University of Washington (UW) students and their allies have launched a campaign aimed at cutting ties between the university and the aerospace and weapons manufacturer Boeing.
The campaigners, who are members of the Seattle chapter of Resist US-Led War, want to raise awareness of the company’s role as a weapons manufacturer. According to DefenseNews, Boeing was the third-largest global defense contractor in 2021, making more than $35 billion in military-related sales. This made up 56 percent of the company’s total revenue.
Despite the company’s prominent role in military contracting, Resist members say that Boeing avoids criticism by basing its branding around its commercial aviation products, which make up a minority of sales.
“They really do brand themselves successfully to a lot of the Seattle public as just a commercial airliner and as a company that’s connecting people — you know, their global relationships that they’re fostering,” said Alon Lapid, a member of Resist. “But the more we researched, the more we learned, we saw that the primary source of their income was actually the weapons they’re selling to the United States government, as well as to other reactionary, fascist militaries that are aligned with the United States military’s objectives.”
Founded in Seattle in 1916, Boeing has long been regarded as a hometown hero and backbone of the region’s economy. Between World War II and the 1970s’ “Boeing Bust,” the company had an unrivaled dominance in the city, earning Seattle the unofficial moniker of “the Jet City.” The company only ceased being the largest employer in Washington in 2020 with the rise of tech sector giants such as Amazon and Microsoft.
Boeing’s participation in the military-industrial complex is almost as old as the company itself, beginning with the sale of “Model C” seaplanes to the U.S. Navy in 1917, during World War I. Boeing went on to manufacture numerous aircraft for the U.S. military and its allies, including the B-29 “Superfortress” that dropped nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The company has also branched out to other military hardware such as helicopters, drones, missiles and bombs.
UW student and Resist member Victor Simoes said that the profit motive for military contractors is an important catalyst for conflict.
“In our analysis, there’s a lot of reasons why wars keep happening and you don’t have peace,” Simoes said. “One of the main reasons is not because people are bad and they just want wars to happen, it’s because there are people and there are companies that are interested in more wars keep happening. And that’s the case with Boeing: They have a lot of material gains from wars that particularly the U.S. is waging.”
UW’s relationship with Boeing is extensive, starting with the company’s donation of a wind tunnel to the institution in 1916. UW researchers have long aided in the development of Boeing aircraft and weapons, with thousands of graduates going on to work at the corporation.
Resist members said the campaign against Boeing was meant not to disparage students who get jobs at Boeing but instead to spark partners such as UW to try to hold the company accountable for its participation in human rights abuses and war crimes.
“This is a systematical thing. ... Boeing has such a big presence that engineering students sometimes don't have any options of where to choose,” Simoes said. “It restricts their freedom of choice, as well.”
In a 2019 report, the human rights organization Amnesty International called out weapons manufacturers such as Boeing for outsourcing responsibility for violations of human rights in countries with active conflicts, including Saudi Arabia’s war against Yemen.
Together with other progressive and anti-imperialist groups, Resist has organized multiple rallies against Boeing, including outside the Museum of Flight in the Duwamish Valley and at the UW campus ahead of the May 10 Board of Regents meeting. Members said so far reception from students and the community has been overwhelmingly positive.
“We’ve even been getting a lot of support from engineering students who know that Boeing is probably going to be their main employer,” Lapid said. “That’s probably been one of the most surprising and inspiring facts. Students who are increasingly learning about the role of Boeing in controlling their education are outraged, and they want that to change.”
Lapid added that many did not know about Boeing’s role as a military contractor before the group launched its campaign.
One of the group’s demands is for UW to return a $10 million donation for a new Interdisciplinary Engineering Building, slated to encourage the development of advanced AI data-modeling tools.
Lapid said that they were very concerned about the prospect of UW researchers being involved in deploying AI tools in warfare. Through public disclosure requests, they learned the university administration considers Boeing’s donation to be a landmark investment in AI, akin to the wind tunnels the company donated in the early 20th century.
“We know that increasingly AI is being integrated into all forms of weapons,” Lapid said. “Boeing also produces missiles, and AI is very much a part of that and to have computerized missile technology.”
In an email to Real Change, UW spokesperson Victor Balta rebuffed Resist’s criticism of Boeing, saying that the company’s military contracting is important for U.S. security.
“Boeing plays a critical role in the national security of the United States, as well as the defense of other democracies, including Ukraine,” Balta wrote. He also added that the company plays an important role in driving economic growth in the region and providing opportunities for UW students.
Balta wrote that governments bore responsibility for protecting human rights.
“The UW supports human rights here and around the world. The misuse of any technology to violate those rights and harm communities is a concern and one that should be addressed to the governments and others who engage in such harmful actions,” he wrote.
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Guy Oron is the staff reporter for Real Change. Find them on Twitter, @GuyOron.
Read more of the May 17-23, 2023 issue.