Bases Shut-Down: A Connecticut Saga

FEW defense workers are finding any peace in the aftermath of the cold war.

Recently, the area in which I live found out that the worst was about to happen: The US Navy Submarine Base in Groton, Conn., was to close, ending a 125-year naval presence in the area.

This announcement came on the heels of a three-year period during which some 8,100 defense-related jobs in New London County were lost or transferred. If the base were closed, about 11,000 more civilian and military jobs would disappear.

That wasn't the only bad news. About 8,000 to 10,000 additional jobs will probably disappear in the next several years as submarine work slows to a crawl at the General Dynamics Electric Boat shipyard. Another 1,000 jobs are due to be transferred from the New London Naval Underwater Warfare Center to Rhode Island.

New London County has a job base of about 110,000. All the cuts, taken together, would add up to a huge loss for southeastern Connecticut, especially since every defense job spins off anywhere from one to two-and-a-half other jobs.

Ultimately, the region was granted a stay of execution. The submarine base would lose 2,227 jobs, but would remain open. Times are such that the area, which had a 3 percent unemployment rate five years ago, was grateful at the prospects of losing "only" 2,000 jobs.

Yet we haven't begun to hear the end of this issue. New England's defense-dependent areas are wary of the clout and outrage of Charleston, S. C., where budget-cutters threaten to close the Naval Shipyard, Hospital, and Naval Station. Charleston is so much more competitive in its costs than New England, and has so much more to lose, that it is difficult to believe that the decision to cut 41,000 jobs there will stand.

DEFENSE industries and the communities in their areas, flush and fully-employed a few years ago, have begun the political process of jostling for jobs.

Two emotions are rampant - self-pity and a sense of entitlement. It is common to hear defense workers complain that nondefense-related jobs pay far less than the wages to which they are accustomed. They argue, moreover, that having won the cold war, they don't deserve to be discarded.

Defense workers have been shielded from the hard reality of American manufacturing decline. They haven't suffered the cyclical struggle of auto workers in Detroit or the massive layoffs of steel workers in Pennsylvania. The base closings and cuts that are taking place in 10 states aren't going to elicit much sympathy from the other 40 states that are unaffected.

There is strength in numbers, and defense workers will get help. President Clinton is proposing to pour hundreds of millions of dollars into programs to retrain workers. He will also encourage reluctant defense industries to retool so they can make something other than machines that kill people. It is still an open question as to whether defense industries, accustomed to a system of guaranteed profits, will be anxious to compete for customers exactly like any other company.

I can't help but remember the long lines of people shivering in the cold of my home town, Buffalo, N. Y., after the steel industry collapsed. They, too, were bewildered, fearful, and just as deserving of help.

The help they got is that for which they stood in lines: food stamps, unemployment benefits, and very little else.

Defense-dependent regions will all say that the price of cutting workers and closing bases is too high. But if most people could step outside of their fear for a moment, they might see that the price of relying upon making weapons to provide prosperity is higher still.

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