We know the sacrifices they underwent — some of them lost their jobs. . . . But what struck us most was the fact that members of the labour movement so many thousands of miles away from us felt this sense of commitment to the struggle against racial oppression in South Africa.
That’s how Nelson Mandela described the brave Irish women of Dunnes Store in Dublin who ended up on strike for three years over their refusal to handle goods from apartheid South Africa. The strike began after shop assistant Mary Manning was suspended for refusing to ring up a grapefruit, sticking to her union instructions not to handle South African products. Her colleagues went on strike in solidarity. For three years, these workers were on the picket line on just £21 a week. Some lost their jobs and their homes. Mandela later told the group of workers that their stand had helped him to keep going during his time in prison.
In Britain, too, international solidarity with those resisting apartheid was prominent. By 1990, forty-three national trade unions, including every major union, were affiliated to the anti-apartheid movement. Last week, we highlighted a call for international solidarity issued by Shaheer Saeed, the general secretary of the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions (PGFTU). He spoke about how thousands of workers from Gaza had been detained by Israeli forces in degrading and inhuman conditions, calling on international trade unions for support and solidarity.
Unjust imprisonment without trial was also a feature of the apartheid South African government, and trade unions in the UK historically campaigned for the release of union members in South Africa and Namibia. Solidarity took place on a local level, too: National Health Service workers in Portsmouth refused to handle South African medical supplies, Ford workers stopped the import of pickup trucks, and journalists at the International Publishing Corporation persuaded management to reject South African government advertisements.
The rich tradition of international solidarity and anti-imperialism within the British trade union movement extends beyond the anti-apartheid movement.
In 2003, two Motherwell-based train drivers refused to move a freight train carrying ammunition believed to be destined for British forces deployed in the Gulf. Railway managers cancelled the Ministry of Defence service after the crewmen, described as “conscientious objectors” by a supporter, said they opposed Tony Blair’s threat to attack Iraq. And just ten miles away, in the 1970s, shop stewards at an East Kilbride Rolls Royce factory refused to carry out repairs on warplanes belonging to Chile’s air force.
And British trade union solidarity with Chileans during the 1973 Pinochet coup was far more wide-ranging. As Owen Dowling highlighted in Jacobin, “Engineering workers in Newcastle, Rosyth, Glasgow, and elsewhere also refused work on Chilean warships, while dockworkers in Liverpool, Newhaven, and Hull variously boycotted handling goods from or for Chile. The decision of six hundred unemployed Liverpool seamen to forgo work aboard a freighter bound for Chile, in order to uphold their national union’s policy, was celebrated throughout the solidarity movement.”
A Call for Solidarity
In the midst of Israel’s brutal assault on Gaza, a broad coalition of more than thirty Palestinian trade unions have issued an urgent call to their international partners to take action to halt arms deliveries to the Israeli military. The call cites previous successful actions by trade unions in Italy, South Africa, and the United States, where workers refused to handle Israeli goods and arms.
In May 2021, an Italian port workers’ union refused to load an arms shipment destined for Israel. The workers, members of L’Unione Sindacale di Base (USB) in the city of Livorno, said they would not load the shipment after discovering it was destined for the Israeli port of Ashdod. “The port of Livorno will not be an accomplice in the massacre of the Palestinian people,” they said in a statement.
Later that week, South African dockworkers refused to offload an Israeli ship docked at the Durban harbor. The South African Transport and Allied Workers Union (SATAWU) said the decision came after calls by the PGFTU to refuse to unload Israeli ships and goods from seas and airports. This was not the first time, either. In 2009, as Israel bombarded Gaza, SATAWU members refused to off-load an Israeli ship.
Yasmin, a trade unionist in Palestine who helped coordinate the call for solidarity, says the British trade union movement has a big role to play in disabling Israel’s war machine. “Many of the weapons that Israel is using in Gaza are being produced in weapons factories around the globe. Many of them are transported through international ports. Companies like Elbit Systems, for example, are able to operate out of factories in the UK, France, the US and other places, as well as arms companies based in different countries around the world, shipping and selling their weapons to Israel. These are produced not by machines, these weapons are produced by workers, and many of them will be in trade unions.”
While the call for solidarity has been issued to all “counterparts and people of conscience,” it focuses particularly on trade unions in relevant industries, calling on them to refuse to build or handle weapons destined for Israel and make public statements declaring their position.
“Unions like Unite and the GMB actually have recognition agreements with companies that sell weapons to Israel like Babcock and Leonardo,” explains Yasmin. “These unions can utilize their force and use their members working in these companies to facilitate concrete change on the ground. Instead of saying they want Israel to stop bombing people in Gaza, they can prevent the bombs from reaching Israel in the first place. So trade unions have a big role to play in this. They can refuse to build weapons, refuse to unload weapons from trucks. And refuse to be complicit in genocide.”
While focusing on the arms trade, the call also demands action against all “companies involved in implementing Israel’s brutal and illegal siege,” including where they have contracts with research institutions and other bodies. Alongside the call for popular action in trade unions, the statement urges trade unions to place pressure on their governments to introduce a formal ban on all military trade with Israel. Samira Abdelalim, a Palestinian feminist and trade union activist based in the occupied and besieged Gaza Strip, said, “We call on all workers everywhere to stop the brutality practiced by Israel. Workers — especially those in weapons factories — must always remember that they participate in creating tools that affect the future of the world.”
Outlining the urgency of the moment, Haidar Eid, a Palestinian trade unionist and activist also living under bombardment in Gaza, highlighted the dire consequences of inaction: “If the increasing number of dead and injured amongst Palestinian civilians in Gaza does not convince the international community to impose a military embargo on apartheid Israel now, the world is going to witness the worst genocide of the twenty-first century. It is high time that the international community stood on the right side of history, as it did against apartheid South Africa.”
Nadia Habash, a member of the Engineers Association, Jerusalem Center — one of the signatory unions to the call — explained the hope Palestinians were placing in the international trade union movement: “We turn to the global trade union movement because they are the champions of justice, of truth against tyranny. We demand that they raise their voices loudly, take action, and put pressure on their governments to force the Zionist occupation to immediately stop the brutal war it has unleashed. They must immediately cease weapons sales which are being used to destroy homes above the heads of children, women, and the elderly.”
Over 8,300 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza in Israeli attacks since October 7. 40 percent of them have been children. Alongside intensive bombardment, Israel has cut off fuel, water, and electricity. The response by both of the UK’s major parties has been one of complete and total support for the state of Israel. This emboldened Israel to act with impunity, giving it carte blanche to carry out its genocidal war without limit.
British collusion with apartheid regimes is not unprecedented, and neither are the mass movements that have arisen in response to this complicity. Apartheid South Africa was not defeated because politicians, here and abroad, suddenly grew a moral conscience and decided black South African lives matter. It was defeated by masses of people organizing in their communities. The British trade union movement was a key part of that movement.
Once again, both of our major parties are not just complicit in apartheid — they are out of step with public opinion. An overwhelming 76 percent of the British public supports an immediate ceasefire in Gaza, with only 8 percent against. And yet the leaders of both the Conservative Party and the Labour Party refuse to back this call. This lack of democracy in our politics only underscores the need for British workers and their trade unions to heed the call for solidarity from Palestinian trade unionists.
A number of trade unions, representing millions of British workers, are doing precisely this. Many senior trade unionists have spoken at Palestine solidarity rallies in recent weeks, and some unions, such as the National Union of Rail, Maritime, and Transport Workers, have gone further, calling for an arms embargo.
Some have taken direct action, too. Last week, 150 trade unionists in Kent blocked the entrances of Instro Precision Ltd, a subsidiary of Israeli weapons manufacturer Elbit Systems. The group of workers, going under the banners of “Workers for a Free Palestine,” are set to hold a meeting in London on Wednesday evening alongside the Palestine Youth Movement to discuss how workers can heed the Palestinian trade unions’ call to action.
Palestinian trade unions end their joint statement with the following words:
We ask you to speak out and take action in the face of injustice as trade unions have done historically. We make this call in the belief that the struggle for Palestinian justice and liberation is not only a regionally and globally determined struggle. It is a lever for the liberation of all dispossessed and exploited people of the world.
The British trade union movement has a rich and proud tradition of international solidarity. History shows us that when those in power fail us, we can use our strength in numbers to fight for change. It’s time to reignite that fighting spirit.