The victory for the pro-war motion on Ukraine at the TUC congress marks a bad day for the trade union movement writes Lindsey German

The victory for the pro-war motion on Ukraine, even in a diluted form, at the TUC congress marks a bad day for the trade union movement. It will give comfort to the government, the arms industry, and those who want to prolong the war. No one endorses Russia’s invasion or opposes humanitarian aid for the Ukraine but all trade unionists should oppose arms sales, escalation of wars, and the horrific and growing levels of military spending that the Ukraine war has triggered.

The original motion from the GMB union was clear that it supported sending arms to Ukraine, in line with its motion last year in support of increasing ‘defence’ spending. In a significant retreat the composite omitted all but the vaguest talk about such support, and much of the general calls for solidarity were uncontroversial. However, the GMB mover in summing up reiterated the need to send arms. But there were some very important problems with the motion.

Perhaps the most obvious one is that it makes no mention whatsoever of the role of our government, NATO or the Western powers in the huge arms race going on at present. No mention of the Western imperialist role in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya. No mention of the militarism of the present government. Instead, we were expected to believe that this was simply an act of humanitarian solidarity for those suffering in a war.

Most speakers simply ignored the reality of the war, and the fact that it has become a stalemate with very high casualties on both sides. They also ignored the delivery of depleted uranium, cruise missiles and increasing threats of using nuclear weapons, all of which would at one time have been opposed by the whole left but now seem to be made acceptable to some trade union leaders. Finally, there was little about our government’s hideous role in it because to confront the reality would be to make an immediate demand for peace and a ceasefire. As a substitute, the speakers for the motion (there was only one against) talked about the horrors of war without looking at the wider context that this is a proxy war and not simply one between Russia and Ukraine.

Indeed, PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka argued that it wasn’t a proxy war but then went on to say Biden and Sunak couldn’t be trusted over Ukraine. If that’s the case, why are so many on the left supporting arms going to Ukraine? The composite also compares the present conflict to the Spanish civil war, but this was too much for some unions such as Unite even though they still voted for it.

Speakers also tried to claim they wanted peace – at the same time as demanding that Russia withdraw even from Crimea before peace talks can commence. This is putting preconditions on peace talks which means they will never happen – so much so that TUC general secretary Paul Novak issued an ‘explanation’ which said the motion wasn’t putting such preconditions. But that is actually what it says.

The FBU’s Jamie Newell spoke bravely and eloquently about why his union opposed the motion, and some other unions either voted against or abstained. But the large unions voted for. There was clearly more opposition than expressed in the debate as the NEU, UCU, RMT abstained and the FBU and Bakers’ Union voted against.

There is a political agenda here from the GMB which is trying to push policy on these issues to the right and will be welcomed by Starmer’s Labour and the Tory government. The composite plays into the hands of the right in the trade union movement who support more arms spending. It’s a shame that the sentiments of support and solidarity that are part of the trade union movement should be harnessed to supporting a position which gives comfort to those who have no concern for it.

As the reality of the proxy war between NATO and Russia in Ukraine unfolds, with untold misery for the people of Ukraine and thousands more casualties, the anti-war movement will continue to call for a ceasefire and negotiations. It’s the only sane, realistic alternative to years of war and suffering. It’s vital the trade union movement sees sense and backs these calls for peace.

12 Sep 2023 by Lindsey German

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