Weeks before the disputed Presidential election, long before the explosion of dissent into the streets of Tehran, there were already signs that not all was well in the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Mass arrests at May Day demonstrations, suppression of strikes at factories, jailing of leaders of independent trade unions in transport and industry – this was the prelude to hundreds of thousands openly shouting “death to the dictatorship” in the streets of Iran’s capital in June 2009.
The international trade union movement has been increasingly focussed on Iran in the last year and has issued a call for a global day of protest on 26 June to focus attention on the violation of workers’ rights in that country.
Four organizations have taken the lead. They are the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), which represents 168 million workers in 155 countries, as well three global union federations representing teachers, food and transport workers. Amnesty International supports the campaign.
The involvement of the teachers, food and transport workers global union federations is significant.
The transport workers (ITF) were the first global union federation to get involved because of the tremendous strike by Tehran bus drivers led by Mansour Osanloo, who remains a prisoner of the regime.
The food workers (IUF) are involved because of the emergence of an independent trade union at the Haft Tapeh sugar factory, where workers have conducted strikes against non-payment of wages and whose union leaders have been jailed.
The teachers (EI) have been focussed on Iran in part because of the death sentence handed down on a trade union activist, Farzad Kamangar.
This represents a level of involvement in Iranian labour affairs that is unprecedented.
In its annual survey of violations of workers’ rights issued this month, the ITUC writes that “Iran continues to stand out for its particularly fierce anti-union repression … Hundreds of workers were arrested for taking part in trade union activities, particularly in the education sector. The Revolutionary Courts delivered 11 new prison sentences against trade unionists and condemned four workers, including two women, to flogging.”
Though no one could have anticipated the events now taking place in Iran, the timing of this day of action is extraordinary.
While the mainstream media has focussed on “middle class” support for reformist elements among the ruling mullahs, the shouts of “death to the dictatorship” reveal a much stronger under-current of anger. The unrest in Iran’s factories and other workplaces over many months have shown to anyone who was paying attention that this is not just a battle between “liberals” and a repressive regime. This is also a class struggle.
Developments in Iran today can be compared to the summer of 1979 in Poland.
Back then, though media attention may have focussed on intellectual dissidents in countries like Poland, we now konw that there was a strong under-current of working class unrest.
When it exploded in Gdansk, the Stalinist system was shaken to its core.
The support given by many in the international trade union movement to Solidarnosc – and not all unions were sympathetic – was crucial to that movement’s eventual triumph.
Today, while the mainstream of the international trade union movement is showing an unprecedented level of interest in and solidarity with Iran, there remain those on the Left who are wary of backing the opposition to Ahmedinejad for fear of playing into the hands of American “imperialism”.
They do not seem to mind that this regime not only makes the lives of individual Iranians unbearable, but that it serves as the center for global Islamist terrorism with its support for Hizbollah and Hamas. For some, the regime’s violently anti-Israel stance is its most endearing characteristic and makes it worthy of support.
In that sense, the next few weeks are a test for the Left and the unions.
Some, like the notorious George Galloway MP in Britain, will choose to throw their support to the Iranian regime.
Others will choose to stand with the Iranian working class in its battle not just for trade union rights, but for democracy.
On 26 June, in cities around the world, trade unions and the Left will have the chance to show, in the words of the old union song, which side they are on.
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