When it leaked in Seven Days, a local alternative weekly, that Mayor Bob Kiss of liberal mecca Burlington, Vermont had inked a deal with the world’s largest war profiteer all hell broke loose inside the Burlington left. Charges of “corporate greenwashing” and hypocrisy lit up Facebook pages and coffeeshop conversations. These charges land fresh like the daily newspaper at the doorstep of most mayors of American cities. Mayor Bob Kiss however, is a former conscientious objector, and a member of Vermont’s Progressive Party, the most successful third party in the US, which touts a platform totally at odds with war profiteers like Lockheed. It’s the party that claims Bernie Sanders, the US’ lone socialist senator, recent Filibuster leader and viral web sensation amongst its founders. Mayor Kiss, whose party has for 28 of the last 30 years controlled City Hall, was learning what many social movements that assume governmental control learn: wielding power without alienating the community organizers and social movements that put leaders into office can prove to be quite the difficult equation to balance.
That few details were available when the contractual “letter of intent,” adorned with Lockheed Martin’s corporate logo, was signed by Mayor Kiss and Lockheed’s Senior Vice President certainly didn’t assuage the rising indignation of community organizers. Interestingly, it was Mayor Kiss who approached Lockheed about the deal at the inaugural “Carbon War Room,” which took place simultaneously with the Vancouver Olympics. The Carbon War Room is a pet project of the 212th richest person in the world, billionaire Sir Richard Branson, CEO of Virgin Group. Branson’s record and cola empire also counts amongst its corporate family global warming contributors like Virgin Airlines and the quixotic, carbon emissions nightmare of Virgin Galactic, space tourism for $200,000 a ticket.
Branson’s Carbon War Room partners cities with corporations like Lockheed and private financiers to create market based solutions to climate change. The single-sided, single page letter of cooperation details vague projects for Lockheed to partner with Burlington on including “Urban Triage,” “Vertical Wind Turbines,” “Solar Photovoltaic Systems,” “Telemetrics” and “Three dimensional LIDAR City models.” Branson’s War Room describes itself as a “30-month challenge to help cities around the world use innovative mechanisms to bring capital, energy technologies and jobs to their citizens in a sustainable and wealth creating way.”
Wealth creating in this sense means privatizing existing not-for profit climate change fighting measures like the PACE program (PACE lets US home owners bundle home renewable energy financing into their mortgage, spreading out the payments over 25-30 years instead of the usual home improvement loan term of lease of five years). According to the Climate War Room’s literature the United States’ PACE market, “is valued at $500 billion.” This sort of privatization, which spins governmental non-profit programs into new markets, and thereby so much gold for “gold-level” corporate sponsors of the “War Room” like Lockheed, and billionaires like Branson, is but one of the objectionable pieces of the deal to its detractors. Perhaps even more immediate and inflammatory is the planned interaction between Burlington’s school children and Lockheed Martin engineers.
“Are We For Bomb Makers?”
One of the controversial aspects of the deal would allow Lockheed engineers to work inside Burlington schools with schoolchildren. In the past five years Burlington parents’ and students’ outrage boiled over when war profiteer General Dynamics’ program of giving away pencils, bookmarks and books stamped with their corporate logo came to light. When a nine year-old student at Burlington’s Champlain Elementary was faced with going to an assembly during the school day to listen to General Dynamics employees, her mom Laurie Essig says her daughter Willa asked, “‘Are we for bomb-makers? Do we think it’s right to kill people? Her basic question was, ‘Why are we treating these people like heroes?'” Due to a perception on Willa’s teacher’s part, that nine year-old Willa might offend the weapons manufacturers’ employees, the teacher, “brought all the other students down to get their free books and left my daughter sitting alone in the classroom.” Essig says. Longtime Vermont peace activist, Joseph Gainza said, during an interview, “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 slated involvement with school kids:
I’ve been trained by the National Interreligious Service Board for Conscientious Objectors (NISBCO) and given many hours to council students how to avoid war. I’ve fought to remove military recruiters from our schools. I regularly taught classes in non-violent conflict resolution in Vermont high schools. 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.
Who is Lockheed Martin?
“We Never Forget Who We Work For” is Lockheed Martin’s motto. That mindfulness of who they work for takes a different meaning when one considers that 84 percent of Lockheed’s revenue comes from the US government, with the majority of that being Pentagon contracts. Lockheed contracted 98 different lobbyists, was mentioned in 142 Congressional bills and spent nearly $10 million in lobbying just in 2010. This is the multi-national war profiteer which to quote Bernie Sanders, “according to the nonpartisan Project on Government Oversight, the three largest government contractors — Lockheed Martin, Boeing and Northrop Grumman — have engaged in 109 combined instances of misconduct just since 1995, and have paid fees and settlements for this misconduct totaling $2.9 billion.” Further, something is seriously amiss when George W. Bush’s Department of Justice, not exactly known for setting precedents in corporate crime prosecution, files a 2007 fraud lawsuit against a corporation raking in a net $3.033 billion in FY ’07 (It’s worth noting that 1% of Lockheed Martin’s annual profits alone roughly equals the City of Burlington’s approximately $30 million budget).
Defense contractors are notorious for their fraudulent overcharging of tax payers for weapons systems that things must have risen to truly historic levels of fraud for Bush’s DoJ to take action. Indeed Lockheed is number one in the Federal Contractor Misconduct Database, at 54 instances of contractor misconduct, totaling $577.4 million in settlements, nearly twice as many as the next closest war profiteer.
Lockheed Martin has had separate racial, age and gender discrimination lawsuits filed against it in the past two years alone. Does Mayor Kiss really want Burlington’s hard won image attached to the world’s largest war profiteer whose supervisors in the last 24 months allowed “deaths threats” and threats to “lynch” an African American employee “to continue unabated – even though the company was aware of the unlawful conduct”? One might think all of the above flies in the face of the subsections of Mayor Kiss’ Progressive Party platform which state the Progressive Party will, “Insist Vermont will contract only with responsible employers, including local small businesses and local entrepreneurs, hiring local employees” and “Promote cooperative, worker-owned, and publicly-owned enterprises as democratic alternatives to huge profit-driven multi-national corporations.” Indeed, many inside Kiss’ Progressive Party have expressed concerns with these provocatively strange bed fellows.
Progressive City Councilor Emma Mulvaney-Stanak who represents Burlington’s Ward 3 said in a statement, “When any municipality considers partnering with a corporation there needs to be some sort of conversation around a set of standards and principals that reflect the community. With Burlington those standard would need to include language to reflect issues long enshrined in the fabric of the City’s life: human rights issues, equality issues, peace and war issues. Any agreement or discussion needs to be guided by these community standards, be it on a project level or a policy level. Sometimes the money involved in a potential deal or partnership is not enough to compromise these principals. This deal, frankly, considering Lockheed’s long track record would violate any reasonable community standards for the City of Burlington.”
Lockheed and Grassroots Organizers
What isn’t immediately clear is what is left for Lockheed engineers to do around Climate Change in Burlington that isn’t currently being done by Burlington’s many NGO’s, non-profits and local companies without war profiteer logos on their arms. From award-winning Efficiency Vermont to AgRefresh, from the University of Vermont’s Gund Institute to Burlington Walk/Bike Council, from Carshare Vermont to 350.org, from Permaculture Burlington to the Localvore movement, and on and on. Even the City’s Department of Public Works is involved, installing rainwater gardens into the very street itself on Decatur St in Burlington’s Old North End. There are also local organic farmers playing funk and disco as they make the rounds in their solar powered veggie delivery van. “Corporations like Lockheed Martin are simultaneously funding the denial of global warming and trying to profit from it,” says Brian Tokar, Director of Plainfield, Vermont’s Institute of Social Ecology and author of the recent book Toward Climate Justice. “It’s hard to imagine what they could possibly contribute to Burlington’s already leading-edge efforts to become greener and more self-reliant.” Progressive Party Chittenden County Chair Meg Brooke states in plainsong, “Lockheed is going to show and take credit for twenty years of grassroots organizers blood and sweat, paid for out of their own pockets.”
Then there are the unspoken ironies of Lockheed working on climate change: the US military, with all its Lockheed technologies has a 363,000 barrel per day oil habit, making it the single largest purchaser of oil in the world. If the US military were a country it would be amongst the top 20 countries in annual oil consumption well in front of Australia. Activist Joseph Gainza points to this saying, “Private corporations that helped create climate change are not going to be part of the solution.” What’s more, as Chittenden County Progressive Chair Meg Brooke said, “The military is the number one enemy of sustainability 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.”
The F-35 is Lockheed’s new next generation fighter plane which is controversially slated to be stationed at Burlington Airport. James Leas, one of the main organizers of the Stop the F-35 Coalition in Burlington writes in a widely circulated open letter to Mayor Kiss “Lockheed Martin is one of the world’s largest war profiteers. Its products are designed to destroy the environment and living things. Please help me understand how Lockheed Martin, a company that is one of the chief purveyors of death and destruction, is going to be telling Burlington about sustainability?” In 2007, Lockheed sheepishly admitted it had overcharged, and would repay, the Federal government $265 million plus interest for over-billing American taxpayers on the same F-35. Lockheed called the $265 million dollar over-billing “inadvertent.” Author Brian Tokar says, “Lockheed’s F35’s and other military hardware are among the most petroleum-gorging products in the world. Burlington doesn’t need their noisy fighter jets, nor should Vermont tolerate Lockheed’s feeble attempts to greenwash their image.”
That said, if this pact between Burlington and Lockheed was purely results based, “most sustainability bang for the buck” venture, and not about corporate greenwashing, could Lockheed silently fund the many engineers and community organizers who have been doing climate change and sustainability work inside Burlington for decades, often with little resources? If Lockheed wanted to get the most climate change prevention for their investment, without causing ripples, could they silently dovetail with Burlington’s award winning Climate Action Plan and the 200 project ideas it generated? Unlike the Lockheed deal, the Climate Action Plan had many opportunities for public input.
Or perhaps this funding could quietly award under-capitalized companies like Efficiency Vermont, whose low income home weatherization has a two year waiting list. Additionally there is an unfunded Chittenden County Metropolitan Planning Organization study on how physical barriers to separate bike lanes from car traffic would positively or negatively impact downtown business. In many cities where the study has been done, including cities as large as New York City, physical barriers to demarcate bike lanes from car traffic have been shown to create safer, friendlier communities, which increases bike use while simultaneously helping businesses thrive. Absent the capital for the study though, the false “it’s bad for business” argument will prevent these bike lane improvements. One climate change consultant estimated the cost of which to be about $10,000 or about the cost of 1/5th of one second in Iraq war spending. But if it were an anonymous benefactor Lockheed couldn’t ride Burlington’s credibility to the bank, and credibility is the only thing war profiteers like Lockheed Martin can’t buy.
The Need For Action in Burlington
In an exclusive meeting with Mayor Kiss he said that the Lockheed/Carbon War Room was not the only way to finance the projects he envisions the City of Burlington taking on, merely the more “serendipitous.” I asked Mayor Kiss at the end of the meeting to what degree the outraged grassroots of Burlington can shape the outcome, considering both the media and the community members have discussed possible civil disobedience to stop this contract with the world’s largest war profiteer. Mayor Kiss, after demurring several times said, “Well there’s nothing date certain in it. This is just a letter of intent, it doesn’t have specific benchmarks for specific projects.”
What the Mayor is saying is that the community organizers can shape the outcome by calling and emailing him, by organizing your friends and neighbors, and continually raising the stakes to oppose this. Certainly holding a single public hearing where community members could voice concerns would be a natural place for the Mayor to show his responsiveness to the electorate that put him in power. Community organizers and concerned Burlingtonians could ask for City Council resolutions the critiquing the deal using the community standards and principals Councilor Mulvaney-Stanak calls for.
Mayor Kiss and the Burlington City Council have proven themselves responsive policy makers for Burlingtonians when citizens organize and make demands of them in City Council meetings packed with advocates. Indeed that is exactly how in the past year Burlington passed a resolution to boycott the State of Arizona over its controversial immigration law SB 1070, and how legislation pushed by Burlington Police Chief Michael Schirling and downtown business organization The Church Street Marketplace Association to make it a crime to be poor on public sidewalks was stopped cold. If the community continues to organize against Lockheed and if the Mayor is responsive to the grassroots that built his party, then the single page “letter of intent,” with no benchmarks, could be slipped deep into the City’s archives. That is to say, as usual, everything depends on community organizers building a countervailing pressure to the moneyed interests of corporations and the military which is so strong the elected officials have no choice but to do the moral, just and right thing.
Here are the details for contacting the Mayor’s office:
Call: 802-865-7272 (Mayor’s Office)
Jonathan Leavitt is a community organizer and writer based in Burlington, Vermont
Partial List of Environmental Lawsuits and Settlements Against Lockheed Martin