Trade Unions must organise and lead
Rob Williams, Socialist Party trade union and workplace organiser
The horrific images of the Israeli state’s brutal assault on Gaza have sparked an intense debate across the trade union movement and in individual unions about the attitude the workers’ movement must take to the conflict, both industrially and politically.
Most, if not all, unions have issued statements, many of which have condemned the Israeli government’s vicious offensive, while at the same time criticising the 7 October attack by Hamas and others, particularly the targeting of civilians. Most have also opposed any rise of racist division, including both Islamophobia and anti-Semitism.
The trade union movement should use its authority and power, as well as its ability to reach across all working-class communities, to put itself centre stage in the anti-war movement. There have been union blocs on some of the demonstrations and protests, although relatively small at this stage. This can grow if the unions have a bold approach and go far further in setting out the programme that is necessary to give a lead to millions of workers here, and can point a way forward to having an impact on the war itself.
The union movement has begun to re-build its authority through the strike wave that has grown over the last two years, especially in the last 18 months, with hundreds of thousands of workers on picket lines. With Keir Starmer moving Labour to the right, clearly setting itself up as a trusted representative of the capitalist establishment, the unions have come to the fore as the leadership of not just their own members but wider layers of the working class, and even the middle class, desperate for a fighting lead during the cost-of-living squeeze.
Even at that level, to avoid a new inflation spike and recession that a continuation of the conflict could accelerate, the trade union movement must intervene against the war. While sometimes even the best industrial militants want to avoid ‘politics’, politics and its consequences cannot be sidestepped.
The massive economic power that workers have, especially when they have taken action together, has been shown over the strike wave. Earlier this year, we saw at least two days, one on the Tory budget day in March, when over half a million workers took strike action together. If that had been developed further, it could have defeated Sunak’s weak and divided government, but it has shown the strength that workers’ collective action has.
The trade union movement, both here and internationally, has a proud record of solidarity against war and repression. London dockers in 1920 boycotted the loading of arms on to the Jolly George for use against the Russian revolution, and Scottish Rolls Royce workers in the 1970s refused to work on parts for the Chilean Air Force which had been a key force in the 1973 coup against the socialist Allende government – just two examples.
Example of Spain
But there is a more recent example of mass action. In 2003, the right-wing Peoples Party Spanish government of José Aznar, despite declaring support for Bush and Blair’s war on Iraq just days before at the Azores summit in March 2003, was prevented from joining the invasion by a general strike. Socialist Party members on the national steering committee of the Stop the War Coalition, which was formed in opposition to the 2001 war on Afghanistan, argued that such a lead should have been given by the unions in this country at that time.
The unions have even more authority today, and such mass action now would undoubtedly put huge pressure on Sunak and other Western governments to withdraw their cover for the Israeli government, with the knock-on effects this would have, for example, on the Israeli currency and its economy more widely. The question of a protest general strike might not be posed yet, but it is essential that the idea that workers can act industrially, on both a local and national scale, is raised in the workers’ movement now.
Workers in industries that impact Israel state
A vital step in this direction is how best to relate to those workers who work in industries, logistics, docks or services that directly impact the Israeli state and particularly its war effort. It is no surprise that anti-war campaigners have protested outside workplaces in this sector. But more impactful results could be achieved by approaching the workers and their unions directly for discussion.
The unions in these sectors should take the lead in this, bringing together reps nationally to discuss what they can do, making it clear that the unions will defend any worker who withdraws their labour from being victimised by their employer. This discussion should then be replicated in each workplace, through mass meetings.
The very fact of such a process unfolding, led by unions who have been leading action on pay and jobs, would itself raise workers’ sights, bringing home the class character of the war and heap huge pressure on the Tory government.
Therefore, it’s essential that the unions clearly pose the class interests at play at home and abroad. The same bosses’ Tory government that is slashing our incomes and bringing in more repressive anti-union laws is lining up with the far-right Israeli government.
But they must also oppose Labour leader Keir Starmer’s shameful tail-ending of the Tories. It is no accident that he disciplines Labour MPs for standing on picket lines and supporting striking workers as well as those speaking out against the Israeli assault on Gaza.
Taking on Starmer on this issue is not an ‘add-on’ option for the unions but vital in preserving their independent authority. The establishment media narrative, however false it may be, is that Labour politically represents ‘the unions’. In that context, what would equivocation about Starmer’s acquiescence to the slaughter in Gaza say about ‘the unions’ to the millions of Muslim workers in Britain, and millions of others, young people especially, who are rising up in horror?
But this would then pose the political steps that need to be taken by the unions – establishing an independent pro-worker political strategy that fights for workers’ interests, both here and internationally. A bloc of left MPs and councillors supported by militant unions – that supports striking workers, demands the re-nationalisation of rail, mail, steel and the energy and utility companies, but also opposes Netanyahu’s murderous war – would have far more impact than those imprisoned within New Labour and would be a massive step forward towards a real workers’ political vehicle that is so needed right now.