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Unionizing Iran

Give me a hand
Give me a hand
These are interesting times in Iran. Supreme Leader Khamenei and President Ahmadinejad are once again engaged in an open dispute. Opposition movements suffer persistent repression – and keep flaring up nonetheless. The Nobel Prize-winning lawyer Shirin Ebadi recently came up with a vivid metaphor when she described the country as “a fire under the ashes.”

There are many people in the outside world who would like to make the regime in Tehran more accountable to its own people. But how? Make overtures to the Iranian leadership, as President Obama did early in his term, and you might find yourself irritatingly rebuffed. Try to help members of the Iranian opposition by improving their access to the Internet and social media, and the government will brand them as stooges of the usual satanic forces. Memories of the West’s meddling in Iran’s internal affairs back in the days before the 1979 revolution die hard.

But there’s another area where the international community -- and maybe even Washington -- could probably do a lot more good if it wanted to. Iran is seething with labor unrest. Earlier this month workers from the northwestern city of Qazvin traveled to Tehran to protest in front of the parliament. Some of them said they haven’t been paid for 24 months. On April 9, 1500 workers launched a strike at an oil refinery in the south of the country, while another 1000 downed tools at a paper mill. Workers have also stopped work in recent weeks at a tire factory in Alborz and a petrochemical plant in Tabriz. Some sources say that the strikes are spreading.

Iran’s economy is in bad shape. The leaders in Tehran are accustomed to telling their people that it’s all because of the sanctions imposed by the international community in retaliation for Iran’s failure to come clean on its nuclear program. But it’s not that simple. Workers at the Ziaran slaughterhouse told one of RFE/RL’s reporters that the problems with wage arrears started once the firm was “privatized.” In Iran, where the hand of the state looms large, state firms that get sold off often end up in the hands of well-connected insiders who have been known to loot company assets, covering themselves by paying a share of the ill-gotten gains as bribes to friends in the government. The problem in this particular case is likely corruption and homegrown mismanagement rather than interference by outsiders.

Iran does have an independent union movement, but it’s small and beleaguered. The outside world should help. But how? Muhammad Sahimi, a professor at the University of Southern California who also writes a column on Iranian politics for the PBS/Frontline/Tehran Bureau website, says that the politics involved are tricky: “Receiving help from any organization outside Iran, particularly if it is in the United States or a European country with which the Islamic Republic has strained relations, is almost like a kiss of death.”

And yet, he adds, the regime in Tehran has shown time and time again that it is sensitive to international criticism. So the best support for the homegrown labor movement, he says, is moral rather than material: “By publicizing the gross violations of human rights, including the rights to decent wages and decent standards of living, and by protesting the unlawful actions of the Iranian government by credible international organizations ranging from trade unions to human rights organizations, the movement in Iran will be strengthened.” He notes that several international labor groups have been pushing for the release of Mansour Osanlou, leader of an independent trade union for workers at the Tehran and Suburbs Bus Company, who is currently doing time in Evin Prison – merely the latest of his many sojourns in jail. Sahimi says that more pressure from overseas would help.

He’s right. Governments, unions, and human rights activists should all pay more attention to the cause of Iranian workers. And while they’re at it, they might want to consider the example of the Hong Kong-based China Labor Bulletin, one of the world’s most intriguing non-government organizations. The CLB was founded by Han Dongfang, a former Tiananmen Square activist who believes that the best way to change China is by making workers aware of their rights under the law – and then by giving them the tools to ensure those rights are protected. The CLB provides workers inside the People’s Republic with detailed legal advice, sometimes even hiring lawyers to represent them in court. It counsels workers who engage in industrial action, and it carefully monitors and publicizes situations where workers’ rights are violated. Sitting safely in a Hong Kong studio, Han also broadcasts a regular call-in show in which he responds to calls and emails from listeners on the mainland, discussing everything from contract law to negotiating tactics. Yes, sometimes the workers get in trouble, but there are also victories – particularly when the Communist Party sees that it can score points by acting as the helpful mediator between workers and private company management. It’s all his way, as Han once explained to me, of building the rule of law in China, one small step at a time.

Why can’t friends of Iran set up a comparable organization? Surely working to improve the lives of ordinary Iranian working stiffs isn’t a bad idea. And there are political benefits, too. It’s an approach that could help to counter government propaganda (which cites sanctions as evidence of the West’s evil intentions) and at the same time show up the gaping divide between the regime’s claims to be the only true safeguard of Islamic justice and the grubby reality of institutionalized corruption and nepotism.

It’s certainly better than dropping bombs.

-- Christian Caryl