Over the past few years we have seen the growth of racist and extreme right narratives across Europe, with workers, communities and even trade unionists drawn in by a discourse which offers false promises for better pay, job security and enhanced public services. But, writes Barry Faulkner, trade unions such as Unite have been at the forefront of efforts to counter these narratives and combat the attempts of far-right groups to organise.

Unite is a large cross sectoral trade union which represents 1.3 million members who work across every sector of the economy in practically every type of employment. Though we operate as a trade union in Britain and Ireland, at any given point in time we will have members working across the globe.

In 2017 and into 2018 we saw organisations such as the Football Lads Alliance (FLA) start to grow enormously, at one point managing to muster 15,000 supporters on the streets of London. The thought that any far-right organisation could mobilise such numbers was of grave concern. We do not for a moment suggest that on that day in London 15,000 fascists were marching, indeed from anecdotal evidence gathered by some of our activists engaging with FLA marchers, it was apparent that people had come along for a wide range of reasons and only a small central core could be correctly determined to be fascist.

Many of the marchers were disaffected politically and felt ‘left behind’ by mainstream politicians and political parties. Their concerns were real, reflecting their real struggle to survive in an economically divided nation. There is no doubt that in many communities, obtaining a doctor’s appointment, affordable housing, or a job that meets the weekly outgoings has become increasingly difficult. Instead however of pointing the finger of blame upwards towards their employers, landlords or a government which imposes forced austerity, the finger is pointed sideways towards their fellow workers, neighbours or other groups in society that they feel unconnected to.

Fascist messaging, past and present

Historically the far right finds rich pickings from landscapes of economic decay and deprivation, it was no surprise that European fascism flourished in the 1930s following the inter war economic crash. Equally the levels of income and wealth inequality provide that same fertile ground for today’s far right both here and across the world.

There is a fundamental difference however today, in that, unlike the creation in 1932 of the British Union of Fascists led by Mosely, who clearly said what they were on the tin, or indeed the National Front of the 1970s, who made no secret of their hatred of black and Asian people, LGBTQ or trade unionists, today’s far right try to hide behind a smokescreen, even suggesting that those who oppose them are the real fascists.

Their messages are also much easier to spread, since they no longer rely on street corner meetings, where they could be challenged by anti-fascists. They now spread their vile messages of hate and division across the internet and social media, drawing people in with innocuous posts, pseudo-patriotic memes and powerful images that feature in well-funded, well-scripted videos on YouTube.

The left often responds to this emotive sloganism with 10,000-word documents pointing out factual inaccuracies and statistical errors. As the far-right pose their reality, they dismiss facts as fiction and fabrication. Today’s far right have learnt from their predecessors, the power of propaganda.

Unity Over Division: A trade union response

Unite began our Unity over Division campaign in order to challenge these issues. The campaign is led by our Assistant General Secretary Steve Turner and has so far engaged directly with several thousand activists in a range of settings, the details of which, alongside our rationale for the campaign, are set out below.

In Unite we looked at how we and other trade unions have dealt with the challenge of the far right and found that whilst many individuals in our organisations have played a central role in mobilising against fascism, organisationally we have often outsourced our activity by merely writing cheques to other organisations. We felt as a union the time had come to look at what we could do ourselves which was different to the work of external anti-fascist organisations. As trade unions we have a unique opportunity to directly engage with our members through our communications and to engage on a much deeper level through education, with our activist base.

Building the capacity of activists to challenge far-right narratives

We have developed a wide range of educational materials around the challenges posed by the resurgent far right. We have focussed heavily on building the skills and confidence of our activists in challenging far-right narratives in the workplace and community through engaging in difficult conversations.

We are not suggesting that shop stewards march into the canteen and say “Right, let’s talk about the far right”, but we are aware than in many of our workplaces, just as in our communities and even in our families, these conversations are already taking place. It is our role as leaders in our workplaces and communities to engage with our members and others and challenge the narrative of hate.

We have held large workshop-style events around the country bringing together up to 150 activists at a time. These workshops have focussed on those difficult conversations and on developing the active listening and probative questioning techniques which can be used to engage with people. They have also looked at the history of the fight against fascism, the traditions of the labour movement, migration mythology, the role of the media and subconscious bias.

We have looked at ways of positively promoting the values of our movement in our workplaces, formulating a Unity over Division charter for employers. We have supported our activists in organising information days working with partner organisations such as Show Racism the Red Card and have been supported by speakers and resources from other organisations.

We have produced education activities on Unity over Division which are now being delivered through every core education course within the union. This will reach over 10,000 of our representatives a year. We have written a 20-page booklet which is going out to our activists entitled Sorting Fact from Fiction. The booklet is designed to be accessible and readable and has been very popular with our activists who are now taking copies into their workplace canteens and restrooms.

We have completed training sessions with our officers and have sessions planned with the union’s staff members. We are also delivering sessions on many of our industrial committees throughout the union. These sessions are designed to act as a listening exercise as much as an information spreading exercise, identifying target areas or workplaces which might benefit from more intense support.

To give an example, one of our leading activists asked if we could support her branch as some of her shop stewards have expressed views in meetings which could be deemed to be derogatory and in breach of our equality principles. We are now organising support for the branch in exploring how education sessions could be incorporated into existing branch meetings.

From division to class unity

In the early stages of this process we developed strong anecdotal evidence of a negative shift in language and behaviour in many of our workplaces and communities. People are said to have been emboldened to use language which they would not have used a few years ago. Office banter had become openly racist, homophobic and transphobic. Even for members in sectors such as the NHS, where the use of discriminatory language is less likely to be tolerated, workers had noticed a rise in such incidents amongst their dealings with members of the public.

We are running education pieces ranging from an hour to two days as part of this campaign, customised to the needs of the specific target audience. Our political weekend schools also include Unity over Division sessions and often take a wider look at the threat in political terms. We examine the rise of the right globally and the networks of far-right organisations internationally. With a wide range of resources we are now using education as a tool to fight for Unity over Division, gradually recording positive changes in key workplaces and sections of our movement.

A united working class is a strong working class but a class divided on race, religion, gender, sexuality, disability or along any other lines is a weakened working class, ripe for exploitation by the ruling class. We must ask ourselves in whose interests is it for us to be divided.

by Barry Faulkner

Originally published on 18 November 2019 at brexitblog-rosalux.eu as part of the In historical thunder and lightning series which examined the Impact of Brexit.

Barry Faulkner is Unite’s National Political Education Coordinator and is developing the education element of the union’s Unity Over Division campaign. The campaign is addressing the challenge of the rise of the far right in Britain and Ireland where Unite represent 1.3 million members and their families.