CHICAGO — In Iran, trade unionists face imprisonment, or even death, for organizing… And they are gearing up for a huge round of lay-offs triggered by President Ahmadinejad’s slashing of public subdidies.
In Pakistan, labor organizing is a challenge when public attention is focused mostly on daily suicide bombings and the struggle for a modicum of peace. It is even harder for women labor leaders like Rubina Jamil, who must contend with a patriarchal and feudal society that expects women to stay in the home.
In Venezuela, trade unionists play a key role in maintaining and promoting the political shift away from U.S. hegemony in the region. Meanwhile energy sector labor leaders like Toni Leon feel their industry makes the country a target for oil-hungry foreign aggressors.
The event featured top international unionists: All Pakistan Trade Union Federation chair Rubina Jamil; Toni Leon, secretary general of the Venezuelan Union of Oil Industry Workers; Hassan Juma’a Awad, president of the Iraq Oil Workers Union; and Homayoun Pourzad, a leader of the Network of Iranian Labor Unions.
They described the complicated ways in which labor is influenced by war, imperialism, repressive regimes and internal ideological and political conflicts. They also said labor must take a leadership role in avoiding or resolving such situations, and noted disasters like the Iraq war and the global economic crisis may actually open new opportunities for labor organizing.
Leon’s union is closely aligned with President Hugo Chavez. He described their role largely as safeguarding the country and its resources.
“We are in the eye of the storm,” meaning a target for multinational companies and other countries, “and the people have decided to defend their own solidarity,” Leon said. “Venezuela’s revolutionary process represents not only hope for the Venezuelan people but for all Americans and people the world over that another world is possible, that we can fight against the multi-nationals,” he said.
In recent times, Chavez’s anti-U.S. stance has included fervently expressed solidarity with Iranian Preisident Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. After the panel, Iranian unionist Pourzad said his main goal in coming to the Chicago meeting was to tell Leon how this makes Iranian workers feel. (Read a Middle East Report on Ahmadinjead’s suppression of labor organizing here.)
“If it’s a question of a common enemy, we understand that. If it’s a question of economic ties, we understand that. But if Chavez has said Ahmadinejad is a true revolutionary, this we do not understand.”
Rather, Iranian workers see Ahmadinejad as a brutal “petty dictator” who has ignored constitutional labor rights and thrown unionists in solitary imprisonment without charges. Because of this repression, Pourvad is risking his life by speaking about labor organizing internationally.
He said that while Ahmadinejad may be an enemy of the U.S., his policies are fully reflective of neo-liberal economic strategies of the IMF and World Trade Organization that have gutted jobs and public benefits worldwide. He said Ahmadinejad has already privatized more than a third of public resources, with the bulk of profit going to the Revolutionary Guards Corp and corrupt elites rather than private companies but having the same detrimental effect on the common good.
Pourvad said Iranians are expecting massive lay-offs following Ahmadinejad’s slashing of public subsidies for gas, transportation, bakeries and other goods in January. This is part of a five-year “economic reform” plan announced last year to basically dismantle a public subsidy program that Pourvad calls the working class’s only victory from the 1979 Iranian revolution.
“My country will be in the news big time really soon,” Pourvad said. “Once subsidies are cut the factories won’t be able to afford utility bills. They won’t be able to keep workers on board…” He said the lay-offs could bolster labor organizing. “I don’t know if it’s a blessing or a curse.”
Leon promised to take the message about Ahmadinejad back to Venezuelan leadership.
Meanwhile Jamil said extremists and terrorists in Pakistan have made it harder for union organizing, “creating a lot of hindrance among the working class.” She said union membership is declining rapidly, as Pakistanis live in fear of suicide bombings and U.S. drone attacks. But she lauded her organization for moving forward with organizing with a strong underlying political message and a focus on women’s leadership. She is also president of the affiliated Pakistan Working Women Organization.
“We are saying that women’s problems are workers’ problems, and women’s rights are human rights,” she said.
Awad said he is “holding the U.S. government accountable” for the sectarian strife and violence in Iraq, saying they never had these problems to such an extent before. But he said Iraqi workers distinguish between the U.S. government and the American people. Aaron Hughes of Iraq Veterans Against the War described visiting Iraq to apologize for the war, and receiving an embrace from Awad in front of hundreds of unionists.
Awad blasted policies instituted since the U.S. invasion that have facilitated foreign investment in the oil sector, and said the union must protect its resources from deals that don’t serve the Iraqi people. He called for all foreign investments to be approved by a democratically elected Iraqi parliament.
“If they don’t respect that, we’re ready and willing to kick these companies out of Iraq,” he said.
A Chicago-based Iraqi journalist in the audience countered that “the Iraqi parliament are not necessarily decent people with the ability to build a new Iraq” — a point Awad acknowledged.
Awad also decried the fact that even as the Ba’athist system has been largely dismantled, Ba’athist laws banning unionism were left intact.
University of Chicago student Atiya Khan, moderator of the international panel, posited that international labor solidarity as part of a revitalized international left movement is crucial to preventing future invasions in the Middle East and saving Afghanistan and Pakistan from being “failed states.” Khan stressed the need for an overarching leftist political analysis, something she sees lacking in much of the international labor movement currently.
The unionists said the U.S. Labor Against the War conference gave them hope as they returned to difficult situations in their own countries. Pourzad called the international labor solidarity he experienced in Chicago an example of the “globalization from below that’s really needed in the world right now.”