As Russia’s aggressive military incursion into Ukraine continues, labour movements around the world have responded with solidarity and aid. This is a welcome development, and a strong showing of international solidarity during a depressing period of violence and competing nationalisms. However, there are also reasons to be somewhat disappointed in labour’s response internationally.
To start, one wishes such measured gestures and sustained acts of mutual aid were extended equally to victims of Western aggression. Many in labour and on the left have sprung into action to aid Ukrainians impacted by the war, mobilizing considerable trade union institutional resources in some cases. This is no doubt commendable. However, it’s also rare, particularly when unions’ own governments are the ones perpetrating the violence, and when union jobs are at stake in war industries. Pointing out the unequal concern given to, for example, Yemenis and Ukrainians, is not to engage in “whataboutism,” but rather a call for us to critically examine the limits of solidarity and concern.
There has also been a tendency all too common among many in the mainstream press to paint those on the left who criticize the United States, Canada and NATO’s roles in orchestrating this crisis as stooges of Vladimir Putin and Russia. Frankly, such a position is utterly ridiculous. The history of the West’s looting of Russia in the post-Soviet period is well known, as is the incremental expansion of NATO over the past three decades, which George Kennan himself — one of the architects of the doctrine of “containment” during the Cold War — considered a provocative and “fateful error.”
We may be skeptical and critical of Russia’s conception of its national security interests and desire for a “buffer zone” on its Western borders, but to ignore the role of NATO enlargement (or the potential of Ukrainian membership in the future) is to be willfully blind to the issues at stake.
The “peace dividend” that should have resulted from the end of the Cold War and the relaxation of military spending is now a distant dream never realized. Instead, we’ve seen Western provocation directed at Russia and China, and continually bloated “defence” spending throughout the catastophic “War on Terror.” One needn’t be sympathetic to Russia or China to point this out and denounce it. In fact, failing to stand firmly against NATO and Western militarism is, in part, what has led us to the point.
Labour unions and union federations around the world have, nevertheless, issued strong statements against Russia’s war and its consequences in Ukraine and Europe more broadly. The Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) released a statement condemning Russia’s attacks and expressing concern for Ukrainian civilians and all those displaced by the hostilities. The CLC further called on the Canadian federal government to “open our country’s doors to those fleeing the conflict, including through visa-free access for Ukrainians, and provide substantial humanitarian aid to these victims of Russian hostility.”
The European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) held a demonstration in Brussels when Russian attacks on Ukraine were initially launched. ETUC deputy general secretary, Esther Lynch, gave a speech calling for peace and dialogue. Since then, the ETUC has released a joint statement with the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) condemning Russia’s invasion, referring to the latter as “a flagrant violation of international law and of Ukraine’s territorial integrity as a sovereign and democratic state.” The statement also calls for international solidarity with Ukrainian civilians harmed or displaced by the war, as well as with the more than 1,700 people in Russia who had been detained for protesting the war at that point.
The international trade union movement has set up a “solidarity fund” for Ukraine’s ITUC affiliated union centrals, the Federation of Trade Unions of Ukraine (FPSU) and Confederation of Free Trade Unions of Ukraine (KVPU). The latter two labour centrals represent roughly five million workers in Ukraine and have been organizing relief efforts across the country in union halls and other facilities. The United Kingdom Trades Union Congress has issued calls for fundraising support and solidarity with Ukrainian trade unionists. As well, the ITUC and ETUC are now organizing a “global day of action for peace,” to be held on March 15 in Brussels and other European cities.
However, there’s also conflict within the international house of labour over the Russian war. Russia’s ITUC-affiliated trade union federation, the FNRP, may now be facing expulsion from the international union body over its support for the war.
That the FNRP has mimicked the Russian government’s justification for war and opposed solidarity with Ukrainian workers isn’t surprising. The Russian labour federation has long been tied tightly to the Kremlin, with questions periodically being raised concerning its lack of independence and thus eligibility for membership in the ITUC. According to some critics, ITUC integrity is put in jeopardy by allowing the membership of non-independent trade unions. The FNRP’s actions during this latest conflict could provoke the final push to remove Russian unions from the international house of labour. However, this issue is further complicated by the fact that the current general secretary of the ITUC, Sharan Burrow, was elected with the support of the Russian FNRP. It remains to be seen how this all plays out, but the growing chorus of voices seeking Russian expulsion are unlikely to be quieted.
The KVPU in Ukraine has been involved in various volunteer relief efforts to aid refugees and other civilians fleeing the war. Unions in other countries in the region are engaged in comparable work. Depending on how long Russia’s war in Ukraine continues, hundreds of thousands could be displaced, some internally, others fleeing to neighbouring countries. International solidarity requires that we address this humanitarian crisis, both with aid and resources to those impacted and by extending safe passage for refugees of this war.
Many Ukrainian union members have also entered the war effort, with the KVPU calling for greater numbers of volunteers from Ukraine and beyond. The KVPU has, however, also called for an increased military response, including a “no fly zone,” a potentially catastrophic move. While one sympathizes with the dire circumstances of living and organizing under war conditions, one hopes that such a call isn’t heeded. Rather, de-escalation and negotiation are needed to broker an immediate ceasefire. Labour’s international efforts should be directed toward these ends.
There is, however, a larger issue with labour’s international response. A durable and lasting peace requires more than Russian withdrawal or even an agreement on Ukrainian neutrality, though the latter would certainly help. Peace in Europe and beyond necessitates disbanding NATO and redirecting its military spending toward social needs. Those in the West who rightfully criticize Russia aggression now should equally commit to directing their anger at their own governments when this war ends. Cutting military spending, ending foreign wars and occupations, and stopping the sale of arms to known human rights violators should be top priorities.
The unfortunate reality is that much of the Western labour movement isn’t engaged in this work. In fact, labour all too frequently quietly acquiesces to their own nation-states’ militarism and unsavoury foreign policy. Rank-and-file union activists, particularly in North America, must organize and pressure the labour officialdom to make such demands a priority. Labour Against the Arms Trade’s call for a “just transition” for arms industry workers, as well, is key to a strategy for peaceful development and growth.
We find ourselves at an unfortunate point in history where working-class solidarity across borders is too rare, and the institutions of labour and the left appear too weak to impact the course of world events. Workers’ and unions’ allegiances should be to one another, not to their respective nation-states.
The current crisis in Ukraine is an urgent reminder why strong labour movements the world over are so important. It’s labour that builds the weapons and fights the wars, and it’s the power of labour that can stop war in its tracks. International peace requires an organized working class with the collective strength and class consciousness to fight for it.