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What is the role labor unions should play in the Russia-Ukraine War? In a special conversation moderated by Bill Fletcher Jr., former president of the TransAfrica Forum, panelists make the case for why they believe arming Ukraine shows solidarity with workers. International Secretary of the Confedration of Free Trade Unions of Ukraine Olesia Briazgunova, Brazilian Labor and People’s Federation member Fabio Bosco, and UK University and College Union member Liz Lawrence join The Real News. Bill Fletcher Jr. is a member of The Real News Board of Directors.

Post-Production: Cameron Granadino


Bill Fletcher:  Hey, this is Bill Fletcher, and welcome to The Real News Network. We have a great panel discussion today looking at the Russia-Ukrainian War but from the standpoint of trade unions. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has brought with it a tremendous international discussion in left and progressive circles regarding the motivations for the war and what should progressive forces do in the face of this conflict. The Real News Network, as you know, has been ahead of the curve in covering the war, the controversies, and the larger impact. One feature that has received insufficient attention is the response of labor unions to the war. Specifically, is the Russia-Ukrainian War a labor issue? Is it something about which labor unions should be concerned? Is there some special role for labor unions in the face of this conflict?

In order to address these questions, we have a special panel with us today. These include Fabio Bosco, a member of the Workers’ Aid to Ukraine campaign, the Brazilian Labor and People’s Federation, CSP, and Conlutas International Solidarity Caucus. Also joining us is Liz Lawrence, a member of the University and College Union in the United Kingdom. She previously served as national president of the union and is a retired sociology lecturer. Finally, Olesia Briazgunova is the international secretary of the Confederation of Free Trade Unions of Ukraine.

Together, we shall look at the war and its relevance to working people inside and outside of the conflict zone and what must be done. Thanks for joining us. As I mentioned in the opening, the issue of labor unions has largely been ignored in discussions regarding the Russia-Ukrainian War, and the Russian invasion of Ukraine, with some minor exceptions. But I want to start by asking a basic question: Why in your opinion is this conflict a labor issue? And just to clarify, sometimes, at least in the US trade union circles, there’s a very narrow idea about what should be a labor issue. And I can tell you one thing; many people would say the Russia-Ukrainian War doesn’t fit there. So how do you respond to that, panel?

And we can start with Olesia. Why don’t we start with you? Olesia, in one sense, the question is pretty obvious since you’re in Ukraine. But as a trade unionist, why?

Olesia Briazgunova:  Thank you for your question. Greetings from Ukraine from Kyiv, which was under the missiles and drones attacked this morning and two people were killed. And why this war is a labor issue? As the trade union movement, we must fight for a peaceful environment for workers, for a just peace, for a just transition, and for decent work. But in the condition of horrific war, I want to emphasize that this war was unprovoked by Ukraine. It’s a war that started in 2014 and on February 21, 2022, this war became larger because of the full-scale invasion of Russia. And this Russian War and Russian aggression kills peaceful workers at their workplaces. These missile attacks, hostility drones, still kill ordinary workers when they stay in their homes.

It’s a danger for people everywhere in Ukraine; In eastern territories like the Donetsk region as well as Western regions because of these missile attacks. As a trade union movement, we know that since 2015, independent unions have been forbidden on the territories that were temporarily occupied by Russia. Workers don’t have protection from the real democratic unions in these territories and their human rights are violated and no one can protect their rights.

What trade unions must do is help Ukraine win this war, bring peace back to the whole territory of Ukraine, bring democracy and freedom to this territory to ensure workers’ rights and human rights, and fight for better worker conditions and a better future for workers.

Bill Fletcher:  Liz, I want to ask you the same question. Why is it a labor issue?

Liz Lawrence:  Thank you for inviting me to your program. I’d say for two main reasons: Firstly, it’s international solidarity and it should be a basic duty of labor unions. We should all think of ourselves as part of the international working class and that we are going to be affected by the outcome of this war. But also in a very practical direct sense, we have members who are of Ukrainian descent; We have students who are of Ukrainian descent. We also have student members who may be of Russian descent who are affected by this war. They may have family and friends who are coming into trouble in Russia for opposing the war. They may have family and friends fighting at the front in Ukraine or affected by the bombing. Members are affected. We can’t be insensitive or unaware of that fact. The war isn’t that far away for a lot of our members and we should be aware of that too, I would say. So those are my comments.

Bill Fletcher:  Thank you. Fabio, same question.

Fabio Bosco:  Bill, the connection between the bread and butter issues that we are using to deal with in our unions is getting increasingly linked to these international conflicts. On top of that, there is a general feeling among the working class in terms of international solidarity with the suffering of the working class in Ukraine. So when we see the images of the houses that are destroyed, the hospitals, schools, millions of refugees, and all the suffering, there is a feeling of international solidarity. That’s why it’s a labor issue. Also, this struggle by the Ukrainian people is sending a message against all these imperialist tribes that we are witnessing across the world.

Bill Fletcher:  So Liz, I want to start by asking you a question; It’s been plaguing me. Recently, The Real News did a program on struggles in France and they interviewed some French workers who were complaining about the French government providing assistance to Ukraine while the French workers were suffering in France, in terms of housing, in terms of jobs, and other things. And I hear things like that in the US as well. I want to start with you but anyone else can also respond to this: How do you respond to that? Is this something that you’re encountering in Britain?

Liz Lawrence:  Yes. First of all, organizations like Stop the War want to end the war now, irrespective of what terms, and oppose weapons for Ukraine, which would lead to Ukrainians being massacred. They do use slogans like welfare, not warfare. So yes, we are getting that position too. And we do have to challenge it. We have to say that it isn’t a simple counter-opposition of two things. You could counter-oppose any two things if you want to and say more should be being spent on workers’ rights but you shouldn’t counter-oppose international solidarity. There are plenty of things we could do. We could abolish the monarchy, for instance, to save money and spend more on welfare. There are plenty of ways you could make savings if you want to. But if you get into that discussion about savings, it can be a very divisive discussion.

And what’s important is explaining the justice of the Ukrainian cause and the fact that people need to defend themselves. If their country’s unjustly invaded that means they need to access the weapons from where they can to get them. So yes, we do get that position. It comes from people who are really not thinking through the implications of a war situation and won’t face up to what will happen in Ukraine if the Ukrainians don’t have the weapons to defend themselves. But yes, we get that. And it’s partly the attitude of opposing everything the government does, rather than thinking about the rights and wrongs of the issues. Does that help?

Bill Fletcher:  No, it does. And Fabio, do you encounter that in Brazil?

Fabio Bosco:  Of course. Some brothers and sisters in the workplace raised this issue. They witnessed this big struggle in France against the pension reform that’s inspired a lot of us across the world. And they say why doesn’t the French government take the money they are sent to Ukraine and give to the pensions of the French workers? And I feel, Bill, that we must explain to the working class that in reality the French government is not taking money from pensions to send weapons to Ukraine. In reality, there is an arms race but these new weapons are not being sent to Ukraine. They are sending secondhand weapons to Ukraine. That’s why the Ukrainians cannot win the war quickly. So we must explain, and as Liz said, we must also stand in solidarity with what is just. You see, justice is central in this discussion about solidarity with the Ukrainian workers.

Bill Fletcher:  Olesia, the economic policies of the Zelensky government have been very controversial and so has the neoliberal direction as well as neoliberal pressures from outside of Ukraine. How do your federation and other progressive trade unions respond to the neoliberal pressures within Ukraine in the context of the Russian aggression?

Olesia Briazgunova:  As a trade union confederation we are the representative at the national level. So we use every tool that we can use as a democratic union in Ukraine to negotiate with the government to comment on different legislation to request the withdrawal of draft laws and so on. Yes, there is an attempt to narrow trade unions and labor rights in order to make a better economic situation. But at the same time, as a trade union, we also use tools of social dialogue, tools of international support from different organizations such as the International Labour Organization and the International Trade Union movement to explain to our government that ensuring labor rights is essential during rebuilding. Moreover, it’s beneficial to economic growth because when workers receive decent wages, it helps the economy to recover. And there are plenty of examples of the post-COVID rebuilding of the economy so we are trying to do all that is possible to convince our government.

It’s not easy because it’s a war and as a trade union we stay in solidarity with all Ukrainians and we resist and do everything possible for a victory that will bring us peace but we also try to push our government to stop this labor reform. We also rely on the protest of the integration because Ukraine must fulfill different requirements to be a member state of the European Union. And as you know, there is a level of labor standards in the European Union that must be insured in member states. So it’s a hard situation and not easy to fight for workers’ rights but we are looking forward to social dialogue and for cooperation at the international level to ensure that international labor standards won’t be violated in Ukraine. But I want to add that workers’ rights are also violated in Ukraine because of Russian aggression and its right to decent work, right to receive wages, and right to leave. Thank you.

Bill Fletcher:  So I want to follow up on that question and I’d like you to explain to US workers who might say something like this. The Zelensky government is neoliberal, it’s reactionary. I don’t agree with the Russian aggression but I don’t agree with the Zelensky government. I don’t think we should give any support to anybody. What would you say to someone who raises that?

Olesia Briazgunova:  I want to emphasize that there are two different issues. Issues of genocidal war that include massive killings of people, mass graves, tortures, killing of children, deportation of children, and people who are activists of human rights and labor activities are under the threat of captivity on the occupied territories. Also, I want to emphasize that workers’ lives are under threat because it’s an unprovoked, horrific genocidal war.

The second issue is a policy regarding the labor market. If we lived in a peaceful democratic country, of course, we would have more tools and more deep social dialogue regarding labor rights and maybe the situation would be another. But it’s horrific. If people think we don’t help Ukraine survive, we will leave the Ukrainian people alone with aggressors who want to kill Ukrainians and people in Ukraine who fight for dignity and freedom. And in different countries, these issues are also put on the table by their government.

So it’s two different issues. Yes, we need support in this direction of fighting for decent work and labor standards. We need your solidarity. But to fight for worker’s rights, we need to survive. This morning I woke up early because of an alert and 100 meters from my apartment there was a fire because of the attack of Russian missiles. I’m happy that I survived and I want to express gratitude to all people from all countries who help us and provide military assistance to Ukraine because this military assistance saved my life this morning and saved the lives of trade unionists who live in Kyiv, for example. I’m grateful for these workers who manufactured the air defense protective equipment because they also, by their work, help people to survive. A lot of people died in workplaces because of the missile attacks.

First, we need to survive and ensure that workers’ right to life isn’t cut short. And then of course we will fight for better working conditions and decent work and maybe in peaceful times it would be easier to promote our agenda within the social dialogue.

Bill Fletcher:  Fabio, in Brazil, there are multiple labor centrals and the one I’m most familiar with is the CUT. And I’m curious, what has been the stand of these various labor centrals on the Russian invasion? Have they been silent? Have they taken positions?

Fabio Bosco:  Bill, in general, the major labor federations share the same understanding as Lula. You see, our president, Lula da Silva is talking about unconditional peace. So let’s say he’s not concerned about Ukraine eventually losing part of its territory to Russia. He thinks that a negotiation means that everyone must give something. That’s what he’s talking about. And unfortunately, the largest labor federation, the CUT, shares a lot of this perspective that is widespread by Lula da Silva.

Bill Fletcher:  I’m curious, is there a struggle within these labor centers around this? Or is that particular position uncontested?

Fabio Bosco:  There is a political debate about that, but unfortunately, it’s not widespread. We can see the working class talking about this in workplaces but in mass meetings and the bodies of the labor federations, this debate is not so present. In the labor federation, I am a member of, CSP Conlutas, we have been standing in solidarity with Ukraine since the beginning of last year’s invasion. And we joined an international campaign that is called Workers Aid to Ukraine. I myself have been twice to Ukraine last year.

Bill Fletcher:  And Liz, what about in Britain? What debates are underway within the trade union movement around Ukraine?

Liz Lawrence:  Well, there will be Russians coming to the Trade Union Congress in September. The TUC basically has been supportive of Ukraine. The difficulty is some unions have positions that are also pro-armament industry or pro-NATO in a way that isn’t helpfully persuading people on the left of the union movement to support Ukraine. But generally, it’s been a position of solidarity in terms of condemning the Russian invasion and supporting the right of Ukrainian people to support themselves, to defend themselves.

There are difficulties with my own union, UCU. We had two motions passed at our conference this summer: one of which from the Nash Executive, was a fairly decent solidarity motion which is about educational and humanitarian assistance and about listening to Ukrainian voices and having Ukrainian socialists, Ukrainian trade unionists, and Ukrainian feminists speaking to our members which we could do now over Zoom and so on.

The other motion was a problematic one from the Stop The War position which got carried by nine votes. A lot of us organized against it and it was a very narrow debate but it got carried by a majority of nine votes. And that was calling on the UK government to stop arming Ukraine. This was obviously met with outrage by some of our members who are Ukrainian, by Eastern European scholars, and by people in Ukraine. I’m very sorry about it. A lot of us tried to organize to put the case against that and say if you support the right to self-determination, you must support the right to self-defense. You must support the right to weapons from any source people can get them. That’s not the same as saying you think NATO is great in everything, whether you align with the foreign policy of your government, it’s about trying to make that distinction. But some people don’t always hear that. So that’s where the debate is. But there will obviously be a discussion I would imagine at the TUC in September but I would hope the motions in solidarity with Ukraine are passed.

Bill Fletcher:  Let me follow up on that question. And it relates to something that I asked Olesia. There was a statement that I read recently by a Quebecois trade unionists or leftists who had a strong condemnation of the Russian invasion. At the same time, they raise the argument that there should be humanitarian assistance to Ukraine but that progressive forces, including but not limited to unions, I assume, should not engage in anything that strengthens the hand of NATO, therefore no supplying of weapons. Olesia has spoken to this and I’m curious particularly with Liz and Fabio, it sounds like this issue has come up in both of your contexts. What has the debate looked like and have you been successful in pushing back on any of that?

Liz Lawrence:  We’re pushing back. We’re organizing a couple of UCU members for Ukraine. We are also going to get the union nationally to hear Ukrainian voices. The way to turn the tide is to get people hearing Ukrainian voices more. But the debate can operate at two levels within the unions. There’s a very practical level to a lot of labor unionists here. These people have been subjected to an unjust invasion of their country, they should be given the means to defend themselves. Of course, they have a right to get weapons from whoever they can get them, that’s not the same as endorsing NATO’s policies and so on. But remember, by the way, Putin has actually done most to persuade people that they want to join NATO. That’s really the problem, which is to put the responsibility there. So there are some people that operate at that level.

There are other people who engage in very, very sophisticated debates about history who think that this is like World War I. This is a war of inter-imperialist powers, a struggle for colonists, or whatever. The workers have no interest. We should be neutral. We’ve got to point out to them that neutrality will simply mean the Ukrainians will be killed if you deny them the weapons because we can’t do anything in Britain to stop the Russians from getting weapons. And if you deny weapons to the victims of oppression, you are actually siding with the oppressor in a way. But it’s difficult to get some people to see it. They hear an argument about this is a terrible conflict. We’re worried about nuclear war, we’re worried about World War III. Well, aren’t all reasonable people, including I’m sure, a lot of people in Ukraine and Russia?

And they hear this argument, it’s putting more fuel on the flames, so stop sending arms. And it’s about trying to help people think beyond that. But no, look, this is a just war. This is a national liberation struggle. The problem with the proxy war discussion as it’s talked about in terms of this being a war between Western imperialism and Russia or Russian imperialism, is simply that it obscures the Ukrainian people. They disappear from the picture. They are denied any agency, any voice. They’re sometimes treated as puppets. Sometimes this opposition to weapons for Ukraine goes along with a very pessimistic scenario that doesn’t think another Ukraine is possible, which thinks the only option for the Ukrainian people is to be dominated by one imperialist power or another. And it’s often because of people who are quite militant labor unionists, who in their own workplaces would never accept it.

If an employer said, there are two bad outcomes: You lose your job or you work longer hours, they’d say stuff it, no, we want a better option. But when it comes to Ukraine, they don’t seem to have any prospect of seeing Ukraine for the Ukrainians, a Ukraine in which Ukrainian people decide what economy and society they want for their democratic political processes. So we have to keep arguing with these people. And there are a lot of people who are hearing both sides of the argument and thinking about things. That’s where things are in my union. We’ve got to educate these people. The most important educational tool is that people actually listen to what Ukrainians are saying. So that’s how I see it.

Bill Fletcher:  I have a final two questions. I’m sorry, Fabio, you were going to say something.

Fabio Bosco:  Let me say something. Our historical stand is for the solution of NATO, CSTO, and all these military alliances which we understand as imperialist alliances. We keep this position up to our days but at the same time what we see is that what made NATO stronger was the invasion of Ukraine. The invasion of Ukraine made NATO popular across Europe and even Sweden and Finland decided to join because of this invasion. So Putin is directly responsible for the popularity that NATO has today. At the same time, we agree that the Ukrainian people must have the necessary weapons in order to defend their country.

So for instance, where are the F-16 planes so they can have some hegemony in the air to advance? They don’t have it. They are struggling with the willingness of the working people who are on the front lines to fight back the aggression. So we stand for demanding the major powers to provide all the weapons the Ukrainian people need but at the same time, we do not believe that NATO or any other military alliance is necessary for the future of humankind in the world.

Bill Fletcher:  So let me ask you all a final question, which is, what concretely do you want to see trade unions and trade unionists do in order to advance solidarity? And let me add to that, that I’m tired of resolutions. I go to I don’t know how many conferences and people pass resolutions and nothing is done. So what, concretely, if you are talking to other trade unionists, which you are, what should people do? How can they actually act in solidarity with Ukraine? And Olesia, I want to start with you.

Olesia Briazgunova:  Thank you. I want to say that a lot of people across the world, have already acted and provided different assistance to Ukrainian trade unions and we are greatly appreciative because of their aid in the form of food, clothes, power banks, generators, medicine, tactic medicine, all these things have already saved people’s lives in Ukraine. And I honestly want to say please keep staying in solidarity with the people of Ukraine because we understand that this war is not ending and it’s continuing, and we still need your solidarity and actions, donations, participation in different solidarity actions in your countries, and humanitarian aid. And I want to emphasize that we need the military aid that your governments provide Ukraine.

Also, I ask my brothers and sisters across the world to explain to people that this war is not only a regional war in Ukraine, this war affects their economic situation in Europe, affects the situation with food, it’s a food crisis, and so on and so on. So that’s why we need to end this horrific war. I want to emphasize one important issue: that this war undermines all policies and actions against climate change. And the war has a huge negative impact on climate, not only in Ukraine but in the European region and in the world. So only with your solidarity we can end this war and have a victory and peace. We need peace and to ensure freedoms and democracy in the whole territory of Ukraine. Thank you.

Bill Fletcher:  Thank you. Fabio?

Fabio Bosco:  Bill, as I told you, we are in this international campaign. There were three convoys with humanitarian first aid, staff, medicine, and power generators. We know that it’s a drop in what is needed for the Ukrainian people in this difficult situation. We know it’s symbolic but it’s a way that we can show our solidarity and boost the morale of the working class that is fighting back the Russian aggression. At the same time, here in Brazil, we are discussing the workplace. We join the Ukrainian community when they organized rallies. For instance, when the foreign minister of Russia came to Brazil, we were in the demonstrations against his presence in Brazil, this guy, Lavrov. So that’s what we are doing in practical terms. And next week we start our Congress, that’s the national Congress, and we invited a brother from Ukrainian Labor Union of [foreign language] to be in the Congress with us. We have a special session to talk about the situation of the Ukrainian working class and their resistance.

Bill Fletcher:  Thank you. Finally, Liz.

Liz Lawrence:  Well, I agree with what the last two speakers have said. We need practical solidarity. Things like sending supplies, sending equipment, medical equipment, and so on. It’s going to be needed for help with demining equipment too, given the terrible amount of mining in Ukraine that’s happened. I also think from universities we can maintain academic links and help to sustain academic life and education in Ukraine in what way we can because obviously, people are feeling isolated. In some ways, their lives are being totally disrupted. So we have to extend solidarity in all practical ways. And I agree with you, it isn’t about passing resolutions, it’s what you’ve done once you’ve passed the resolutions that is more important.

Bill Fletcher:  Indeed. Well, I want to thank the three of you. Olesia Briazgunova, Liz Lawrence, and Fabio Bosco I want to thank you very much for joining us for this discussion. The struggle certainly continues. Everyone, take care and have a good one.

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Bill Fletcher Jr. has been an activist since his teen years and previously served as a senior staff person in the national AFL-CIO; he is the former president of TransAfrica Forum, a senior scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies, and the author of numerous works of fiction and non-fiction, including ‘They’re Bankrupting Us!’ And 20 Other Myths about Unions and The Man Who Fell from the Sky. Fletcher Jr. is also a member of The Real News Network Board of Directors.