Peace Conversion: a tiny city agency seeks to turn swords ito plowshares | Neighborhood News | Chicago Reader

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Peace Conversion: a tiny city agency seeks to turn swords ito plowshares

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Bernice Bild has a way to reverse local economic decline. It's based on sound reasoning and may be eminently viable, provided people in power give it a try.

As a result, not surprisingly, she and her allies have been shoved into a corner of city government, treated almost like a bunch of irrelevant though well-intentioned busybodies, and have been allowed no more media attention than one or two articles in the dailies.

Bild is chairman of the Peace Conversion Commission, a seven-member entity of city government, backed by a measly annual budget of $12,000 (which may not be renewed next year) and a charter to enforce the city's nuclear-free-zone ordinance.

The commission's long-term solution, addressed in a recent public hearing, is based on the assumption that large sections of Chicago have collapsed for lack of economic investment. Otherwise, there is no other logical explanation for why, say, Lincoln Park blossoms and a neighborhood like North Lawndale decays. Banks, businesses, and developers have opted to invest in Lincoln Park, that's all. In turn, the city has marshaled whatever resources it has (tax breaks and direct subsidies) to nurture the growth that's already in motion.

North Lawndale, on the other hand, has been the victim of a steady drain that began three decades ago when first its middle-class residents and then its industries fled for suburbia. City government hasn't the resources to reverse this trend; private developers and corporations may have the resources, but they have no incentive, since it's unlikely they can make any money out of North Lawndale.

Why not, the peace commission asks, apply federal money funneled into the city for defense contracts to nonmilitary use? Why not use it to reopen shuttered industries all over the city, providing jobs and products Chicago needs?

"We are chartered by the city to prepare a detailed plan for the conversion of resources and physical plants to peaceful and productive uses," says Bild, referring to the ordinance passed by the City Council in March 1986 that created the commission. "The technical name for this process is economic conversion. That means that instead of military production, we plow our ingenuity, talent, money, and resources into something that builds our economic base and provides goods that make us competitive."

"Much of our research and development dollars are being used to develop finer weapons to kill more people instead of developing products to provide a higher quality of life," adds Ron Freund, a political science teacher at Columbia College who is vice-chairman of the commission.

"Look around you, the infrastructure of our society is in a severe state of disrepair. Bridges alone will cost billions to repair. It would seem to me there is a desperate need for mass transit production. Just riding the CTA hits this point home every day. And yet, we cannot rebuild our streets or improve the CTA unless we adopt a program of economic conversion. The time to start is now."

The commission's first project in its effort to bring about this conversion has been to inventory exactly how and where federal defense dollars are being spent in Chicago, then to determine if any of those contractors are violating the city's antinuclear ordinance, which states: "No person shall knowingly within the city of Chicago design, produce, deploy, launch, maintain, or store nuclear weapons or components of nuclear weapons."

What follows will be a double-edged tactic: the commission will attempt to bring action against any violator, and to persuade any contractors using the funds for military production or research to convert to nondefense production.

What would happen to violators is another matter. Presumably, the commission could ask the city's law department to prosecute, but that entity is bogged down with more pressing day-to-day matters like parking tickets. Most likely Bild and her colleagues would turn to the press, hoping to embarrass the violators with a stream of negative publicity--another long shot, given the media's indifference to the story so far.

For the moment, Bild, Freund, and their cohorts remain somewhat unspecific about which industries will or can be converted because they still don't know exactly how the federal defense dollars are spent here. They hired an outside research firm to sift through contracts let to Chicago firms by the Department of Defense and the Department of Energy (which also awards contracts for nuclear-related defense matters).

"Then we wrote a nice letter to all the companies, so they wouldn't think we were after them, asking them if they did, indeed, have a federal contract, and whether that contract violated the ordinance," says Bild.

The results were dismal. Out of a defense budget of about $300 billion a year, only about $250 million--about eight one-hundredths of 1 percent--is distributed to an estimated 230 Chicago-based firms, according to federal documents analyzed by the peace commission. (Dallas, in contrast, gets about $8 billion in defense contracts, which is about 2 percent of that total.)

When commission volunteers followed up with phone calls to the companies, they discovered that Chicago may not even get that much money. Some company spokesmen denied having defense contracts, or said their old contracts had expired. Other companies had moved from Chicago. Forty-nine did not respond to the commission's calls, and nine contractors "said they were uncertain about whether their contracts were nuclear related. Obviously some of these also require further follow-up," the commission reports.

That leaves 115 contractors in Chicago who are established recipients of defense-related contracts.

"We have contacted 65 of these contractors by phone," says Bild. "That's tough work. We don't have a big staff. We depend a lot on part-time clerical people. And as you can imagine, this is sensitive stuff. When you call it takes a little diplomacy. They want to know who we are, what's our authority, and whether it's going to be confidential."

A more immediate concern, therefore, is to figure how more of the $250 million earmarked for Chicago might be spent on nondefense items. Most of this money, the commission reports, goes to the IIT Research Institute ($63.6 million), Sonicraft, Inc. ($20.6 million), Stewart-Warner Corporation ($19 million), Quaker Oats Company ($9.3 million), and Abbott Products ($9 million).

Some of these companies do not produce military items of war. (Quaker Oats, for instance, makes food for the armed forces; a worthy objective, Bild and Freund agree.) Beyond that, even the commission is not sure just what most of the companies do to earn their defense dollars.

"We have a lot more work to go to determine how this money is spent," says Bild. "Then we have to take an inventory of all the plants to determine an alternative use. You can't do this in the abstract. You have to know what the plant is like, what its resources are, what kind of capital equipment it has, what other kinds of industries this equipment can be adapted to, and how its workers can be retrained."

"The point of our hearings is to solicit testimony from experts in the field and build a plan," says Freund. "One thing we've learned is that any conversion has to go on a plant-by-plant basis. You can't draw up one blueprint and expect it to work for every plant. You have to work with a company and create a labor-management committee that works in partnership with the city."

That task is time-consuming and tedious and may exceed the scope of the city, let alone that of the commission, which already is understaffed.

"I understand the commission's role is to help defense industries convert to other production, but I don't know how realistic this is," David Morrison, president of the IIT Research Institute, told Cheryl Devall of the Chicago Tribune. "Many skills of defense don't transition easily to the civilian world. The city's job training wouldn't have much effect, these workers would need the equivalent of four years in a graduate-level university."

The real challenge, therefore, is to forge a solid front of business, labor, and political leaders to aggressively lobby the federal government to change its funding policy, steering defense funds toward more useful, productive ends. Such a front seems unlikely. Some local politicians and public servants actively support the commission's cause, most notably Alderman David Orr (49th Ward) and Timothy Wright, commissioner of the city's Department of Economic Development. But they are few and far between.

Many local politicians (Democrats and Republicans) contend that an arms buildup is needed to ward off attacks by the Soviet Union (even if whole sections of the city are ravaged in the process). As for the great majority of local politicians, they show no evidence of having given the subject more than a moment's thought.

As it was, passage of the nuclear-free-zone ordinance and the formation of the commission was a remarkable achievement for city politics (an event without precedent elsewhere in the country), especially because at the time, the City Council was still divided into factions loyal to either Mayor Harold Washington or Alderman Edward Vrdolyak.

"We needed a strong supporter, which we had in David Orr, who worked very hard on drafting the legislation," Freund recalls. "But if we hadn't got Alderman Bernie Hansen [then a Vrdolyak supporter] to cosponsor it, we would have lost. We were able to sit down with both sides. By the time it came to vote, we had achieved a broad base of support."

The next step--changing federal policy--will be more difficult. Still, Freund remains optimistic. He notes that Acting Mayor Eugene Sawyer reappointed commission members (who, besides Freund and Bild, include Rabbi Howard Berman, Fay Clayton, a lawyer, Joseph Costigan and Johnnie Mae Jackson, two labor leaders, and Mary Ellen Croteau, a northwest-side peace activist). In addition, there's reason for hope, Freund says, because of the recent Intermediate Nuclear Forces agreement signed by President Reagan (and approved by Congress) with the Soviet Union.

"When we first lobbied for the ordinance, there was more hostility toward the Soviet Union and less talk of arms control," says Freund. "That's changed. The arms control process is on an irreversible course. Even Ronald Reagan signed an arms treaty with the Soviets. These things create a momentum. Which is why it's even more important that we plan for conversion now."

"I was invited to the Soviet Union this summer to watch the first-ever destruction of nuclear missiles under a treaty," says Bild, who is also director of Illinois SANE/FREEZE, the local branch of the largest disarmament organization in the country.

"It was at a military base in Saryozek, about 2,000 miles east of Moscow. We were standing on a hill about a mile away. First we saw a bright light, there was a mushroom cloud, and then about three or five seconds later we heard the aftershock. Afterwards we were allowed to crawl around the remains. I kept thinking how much better these weapons are as pieces of useless metal; how much better it would be if they had never been produced; and how much better we can be if we put our energies to making something else."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.

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