By Sarah Bates at the TUC conference
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Union leaders back arms spending at TUC conference

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A motion calling for investment into the arms industry split the TUC union federation's conference
Issue 2728
Nato war illustrating an article about the TUC congress

Stop The War lobbied the TUC conference ahead of the vote. The coalition has organised protests against the US and Russia’s proxy war in Ukraine (Picture: Guy Smallman)

Trade union leaders have narrowly backed calls to pour more money into the British arms industry—responsible for death and destruction across the world. The GMB union’s motion to the TUC union federation’s congress in Brighton on Wednesday split delegates almost in half. 

It is a direct contradiction of a motion passed in 2017 that argued for workers in weapons manufacturing to be redeployed into other industries. 

Nigel Warn from GMB claimed, “Investment in defence manufacturing must be at the heart of any plan to revive the manufacturing sector.” 

Steve Turner from the Unite union wrung his hands, saying he “shares genuine concerns about aggressive regimes around the world” that Britain sells arms to. He then backed the motion because “we need the tools to defend Britain.”  

NEU education union delegate Jon Reddiford launched a hugely well-received attack against “investment in pointless, unproductive, murderous weapons”. “Liz Truss has announced that she is going to increase spending on defence and cut the public sector,” he said. 

“This is a motion that Liz Truss would support and I think that’s a problem. At the start of the pandemic, Mercedes and Dyson and Formula One very quickly repurposed their factories to produce ventilators. Diversification is a very winnable thing. And it doesn’t mean producing arms to sell to Saudi Arabia to kill kids in Yemen.”

Joining in with opposition to the pro-war motion, FBU union firefighter Jamie Newell described it as “essentially calling for jobs for bombs.” “I’m surprised at the TUC general council’s position, maybe disappointed even,” he said. 

“We opened this conference reaffirming our commitment against war, yet they have a position of support in this motion”. He called for workers “to build something that is better for our society, not build the machines that could end it.”

The motion was ultimately supported by the Prison Officers’ Association, NASUWT, Unite, Usdaw and Prospect. A narrow vote by hands saw the chair call a card vote, which means delegation votes are counted proportionately to total union membership. Ultimately, it saw the motion pass by 2,556,000 votes for and 2,469,000 against.

Elsewhere at congress, trade unionists repeated calls for united action that dominated the first day of discussion on Tuesday. 

Sharon Graham, Unite union general secretary, said, “We now must be ready for what they have in store for us. Liz Truss wants a bigger pie, what’s the point of a bigger pie when the same people divide it?”

And she hinted at not being able to rely on support from Keir Starmer’s Labour Party. “Do not stand on the sidelines now and play this safe. Be bold, be on the side of workers, stop apologising for sticking up for workers on strike,” she said, to the loudest applause of the day. 

“We haven’t changed the goalposts, you have. This is the question of the TUC—who’s side are you on?”

And Graham warned, “We cannot trade our industrial power for political promises and jam tomorrow. Bad employees fear workers’ power, not how much money we give to the Labour Party.”

RMT rail union leader Mick Lynch sent out a direct challenge to the TUC leadership. He argued it should organise protests to back up workers, and said its “We demand better” lobby of parliament on 2 November didn’t go far enough. “We’re lobbying people who are trying to do us in,” he said. “

“Wherever our people are, we’ve got to be with them,” he said. “Community action coupled with industrial action, we’ve got to get people on the streets in support of industrial action, in support of public ownership and in support of public services and redistribution of wealth.”

Echoing the central message of Tuesday’s discussions, Phil Clarke from the NEU education union backed up the call for united action. “We’ve got to learn in the NEU,” he said. “We’ve got to deliver ballots across 22,000 workplaces and we’ve got to find a way to coordinate our action. 

“The best thing for our members in delivering the ballot is that our sister unions in education are going with us, that workers in the NHS are going with us”.
Fury at the rising energy costs was a common theme of the day. “I’m a teaching assistant in a school, the surging energy costs means that my school like many others will struggle to pay bills,” Jess Powell told the conference. 

“But there are some schools like Eton and Winchester, who won’t be struggling. I go home from work like millions of other working class people, and I worry about paying my bills and feeding my family. Wealth hasn’t trickled down—t’s rushed up.”

Meanwhile, in a session on equalities, Liz Wheatley from Unison raised a motion on fighting for abortion rights. She spoke about the attack on Roe v Wade abortion legislation in the US. But she said, “We can’t be complacent, we have a Tory government full of entitled sexist bigots who oppose the right to choose.” 

She called on the TUC to organise a demo in support of reproductive freedoms “as we face the biggest attack on abortion rights in a generation”.

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