Skip to content
Courtesy of Dissenters/ St. Louis Palestine Solidarity Committee

Workers at Defense Contractors Navigate Dissent over Gaza War

At companies that produce weapons for Israel, employees opposed to the Gaza war explain how they navigate political speech in the workplace.

Words: Taylor Barnes
Pictures: Dissenters/St. Louis Palestine Solidarity Committee
Date:

When an engineer started a new job last year at Northrop Grumman, America’s third-largest defense contractor, their training included vague guidance about political speech in the workplace. In a section of the online training regarding etiquette, the company instructed employees to not discuss politics at work in order to prevent a “hostile work environment.” The online training went on to present a fictional scenario that the engineer shared with Inkstick:

“Jane is involved in a political action group outside of work. She sometimes brings up the goals of the group and current events associated with it at work. Sometimes she asks her colleagues if they want to be involved, which makes some colleagues feel pressured or uneasy around her.”

The engineer, who has been deeply involved in protests against the war on Gaza outside of work, asked not to be named or identified by gender by Inkstick in order to avoid risking losing their job. They said the training didn’t spell out any consequences in such a scenario and that they choose to self-censor, refraining from asking a manager with whom they have a positive relationship to clarify the workplace speech policy, since they don’t know what would happen if they revealed their anti-war views.

“What if I did something really simple like wear a watermelon shirt?” the employee wondered, referring to the symbol used by activists due to the fruit’s colors matching those of the Palestinian flag. 

Quietly Connecting with Colleagues

Dissent over US support for Israel’s war on Gaza has rocked workplaces across the country, where firings, rescinded job offers, canceled assignments, and workplace retaliation have been reported by a variety of professionals, including law school graduates, Apple store employees, journalists, and artists.   

The military-industrial complex has its own unique and formidable barriers holding back the dissenters who find themselves on the inside. (The engineer told Inkstick they wound up in the defense industry because they needed good healthcare and to pay off student loans from a pricey undergraduate aerospace engineering program, which they took on in the hopes of working for NASA. “I was desperate, and that” — military contractors — “was the only option.”) Arms plants are among the most secretive workplaces in the country, where concerns over revealing trade secrets, losing security clearances, and violating non-disclosure agreements chill workers’ speech.

Remarkably, given the incentives to stay quiet, the engineer and another dissident employee at Boeing shared several stories with Inkstick about how they and their colleagues were speaking up about the war. 

At Northrop Grumman, the engineer said their operations manager confided in them that he took “comfort” in the fact that their specific building did not make weapons for Israel. (The engineer says the manager works on the Trident missile, which delivers nuclear warheads from ballistic missile submarines.) The engineer told Inkstick, however, that other buildings at their worksite make parts for the F-35, a fighter jet that Israel uses to bomb Gaza. 

The operations manager told his colleague, “Yeah, this is really horrible what we [the United States] are doing,” the engineer recalled.

If I could do anything right now, I’d be protesting in Washington, DC.

One program manager for the Trident looked “distressed” in a routine meeting about three months ago, the engineer recalled. She told her coworkers, “If I could do anything right now, I’d be protesting in Washington, DC.” 

The manager’s son was in the military, and President Joe Biden had just announced that the United States was building a pier to deliver humanitarian aid to the besieged strip. The manager feared that the pier could mean American boots on the ground there. “She was furious and scared that her son would be deployed to Gaza,” the engineer told Inkstick. 

The engineer decided to tell the program manager that they had a friend with family in Gaza who also feared for their lives, and told Inkstick the manager cried when speaking with them. “She and I definitely agree that we should have no involvement” in the war, they said. 

Was It Something I Said?

At-will employment is the default for the vast majority of private sector American workers who are not in labor unions or in places with exceptional local laws, like Montana. That means that workers can be fired for nearly any reason, including for something they said — including comments about Israel or Gaza, University of Minnesota law professor Charlotte Garden told Inkstick.

Protesters rally against the Israeli war on Gaza outside a Northrop Grumman facility (Courtesy of Dissenters – College of William & Mary)
Protesters rally against the Israeli war on Gaza outside a Northrop Grumman facility (Courtesy of Dissenters – College of William & Mary)

Legal protections for workplace speech are “limited and patchy,” Garden wrote in a report, titled, “Was it Something I Said?”, for the Economic Policy Institute. “The freedom of speech that so many Americans valorize is in practical effect illusory for many American workers,” she wrote.

She told Inkstick that the National Labor Relations Act protects political speech that relates to working conditions, such as advocating for raising the minimum wage.

“In one sense, of course what the employer does” — such as manufacturing weapons — “affects people’s working conditions,” Garden said. But she added that the National Labor Relations Board has not interpreted the act to mean that discussing working conditions includes an “absolute right” to suggest the employer should have a different mission or achieve it in a different way — for example, if a dissident in the arms industry advocates cutting of weapons to a country that the US government considers an ally.

Whether social commentary is permitted or punished in a non-unionized shop often comes down to individual “workplace culture” rather than rights, Garden said. In one recent dispute, the National Labor Relations Board sided with a Home Depot employee who wrote “BLM” on his apron during the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests and ordered the company to reinstate him and give him back pay. But in that case, Garden said, the employee put the political message on his apron to address specific concerns of racial discrimination in his workplace. Other cases of employers who retaliated against workers who were “commenting on the larger protest movement” at that time are still unwinding, she said. 

Dissenting in a Defense Industry Union

Unionized workers often feel more assertive in their workplace speech rights, since their contracts mean they are not subject to “at-will” employment and have the right to a grievance process to challenge workplace discipline or firings.

One unionized employee at Boeing, which makes fighter jets and munitions for Israel, told Inkstick that the limitations on speaking out about Gaza has less to do with fear of being fired than of how much pressure a union in a right-leaning workplace can take. Labor leaders “look at the membership and see that it’s very conservative and think, ‘There’s only so far I can pull on this leash before it breaks’,” he said.

That employee wanted to read a statement on the war by the executive council of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, the largest union in the defense industry, to his Boeing coworkers at a general body meeting. The statement did not use the word “ceasefire” but said that the “senseless” conflict “must end now.” 

He first had to get permission from his shop’s executive board; one member snapped at him for reading their own union’s statement: “The Bible gave that land to the Israelites and the Palestinians have no right to that!” The board also shot down his request to read a summary of UN Special Rapporteur Francesca Albanese’s “Anatomy of a Genocide” report, with a member telling the employee that the union only concerned itself with “labor issues.”

“What are we going to do about it?” the employee recalled one union leader asking him. “Pass a resolution telling Netanyahu to stop?” The employee told the union leadership that the issue is relevant because the IAM has a human rights committee and his coworkers were preparing rush shipments of weapons to Israel, seeing the name of the destination country on packing materials. 

“We don’t make no weapons!” a board member yelled. The employee, who is also a military veteran, was stunned. “What is a harpoon?” he replied, referring to a missile that Boeing makes for the US Navy.

When he finally read the IAM statement at the general meeting, he said he got one angry rebuke from a coworker, while several others quietly told him that they appreciated him “spitting the truth.”

MAGA and Militia Bumper Stickers

The employee told Inkstick that Boeing’s workplace guidance on political activity was to not engage in “offensive” speech, which appeared to be a policy each manager interprets in their own way. 

Both the Northrop Grumman and Boeing employees told Inkstick that right-wing messages on shirts, bumper stickers, and said out loud are commonplace in their line of work. At a defense contractor where they worked prior to Northrop Grumman, the engineer recalled shirts promoting the “Three Percenters,” an anti-government militia; the word “plandemic,” the name of a film series promoting conspiracy theories about Covid-19; and one that said “Watch out for these parasites,” followed by images of a flea, a tick, and Biden. At Boeing, the worker said he’s often seen “Make America Great Again” gear on his colleagues’ clothing and vehicles, including an “Ultra-MAGA” bumper sticker on a printer, and nationalist messages like a shirt reading, “If you don’t love this country, I’ll help you pack.”

On Jan. 6, 2021, the Boeing employee said he was at work while colleagues on the assembly line watched the insurrection live on their computer, cheering on rioters and saying that a noose and gallows erected in the crowd should be used on former House speaker Nancy Pelosi. 

“This is treason territory — you are openly wanting to murder an elected official,” the employee told Inkstick, adding sarcastically: “While you’re making aircraft for the US military.” 

In the days after the Capitol insurrection, the employee said Boeing issued a rare restriction on political speech to its local workforce, telling employees to take bumper stickers for militias like the Oath Keepers off their vehicles — which, the employee said, they did. 

Spokespeople for Boeing and Northrop Grumman did not reply to queries from Inkstick about the companies’ policies on political speech in the workplace. Boeing also did not respond to questions from Inkstick about the company telling employees to remove militia bumper stickers.

For its part, Northrop Grumman takes a tone internally that the engineer described as “rainbow capitalism,” hosting employee resource groups for gay workers and employees of color and publishing stories in its newsletter about single mothers who advance in their careers. But the engineer doubts that promotion of diverse identities extends to political dissent. “Northrop never came out and said, ‘You’re going to lose your job if you’re pro-Palestine’,” the engineer said. “But that’s not something I want to learn about the hard way.”

Taylor Barnes

Field Reporter

Taylor Barnes in Inkstick Media's field reporter for military affairs and the defense industry. She is a grantee with the Ploughshares Fund and is based in Atlanta. Follow her work at @tkbarnes. Tips? tbarnes@inkstickmedia.com

LEARN MORE

Hey there!

You made it to the bottom of the page! That means you must like what we do. In that case, can we ask for your help? Inkstick is changing the face of foreign policy, but we can’t do it without you. If our content is something that you’ve come to rely on, please make a tax-deductible donation today. Even $5 or $10 a month makes a huge difference. Together, we can tell the stories that need to be told.

album-art

Sorry, no results.
Please try another keyword
  • Political Scientist Cynthia Enloe is, arguably, the reason we’re all here. She was one of the first to explore gender in international relations, and the first to ask, “Where are the women?” But what she meant when she asked that question? It’s been lost in a sea of nuances around feminism and feminist foreign policy.[...]
00:00

SIGN UP FOR OUR NEWSLETTERS