Interests at Work

Rebekah Diski

On 16 October 2023, a coalition of Palestinian trade unions issued a call for international solidarity. They specifically addressed unions in industries that supply military equipment to Israel, urging them to refuse to build or transport those weapons. At that point, nine days after the Hamas attack that killed 1200 Israelis, the Palestinian death toll stood at 2700. It is now nearly 34,000, over a third of whom are children, with many thousands more trapped under rubble.

The vast majority of Israel’s arms imports come from the US, but components are distributed across a global supply chain, including the UK. The F-35, a ‘stealthy, multi-role attack aircraft’ used to devastating effect in Gaza, is part-manufactured by BAE Systems at its factories in Kent and Lancashire. According to the Campaign Against the Arms Trade, the Hermes 450 drone that repeatedly attacked the World Central Kitchen convoy two weeks ago, killing seven aid workers, runs on an engine made in the UK by a subsidiary of the Israeli arms company Elbit Systems, UAV Engines in Staffordshire.

The UK is the world’s second largest defence exporter and it is not particular about its customers: it notoriously arms Saudi Arabia, which led a regional coalition into Yemen’s civil war in 2015, dropping British-made missiles and bomb components in a conflict that killed an estimated 377,000 people. The Conservatives and Labour are both committed to the continued sale of weapons to regimes in breach of international law and these positions have only hardened as Israel strives to escalate a wider regional conflict.

The largest unions in the defence sector, Unite and GMB, have been muted in their response to the ongoing destruction of Gaza. Under intense internal pressure, Unite called for an immediate ceasefire in November, but the Palestinian request for solidarity was met with silence. Both unions are affiliated with the TUC which last September reaffirmed its commitment to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. The BDS demands include boycotting Israeli companies ‘engaged in violations of Palestinian human rights’ and ‘ending military trade’. As noted in an open letter from Unite members to the union’s executive committee, Unite has itself passed motions supporting BDS. These acts of solidarity now appear purely rhetorical.

The demand for action at the point of production is not without precedent. Economic disruption played a part in bringing down South Africa’s apartheid regime. During Pinochet’s dictatorship, Scottish workers at Rolls Royce refused to repair aircraft engines used against the Chilean people and Liverpool dock workers refused to handle Chilean goods. As Israel bombards Gaza, stevedore unions in Belgium, Spain and India have refused to load and unload military shipments. In the absence of an official response from the unions representing defence workers in the UK, a grassroots movement assembled: Workers for a Free Palestine organised hundreds of trade unionists and activists to picket arms factories, including Elbit and BAE. The group includes members of Unite, GMB, Unison and others.

PCS, which represents civil servants and has a long record of campaigning on anti-war, climate and social justice issues, has suggested that its members should stop working on arms export licences over fears they could be complicit in war crimes in Gaza. Unite and GMB both represent thousands of workers in military manufacturing, a source of secure and well-paid jobs that they understandably want to protect against the trend towards increasingly precarious and low-wage work. GMB, long seen as occupying the right flank of the labour movement, is ‘unashamedly pro-defence’, supporting increased military spending as a guarantor of current and future jobs.

Unite’s position has vacillated more: in 2016, under Len McCluskey, it dabbled in support for ‘defence diversification’, meaning the transition of defence industries towards non-military business. Under pressure from its members in the Trident workforce, and perhaps to forestall their defecting to GMB, the union backed the renewal of the nuclear missile system. By 2022, Unite agreed with GMB that global insecurity meant diversification was ‘no longer fit for purpose’.

Under Sharon Graham, elected general secretary in 2021 on the promise of a ‘concrete plan to take our union back to the workplace’, Unite has overseen an upswing in labour militancy around the ‘core business’ of protecting jobs and improving pay and conditions. In a recent letter to staff and organisers, Graham made clear that this would not be extended to members’ concerns outside work. Responding to the actions against arms manufacturers by Workers for a Free Palestine and Palestine Action, she wrote:

the ‘first claim’ on our priorities is always the protection and advancement of our members’ interests at work … Unite cannot and never will advocate or support any course of action which is counter to that principle.

But it is precisely in the workplace that workers have the collective power to express solidarity in a way that makes a difference, crucially by withholding their labour, even if means risking their own interests.

There is always a tension between a union’s bread-and-butter role to protect its members’ jobs and the wider role that some unions, at some times, have used to improve the world their workers live in. The emphasis on ‘interests at work’ is a rebuke to that wider social role, but it seems increasingly obsolete in the face of the existential threats of nuclear war and ecological breakdown. What about workers’ interests in breathing clean air? Or in affordable rents? Or in protection from floods, droughts and social breakdown? Or in the peace of mind that comes from knowing that the products of their labour have not been used in genocide?

Challenging the logic of harmful production should not mean sacrificing the workers subsumed in the process, but it does require a more expansive definition of their interests. Commenting on the main industrial unions’ support for fossil fuels and carbon-intensive industry, Richard Seymour has written:

We can talk of class interests; we must. But when ‘interest’ is invoked in a way that treats need as the need for what capitalism is offering, we should wake up.

Trade unions have been battered by waves of deindustrialisation, shrinking membership, and political and legislative assault. Those that have recognition agreements with defence contractors do not consider using them to question what workers produce. A shift in this position would require engaging with and supporting affected members (though it would also have the support of some members and could be used to recruit others). It would require mobilising around more than merely ‘interests at work’ and demanding a just transition away from militarily and ecologically harmful production. It would mean rediscovering international solidarity as an organising principle rather than a tired catchphrase. At its most hopeful, as the Palestinian trade unions put it, it would be a ‘lever for the liberation of all dispossessed and exploited people of the world’.


  • 20 April 2024 at 6:50pm
    enfieldian says:
    A very powerful blog - British politics down the years has left ordinary workers bereft of any “moral compass” which might help them to come to the right decision about producing arms for genocide. The bureaucratic leaderships of the trade unions are politically useless, but the root of the problem
    is the traditionally imperialist and pro-war Labour Party.

  • 24 April 2024 at 9:32pm
    ChrisT says:
    The struggles within trade unions to respond to external request for support has been going on for many years. ACTT the TV and filmmakers trade union, (the for runner of Bectu/Prospect), in the 1970s was
    asked by the ANC to boycott the request by the apartheid South African government to supply skilled technical labour to establish a television service in South Africa. The ACTT was virtually an all-white trade union which was another reason it was so attractive for the apartheid regime. However it was taking its first tentative steps to address the problem of an exclusive white membership.
    Not only was it considered odious to provide a propaganda service for apartheid South Africa but it would setback ACTT’s own struggle to diversify.So the union’s leadership took a strong stand responding positively to this request and it was debated heatedly at annual conference after annual conference and despite strong opposition from many members including a block of conservative trade unionists the conference held that position for many years, in part due to the affect of strong and positive leadership from the top.
    Now the milksop Prospect/Bectu union virtually, a house union, has muted itself because it has members in the armaments industry saying they deserve well paid jobs alibiing their consciences by saying all the armaments made by members are exported under approved license. This is the same hogwash we’re getting from Sharon Graham and the GMB jockeying for membership.
    Its shameful that they can’t lead on this, they are no doubt fearful they may get a hostile response from their membership, but leadership is meant to lead, they should take take it on and explain the wider implications of armament manufacture.
    It should be remembered that through trade union involvement many workers start to realise the wider implications of what they do and the responsibilities they have not only in the armaments industry but in the fossil fuel industry too and that’s how change takes place. It’s very easy for union bureaucrats to service selfish interests, it takes real guts to change them.
    Chris Thomas

  • 1 May 2024 at 11:38am
    Susan Dixon says:
    Rebekkah Diski’s piece regarding worker/union activity in respect of arms dealing and the intersection with IDF activity in Palestine is interesting, and makes some reasonable demands regarding the distribution of these products. This includes, she says, “at the point of production”.
    But looked at more closely, this is not really a call for action at the point of production.
    She is calling for Unions to restrict the shipment of weapons to the IDF, which is effectively calling for Union action at the point of distribution or - in a phrase we learnt to use during the covid lockdowns - to disrupt the supply lines.
    But a genuine, alternative plan for intervention at the point of production was trialled some fifty years ago – shop stewards from a number of Unions in a number of Lucas Aerospace sites developed a plan for the production of socially useful products utilising the skills and capital in the UK armaments industry. They even managed to get some non-unionists on side!
    Based on 150 suggestions which emerged from the shop-floor, products which were either being produced (such as kidney dialysis machines) or which could be produced using the skill set already in place and the capital already installed were suggested for development.
    That included the development of heat pumps, solar cell technology, wind turbines and fuel cell technology. In transport, a new hybrid power pack motor vehicles and road-rail vehicles. Later, the Combine produced a road-rail bus, which toured the country.
    The proposals were rejected out of hand by L.A. management. Some they described as hippiesh with no prospect of sales.
    The Lucas Plan celebrated its 40th Anniversary in 2016 with a conference titled Climate Jobs! Not Bombs! And in 2019 a major documentary on the Plan, with some of those involved, was released and shown at the British Film Festival.
    We are two (retired) Union and social movement activists, one Australian-born and the other British and currently living in Australia. The Australian-born one of us was involved in a group established in Australia inspired by the Lucas Aerospace Shop Stewards Combine, and the British-born one of us was involved in the extension of the initiative to local government in Sheffield.
    We have no argument with Rebekkah Diski’s arguments for Union activity to “disrupt the supply line” to the IDF.
    But we also think that the initiative taken by the Lucas Aerospace workers all those years ago provides an inspirational model of how to restrict British exports of weaponry without threatening jobs, based on re-purposing labour skills and capital and serving the needs of the citizenry.
    Here are three sites where you can learn more:
    Mick & Stephen