Building Palestine Solidarity in an Arms Factory

Protesters appear behind a banner that says free Palestine, and a stop sign that says ‘Stop: this company arms genocide’

Protests outside our plant have sometimes been counterproductive, and sometimes helpful. Contact between shop stewards and protestors in advance makes the difference.

I work at a site in the United Kingdom producing military equipment for aircraft, some of which ends up on the F-35 stealth fighter jet. We are members of the UK union Unite.

In response to the call from Palestinian trade unions to halt arms production and transport to Israel, some co-workers and I have been trying to make this a reality in our workplace.

Israel has been buying F-35 jets since 2016, and has signed deals to expand its fleet to 75 by 2028.

Our site has endured two decades of a right-wing union-management partnership, resulting in poor pay deals. This toxic partnership made solidarity efforts nearly impossible.

Also, certain direct actions prior to the ongoing genocide in Gaza proved counterproductive to our efforts to build rank-and-file solidarity—particularly actions not coordinated with workers.

A Palestine solidarity group targeted our plant, occupying the factory rooftop and causing damage. This incident led to the evacuation of hundreds of workers. Workers felt under attack and blamed the activists. This has complicated our efforts to build internal support.

Despite these setbacks, we tried to challenge union leadership at our plant, arguing that the protestors had a valid point. However, one senior shop steward quickly argued that the F-35 contract was our “bread and butter.” This was a low point for many of us.

PENSION STIRRED THINGS UP

Things began to change when management decided to close down our pension plan, prompting us to prepare for a strike vote. This reinvigorated the union and new members were elected as shop stewards. Younger members also became more enthusiastic about the union. A third of our shop stewards now are women, which is unprecedented.

A parallel contract campaign for newly hired college graduates and apprentices (who are in a training program) also won significant victories, including substantial pay raises.

We voted 90 percent to strike over the pension, forcing the company to improve our pension plan significantly. Membership has doubled, and the union-management partnership is effectively dead.

PROTESTS AT OUR SITE

The first protest at our site during the latest war on Gaza, in late 2023, involved around 80 people, including Palestine solidarity activists and trade unionists.

While it looked impressive to those in the movement, most workers felt intimidated. When I arrived, protesters shouted at me, accusing me of having “blood on my hands,” and urged me to “find another job.”

I approached the loudest protestor, explaining that I was a shop steward trying to build solidarity and challenge management over the F-35 contract. Shouting abuse at workers wasn’t helpful in convincing them to join the wider movement. After the protest, I discussed these issues in detail with some of the trade unionists who had organized the protest.

One of the activists among the graduates, whom I’ll call Col, considered leaving the factory due to these protests. But over time I convinced him that the best way to help people in Gaza was to stay and build solidarity within the factory—emphasizing that workers had stopped arms going to war zones before, and could do it again.

Historically, there is a rich tradition of stopping arms production and transport in Britain, including the Rolls Royce workers, celebrated for their role in grounding planes intended for use in the coup against the left government in Chile in 1973.

Since October, unionists in transport and dockworker unions in many countries have committed to refuse the transport of arms to Israel.

BUILDING INTERNAL SUPPORT

After the protests, a group of rank-and-file members looked for ways to raise the issue of Palestine in our workplace.

We started by trying to raise money for Medical Aid for Palestine (MAP) on the shop stewards committee, but faced resistance from a minority who opposed us. Feeling we were not ready yet, we decided to back off temporarily.

At the start of the new year, we organised one-to-one meetings with each shop steward to discuss their focus for the coming year, ensuring each conversation ended with a discussion about Palestine and the solidarity movement.

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These conversations were challenging, but we thought if we could win shop stewards to a public pro-Palestine position, they would be the best fighters against management.

RENEWED EFFORTS

Before the next meeting of the shop stewards committee, I met with Col and Ally, our new-graduate shop steward. We agreed on a strategy: I would prepare the ground with a summary of the conflict and protests at our site, Ally would argue against the ongoing genocide, and Col would focus on the need for solidarity.

At the meeting, we successfully passed a proposal supporting MAP and making a significant donation—a turning point for our site. It was essential to our success that we had laid the groundwork and conducted one-to-one meetings beforehand.

A few days later, there was a protest and blockade of our factory. The protestors had done their homework this time—instead of shouting at us, during the blockade they made appeals to workers and demonstrated knowledge about our site.

Some shop stewards spoke with the protestors, highlighting our efforts to challenge management about the F-35 contract and support MAP. This interaction gave hope to the protestors, and by 11 a.m. management was forced to send workers home with full pay as the protestors held a strong picket line, blocking workers from going in. This marked a significant victory.

For protestors, the lesson here is to make contact with workers before any action and appeal to them on the day of the protest. For shop stewards, it’s crucial to meet with protestors to agree on common aims.

SHIFTING SENTIMENT

After the blockade, worker responses were mixed. Some were angry at the protestors, while others were happy to get most of the day off.

Our rank-and-file group put out a message to union members arguing that management should have closed the site earlier—redirecting the anger towards management.

Another young engineer contacted me, concerned about being complicit in genocide. After a long discussion, I convinced him to stay and help build solidarity. He later decided to become a shop steward—showing how discussions can transform perspectives, and solidarity can bring new workers into the union.

We’re currently holding member meetings to reject a final pay offer. At the end of each meeting, we’re raising the issue of Palestine and giving updates from discussions and decisions of the national shop stewards network in our sector on this subject.

We’ve also put out a call for more shop stewards and we have seven new volunteers. One of them works on the F-35 contract. This is an area where we’ve had no union representation for years. So it’s a real step forward.

We now have a noticeable anti-war minority at our site. We’re also working towards forming an anti-war minority on the union committee that covers arms factories, and this minority is already trying to shape union policy.

GOOD POLICIES, BACKPEDALING

Unite is the biggest union in Britain and Ireland, and includes workers in many industries. The union has good policies supporting the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and supporting Boycotts, Divestment, and Sanctions against Israel’s occupation of Palestine—it is helpful that these policies already exist. Our task is to mobilize them for further action.

Last October, we worked with a national officer supportive of Palestine to commit the union to back any worker who may refuse to work on products destined for Israel. This policy opens an important door to potential unofficial action.

Recently, it was disheartening to witness the national Unite leadership issuing a statement that condemned site protests and the anti-war movement—they argued that the union’s role is solely jobs and worker protection in the sector.

This was shocking to those of us organizing in the Aerospace and Shipbuilding sector, which covers the arms plants. It’s a sector where the dominant culture is pro-partnership with management, pro-militarism, and pro-nuclear weapons. It’s a difficult sector to organize for an anti-war position, but we have come a long way in seven months.

In opposition to the Unite leadership position, and due to consistent rank-and-file organizing, at a national shop stewards meeting in our sector we passed a statement calling for a ban on direct arms exports to Israel, defending the right to protest, and advising shop stewards to engage with site protestors.

Eddie Cimo is the pseudonym of an arms worker from Britain.