In this centenary of the granting of women’s suffrage, it’s worth recalling one of the most brutal tactics used by the government against the suffragettes: the notorious “Cat and Mouse Act” of 1913.
Formally known as the Prisoners (Temporary Discharge for Ill-Health) Act, the measure allowed the authorities to release hunger-striking suffragettes from prison until they recovered, at which point they would be re-arrested and returned to jail. It was designed to curtail protests, break the morale of the suffragettes, and prevent the creation of martyrs to the cause.
The same is happening today in Iran. Trade unionists jailed for purely political reasons, several of them recognised as prisoners of conscience by Amnesty International, are protesting against their sentences, prison conditions and especially the absence of adequate medical care.
International protests by people like us – often on the back of protests on the streets by Iranians about jobs, wages and prices, as erupted at the start of January – lead to their temporary release. But after a few days or weeks of freedom, they are recalled to jail, often with increased sentences.
But the Cat and Mouse Act didn’t beat the suffragettes, and it won’t beat Iranian trade unionists. Around the world, trade unions are showing solidarity and you can get involved too.
Tehran teacher union leader Esmail Abdi was taken back to the Evin prison on 20 January after being released on furlough on 9 January. Abdi’s initial arrest happened to prevent his participation in the 2015 Education International World Congress in Ottawa, Canada.
Abdi was targeted for his union activism and campaign for teachers’ rights and for free public education. He was convicted of national security offences in February 2016 after organising peaceful protests.
Reza Shahabi, a director of the Tehran bus workers’ union (Vahed Syndicate), was imprisoned in June 2010 and completed a six-year sentence. During that time, he underwent serious neck and spinal surgery following physical abuse during interrogation, and was granted medical leave for recovery. He was re-imprisoned on 9 August 2017.
The leader of the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF), Steve Cotton, wrote to the leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Ayatollah Sayed ‘Ali Khamenei, on 3 January 2018 to urge him to secure Mr Shahabi’s release.
Davood Razavi, another director of the Tehran bus workers’ union (Vahed Syndicate), was detained on 29 April 2015 while preparing for a May Day gathering, released on bail on 1 September 2015, tried in January 2016 and then sentenced to five years in prison for ‘collusion and assembly against national security’.
He is currently awaiting a ruling on his appeal, but was summoned to court on 24 January 2018. The trial was postponed again, leaving him in limbo.
Finally, bakers’ union leader Mahmoud Salehi, a well-known labour activist from Saghez in Kurdistan, was arrested by Intelligence Ministry agents on 29 October on the pretext of having to serve a one-year prison term. As his heart condition deteriorated he was transferred to the prison infirmary and then admitted to the intensive care unit of Imam Khomeini Hospital in Saghez.
The trade union struggle in Iran is not just about arrested leaders, although they are a potent and important symbol of the regime’s tyranny and the resistance to it. There are also frequent industrial disputes, often over non-payment of wages.
One such case is the Haft Tapeh sugar workers in Shush, who have not been paid since July. After more than four months without wages or benefits, bakers and shopkeepers have had to stop selling on credit.
The workers and their families are hungry and the city is dying. The workers are demanding full payment of wage and benefit arrears; recognition of the union as the workers' legal representative; reinstatement of all unjustly terminated workers; and the company's return to government ownership.
Union leaders have endured arrest, prison and blacklisting. Local police and government authorities, rather than acting to ensure payment of wages and social security benefits, are enforcing wage theft and brutality.
When Haft Tapeh worker Aube Aghaabi recently took the company to court after a serious workplace accident, management retaliated by firing him along with 50 relatives or workers with a similar last name. And on 15 January, a known union activist denounced the company in front of the factory office. After leaving to return home, he was attacked and severely beaten by masked men, and an artery in one of his shoulders was severed. The following day, he was arrested by police, beaten and tortured.
You can support their protest by sending a message to the Iranian government.
The struggle for trade union rights in Iran is being pursued not only by the workers of Iran themselves, but trade unionists around the world. They must not lose.