Unite and the anti-war movement

Representatives attending the March Unite national executive council, the first quarterly meeting of the union’s governing body of 2024, were met with a small number of trade unionists, mainly from Unite, protesting at the union’s alleged lack of action against the catastrophe unfolding in Gaza. The executive had before it three motions, including a critical one from the London and Eastern Regional Committee, which is under the leadership of the United Left (LU), an organised group within the union.

The United Left was set up after Unite was formed and played an important role in the election of Len McCluskey as general secretary in the first leadership election of the newly merged union in 2010. At that stage, the Socialist Party was part of the UL. However, after Len’s retirement and in the wake of the defeat of Corbynism within the structures of the Labour Party, the UL has developed into a conservative wing of Unite and opposes the industrially militant ‘transformation’ agenda of Len’s successor as general secretary, Sharon Graham.

The brutal offensive by Netanyahu’s government on Gaza has seen a mass movement of opposition develop in the UK. Over four months or so, up to ten mass national demonstrations have been called, filling the streets of London, with hundreds of thousands marching, as well as countless local mobilisations. The Socialist Party has been a continuous presence in this anti-war movement.

But despite the tremendous resilience of the anti-war demonstrations, there is a questioning among many activists about whether there is a limit to what marches, even of the size and frequency that have taken place, can achieve.

The force that could apply overwhelming pressure onto the Tories, and through them the Israeli state, is the six million-strong trade union movement. This is particularly the case with its increased authority after the strike wave. The profile of union leaders such as Mick Lynch of the RMT and Sharon Graham of Unite, show that fighting unions have been able to give a lead to not just their own members but the working-class as a whole, who increasingly feel politically disenfranchised because of Starmer’s role, with his passive following of Tory policies, domestically and internationally. 

While there have been trade union blocs on many of the marches, the unions haven’t played the leading central role in the movement. A mass mobilisation of workers, or a major stoppage in one of the main companies supplying the Israeli state, however, could have a major effect in shaking the support of the British capitalist class for their Israeli counterparts. Its absence has led to the Unite leadership, and particularly Sharon Graham, being criticised.

While there are genuine activists who want the union to do more, it is also clear that the United Left (UL) have seized upon the situation in Gaza to attack Sharon. They see it as far more favourable ground, unable to criticise the union’s industrial strategy, as Unite has led up to 1,100 disputes since Sharon Graham was elected in the summer of 2021, 80% of them successful. The Socialist Party supported Sharon’s campaign for Unite general secretary because of her militant industrial strategy, which has been implemented.

Under Sharon Graham’s leadership, Unite has also been far more demanding of Starmer than would have been the case if Steve Turner, the United Left candidate, had won the last general secretary election. He had already set out his role to be conciliatory with Starmer, and condemned Sharon’s Organising Department for calling out Labour mayors Sadiq Khan in London and Andy Burnham in Manchester for not intervening in bus disputes.

At the 2021 Unite Policy Conference, just after Sharon Graham’s election victory, a motion initiated by Socialist Party members in the union was passed making it official Unite policy to demand that Labour councils refuse to implement Tory cuts and instead pass no-cuts, needs budgets. This has been a vital step during the many council bin disputes, such as the brutal struggle with the cutting Labour Coventry council, and now the likes of Birmingham and Nottingham Labour councils, which are making massive cuts on the back of Section 114 notices. Significantly, the United Left opposed a motion at the 2023 Unite Policy Conference that reiterated this policy.

But the Socialist Party has our own independent industrial and political programme and has alone argued that Unite and all other unions should take the lead in establishing a political vehicle that represents workers, instead of being limited to the big business policies of Starmer. It is therefore ironic that it is the UL which is posing as standing against the war policy of both the Tory government and Starmer. But they can see an exposed flank to attack.

In a speech to a public rally in February Jim Kelly, leading UL supporter and the chair of the Unite London & Eastern Region, criticised the national leadership for its role. While acknowledging that Unite had issued a statement in November calling for a ceasefire, he made a number of claims, such as Sharon “suppressing attempts to mobilise effectively for Gaza”. He also criticised the union’s executive for ‘pausing’ its affiliation to the Stop the War Coalition (STWC).

Yet after last year’s Unite executive council elections, the UL claimed to have a majority, and therefore should be able to take the lead on the union’s position on Gaza. It also has claimed to have a majority on the executive’s Finance and General Purposes Committee (F&GP), the body that took the decision on the Stop the War affiliation in October. This was reportedly on the basis that the committee felt that the STWC had made a statement criticising Unite members in the defence sector. In fact, at the December meeting of the executive, Sharon indicated that she would be open to discussions with Stop the War. And there is no evidence that the union’s leadership, at general secretary level or from the executive, has “suppressed” building for the demonstrations.

But how the unions, and Unite in particular, with members in the defence, financial and logistics sectors – some directly involved in manufacturing and services to the Israeli state and big business – relate to their members is a vital question.

The power of workers could be critical as the leading edge of the anti-war movement. British workers have a proud history of international solidarity. The London dockers in 1920, for example, who refused to load the SS Jolly George ship delivering arms against Soviet Russia and the revolution. Also the reps and members of a forerunner union of Unite at Rolls Royce in Scotland in the 1970s, who refused to work on parts for the Chilean Air Force which had been a key factor in the 1973 CIA-backed coup of General Pinochet against the socialist government of Salvador Allende. Sharon Graham also rightly backed Unite members for refusing to unload Russian oil at the Stanlow Oil Refinery after Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

It isn’t automatic though that the union’s potential power would be understood by workers or that it would always be possible to win them over to taking action. But it is essential that the unions engage with members on this and other complex issues that would have an effect on their livelihoods, such as in the energy sector with a programme for a ‘just transition’ from fossil fuels.

It is therefore vital that the union’s stand is rooted in a socialist approach and raises the need for workers’ unity against capitalist war and oppression. While there have been well-meaning protests outside companies suspected of supplying the Israeli military – not organised by the unions themselves – they have risked pushing the workers closer to management.

Far better to approach workers in the defence sector with a supportive stance, being prepared to discuss with their union reps. Even better if Unite and any other unions would organise a national meeting of reps in these affected sectors and industries to discuss the conflict.

The newly established Unite Broad Left, which supports Sharon’s election and programme, and in which the Socialist Party participates, organised a meeting last November, a few weeks after the start of the war, to discuss how to strengthen Unite’s role in the anti-war movement. It heard the welcome news that Broad Left supporters had played a key role in producing a statement from the Unite executive members for the aerospace and shipbuilding sector and its lead defence convenors and reps. Such a statement could be an important step towards opening up a discussion between union reps and members working in affected industries.

The 45,000-strong Northern Ireland Public Service Alliance (NIPSA), the biggest union in Northern Ireland – which has members of our sister-party Militant Left in leadership positions, and played a leading role in the massive public sector general strike there on January 27 – organised a membership meeting in February on Gaza. Given the divide in working-class communities in Northern Ireland, with support for Israelis and Palestinians often used as proxies for sectarianism, it showed the role that unions, particularly those with authority, can play in discussing out a way forward, even in the most complex situations.

If similar meetings took place in Unite and other unions in these sectors, such as the GMB, it could have an enormously positive effect. More so if the unions made it clear that any member who refused to carry out work duties because of opposition to the war would be defended from disciplinary measures by the employer. It is also essential in relating to workers in these industries that the issue of diversification from these products is discussed, making the demand that these companies should be brought into socialist public ownership to make such a transition to peaceful production possible, protecting workers’ jobs, pay and pensions, as outlined by the plan made by shop stewards in Lucas Aerospace in the 1970s. Holding such a meeting alone would send a shudder through the spines of the bosses, Rishi Sunak, and Keir Starmer.

This is the basis for the central role that unions should play in this conflict and the others that will inevitably break out as capitalism enters an ever more unstable era, relating the fight for workers’ jobs and pay with the wars and crises of the bosses’ system. Given Starmer’s craven obedience to the interests at home and abroad of the capitalists, inevitably such a struggle poses the need for a political alternative for workers.

The unions, with their potential to unite workers in common struggle and harness their collective power, must play a central role in such a political fight.

Rob Williams