Another demo and another half a million people take to the streets in London. Across the globe on Saturday millions marched for Palestine – 120 cities across 45 countries. Compared even to the great anti-war movement of 2003 this movement has spread more quickly and deeper. We are part of a globalised resistance movement in support of Palestine and against imperialism.
The Tories firmly believed, on the back of their success of uniting the country in support of escalating war in Ukraine, that after 0ctober 7th they could do the same in uniting the country in support of the state of Israel. How wrong they were. Public opinion surveys show a stubborn and growing call for a ceasefire with 75% support for a ceasefire now. This is despite the whole political class and its media opposing a ceasefire and rallying support behind the Israeli justification for military action and ‘right of Israel to self-defence’.
This is not surprising. We are witnessing a genocide on our phones and TV screens every hour of the day. This justified moral outrage is moving on to a deeper anti-imperialist sentiment within the movement and is creating a crisis for the government and Starmer’s Labour Party.
The movement has forced Sunak to sack Braverman and led to resignations of labour councillors. This is a clear warning from the movement, that ‘no ceasefire, no vote’ becomes a reality if Labour do not change their slavish support for Israel’s genocidal war.
Predictably the failure of the US and Britain to stop Israel has led to the conflict escalating across the Middle East. Even before the US and British attacks on the Houthis several different fronts have opened up with Israeli troops fighting Hezbollah forces in the North of Israel and growing resistance in the West Bank to Israeli violence. The frightening prospect of this war turning into a wider war across the Middle East with super-power involvement and the prospect the use of nuclear weapons has never been more real.
Raising politics does not divide our ranks – wars do…
The trade union block on Saturday’s demo was the biggest yet. A real sign that reps and activists in the workplace are getting to grips with how to win their branches and workplaces to support the Palestinian people. But we need to broaden the movement in the trade unions.
The leaderships in most of the unions have either been slow in responding or have simply opposed building the marches and protests. Their argument is that it will divide our ranks. Raising political issues around imperialism and war is a distraction from fighting the bread-and-butter issues.
There is a long-standing division in the British labour movement between economic struggles and political ones. Trade union leaders leave the political issues to the Labour party whilst trade unions deal with the economic issues that confront workers.
This false division between economics and politics is one that ensures the employers and government always win. When it comes to taking us on, they use both economic and political means to do so. They cut our wages, make us redundant and push up inflation. At the same time, they act politically using the power of the state to make laws to ban the right to strike, they use the courts, police and the media to prevent working people from defending themselves against such attacks.
Every time a trade union leader argues against raising politics it ensures that we go into battle with one hand tied behind our backs.
Governments and employers use racism, sexism, and transphobia to divide our side. This is why we should always challenge these issues in our workplaces. Failure to do so means that is much easier for the employers to push through rounds of cuts because we are divided along these lines.
War is one of the most important ways that government and employers divide us. In times of war the ‘national’ interest is what must unite society and not our class interest. Politicians wrap themselves up in the Union Jackand make speeches against those ‘troublemakers’ who attempt to oppose killing workers from another country and try to isolate them by calling them traitors.
We saw this with the Ukraine war and we will see it again with the escalating war in the middle east. As we enter an election period Sunak believes he can curry favour amongst the electorate by putting his government at the forefront of a war against the Houthis in Yemen with claims that their action is pushing up the cost of living and Britain will act to protect the sea ways. As a ‘seafaring’ nation no doubt his speech writers are already researching historical examples when Britannia ruled the waves to allow Sunak look like the great war time leader.
If we are unsuccessful in winning our branches, workplaces and unions to an internationalist position, one which understands in the words of John McLean, the great Scottish Socialist, that ‘a bayonet has a worker at both ends’, then we are divided. This weakens our ability to take on the employers when they attack us on the economic front. At the most basic level it is easier to push through more wage cuts and austerity, when workers accept the argument that we need to unite behind spending on war rather than wages, welfare and solidarity. As ever the main enemy is at home
In the here and now, as the war escalates across the middle east, we need to take sides. We will march in favour of a ceasefire but we also need to be clear that this is a war between the oppressed and the oppressor. We must make clear to Sunak we support the right of the Palestinian people and those across the middle east to resist Israel, Britain and US attacks. We oppose the British government bombing one of the poorest countries in the world and support those attempting to prevent genocide
Sectional interests also divide.
Another way divisions weakens our class is through sectionalism. Trade Unions are an important bulwark against the employers through their ability to use collective strength. But the very basis that they are organised around – individual ‘trades’, is also the source of its weakness. By organising workers along trades as opposed to class it can and does lead to divisions.
During the first world war the engineering union, the ASE, adopted the slogan ‘Don’t take me I’m with the ASE’when it came to opposing conscription. In other words, as skilled workers we are too important to go to war we are needed for the war effort let the unskilled workers go instead.
Skilled workers telling their employers that they should conscript the poor and unorganised to go and die on the killing fields of Northern France divided workers ability to oppose war. It also weakened the most organised section’s ability to defend pay and conditions. When confronted with a move to introduce unskilled labour into the munition factories on lower wages these organised sections were not able to unite the class against this attack.
We see this problem playing itself out today in unions like Unite and the GMB. The leadership of both unions have been particularly awful over the issue of Palestine and Israel’s war on Gaza. The GMB leadership has been at the forefront of carrying Starmer’s pro imperialist arguments into the trade union movement. Over the last three years the GMB have successfully brought a number of motions to the TUC which have dragged the movement to the right. Two years ago, they won a motion calling for an increase in arms spending.
Unite have not come out in support of Palestine, in part because they are in competition with the GMB for members in the arms industry. The GMB leadership has created a climate of fear inside ordnance factories and nuclear power stations about just transition and defence diversification. They have peddled the lie that a strategy for their industries based upon just transition or diversification will lead to deskilling and redundancies.
The Unite leaderships fear of being outmaneuvered by the GMB in these industries leads them to ducking the issues around Palestine and arms spending in general.
This is why we should welcome the blockades by pro-Palestinian groups of munition factories. But we need to talk to the workers and stewards in these factories. We need to patiently explain why it is in their interests to support the movement for a just transition and diversification of their industries. If workers had a choice about how to use their skills – whether to use them to make weapons of mass destruction that destroys humanity or use them to help humanity survive – most workers would choose the later.
Stand with Gaza.
In education there is a conscious strategy of intimidation and bullying against anyone who attempts to raise issues around Palestine. Students wearing Palestinian badges have been sent home from schools and freedom of speech is being curtailed in our schools, colleges and universities. We need to fight for spaces in our institutions where young people can discuss these issues and our teachers and lecturers can teach without fear of reprisals.
UCU has some excellent policy on Palestine but not much has been implemented. Our General secretary could and should do more to use her position to collectivise resistance on campuses and be prepared to back UCU members if they take unofficial action in support of Palestine and promote a far more robust defence of academic freedom.
This is one of the reasons that UCU lefts candidate, Saira Weiner, is standing in the upcoming GS election – to promote the and build support for the Palestinian resistance to genocide.
There is a hybrid meeting on the 25th Jan in London Palestine – will not be silenced or erased! with our General Secretary Jo Grady and Michael Mansfield QC among others. The meeting provides an opportunity to debate how we create these spaces.
On the 7th February the fourth workplace Stand with Gaza Day of Action has been called by the Stop the War Coalition and CND. We should try and make the 7th February day of action the biggest one yet. First step is to call a meeting to discuss what you can do. More organised workplaces could get walkouts to stop the genocide, others might feel that this is too many steps from where they are at. A lunchtime protest or inviting a speaker from the movement to address a meeting to speak about what is happening in Gaza might be more of an appropriate place to start.
The 7th of February day of action will coincide with students in the universities, colleges and schools to take action alongside workers.
We want to collectivise the call for a ceasefire and an end to genocide where we are our strongest – our workplaces.
This Wednesday 17th January there is an online meeting called by the StWC trade union network. Speakers including activists, General Secretaries and a trade unionist from Gaza will discuss Why Palestine is a Trade Union Issue and how to make 7th Feb a successful day of action in workplaces.
Please join and get others to do so.
Finally, if you wish to be a part of UCU workers for Palestine network whatsapp group, launched at a meeting with over 100 people in attendance, contact Sean Wallis, Secretary of UCU London region, who hosted the meeting.
Register here for the online meeting: Why Palestine is a Trade Union Issue.
Palestine will not be silenced or erased register here:
StWC and CND day stand with Gaza workplace day of action:
Sean Vernell UCU NEC