Although I must emphasise that this is written in a strictly personal capacity, I was privileged enough to go to Kyiv as part of a GMB solidarity delegation on Monday the 10th of April. I met Ukrainian trade unionists from the Confederation of Free Trade Unions of Ukraine (KVPU) and the Federation of Trade Unions of Ukraine (FPU) and heard them speak about the challenges they faced from both the Russian invasion, and their own government. This delegation was the latest step in GMB’s internationalist efforts to support Ukrainian trade unions, which have previously included ensuring the passage of supportive motions through TUC Congress and Labour Party Conference, fundraising efforts, and aid delegations.

War is objectively horrible. It wrings lasting physical and emotional destruction, often for very little purpose, while serving as a fulcrum around which all of society is excessively ordered. Our first reminder of the wide reaching effects of was the 18-year-old woman we met on the sleeper train to Kyiv. The invasion had forced her to leave Kyiv and move to Germany with her mother and she was travelling back to visit her father, while her brother has served in the Ukrainian army since 2014 and she only hears from him once every three to four months. Our last reminder was the engineer we shared the cabin with on the way back, whose work has now become replacing tank tracks.

Meanwhile, Kyiv itself was almost quaint, and one could be forgiven for thinking peace was running amok. Which made it particularly jarring when an air-raid siren sounded during one meeting and we were told work would continue as the basement was too small to work from. This is not a work ethic I normally ascribe to. Though Kyiv did feel safe, unlike Kharkiv it has a functioning air defence system and is not in the process of being levelled, though ammunition is increasingly scarce, and the recent US aid package will have to go some way to address this. 

Ukraine, unlike its neighbours Belarus, Russia, and Kazakhstan, has an independent trade union movement that can openly organise. It has no option but to fight this war, and if that independent trade union movement is to prosper then Ukraine must avoid defeat. It is trade union members who are bearing the brunt of this war. Many men have enlisted while others in the occupied territories have been conscripted into the Russian military (which has increased the prominence of women in the labour force and the trade union movement) and others now find that their workplaces are targets. For instance, members of the 100,000 strong state employees union, State Employees Union of Ukraine (SEUU), work in government buildings that have been bombed, medical workers have to provide aid on the front lines, energy workers are currently receiving particular attention as Russian forces attempt to dismantle Ukraine’s energy capacity (while we were in Kyiv there were blackouts in Odesa and Kharkiv), and as pointed out by Andrey Zimin, chair of the mineworkers’ PRUPU, many of Ukraine’s mines are now on the frontline. Indeed, even their homes are now targets. The chair of the KVPU, Mykhailo Volynets, lives in an area that is consistently targeted due to its proximity to a hospital.

While the Ukrainian government is an anti-union government (it has used the war to pass legislation that removes collective bargaining rights for employees at firms with less than 250 people, which it first attempted to pass in 2021 and attempted to set up its own trade union confederation) the free and independent trade unions in Ukraine are adamant that life under a democratically elected Ukrainian government is infinitely preferable to one under Putin. In our meeting with the KVPU, in which most of the trade unionists present had been displaced from the now occupied territories, we were told how trade unionists in the occupied territories have been targeted, often with arrest and torture. The KVPU were certain that their officers will be on a list and, should Russia win, they will become targets for imprisonment and/or execution.

Visiting the rebuilt FPU headquarters in Kyiv (it was burnt down by the Security Police of Viktor Yanukovych’s pro-Russia government in 2014’s Euromaidan), we were told of the importance of trade unions to any post-war reconstruction effort. The KVPU estimates that the war means that between twenty-five and twenty-seven percent of the population will have a physical or mental disability, meaning they will find it harder to seek work and be more vulnerable in work. Moreover, without extensive reconstruction aid, the end of the war will bring mass unemployment. It is vital that collective bargaining exists across the economy to support workers through this, and limits the extent to which unemployment can be weaponised by employers. Doing this will require trade unions to be allowed to contribute to establishing a new labour code to replace the 1971 Soviet one.

Unfortunately, Zelenksyy’s government is not currently invested in this. It first attempted to pass more “libertarian” reforms in 2019, which was met with resistance from Ukraine’s trade union movement and paused due to the pandemic. Now it is attempting to set up its own trade union confederation (described by the FPU chair, Grygorii Osovyi as a ‘pocket confederation’ for ‘some pocket unions’), and has targeted the assets of the FPU. This is alongside legal changes that have included allowing employers to unilaterally remove collective bargaining for enterprises with less than 200 people (which covers approximately seventy percent of the Ukrainian economy) and liberalising laws on zero hours contracts, which is particularly significant for Ukraine’s agricultural sector.

It is possible that joining the European Union will make these legislative changes unworkable, as they would not comply with EU standards, and the FPU did acknowledge the importance of the recent “support of our international colleagues in Brussels”. However, it is worth noting that Britain, when a member of the EU, still had some of the most restrictive trade unions laws in the democratic world, and the EU will not be a panacea for providing a friendly legislative environment. Currently, trade unions are attacked from without by the Russian military and undermined from within by their own government.

It is not surprising that the war has limited the freedom of Ukrainians, that is, after all, the point of martial law, and the current restrictions are not unlike those that Britain was placed under in the Second World War. Indeed, strikes remained illegal until 1950; however, one difference between Britain then and Ukraine now is that Britain had a Labour government to manage the transition out of a war footing, whereas Ukraine only has one social-democrat MP in its entire parliament. There are currently more than 7 million Ukrainians working abroad where they will enjoy better Labour standards and tempting them back to a post-war country may prove difficult if there is no course correction on labour legislation.

So, what could the British labour movement do to support Ukraine? Speaking at a GMB fundraiser in December (which was also attended by Shadow Foreign Secretary David Lammy and Shadow Defence Secretary John Healey) Alex Sobel, chair of the Ukraine All-Party Parliamentary Group pointed out that a Labour government could liquidate seized Russian assets and send these as aid, something that the Conservative government, known to have Russian donors, has so far refused to do. Equally, the government could also increase the supply of arms and other materials, though the extent to which Labour’s self-imposed fiscal straight jacket will allow this remains to be seen. Sobel was also quick to point out the importance of supporting socialists and social democratic politicians entering the Ukrainian parliament as their current presence is negligible, partly because they are often seen as Soviet adjacent, particularly by younger Ukrainians.

At a trade union level, the Ukrainian trade union confederations stressed the importance of Labour affiliated unions advocating for Ukraine and its trade unions to the Labour Party, while also noting the importance of contesting Russia’s state-run trade unions in the ITUC. However, steering motions through different congresses can be difficult. For instance, even though the last TUC Congress overwhelmingly passed a motion in support of sending material aid to Ukraine, this was only after the wording had been changed to the open-ended “practical” aid (while noting Ukrainian unions’ calls for defensive supplies). 

There are well documented fractures on the Left about whether Ukraine should be supported and how much Russia is to blame for invading another country; though it should be remembered that, in this conflict, one side has free trade unions and the other does not. Realistically, more support for Ukraine means an increase in defence spending (as Britain is sadly unlikely to reallocate arms exports meant for other countries or reform defence spending to reduce profiteering) something that Labour has pledged to do but only narrowly passed at TUC Congress in 2022, reflecting the different spending pressures that trade unions will place on a Labour government.  

The only way that Ukraine can negotiate a favourable resolution to its conflict with Russia is to successfully resist invasion and maintain its sovereign democracy. The only way that Ukrainian workers can forge a better future is in a democracy, and all practical demonstrations of solidarity are vital. Currently Ukraine is losing and, if this continues, there will not be a new social order left to build. Yet Ukrainian workers must be provided with the opportunity to shape their own future, and that option will not exist with a Russian victory. In Volynets’ words, there are two issues faced by Ukrainian trade unions, one is trade union legislation the other is the “question of our lives, of saving our democracy” currently trade unionists “must fight for existence because our people are dying”.