The Problem of the Unionized War Machine

Union workers in the US weapons industry present a paradox for anti-war labor activists, but a history of “conversion” campaigns offers a route through the impasse.

Jeff Schuhrke
November 22, 2023

British trade unionists blockade a weapons factory on November 10th, 2023.

Gareth Fuller / Press Association via AP

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.

For pro-Israel union officials, weapons sector workers offer a convenient rationale for silencing opponents of Israeli apartheid.

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.


The US labor movement has long been implicated in the country’s wars abroad. In a famous December 1940 radio address, President Franklin D. Roosevelt asked unions and bosses to come together in the fight against global fascism by rapidly converting the US peacetime economy into a wartime one. “I appeal to the owners of plants, to the managers, to the workers, to our own government employees to put every ounce of effort into producing these munitions swiftly and without stint,” he said. “We must be the great arsenal of democracy.”

Coming as it did a decade into the Great Depression, Roosevelt’s address was welcomed by many in the US labor movement. Walter Reuther, a young and ambitious UAW official who would go on to become the union’s longest-serving president, was among those who echoed Roosevelt’s call, proposing that the unused capacity of the auto industry be transformed into a massive fighter plane production unit churning out “500 planes a day.” Such enthusiasm anticipated the enormous benefits unions would soon reap from the wartime economy—chief among them a massive growth in membership numbers thanks to pro-union government policies in war-related industries. In the decades following Allied victory in 1945, the US weapons industry remained crucial to the economy thanks to the Cold War demand for “military preparedness,” which led to the emergence of what Dwight Eisenhower—the last army general to become US president—dubbed the military-industrial complex. Labor officials, many of them fierce anti-Communists, accepted or even encouraged such Cold War militarism on the grounds that the weapons industry provided good-paying union jobs.

Organized labor’s alliance with the military-industrial complex persisted comfortably until the late 1960s, when pressure from the anti-Vietnam War movement began to challenge the prevailing consensus. Reuther, now a veteran labor leader, had initially supported the war in the name of battling Communism and remaining close to Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson. But as the anti-war movement grew, Reuther started making tepid calls for a negotiated peace, fully coming out against the war once Johnson announced he was not seeking reelection in 1968. “We must mobilize for peace rather than for wider theaters of war in order to turn our resources and the hearts, hands, and minds of our people to the fulfillment of America’s unfinished agenda at home,” he said.

Reuther not only opposed the war, but sought ways to reconcile his stance with his union members’ interests. Recognizing that speedily ending the fighting in Southeast Asia would have economic ramifications within the US, Reuther argued in 1969 that the weapons contractors who then employed 3.8 million American workers—tens of thousands of whom were UAW members—should be required to avert layoffs by converting their operations to civilian production. “The anvil on which peace is hammered out,” he said, should not be “the heads and backs of . . . displaced defense workers and their families.” To make this possible, Reuther called on Congress to pass legislation requiring weapons manufacturers to put 25% of their after-tax profits into a federally managed “conversion fund,” which would be used to pay for retraining and family benefits for workers during a period of economic adjustment. The idea was in many ways a precursor to later calls from unionists in fossil-fuel-related industries for a just transition to green energy jobs.

Groundbreaking as it was, Reuther’s proposal did not get much traction within a labor movement headed by pro-war hawks like AFL-CIO president George Meany. But the idea remained alive within labor circles from the 1960s onward, even after Reuther died in a plane crash in 1970. Its champions included anti-war figures like South Dakota’s Democratic Senator George McGovern, economist Seymour Melman, and, most importantly, trade unionist William Winpisinger, one of the most left-wing and anti-war labor leaders of the Cold War era. As an official in the IAM—the union representing the largest number of weapons industry workers in the US—Winpisinger took a principled stance in favor of conversion, saying that he “would hate to think that the members of our union who are now engaged in the many facets of military production would have to depend forever on world terror in order to survive as an economic unit.” After becoming the IAM’s president in 1977, Winpisinger put his principles into action by ending the union’s cooperation with weapons industry lobbyists trying to push arms deals through Congress. “Unless and until our country breaks the vicious cycle that seems to chain us to a wartime economy,” he said, “we’re forever going to be the prisoners of defense appropriations bills in Congress.” In 1978, Winpisinger went further, vocally—though unsuccessfully—opposing a US plan to sell F-15 fighter jets to Israel, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia, even though the planes were to be produced by IAM members at a Pratt & Whitney factory in Connecticut. “The obvious result [of the sales] would be to heighten tensions [in the region]. We need peace, not profits,” he said at the time. Such anti-war advocacy often ran into resistance from skeptical IAM members and staff, but Winpisinger was resolute. “Sometimes self-interest has to take a backseat to what’s right, especially if the choice is between a layoff and a death,” he said.

Winpisinger took a principled stance in favor of conversion, saying that he would hate for union members “to depend forever on world terror in order to survive as an economic unit.”

Winpisinger not only took a principled stance, but also grappled with the challenge of winning over union members who saw anti-war politics as a potential threat to their livelihoods. As he wrote to IAM members in a 1978 newsletter, he was aware that even arms industry workers who “genuinely want peace and want to be free from the spectre of nuclear holocaust and the strain of the arms race” were hesitant to speak out against war production for fear of losing their jobs. He urged such workers to support conversion. By pushing the government to divert subsidies away from the arms industry and towards “the possibility of building railroads, mass transit systems, houses, and solar energy systems,” Winpisinger told IAM members, unionists could ensure their own job security while opposing militarism. Through such a transition, “we would get more job bang for the buck than we ever do from the high-tech weaponry of death and destruction,” he said.

Under Winpisinger’s presidency, the IAM championed conversion legislation in Congress. Most notable were a pair of bills that stalled in the 1980s, which would have required military contractors to contribute 1.25% of their revenues toward conversion programs, guaranteed retraining for weapons industry workers if their plants shut down due to Pentagon cutbacks, and created alternative-use committees in military-related facilities to develop conversion plans. The IAM also took on a leadership role in pushing conversion within the broader labor movement, with Winpisinger helping to organize a 1984 conference in Boston that brought together 750 unionists and peace activists from across the US and around the world—including rank-and-file members of the IAM, UAW, United Electrical Workers, and the Communications Workers of America—to discuss ways conversion could be carried out at the local level at shuttered weapons plants.

Despite their promise, Winpisinger’s attempts never made it very far. Faced with the might of the military-industrial complex and the persistence of Cold War-era political orthodoxy, few other national labor leaders, let alone elected officials, ever embraced conversion. Labor’s sharp decline also undermined the nascent effort. By the 1980s, unions were contending with the debilitating effects of deindustrialization, offshoring, free trade, and right-wing attacks, losing members by the hundreds of thousands, including in the weapons industry. In such a weakened state, the US labor movement was even less willing to take up experimental ideas. Still, some of the seeds planted by Reuther and Winpisinger did bear fruit in the 1990s, especially after the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War made it harder to justify the continuation of massive military spending. In 1992, Congress passed the Defense Conversion, Reinvestment, and Transition Assistance Act, which promised to redirect Pentagon spending towards a “peace dividend” aimed at civilian products and uses. While it fell short of offering a true economic conversion program, this 1992 law nevertheless helped mitigate the effects of military budget cuts on some workers. When employment in the war industry fell by 40% between 1987 and 1996, $16.5 billion in federal funds went to various conversion efforts, including $4.8 billion to stimulate new high-tech industries and $1.4 billion to assist weapons workers affected by layoffs.

These initial steps notwithstanding, a genuine conversion to a peacetime economy never materialized, in large part due to lobbying from the major Pentagon contractors, and to Democrats’ fear of looking “weak” in comparison to war-rabid Republicans. “In the absence of a vision for what would replace the national security state, the arms industry worked on dual-use technology to serve civilian and military purposes, turned to the export market, and consolidated,” writes journalist Indigo Olivier. “Since the 1990s, the number of prime contractors in aerospace and defense working directly with the Pentagon has dwindled from 51 to five due to a dizzying wave of mergers and acquisitions in the industry. With this new monopoly power, arms companies turned more of their attention to elected officials.” Through decades of successful lobbying, the arms companies have continued to secure lucrative Pentagon contracts, further entrenching an economy of permanent war. The gears of this war machine are greased by military aid packages to US allies—the largest of which by far is an annual $3.8 billion for Israel—which are required to be spent in full or in large part on US arms, thereby acting to subsidize the US weapons industry.

Weapons workers keep this war industry up and running, not only by laboring within it, but also by contributing to its popular legitimacy. As tens of thousands of Americans repeatedly take to the streets to call for an immediate ceasefire in Israel/Palestine—a move favored by 68% of the electorate—President Joe Biden has cited weapons industry workers in his bid to sell voters on sending $14.3 billion in supplemental military assistance to Israel. “Patriot missiles for air defense batteries, made in Arizona. Artillery shells manufactured in twelve states across the country—in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Texas,” Biden said in his October 19th Oval Office address, namechecking battleground states in next year’s presidential election. Explicitly echoing Roosevelt, he continued: “Just as in World War II, today patriotic American workers are building the arsenal of democracy and serving the cause of freedom.” In the weeks after the address, Biden’s aides reportedly circulated talking points to congressional allies arguing that supplying Israel with weapons would create manufacturing jobs for US workers. But despite Biden’s attempt to harken back to a time when the labor movement was fully invested in the US war machine, some present-day unionists—in the tradition of predecessors like Reuther and Winpisinger—are beginning to challenge the idea that war is essential to workers’ well-being.


Even if today’s unionists are equipped with the blueprints left behind by previous generations of labor leaders, they face no shortage of challenges in organizing against war. They must work within a US left, and a US labor movement, much smaller and weaker than the one known by their forebears. US unions long ago ceded “management rights” to the bosses, meaning that employers call the shots on what is produced when and how—and that any contest over plant conversion would require a radical expansion of unions’ limited purview. But despite these challenges, organizers have reason to view this as a favorable moment to push for conversion. In recent years, a growing alliance between climate and labor activists has offered a viable model—and seeded a sense of radical possibility—by advancing the idea of a just transition, securing unprecedented federal funding to create millions of good-paying green jobs.

These efforts have been propelled by workers’ growing boldness at the bargaining table. In recent years, unions have become more comfortable bargaining for the common good, putting forth social justice demands that exceed narrow “bread-and-butter” concerns. They have also prepared their members to go on strike in order to achieve ambitious goals. In the UAW’s recent strike at the Big Three automakers, for example, the union fought not only to win a better contract for its members, but also to improve conditions for workers at the companies’ new electric vehicle (EV) battery plants—despite the fact that the plants are not currently unionized. As a result, the UAW managed to bring the EV facilities owned by the automaker General Motors under the union’s national master agreement, extending union protections to thousands of workers in green jobs. Even more impressive, the UAW strike forced the automaker Stellantis to commit to reopening the shuttered Belvidere Assembly Plant and bringing back its 5,000 workers, and to constructing a new EV battery plant that will create an additional 1,300 green union jobs. These constitute victories over “management rights” practically unheard of in the annals of US labor history. By winning something long thought impossible in the context of collective bargaining, the UAW has shown that unions can pressure even the most powerful corporations to change their production decisions in ways that benefit workers and society.

In the aftermath of the EV win at General Motors, UAW president Shawn Fain declared: “Corporate America is not going to force [labor] to choose between good jobs and green jobs.” If the UAW can so clearly and effectively reject the false binary between climate and labor justice, it stands to reason that the UAW and other unions can likewise refuse the choice between war production and workers’ well-being, instead advancing a positive vision for a more socially beneficial economy. As with a just transition, the benefits of conversion could be far-reaching and manifold, perhaps even transforming US foreign policy by removing politicians’ economic justifications for endless militarism. Conversion would also benefit US workers directly. Research shows that cutting Pentagon spending and replacing it with increased funding for healthcare, education, infrastructure, and clean energy would create far more jobs than it eradicated. “Virtually any other form of government outlay, or even a tax cut, yields greater employment than military spending,” writes William Hartung, a senior research fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.

Even if conversion appears to be a distant horizon, embracing the idea could have an immediate impact on organizing.

Even if conversion appears to be a distant horizon, embracing the idea could have an immediate impact on organizing, giving activists grounds on which to defend anti-war initiatives—such as attempts to divest from Israeli apartheid—that are frequently shut down in the name of weapons industry workers. What’s more, publicizing the concept could help transform workers’ consciousness, convincing employees at arms manufacturers that anti-war activism need not threaten their economic well-being. This in turn could form the basis for shop-floor actions to interrupt the production of missiles and bombs.

As Gill, the UAWD organizer, told Jewish Currents, “At the end of the day, those of us advocating for the liberation of Palestine have a shared enemy with those [weapons] workers on the shop floor: the billionaire CEOs who profit off their labor to fuel the war machine.” A commitment to conversion could bring that 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.

Aparna Gopalan contributed reporting.

Jeff Schuhrke is a labor historian, journalist, and union activist who teaches at the Harry Van Arsdale Jr. School of Labor Studies, SUNY Empire State University in New York City.

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