International Unionism: Solidarity and Salient Lessons
It has been six days since Sepideh Gholian, and two other labour activists started their dry hunger strike at Iranian prisons. Sepideh is no longer able to walk, and there are serious concerns about her life.
Sepideh is a labour activist who was involved in a campaign led by workers at the Haft Tappeh sugarcane company. Worker demands include, a living wage, fundamental workplace entitlements and an end to wage theft. They are also demanding the right to form their own worker collective free from state repression.
Sepideh and her comrade Esmail Bakhshi were arrested by authorities in 2018 for exercising their right to freedom of assembly and association. It quickly became apparent that the pair had been subjected to torture at the hands of state security forces during their time in detention. Concerningly, they were again arrested earlier this year and their future remain uncertain.
Iran’s labour laws do not recognise the right to create independent labour unions. That is, unions are deemed to be illegal unless granted government approval. Nevertheless, workers in a range of sectors, including public transport, education and agriculture, have defied the ban and have come together to form large democratic unions.
The response on the part of the Iranian state has been unsurprising but deeply shocking: authorities have repeatedly harassed, arrested, imprisoned and tortured unionised workers.
The most recent wave of the arrests happened at the International Labour Day assembly, where the authorities arrested more than 35 activists. A number of these unionists remain detained some 3-months after the rally. VAHPA strongly condemns these attacks on the unionists and labour activities in Iran. We stand with our international comrades and support their fight for fundamental democratic rights.
“International solidarity,” notes VAHPA Secretary Craig McGregor, “is vital to the work we do.”
“The situation in Iran is both appalling and highly instructive. Unions have always been about far more than wages and conditions. Genuine unions, open and democratic communities of workers, have been the most effective means by which populations across the world have been able to wield political power in the industrial and post-industrial eras. This remains true today.”
In the Australian context, and more broadly, unions have been under intense pressure for decades. Unions have, since the late 1970s, been maligned by a well-considered and highly effective propaganda campaign waged by the capitalist right. The results are striking (pun intended); union membership and activity is now at an all-time low and this retreat has opened up a vast power vacuum on the left which has seen right-wing fiscal ideology leach into every aspect of our lives with highly detrimental impact.
Of course, those on the right offer a counter narrative. They shift the debate from economic structures (arguably the most fundamental factor in defining the course of our lives) to cultural changes, especially those championed by progressive forces. In essence, the right argues that growing social acceptance of diversity, a rise in intolerance for bigotry, prejudice and discrimination, are signs that the left is on the march. The issue of racism tends to be left out of this debate.
The latest attack comes in the form of yet another legislative amendment to workplace laws. The deeply Orwellian Ensuring Integrity bill is designed to disempower workers and their organisation. The bill works to impose mechanisms that allow those with “sufficient interest” (including the government and your employers) to ride roughshod over worker and union democracy and to remove elected leaders who are considered unfit or to simply deregister unions all together.
The International Centre for Trade Union Rights has found the bill to be “incompatible with Australia’s commitments under the ILO’s (International Labour Organization) Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise Convention, 1948 (No. 87) and the Right to Organise and Collective Bargaining Convention, 1949 (No 98).”
The researchers go on to describe the bill as “harmful to workers, undermining to trade union democracy, and of no tangible benefit to the promotion of harmonious industrial relations.” And perhaps most worrying, they note that no equivalent for such extreme measures could be found in any industrial democracy, noting that, “None of the industrialised democracies we surveyed entertain anything approximating such a punitive regime.”
This bill is currently before the Senate and is expected to become law in the near future. Look out for forthcoming updates on what you can do to help.