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The rise of the far right- building a trade union response

Report type
Research and reports
Issue date
Trade union responses
Here we present just some examples of responses to racism and the far right that have involved, or been led, by trade unions in different countries.

How the far right will evolve in the coming months and years is an open question. Current conditions and the likelihood of recurring, deeper and more intense crises – economic, political and ecological – will continue to provide fertile ground for organising. It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that an aggressive form of far-right authoritarianism could cohere in a dozen or more countries at once. Equally, there is every chance of a “new form of mass reactionary politics” taking root in the midst of these crises.[1] However, the inexorable rise of the far right is not a foregone conclusion. A lot depends on the response of trade unions, social movements and political parties.

5.1 Continental Europe

As far Europe is concerned, Germany is the country where the trade union movement appears to “have developed the most comprehensive set of actions” to counteract the rise of far-right parties and sympathy among workers for far-right views.[2] These actions have involved:

a) The adoption of a ‘defining limits and open door’ strategy, which means a no-tolerance approach to the expression of racist or far-right views, but at the same time an open door for steering the anger and frustration of discontented workers towards collective action.

b) Unions such as the DGB and its members are setting standards and ideals on democracy and solidarity, for example by enshrining defence of democracy and anti-fascism as a fundamental pillar of the trade union’s activity. Some local union leaders have also begun to apply ‘incompatibility measures’ aimed at excluding members and supporters of far-right parties from membership of the trade union, though there are still discussions on whether or not to implement this policy across the board.

c) DGB and its affiliates, as well as its research arms, have commissioned or undertaken several studies on the far-right attitudes of workers and trade union members in particular. These studies have been crucial in identifying the strength of far-right attitudes among workers as well as establishing the extent to which far-right organisations have a presence in workplaces and the democratic structures of trade unions. The DGB is currently leading a major research project in six European countries (Germany, France, Italy, Belgium, Poland and Hungary) that aims to provide an updated analysis of far-right organising and narratives in the workplace.

d) Awareness raising and political education interventions also form a key part of trade union strategies in Germany. A number of unions have developed brochures, produced guidebooks and launched education programmes that not only shine a light on the true nature of far-right parties such as the AfD, but are designed to prepare workers for debates on important social and economic issues.

e) German unions have begun implementing action at a company level, particularly in response to far-right movements’ attempts to penetrate works councils by fielding candidates for elections, especially in the automobile sector. These are decentralised initiatives and have not yet been generalised into a fully fledged strategy. But this an exercise still in development, supported by the ongoing research of DGB and other organisations. Other workplace interventions include workplace-based training and education initiatives to strengthen the internal democratic culture of companies. These initiatives ‘open the door’ by promoting a culture of fraternal debate around sensitive issues.

German trade unions also have a long history of leading and taking part in anti-fascist movements. In recent years, trade unions have been centrally involved in local and national mobilisations against the AfD. Two years ago, a demonstration of nearly 250,000 people took place in Germany against the AfD, organised by a coalition that included trade unions, human rights organisations and migrant associations. There have been countless local mobilisations since then, which have connected with strikes and workplace struggles, in addition to campaigns over health and housing. While we need to be careful not to overestimate the impact of these events – the AfD’s difficulties have also arisen from internal tensions – there is little doubt that this constant pressure played a significant role in exposing the fascist tendencies within the party.[3]

Recent events in Greece also show that the far right can be pushed back. At one point Golden Dawn had 18 MPs and was on course to become Greece’s third-largest party. But in 2019  the party has lost all of its seats and virtually all of its electoral support, and its leadership has been found guilty of running a criminal organisation whose crimes included murder, assault and possession of offensive weapons. This setback for the far right was not inevitable: Golden Dawn’s political and legal defeat would not have happened without broad-based anti-fascist action and strategy, solidarity actions and the mass mobilisation of Greece’s main trade union federations over a sustained period.[4] Significantly, the unions were critical in ensuring that the fight against racism and fascism was closely linked to the struggle against austerity, by organising migrant workers industrially and engaging in community-based campaigns for an expansion of welfare, housing and healthcare for refugees.

The Italian General Confederation of Labour (CGIL) is working closely with the DGB and other European trade union partners on a research project focused on far-right organising and narratives in the workplace. The CGIL is also engaged in campaigning activity geared towards counteracting Lega’s efforts to establish a foothold in workplaces and trade unions, most notably through its formal relationship with the General Labour Union (UGL). CGIL is running a widespread campaign to highlight the unfair practices and negative implications of UGL’s actions, for example the signing of a national collective agreement for delivery riders that undermines ongoing negotiations. CGIL also works closely with the National Association of Italian Partisans (ANPI), which has just signed a protocol with the Ministry of Education to promote the memory of anti-fascist movements in schools.

Trade unions in Hungary have experienced a dramatic decline in membership during the decade that Orbán has been in power. Orbán’s regime has made clear its intention to destroy unions and destroy workers’ rights. One report notes that “there are no direct strategies or actions carried out by trade unions” to counteract support for the far right.[5] But while unions are relatively weak in Hungary, Orbán’s ‘slave law’ created an unprecedented protest movement. At the beginning of 2019, trade unions came onto the streets in protest against the new labour code, demanding that it be withdrawn. They were joined by political parties and civil society organisations, which accused Orbán of eroding democracy and the rule of law. This ushered in ‘a year of resistance’ against the government, promoting closer cooperation between opposition parties that eventually resulted in electoral gains at a municipal level. However, the protests have since given way to an approach favouring dialogue with the government, particularly in the context of the pandemic. It is uncertain how this will play out and whether we will see a concerted challenge to Orbán’s radical nationalist, anti-worker and anti-immigrant agenda.[6]

In Poland, the trade union reaction to the constitutional ban on abortion has highlighted the importance of building solidarity networks and mobilising against regimes that are lurching to the right. The protests organised by Strajk Kobiet (Women’s Strike) have galvanised public support and gathered huge momentum, bringing tens of thousands of people onto the streets. The Polish trade union movement has a strong Catholic nationalist influence. But while some unions have been supportive of the government, the demonstrations have attracted support from a broad range of social forces including farmers, taxi drivers and sections of the trade union movement, including the miners’ union Sierpień ’80. With the political landscape polarised and evenly balanced, the outcome of the Strajk Kobiet protests will be hugely significant.[7]

5.2 The UK

Trade unions have been one of the mainstays of anti-racist and anti-fascist activity in Britain for decades, reaching all the way back to the battles against Mosley’s Blackshirts in the 1930s. More recently, trade unions led the mobilisation against the National Front in the 1970s and 1980s. This is part of the reason for the weak and fragmented nature of the neo-Nazi right in Britain today. But trade unions have once again been forced to mobilise against the far right as it has re-emerged in different incarnations. In an effort to deny the far right the space in which to organise and propagate its views, trade unions in the UK have initiated or supported a number of demonstrations and counter-demonstrations in recent years. This has included widespread support and solidarity activity among trade unions for the Black Lives Matter movement.

Recognising the urgent need to build on what has already been done, the TUC and its affiliates have been working to develop further strategies for countering racism and the far right. For instance, the TUC has been engaging with international partners on the question of how best to organise against far-right forces and narratives in the workplace, with a view to developing a joint programme of work on a cross-border basis. Furthermore, the TUC is in the process of developing new education courses, one of which – Winning Workplace Unity – has already been delivered in four regions.

The Trade Union Co-ordinating Group (TUCG)[8] has recently published an edited collection that draws attention to various aspects of trade union activity geared towards combatting racism and the far right.[9] Among the initiatives highlighted is the FBU’s solidarity and education trips to the refugee camps in Dunkirk and Calais, which have involved firefighter members travelling across to the camps with much-needed supplies and bringing back the stories of refugees to their workplaces. The FBU executive has decided to expand this project in order that its message of internationalism and solidarity can be spread more widely among its membership. Also highlighted is the campaigning efforts of the RMT in the struggle against institutional racism and the far right, and its commitment to formulating a trade union response including, in collaboration with the TUC and others, the development of anti-fascist training.

For its part, the NEU has been developing an anti-racist workplace charter that models good practices and behaviours for schools relating to the curriculum, pastoral systems and employment practices. The union has also posted member-created teaching resources about refugees and migrants on the NEU website. NEU activists have meanwhile been working on initiatives to ‘decolonise’ the education curriculum, which is an important development not only because of its longstanding pro-imperialist bias but particularly in the light of the Windrush scandal, Black Lives Matter and the Tories’ attacks on academic freedoms in schools and universities. This decolonising agenda seeks to: connect contemporary racialised disadvantages with wider historical processes of colonialism; make what teachers teach and how they teach it more responsive to the problems of colonial and racialised privilege and discrimination; and overcome the limits and disadvantages embedded in curricula (content) and pedagogies (methods for teaching, assessment and academic support).

Unite the Union has launched a Unity Over Division’ campaign, run by its own staff to allow direct engagement with members. Unite’s work includes a process of building the skills and confidence of activists to challenge far-right narratives in the workplace and community through engaging in difficult conversations – very much in line with the ‘open door’ strategy being pursued by some of the German unions. At the time of writing, Unite has held a series of large workshop-style events with workers across the UK, in addition to more localised one-day training events. The union has briefed all of its 100 tutors across the regions, developing new resources for core shop stewards’ education programmes, and trained another 100 facilitators in Ireland to have difficult conversations in their communities in response to a rise in far-right activities. During the lockdown, Unite has engaged with private companies and local councils to deliver anti-racist education, securing the support of employers for the union’s Unity Over Division charter.

It is important to add that successful political campaigning against racism and the far right has always been liked to industrial campaigns to build class solidarity. Over the past two years alone, there have been several large-scale disputes affecting sectors that are crucial to sustaining our communities and have a high proportion of BME and migrant workers. These are the kinds of action that serve to strengthen the links between the industrial, the political and the community. Furthermore, the pandemic has prompted a reassessment of what constitutes essential work and how it should be valued, financially and societally. The Conservative government’s proposals for new restrictions on migration post-Brexit will leave many of these workers, already low paid and precarious, facing even greater exploitation and abuse.[10] This is why the emphasis placed on organising migrant workers by the TUC and affiliates is so important.

5.3 The US

The defeat of Donald Trump owed a great deal to the organising and mobilising efforts of trade unions and grassroots movements. Starting in 2018, the Trump administration was faced with an upsurge in major strikes, most notably by public schoolteachers and support workers of various kinds. Significantly, the teachers struck and won in ‘red’ (Republican) states with no collective bargaining provisions. The outbreak of the pandemic saw workers responding to the government’s failure to guarantee adequate workplace health and safety protections and income support for frontline workers. Coming on top of the pandemic and subsequent economic impacts,[11] these actions and the conditions that gave rise to them had the cumulative effect of galvanising opposition to Trump. Union members not only voted for Biden but, crucially, mobilised in large numbers to help deliver gains for Biden in key swing states, with the AFL-CIO playing an important role. This mobilisation centred around public health (Medicare For All) and the economy. The multiple overlapping crises in the US present a serious threat to workers’ lives and livelihoods, but have also opened up some possibilities for a political trade union response.

5.4 Latin America

Far-right neoliberal movements and governments in Latin America are among the greatest threats to democracy, human rights and a decent standard of living for the majority. This is why examples of successful resistance contain useful lessons for trade unions in other parts of the world. The huge victory of the MAS candidate Luis Arce in Bolivia’s presidential elections not only heralds a brighter future for the Bolivian people but also demonstrates the possibility and necessity of building a resilient movement from the bottom up. Indigenous, Afro-Bolivians, peasants and large sections of the trade union movement have been actively resisting far-right attacks and state repression since the coup began last year. They were sustained by the fact that the MAS government emerged from the social movements, as opposed to a narrow focus on the rituals of voting every few years, and gave those movements a democratic stake in the project to overturn neoliberalism. Grassroots political education organised by workers’ movements and campesino unions were another foundation stone of the movement that has been built there.

Chile is another example of trade unions placing themselves at the heart of a movement to push back the tide of right-wing reaction and chart a new path for the country. The referendum granted by the government to replace Pinochet’s constitution came after years of campaigning and mass protest action involving trade unions, indigenous groups, the women’s movement and students. Meanwhile, we have already noted that an emerging coalition of social forces, including trade unions, has mobilised in Colombia around a positive and increasingly coherent political vision that aligns peace and democracy with critiques of neoliberal capitalism, bringing issues of poverty, inequality and racial injustice to the forefront. The Brazilian trade union movement, too, has been campaigning consistently against Bolsonaro’s policies in the industrial and political sphere. A general strike against the government’s pension reforms in the summer of 2019 has been followed by a pattern of industrial action against privatisation, public sector cuts, layoffs and Bolsonaro’s response to the pandemic. A number of trade union leaders and activists were also elected during Brazil’s municipal elections in November of this year.[12]

The histories and circumstances of these Latin American countries are very different to those faced by trade unions in the UK. But they highlight the necessity of industrial campaigning, extra-parliamentary organising and movement-building, linked to a hopeful political vision.

[1] Renton D (2020), op cit.

[2] European Economic and Social Committee (2019). Trade Union Strategies in the EU to Address Trade Union Members’ and Workers’ Growing Propensity to Vote for Right Wing Populists and Nationalists. Brussels, pp 47–53. Available at:

[3] Ovenden K (2020). “From Golden Dawn to the AfD, the far right is being beaten back by a fighting left”. Counterfire, 20 October 2020. Available at:

[4] Ibid.

[5] European Economic and Social Committee, op cit, p 55.

[6] Szijarto I (2019). “Hungarians can’t be bought with potatoes”. Jacobin, 27 October 2019. Available at:

[7] “Farmers, taxi drivers and miners show support for abortion protests in Poland”. Notes from Poland, 26 October 2020. Available at:

[8] Comprising BFAWU, FBU, NAPO, NEU, NUJ, PCS, POA, RMT, UCU and URTU.

[9] Trade Union Co-ordinating Group (2020). Trade Unions Fighting Racism and the Far-right: building solidarity in workplaces and communities. Available at:

[10] Morris M (2020). Building a Post-Brexit Immigration System for the Economic Recovery. IBPPR briefing, November 2020. Available at:

[11] See Yates MD (2020). “COVID-19, economic depression, and the Black Lives Matter protests: will the triple crisis bring a working-class revolt in the United States?”. Monthly Review, vol 72, no 4, pp. 14–33.

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