Why Australian unionists must build solidarity with Ukrainian workers

Sixteen months ago the Russian Federation launched a brutal invasion of Ukraine. What was supposed to be a lightning-quick war was stifled, against all expectations, by the resistance of the Ukrainian armed forces. This not only blunted the attack but has been able to launch counter-offensives and liberate some Ukrainian territory—largely due to the delivery of military equipment from Western imperialist governments.

The ongoing conflict has sparked widespread debates globally about what attitude the left, particularly unions, should take to the conflict and how to achieve peace. I believe the only principled position for the left is to take solidarity with Ukrainian workers and their unions to defeat the Russian invasion. Doing so would not only help build a better Ukraine post- invasion, but also strengthen our own ability to build a better world.

Picking sides

Within the left and the labour movement, both internationally and within Australia, there has been determined resistance against solidarity with Ukraine. The argument has been threefold: that the Russian Federation’s invasion of Ukraine was provoked by the actions of the US and NATO; that Ukraine is acting as a proxy for NATO and as such should be denied military aid; that Ukraine receiving military aid is prolonging the war.

As well as reflecting the position of the Russian Federation and its supporters in the global far-right, these arguments operate on the basis that global politics operate within a frame of a contest between two camps—US imperialism and its Western allies on the one hand, and an opposing camp of ‘anti-imperialist’ countries—and that it is necessary to pick a side, with the implication that the left must side with the opponents of US interests.

There are a number of problems with this. As has been argued by a number of writers it constitutes the ‘anti-imperialism of idiots’ that simplifies politics to taking an opposing stance to one’s ruling class. Moreover, as Indian communist and feminist Kavita Krishnan has argued, it results in the left uncritically supporting the actions of authoritarian regimes not only internationally but also against their own popular movements in the name of defending and supporting ‘multi-polarity’.

More importantly, this argument entirely ignores the agency of not just Ukraine as a sovereign country, but what the Ukrainian working class and their organisations believe is necessary. This has primarily been justified based on not only on the need to oppose US interests but also supporting Russia’s right to a zone of influence where it can determine the domestic and foreign policy of its neighbours—in a manner similar to US actions globally, and particularly in Latin America under the Monroe Doctrine.

Central to the denial of Ukraine’s right to self-determination has been the maligning of Ukrainian society and culture as inherently fascist and far-right. This the Russian government’s justification for war, which partly relied on presenting the notion of a Ukrainian identity as inherently fascist, and relies on the presence within Ukrainian society—and particularly the armed forces—of far-right elements that venerate anti-Semitic Nazi collaborators.

The Ukrainian left openly acknowledges that there has been, and continues to be, a significant influence in Ukrainian society by such forces. However, Ukraine is hardly alone in suffering from this problem. Indeed, the Putin government is seen as a significant sponsor   of and inspiration for many movements within the far right. And of course in many countries, including Australia, thoroughly reactionary if not openly genocidal figures are openly venerated, at least within some sector of society. This seems therefore a strange threshold for a ‘just war’, particularly given that the most recent mass global anti-war movement was the one against the US-led invasion of Iraq, which at the time was lead by the Baarthist government with a long record of crimes against its own population, particularly minorities, as well as its neighbours.

So what do Ukrainian workers and marginalised communities see as necessary in the face of the invasion? Ukrainian progressive organisations such as Sotsialnyi rukh (Social Movement), are very clear in their assessment that the defeat of the invasion is necessary for the broader liberation struggles in Ukraine to be successful. In a statement marking one year of the invasion, the Confederation of Free Trade Unions of Ukraine said:

This unprovoked war was started not only against Ukraine. It undermines everything that we, trade unions, represent – peaceful labor, democratic values, sustainable development, and justice. The unjustified invasion of the Russian army into Ukraine endangers not only our freedom and independence but also peace and stability in Europe and the world.

We call on all people of goodwill to help Ukraine and its citizens protect the right to life! Stand with Ukraine! Help Ukraine to win this 9-year war, to restore Ukraine’s territorial integrity and to return peace to Ukraine!

For these reasons, thousands of workers, members of the LGBTIQA+, Tatar, Roma, feminist and Jewish communities are participating disproportionately within the Armed Forces of Ukraine, the Ukrainian Territorial Defence Forces, and partisan units in Russian-occupied Ukraine. As such, they have made it clear that they support the provision of military aid to Ukraine to enable it to defeat and roll back the Russian invasion.

However, these forces also recognise that their struggle will not end with the defeat of the invasion. Since its beginning, the Zelensky government has sought to roll back the rights of workers and their unions. It is also clear that both Ukrainian and global capital will seek to use any post-war rebuilding process in Ukraine to further liberalise the Ukrainian economy and increase the poverty and marginalisation of Ukrainian workers.

In the face of both the current invasion and the looming struggle in a liberated Ukraine, Social Movement and Ukrainian union organisations are calling for material support from the global labour movement to maximise the capacity of Ukrainian workers to organise. The ability of organisations such as the Confederation of Free Ukrainian Unions to support its members—both as they continue to keep Ukrainian society functioning and participate in the armed struggle. This is essential, not only to turn back of the invasion but to help build the authority of the union movement in Ukraine and position it for the coming debate on the future of Ukraine, and push for a more democratic and equal future.

It is essential that Australian unions join global efforts to build material and political solidarity with Ukrainian workers. The simplest way to do so is to make donations to the solidarity convoys being organised by those sections of the European labour movement that are supporting Ukrainian workers. Equally important is the building of direct links with Ukrainian unions and awareness amongst Australian workers of the current struggles in Ukraine. This is not just in keeping with our movement’s long history of struggle and solidarity with international struggles against imperialist oppression, but so we can maximise our ability to put pressure on the Australian government and its imperialist allies against their efforts to transform Ukraine into a neoliberal ‘paradise’.


Image: Flickr

Lisbeth Latham

Lisbeth Latham is a long-term union activist and organiser. She is a trade union solidarity representative in Australia for the European Network in Solidarity with Ukraine. She tweets @grumpenprol and would like to hear from Australian unionists interested in building solidarity with Ukrainian workers.

More by Lisbeth Latham ›

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