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The War and the Working Class | The Nation

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The War and the Working Class

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Click here to see the trade-offs the war has imposed on one working-class city alongside the bounty the war has bestowed on the CEOs of the top military contracting companies.

About the Author

Michael Zweig
Michael Zweig, a professor of economics and director of the Center for Study of Working Class Life at the State...

The government treats its soldiers the way most corporations treat their workforce--as an invisible, disrespected, disposable means to an end that is contrary to workers' interests. Members of the armed forces come mainly and disproportionately from the working class and from small-town and rural America, where opportunities are hard to come by. The "economic draft" operates, in effect, to recruit young people from these communities as they sign up to gain job skills, experience and educational opportunities absent from their civilian lives.

A number of parallel experiences link the lives of soldiers with those of working-class civilians, going well beyond their common discipline of following orders. Consider "stop-loss" as an example. The military reserves the right to extend the deployment time and active-duty status of every soldier beyond the service dates prescribed in their enlistment contracts and mobilization papers. Most soldiers were unaware of this as the Iraq War intensified, but by the start of 2006 the military had enforced its stop-loss provision on 50,000 of them. Outraged soldiers and their families challenged these extensions in court, but they were upheld.

Meanwhile, in the civilian economy, one out of every five full-time hourly employees worked mandatory overtime--the requirement by management that the worker stay on the job beyond the normal quitting time. Many workers want overtime for the money, but they generally resent being forced into it, especially when it disrupts family plans or taxes their physical or mental strength. While the consequences of stop-loss are more far-reaching, the principle is the same. Both disregard the needs of the workforce and abrogate the expectations working people have of a life outside the control of their employers.

Counter-recruitment activity, an important element of the anti-Iraq War movement, responds to the many ways recruiters imply commitments to prospective enlistees that the military is under no obligation to keep and promise benefits that in the end do not materialize--a pattern with many parallels in working-class civilian life. Common among the misleading enticements are offers of training that will lead to civilian employment in good jobs; education benefits to pay for college costs and even the signing bonuses, $10,000 or more, that can seem like a fortune to the kids at the desk. The most outrageous reason for yanking back the signing benefits comes when a soldier leaves the military before the full commitment is over because of severe combat injuries. The military, insisting that the benefits are contingent on honorable discharge after completing the full term of service, has moved to take back the signing bonuses that injured servicemembers, unable to complete their tours, have already collected. To combat these practices, young people, often accompanied by veterans with their own stories to tell, are challenging military recruiters in high schools, shopping malls and other places where recruiters seek out volunteers to fill their quotas. Congressional attempts to stop these abuses have so far been unsuccessful.

These bait-and-switch practices are reminiscent of the way corporations demand local and state government subsidies to locate offices and factories in depressed communities desperate for jobs. Such corporations typically promise good jobs and long-term economic stability if local communities underwrite roads and other infrastructure, give tax exemptions for the company's property and profits, and sometimes even give it direct cash subsidies. All too often the company collects the subsidies but fails to live up to its end of the bargain. It fails to create the promised new jobs and moves out of the community when the subsidies end, leaving the local working people and their government depleted and often mad enough to sue, but almost never successfully.

When jobs disappear, workers are supposed to be able to collect unemployment compensation, a program begun in the New Deal era and a critical part of the social safety net. But over the last thirty-five years, unemployment compensation programs have been cut back and made more inaccessible. At this point, only 35 percent of unemployed workers actually collect these benefits.

In the military we also see problems in the amount and quality of benefits provided to discharged soldiers. Last year's scandal at Walter Reed Army Medical Center shocked the nation, but veterans' organizations across the country are regularly forced to fend off proposed cuts. Just as corporate employers fight against claims for workers' compensation by injured employees, the military resists treatment for service-related disabilities, such as the psychological damage from post-traumatic stress disorder or the physical aftereffects of Agent Orange from the Vietnam era.

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