This statement was given during a protest action held on Sunday 22 February 2015 outside of the offices of the Islamic Republic of Iran in Washington, D.C. USA in recognition of the Global Day of Action in Support of the Right to Strike.
Good afternoon everyone. We’re out here to join in the Global Day of Action for the Right to Strike.
As you know, the right for workers to organize and strike is an internationally-recognized human right.
Taking away the right to strike would return the world to feudal times, with employers having absolute power over their workforce. Those who came before us fought and died for freedom, equality and democracy – fought to throw off those feudal chains because they knew a better world was possible.
And yet that feudal system is exactly what employer representatives at the UN’s International Labour Organisation have been working to re-institute even during these times of austerity, as they seek to abolish, at the level of international law, workers’ right to strike.
These recent attacks on the ILO’s conventions by employers’ organizations that seek to legally overturn workers’ right to strike come at a time when employers and governments implement crushing austerity measures and death-dealing structural reforms; available jobs are partial and precariously-held by design; working conditions grow deadlier; and social protests are criminalized with the intent to silence peoples’ demands for decent jobs, a living wage, and social protection.
As the union Public Services International notes, “without the right to strike, collective bargaining is nothing more than begging. Workers must defend and protect an international system based on human rights and international labour standards and prevent it being replaced by free trade agreements and ad-hoc private tribunals that prioritize the interests of multinational companies over the public good and democracy.”
Workers in Iran know very well the price of losing the right to organize and strike in defense of their own most basic interests – food for their table, the means of their survival. The right to organize and strike was also taken away from workers in Iran by the Islamist counterrevolution in 1979; these are rights that Iranian workers have been struggling to reclaim and exercise ever since.
Over the years, Iran’s Ministry of Labor, with support from the state’s security apparatus, has dismantled virtually all of Iran’s independent labor unions and trade associations. Most of Iran’s labor leaders, and many labor activists have been prosecuted, imprisoned, and many have been tortured. Some have been killed.
Major unions shut down by the Ministry include the Union of Workers of the Tehran and Suburbs Bus Company, the Haft Tappeh Sugarcane Company Trade Union, the Teachers Association, and the Iranian Journalists Association. While other workers’ organizations, such as the Iranian Workers’ Free Union and Committee to Support the Establishment of Workers Organizations in Iran, have been formed, they exist outside of the legal framework of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and their members are constantly threatened with harassment, prosecution, and jailing.
This is, you see, because in Iran, organized workers are the most potent threat to dominance of the regime. Workers represent the most radical and potentially most organized force in the society. Their basic and just demands threaten not just the ill-gotten financial gains of their employers, who amass wealth through emptying the bellies of workers’ children, but the entire criminal enterprise of the Islamic Republic regime, which fundamentally depends on a fractured and subjugated workforce and a terrorized society.
Hence, in Iran, the repression of workers — including denial of rights to organize and strike, but also including harassment by security forces, prosecution in the courts, jailing, torture, and de facto execution from denial of lifesaving health care in prison — goes hand-in-hand with repression and terrorizing of the society through executions, especially of political prisoners who have dared to raise a voice and a demand. Most recently these include the execution of political prisoners Ali and Habib Afshari, and the feared execution of Saman Nasim, a young man who was under age 18 when accused of acting against national security.
The regime continues to persecute and prosecute labor activists like Behnam Ebrahimzadeh, who has been held in solitary confinement for the past month, after sustaining years of brutal assaults while detained as a political prisoner for his activism in support of workers’ and children’s rights; or like Reza Shahabi, who has been tried again on new specious charges while already being detained in prison for his role as a worker activist; or like Shahrokh Zamani, a trade unionist who was detained in June 2011 by armed intelligence agents, subjected to psychological and physical torture while being held in solitary confinement, and threatened with death and rape if he did not confess to the false charges levied against him by the regime simply because he is an advocate for workers’ and other human rights. This regime arrests and prosecutes those like Jamil Mohammadi and Jafar Azimzadeh for participating in a letter-writing protest campaign that gathered 40,000 signatures demanding that workers’ rights be upheld.
The result of these anti-people policies, according to a recent letter from labor activist and political prisoner Shahrokh Zamani, is that 80% of Tehran’s population lives below the poverty line, 75% of Iran’s industrial production has been destroyed, and unemployment stands at 43%, ranking second highest in the world; in the meantime, Iran has the highest housing costs in the world, 11 million illiterate people, and the highest rate of divorce, addiction and depression in the world, which, he argues, has put 14 million workers with their 50 million household members into a state of slow death.
Yet despite the brutal physical and economic repression and terror visited on the society, and especially against workers, people in Iran continue to raise their voices. They do not stay silent. One has only to look at the headlines to see that there 5-8 protests every day in Iran against unpaid wages, against unsafe working conditions, and in support of a living wage and the right to organize and strike.
Just this morning, 700 workers at Zemestan Yourt Mine gathered to protest against their employer’s failure to pay their wages over the past 4 months, and approximately 3000 nurses from across Iran gathered in front of Parliament to protest against the increase in pay inequality between nurses and doctors instituted by the government’s new health reforms. Yesterday Bafgh Koshk mine workers gathered in protest against expelling 16 of their coworkers. These daily acts of courage and bravery of Iran’s workers take place against the very real threat of arrest, torture, prosecution, and interminable detention. And yet it is a matter of survival of millions of families that the workers raise their voices against the criminal mafia regime that is in power.
To reflect the reality of the situation of the working class in Iran, I’d like to read a freely-translated statement from labor activist Jafar Azimzadeh, who wrote this in the immediate aftermath of the death of 8 construction workers who were killed in a freight elevator crash in Tehran on 17 February 2015. He says:
Exploitation of us workers is not enough for them.
Our families’ empty bellies do not satisfy their vicious appetites.
Not paying our wages doesn’t fill their black, bottomless pockets.
The castles in their paradise on Earth were built on our backs, yet this too is not enough.
Stealing billions of dollars from our retirement savings accounts is also not enough for them.
Enslaving us under their labor laws doesn’t fulfill their desires to traffic in human misery.
Watching us sell our kidneys and other parts of our bodies for a piece of bread doesn’t awaken their sense of humanity.
The rising statistics on workers’ deaths and disabling injuries in the workplace fail to satisfy their savage desires.
They remain unmoved by the anguished grief of our wives and the sorrowful cries of our children when they hear news of our death in the workplace.
You can only imagine the depth of inhumanity that is required to commit these atrocities and killings, this exploitation and thievery, the starvation of millions of human beings around the world… all of this in the name of profit, and amidst the despairing cries of the spouses and children of workers ensnared in this depraved capitalist system.
This truth must be accepted by us and every other human being: only the united anger of us workers can create a better world for tomorrow.
28 Bahman 1393
(17 February 2015)
In closing, we convey the demands of this action:
We stand united with all of those who defend the legal right of workers to organize & strike in Iran and around the world.
We demand the immediate and unconditional release of all imprisoned labor activists and other political prisoners, in Iran and worldwide.
Long live freedom, equality and humane society.
Down with the brutal exploitation inherent in this globalized capitalist economic system.
Down with the Islamic Republic of Iran.