On Strikes and Wars — Editorial 2

Can British trade unions defend their members’ standard of living without taking a position on the war in Ukraine?  The standard of living of the British working class has fallen because NATO is engaged in a war against Russia using Ukraine as its proxy army.  Do British trade unions support this NATO war against Russia?  If so, should they accept the drop in the standard of living of their members that it implies?  If not, should they make clear their opposition to NATO’s war? 

The British trade unions are in a difficult position.  The political establishment and its powerful media outlets say that the Russian invasion of Ukraine was an unprovoked attack.  Without doubt the vast majority of union members will have accepted that account.  If you rely entirely on the mainstream media to form a view of the Ukrainian conflict how could you think otherwise?  Indeed, the executive committees of the unions may broadly share the views of their members.

Certainly the various statements put out by the unions suggest as much.  For instance Unite the Union put out a statement which included the following:

“Unite therefore demands the UK government use all its efforts in the international arena to bring about a cessation of hostilities and find a negotiated solution, using all means at its disposal, including sanctions and divestments, but rejecting military escalation and intervention.

To speed up the process of securing that peaceful settlement, Unite demands action from the UK government, including:

  1. Effective and immediate sanctions to be placed on the Russian economy including the seizure of Russian state assets held in the UK.”

It’s good that Unite opposes military escalation and would not support the latest decision of the NATO members to send tanks to Ukraine.  But the sanctions that Unite calls for are the main reason that the standard of living of their members has been reduced.  It seems somewhat inconsistent to call for a policy of action and to then express outrage at the results of that policy.  

Although all the unions condemned the Russian invasion and called for peace talks and a withdrawal of the Russian forces from the Ukrainian lands that they have occupied, there were significant differences between the views of the unions.  For instance, the RMT union issued a quite cautiously worded statement.

“RMT condemns the invasion of Ukraine by Russian forces and calls for their immediate withdrawal. It is workers and their communities and families who suffer from military conflict and we will do all we can to support humanitarian assistance for displaced people from Ukraine and all those that need it.  We welcome refugees seeking to come to the UK.

As trade unionists we oppose war and support peace and cross border solidarity between workers and alongside the global trade union movement we call for a long-lasting negotiated solution through diplomacy and de-militarisation that guarantees security and peace for all in the region.”

Unison’s general secretary was much less cautious when she said “Let’s make no mistakes, this is an absolute, total war. It’s a totally unjustified attack on an independent, democratic country.”

It’s interesting that Unison decided to say that the Russian attack was unjustified.  Unite and RMT chose to avoid that issue.  In contrast the Fire Brigades Union raised the issue of NATO’s role in the war.  While also opposing and condemning the Russian invasion, the Fire Brigades Union stated that 

“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.”

That is the one reference to NATO that we came across in the initial statements by British unions on the invasion.  Yet it is certainly the view of this magazine that it is impossible to understand Russia’s actions without understanding the provocation caused by NATO’s eastward expansion.

The United States has for many years been worried about the revival of Russia under Putin and more specifically about the strong commercial relationship that had been developing between Russia and Germany.  This developing commercial relationship would have undermined America’s raison d’être in Europe.  The US set out to destroy it by expanding NATO eastwards up to Russia’s borders and provoking the Russian invasion of Ukraine.  There is no doubt that the American policy has been very successful.  Russia has been provoked into a war with Ukraine that it did not want.  But, more important from the US perspective, commercial relations between Russia and Europe have been terminated for at least a generation.  

This context has rarely been mentioned by any of the unions fighting to defend their members’ standard of living, yet it is unclear that it will be possible for unions to defend their members’ standard of living if the war continues.  The sanctions that Britain and the US and their NATO allies announced against Russia are damaging the European and British working classes much more than they are damaging Russia.  But if the unions believe that the Russian attack was unjustified then it is difficult to argue against the sanctions.

Will the unions dare to raise the issue of NATO’s role in this war?  It would be a brave move, given the political parties’ and the media’s uncritical support for NATO’s role in this war.  But it may be necessary if they are to successfully defend their members’ standard of living.

If they do dare raise the issue of NATO’s role, they should be prepared for the backlash.

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