Trade Unionists for Palestine

A collaborative, worker-led research project and resource base to support trade unionists as they divest from the Israeli arms trade.

11 min read

The labour movement must act now to stop genocide. Read, sign, and use our call to action here

Many of the bombs being dropped on Gaza are being dropped from drones made by unionised workers in Britain. The missile strikes, too, will be being guided by drones, again made by unionised workers in Britain. Key components for the F-16 and F-35 fighter jets, which have been vital for many of the attacks on Gaza, were made by workers in British trade unions, whether at Elbit or British Aerospace. All of these, moreover, were transported by workers in Britain, who are also likely to be in British trade unions.

With over £1 billion in research partnerships between arms manufacturers and British universities, including BAE, Rolls Royce and QinetiQ, it is likely that some of the research that made this killing possible was conducted by unionised workers.

The factories making the weapons need cleaning; they have security and catering staff; someone does the payroll, someone delivers the post. The production and moving of weapons for Israel involves all kinds of workers and all kinds of processes, both inside and outside the factory.

The production and moving of weapons for Israel involves all kinds of workers and all kinds of processes, both inside and outside the factory.

What is to be done?

At present, the arms industry is under considerable strain in its ability to supply weapons to Israel. Worker intervention could intensify this strain. Every point and every link is a place where things can be disrupted.

Unite and the GMB both represent large numbers of workers at BAE Systems: a company involved in building the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which it is likely that Israel is deploying for some of its deadly attacks on Gaza. Both unions also have members in Rolls Royce—also involved in the F-35 fighter jet—as well as Babcock, a major supplier to Israel, in close collaboration with Elbit.

At present, we do not know which union Elbit workers are in.

Unite represents workers at Leonardo, a company which manufactures laser targeting systems for Israeli fighter jets, including the F-35. Thales workers also appear to be represented by Unite. Almost all these arms manufacturers, as well as QinetiQ, which builds and develops Israeli drones, have research partnerships with British universities (which are unionised workplaces, mostly under UCU).

Other unions with significant numbers of members in arms manufacturing, including those who manufacture weapons for Israel, include Community and Prospect, which, together with Unite and GMB, lobby to support and increase arms manufacturing as part of the Confederation of Shipbuilding and Engineering Unions.

The CWU represents the workers who deliver the post and maintain the telecoms infrastructure. Cleaners, security staff and catering staff could be in a variety of unions, whether TUC-affiliated or base unions.1 There are, moreover, RMT members on the Royal Fleet Auxiliary ships, which have been sent to “support Israel” in surveillance.

Palestinian unions have issued a call for “global solidarity… that can restrain the Israeli war machine” in light of the “urgent, genocidal situation.” Specifically, they have called on trade unions and trade unionists:

  • To refuse to build weapons destined for Israel.
  • To refuse to transport weapons to Israel.
  • To pass motions in their trade union to this effect.
  • To take action against complicit companies involved in implementing Israel’s brutal and illegal siege, especially if they have contracts with your institution.
  • Pressure governments to stop all military trade with Israel, and in the case of the US, funding to it.

We believe that this is the absolute minimum our comrades in Palestine can expect.

There must be plenty of weak links in the chain, and only one needs to be broken to stop weapons being used by Israel in a genocide.

In response, some unions and confederations – from the RMT National Executive in Britain to the All-Poland Alliance of Trade Unions – have called on their national governments to suspend military cooperation with Israel. More promisingly, trade unionists in Italy’s S. I. Cobas union, a significant union in the logistics sector, have promised to “oppose any shipping of weapons to Israel which they become aware of”, and the All India Central Council of Trade Unions has pledged “to boycott manufacturing or loading of weapons and military equipment destined to Israel and its brutal war.” And, as we write, “over 150 activists and trade union members” have blockaded a factory in Kent belonging to a subsidiary of Elbit, Instro Precision Ltd.

We know what is required; we are interested in making it a reality. There must be plenty of weak links in the chain, and only one needs to be broken to stop weapons being used by Israel in a genocide. But the question of how we might go about this remains.

Arms manufacture is one of the great, unacknowledged shames of British trade unionism. It is now time to put an end to it.

How might it be done?

We believe in the power of workers at the point of production. The last few years have seen a welcome refocusing of union activity away from ‘big-P Politics’, where possibilities for action are decisively blocked. This turn has perhaps been most evident in Sharon Graham’s successful election campaign for Unite General Secretary, under the “back to the workplace” slogan. But for this sort of politics to be truly effective, workers need to recognise and use their power.

Given the abject failure of both Government and Opposition to call for the absolute bare minimum of a ceasefire, along with their shared, unstinting support for Israel, the turn to the workplace is a particularly crucial perspective for building solidarity with Palestine. Workers have power in the workplace, power in production, power in transport. This power needs to be used to its fullest extent.

Palestine Action, who have long been effectively interrupting Israel’s genocide machine, have stated that, however much unions might pass motions on BDS or arms embargoes, it means very little when those unions have “workers in different arms companies and [aren’t] mobilising them in order to stop the arms actually going from this country to Israel.”

If workers have the power to act against a genocide, they also have a duty to act. This includes the development of knowledge to enable effective action. How do we make sure, for example, that workers engaged in transporting weapons become aware of what they are doing, so that they might act? This applies directly to workers producing, moving or researching the weapons, or those who carrying out the other tasks that make it all possible. But it also creates responsibilities for others, especially those in the same unions are these workers. The question of “how” is not only about moral exhortation, though that is certainly part of it. It is also about developing strategies that can support those workers who can act to stop genocide to do what they must do.

Workers can withdraw their labour for ethical reasons; but equally, employers can sack them for doing so. Union support for workers can mitigate that risk. As Marx said, “between equal right force decides”. What would be the force required to decide this clash in favour of workers?

If a worker who disrupts the production, distribution or circulation of commodities will face sanctions, including quite possibly the loss of their job, an effective response to the call for solidarity from Palestinian unions will likely involve people risking their jobs. Unions – from the leadership to the grassroots – must, therefore, develop a strategy to counter that threat and protect their fellow workers—from committing to legal support (although the possibility of legal recourse should not be relied on), to building strike and solidarity funds, to developing capacities for mobilisations in support of workers who refuse to participate in genocide. This is the responsibility of the whole trade union movement. As a first step towards making this resistance possible, branches could begin developing and passing motions that commit their unions to the protection of workers. One of the aims of this project is to offer support for this process.

Arms manufacture is one of the great, unacknowledged shames of British trade unionism. It is now time to put an end to it. Even Unite’s statement on Palestine, whilst inadequate, acknowledges that collective punishment is a war crime. Yet, despite that acknowledgment, Unite members continue to produce and transport the weapons which make that war crime possible. The situation calls for nothing less than a workers’ boycott to immediately disrupt the flow of arms to Israel. This week’s Workers for a Free Palestine action offers us a starting point: the challenge now is to build on and sustain this movement.

Such action is not without precedent. We can—and often do—talk of past examples where trade unionists in Britain have interrupted and undermined imperialism’s production of death. From Nae Pasaran to stories of Southampton dock workers (and those throughout the country) refusing to unload and load cargo to be used in the Japanese invasion of China, we know this can be done. But our reception of these “inspirational” stories of the heroic past becomes mawkish and consolatory if we don’t let them inspire us to act in this situation, NOW. If the ingenuity, steadfastness and moral example of these workers is not repeated, these stories mean nothing.

“Inspirational” stories of the heroic past become mawkish and consolatory if we don’t let them inspire us to act NOW.

What Now?

But how do we get to widespread, sustainable solidarity action? If workers are to respond to the Palestinian trade unions’ urgent call, they need the support of a durable, powerful, cross-movement campaign. Everyone, across the movement, has something to contribute to this.

Trade Unionists for Palestine is part of our contribution: a collaborative research project and resource base that aims to support and equip grassroots members to take the necessary solidarity action to interrupt the genocide of the Palestinian people. Emerging from discussions with grassroots trade unionists, its purpose is to share and collectivise knowledge and experiences from across movements in order to achieve this goal.

If trade unionists have the power to disrupt production and transport, to exert moral pressure on their union leaderships and fellow workers, and to create forms of support and solidarity, then we, as a publication, have the power to suggest ideas, to reach people across the labour movement, and to try and get something going. While we offer up our platform, our webspace, and our time, we do not envision this as an exclusive New Socialist effort, with our branding stamped all over it. It’s necessary to start somewhere, but we don’t want to set ourselves up as ‘leaders’. Our hope is that this will become a genuinely collaborative, open, and cross-movement worker-led project.

We note efforts made, in particular by comrades in Unite, to pass resolutions. We also note that there is an open letter circulating, which we encourage Unite members to sign. These efforts predominantly address the senior union leaderships. This is one approach, and a necessary one; and we seek to support this across all unions involved, directly or indirectly, in arms manufacturing, transport, and research.

Whilst we hope all union leaderships will heed the calls of their members and their comrades in Palestinian unions, and choose to act in solidarity with Palestine, we are aware that these paths may be blocked. It is therefore necessary to explore how to recognise and break other links in the chain. Moreover, to echo Palestine Action, whilst resolutions have a role to play, the best resolutions in the world mean nothing unless they lead to effective action. In that sense, we address both the senior union leaderships and grassroots members: both have a responsibility to stop genocide.

At this stage, the project consists of three broad strands:

1. Call to action.
We have produced a call to action, which has been written in collaboration with trade union members. This is available for anyone to sign, but particularly members of those trade unions which represent sectors that are directly or indirectly involved in the supply of arms to Israel.

Trade unionists are also invited to use all or part of this call to action as a template for producing their own, tailored letters: between branches or workplaces, or from grassroots members to regional or national leaderships.

You can read the call to action here, and submit a signature here. We are hoping to gather enough signatures to demonstrate the strength of solidarity across the trade union movement and the left more broadly.

Stating your union or other affiliations is optional, but will really help to demonstrate the strength of feeling across the movement. It is understood that any signatory who may choose to state their affiliation or position nevertheless signs in a personal capacity.

2. Submitting motions.
We encourage comrades to submit motions within their unions; and we will share model motions and other useful resources and precedents to support this process.

Comrades from the Unite NEU Branch already have passed a resolution, which they have made available for others to use as a model or starting point. There is also a model resolution available here, and Unite South West have shared their successful motion on Twitter. If you are in a union other than Unite, and you wish to bring forward a motion to your branch, contact us at [email protected], and we can support you in that.

We are interested in collating and publishing resolutions that have passed successfully, so that there is a clear record of solidarity efforts. If you have successfully passed a motion, and would be happy to share it, please let us know: [email protected].

Every bullet that is fired, every bomb that is dropped, has to be made somewhere; and, wherever that is, it can be resisted.

3. Research.
Research will be needed in order to determine where there are capacities to act. We aim to undertake and amplify this research.

Some of it will be quite basic, e.g.: what union, if any, are Elbit workers in? Some of it will be simple but time-consuming, such as mapping and trying to establish which specific union branches are involved in the supply of arms to Israel. Where workers or branches are willing to undertake research, we will provide support and/or connections with other researchers to advance this work.

In addition to the above, we recognise the need for research into deeper, more strategic questions, such as:

  • What capacities are there for transport workers to act?
  • How, as the comrades from S. I. Cobas put it, do we ensure that workers “become aware” of the shipping of weapons?
  • How best to oppose it?
  • How, moreover, to make our opposition effective?
  • How to make opposition mean more than another addition to the history of fine-sounding platitudes that, in practice, offer little more than self-exculpation?
  • How could strategic knowledge be gathered and developed?
  • What ways are there to exert and build pressure “horizontally” rather than, or in addition to, pressure on union leaderships?
  • What support can and needs to be organised to support workers who do take action?
  • How can that support be raised and distributed?

All of this will take the collective knowledge of our whole movement. If you are able to help with any of this research, however basic, please get in touch by emailing us at [email protected].

We ask those comrades signing the open letter who are comfortable doing so to share their email addresses, so that we can keep in touch. Your details will be stored securely, and we will not use them for any purposes other than this campaign. Should the campaign come to an end, we will permanently delete all personal details.

We ask those who are successful in getting resolutions through union branches to let us know, so that we can keep up-to-date.

Every bullet that is fired, every bomb that is dropped, has to be made somewhere; and, wherever that is, it can be resisted.2

In our thousands, in our millions, we are all Palestinians.

  1. The term ‘base unions’ refers to worker-led unions outside of the TUC, who often organise with migrant workers. Well-known examples include UVW and IWGB in Britain, and S. I. Cobas in Italy. 

  2. This beautiful phrase is a slogan used by the anti arms-trade activist group Smash EDO