Once upon a time a bold independent socialist named Bernie Sanders ran for mayor on the slogan “Burlington Is Not for Sale.” But at the opening of 2011, 30 years after Bernie’s first mayoral run, a contract has been announced between the city and Lockheed Martin, one of the world’s largest defense contractors – or “global security” company if you prefer euphemisms.
But it’s not for defense work. Rather, Lockheed wants to partner with the city on climate change, including “joint work” on sustainability and climate adaptation analysis, energy and transportation technologies, solar photovoltaic systems, electric car technology and property-assessed clean energy (PACE). In other words, good stuff.
In a letter of cooperation between the city and company, they pledge to work together and share technical expertise to "explore mutually beneficial arrangements involving sustainable environmental practices and renewable energy projects that can be applied in Burlington and elsewhere."
The most surprising twist – beyond the fact that this is happening in the People’s Republic of Burlington, where Sanders, now a US Senator, was once in charge – is that Mayor Bob Kiss, a former conscientious objector and leader of the local Progressive Party, actually solicited the business. The talks began during the Winter Olympics at the “Carbon War Room,” a pet project of the 212th richest person in the world, billionaire Sir Richard Branson, CEO of Virgin Group. This is the guy selling space shuttle tickets for $200,000 a pop.
“We need partners and cooperation at all levels,” writes Kiss in his New Year’s message to the people, defining climate change as a threat to health and the economy. “It’s imperative to keep moving forward on these issues. The partnership with Lockheed Martin offers the city an important opportunity to do so.”
So, is this a matter of green jobs or greenwashing? At long last, is the city for sale? And what is so wrong about a partnership between local government and a big corporation, even if it is a defense contractor, as long as they’re working together on turbines and solar power? To start, it could lead toward privatizing not-for-profit projects like PACE, which lets US home owners bundle home renewable energy financing into their mortgage and spread out the payments. But a more controversial aspect is the plan to connect Burlington school children with Lockheed Martin engineers.
When General Dynamics – Vermont’s largest defense contractor – started distributing pencils, bookmarks and books stamped with their corporate logo a few years ago, Burlington parents and students were upset. Told to attend an assembly to listen to General Dynamics employees, one nine-year-old at Champlain Elementary asked her mom, "Are we for bomb-makers?”
Peace activist Joseph Gainza recently told Jonathan Leavitt, who has been leading the questioning of the Lockheed contract, "I would hope that the City of Burlington and the Burlington School District wouldn't let a corporate member of the military industrial complex take credit for solving the climate change problems it helps everyday to perpetuate."
Meg Brooke, Chair of Chittenden County Progressives, says of Lockheed's involvement with students: “I am deeply concerned by the way we normalize violence and war and desensitize our young to the horror our military perpetrates, especially on the young, women, and the elderly. Welcoming one of the leaders of this military industrial complex into our schools goes against all I, and many others, believe. I do not want young Vermonters to see the Lockheed logo on TV and have a positive thought about what that business might have done in their school.”
Leavitt met recently with Kiss to discuss the issue. The Mayor called the offer “serendipitous” and said the contract will go forward despite local objections. He apparently wasn’t concerned that a huge defense company might be using the city’s good name to lend it environmental legitimacy. There will be no outreach, beyond informing the City Council. Kiss also wasn’t persuaded by discrimination lawsuits filed against Lockheed, even though the Vermont Progressive Party’s platform insists on having contracts only with responsible employers and favors coops and local business to multinationals.
By the way, the F-35 fighter plane, a number of which may end up stationed at the Burlington Airport, is a Lockheed project. The entire Vermont Congressional delegation, including Sanders and senior Senator Pat Leahy, has backed basing it in the Burlington area, despite criticism of the plane from within the military.
At a cost of one trillion and counting the F-35 is the most expensive Pentagon weapons program ever. One reason is that it would use stealth technology, which is extremely expensive to produce. Within the military it has become known as a “flying brick” that won’t end up doing anything well. Some Pentagon managers think it should be scrapped, and several nations that initially agreed to buy the plane are having second thoughts.
A few Lockheed facts: 84 percent of its revenue comes from the US government, the majority Pentagon contracts. The company spent $10 million on lobbying just in 2010. Sanders himself has noted that it has been involved in dozens of instances of misconduct and paid huge fines.
Burlington has many non-profits and local companies already doing environmental work. Thus, another question is why Burlington needs to bring in Lockheed to deal with climate change? Progressive leaders Brooke warns that it will “take credit for twenty years of grassroots organizers blood and sweat.”
In the irony department, there’s also the idea of Lockheed working on climate change when it’s the single largest purchaser of oil in the world. "The military is the number one enemy of sustainability,” Brooke argues, “and Lockheed isn’t going to do much to change that as their money comes from manufacturing machines that are completely unsustainable. Their F35’s, which threaten our environment, use 2,000-4,000 gallons of fuel and hour."
At the end of his meeting with Mayor Kiss, Leavitt asked to what degree the outraged grassroots of Burlington could affect the outcome. Would civil disobedience, for example, have any influence on the contract? Kiss eventually replied, "Well there's nothing date certain in it. This is just a letter of intent, it doesn't have specific benchmarks for specific projects."
To some Vermonters that sounds like an open invitation to push for a public debate and reconsider the whole deal. Peace organizations are already at work, hoping to make Burlington a no-fly zone for the military-industrial complex and get local government to set some standards for the kind of business development residents want. In other words, no sale.
Greg Guma is a Vermont writer, former CEO of the Pacifica Radio network, and author of The People’s Republic: Vermont and the Sanders Revolution. He writes about politics and culture on his website, Maverick Media (http://muckraker-gg.blogspot.