War and workers’power in the United States:
Labor struggles in war-provisioning industries,
Corey R. Payne
Department of Sociology, The Arrighi
Center for Global Studies, Johns Hopkins
University, Baltimore, Maryland
Corey R. Payne, Department of Sociology,
The Arrighi Center for Global Studies,
Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore,
At the turn of the 21st century, a general disempower-
ment of industrial workers in the United States yielded
pessimistic assessments of the labor movement. Yet,
during the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan,
industrial war-provisioning workers in the United
States engaged in a wave of largely successful struggles
for a greater share of expanding war-profits. This article
investigates these strikes in war-provisioning industries
from 1993 to 2016, finding a wave of offensive struggles
between 2003 and 2009. This wave is indicative of an
increase in these workers’structural bargaining power,
due to growing state reliance on war-materials provi-
sioning during wartime. Nevertheless, transformations
in the organization of production and war-making
made such empowerment ephemeral. This article dem-
onstrates how changes in military actions and
strategy—most notably, the wars in Iraq and Afghani-
stan, the Obama “pivot”to East Asia, and escalating
“great power”rivalry—affect the bargaining power of
workers in war-provisioning industries.
On April 10, 2000, workers at Lockheed Martin's F-16 fighter jet manufacturing plant in Fort
Worth, Texas, went on strike. In the months leading up to the vote, the company had
Received: 6 November 2019 Revised: 5 January 2020 Accepted: 7 February 2020
© 2020 Immanuel Ness and Wiley Periodicals, Inc.
Labor and Society. 2020;1–20. wileyonlinelibrary.com/journal/lands 1
announced layoffs in the factory and, facing stagnating wages and increasing healthcare costs,
the union was driven to defend the workers’livelihoods. Lockheed Martin, facing weak sales of
its military aircraft and record-low profits, fought the striking workers—and won. The conflict
ended with a union capitulation and workers returned to work with a lackluster contract. In
contrast, 3 years later, in April 2003, the same union went on the offensive, demanding a
greater share of the war-profits that had been flowing into the firm's coffers in the Bush era.
Following a 2-week strike that delayed the production of F-16s, Lockheed Martin agreed to
greater wage increases and reductions in healthcare premiums. As one striking worker noted:
“We have foregone a lot of raises over the last few contracts because our company had not been
in a good position…But this year we absolutely are in a different position—there are record
profits at Lockheed Martin. We are asking for a fair contract”(Blau, 2003).
This Fort Worth plant is not an outlier in its militancy: Between 1993 and 2016, the
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports 28 work stoppages at war-materials manufacturing
plants in the United States, accounting for nearly 2.2 million working days lost. These stoppages
occurred in the context of a neoliberal assault on the working class and during decades of
deindustrialization—yet, like the 2003 Fort Worth example above, many of these strikes were
offensive, not defensive, in character. In contrast to the general disempowerment of industrial
workers in the Global North in this period, these strikes beg the question: What explains the
wave of offensive struggles by industrial war-provisioning workers in the 21st century?
This article investigates the relationship between war and workers’power at the point of
production in the United States from 1993 to 2016 by examining these strikes. Using data on
work stoppages from the BLS, for which detailed information begins in 1993, this article focuses
on war-provisioning manufacturing industries. Complementing this data with newspaper
accounts, the first part of this article presents the trends in this industry over the past quarter-
century. The second part of this article then explains these trends through a broader analysis of
I find that the initial years of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan yielded relatively high power
and rewards to workers in war-provisioning industries in the form of opportunities for struggle,
an offensive character of struggle, and largely successful outcomes. Yet, by the end of the
decade, this momentary empowerment had reversed as industrial war-provisioning workers
reverted to defensive struggles. What accounts for this pattern? I argue that these shifts are
explained by changes in workers’structural bargaining power, rooted in the changing nature of
military procurement. More specifically, when military demand was high during the apex of
the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the workers leveraged the state's reliance on them for a larger
share of the war profits. Yet as these wars continued and U.S. policy shifted, pressing battlefield
needs no longer drove military procurement, reducing the military's reliance on these workers’
products and amounting to a disempowerment redux.
2|WAR AND WORKERS IN THE UNITED STATES
By the turn of the 21st century, declining labor militancy, falling union densities, shrinking real
wages, and growing job insecurity led to a growing sense of labor in crisis (e.g., Bluestone &
Harrison, 1982; Eisenscher, 2002; Griffin, McCammon, & Botsko, 1990; Western, 1995). In
recent decades, the struggles by industrial workers that have occurred in the United States have
been largely defensive in character. “Deindustrialization”and “outsourcing”have caused mass
layoffs in industrial manufacturing in the Global North as productive capital relocated to
cheaper locales in the Global South (Bluestone & Harrison, 1982; Harvey, 2001; Silver, 2003).
Some have described this as a global “race to the bottom”as workers compete for jobs with ever
lower wages (Godfrey, 1986; Mazur, 2000; Western, 1995). Even scholars who contested the
global “race to the bottom”thesis recognized the “unmaking”of the industrial working class in
the Global North (Silver, 2003).
At the same time, in a bid to overcome the “Vietnam syndrome,”the U.S. government
attempted to reduce the number of citizens involved in warfare by embracing more capital-
intensive technologies, investing in special operations troops, and shunning mobilization of
citizen-soldiers that characterized warfare since the industrial revolution. This “revolution in
military affairs”(e.g., Bitzinger, 2008) coincided with the emergence of “new wars”(Kaldor,
1999) and a “new imperialism”(Harvey, 2003). In the decades of war that have followed these
transformations, scholars and critics of the military-industrial complex have examined in detail
some of the major changes to war-making and their political-economic impacts. Transforma-
tions in the organization of warfare including the end of the draft, an increase in use of “private
military contractors,”the emergence of “smart”bombs and drones, and the costs (both human
and economic) have been the subject of much discussion (e.g., Bacevich, 2016; Dower, 2017;
Garrett-Peltier, 2014; Hartung, 2011; Savell, 2018; Singer, 2008). A growing consensus has
emerged that 21st century wars are being waged with a dramatic reduction in input from and
reliance on the citizenry (see, especially, Bacevich, 2016).
Given these transformations in the organizations of production and war-making, it is thus
not surprising that the existing literature emphasizes the ways in which 21st century wars have
a disempowering—or even repressive—effect on workers and citizens (e.g., Cowen, 2007; Lafer,
2004; Ness, 2002). This amounts to a significant change from the 20th century relationship
between war and workers, in which wars were widely understood to have enhanced the
bargaining power of many workers in the United States. For example, the preparation for and
waging of the world wars and the wars in Korea and Vietnam yielded an increase in domestic
production, tighter labor markets, higher wages, and a rise in union membership (Dubofsky &
McCartin, 2017:279). Many argue that these wars were an important cause of declining inequal-
ity within the United States and that they catalyzed the growth of the U.S. welfare state and the
advance of civil rights (Mettler, 2005; Parker, 2009; Piketty, 2014; Silver, 2003). These wars were
associated with increased citizenship rights and benefits, as workers and citizens used their
state's war-time reliance on them to steadily increase their strength (Silver, 2003, 2015; Tilly,
In fact, Beverly Silver identifies cycles of struggle between workers, states, and capital which
correspond to broader geopolitical transformations over the course of historical capitalism
(Silver & Slater, 1999). By the advent of the First World War, states had become dependent
upon workers for war-making, not only as soldiers (as Tilly, 1992, explains in detail), but also as
producers of war-time commodities ranging from arms to textiles. Silver argues that this depen-
dence constituted a major increase in the bargaining power of the working class. Workers used
this bargaining power as a means of demanding new rights and protections in the form of a
social compact with states and capital. Following each of the two World Wars, labor unrest
peaked globally. Silver explains that “beneath the volatility of labor unrest was an important
longer-term trend…the strengthening of workers’bargaining power vis-à-vis their govern-
ments”(2015, 24). Workers leveraged this power for an expansion of the welfare state and a
strengthening of collective protections. Ultimately, workers around the world used the
enhanced bargaining power that the war-time demand had yielded to them to force a new norm
of tripartite relations.
To understand the changing character of workers’struggles over time, Silver develops the
concepts of workers’“associational”and “structural”bargaining power (Silver, 2003; cf. Wright,
2000). The former refers to power resulting from collective organization (for example, in unions
or parties). The latter refers to workers’power which is accrued from their position in the eco-
nomic system and is disaggregated into “marketplace bargaining power”(which results directly
from tight labor markets) and “workplace bargaining power”(which results from the strategic
location of a particular group of workers within commodity chains).
These concepts are useful for understanding workers’struggles in war-provisioning indus-
tries, but only when combined with an understanding of the particularities of the military-
industrial complex. As a result of their intricate relationships with the state, military supply
firms have long been understood to operate differently than other capitalist firms. For example,
Kidron (1967) identifies the “permanent arms economy”—or, the consistent flow of state funds
into arms production—as a means of preventing the tendency of the rate of profit to fall, due to
arms’“luxury”commodity status. Ernest Mandel (1972), similarly, places armaments in an
entirely separate category of commodities—the production of which requires complex ties
between monopoly capital and the state. This is confirmed by the research of scholars of the
military-industrial complex, such as Gordon Adams (1981), who identified an “iron triangle”
among congress, the armaments industry, and the military which prioritized the interests of the
firms and artificially inflated weapons procurement budgets. This finding is expanded more
recently by William Hartung (2011), who explores the complex interweaving of military, politi-
cal, and capitalist interests in the growth and consolidation of military firms—namely,
Lockheed Martin—throughout the 20th and 21st centuries.
What does this complex interweaving of military and capitalist interests mean for the
workers supplying war-materials? At a basic level, a key source of war-provisioning workers’
marketplace bargaining power is the state's demand for the goods they produce. Widely under-
stood factors—such as labor market trends, changes in the organization in production, and
outsourcing—also play a role in the empowerment and disempowerment of these workers. But,
given the central role of the state in stimulating these industries, the changing interests, strate-
gies, and conflicts of the state itself affect these workers’power. Thus, in addition to the state's
demand, this article emphasizes the use-value of the commodities being procured—which, as
we shall see, changes with state interests and military strategy. For war-provisioning workers
during wartime, it is not simply the market demand for the goods being produced that leads to
empowerment, but the urgent reliance on their continued supply. Changes in the uses of these
commodities—largely as the result of shifting military strategy—have critical effects on these
workers’marketplace bargaining power. In order to analyze such changes in workers’power,
we turn to workers struggles at the point of production.
This section uses data on work stoppages from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) and contem-
poraneous newspaper reports to investigate workers’struggles in war-provisioning manufactur-
ing industries. I find that workers in war-provisioning industries were empowered at the point
of production by the initial years of the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. This heightened
bargaining power is indicated by the opportunities for struggle, the offensive character of those
struggles, and their largely successful outcomes.
The BLS has compiled detailed information on all work stoppages (consisting of at least
1,000 workers) at the firm level between 1993 and 2016. By identifying all work stoppages in
manufacturing firms for war planes, ships, and weapons systems, one can create a category of
Because data is reported at the firm level with information about
specific facilities, one can categorize work stoppages even within the same firm (e.g., by deter-
mining if a striking Boeing plant produces civilian or military aircraft). A complete list of the
included work stoppages can be found in Table 1.
Figure 1 presents the working days lost from work stoppages in war-provisioning industries.
There is a clear pattern, with two peaks, in 2000 and 2015, each approaching 400,000 working
TABLE 1 Work-stoppages in war-provisioning industries, 1993–2016 (Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics,
U.S. Department of Labor, 2017)
Year Company State(s) Union Workdays lost Mostly offensive?
1993 Douglas Aircraft CA IAM 13,600
1993 Allied Signal VA IBT 36,800
1994 General Dynamics MI, OH, PA UAW 48,000
1996 Pemco Aeroplex AL UAW 183,700
1998 Honeywell MN IBT 26,000
1999 Ingalls Shipbuilding MS MTC 98,000 ✓
2000 Lockheed Martin TX IAM 29,900
2000 Raytheon MA IBEW 77,500
2000 Bath Iron Works ME IAM 182,400
2000 Olin IL IAM 86,400
2001 Pratt and Whitney CT IAM 45,000
2002 Lockheed Martin GA, MS, WV IAM 101,500
2003 Lockheed Martin TX IAM 40,000 ✓
2005 Lockheed Martin GA IAM 18,000 ✓
2005 Boeing CA, FL, AL IAM 87,200 ✓
2006 Sikorsky Aircraft CT, FL IBT 108,000 ✓
2006 Bombardier Learjet KS IAM 16,500 ✓
2006 Raytheon AZ IAM 93,100 ✓
2007 Northrop Grumman MS IBEW 130,000 ✓
2008 Hawker Beechcraft KS IAM 98,800 ✓
2009 Bell Helicopter Textron TX UAW 67,500
2010 Boeing CA UAW 30,600
2012 Lockheed Martin TX IAM 172,800
2013 Bell Helicopter Textron TX UAW 2,600
2014 Army Fleet Support AL IAM 15,000
2015 Allegheny Technologies OH, PA, WV USS 281,600
2015 Consolidated Nuclear Security TX OPEIU 28,800
2015 Allegheny Technologies OH, PA, WV USW 74,800
days lost. Although there is a significant reduction in work stoppages between 2001 and 2004,
there is a resurgence in 2005 to 2009 and then again in 2012 and 2015.
I use the work stoppages identified by the BLS as a guide to analyze newspaper accounts of
these capital-labor conflicts in war-provisioning industries. I find that conflicts in war-
provisioning industries saw a shift to an offensive character following the outbreak of war in
2003. Yet, by 2009, these struggles revert to a defensive character. The use of “defensive”and
“offensive”to describe the character of struggles builds from a large tradition of literature in
social protest studies (e.g., Hung, 2011; Silver, 2003; Tilly, 1978). For the purposes of this article,
offensive struggles are characterized by demands for increases in wages or benefits, while defen-
sive struggles are characterized by demands against the reduction or elimination of wages or
benefits and against outsourcing, automation, or other labor-reducing changes to the produc-
The work stoppages themselves thus become sites of observation for broad and inter-related
social processes. In the most basic sense, these work stoppages are cases of labor-capital conflict
and, given these cases’theorized importance to the national economic and security interest, are
instances through which one can observe the changing tripartite relationship between capital,
labor, and the state. As such, the offensive or defensive character of these conflicts can be
understood as proxies for relatively high and relatively low workers’structural bargaining
power in these industries. While such an operationalization is imperfect, it can be useful in
identifying change over time within a single industry.
0100000 200000 300000 400000
Working Days Lost
FIGURE 1 Working days lost from work stoppages, war-provisioning industries, 1993–2016 (Source:
Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, 2017)
3.1 |Defensive struggles in the “inter-war”period
The struggles of workers in war-provisioning industries in the 1990s share many characteristics
with the well-known story of industrial workers’disempowerment in the last decades of the
20th century. The work stoppages during the “inter-war period”between the end of the
1990–1991 Gulf War and the start of the 21st century wars, for example, were primarily charac-
terized by defensive struggles of war-provisioning workers, fighting against layoffs and res-
tructuring, driven by relatively lower profit margins by defense firms and weapons
manufacturers during a period of relative peace. With the expansion of the military-industrial
complex following the attacks of September 11, 2001, and the ramp up to the wars in Iraq and
Afghanistan, we see a shift in war-provisioning workers’conflicts. While before the outbreak of
war, these workers were waging defensive struggles against outsourcing, deskilling, and layoffs,
the struggles from 2003 to 2009 are more offensive in nature, pursuing increased wages, better
healthcare, and a fairer share of the war-profits.
While there were few strikes in war provisioning industries in the 1990s, those that did
occur were mostly defensive in character: For example, a 1996 strike at Pemco Aeroplex broke
out over organizational changes that would have set the stage for layoffs (Aerospace Workers,
1996). It was in 2000 that the first major wave of struggles occurred. That April, Lockheed Mar-
tin machinists struck as their regular contract ended; their primary demand was for wage
increases. But, the strike happened in the context of falling profits for the military contractor in
the late 1990s. Particularly hard-hit was the company's F-16 division, as demand in the
U.S. plummeted. Lockheed had been able to find some foreign government buyers but the lack
of a war-time stimulus at home caused reductions. Between January 2000 and April 2000,
Lockheed had laid off about 500 workers (Lockheed Workers, 2000a). The strike ended with
lackluster raises and union capitulation on healthcare and pensions.
Workers also struck at Raytheon that year. The Massachusetts factories of Raytheon were
notable for their production of the Patriot missiles, which had been widely used in the 1991
Gulf War (Raytheon Workers, 2000b). The firm was based in Massachusetts and had recently
received tax breaks to keep manufacturing jobs there—yet Raytheon still had been steadily
shifting jobs from the state to cheaper locales in the west. The company deployed a massive pri-
vate security force to suppress the strikers and the 5-week picket was characterized by reports
of brutality from these forces toward the strikers (Leonard, 2000). Even more telling, the largest
strike of this wave was at the Bath Iron Works, which was a subsidiary of military supply firm
General Dynamics. The Iron Works were only one of two shipyards responsible for constructing
the Navy's advanced destroyers and produced about two ships per year. Thus, the months-long
strike of nearly 5,000 workers was far more disruptive to the company and to the Navy than the
others in this period. Despite this, the demands were still defensive: Although the company had
not yet announced layoffs, the workers were concerned with a new proposal to cross-train the
workers. Such cross-training, the workers argued, was a process of deskilling and a precursor to
layoffs (Maine Shipyard, 2000).
3.2 |Offensive struggles and the Iraq war
These work stoppages in the 1990s (through 2002) are characterized by defensive struggles like
those that are generally accepted to have characterized other industries in this period. Yet,
starting in 2003, struggles became more offensive in nature, pursuing increased wages, better
healthcare, and a fairer share of the war-profits. A 2003 strike at the same Lockheed Martin
plant (still producing F-16 fighters) in Fort Worth illustrates this shift. The strikers fought for
increased healthcare and wages, as opposed to the earlier struggle, in which the strikers fought
against layoffs (Contract Ends, 2003). What's more, as one strike captain told local news: “We
have foregone a lot of raises over the last few contracts because our company had not been in a
good position…But this year we absolutely are in a different position—there are record profits
at Lockheed Martin. We are asking for a fair contract”(Blau, 2003). This points not only to a
shift toward offensive struggles, but also to a sense of injustice—the outbreak of war had cre-
ated soaring profits for military supply firms like Lockheed, and the workers wanted a larger
Comparable offensive struggles occurred in the following years. In 2005, a 92-day strike at
Boeing over health premiums disrupted the company's Delta rocket program and delayed the
launching of Boeing-made satellites (Fleischauer, 2005; Galvin, 2006). At Bombardier's Learjet
facility in Wichita, workers rejected a contract from the firm against the recommendation of
their union leadership, saying that the proposed wage increases were not enough (Strike at
Learjet, 2006). One worker noted that “We're tired of being lied to, told one thing and doing
another…I wanted more. They preach world-class company, but they didn't pay us world-class”
(Galer, 2006). At the time, it had been 4 years since the last wage increase. Union officials
acknowledged that “three years ago, workers accepted wage freezes and other concessions
because Bombardier needed to cut costs,”but now workers were inclined to fight (Galer, 2006).
The strike concluded with a win for the workers at a total 11% increase in pay and caps on
health care premiums (International Association of Machinists, 2006).
A Raytheon missile facility in Arizona faced similar circumstances: While the company
offered a 9% increase in wages, workers decided that it was not enough to offset the rising cost
of healthcare. After deciding not to strike in a prior contract dispute in 2003 that resulted in a
lackluster deal for the workers, the union was ready to go on the offensive in 2006. Said one
worker: “They're making a lot of money off us, and all we want is a little respect.”Another said
that recently “the company made big profits, and what they're showing with this contract is
they don't want to give any of that profit to us”(Stauffer, 2006). After a 70-day strike, the
workers won additional bonuses to offset healthcare costs (Raytheon Strike, 2007). Other exam-
ples abound: Workers striking for better healthcare at Sikorsky aircraft plants in 2006 delayed
helicopters which were bound for Iraq and Afghanistan and acknowledged this as source of
their power: “They do depend on our aircraft,”one striker said, “but it's not our fault that we're
out here”(Cowan, 2006).
3.3 |Defensive struggles redux
These offensive struggles during the initial years of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan eventually
gave way to renewed defensive struggles. For example, in 2009, unionized workers at military
helicopter manufacture Bell Textron went on strike over proposed increases to healthcare costs
and the elimination of unionized custodial positions (Huber, 2009). In 2010, workers at a
Boeing plant constructing C-17s walked out over proposed cuts to pensions and increases to
healthcare costs. Boeing's harder line came as the U.S. military stopped buying C-17s and inter-
national sales became the primary revenue stream (Hennigan & Olivarez-Giles, 2010).
Other defensive struggles in these years abound: A 2012 contract negotiation at Lockheed
Martin's F-35 fighter jet production plant resulted in a strike when the company attempted to
eliminate the workers’pensions, reportedly at the urging of the U.S. Department of Defense
(Shalal-Esa, 2012). In the previous contract negotiations, the union had agreed to give up medi-
cal benefits for retired workers. Despite high profits and the expectation of expanded production
on the project, the workers were eventually forced to accept the elimination of pensions for
new hires (Drew, 2012). Helicopter mechanics at Fort Rucker in Alabama went on strike in
April 2014 over “working conditions, eroding seniority rights, and overtime procedures”(Gore,
2014). Despite military officials stating that “this dispute is impacting our ability to train
aviators,”5 months after the strike ended, the company began to lay off workers (Griffin, 2014).
The company—Army Fleet Support—listed “recent decreases”in the military's helicopter use
as the pretext for the layoffs. Similarly, workers at the Consolidated Nuclear Security Panex
plant—which is the “only facility in the U.S. responsible for the assembly, disassembly and
replenishment of the nation's nuclear weapons stockpile”—went on strike in 2015 over the
plant's attempts to reduce health coverage and eliminate pensions (Ault & Rashada, 2015).
3.4 |Empowerment, then disempowerment
After reviewing the struggles of this period, their character, and their outcomes, one can identify
a pattern. Prior to the outbreak of the 21st century wars, workers in war-provisioning industries
were waging defensive struggles and conceding to the demands of capital. The years of 2001–2003
saw a significant reduction in work stoppages by war-provisioning workers (what Stohl, 1980,
might call a “rally around the flag”response following the events of September 11, 2001). After
the outbreak of the Iraq war in 2003, there was an increase in work stoppages by war-
provisioning workers. These work stoppages were different in character from the earlier wave:
Demands were now offensive; workers wanted a fairer share of the new war-profits. In this wave,
workers leveraged their structural position in the war-effort. As the war dragged on, work stop-
pages continued—but, unlike the wave in the mid-2000s, these struggles were again defensive in
nature. This pattern is clear from the presentation of these work stoppages in Table 1.
Given this pattern, we are left with the following questions: What explains the empower-
ment of war-provisioning workers between 2003 and 2009? And, even more puzzling, why were
these workers disempowered after 2009—despite the continuation of the U.S. wars in the
Greater Middle East? It is to these questions that this article now turns.
4|EXPLAINING THE PATTERN: CHANGING STATE
In the 1990s, as the military-industrial complex underwent an existential reorganization follow-
ing the end of the Cold War, profits were low and state demand for war-materials was falling. It
is thus not surprising that war-provisioning workers were not shielded from the restructuring
and “unmaking”plaguing other industrial workforces. But what explains the subsequent pat-
tern of momentarily heightened workers’power at the point of production during the initial
years of the 21st century wars, followed by a reversal by the end of the decade—despite the fact
that the wars continued to drag on?
After the invasion of Iraq in 2003, military procurement boomed, stimulating the war-
provisioning industry. The materials being produced were necessary for the war-effort in Iraq
and Afghanistan. Thus, this increase in procurement, combined with the reliance of the
military on these workers for their products, led to a structural empowerment of these
workers—who leveraged that power for a larger share of the soaring war profits. The state's reli-
ance on war-provisioning workers from 2003 to 2009—during which time workers were emp-
owered and engaged in offensive struggles—is illustrated in part by responses from state
officials to work stoppages. For example, in the lengthy 2006 United Technology-owned Sikor-
sky strike, representatives intervened to end the strike. As Forbes reported:
Connecticut's Congressional delegation sent a letter to union leaders, declaring that
they were “deeply troubled”that the strike has trudged on for over a month—
threatening the pipeline of badly-needed Black Hawks and U.S. Navy Seahawks.
The letter was, significantly, copied to [the CEO of United Technologies]—who evi-
dently read the writing on the wall: Wartime requirements will render Sikorsky
expendable, in favor of contracts with Boeing and Lockheed Martin (Levine, 2006).
Other cases did not require direct intervention, but firms felt the same pressure: For example,
the strike at a Georgia Lockheed Martin facility in 2005 threatened to “embarrass”the company
as the Air Force's planned testing deadline approached (Lockheed workers, 2005). Of course,
the U.S. government did not solely offer a conciliatory approach to workers disrupting war-pro-
visioning. Just as in the 20th century, state officials pressured and repressed striking workers as
often as they pressured capital to acquiesce (see, e.g., Lafer, 2004, 335–339).
Thus, the initial empowerment of war-provisioning workers following the invasion of Iraq
was based in a similar relationship to the state that industrial workers in the 20th century had
had. Yet the core differences—notably, the smaller size of the workforce (as a result of changes
to the production process such as automation and outsourcing)—should not be overlooked.
While some increased reliance on these workers was inevitable—changes to the production
process had not completely replaced industrial workers—the Bush administration did every-
thing possible to reduce the impact of the war on U.S. worker-citizens. The “Vietnam syn-
drome”was still a specter haunting Washington. As Bacevich (2016, 224) notes, the Bush
administration saw any involvement of the American people as “inconvenient…likely to
infringe on their own freedom of action”and “a net liability.”
Later, a shift in U.S. strategy with the Obama administration meant a draw down for the
wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and “pivot”away from the Greater Middle East and toward East
Asia. War-provisioning workers continued to produce war-materials, but they were largely not
useful in the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan and were instead intended for “great power”con-
flict with the likes of Russia or China—the lack of a pressing military use-value meant that the
state had reduced its reliance on these workers, and their ability to disrupt military operations
was significantly diminished. Despite the continued near-monopolization of the market and
consistent demand, the changing use-value of these products—no longer pressing battlefield
requirements—led to a reduction in workers’marketplace bargaining power. This combined
with an expansion in international outsourcing and, in 2011, military spending cuts, to further
encumber these workers’structural power.
4.1 |International outsourcing
When pressing battlefield needs arose, the Bush administration avoided turning to
U.S. industrial workers whenever possible. For example, in Iraq, the army found itself
struggling to confront the use of “improvised explosive devices”(IEDs). These weapons were
inflicting serious damage on military vehicles. After years of reinforcing the existing Humvees
to little success, in 2007, the military developed the “Mine-Resistant, Ambush-Protected vehi-
cle”(MRAP). As Hasik (2016, 2017) shows, these developments—the reinforcement of existing
Humvees and the development of new vehicles—required a specialty steel (3/8-in plate) that
was not being produced in great quantities in the U.S.—U.S. firms were only producing about
30,000 tons annually. The U.S. military suddenly required 252,000 tons annually. Instead of
mobilizing domestic industry, which the U.S. government had been wont to do in earlier con-
flicts, the military looked elsewhere—to Russian, Indian, Canadian, Swedish, and Israeli
firms—for meeting their demand.
This became standard procurement procedure by the 2010s, when the military's policy states
that “where [US-sourced components] are not [necessary for security reasons], the
U.S. taxpayer expects…cost-effective procurement, including sourcing from foreign compa-
nies…” (Andrews, 2013). This is a far cry from U.S. government policy during the 20th century
wars, which saw laws such as the Buy American Act (expanded in 1941 and 1973) protect
U.S. manufacturing—and ensure continued reliance on U.S. war-provisioning workers
In fact, there are at least 14 manufacturing categories in which the U.S. military relies
heavily on imported minerals or technologies (Adams, 2013). Examples which have garnered
the most attention from critics are those that came from potential adversaries of the United
States, like China, which was found to have been the sole producer of the propellant found in
hellfire missiles—a weapon of choice in the wars in the Greater Middle East. China was also
the producer of over 90% of all specialty glass which is required for U.S.-made night-vision gog-
gles, a significant portion of the copper-nickel tubing, and nearly the entire supply of both
lithium-ion batteries and telecommunications equipment (Andrews, 2013). A disclosure in 2014
showed that the U.S. military “repeatedly waived laws banning Chinese-built components on
U.S. weapons in order to keep the…F-35 fighter program on track”(US put China-made, 2014).
Parts made in China were used in the radar system, landing gears, and other hardware. The
main component in question was an inexpensive magnet that was also produced by several
U.S. companies—but the military procurer said waivers were issued to cut costs and keep the
production on track. These findings led politicians to express concern that “American firms are
being shut out of the specialty metals market, and that a U.S. weapon system may become
dependent on parts made by a potential future adversary”(US put China-made, 2014). Military
leaders, such as Ret. General John Adams, point to the “growing reliance on global manufactur-
ing supply chains to fulfill our national defense needs”as a massive threat (Adams, 2015).
The increased reliance on Chinese products and materials has garnered attention because of
the potential implications of relying on a geopolitical rival for military goods. Given the recent
escalation of tensions between the U.S. and China, such as the clash over Chinese firm
Huawei's role in the development of wireless technology that the U.S. government claims is a
threat to national security, China role as a supplier may be undergoing a transformation
(Pham, 2019). But, Chinese products are far from the only examples of war-materials out-
sourcing. Reliance on components from allied countries—such as NATO and Japan—has sky-
rocketed in the past decades (e.g., Adams, 2013).
In short, the expansion of international outsourcing—from both U.S. allies and
adversaries—over the course of the 21st century amounts to a steady structural disempower-
ment of war-provisioning workers. Such changes to the production process result in the loosen-
ing of labor markets, as the ability to hire workers in other locales grows, and in a weakening
of the strategic location of U.S. war-provisioning workers in the commodity chain, as other
sources of commodities are created. This allows the U.S. to continue to wage its “forever wars”
in the Greater Middle East while still reducing reliance on U.S. industrial workers. As such, this
outsourcing diminishes these workers’structural bargaining power in general over the course
of these decades, even as the wars (initially) increased that power.
4.2 |Use-values and military necessity
The state's demand for war commodities is a significant part of the explanation of the changing
character of struggles by workers in the war-provisioning industries.
But, as explained above,
outsourcing circumvents U.S. industrial workers despite continued demand. This highlights the
importance of investigating other factors—besides demand, pure and simple—to understand
the pattern of struggle in this period. Notably, industrial war-provisioning workers’power is
determined not just by the quantity of demand for their products but also by the use-value of
the commodities produced—especially the extent to which the military relies on their contin-
ued supply for pressing battlefield concerns.
The debate over funding for the F-22 combat plane is illustrative. Senator Barney Frank sar-
castically noted that the prominent view in Washington was “the government does not create
jobs when it funds the building of bridges or important research or retrains workers, but when
it builds airplanes that are never going to be used in combat, that is of course economic salva-
tion”(quoted in Krugman, 2009, emphasis added). Frank is identifying a key transformation
that explains the war-provisioning workers’shift back to defensive struggles around this time:
The materials produced by war-provisioning workers in these years are increasingly not used in
contemporaneous war-making. This means that the government is not increasing its reliance on
workers despite continued demand for the products.
While the F-22 sparked Frank's cogent remark, the F-35—constructed at the same Fort
Worth Lockheed-Martin plant which experienced a work stoppage in each of the three periods
discussed above—is perhaps the best example. The F-35 model—despite being the most techno-
logically advanced in the world—is not destined for combat and, by many estimations, never
will be. According to a Pentagon report, it is “not effective and not suitable across the required
mission areas and against currently fielded threats”(Grazier & Smithberger, 2016; cf. Ciralsky,
2013). Moreover, despite massive spending on the F-35, procurers have also invested in a differ-
ent fighter jet—the F-15X—for the sole purpose of stimulating a “robust industrial base”and
maintaining “multiple providers in the tactical aircraft portfolio.”The defense department thus
contracted with both Lockheed-Martin for the F-35 and Boeing for the F-15X—not because the
government has a pressing need for either (let alone both) of these fighters, but because such
contracting is profitable for weapons manufacturers (Pawlyk, 2019).
The review of workers’struggles above clearly demonstrates the effect of this change on
workers’power. In the late 1990s, the F-16s being produced at the Fort Worth plant were
largely destined for foreign buyers, thus the workers were not able to leverage their usefulness
for U.S. war-making. At this time, their struggles were defensive in nature and resulted in lay-
offs for workers. After the 21st century wars began, these airplanes were destined for combat
and thus the workers were able to leverage that reliance into structural empowerment. The
2003 struggle at this same plant was offensive in character and workers demanded a greater
share of the war-time profits. Yet, we see a change after this plant begins to produce the F-35:
With the government not urgently relying on the production of this airplane—that is, with a
change in the use-value of the commodity—when the same workers struck (defensively) in
2012 over reductions in pensions and healthcare, they lost their struggle. Despite a near-
monopoly on supply and a strategic location in the commodity chain, the workers’marketplace
bargaining power was eroded as a result of the changing use-value of the commodity being
What we see in the story of this plant is a microcosm for the trends explored in this article:
In the 1990s, the U.S. government was not purchasing the plant's airplanes, so workers did not
see in an increase in bargaining power. After the outbreak of war, the government was
purchasing—and required—the plant's airplanes, and workers were able to leverage that reli-
ance into a larger share of the war-profits. Finally, in recent years, the plant has begun to con-
struct a new model that is largely unnecessary for current warfare—leading to a reduction in
workers’power vis-à-vis the initial years of the war.
The F-35 is one of the most egregious, but far from the only, example of this phenomenon.
The Army's new Humvee is currently “not operationally suitable”after years and billions of
dollars of development (Whiteman, 2019). The failure of the F-35 and the new Humvee to ade-
quately replace supposedly antiquated military vehicles is matched by the Navy's attack subma-
rines and the Army's Chinook helicopters (Thompson, 2019). Moreover, despite an
overwhelming stockpile of 6,000 tanks and requests from the army to shift funds elsewhere,
Congress continues to demand the production of more (Matthews, 2019).
There are two major causes for this shift in the use-value of war-materials. First is standard
pork-barrel politics, as congressional representatives resist cuts directed at their districts—even
if the products from the military-funded manufacturers are largely useless to present wartime
operations (e.g., Hartung, 2011, 2018; Matthews, 2019). Instead of investing in procurement that
is required for combat operations—or, more unthinkably, cutting the defense budget—
Congress members “prefer to protect spending and jobs in their districts. The result is funding
for weapons systems the armed forces don't want, bases and facilities they would like to close,
and bloated, inefficient back office—that is, noncombat—operations”(Matthews, 2019).
these cases, the use-value of the war-materials are found in the political gains from their
Second, and just as importantly, this period saw a shift in U.S. grand military strategy, in
which Bush's “Second American Century”was replaced by Obama's “America's Pacific Cen-
tury”—among other changes, this meant that the conflicts in the Middle East were to take a
backseat to rivalry with China. The “pivot”to East Asia coincided with a drawdown in the wars
in Iraq and Afghanistan and a ramp-up of rivalry with the likes of China and Russia.
a significant policy shift with ramifications for the military-industrial complex.
As the U.S. turned its gaze from the Middle East to East Asia, a change occurred in the
defense industrial base. As Bacevich (2018) argues, the technology being developed and the
products being built in these plants (and by these war-provisioning workers) are designed with
great power conflict in mind—not the types of imperial policing actions that characterize the
period. In this sense, the use-value of these commodities is as a deterrent—not as an urgent bat-
tlefield necessity. The emphasis on advanced technology with no present battlefield use-value
meant that the military was not relying on these workers for urgent delivery of these war-mate-
rials—for example, the F-35 production schedule, planned for completion in 2010, had been
delayed several times already by 2012, with full production capacity not scheduled until 2019,
and less than a fifth of the purchased planes completed (Ciralsky, 2013; Lockheed Martin,
2019). Under this status quo, there are no significant repercussions for firms to miss deadlines.
As such, incentives to push military supply firms to acquiesce to workers’demands significantly
diminished, as did war-provisioning workers structural bargaining power at the point of
This is a trend that has undoubtedly continued during the Trump administration. Between
2016 and 2019, defense spending has increased over $100 billion. The largest increase has been
in the research and development of new, cutting-edge weapons (Thompson, 2019). But, as
above, investing in the development of new weaponry delays the production of updated war-
materials that could have present battlefield use-values. Procurement expert Loren Thompson
[Military] planners have become so enamored of new warfighting technologies that
they are spending…on R&D rather than bending metal…All of the new technolo-
gies are intriguing, and might help America to stay ahead of Russia and China on
future battlefields. But we are skipping a step by not taking advantage of the Trump
budget boost to buy more of the weapons we need in the near term to replace an
increasingly aged arsenal.
This is an argument that is supported by a RAND report which found increasing complexity
and the desire for cutting edge technological advancement as the main source of rising military
supply prices (Arena, Younossi, Brancato, Blickstein, & Grammich, 2008)—technological com-
plexity that is unsuitable for current U.S. military adversaries with whom asymmetrical combat
capabilities already exist. Therefore, although the Trump administration has dramatically
increased military spending from the Obama years, it is unlikely that we will see a renewed
structural empowerment of these industrial war-provisioning workers so long as their products
do not have a pressing battlefield use-value.
That war-provisioning workers are militant in the face of dual transformations in the organiza-
tion of production and in war-making does not, on its own, constitute an interesting finding.
Labor scholars have long studied defensive struggles by industrial workers as they face assaults
on their livelihoods from capital and the state. Instead, it is the wave of offensive struggles
waged by these workers during the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (between 2003
and 2009) and the subsequent reversion to defensive struggles that are the most striking find-
ings of this study. This article has argued that the offensive wave is indicative of an increase in
the structural bargaining power of these workers, as the result of the growth in state reliance on
war-materials provisioning during wartime. This review has also shown that the disempower-
ment of these workers after 2009—despite the continuation of U.S. “forever wars”—can be
attributed to the expansion of outsourcing and the shifting use-value of the commodities pro-
duced by these workers.
Moreover, this article has demonstrated the ways in which (as a result of the complex entan-
glement of state and capitalist interests in military procurement) foreign policy and military
strategy has tangible effects on the structural bargaining power of workers. As antidote to
Bush's “Project for a New American Century,”the Obama administration began to “pivot”
away from the “hot”wars in the Greater Middle East and toward the “cold”conflicts in East
Asia. This pivot meant the use-value of these war-materials changed—with the reduction in
urgent reliance on these products to wage war, the ability of these workers to disrupt military
operations diminished. The recent emphasis on development and production of war-materials
designed for a future “great power”conflict with the likes of Russia or China has amounted to
a reduction in pressing reliance on the commodities produced by war-provisioning workers
and, as a result, their disempowerment.
The effects of the Trump administration's military strategy on war-provisioning workers,
from this perspective, are mixed. Trump has rejected the “pivot”to East Asia in the diplomatic
sense, but has nonetheless escalated tensions with China and, perhaps, with the help of the
Democrats, Russia. As explained above, this has meant the largest portions of the Trump mili-
tary spending increases have gone toward research and development of technologies designed
for “great power”conflict. So long as such conflict remains “cold,”then we will likely not see a
renewed increase in these workers’structural bargaining power. At the same time, the Trump
administration is filled with hawks eager to escalate imperial “policing”wars in the Greater
Middle East and beyond. Throughout his term, war with North Korea, Venezuela, or Iran has,
at times, seemed imminent. It is likely that any significant expansion of military operations
would put pressure on military supply firms to deliver war-materials. Either escalation—in
great power conflict or in imperial policing—would (at least temporarily) increase these
workers’structural bargaining power.
However, the broader transformations in the organization of production and in war-making
cut two ways. As the state relies less and less on the working class to wage war, the
U.S. military is given greater freedom of movement—just as the Bush administration intended.
But these same transformations have resulted in a smaller segment of the U.S. working class
dependent on the military-industrial complex for their livelihoods. While in earlier periods, the
welfare and power of the U.S. working class as a whole was linked to U.S. war-making, the pre-
sent juncture may provide opportunities for workers to find more stable sources of empower-
ment. The conditions for a broad, working class, anti-militarist movement may be ripe.
delinking from the military-industrial complex would not only provide emancipation from the
ephemeral empowerment yielded by war-making but would also begin the process of dis-
entangling the material interests of the U.S. working class from death and destruction of
I would like to thank Beverly Silver and Joel Andreas for their incredibly detailed feedback on
this article. I am indebted to the participants in helpful work-in-progress seminars at Johns
Hopkins, especially Andrew Cherlin, Christy Thornton, Conrad Jacober, Tian Liu, Sonal
Sharma, Smriti Upadhyay, Rachel Butler, Rishi Awatramani, Minhyoung Kang, and Ricardo
Jacobs. I am also grateful to Ed Wehrle and participants at the 2019 meeting of the Social Sci-
ence History Association for their feedback.
Corey R. Payne https://orcid.org/0000-0001-9699-2646
Allegheny Technologies, Inc. (ATI), is included in this review despite not directly producing war planes, ships,
or weapons systems. ATI is a specialty metals firm responsible for supplying aerospace and defense production.
According to filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission, over 50% of ATI's total sales are in aero-
space and defense (Allegheny Technologies, Inc, 2017). As such, work stoppages at ATI are included in this
On the eve of U.S. entry into World War II in 1941, it is estimated that about 7 million Americans were
employed in government-classified “war industries”—estimated at about 11% of the entire U.S. workforce
(Felser, 1947). In contrast, on the eve of U.S. entry into the Iraq War in 2002, just over 675,000 Americans were
employed in war-provisioning industries, as calculated from BLS—or approximately 0.4% of the entire
At first glance, the timing of the shift back to defensive struggles suggests a link to the 2008/2009 financial cri-
sis. While a review of firms such as Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and Raytheon indicate a slight reduction in stock
prices and/or net profits between late 2008 and early 2009, by the middle of 2009 the firms resumed their
steady increase in profits and valuation. The effect of the crisis on these firms was mitigated, in part, by the
decision not to cut military spending in the face of the recession (e.g., Madslien, 2010).
The military's procurement budget, which can be understood as a rough proxy for demand, increases steadily
during the first decade of the 21st century—largely corresponding with the empowerment of these war-
provisioning workers. A decrease in procurement during the Obama administration also corresponds with the
subsequent disempowerment of workers after 2009—but the budget renews its steady increase in the later
years of the Obama administration (Department of Defense Budget, 2019). This pattern, which does not neatly
match with the pattern of workers’struggles, implies the need for more complex explanations of empowerment
and disempowerment than demand, pure and simple.
This amounts to “what former defense secretary Robert Gates termed a “gargantuan, labyrinthine bureau-
cracy”in the Pentagon, [with] manufacturers and subcontractors for each weapons system carefully distributed
across congressional districts and backed by aggressive lobbyists, members of Congress determined to protect
constituents’jobs, and military leaders loyal to the weapons systems they trained on and commanded”
This “pivot”is often dated to 2011, but the shift had been underway since Obama came into office. A better
start date is perhaps the “AirSea Battle”memo in 2009 (to become doctrine in 2010), which outlined a strategy
for military victory against China (Perry, 2015).
The same reorganization of war-making that has allowed the unrestricted expansion of the U.S. “forever wars”
in the Greater Middle East has resulted in a reduction in reliance on workers who produced commodities such
as manned vehicles (like Humvees, transport, and fighter planes), night vision goggles, body armor, and small
ammunition. These changes reduced the number of “boots on the ground”through, for example, the substitu-
tion of capital-intensive technologies, such as unmanned drones. In this sense, it is possible that the recent dis-
empowerment of the war-provisioning workers reviewed in this article was complemented by an
empowerment of an even smaller niche of workers involved in the production of technologies like drones—but
this question is beyond the scope of this article, as the BLS identified no work stoppages at such production
plants in the 21st century.
The existing and potential relationships between anti-militarist movements and workers within the military-
industrial complex requires further research. As others have demonstrated, U.S. union decisions to support or
oppose U.S. wars are often contentious and reflect broader class dynamics (e.g., Dubofsky & McCartin, 2017;
Lewis, 2013; Sears, 2010; Wehrle, 2005). Though beyond the scope of this article, I attempt to situate these war-
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COREY R. PAYNE is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Sociology and the Arrighi Center
for Global Studies at Johns Hopkins University. He studies the intersections of war-making,
class struggle, and geopolitics in historical capitalism.
How to cite this article: Payne CR. War and workers’power in the United States:
Labor struggles in war-provisioning industries, 1993–2016. Labor and Society. 2020;1–20.