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Canadians discuss conversion in Boston

Martha Waldon — August 1984

On June 22-24, approximately 70 Canadians, representing various peace and labour organizations, attended the first International Economic Conversion Conference at Boston College in Massachusetts. The subtitle of the conference was “Transforming the Economy for Jobs, Peace, and Justice,” a theme which united the more than 700 delegates including peace activists, trade unionists, and economists from Canada, France, the United Kingdom, Italy, West Germany, Belgium, Japan, South Africa and the United States – in their struggle to achieve employments and lasting peace for all.

Over the course of the weekend, participants heard strikingly similar accounts of the disastrous human and economic consequences of military spending in each of these industrialized nations. The problem is international, and although a range of opinions was expressed, there was a strong, common interest in economic conversion as a tool which could be used to prevent unemployinent and to begin to dismantle the military-industrial complex that contributes to the nuclear threat.

The concept of conversion has as many angles to it as the concept of disarmament. For some people, the objective is “economic conversion”: a transition, for purely economic reasons, away from military production. This goal is seen as possible within the. existing socio-economic system. Others wish to broaden the concept to “peace conversion”: a complete change of. priorities, taking into account social needs, environmental impact, and social justice.

Barry Bluestone, an economist at Boston College, reminded the conference participants in the opening plenary that the reallocation of capital assets from one use to another is always happening; the process can be sometimes helpful, sometimes painful. According to Bluestone, the focus of the conversion to be discussed at this conference was “Planning for people vs. planning for profit.”

The most exciting aspect of the conference for me was the meeting of arms production workers and peace activists around a conversion agenda. Both groups had similar concerns, although job security was a high priority for the workers. Organized labour was strongly represented (by over 200 vocal delegates) and the peace movement was able to hear their concerns and demands about military spending, automation and job security. At the same time, community members expressed their very real concerns about the facts of militarism. Both groups need to hear from each other more frequently, and much more time and effort should be spent on the development of mutual respect.

The conference agenda emphasized economic conversion, but some of the delegates brought with them a vision of peace conversion. A peace conversion plan would develop production, for human needs and would contribute towards a world of equitable relationships. Although many peace activists ultimately strive for peace conversion, many see economic conversion as a way to disarmament.

Trade union representatives brought a variety of perspectives to the conference. Members of the Lucas Combine Committee presented their “Alternative Use Plan” and their statement about the workplace democracy. Although the plan was never adopted, by presenting it publicly in response to layoff threats, the Combine has saved 1200 jobs. Representatives of the United Electrical Workers suggested that an Alternative Use Plan should include a 35-hour work week.

The response of organized labour to the vision of peace conversion varied from nation to nation. One Italian trade unionist stressed that economic planning must be international in order to turn around our present Cold War mentality. He also advocated making conversion a politics of true development that would be acceptable to the many under-developed countries which were not represented at the conference. American trade unionists, on the other hand, were very concerned about the unprecedented number of plant closings in the basic manufacturing sector of the United States.

In the opening plenary, Seymour Melman, professor of Industrial Engineering at Columbia University, commented briefly on the success of the US/USSR Conversion Symposium held in Moscow earlier in June. The symposium was an opportunity for men such as Melman to meet with Soviet officials, including the Soviet Deputy Director of World Economy and International Affairs. Melman thinks that addressing the issue of conversion with the other superpower may spur other political agreements on disarmament.

The Boston conference announced the reintroduction of the Defense Economic Adjustment Act into the U.S. House of Representatives by Rep. Ted Weiss. The bill’s highlights include: one year prenotification of plans to cut back or terminate a defense contract or military base; ongoing Alternative Use Committees in military-related facilities to develop detailed conversion plans; planning assistance, income support and retraining programs for committees ~d workers while a conversion is underway; and a federal Defense Economic Adjustment Council to” provide conversion guidelines, resources, and overall coordination. Amendments put forward in order to guarantee opportunities for women and minority groups to participate were rejected “at this time.”

In response, the women’s caucus prepared a statement for the closing plenary, affirming the conversion work done to date, but putting forward a definition of conversion that is not simply economic, but political and social as well. They expressed the need for conversion work to incorporate a feminist approach, in order to avoid maintaining a system that excludes women and minority groups. The women predicted failure for any conversion plan or policy which is developed and administered from the top down. They also recommended developing Community Need Committees, which would include women and minorities, -rather thatn Alternative Use Committees.

The large Canadian delegation was not particularly excited about US legislation, but it was committed to an ongoing search for Canadian solutions to the Canadian situation. The Canadians held a caucus on Saturday to discuss the possibility of forming a National Peace Conversion Task Force to promote the idea of conversion opportunities in Canada. It will look at Canadian military forces and military manufacturing firms (such as Litton, Bombardier, and Diemaco) as well as the structures that might make conversion plans more feasible, such as worker-owned enterprises and community planning bodies. One section of the study will examine the pervasive presence of the Department of National Defence in federal contracting and ih research and development processes, and the impact that this presence has had on unemployment, inflation, and capital availability across the’ country. The study will then identify some new civilian products that might be generated from existing military production capacity. Finally, it will examine strategy proposals for the labour, church, . and -community -;groups which would need to work together to enact conversion planning in Canada.

One final resolution at the conference was the establishment of an international clearinghouse of information on economic conversion in the United States. Canadians felt strongly that a Canadian clearinghouse would be essential to initiate and maintain the Canadian conversion movement. At present, all Canadian information should be sent to: The Peace Task Force, 600 Bank Street, Ottawa, Ontario, KIS 3T4. All interested community groups, union locals and individuals are encouraged to contact this task force for information on future initiatives for conversion in Canada.

Canadians who were in attendance in Boston agreed to meet again in Ottawa this September to begin organizing the Canadian work in a way that addresses concerns such as the Defense Production Sharing Agreement, and others which. weren’t relevant to this international forum.

One of the first priorities of the Semptember agenda will be the integration of grassroots community groups into a task force which has been primarily initiated by trade unionists. In the meantime, outreach efforts will attempt to inform and interest union locals, community groups, economists, scientists, engineers, and others in the national network.