Direct action, blockades, rank and file organising? All three? An rs21 arms worker on how the Palestine solidarity movement could work most effectively to stop the trade of weapons from Britain to the Israeli occupation.

Activists give flyers to workers and hold a vigil outside Thales, Glasgow. Nov 2023.

The scale of the Palestinian solidarity movement has shocked the establishment. The marches continue to grow, drawing in new forces that are spread geographically across most parts of Britain. On their own they will not be enough to stop the genocide. However, they have ended the career of Suella Braverman and changed the political climate in Britain. Who said A to B marches achieve nothing?

We need to raise the stakes

Britain and Israel have deep economic and military ties. It was possible to pressure the UK government to revoke arms licenses to Israel in 2009 after Israel’s ‘disproportionate actions in Gaza’ at that time. The crimes being committed by the Israelis today are far more horrific, but they come on the back of the biggest military setback in the history of the apartheid state. The war is now posed in existential terms for Israel which is why they’re desperate to smear the growing pro-Palestine movement as being anti-semitic.

To put more pressure on the British government, and help stop the genocide, we need to raise our sights and develop a strategy that aims to target the economic and military links with Israel. Recently, there has been an argument about the limitations of what a small group such as rs21 can achieve. However, the argument shouldn’t be posed this way. The issue is more about working out what the best tactics are and arguing with wider forces to support them.

Not long after the onset of the conflict Palestinian trade unions made an urgent call to end all complicity with arming Israel. There’s no doubt that much of British society is complicit in the genocide. Indeed, many in the leadership of the labour movement are complicit with their refusal to encourage and support the new movement. However, I want to argue that it’s wrong to accuse workers involved in the production or distribution of military equipment of being complicit. If they have the potential to stop production and distribution then we need a different approach.

Tactical decisions

There have been at least three different responses to this call. Firstly, groups like Palestine Action (PA), have routinely targeted arms factories and related premises with direct action to try and destroy or close down facilities. More recently, we have seen blockades of arms factories to make it impossible for anything to enter or leave the site. Finally, there’s been an attempt to appeal to workers in the factories to stop working on the equipment destined for use in the genocide. This method is arguably potentially the most powerful but also the most difficult to achieve.

The direct action of PA typically involves a few courageous and dedicated activists to break in and take direct action against a site. However, this kind of action is often pitched against both the workers and the management who are equally blamed for their part in the genocide. Failing to see the workers as potential allies in the struggle for Palestinian liberation can drive workers into the arms of their employers.

On one occasion in Oldham, PA did manage to build community support for their action against the local Elbit plant which led to its closure. Elbit claimed that the closure of the site was planned as part of its UK growth strategy. Whatever the Israelis may claim, it’s hard to believe that the closure was not related to the repeated breaches of security and site incursions which led to contract cancellations.

More recently, PA have taken action across a number of sites related to arms production for the Israelis. On one occasion, firefighters who are FBU members refused to remove PA activists occupying the site of the property manager of an Elbit factory. This example shows how trade unionists can demonstrate practical solidarity for PA actions against the Israeli war machine and help break down barriers between PA and the labour movement.

The second approach, a blockade organised in this case by Workers for a Free Palestine, involved about 400 workers in shutting down the BAE site in Rochester. This tactic took inspiration from protestors in Washington who blocked a ship carrying arms to Israel, and Australian activists who occupied a shipyard to disrupt an Israeli shipping line. These blockades can successfully stop the production or transport of weapons for limited periods of time.

It’s understandable that activists in the movement want to blockade or sabotage arms production sites when there is no labour movement organisation or there appears to be little prospect of any action from workers within these sites.

However, there is a rich tradition of stopping arms production in Britain, from workers involved in arms production in World Wars One and Two, to the Rolls Royce workers who have been celebrated for their role in grounding planes destined to be used in the coup against the left government in Chile in 1973. Further Scottish histories of resistance include the engineers in Edinburgh and the train crew in Motherwell who refused to work on or transport military equipment during the more recent Gulf Wars.

This third approach takes inspiration from these histories of workers who refused to work on or transport equipment destined for war. Both the RMT and Unite have positive positions on solidarity with Palestinian resistance. So, where there’s workplace organisation in production or distribution sites, it’s important to appeal to workers directly to stop the arms getting to the Israelis – using the collective strength of the workers themselves.

In the last few weeks, dockers in Barcelona have refused to load and unload Israeli military equipment, while in Belgium, transport workers have taken similar action. However, today in Britain this kind of direct solidarity has been hard to find. The RMT executive have opposed the delivery of arms to Israel, but this has not yet led to action on the ground. 

Activists involved in the Troublemakers at Work network agreed to issue a leaflet aimed at workers in the arms industry. It argued for solidarity in the following way –  ‘We welcome the decision of the RMT executive to oppose the delivery of weapons to Israel. The TUC calls for an end to the sale of arms and military collaboration with Israel. If you feel that you cannot work on products or processes used to prosecute the genocide in Gaza then please contact your union rep or Troublemakers at Work for advice.’

The argument was deliberately pitched this way in recognition that the arms sector is dominated by a right wing partnership culture, who have no recent tradition of taking unofficial or illegal action. Nor is there any radical network of reps like there had been in the 1970s which resulted in the action at Rolls Royce against the Chilean coup.

Nevertheless, following a leafleting of a Rolls Royce site in Bristol, senior reps demanded action from the Unite leadership in the Aerospace and Shipbuilding (A&S) sector. The reps in the arms plants agreed a statement condemning the Israeli actions with the following final paragraph – ‘We want to ensure that our members are not targeted or blamed for what is happening in this conflict. If any of our members have concerns, questions or feel unsafe in relation to their job and the products they are involved with, please contact your Unite reps for advice and support.’

What’s important here is that this statement opens the door to supporting reps and members who wish to take or organise unofficial action where they feel unsafe or their conscience prevents them from working on military products destined for the genocide.

The leaflet has since been distributed at other arms plants but it has been difficult to get it into the hands of workers. Typically this has happened because the management have succeeded in creating a ‘them and us’ scenario against the activists. This division has sometimes been inadvertently reinforced by the leafleters / protestors targeting workers by shouting at them and accusing them of being complicit instead of trying to engage with them.

One of the lessons from this initiative is that by working with wider networks revolutionaries can have a disproportionate influence beyond our limited numbers. Another is that we are often the only people arguing for an approach that aims to win rank and file workers to take action and pressures the union leadership to open up more space for unofficial action.

To build on these examples we will need to see if it’s possible to involve wider forces in the distribution of these leaflets. It would also make sense to take advantage of the openings given by the RMT and Unite A&S leadership to harden up the arguments about not working on equipment destined for the genocide. This can hopefully lead to direct action inside the factories.

Whether or not it’s possible to encourage rank and file action now, it’s important to start the process of rebuilding anti-war networks in the arms production and distribution industries. This way we can help give confidence to workers inside the arms plants who are conflicted by how their labour is being used to perpetuate war crimes. We can begin to identify individuals who can help build resistance to the genocide from within the very industries the government and employers rely upon to keep their war machine running.

29 November is an international day of solidarity action for Palestine and several more plants have been targeted for leafleting that day. If you want to help leaflet workers involved in arms production then please contact  – workers-in-arms@troublemakersat.work

 

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