Lewis Akers reports back from the first Scottish organising meeting of trade unionists against war, an initiative he argues is vital as tensions between the world’s power increase.
As tensions between the world’s competing powerful states heighten, there is a struggle in the British trade union movement over questions of war and the arms industry. Following support for a pro-war motion at the 2022 Trade Union Congress earlier in October, anti-war trade unionists are organising. ‘Trade Unionists Against War’, a Glasgow Stop the War Coalition (StWC) meeting on Saturday, the 29th of October, brought together trade unionists and trades councils. An experienced panel of speakers addressed the meeting, including StWC chair Shelley Asquith, RMT Organiser Gordon Martin, Wyndford Tenants Union chair Stephanie Martin and the Clydebank Trade Councils’ Tam Morrison. The aim was to start a conversation about how to build anti-war sentiment within unions and see that reflected in union policy.
Anti-War Argument in Unions
The backdrop against which the meeting was set against was the massive step back suffered by anti-war activists at this year’s TUC in Brighton, at which several unions backed a militaristic motion which celebrates the AUKUS pact and tilts the trade union movement more towards war and investment in private companies. The outcome of the motion means the TUC is officially committed to campaigning for increased defence spending and the continuation of nuclear weapons. As I made clear in my report on the TUC’s 154th Congress, they are now committed to “jobs for bombs.” One of the speakers on the panel, Asquith, outlined an alternative industrial strategy for the trade union movement. She argued that we should be supporting the “creation of jobs in other sectors”, which would be socially valuable and contribute towards the task of taking on the climate crisis.
Morrison focused on the Scottish dimension. Reporting on the events which transpired at the STUC’s 2022 conference discussion on Ukraine, he said that without anti-war intervention, we may have ended up with “blanket support” for proxy war measures from the STUC with no mentions of the causes of the war. He said this was only avoided by the organisation of an anti-war response from various trade unionists. Although the eventual position was not ideal, it was better than the original position, and the delegates to the conference were sympathetic to the anti-war position put forward.
Anti-War Argument in Wider Society
Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the anti-war movement has had to work hard to get its message across, against a prevailing state and media message. Asquith noted we have faced “attacks and smears.” Anyone who “seeks to understand the war” was branded a “Putin apologist.” Meetings like these are so important at equipping trade unionists with the arguments against these smears. This problem is not imagined, the Telegraph used this same line of argument to attempt to turn the public against the RMT’s strikes on the London Underground earlier in the year, caricaturing strikers as Putin’s ‘enemy within’ the western camp.
Asquith also set out the context in wider society, outlining how the left had been able to win arguments in recent years such as on austerity and the climate but has been less able to win the public to anti-imperialist arguments despite polls showing a general anti-war sentiment amongst the population. She argued on this basis that we need to “build a link” between anti-imperialist and anti-war arguments and “the issues on people’s minds” such as the climate and the cost of living. The ability to tie the issues together means we can use the popular arguments we have won to bridge conversations, making anti-war activism not a moral crusade but a class issue.
No War but The Class War
Both Gordon Martin and Stephanie Martin demonstrated through their arguments how this fusion could be achieved. Gordon Martin outlined that war was a class issue. The working class, he said, always end up being “cannon fodder for capitalist crises.” It is never the rich in the firing line, and “it won’t be Rishi Sunak’s sons and daughters called up.” Stephanie Martin outlined how the working class don’t have to be combatants to be affected by war. She passionately and rightly argued that “wars are fought on the bodies of women”, recounting how wars increase levels of domestic violence, rape and sexual exploitation.
However, the impact isn’t just the death and destruction of working-class lives. The economic impacts on the mass of the populations are staggering, with the UK spending 3 percent of GDP on ‘defence’ spending, which equates to nearly £50 billion a year – set to rise to £100 billion by 2030. In the face of massive spending cuts under a Jeremy Hunt chancellorship, Stephanie pointed out that he is “promising spending cuts to all spending apart from defence.” Gordon Martin argued this results in the “means of life facing savage cuts” and continued “investment for the means of war.” Stephanie Martin painted a vivid picture of the colossal social good that could be achieved with that £50 billion that money – universal free childcare, a fifteen pound an hour minimum wage for public sector workers, more nurses, and much more. Showing war as inextricably linked to class issues in this way allows us to outline an alternative vision of the massive good which could be achieved with the resources we currently pour into war.
We Cannot Let History Repeat Itself
One participant in the hall said, “we cannot let history repeat itself.” We must reflect on what has worked well in the past and develop our arguments for use within the unions. We need to be able to argue patiently and win around colleagues in our union branches, identify allies, and build the links between class and war. This is why the meeting concluded that building a network of anti-war trade unionists is so essential. Glasgow StWC is spearheading this from a Scottish perspective, and at a UK-wide level, StWC has organised an anti-war trade union conference. These are only the start of organising activities, but they are necessary to build what Shelley Asquith called a “movement in numbers and confidence.”
Tensions between the west and its weaker competitors like Russia, China and Iran are only set to rise in the coming years. It is vital that the unions express the interests of workers in opposing escalation and war.