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Swords into ploughshares

Can we repurpose the resources of Canada’s arms industry for socially useful production—and win a just transition for workers?

LabourCanadian Business

Photo by Clayton Cardinalli/Unsplash

Simon Black, lead organizer with Labour Against the Arms Trade, speaks to Sam Gindin, former research director of the Canadian Auto Workers, about the promise of repurposing the Canadian arms industry’s resources for socially useful production—and winning a just transition for arms industry workers.


Simon Black: Let’s start with some context. A 2018 study of the defence sector found that it contributed $6.2 billion in GDP and 60,000 jobs to the Canadian economy. Between 2016 and 2020, the main recipients of Canadian arms exports were the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, accounting for 49 percent of all arms exports, and the United Arab Emirates at 17 percent. Saudi Arabia is also the primary destination for US arms exports. The largest advanced manufacturing export contract, and largest arms deal, in Canadian history is the $14 billion light armoured vehicle (LAV) deal between General Dynamics Land Systems-Canada and Saudi Arabia, a deal secured by the Canadian Commercial Corporation (CCC) and the Harper Conservative government in 2014. Workers at General Dynamics in London, Ontario, where the LAVs are manufactured, are members of Unifor, Canada’s largest private sector union.

What do these facts and figures tell us about the role of the arms industry in the political economy of Canada and in the political economy of the American empire?

Sam Gindin: We need to be clear that what drives these arms exports is above all the geopolitical context. The US supports Saudi Arabia as a trusted partner in superintending developments in the Middle East. Canada, as a subordinate ally of the US, follows suit in arming Saudi Arabia. The jobs and the resultant corporate profits are, of course, not unimportant, but they are secondary to that larger context. In the case of jobs, they help sell Canada’s shameful international role and isolate critics, as the government can say to the public that this or that arms deal “creates jobs”.

Some unions are complicit in this. In the absence of a broad political response to Canada’s foreign policy, the jobs involved [in the arms industry] trump other considerations. Even unions that may not be involved in arms production, and that may even be uncomfortable with Canada’s role [in the arms trade], will tend to avoid criticizing the job priorities of other unions. This essentially gives those producing arms a veto over censuring Canada’s complicity in undermining human and democratic rights.

The high value of these exports does signal an impressive level of technology, investment, and skills—a sophisticated set of productive capacities that could be used in so many alternative and socially positive ways. When [Canadian aerospace company] De Havilland was threatened with closure, I once asked some of its engineers what else they could make, and they looked at me incredulously. They pointed out that as airplane manufacturers, “we can make anything. We’re intimately involved in propulsion systems and a wide range of materials. We could be making hydroplanes or mechanical ventilators for hospitals. We can make anything.” So the argument that a union might make about dependence on a particular arms contract is only a viable argument when you stop thinking about alternatives. The catch, of course, is that those alternatives are hard to put forth when you’re in a capitalist economy that values possibilities in terms of their profitability. If we counter this [focus on profit] by asking, “Are we making useful things?” or “Are skilled workers contributing to the production of useful things?” then we get very different answers.

SB: Canadian arms exports to Saudi Arabia have been opposed by a range of civil society organizations, from Amnesty International to Oxfam. Collectively these organizations have also called for the federal government to work with trade unions representing workers in the arms industry to develop a plan that secures the livelihoods of those who would be impacted by the end of arms exports to Saudi Arabia. And in Labour Against the Arms Trade’s work with these organizations, we’ve always stressed the importance of centring this demand. Why is it important that mainstream, liberal human rights and humanitarian organizations are calling for a just transition for arms industry workers?

SG: These progressive organizations have come to see that, absent alternatives, workers making arms are locked into survival mode and tend to ignore calls for ending arms production or even see them as a threat to their family’s livelihood. Even faced with the climate crisis, which is so much closer to home, workers will resist supporting policies that undermine their jobs—unless there is an alternative, which means both comparable jobs in terms of compensation and a transition to such jobs.

But simply calling for a “just transition” won’t cut it. It may seem a good way to win people over to something that seems logical, but workers are rightly skeptical about it happening—they do have some experience with, and understanding of, the power relationships that exist in capitalist societies. If we’re not ready to assert that this [transition] will mean raising the question of planning, and not just “planning” but the kind of intervention that will challenge the profit priorities of capital (business and finance) with social priorities, the discussion isn’t happening on a sufficiently complex and radical level.

Progressive organizations like Oxfam and Amnesty are right to see that this [challenge to profit priorities] is a challenge to capitalist power and capitalism itself and so can be a barrier to convincing people, particularly workers and communities where these arms are manufactured, like the LAVs in London, Ontario. But it’s the only honest—and possible—way forward. The message is not just that there are potential alternatives, but also that they could be introduced only if we could build the kind of social force that’s necessary to [implement them]. Sometimes people want to obscure the fact that our demands are radical, because they feel like [this reality will make it] harder to mobilize. [But] unless we can respect workers enough to address the reality and win them over, we’re left with a progressive demand that is in essence an abstract slogan.

SB: Let’s talk specifically about Unifor and the LAV deal. The workers who manufacture the LAVs at General Dynamics Land Systems-Canada in London, Ontario, are members of Unifor Local 27. Unifor has not made a public statement about the Saudi arms deal since the 2015 federal election. In that statement, the union said it is “committed to standing up for jobs and human rights,” but also, “The bottom line is the contract has been signed … No one is losing any jobs.” In May 2021, the union rightly condemned Israeli attacks on Palestinians in Gaza and called for the Canadian government to immediately impose a full weapons embargo on Israel, stating: “We should not be supplying arms that Israeli forces are using to commit these human rights atrocities against the Palestinian people.” What should the union’s position be on the LAV deal? How can it stand up for jobs and human rights?

SG: If unions haven’t done any preparatory work and there’s still a general sense in the country that Canada is on the side of the angels, we can’t expect to change much. So a good place to start the discussion may be not with a direct challenge to [union members’] jobs, but by calling on unions to educate their members about—i.e. expose—what’s happening in Saudi Arabia, in Yemen: what the arms are for. The union should be informing their members about this. Workers should know what they’re involved in; doing this kind of preliminary education is not asking too much of unions. The union involved might set up a committee to investigate arms deals and their relationship to the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia and the war in Yemen, pass on this information to its members, and start investigating possible alternative [uses for the industry’s] facilities.

Second, we need to broaden the issue beyond particular unions and particular arms exports. A similar approach should be taken regarding plants that manufacture products that harm the environment, when they could be converted to making socially useful products for addressing the ecological crisis. In fact, there are plants regularly closing in every community across the country because they do not meet corporate profitability goals; it is in these situations that workers have a clearer reason to think about alternative uses of our productive capacities. This opens the door to a more general demand for all union locals to have committees that concern themselves with the viability of their workplace and preparing for convertibility when a corporation leaves them in the lurch.

This could then also lead to specific demands on the state, and unions should be looking ahead to develop plans that can come to fruition with the help of the state. The government should be instituting a national conversion agency, which will support and plan for these kinds of conversions and think about procurement. Unions in a multitude of locations should be asserting that they have an environmental policy and believe that their facility can, if threatened, be converted into playing an important environmental role. To this end, union locals everywhere need to plan for such eventualities, and lobby for supportive state structures. If this in fact happens in many locations, then it becomes a national campaign/project. But unless unions themselves take a leadership role, it won’t get on the agenda in a significant way. The state will rather hide behind what the union says about the need to protect jobs.

So it requires laying out a larger strategy, a strategy of the workers themselves starting to have committees that investigate this and think about this and ally with people who’ve thought about it, and look at other examples of where this [transition] has happened. Even if there aren’t a lot of examples, there are quite a few that can be looked at. And the union can help with research to get started, but it should also be part of a larger strategy that’s talking about conversion more generally. And it can extend from the question of arms, of things we shouldn’t be making, to a lot of things that we actually need.

Environmental concerns are often seen as a threat to jobs, but if we recognize that addressing the environment means addressing everything about how we travel, live, and work—and that this will require material supports—then the closing of any facility undermines our productive capacities to address the environment and other social needs. Putting arms conversion in such a broader strategic perspective can help build the kind of political movement that can also build the power to get issues like arms exports to Saudi Arabia on the agenda.

I’m worried that if we don’t take a larger perspective but limit ourselves to specific cases—as important as they are—we will be isolated. And so we need to build, taking on the entire so-called “defence” industry and other sectors related to the critical environmental crisis. The oil and gas industry is one such sector, but the entire environmental question is just an enormous opportunity to think about conversion. And it’s also a message to the public sector that instead of thinking about cutbacks, we should be talking about expanding the sector through conversion and through planning—and even where there are cutbacks, there [are still opportunities to convert facilities] to make socially useful things.

More generally, [this approach is] part of starting to think about an economy that is democratically planned for social use. People are stumbling along trying to defend their own jobs, accepting restraints or concessions to keep those jobs but ultimately finding that in their own small space they just can’t win or make the advances a rich society should offer. It’s time to raise the larger questions; that’s the only possible way of moving to truly protect ourselves.

SB: Right, I agree. Returning for a minute to Unifor’s official position on the LAV deal. Historically, has Unifor, or the Canadian Auto Workers union before it, taken a more principled stand on militarism and the arms industry? Especially an instance in which its members’ jobs were at stake?

SG: Yes, I recall an example from the late 1980s. The peace movement was putting out an ad against spending money on new fighter helicopters, which were due to be manufactured at a CAW plant in Winnipeg, and [movement organizers] came to us asking for support for the campaign. I took it to [CAW President] Bob White as something that I thought we should do, but I understood the political difficulties. Bob’s response was that we should do it and we should do it because, even just in our union, we had a responsibility to the membership as a whole and not just to a particular plant. And we couldn’t ignore the impacts on people who would suffer from Canadian and US militarism, the victims of imperial aggression abroad, people who were going to be bombed. And we had a responsibility to go and explain this to the members in Winnipeg who would be making these fighter helicopters. We went to Winnipeg and made the case that in representing the union as a whole, and in considering the social justice issues we believed in, [the national CAW] wouldn’t be supporting this contract. We would be supporting the peace movement mobilizing against it.

Now, as you can imagine, those members weren’t very happy with this decision. This was a group of workers that were new to the union, and they were extremely frustrated and angry over the national’s decision. The leader of the local did appreciate the larger questions, but he still felt that his responsibility was to the members at the plant. So, we took quite a lot of flak for this.

Not too long later—I can’t remember how long, maybe it was a half a year—that contract ended. And we got a note from the local basically saying that the position the national union had taken was the right one; that had the local leadership joined with us to argue for producing civilian aircraft rather than military aircraft, in the long term that would have provided much more stable demand. They noted that they’d been too short-sighted and wanted to let us know that after all the criticism they’d thrown our way, the national union had been right in making its decision.

SB: I think people would be surprised to see the current leadership of Unifor take such a position.

SG: I agree. And that’s a reflection of the lowering of expectations: of the union itself, of what’s possible and what its social role is. People would be surprised by the union taking such a position instead of avoiding confrontation with a local.

SB: In the wake of the closure of the GM Oshawa Assembly Facility, Green Jobs Oshawa launched an inspiring campaign for public ownership and conversion [of the facility] for socially beneficial manufacturing. In the past, workers have made [similar] demands for the conversion of arms manufacturing into socially useful production; perhaps the best-known case is the Lucas Plan in the UK. What can Labour Against the Arms Trade learn from examples like Green Jobs Oshawa and the Lucas Plan?

SG: As I argued earlier, in every community there are plant shutdowns happening because corporations don’t find those plants profitable, and maybe they aren’t profitable, but they’re productive facilities that—if you evaluate them in terms of their potential, rather than their potential for corporations—you could convert. So, in those cases you are talking to workers who are losing their jobs, and you’re saying, “Why aren’t we talking about converting this?” That engages workers in fighting for their jobs directly and links that struggle to these larger environmental and geopolitical questions in Saudi Arabia. It opens the door to a larger political program on conversion that organically raises questions about planning and democracy, yet always linked to actual struggles on the ground. And I think that’s key.

We have to find a way of engaging workers and supporting struggles with this kind of dynamic. In every community, the labour council should take on being a catalyst to get locals to set up committees to prepare for the economic restructuring around them, because once their facility or service is lost and we aren’t prepared, it’s generally too late to start a campaign. In a case like arms for Saudi Arabia, actually saying, “Isn’t it possible that with all this technology we could make something that is socially useful? And have more guarantees of job security at some point, if we win in the fight to say we shouldn’t be selling arms to Saudi Arabia in the first place?” The union should be ready, because we don’t want to be the ones to say we don’t give a shit about what happens to other people. So, we must be preparing and struggling with how to link the larger issues to concrete local struggles.

In Green Jobs Oshawa, we’ve learned about all kinds of possibilities. But the difficulty is winning workers over. It wasn’t that workers in Oshawa didn’t think [conversion for green jobs] was logical or common sense or a good idea; it’s that they didn’t believe that we had the power to do this, and part of that was they didn’t see their unions doing this! So, winning unions over is critical, and a modest start is to ask unions to at least educate their members about [these possibilities] and set up committees to investigate them, because that isn’t a difficult thing. And part of the shame here is that unions aren’t even doing that.

SB: And why is that?

SG: There’s been a massive defeat of the labour movement and workers are demoralized and their expectations of what they can do have been lowered. This is a problem that we must overcome, and it’s reflected in the leadership as well, who don’t have that political imagination, are themselves defensive—not wanting to stir up anything that might raise larger questions or demands for a new direction—so they become more conservative. And it’s a reflection of the weakness of the left, our inability to put these larger questions on the agenda and organize. From that perspective, the work that Labour Against the Arms Trade is doing is so important.


Sam Gindin was research director of the Canadian Auto Workers from 1974–2000. He is co-author (with Leo Panitch) of The Making of Global Capitalism (Verso Books), and co-author (with Leo Panitch and Steve Maher) of The Socialist Challenge Today, the expanded and updated American edition (Haymarket Books).

Simon Black is lead organizer with Labour Against the Arms Trade, a grassroots coalition of peace and labour activists working to end Canada’s participation in the international arms trade. LAAT organizes for a just transition for arms industry workers and arms conversion for socially useful production. Black teaches in the Department of Labour Studies at Brock University.

This article originally appeared in Midnight Sun Magazine.

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