A massive US military buildup has created about half of a massive US budget deficit. Deficit-cutting measures are beginning to put the brakes on, and defense-industry workers are beginning to lose their jobs. This is now, of course. But it also describes the late eighties, even before the fall of the Berlin Wall began to slash the Reagan buildup by a third.

Claudette Munson was a union worker who made a difference. Family photo.

Claudette Munson was a union worker who made a difference. Family photo.

Among the leaders of a movement to turn the end of the Cold War into economic opportunity was a mother of four in St. Paul, Minnesota, who had spent 14 years soldering circuit boards for nuclear submarines. Claudette Munson died of cancer on July 25.

Munson went to work for Unisys Corp. in 1973 because she wanted to be able to afford Catholic school for her kids; because her husband bet her she couldn’t get a job; because her sister worked for Unisys; because they were hiring; and because they paid well.

The Peace Encampment protest she had to watch every day out the shop floor windows annoyed her. This was her livelihood, and she didn’t appreciate these (mostly) women, who apparently didn’t have to work, hanging around threatening it.

Eventually, though, she and the campers found their common ground. They wouldn’t just tell the plant to stop making nuclear submarines. They would help it convert to producing other things—things the world actually needs—so the workers there could keep their jobs.

A progressive Minnesota state legislator, Karen Clark, had wrangled a small state grant to fund an Alternative Use Committee that would demonstrate that defense conversion was possible. Munson, who had become president of the Unisys workers’ union (IBEW Local 2047), joined the committee.

She began spending her breaks and lunch hours leaning on her members to fill out a survey soliciting their ideas on what else their skills and the machines they worked on might be adapted to make. The survey generated about 100 new product ideas, some of them plausible (computer controlled manufacturing systems, automobile electronics, computer controls for light-rail transit), others less so (a quality TV to beat the Japanese models, smoke detectors, hearing aids)—plus a smattering of political commentary (“This is mostly fantasy because mass-transit is not on the political agenda and with the right-wing Republicans in power nobody gives a damn about the environment.”)

The grant paid for a consultant to evaluate, hone and supplement these ideas into a set of 12 proposals. They were divided into Transportation Control and Management Systems, including High Speed Rail and Intelligent Vehicle Highway Systems (IVHS); Environmental Information Systems, including remote sensing and smart irrigation systems; and adaptive technologies for the physically disabled.

The response from Unisys was: Thanks, we’ll take it from here. But taking it from there didn’t seem to involve working on a transition to alternative production, and clearly did involve laying off more workers at the plant. So Munson drove to Philadelphia to attend the Unisys annual shareholder meeting (the union’s few shares of stock got her in.) In the middle of the meeting she stood up, identified herself, and asked the president what he thought of the Alternative Use Committee’s ideas. Clearly having no idea what she was talking about, he promised a meeting. He followed through on the meeting, and made sure it went nowhere.

Later, Munson was surprised to learn that Unisys would in fact be manufacturing one of the 12 products on the Committee’s list. At one of their non-union plants in Utah. This, Unisys claimed, was a coincidence.

Though the company’s stonewalling continued, Munson began a second career traveling the country making speeches. Conferences on defense conversion had proliferated. They were heavy on peace activists and academics, and light on labor leaders who actually knew how manufacturing, and specifically defense production, worked from the inside. Munson knew all this, and she could talk, matter-of-factly, with humor and not a hint of self-aggrandizement, about what, amid all the talk, she’d actually been doing.

In 1991 the January-February issue of Mother Jones magazine included Munson in its honor roll of “Heroes and Heroines.” Among the honorees that year, Munson seems the closest kin to the magazine’s namesake. Mary “Mother” Jones had gone through what she called a conversion to labor activism, following the deaths of her husband and children in the post-Civil War yellow fever epidemic. As the fearless and powerfully blunt-speaking chief spokesperson for the United Mine Workers, she rallied strikers not only outside coal mines but also at railyards, steel and textile mills and breweries around the country. According to a 2001 biography, she viewed labor unions as extended families, and combined ground-breaking social activism with a traditional view of women as wives, homemakers and mothers first. Claudette Munson lived by the same combination.

The magazine credited her with making “conversion a litmus test for Minnesota politicians hungry for labor and progressive votes” and becoming a national spokesperson on the conversion issue. Munson predicted that conversion would prove to be the next in a long list of gifts from the labor movement to American society. “Unions led to the forty-hour work week and OSHA,” she said, “so if anybody’s going to make jobs conversion happen, we’ll do it.”

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