Joti Brar: a personal account of anti-war struggle against the trade union bureaucracy

Why is it so hard to get anything meaningful done via the existing trade union mechanisms?

Not your average trade unionist. The author at a May Day demonstration in 2005. Then, as now, our party’s main campaigning slogans around the trade unions and the war were ‘No cooperation with imperialist war’, ‘Break the link with Labour’ and ‘Defy the anti-trade union laws’.

The following article written by Joti Brar, former trade union representative for Bectu (the broadcasting union) and author of The Drive to War Against Russia and China, is a brief insight into her time as a trade unionist and some thoughts on the role of the trade union leaders in controlling workers on behalf of British imperialism.


So I hear the TUC yesterday pulled a fire alarm stunt to prevent any meaningful debate of the controversial pro-Ukraine resolution.

What a classic piece of manoeuvring by our ‘democracy-loving’ union bureaucracy.

Years ago, the first time (2004, I believe) my trade union branch (BBC Radio and Music) brought a motion about non-cooperation of media workers with war crimes to the floor of the Broadcast, Entertainment, Cinematograph and Theatre Union (Bectu) conference (where many unionised BBC workers were attending), the Iraq war was still fairly new and opinion about it was very divided.

The debate was getting heated and there were huge numbers of people queueing up to speak for both sides. Just as it looked like it was getting interesting, a leadership plant stood up from the floor of the congress and shouted ‘Move next business’.

In my naivety, I had no idea what he meant, and certainly no idea of what the procedure might be to counter it, but it turned out the man had done the equivalent of slamming down a ‘Nope’ card in a game of Exploding Kittens. The union chair on the platform happily complied and suddenly the whole debate was over and we were talking about something else …

That was the closest we came to a meaningful debate on the issue. In other years, our branch brought similar resolutions, but each time we had to struggle against ever tighter constraints.

First, the union cut down substantially the maximum length that a resolution was allowed to be (they did this twice as I recall) – and specified also that it must contain ‘no argumentation’ (!) We put on a film show as a fringe meeting to highlight that the Iraq war was a criminal endeavour and that refusing to cooperate with propaganda in its support was essential for any media worker who did not want to be complicit (as set out in the Nuremberg trials after WW2).

We were barred from holding another such meeting, and the time allowed to propose, second and speak to a motion was also cut down to the bone. We printed leaflets and put them under the bedroom doors of the other delegates, hoping in this way to get some of our main points across to those who would be attending the ‘debate’.

In this ongoing guerrilla war, what the union leadership was most concerned about was not getting to the truth of the matter or ensuring a democratic outcome (although they loved to talk about their ‘democratic procedures’), but avoiding a principled conversation about an important topic where they wished to stay firmly on the side of British imperialism without having to come out and say so explicitly.

A remark from a member of the leadership the last time we had such a debate stays with me. The war by this time had become extremely unpopular and there was general agreement about the fact that it had been an unlawful aggression, characterised by brutality, criminality and corruption of all kinds. Everyone could see it had been an absolute disaster for Iraq and everyone hated Tony Blair for having knowingly lied to the British public in taking us into the war (not to mention ignoring the two million-strong demonstration against the war in February 2003).

So nobody any longer could object to the main points of the resolution. [1] Yet still the majority of those present were not going to vote for it and the union leadership did everything possible to undermine it. The general secretary said to me in a tone of aggrieved long-suffering as I approached the microphone: “What is it you want from us, Joti? Of course we agree with you about the war, but what are we supposed to do? We’re not journalists; we’re just the technicians.”

Weasel words to cover the truth of the pro-war, pro-imperialist position of the entire union leadership, and to signal to the delegates on the floor that they could quite comfortably vote against the resolution being proposed by our branch without worrying their consciences about the finer points of responsibility for pro-war propagandising.

Of course, the BBC workforce, like every workforce in Britain, had been divided amongst two or three unions (just to make sure there was never any really unified action by workers in struggle), the main ones being the National Union of Journalists (NUJ, which traditionally didn’t even think of itself as a union but more as a professional guild) and the Broadcasting, Entertainment, Cinematograph and Theatre Union (Bectu), which tended to represent those doing the technical studio jobs.

But the truth is that even without the journalists on board, the technicians at the BBC have huge power. The broadcasting mechanisms don’t work without them and nor does the website. If they wanted to stop the publication of pro-war propaganda they could do it with the flick of a switch and the collective refusal to allow anyone to turn the switch back on again.

In my lifetime, I have seen such an example of media workers in solidarity with their fellows. During the miners’ strike, print workers refused to allow a particularly egregious anti-miner front page to be run, which depicted Arthur Scargill as Adolf Hitler under the slogan ‘Mine Fuhrer’. The headline the editors ran with in the end simply read: “Members of all The Sun production chapels [union branches] refused to handle the Arthur Scargill picture and major headline on our lead story. The Sun has decided, reluctantly, to print the paper without either.” [2]

The leadership of Britain’s labour movement, from the Labour party and Trades Union Congress to the leaders of the individual unions (and all those self-identifying ‘socialists’ and ‘communists’ whose entire energy is spent on posturing those organisations and misrepresenting them to the working masses) have always served British imperialism. (There have been, of course, a tiny handful of exceptions to this rule amongst trade union leaders, most notably Arthur Scargill, leader of the heroic miners’ strike of 1984-5.)

To understand why, read VI Lenin’s Imperialism, read Harpal Brar’s Social Democracy, the Enemy Within, and look out for our forthcoming pamphlet Britain’s Perfidious Labour party, which will be on sale in a few weeks’ time.

For some useful thoughts on the way forward, read our Manifesto for the Crisis and a recent article
Which way forward for the trade unions now?

We will make no progress until we break entirely from these pro-war, pro-imperialist, anti-worker, anticommunist controllers, whose organisations long ago became subsumed into the British state machinery.



[1] The resolution my branch proposed to the 2004 Bectu conference: The Drive to War Against Russia and China, Appendix: Non-cooperation resolutions.

[2] The paper the Sun workers wouldn’t print.