Here in sunny San Diego, a petty officer from Chicago told me sailors now have to pay $7 a day from their basic allowance for subsistence (BAS) for the luxury of eating that good ol’ Navy chow, whether they eat the Navy food or not. Several sailors said (off the record, of course) that although they are entitled to receive a monthly minimum $900 basic allowance for housing (BAH), this is far below what the average single unit rents for. And, when the government raises the BAH, the landlords raise the rent! With the Bush administration speeding up the privatization of military housing, local lenders and developers can look forward to more taxpayer subsidies of their “free” market while they decry government regulation.
San Diego, with its wonderful climate, high tech industry and tourist attractions, is also home to the largest concentration of standing military forces in the United States. With more military personnel than are currently stationed in Iraq, San Diego County is also home to steep energy, housing and food costs and no shortage of corrupt businesses (“Scam Diegans,” as some locals refer to them), white supremacists, and sunshine patriots and right-wing media.
After years of economic restructuring (the local aircraft industry alone lost more than 30,000 jobs in the last 20 years) the local union movement has had to fight waves of union busting and outright chicanery by the political establishment. Likewise, the economic interests of active and retired military personnel are used to whipsaw and put a downward pressure on the interests of all working people, including military personnel themselves.
Increasing privatization of the military means sworn personnel are being replaced by workers with dismal working conditions in companies unregulated by the federal government. Using the privatization mantra of “better, faster, cheaper,” the Pentagon now contracts out to companies involved in everything from handling ships’ stores to food preparation and sanitation. These companies are largely non-union and get a tax break to employ people in the penal system or in welfare-to-work programs. In effect, the federal government is subsidizing exploitation of subjugated peoples whether they be in countries under military occupation or immigrants on the homefront. Halliburton subsidiary Brown and Root Services’ use of this system is largely blamed for recent epidemics of food poisoning among troops stationed in Afghanistan and Kuwait. In the now largely privatized shipyard industry, the use of taxpayer-financed cost-of-living allowances to subsidize anti-union activities was condemned by the United Steelworkers of America during a recent strike against Newport News Shipbuilding Inc. This practice led local Congressman Bob Filner (D-Calif.) to say, standing outside the Naval Station here, that he was ashamed to be part of a government that would do such things to workers.
The Navy’s BAS and BAH supplements in addition to basic military pay are supposed to cushion cost-of-living expenses for sailors and their families. But the sailors I talked to feel cheated by a government that gives them an allowance on one hand and then requires their benefits to be subject to the “free” market on the other.
Fighting fraud, sweatshop conditions and environmental degradation is made all the more complicated by the government’s role. A case in point is the battle of the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE) with Lion Apparel in Beattyville, Ky., and the Defense Logistics Agency over the exploitation of mostly women workers who sew military uniforms. (For details, see the May/June 1999 issue of Mother Jones, www.motherjones.com/mother_jones/MJ99/boal.html)
It should compound our outrage that private companies like Blackwater USA are now allowed to take over tactical and weapons training for the military.
While the Bush administration loots the treasury to benefit the wealthy, it trades on the labor of workers and the lives of military personnel, in the name of freedom and democracy, for the highest possible return to its allies in industry and on Wall Street.
Behind waving banners and patriotic appeals this administration and its friends are using union busting, deregulation, privatization and shady accounting to pull off a scam on the American people.
Shouldn’t we craft a democratic political movement that will provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare and restore the blessings of liberty and justice for all? What are the consequences if we don’t?
Moe Radd is a shipyard worker and a decorated Navy veteran. He can be reached at email@example.com