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Converting military industry

Mary Vrantsidis — November 1983

The Cruise Missile Conversion (CMCP) will play an. active role in the series of civil disobedience actions at Litton Systems of Canada Ltd. during the week of November 11-18. The group’s involvement in these actions is a reminder of its particular contribution to the Canadian peace ‘movement, for it was CMCP which first drew the public’s attention to Litton’s role in the nuclear arms race.

It was, in fact, the discovery three years ago that Litton had been awarded a contract by the U.S. Navy to manufacture the guidance system for the sea-launched cruise missile that led a group of peace activists to form CMCP. Today the group has 80 Project members, and although their important work at Litton is still an important focus, the group has expanded its involvement in the anti-nuclear movement to include a number of other activities, particularly through their participation in the Toronto Disarmament Network.

CMCP’s actions at Litton will be directed toward management. and not toward the workers in the plant. This emphasis is particularly important, says Dave Collins, a CMCP member, since it is part of a recent clarification of the group’s purpose.

For the past three years CMCP led a small had focussed on educating and reaching out to Litton workers in order to make them aware of what was going on in their plant and of the positive alternatives to working for a military-based industry. However, the message became confused when, as part of civil disobedience actions staged at least three times a year, CMCP members tried to stop Litton workers from doing their jobs. Collins says that CMCP has now tried to make clear that its fight is with those who have control of the plant, not with the workers.

CMCP’s brochure describes the group as a project aimed at changing Litton’s military production to production which meets human needs. Most economists agree that military spending creates relatively fewer jobs than civilian spending and that it accelerates inflation, wastes resources and hinders the development of civilian technology. According to a recent study by the Association of Machinists, one billion dollars can create 55,000 military jobs or 100,000 civilian jobs.

The group is working to promote positive alternatives to military production or loss of jobs by advocating planned economic conversion to useful production. CMCP fully supports the right of working people to have a say in what their factories are producing, but, as one member put it, criticising the capitalist system of management controlled production doesn’t mean you’ve jumped into the communist camp. Alternatives within the western framework are possible.

In their “vision statement”, or statement of purpose, CMCP describes the bomb as the ultimate expression of all forms of oppression based on class, sex and age. In keeping with their egalitarian emphasis, CMCP Operates as a non-hierarchical collective, whose decisions are the result of consensus.

Although the group wants to offer Litton management concrete proposals on how to convert the plant over to more peaceful production, Collins says, the group’s efforts have become trapped in a vicious circle. “Management wants to know our plans before they will talk to us, but they won’t let the group in to assess what the plant is capable of. They have cut off all communication with our group until we come up with concrete proposals.

Ideally, CMCP would like to work for Litton as consultants in order to help the plant convert to civilian technology. They would draw on the expertise of members of Science for Peace and other equally qualified people in the peace movement.

According to Ernie Regehr, a Canadian weapons and peace expert, conversion wouldn’t be a costly procedure. He also notes that the technology Litton uses to manufacture the cruise guidance system was civilian before it was applied to military purposes. CMCP supports technology as long as it addresses itself to real human problems, such as mass transit and medical research. Technology makes tools which can be used to gain power but the workers must have some say in what tools are produced and have some pan of that power.

Litton and its U.S. parent company have been called union busters. The United Auto Workers have tried three times to establish a union at Litton. (There are at least 2500 workers at Litton, and although their working conditions are not known, their salaries are rumored to be very low.)

Because Litton has a federal designation as a security zone as a result of its defense contract, according to CMCP’s Bob Penner, workers at Litton are not free. Political activity in the plant is suppressed and workers aren’t allowed to talk about their jobs even with their families. If they leave their jobs, they are debriefed by the Mounties.

When asked how they would choose between stopping nuclear arms production and the loss of workers’ jobs, CMCP members say the group will have to discuss the issue more deeply, However, in the meantime, they have started a support fund for workers who are fired for political activities. They would also like to work on retraining programs for workers.

Because of the the security within the Litton plant, CMCP has no statistics on the political actions of Litton workers. However, some CMCP members have heard that many workers have left Litton because of the knowledge gained by the leafletting CMCP conducts biweekly. Although the action was condemned by CMCP. the 1982 bombing of the plant did harm relations between CMCP and the workers. Fewer workers take the leaflets now than did before the bombing.

Collins and Penner agree that, even of the cruise is tested, the group will continue in its efforts to have Litton converted to peaceful production, Their other peace networking will continue. Conversion groups similar to CMCP exist around defence factories both elsewhere in Canada and in the U.S. For example, a group has organised in Montréal to draw attention to the Trident company, which produces nuclear submarines, and to a storage site of nuclear warheads nearby.

There are several examples of other defense industries in the city, but CMCP decided from the beginning that the most effective way to operate would be to have as direct a focus as possible. Other people and groups should take on other industries. In the meantime, CMCP will continue its efforts to make the connection between the production of the cruise and its human ramifications.