CONVERSION
Finally, there is a small group (4), which sees the dismantling of the military budget as inevitable, and is making plans for alternative uses of the "procurement" part of the budget. This is about $100 billion of the $700 billion budget. We advocate re-assigning workers and switching capital to products, which have a peacetime use. This does NOT mean abandoning factories and retraining manufacturing workers to be nurses, teachers, and construction workers.
We don't need any more construction workers right now, and most military manufacturing workers are not suited or inclined to training in the social services. In addition, folding up this significant sector of US manufacturing, with no replacement products would have a disastrous impact on the US economy.
Economic Conversion means designing peacetime manufactured products that are in demand, and re-tooling military facilities to produce them. The growing market for green technology is most often cited.
The two other groups who would cut the military budget seem unaware of the impact of eliminating so much value-adding industry. Nor are they focused on the plight of the military production workers or the many millions more, soldiers, administrators, security personnel, who stand to lose their job with the shrinking of the military budget. These last, however, are not represented by unions.
Union-based organizations like USLAW and LLP have no choice but to take into account the ideas of Economic Conversion, as we set policies and phrase our peace message. Calling flatly to "cut the military budget," spurs opposition from the manufacturing unions. These, in turn, have enough influence in the AFL-CIO to considerably weaken its vital input in the struggle over the reduction of the military budget.
Economic Conversion is a difficult, complex question. There is little precedent for using government funds to manufacture anything but weapons. But if we don't try to understand it and embrace it, the likelihood of achieving other benefits of the peace dividend fades, as the military workers and our unions cling to militarism.
The military budget is so enormous that the goals of all three of the groups who would reduce it can be addressed. To fully achieve them, we need new taxes on people who can afford to pay.