Big companies don’t give a second thought to making big profits during the COVID-19 pandemic even if that means thousands of workers—and their families—will get sick and die from the virus. Actually, it’s a feature not a bug, no pun intended—in food processing, all those workers who make sure you get beef or chicken on your plate, are getting sick by the droves, and the only way that happens is because companies, big rich companies, keep dangerous plants operating unsafely because to make things slightly safer would cost them a few bucks. That’s criminal in a normal world. Debbie Berkowitz, director of the worker health and safety program at the National Employment Law Project, joins me to look at the threat to workers—a threat that is growing as the pandemic surges.
A few days ago, Bernie Sanders introduced a bill to cut the bloated Pentagon bi-partisan budget by a very, very modest 10 percent, with the money saved slotted to underwrite human and social programs in cities and communities where the poverty rate is 25 percent or higher. Ashik Siddique, research analyst at the National Priorities Project, talks with me about where the Pentagon could be cut—and how the slashing could go far, far deeper.
This blog originally appeared at Working Life on July 1, 2020. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Jonathan Tasini is a political / organizing / economic strategist. President of the Economic Future Group, a consultancy that has worked in a couple of dozen countries on five continents over the past 20 years.
Buried on the 18th page of a recently updated federal government memo defining which workers are critical during the Covid-19 pandemic is a new category of essential workers: defense industry personnel employed in foreign arms sales.
The memo, issued April 17, is a revised version of statements issued by the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency and the Department of Defense in mid-March. In those, the defense industry workforce was deemed “essential” alongside healthcare professionals and food producers, a broad designation that prompted criticism from a former top acquisition official for the Pentagon, defense-spending watchdog groups, and workers themselves. The original March memos made no mention of the lucrative foreign arms sales that U.S. companies make in the order of $180 billion a year.
The new text indicates that the federal government deliberately expanded the scope of work for essential employees in the mid-April memo to include the “sale of U.S. defense articles and services for export to foreign allies and partners.” In These Times spoke with numerous workers who instead say their plants could have shut down production for clients both domestic and foreign. The updated April 17 memo was issued as the United States reported more than 30,000 Covid-19 deaths, a number that would come close to tripling in the following weeks.
The new memo, which says essential workers are those needed “to maintain the services and functions Americans depend on daily,” also reflects what defense workers tell In These Times has been a reality throughout the pandemic: Work is ongoing on military-industrial shop floors across the country, including on weapons for foreign sales.
Arms manufacturing for export has continued at a Lockheed Martin plant in Fort Worth, which has stayed open 24 hours a day during the pandemic and manufactures the F-35 fighter jet. Asked by In These Times if F-35 production for international customers was ongoing in Fort Worth during the pandemic, a Lockheed spokesman responded that “there are no specific impacts to our operations at this time.” The company has a robust slate of domestic and foreign orders to fulfill for the F-35—the most expensive weapons program in U.S. history, one the company now advertises at a price tag of at least $89 million per jet. This slate includes 98 for the United States in the fiscal year 2020 and scores for international buyers in Europe and the Asia-Pacific region, according to a recent report on the F-35 program from the Congressional Research Service.
An employee at the Fort Worth plant told In These Times, “I don’t think it should be designated essential if we’re not doing it for our own country. I understand these other countries have put money into it. I do understand that. But these other countries are shut down, too,” the worker added, referring to the major disruptions of economic activities across the globe. The employee said they have seen computer monitors indicating jets were destined for Japan and Australia in recent weeks.
In the first weeks after the country shut down, the employee says they and their fellow workers asked themselves, “Why don’t we move these aircraft out of the way for a minute? And we have enough manpower here we could make masks. We could make ventilators.” But the company’s priorities for its essential workers, the employee says, has been: “Let’s get these jets and let’s get them running. Let’s pump them out the door.”
Several defense industry workers told In These Times they believe on-site manufacturing work at weapons plants for both foreign and domestic use could have been suspended at least for a matter of weeks during the pandemic. They also said they worry about the feasibility of keeping busy workplaces safe and sanitary, and that they distrust employers’ methods for handling virus cases that have emerged among workers.
Alarm over the expectation to continue reporting to shop floors for hands-on jobs has opened a rift between defense contractors and their employees, with the latter feeling constrained from speaking out publicly due to the confidentiality surrounding national security work. Several workers, all concerned about the risks of plants staying open, spoke with In These Times on the condition their names not be published, fearing repercussions or losing security clearances.
Ellen Lord, the Pentagon’s top weapons buyer, said at an April 30 press conference that of 10,509 major companies tracked by the Defense Contract Management Agency, just 93 were closed, while 141 had closed and reopened. While many in the defense industry can work remotely—a Lockheed spokesperson told In These Times by e-mail that about 9,000 of its 18,000 employees in Fort Worth are telecommuting—the thousands that remain on plant floors, workers say, are often blue-collar employees whose jobs are hands-on. On an April 21 earnings call, outgoing Lockheed Martin CEO Marllyn Hewson told investors that “our manufacturing facilities are open and our workforce is engaged.”
Concern for the safety of that workforce prompted Jennifer Escobar—a veteran and wife of a Lockheed Martin employee in Fort Worth who himself is a disabled veteran—to publicly denounce the company for staying open during the pandemic.
More than 5,000 people have signed her petition calling for the Fort Worth site to shut down and send employees home with pay. A similar petition on behalf of Lockheed Martin employees in Palmdale, Calif., garnered hundreds of signatures. Escobar spearheaded the campaign, she says, for “everybody else who couldn’t stand up because they have a fear of retaliation from the employer.”
Escobar also started a GoFundMe page for the widow of the Fort Worth site’s first reported Covid-19 death. Claude Daniels, a material handler, and his wife, also a Lockheed employee, had together spent about seven decades working for the company, according to the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers union.
The local machinists union reported in late April that the Fort Worth site had 12 confirmed virus cases among Lockheed and non-Lockheed employees. Since the plant has remained open during the pandemic, the company has responded to the outbreak by identifying and informing workers who have been in proximity with an infected employee and asking them to stay home, according to a Lockheed spokesman.
But Escobar and one plant worker said there are gaps in that response. For example, Escobar says there were instances in which a worker was sent home while their spouse, also a company employee, was not, despite the presumably close contact the pair has in a shared living space. One Fort Worth worker also said that while the company will remove an employee who works within six feet of someone who tests positive, there are cases of people who work at greater distances—the employee gave the example of workers on either side of a jet’s wings—who still share items during their shift.
“Even though we were sharing the same workstation, the same computer, the same toolbox, that doesn’t count,” the employee says.
In response to these concerns, Lockheed Martin told In These Times via email, “Our Facilities teams have increased cleaning schedules within all our buildings and campuses across Lockheed Martin, with a high concentration on common areas like lobbies, restrooms, breakrooms and elevators. Upon learning of probable exposure, a contracted professional cleaning and restoration company sanitizes the employee’s workspace, surrounding workspaces, common areas, and entrances and exits throughout the building.”
Anger at the expectation employees continue working led one to spit on the company’s gate in Fort Worth. Escobar says, “He was just really upset that the company was treating him like that.”
Lockheed Martin spokesman Kenneth Ross told In These Times that the company’s security team was aware of and investigating the reported spitting incident. “Obviously, that kind of behavior is not fitting with what we’re trying to do to create a Covid-19 safe environment,” he said
One Fort Worth employee infected with the virus filmed a video of himself from a hospital bed that went viral and was viewed by many of his coworkers. In sharing his story, he also exposed a gap in the company’s ability to respond to the virus while maintaining its floors open.
In Anthony Melchor’s video, which has been viewed more than 16,000 times, he is interrupted by coughs and wheezy breaths. “I’m cool on my stool, you know me,” he says, warning his fellow workers that “this Covid ain’t no bullshit, man.” He calls on them to sanitize their work areas and not go to work if they feel unsafe.
During a weekend in early April, Melchor, who suspects he was exposed to the virus at work, began to have severe migraines. He woke up the next day in a pool of sweat. His doctor ordered a Covid-19 test, but his first result was a false negative, which Melchor believes happened because his nasal swab was too shallow. After several days passed and his condition worsened, his wife insisted he receive medical attention. A second coronavirus test then came back positive, he said.
Melchor says his delay in informing Lockheed that he was positive for the virus also meant his coworkers were delayed in being removed from the line. Asked whether workers are removed from the plant when an employee shows symptoms of the virus or only after one has tested positive, a Lockheed spokesman wrote that the company “identif[ies] and inform[s] any employees who interacted with individuals exposed to or diagnosed with Covid-19 while maintaining confidentiality.”
At a Lockheed Martin site in Greenville, S.C., where the company is currently producing F-16s for Bahrain—the company appears to have only foreign clients for the fighter jet—one employee expressed concern over how close workers get to one another when they often work in pairs on either side of a jet. The worker also says it is “the nature of our business” to have employees who frequently travel, including out of the country, leading the worker to fear what they may bring back to the workplace when they return.
“From a financial standpoint I know it’s not beneficial for us to be at home,” the Greenville worker says, “but the safety of employees to me should be most important.”
Lockheed’s fighter jets are among many defense products that U.S. companies export.
In addition to Lockheed Martin, In These Times submitted questions to three other defense firms about ongoing exports during Covid-19. Northrop Grumman announced in its April 29 earnings call that the company had delivered two Global Hawk surveillance drones to South Korea that month. Asked about the precautions the company took for the safety of workers handling the drones in the final weeks leading up to the April delivery, a spokesperson wrote that the company is “taking extraordinary measures to maintain safe working conditions.” The U.S. ambassador in Seoul tweeted a picture of the sleek gray drone emblazoned with Korean letters in an April 19 message congratulating those involved in its delivery.
Another contractor, Wichita-based Textron Aviation, told In These Timesthat, during Covid-19, the company “will continue to support our customers according to our funded contract requirements, which includes foreign customers.”
Jeff Abramson, a senior fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based Arms Control Association, says the pandemic does not appear to have caused any “deviation” from the Trump administration’s policy of promoting foreign arms sales. He notes that the State Department approved numerous potential sales, including ones to controversial clients like the United Arab Emirates and the Philippines, in the midst of the global pandemic.
“It certainly seems that this administration is trying to get a message to industry that you are important. There will be work for you,” Abramson says.
Despite the essential designation, some Boeing defense-industrial sites buckled under pressure as the virus spread and closed during the pandemic. A day after the death of an employee infected with the virus in Washington State, Boeing announced it would shutter its Puget Sound site, where some 70,000 people work on both commercial and defense aircraft. Boeing also shut down a Pennsylvania site that produces military aircraft for two weeks, saying the step was “a necessary one for the health and safety of our employees and their communities.”
When Boeing partially reopened Puget Sound after about three weeks, the first production it resumed was on defense products. Asked if work was underway on P-6 patrol aircraft for foreign clients such as South Korea and New Zealand, a company spokesperson responded, “We are evaluating customer delivery schedules and working to minimize impacts to our international customers.”
Unlike the United States, some countries have allowed defense production to shut down. Mexico did not declare its defense industry essential, prompting a rebuke from the Pentagon’s Ellen Lord, who wrote to the Mexican foreign ministry regarding interruptions to supply chains. Lord later said she had seen a “positive response” from Mexico on resolving the issue. F-35 facilities in both Japan and Italy shut down for several days in the early weeks of the pandemic.
Melchor, the Fort Worth employee who is now recovering from Covid-19 at home, says he agrees with the defense-industrial base’s designation as essential, including when that involves commitments to customers amongst U.S. allies. “I just also believe that our customers would have understood if there was a two-week delay or even a month delay because of this virus,” he says.
He believes leadership is needed to address the issue in a unified way and says debate about the crisis amongst workers, whom he called on in his video to “pull together,” has become fractious.
“What I found interesting is the very thing that we build [is] to serve and protect, foreign and domestic, to protect us from any type of evil or wrongdoing,” Melchor says. “At what point does our company protect us?”
This blog originally appeared at In These Times on May 19, 2020. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Taylor Barnes is an Atlanta-based journalist who covers militarism, conflict, dissent and foreign affairs.
On March 20, the Pentagon issued a guideline stating that U.S manufacturers of missiles, warships and fighter jets should stay open during the Covid-19 crisis. The rationale is that the “defense industrial base” constitutes “essential” critical infrastructure for the United States. Yet we have every reason to believe that U.S. militarism, propped up by the arms industry, is making the world far more vulnerable to the pandemic.
Five years of devastating airstrikes, primarily carried out with U.S.-made weapons, have decimated Yemen’s health system just in time for Covid-19—and the bombs did not stop when the pandemic began. Instead of global cooperation, we’ve seen the United States tighten sanctions on Iran, one of the countries hardest hit by Covid-19, deploy ships to the caribbean to provoke Venezuela, and take a confrontational posture towards China. Now, U.S. workers are being asked to risk their lives—or, as one union that represents General Dynamics workers in Maine put it, become “sacrificial lambs”—so that the U.S. war machine can keep humming. Meanwhile, far from the assembly lines and plant floors, the CEOs of companies like Lockheed Martin and Raytheon are safeguarding their profits. These are the same executives who enjoy influence in the Trump administration, whose Secretary of Defense, Mark Esper, is a former lobbyist for Raytheon.
But now we are seeing a new dimension to this injustice. To protect the flow of supplies to U.S. military contractors, the Pentagon is pressuring Mexico and India to keep factories open, at the peril of Mexican and Indian workers. However bankrupt the argument that U.S. weapons manufacturers must stay open to protect American interests, it is outright brutish for the Pentagon to impose this standard on other countries. Workers in Mexico and India have no say in the actions of the U.S. government or military, yet they are being asked to put their lives at risk for America’s “national security.”
Covid-19 is spreading rapidly in Mexico, where factories are sources of major outbreaks. In mid-April, Mexico’s Undersecretary of Health, Hugo López-Gatell, warned that factories that continued to operate, despite orders for non-essential businesses to shut down, threatened to become major vectors of the disease and unleash an outbreak in northern border states.
Yet, just days later, in an April 20 press briefing, Undersecretary of Defense Ellen Lord said that “several pockets of closure internationally” are impacting the “aviation supply chain, ship-building and small space launch.” She stated, “I spoke with our U.S. Ambassador to Mexico on Friday, and today, I am writing the Mexican Foreign Minister to ask for help to reopen international suppliers there. These companies are especially important for our U.S. airframe production.” While Lord did not specify which U.S. companies she was referring to, several U.S. military contractors have subsidiaries in Mexico, including Lockheed Martin and Honeywell, according to a U.S. International Trade Commission report from 2013. In an April 21 earnings call, a Lockheed Martin official indicated that the company sees it as a priority that vital suppliers in Mexico stay open.
The Pentagon was not the only powerful U.S. entity that joined in this pressure campaign. In an April 24 special briefing, Michael Kozak, acting Assistant Secretary at the State Department, said, “Our embassy and here in Washington has been working very closely with Mexico, advocating for American firms.” He added, “And I think we’re making progress on that.” Meanwhile, on April 22, more than 300 corporate presidents, chairs and CEOs wrote a letter to Mexico’s President, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), to keep open manufacturers deemed by the United States to be “essential and critical.”
These joint efforts appear to have been effective. Ten days after her initial remarks about Mexico, Lord indicated in another press briefing that U.S. pressure had been successful. “While I won’t provide any numbers, we have seen positive results,” she said. “I am thankful to our U.S. ambassador in Mexico, and to the government of Mexico, who has taken great strides to evaluate firms and their contribution to U.S. National Security requirements.”
Her admission that Mexico is being compelled to put its workers at risk in the service of U.S. “national security” is striking. What’s more, Lord revealed that U.S. corporations had a seat at the table when this pressure was discussed. “I have had ongoing conversations with our U.S. ambassador to Mexico, U.S. corporate CEOs, members of the House and Senate, as well as other officials in the State Department over the past two weeks to highlight key companies constraining our domestic defense supply chain in order to catalyze re-openings in Mexico,” she said. “We appreciate Mexico’s ongoing positive response.” (The Washington Postreported on May 1 that Mexico’s President AMLO “has not clarified whether U.S. defense or health-care manufacturers should remain open.”)
In a statement for a Defense News article published April 21, Eric Fanning, the president and CEO of the Aerospace Industries Association, attempted to present the subservience of Mexican workers’ lives to U.S. arms manufacturers’ interests as a form of mutually-beneficial synchronization in the spirit of the Trump administration’s new U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade deal, slated to take effect July 1. “To restore certainty and keep goods and services moving, all levels of government within the U.S., Canada, and Mexico must work together to provide clear, coordinated, and direct guidance about how best to protect our workers, while ensuring aerospace and defense is declared an ‘essential’ function in all three countries,” he said.
The claim that a few months of slowed or stopped production presents a threat to the U.S. military apparatus is untrue on its face. The United States, by far, has the largest military in the world: In 2019 the country accounted for 38% of all global military spending, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). The United States is also the top arms exporter by a long shot, delivering weapons to 96 countries from 2015 to 2019, according to a separate SIPRI finding. What’s more, this industry has grown significantly over the past five years, with U.S. arms exports from 2015 to 2019 23% higher than 2015 to 19. The idea that this massive industry can not pause to protect the lives of workers without threatening the U.S. military fails on its own, violent logic.
Meanwhile, some Mexican workers have vociferously objected to being asked to work during the pandemic for U.S. companies. In mid-April, protests took hold in Ciudad Juárez, near the U.S. border, after workers for U.S. companies died, as Reutersreports. “These companies are worried about their supply chains, but it’s the workers who are dying,” Susana Prieto Terrazas, a labor activist in Ciudad Juárez, told the Washington Post amid protests against the Michigan-based Lear Corp., which makes car seats. “And if all they do is export, how is that essential to Mexico?”
It is not immediately clear which suppliers or subsidiaries to U.S. military contractors in Mexico have remained open as a result of pressure from the Pentagon, and whether any deaths can be directly attributed to the Pentagon’s actions. However, even keeping a single factory open for the good of U.S. military contractors presents an unacceptable risk to the workers being asked to clock in.
Mexican workers don’t appear to be the only ones being asked to make a sacrifice for the U.S. military industry. In her April 30 statement, Lord indicated, while providing no details, that the United States is applying similar pressure to India. “We’re also watching India very closely,” she said. “India has mandated closure of businesses, which is impacting defense sector primes. India is a major defense partner, and we hope they can all stay safe while transitioning back to an operational status.” This followed a brief statement she made in her April 20 remarks: “Mexico right now is somewhat problematical for us, but we’re working through our Embassy, and then there are pockets in India, as well.”
According to researchers at Johns Hopkins University, there are currently 42,836 confirmed Covid-19 cases in India, yet it has one of the lowest testing rates in the world, so numbers could be far higher. With a population of 1.3 billion and just 0.55 hospital beds per 1,000 people, a full-blown outbreak in the country could be catastrophic.
The U.S. military was already in the business of sacrificing the wellbeing of ordinary people all over the world to maintain its dominance. We see this in its 800 military bases across the planet, which erode self-determination and environmental safety around the world. We also see it in the military’s ongoing wars, occupations, drone strikes and proxy battles—which have persisted, and in some cases escalated—during the pandemic. And we have seen this in the Pentagon’s request for billions in the next stimulus package, demanding a bailout for arms industry CEOs while 30 million people in the United States are newly unemployed. That the Pentagon is now demanding workers in other countries risk their lives for the sake of protecting its U.S. contractors shines new light on the cruelty of the U.S. military, and on the folly of allowing systems designed to carry out war to determine what constitutes “essential” work.
This article was published at In These Times on May 4, 2020. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Sarah Lazare is web editor at In These Times. She comes from a background in independent journalism for publications including The Nation, Tom Dispatch, YES! Magazine, and Al Jazeera America. Her article about corporate exploitation of the refugee crisis was honored as a top censored story of 2016 by Project Censored. A former staff writer for AlterNet and Common Dreams, Sarah co-edited the book About Face: Military Resisters Turn Against War.
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