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Defense Workers: Battle of Conscience in Plants : Some See Inconsistency Between Personal Beliefs, Making Military Weapons

December 11, 1987|DAVID JOHNSTON | Times Staff Writer

By day, mathematician John Honigsfeld works on the Strategic Defense Initiative, part of Los Angeles County's $15.4 billion military contracting industry, one of the major forces driving the local economy.

Nights and weekends, citizen John Honigsfeld demonstrates against American militarism, including the Star Wars project that employs him.

"I continue working there mainly for economic reasons. The best paying jobs in my field are in military contracting," Honigsfeld, a one-time cabbie and a former schoolteacher, says when asked why a man of his views works for Hughes Electro-Optical and Data Systems Group, part of General Motors growing weapons business. "I make $43,000 a year. I couldn't make anywhere close to that anywhere else."

Honigsfeld, 45, said some of his friends in the radical, leftist '60s-inspired Peace and Freedom Party think he has compromised. The security clearance bureaucracy is so unsure of what to make of his activities, he added, that once it asked if he wanted to give up his security clearance.

True-Blue American

But Honigsfeld thinks his actions are, well, true-blue American.

"In America, we're supposed to be free," Honigsfeld said. "In a democracy, dissent is not disloyalty" and thus to him it seems not at all odd that he works on a government-funded project that he agitates against in his free time.

The Pentagon estimates that 3.3 million Americans have defense-related jobs. Honigsfeld is perhaps the most unusual among a tiny number of these workers whose conscience has moved them to challenge militarism in U.S. foreign policy.

Some with similar ethical qualms, like Tom Machado of Westchester and Robin Podolsky of Echo Park, quit jobs in Southern California defense plants.

And interviews with other defense plant workers, selected by their companies, indicate they believe their work is more than just a job and is vital to maintaining freedom.

Ron Hamilton of Lennox and Bill Carpenter of Simi Valley, for example, feel strongly about applying their skills to create the best defense possible to discourage warfare while Harold Shapiro of Yorba Linda also see peacetime technological benefits in preparation for war.

A spokesman for the Aerospace Industries Assn., a trade group, said it believes so few people have left military work as a matter of conscience that the industry has not studied the issue and is unaware of any review of the matter by other segments of the defense plant industries. A Pentagon spokesman said the Department of Defense knows of no studies of the phenomena.

However, Jonathan Parfrey of the lay religious organization Orange County Catholic Worker in Santa Ana and a coordinator for Aerospace Engineers/Workers for Social Responsibility, a small 3-year-old local group that opposes militarism in U.S. foreign policy, said during that the past three years he has talked to about 70 people in Southern California who have quit military contracting work for ethical reasons.

Similar organizations in Puget Sound, Kentucky, Boston and Washington, D.C., have also identified small numbers of defense plant workers who announced they were quitting as an act of conscience.

Silent Protesters

Parfrey estimates that between 1% and 5% of those who quit defense plant jobs are "silent protesters," who develop qualms about the moral justification of their work and then quit or retire early without declaring their views to their employers or co-workers.

Robert M. Nelson, a Jet Propulsion Laboratory scientist who is co-chair of the Southern California Federation of Scientists, also believes there are many such silent protests either by resignation or early retirement.

Honigsfeld, Parfrey and others involved in Aerospace Engineers/Workers for Social Responsibility recently attempted to survey defense plant workers about their attitudes toward militarization, but Honigsfeld said they dropped the plan because so few workers would even accept the questionnaire. He said he got only four to six responses.

Changing ideas about the ethics of buildings military and nuclear weapons are particularly relevant in California with its heavy concentration of defense plants. Department of Defense spending in California grew at a compound annual rate of nearly 10% in 1983-85, the Commission on State Finance estimates. And, it added, this year the Pentagon will pump more than $50 billion, nearly 10% of the gross state product, into the state. California defense plants got more than $30 billion in prime military contracts last year, compared to about $10 billion in Texas, the second biggest defense plant center.

Honigsfeld was born in the Soviet Union to Polish Jews who fled Hitler during World War II. He came to Los Angeles in 1947 as a boy of 5.

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