Jeff Bezos in Washington DC, 2019. Photo: Flickr/Daniel Oberhaus Jeff Bezos in Washington DC, 2019. Photo: Flickr/Daniel Oberhaus

Alex Snowdon on global perspectives and industrial action

This week’s briefing takes stock of two significant developments in the trade union movement. The first is one of the most hopeful and inspiring things to happen in the movement for years: the strike by Amazon workers in Coventry and Saturday’s solidarity rally by their supporters, shutting down the giant warehouse for the rest of the day.

The second development is much more worrying: a pro-war motion on Ukraine, which the GMB is taking to TUC conference in September. This follows last year’s narrow victory for a GMB motion demanding an increase in UK arms spending. 

Amazon’s BHX4 centre in Coventry is both huge and strategically important for the multinational giant. It is a hub for Amazon’s twenty UK distribution centres. Strike action at the centre has a direct impact on the company’s ability to operate, as well as demonstrating the capacity to build trade unions in even the most hostile of conditions. Amazon is notoriously anti-union, but the GMB union has grown enormously at the plant over the last 12 months. 

Saturday marked the first anniversary of a wildcat strike by around 50 workers, disgusted by an offer of a 35p-per-hour pay rise at a time of soaring inflation. Since then, the strikes (demanding a £15-an-hour living wage) have developed – and the union has grown with them. Workers – this time 800 of them, according to the union – took further strike action on Saturday. 

1,100 workers at the warehouse are now in the GMB. This astonishing union growth is one reason why the dispute has great wider significance: after decades of slow union membership decline, it shows that unions can be built, on a big scale, in previously non-unionised workplaces. It illustrates an old lesson that stretches back to the New Unionism 135 years ago: unions are built in the course of collective struggle. The GMB was in fact one of the products of that particular wave of union organising. 

Saturday had extra significance for two major reasons. The big solidarity march and rally, drawing hundreds of trade unionists from around the country, was a step towards rebuilding a strong culture of solidarity in the labour movement. It was organised by the recently-formed Rank and File Combine, backed by a range of union bodies and campaign groups, and endorsed by the GMB. 

The defeats of the 1980s, falling membership, low levels of strike action for decades and the draconian anti-union laws have all taken their toll. This kind of solidarity protest – not quite a mass picket in the traditional sense, but much more than a token show of support – hasn’t been seen for a long time. 

Many of the supporters who travelled to Coventry on Saturday have recently taken strike action themselves. Numerous unions – across health, education, transport and beyond – have had major national strikes. There have been huge challenges in attempting to coordinate such strike action, but on a few occasions we have seen joint action by unions. 

Coordination is crucial. It helps broaden the political horizons of everyone involved and forges connections across the labour movement. Saturday was another example of much-needed unity and coordination – powerful because it was highly visible and strategically directed at a precise and vulnerable target.

And this leads on to the second reason it is an important milestone: it worked. On Saturday afternoon, the global HQ of Amazon instructed the local management to send day-shift workers home on full pay. It became the day that striking workers, backed by supporters, shut down a massive Amazon warehouse with over 2000 staff. 

This ought to embolden everyone taking strike action and all those who are building unions, including those operating in tough, hostile private sector environments. Big, ruthless multinationals can appear invincible, but they depend on their workers. When workers organise collectively and strike, that aura of invincibility disappears. 

Ukraine and the unions

Next month’s TUC conference will debate two motions on Ukraine – one from the GMB, the other from train drivers’ union Aslef. Both motions are one-sided in (rightly) condemning Russia’s devastating invasion of Ukraine, while saying nothing critical about the US, UK or their allies.

The GMB’s motion is particularly troubling though. It contains a commitment to ‘the continuation and increasing of moral, material and military aid from the UK to Ukraine’. Strip away the verbiage and this is asking the TUC to call for increasing military aid to Ukraine. That would give the TUC a more pro-war position than the Tory government, which is already funnelling arms into Ukraine and therefore escalating the dangers involved.

The GMB leadership is presumably emboldened by last year’s TUC vote – but only very narrowly – to back its motion calling for increased arms spending. That was pitched as about protecting jobs in the defence industry – where the union has a base – but was deeply mistaken. There is enormous potential for re-training and re-skilling workers in the arms industries to do socially useful, climate-friendly jobs instead. Unions ought to be promoting such job creation and investment – for the sake of tackling climate change, as well as reducing arms manufacturing – rather than getting stuck in an extremely narrow mindset.

In any case, it is one thing for a union to defend jobs that are directly under threat. However, it is quite another thing to insist that the entire trade union movement explicitly calls for more spending on the production of weapons and hardware that will be used to kill people. That indicated more of an ideological and political stance at last year’s TUC conference than mere concern about jobs.

This year, though, the union is going somewhat further. The call for increasing arms to Ukraine is a direct intervention into UK foreign policy and goes way beyond any notion of defending jobs. Yet again, it is clearly a political stance. It is an extremely divisive one within the labour movement.

If passed, it would put the TUC in a very cosy relationship with the British state and its interests. Yet trade unions ought to be fighting for the interests of working class people across borders, not linking up with our own nation state and ruling class. There is a history of labour movement organisations – most famously in 1914 – failing this crucial test. Workers here have nothing to gain from Western states engaging in a proxy war with their Russian rival.

The GMB’s motion also calls for a ‘peaceful end to the conflict’, but that requires negotiation and diplomacy not more weapons. The motion even acknowledges that Ukraine’s current government is attacking workers’ rights by ‘calling for the full restoration of labour rights in Ukraine’. Why entrust more arms to a government that is routinely attacking workers? This would strengthen Ukraine’s government – and the role of the Western states in the country – not do anything for the working class people of the country.

The GMB leadership’s position is part of a wider loyalty to the Labour Party front bench’s sharp move to the right. Together with Unison, the GMB is tending to shore up support for Starmer at a time when many unions are expressing discontent with Labour’s trajectory. Bad foreign policy accompanies these unions’ weaknesses (and the Labour Party’s failings) on domestic political questions.

There is a better way. It is to recognise that the same Tory government that is attacking workers’ living standards, eroding trade union rights and overseeing record levels of child poverty is also pumping money into arms production and making a volatile and destructive situation even worse. They are our enemies on every front. Unions need to be calling for a peaceful resolution and opposing any increased military intervention, while doing everything possible to ensure victory for the Amazon workers and build stronger union organisation everywhere.

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Alex Snowdon

Alex Snowdon is a Counterfire activist in Newcastle. He is active in the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Stop the War Coalition and the National Education Union.​ He is the author of A Short Guide to Israeli Apartheid (2022).