Labour CND statement: why Unite the Union is wrong to attack groups picketing weapons manufacturing companies

Labour CND is extremely concerned to read the letter recently sent to Unite officers, organisers, and staff by General Secretary Sharon Graham and Chair Andy Green, which is now circulating in the public domain.  

The GS and Chair alert recipients to ‘a number of extremely troubling actions being undertaken by a tiny minority of individuals, inside and outside of our union… a small number [of whom] are linked to groups who want us to make decisions detrimental to our membership and their jobs.’

We reproduce below that section of the letter which relates to Palestine – described by Graham and Geen as one of their ‘key areas’ of concern – together with Labour CND’s statement.


Labour CND is aware that, since 2020, the Labour Party leadership has sought to prevent CLPs and individual members discussing important areas of policy on pain of suspension or expulsion. These include what Keir Starmer has described as Labour’s ‘unshakeable commitment’ to NATO, Labour’s support for the Tory government’s position on the war in Ukraine, and (more recently but less successfully) Israel’s war on Gaza.

We are alarmed that Unite, a Labour affiliated union, shows signs of moving in the same direction. This raises serious questions about the conduct of legitimate, democratic debate about UK defence policy.

Graham and Green say there is ‘no contradiction for a trade union to hold a position of solidarity with Palestinian workers, while at the same time refusing to support campaigns that target our members workplaces without their support’.  Labour CND says solidarity is not just a sentiment, but something that is demonstrated in action. Whether in Palestine or elsewhere, it cannot be acceptable to protect the interests of workers in UK arms industries while thousands are being slaughter by the products of their labour.

Labour CND believes that in a democracy campaigners have the right to target workplaces that are employed in making weapons of mass destruction which render the world less safe. This does not and should not include attacks on individual workers. It does include weapons that will be used to further genocide in Gaza; and those used by NATO, which is a nuclear first-strike military alliance, as well as projects such as AUKUS. Labour Party conference 2021 voted to oppose AUKUS with the support of Unite the Union.

The threat of nuclear war has never been greater. Labour CND believes the international labour movement, including trade unions in Britain, should be working to uphold the principles of international solidarity, justice and peace, including support for a world free of weapons of mass destruction.

That is why we have consistently argued the need for a real defence diversification strategy so workers are protected and able to transition to alternative work. We support the role of trade unions to play a leading part in that process.

Protecting members interests does not stop at pay or terms and conditions. It is about putting forward alternatives, to ensure workers can apply their skills for socially and ecologically useful work as in the tradition of the former Lucas Aerospace workers in the 1970s.

Defence policy, the UK’s support for NATO, and the AUKUS project cannot be decided on the basis of how they impact trade union members in the arms industry alone. They have wider social, economic, and political implications. They should be part of a healthy debate within the labour movement, just like education, welfare, the health service, climate change, and so forth.

This last point gets to the crux of Labour CND’s concern. We work actively within the labour movement to advocate for a nuclear free world, and opposition to NATO and the AUKUS project.

Trade union members have a right to be informed, engage in debate, and take up these issues through the democratic structures of their union. That includes policies to address the most challenging issues of our times such as climate change, inequality and the cost-of-living crisis.

Any suggestion that groups such as ours, which include many trade union members, should be prevented from building support for our position is undemocratic, and carries undertones of bans such as those we are witnessing in the Labour Party.

The predecessors of Unite the Union have a long and strong tradition of supporting peace and  nuclear disarmament, and putting forward defence diversification alternatives like the report of May 2015. Defence Diversification Revisited argued for a Defence Diversification Agency ‘with teeth’.

That argument remains valid today. Labour CND is open to discussing with Unite how we can work in unity within our movement and the Labour Party to achieve this.

Extract on Palestine from Unite letter

Of all the issues that have been used in these attacks, probably the most abhorrent is the attempted weaponisation of the conflict and the deaths of thousands of innocent civilians and the collective punishment of the people of Gaza.

Unite, through the General Secretary and the Chair of the Union and the Executive Council, was the first major union to publicly and unambiguously call for a permanent ceasefire in Gaza. We were very clear. We have watched on with horror the bombardment and destruction of Gaza, and the unbearable terror, suffering and death of its innocent civilians. We have been unequivocal that the deliberate killing of civilians, hostage-taking and collective punishment are war crimes and should be identified as such.

Unite has also donated £50,000 to Médecins Sans Frontières/ Doctors Without Borders specifically to help the many victims of this horrific conflict. Most recently the General Secretary has written to the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions (PGFTU) offering our solidarity after the horrific bombing of their Gaza headquarters which, alongside providing services to workers, was also functioning as a kindergarten and bakery.

However, we cannot and will not endorse any organisation which decides unilaterally and without any discussion (let alone agreement) with the workers themselves, to support the targeting of our members’ workplaces or their jobs. To be clear, this will not happen. No outside body, no matter what their political position, will be allowed to dictate terms to our Union and our members.

It is important to highlight here that it is a core principle of Unite that as a trade union the ‘first claim’ on our priorities is always the protection and advancement of our members’ interests at work. It is very simple. Unite cannot and never will advocate or support any course of action which is counter to that principle. We are a trade union, not a political party or single-issue campaign group.

Therefore, there is no contradiction for a trade union to hold a position of solidarity with Palestinian workers, while at the same time refusing to support campaigns that target our members’ workplaces without their support. Similarly, we cannot be expected to affiliate to organisations that actively work against our members and their jobs.

Examples include groups that look to build networks inside trade unions to undermine the defence industry or demand the disbandment of NATO and AUKUS. Whatever anyone may think personally about those objectives is irrelevant. We are a trade union with thousands of members employed in the defence industry. It is the views of affected members that take precedence in a trade union. That will not change and nor should it. Unite members have recently been attacked directly, been spat at and called “child killers”.* We cannot and will not endorse this…..

* Labour CND has no evidence that Unite members have been attacked in this way. We include the sentence for the sake of completeness.