‘Why unions must not vote to support open-ended war against Russia’

Andrew Murray
President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky, February 2022. © Photographer RM/Shutterstock.com

Last year GMB general secretary Gary Smith persuaded the TUC Congress to vote, shamefully if narrowly, to campaign for increased military spending.

At a time of austerity and a cost-of-living crisis, that decision prioritised the arms industry over the vital interests of millions of working people, not least the tens of thousands of GMB members in the beleaguered public services.

It also revealed that Smith believes that the British government can be trusted with more weapons, despite overwhelming evidence that they are used either for wars of aggression or for sale to despotic regimes.

This year, Smith and the GMB are looking to push Congress into support for open-ended war against Russia, lining up with the most right-wing forces in Britain and internationally.

This latest resolution, which Smith made the case for in a LabourList op-ed this week, should be seen as the logical follow-up to last year’s – if your priority is increased arms spending above all, supporting wars follows logically.

There is no sign military victory will conclude the conflict

The TUC should not follow the GMB down this dangerous road.  Today, most of the Global South is pressing for a peaceful resolution to the war.  Its continuation risks further economic misery for millions and has the ever-present danger of escalation, including nuclear escalation.

Stop the War condemned the Russian invasion of Ukraine on the day it happened, and also made clear our belief that Western policy over many years had contributed to the crisis.  Now, however, the issue is less how the war started but how it can be brought to the speediest possible end.

There is no present sign that the conflict is going to be concluded with a military victory by either side.  Russian and Ukrainian soldiers are being fed into a military meat-grinder, abetted by foreign arms supplies including, from Britain, depleted uranium and from the USA cluster bombs.

So now is a moment for peace talks.  But not for the GMB.

The conflict is not a return of the Spanish civil war

The GMB’s resolution makes no call for a ceasefire and peace talks but instead mimics the maximalist demands of the global right-wing who want to see the war prolonged, profitably, without end.

It demands a Russian withdrawal not only from territory seized since February 2022 but also from Crimea, a withdrawal likely opposed by the people who live there and certainly a huge barrier to peace talks beginning.  Smith dismisses any suggestion of self-determination – the GMB knows best and believes that Crimea’s people must be returned to Ukraine like it or, more probably, not.

This is the position of the most hard-line elements in the British government and the right-wing media.  Furthermore, if it could be achieved at all it would only be at the greatest risk of nuclear weapons being used.

A lasting peace depends on solutions that the people concerned can support.  Ukrainian sovereignty is critical, but so too is the principle of self-determination for minorities.

Nor is the conflict a re-run of the Spanish Civil War. The Republican government in Spain was not supported and armed by the world’s leading military powers. They saw it as a threat.

Spain’s republicans did not ban socialist political parties and suppress trade union rights, as Ukraine has done, either.  Simplistic slogans and ill-informed history don’t help.

The GMB is silent on Tory policy on Ukraine

Smith is silent, in both his resolution and his article, concerning Tory government policy.  This is scarcely surprising, because the GMB resolution aligns exactly with that followed over the last eighteen months by Johnson, Truss and Sunak – pour in arms, block peace talks, keep the war going.

It is as if he imagines that Tory politicians become different people, no longer class politicians, when they go abroad. He cannot even find it in himself to condemn the Tory government’s backing for the removal of trade union rights from seventy per cent of Ukraine’s workforce.

GMB members “might reasonably ask how the organisation has deviated so far from the purpose” as to degenerate from a representative of working people in Britain to being a mouthpiece for the military-industrial interest and the Tory government’s foreign policy.  And, indeed, Stop the War does hear from GMB members asking exactly that.

It is for GMB members to deal with their union leadership’s political alignment with Tory policy and the big arms companies.

But Congress as a whole has a chance to join the growing demand for peace across the world and make the independent working class voice heard in demanding that the British government back a ceasefire and peace talks.

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