Iranian union activists face intimidation, unemployment and even prison — and international labor organizations continue to speak out for them.
Among them is the Swedish Trade Union Confederation, an umbrella group representing 14 Swedish trade unions. Recently, it appealed to the Iranian government to protect workers during the coronavirus pandemic. It also hosts an “Iran Day” every year, launched by the Swedish Trade Union Platform, during which union members show solidarity with Iranian workers and discuss their plight.
Landsorganisationen i Sverige in Swedish — literally "National Organization in Sweden” and commonly referred to as the LO — was established in 1897. With about 1,423 000 members of whom 657 000 are women, and most of whom are blue-collar workers, it is the largest trade union in the country.
The LO has long been involved in international solidarity movements, including advocacy for jailed Iranian trade union activists. “When I started my work at the LO in 2009, Iranian expat organizations would ask us twice a year for a meeting and we would meet them and listen to them,” Leif Isaksson, the ombudsman and international secretary of the LO, told IranWire in a phone interview. “They asked the LO to sign different petitions for protests or even to go and speak at gatherings. We formed the Swedish Trade Union Platform for Iran together with Saeed Tagavi.”
Tagavi, who is of Iranian descent and a retired member of the Swedish Transport Workers’ Union, describes the Trade Union Platform for Iran as being “very unique.” He says that international human rights have been a core value for the platform, which he heads, and this commitment has helped shape its collaborations with other organizations. “We have tried to expand our contacts internationally,” Tagavi says. “We collaborated with the UN special rapporteurs on Iran such as Ahmad Shaheed. He was here in 2015. Asma Jahangir was here before passing away [Jahangir was the special rapporteur from November 2016 until her death in February 2018]. This year, we had Javaid Rehman here, the current special rapporteur on Iran”.
According to Isaksson, the Swedish Trade Union Platform has had “yearly meetings and seminars in Sweden, where we invite either the UN rapporteur or other [key] people...as part of the same platform, we had [Iranian bus driver and union activist] Reza Shahabi in Sweden two years ago. We followed the issue of his imprisonment very carefully. We published monthly articles on him. I don’t know how many protest letters we have sent since 2014, but at least three to four a year.” The support for Iranian workers is unwavering, he says, but not unlimited. “We do not have ongoing projects there, but rather, we are using our own funds with LO together with the union that Mr. Tagavi represents [Swedish Transport Workers’ Union].”
Tagavi said their work supporting Iranian workers also involves engagement with other international organizations. “We work in a very organized way to follow the developments in Iran. Our latest petition asked the Iranian government to guarantee emergency sick pay [due to coronavirus] for every worker. Also, we cooperated with the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) for our Iran day — we have an Iran day every year. We urged them to establish an international trade union platform for Iran because it is very important for all the members in the ITUC to get together to voice their support for Iranian trade union activists.”
An Enduring Tradition
The LO has a long history of advocacy for the rights of workers in Sweden. “From the start of unionism, we chose the path of collective bargaining agreements (CBAs) with a national perspective,” Isaksson says. “In my experience, a national CBA versus a company-based CBA has a positive effect for unionism. We can negotiate at a stronger level its benefits for our members.” Isaksson also notes that national CBAs “prohibit unfair competition” — thereby strengthening Sweden’s enduring tradition of trade unionism.
Another factor that has contributed to the strong tradition of unionism in Sweden is the support the movement has had from the country’s social democratic governments, which have run the country for 40 years out of the last 90 years.
“Especially after the ‘70s, we managed to negotiate and [influence] legislation on a lot of important issues for trade unions,” Isaksson says. However, he notes that the greater presence of conservative governments in parliament has started taking its toll on trade unions. “In the ‘80s, we had a trade union density of over 80 percent, but eight years of conservatives in power has had a downward impact on trade union density because they introduced a higher cost for being a trade union member.”
Strengthening the Presence of Minorities
Swedish society has a long history of welcoming immigrants, and the country has some of the most progressive laws supporting immigrants’ rights in the world. “The first wave of immigrants came to Sweden in the 1960s,” says Isaksson. “It was mostly demand-driven. We had immigrants coming from Italy and other parts [of the world] come and work in industries in Sweden. Then we had different waves of immigrants. But this wave was not demand-driven. They came to Sweden to flee from something else, such as poverty or conflict.” He also said the LO also focuses on other aspects of human rights more broadly. “Our unions have always tried to strengthen gender issues,” he says.
Yet, despite this long tradition of trade unionism, “there still isn’t a high percentage of immigrants in trade unions,” Tagavi says, and adds that bringing Sweden’s more recent residents into the country’s trade union environment is a “job” he and colleagues have taken on. “Many of these immigrants have a lack of knowledge about the importance of a trade union. But overall, the situation has been improving”.
Isaksson also underscored the difficulties faced by immigrants in Sweden: “We have struggled quite a lot both from the trade union side and political side to properly integrate immigrants to the labor market. Previously, our trade union was very successful [in integrating immigrants] because immigrants coming to Sweden could work immediately and they could get trade union membership at the workplace level. Trade unions were very good at handling xenophobia.”
Like Isaksson, Tagavi acknowledges that the type of immigrant coming to Sweden has changed. “Many Iranians came here at the end of 1970s and during the 1980s. Most of them were from the upper-middle class. They were very interested to integrate.” Since many of them were well-educated, Tagavi adds, “their integration was more successful.” The suggestion is that the new Iranian immigrant — economic migrants, people fleeing because of political or other types of persecution — has been less able to settle into the fabric of the country, and Tagavi believes the union movement has a role to play here. “I urged many [from immigrant communities] to organize themselves in our transport union. But such organization still remains a difficult challenge [for many immigrants].”
A Force to be Reckoned With
Trade Unions play a key role as countervailing powers against governments for checks and balances, and this has been LO’s experience too. However, Isaksson says years of neoliberal reforms and conservative governments have had a negative impact on the union’s ability to effect change. “Our force has been weakened. Of course, during conservative rules, we had less influence. At the moment, if you have seen the set-up of our government, we have a minority government of the Green Party and the Social Democratic Party... At the moment, this platform is a bit shaky and it also means that we are working closely with the social democrats, but [with it] being a minority government , it means that we are not as successful as we were before.”
Despite the relative weakening of LO’s position, Isaksson is quick to point out the union’s lasting influence. “We still have a say in a lot of issues and we can put pressure [on the government]. This was also evident during this time of the coronavirus epidemic. LO stated that one should be paid from the first day of being sick or if you’re forced to stay at home, then you should receive full payment from the first day of staying home. Of course, these are things that were about to happen anyway, but we were influential.”
With Sweden being part of the European Union, sometimes trade unions have to stem the tide of policies emanating not only from national governments, but also from the European Union. “At the EU level, they decide on different laws, which affect society in Sweden, especially when it comes to CBAs,” Tagavi says. “We have been trying to keep our independence from the government. This is the kind of struggle we are facing. Unfortunately, since we have a minority government, the way that the government is working for the trade union is problematic.”
International Cooperation and Solidarity
In addition to supporting Iranian workers, Sweden’s largest trade has been at the forefront of international trade union solidarity. “We are involved in cooperation projects in many parts of the world,” Isaksson says. “For example, when it comes to Africa, we are in 22 countries and they are not the easiest countries. We are presently in Niger, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Congo, Nigeria, Chad...Just as an example, we have projects supporting the Somali trade union movement. We are also involved in cooperation projects in Asia in places such as Nepal, Vietnam, and we are supporting juridical projects in Cambodia — a labor law development program where we provide trade unions with international juridical expertise.
“When it comes to international cooperation, our principle has been the following: what is good at the national level, i.e., solidarity among workers, is also good at the European and International level. Solidarity for us is not limited by geography.”