Solidarity: it’s one of those old words, out of contemporary fashion, too redolent of a collectivist politics which has been superseded by more post-modernist relationships. If some of us hang on to the word, it’s more like a life-raft, a self-justification that allows us to go on, pretending our arguments are still relevant, our activities have some impact. Yet, yet . . . , at times, if only in extremis, the word comes roaring back at us, breaking into our everyday comings and goings, not as a concept or theory of social action – but rather, in flesh and blood, exhorting us to see that what happens to people we will never meet in lands we may never visit is what happens to our next-door neighbour, our office colleague, that someone standing behind us in the check-out queue.
Mansour Osanloo is my neighbour.
It won’t come as a surprise that trade unionists face considerable hostility and oppression from the Iranian authorities. The Government has established Work Associations in workplaces but needless to say many people are not happy to be represented by essentially state organs. Recently, a number of independent trade unions have been established which the authorities are anxious to quash as they represent a challenge to the state’s authoritarian character.
In 2005, 17,000 bus workers formed their own union - the Syndicaye Sherkat-E Vahed (Workers of Tehran and Suburbs Bus Company Union) – to negotiate safer work conditions and better pay. Even though the Government refused to recognise and negotiate with the union, it was still seen as a threat. The head of the union, 47 year-old Mansour Osanloo, was arrested in July last year and incarcerated in the notorious Evin Prison. In October he was convicted on a charge of ‘endangering national security’ and sentenced to five years.
During imprisonment his health deteriorated, and his family and international delegations have been denied visits. Even his lawyers came under pressure and were forced to resign from the case. The issue came before the International Labour Organisaiton (ILO) arising from a complaint lodged by two international trade union federations. The ILO ruled that, under the Freedom of Association Convention, Mr. Mansour and all trade unionists should be released. Not surprisingly, the Iranian authorities have ignored this.
Mr. Mansour is not an isolated case:
- Mahmoud Salehi, spokesperson for the Organisational Committee to Establish Trade Unions, was sentenced on 11 November 2006 to four years’ imprisonment for "conspiring to commit crimes against national security". His sentence was reduced but, because of his deteriorating health, there have been international calls for his immediate release. Amnesty International has adopted him as a prisoner of conscience.
- Ebrahim Madadi, Mr. Osanloo's deputy in the Tehran Bus Workers Union, was sentenced to two years in jail but has been released temporarily.
- Recently another trade union activist, Majid Hamidi, was shot by masked men in Sanandaj.
- Ghorban Alipour and Mohammad Heydari Mehr, workers’ representatives in the Haft Tapeh Sugar Factory, were arrested in November. Both are awaiting trial.
This is just the tip of the iceberg, with rumours of hundreds of trade union activists appearing before courts throughout the country.
There is now a world-wide campaign backed up by the International Transport Federation and the International Trade Union Confederation, working with Amnesty International, demanding the release of Mansour Onsaloo and all other trade unionists imprisoned for demanding their human right to organise.
The organisations are now co-coordinating a world-wide day of action on March 6th – calling for protests outside Iranian embassies or consulates around the world. In addition, they are asking people to sign and circulate an on-line petition demanding Mr. Osanloo's and Mr. Salehi's release.
Cynics may question the value of these solidarity actions and even imply that, since they have little value against oppressive regimes, they only have psychological value for the participants. They point to the failed anti-war demonstrations prior to the Iraq invasion as an example and the plethora of unsuccessful campaigns to assist prisoners of conscience throughout the world. Apart from the fact this is misinformed (yes, the Bush administration went ahead with the illegal invasion, but in the long term world opinion has played a role in forcing the neo-cons into political retreat - vide the US election debate), this also misses the purpose and character of solidarity.
The vindication of democratic and trade union rights in Iran will come through the struggles of the Iranian people. Solidarity is not a substitute but a supplement – albeit a crucially important one. No doubt, few Governments will be wholly indifferent to the spectre of global demonstrations outside their embassies. This alone can act as a minor break on more major transgressions – and in countries which imprison, torture and kill political dissidents, minor breaks can be crucial to the long-term success of reform. And save lives.
But more importantly, solidarity is about individuals grouping together to speak to individuals – namely those suffering from victimization. Take the words of Mr. Ossanlu:
"All the protest letters from Amnesty and the trade unions made us know that we were not alone. When I was in prison and heard of all the support my spirits rose. In this struggle it is very valuable to get so much support from so many thousands of miles away. This campaigning has also disclosed the repression and made sure that the authorities know that they are being watched by the outside world."
We can see that, though solidarity necessarily takes collective forms, it is based on direct communication, bringing individuals together with each other, regardless of distances or barriers.
Indeed, solidarity can provide crucial insights into concepts that we take for granted. Take free trade, for example. What a grand goal – the free exchange of goods and services; sceptics are labeled old-fashioned protectionists and parochialists, and if you talk about planned trade you little more than a statist relic.
However, solidarity exposes the ideological bilge at the very moment people enter the frame. Take China – member of the WTO, a growing exporting powerhouse, a beneficiary of ‘free trade’. But what definition to we assign to ‘free’ when men and women, the workers and employees producing these goods for trade, are denied, as are their Iranian counterparts, basic rights: the right to organize, the right to bargain, the right to be represented by organizations of their own choosing (rights all affirmed in ILO conventions). The more one analyses ‘free’ trade, the less ‘free’ it becomes – especially if your starting point is not an economic equation but the people who are supposed to participate in, and benefit from, that freedom.
Solidarity is an old word but everyday it’s meaning renews itself, adds new synonyms, new expressions as more and more people come together to practice it. Yes, it is a life-raft but with the emphasis on life and all that flows from that.
So on March 6th I hope you will join with thousands of other people to speak directly with the victims of Iranian oppression - trade unionists and supporters of human rights – in a dialogue of rights, of support, of solidarity.
For the ITUC / IFT Guidelines on the March 6th Day of Action: http://www.itfglobal.org/files/seealsodocs/ENG/7221/Iran_Campaign_Guidelines.pdf
Sign the onlline petition to be sent to His Excellency Ayatollah Sayed Ali Khamenei - Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran: http://www.labourstart.org/cgi-bin/solidarityforever/show_campaign.cgi?c=339