By Charlie Kimber
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Sharp difference between trade unions’ response to war in Ukraine

The war in Ukraine has led to a range of responses by trade unionists in Britain. Some are much better than others.
Issue 2796
 Stop the War rally at London's Trafalgar Square illustrating a story on trade unions' response to the Ukraine war

Trade unions have played a vital role in the movements against war (Picture: Garry Knight/Flickr)

The Ukraine war has sharply divided trade unions. On national executives and in branches there is usually agreement on condemning the Russian invasion.

But there are important differences about whether to oppose Nato escalation and to point to the role of Nato more generally. Most union leaders have run away from confronting the imperialism of their own rulers, but in some cases there’s a fightback.

In the NEU education union the row began after a national statement expressed “solidarity” with the people of Ukraine, but also said that the conflict must “not lead to the expansion and consolidation of military ­alliances in Europe”.

Right wingers in the union and the media attacked the statement. The NEU announced it had been ­withdrawn pending further discussion. The executive then met to debate the next move. One group said the union should just back the statement—that does not mention Nato—from Education International (EI), the global teacher unions’ federation.

A left group argued for a position that clearly condemned Putin’s invasion, backed the EI statement and called for support for refugees. But it also added, “We believe the deployment of British and Nato forces in Ukraine would be a ­dangerous escalation in this war.”

In the debate, NEU executive member Jess Edwards, said, “The establishment, from the government, to the Labour leader, to the Daily Mail want to paint anyone who dares to talk of Nato’s culpability as ­supporters of Putin. We won’t take lectures from these masters of war.

“Eastern expansion of Nato, risks world war. Let’s support this amendment but most importantly let’s build a movement against war—both against Putin’s barbarity in Ukraine and against the military solutions that will lead this war to continue and plunge the world in to even greater peril.”

NEU executive member Alex Kenny said, “If we strip out history and ­context and limit ourselves to condemning the invasion and calling for aid, we are adapting to the narrative of Boris Johnson and Dominic Raab. We should not be afraid to take positions that may feel unpopular or swimming against the tide.

“Opposition to the invasion of Iraq started off as an unpopular opinion, we were called apologists for Saddam Hussein, but there are very few now who believe it contributed to making the world a safer place for all of us.”

Jess Edwards told Socialist Worker, “The amendment to go just with the Education International statement was defeated 38 to 20 and then the left amendment passed overwhelmingly. The debate has been very useful in clarifying where people stand and has important implications for the sort of left we need in the union. We have succeeded in winning a position that says it’s legitimate to raise the issue of Nato, and to oppose all the warmongers.”

‘We felt the PCS should raise the issue of Nato’

At the PCS civil service workers’ union national executive, only the Socialist Workers Party members pushed for a reference to Nato’s role.

A motion supported by the union’s leaders condemned the invasion and backed the Russian anti-war movement. Positively, it said, “We will expose the hypocrisy of the UK government and those politicians who now express outrage at the war on Ukraine but have supported equally illegal wars such as the war against Iraq, and illegal occupations such as that of Palestine.” But Nato was not mentioned.

It was said that this was a “unifying” motion. SWP members wanted to add, “We believe the deployment of British and Nato forces in the Ukraine would be a dangerous escalation of this war” and “We recognise that over a number of years that Nato expansion has created tension within the region.” At the end the only people to vote for the amendment criticising Nato were the SWP members of the executive and one member of the Communist Party.

PCS executive member Marianne Owens told Socialist Worker, “We felt we had to go beyond condemning Russia to also raise the issue of Nato. I spoke against Nato on behalf of the PCS at its summit in Newport, South Wales, in 2014. I haven’t changed my view since then.”

In the RMT transport union the national executive put out a very weak statement. It condemned the invasion, welcomed refugees but said only, “As trade unionists we oppose war and support peace. We call for a long-lasting negotiated solution.” Activists think this softness was a defensive response to outrageous media criticisms of “Putin apologists” at the heart of the London Underground strikes. 

But motion passed by the Morden & Oval, Jubilee South and Finsbury Park branches said, “While condemning Russia, we believe the US and Nato have helped to create the conflict. We believe that Nato should withdraw from Eastern Europe. We support protests called by Stop the War, CND and other peace and anti-war organisations. We note the complete capitulation of the Labour MPs threatened with losing the whip.”

Firefighters’ tough stance

A powerful statement from the FBU firefighters’ union has condemned the Russian invasion but also warned of Nato’s role. It reads:

We oppose and condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine. We call for an immediate ceasefire and for all Russian armed forces to immediately withdraw from Ukraine. The war in Ukraine is an extremely dangerous development. Implicit in the situation is the risk that it may spread and escalate, drawing other countries into a growing international conflict. The working class has nothing to gain from war and will pay the biggest price, both in Russia and Ukraine.

Despite the terrible situation, we support the building of unity among workers across national boundaries. The workers of Ukraine and Russia have common interests.

We stand in solidarity with those in Russia who have protested against the invasion, despite police repression. We support the building of a mass anti-war movement, including among Russian troops. We support workers in Ukraine acting independently of the Zelensky regime and building their own organisations and taking independent action. This should include attempts to build dialogue and links with rank-and-file troops in the invading Russian forces.

We condemn any far right or fascist group, on either side of this conflict, seeking to take advantage of the war to build their own organisation and activity by further provoking national and ethnic tensions. We send our solidarity to Ukrainian firefighters and other emergency service workers, delivering humanitarian service in the most appalling conditions. We will seek to build support and send practical solidarity where possible, including through the relevant trade union where appropriate.

This war is also a proxy conflict between Russia and Nato prompted by Nato expansion into central and Eastern Europe. We oppose this expansion and any intervention in this conflict by Nato forces. We note that economic sanctions will disproportionately hit working people, and will be seen as an aggressive measure by the west and may well strengthen support for Putin.

We have no trust or confidence in the Johnson government on this or any other matter. They have demonstrated for more than two years their utter disregard for human life through the deliberate mishandling of the pandemic, leading to the loss of more than 150,000 lives in the UK.

We note the hypocrisy of those in the UK government criticising the state repression of protest in Russia, whilst the police, crime and sentencing bill will serve to create authoritarian restrictions on protest and democracy in the UK. We oppose the UK government’s disgraceful restriction on the right of refugees fleeing the war to enter the UK. We call for refugees from this and other conflicts to be welcomed.

In wartime, as in peace time, we defend the democratic right to speak out, discuss, debate and protest. We condemn the attempts by the leader of the Labour Party to shut down such discussion within the Labour Party and to bully and threaten those with different views. Workers in Ukraine and Russia—and across the world —have common interests. Even in this appalling situation, we stand for workers’ unity and internationalism.

Left retreat is damaging

The retreat by the Labour left MPs from criticism of Nato and support for the Stop the War Coalition has also had an effect.Unions often shy away from issues they regard as “divisive”. Many hold to the idea that putting forward anything but the most anodyne political views could upset some members.

Big unions such as Unison and Unite have made only the most basic statements and shied away from any confrontation with the essence of the Tories’ position. But unions should give a lead, not seek simply to reflect the confusion and acceptance of a mainstream agenda among some of their members. If they don’t, they help the Tories recover on the basis of a fake “national unity”

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