November 22nd, 2023
Anyone who has organized in a union knows that getting people to fight for themselves is difficult enough. Even when collective action offers a shot at a raise, urgently needed benefits, or improvements in working conditions, people are afraid, apathetic, too busy, or convinced they just cannot make a difference. You can imagine, then, how much harder it is to organize people for issues that seem far away—like a calling for a ceasefire in Gaza, endorsing the Boycott, Divest, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, or adopting other Palestine solidarity initiatives. Organizers know that it is all connected, that the same system oppresses us all, and that working class solidarity must be global—and yet turning these principled commitments into immediate, risk-bearing action remains an exhausting feat.
This uphill organizing climb is made even more arduous by the fact that sometimes, taking action for Palestine stands to harm unionized workers in the US whose livelihoods are invested in Palestinian suffering—most notably, workers making weapons of war. As historian Jeff Schuhrke writes in his new Jewish Currents piece, unionized weapons workers “present a paradox: Serving such members ostensibly requires making weapons industry jobs stable and remunerative, but the principles of global solidarity call for dismantling the war machine altogether.” This challenge is further exacerbated when pro-Israel union officials insist that even strategies like BDS endanger weapons industry union workers.
As a result of these obstacles, some union labor has recently found itself on the wrong side of picket lines, with unionized workers keeping weapons factories running even as activists protest outside. But using labor history as a guide, Schuhrke’s piece suggests that this misalignment need not be a permanent one. Schuhrke shows how some Vietnam-war era labor leaders were already starting to mount calls for “conversion”—a just transition away from the war industry—that today’s anti-war unionists can emulate. “Just as the labor movement has rejected the false choice between job security and climate justice by calling for a transition to a green economy that does not leave working-class communities behind,” Schuhrke argues, “it can fight for a world where weapons-industry jobs are transformed into socially useful forms of work.”
We already know there is going to be nothing easy about such organizing, but as a new generation of social justice unionists have shown us, difficult is not the same as impossible when it comes to expansive labor demands. In the case of the war industry, the potential rewards for succeeding at this task are enormous. In addition to finally freeing workers from enforced complicity in the war machine, Schuhrke writes, “a commitment to conversion could bring [a] shared enemy into focus, allowing US workers to take their place alongside the global working class from which they have too long been kept divided.”
The introduction to Schuhrke’s piece is included below. I hope you will find it as useful as I did in thinking about this pressing organizing challenge.
On November 9th, dozens of protesters arrived outside the weapons company Colt Manufacturing in West Hartford, Connecticut. Holding banners that read “Stop Arming Genocide” and “Shut It Down For Palestine,” the group began blocking factory entrances to prevent the production of weapons bound for Israel. As one protester told a local paper, the group had targeted Colt because the company was slated to supply two-thirds of the 24,000 assault rifles that Israel had requested from the United States—weapons likely to be used to attack Palestinians. The action at Colt was only one of several recent anti-war protests at United States weapons companies. On the same day, protesters held a “die-in” outside the Arlington, Virginia, offices of weapons company Lockheed Martin, which supplies aircraft and missiles to Israel; yet others demonstrated outside a Goleta, California, plant belonging to Raytheon, from which Israel buys missiles, bombs, and fighter jet components. In previous weeks, similar protests were held outside Israeli firm Elbit Systems’s office in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to oppose the company’s manufacture of aircraft, drones, and communications systems for the Israeli military.
While these protests succeeded in disrupting normal operations at the targeted arms companies, they were unable to meaningfully halt the manufacture of weapons, in part because the group best poised to shut down production was conspicuously absent from each of the actions: the companies’ workers. More than two million US workers are employed by the weapons industry, which produces over 80% of all of Israel’s arms imports, including “precision guided munitions, small diameter bombs, artillery, ammunition, Iron Dome interceptors and other critical equipment,” according to the Pentagon, as well as F-35 aircraft—the most advanced fighter jets in the world. In the past month and a half, Israel has used these weapons in a genocidal assault that has killed more than 14,000 Palestinian civilians in Gaza, at least 5,600 of them children. The violence has prompted direct action against the Israeli war machine’s supply chain, with protesters targeting not only munitions factories but also ships transporting arms to Israel and financial firms with significant investments in the weapons industry. But unlike in many other parts of the world, where weapons workers have led the disruption in response to an urgent call for solidarity from Palestinian trade unions, in the US, unions in the weapons industry have so far remained outside the fray.
This is despite the presence of tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of unionized workers in the US weapons industry, some of whom are employed at the very factories that protesters have attempted to shut down this fall. As journalist Taylor Barnes reported earlier this year, each of the five major Pentagon contractors—Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Northrop Grumman, Raytheon, and General Dynamics—employs some unionized workers, although union density at the firms ranges from as low as 4% at Northrop Grumman to as high as 32% at Boeing. Many of these unionized workers belong either to the International Association of Machinists (IAM), or to the United Auto Workers (UAW), which is part of a renaissance in the US labor movement. Both unions include employees at Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, and General Dynamics; the IAM additionally represents workers at Northrop Grumman and M7 Aerospace, a wholly owned subsidiary of the infamous Elbit Systems, while the UAW represents workers at Woodward, Inc., an aerospace firm that gained unwanted attention last month after a viral photo from the ruins of Gaza appeared to show a used missile component with the company’s logo on it. The unions are also actively organizing more workers in the weapons industry: Just last month, for example, the IAM unionized 332 Lockheed employees in Kentucky.
For anti-war labor organizers in the United States, unionized weapons workers present a paradox: Serving such members ostensibly requires making weapons industry jobs stable and remunerative, but the principles of global solidarity call for dismantling the war machine altogether. Traditionally, US unions have only pursued the former mandate. As one anonymous local union president in the industry put it to researcher Karen Bell earlier this year, “my top priority is trying to make sure that we have work in jobs in the United States . . . I don’t make a lot of judgments on anything other than, what can you do to keep the people I represent in work? That’s my job, and to be anything other than that, it would really be a disservice to the people that are paying my salary.” Rather than questioning their role in the industry, unions have reconfirmed their relationships with weapons companies since the start of Israel’s assault on Gaza. Last month, 1,000 IAM members in Arizona and 1,100 UAW members across the Midwest separately ratified new contracts with Raytheon and General Dynamics respectively, during a period when both companies were actively implicated in the mass killing of Palestinian civilians. When the Raytheon contract deal was announced on October 22nd, one IAM leader said he was “proud to support our Raytheon members and excited for this contract’s positive impact on their lives”—a statement that highlights the seemingly irreconcilable conflict between the economic interests of weapons industry workers and the anti-war, anti-genocide movement.
This line of thinking creates a challenge for anti-war labor activists, who already face significant obstacles. After a central labor council in Olympia, Washington, unanimously passed a ceasefire and Palestine solidarity resolution last month, for example, the AFL-CIO—long a bastion of pro-Israel and pro-war positions—quickly stepped in to quash the measure. For pro-Israel union officials, weapons sector workers offer a convenient rationale for silencing opponents of Israeli apartheid (even when their organizing does not explicitly target the weapons industry). “Union shops in weapons sectors have been cited to justify the nullification of pro-Palestine referendums,” Anila Gill, an activist with the UAW reform caucus Unite All Workers for Democracy (UAWD), told Jewish Currents. Gill pointed to a moment in the mid-2010s when the UAW’s international executive board, citing concern for unionized workers at companies targeted by the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, formally overturned measures endorsing the tactic passed by three UAW-affiliated graduate worker unions. Boycotting these companies, UAW leadership argued, would “lead to a direct economic deprivation for members of the UAW, as well as other organized members.”
Such incidents reveal the sometimes profound tension between the labor movement’s “bread-and-butter” goals and what should be its broader political aims. They also point toward a genuinely difficult organizing problem confronting labor activists who want to target weapons manufacturers without alienating their fellow unionized workers. But recent history shows a route through this seeming impasse under the rubric of a “just transition.” Just as the labor movement has rejected the false choice between job security and climate justice by calling for a transition to a green economy that does not leave working-class communities behind, it can fight for a world where weapons-industry jobs are transformed into socially useful forms of work. Already, anti-war unionists within reform movements like the UAWD are looking to a just transition model as a way to disentangle labor from the war machine. In doing so, they are following in the footsteps of the many 20th-century unionists, economists, and peace activists who tried to pursue such a vision under the banner of “conversion”—and whose ideas may contain a key to reconciling seemingly incompatible goals within the labor movement of today.