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Rights + Justice

Heed These May Day Distress Calls

In Iran, Afghanistan, Gaza, repressed unionists deserve Canadian solidarity.

Terry Glavin 1 May

Terry Glavin, who writes his Dissent column for The Tyee, recently was awarded the B.C. Lieutenant Governor's Award for Literary Excellence.

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Iranian leader Ahmadinejad: no friend to workers.

Today is May Day, the holiday most of the world marks as international workers' day. North Americans call it Labour Day and celebrate it on the first Monday in September, usually without much of a thought about its meaning, but it's the same holiday.

Long tarnished by Stalinist appropriation and armoured parades in Moscow and Beijing, and lately fashionable with earnestly dyspeptic anti-globalization protesters, May Day is nonetheless a traditional, official workers' holiday in such noticeably non-totalitarian countries as India, Sweden, Brazil and New Zealand. In Los Angeles last year, the Chamber of Commerce joined May Day marchers in the common cause of immigration reform.

May Day was first intended to commemorate a bloody labour war in Chicago in May 1886, but Labour Day actually began in Canada. It came out of an historic printers' strike in Toronto, in 1872. There's a circuitous history involved in all this, but May Day and Labour Day arose from the same uncomplicated basis of working-class unity. A fair day's pay for an honest day's work. What we want for ourselves we demand for all. Any saboteur of this common purpose is a scab.

This is raw, unambiguous and unsophisticated language, but its moral clarity is the basis of progressive internationalism. It is universal in purpose and global in ambition, and it is the bedrock beneath the fight for free trade unions, the eight-hour day, safe working conditions and proper labour law. This isn't just the dusty antiquarian stuff of maudlin labour ballads. These are still life-and-death struggles in much of the world today.

In search of solidarity

If this means nothing to you, it could be that you're just too busy enjoying the fruits of victories won by people who fought these battles for you a long time ago. But if you thought that it's still the old bedrock principles of international workers' solidarity that rally the Canadian labour movement to the cause of, say, Palestinian, Israeli, Iranian or Afghan workers, I'm sorry to disappoint you. Dig as deep as you want, you'll be lucky to find much of it.

Nowadays, Canada's union officials are just as likely to be engaged in highbrow apologetics for the worst enemies of the world's bravest workers. It's commonplace now to happen upon union officials at rallies where everyone's shouting slogans that give courage and comfort to despotic regimes that distinguish themselves by busting unions, jailing union organizers and lynching strikers.

It should come as no surprise that in North America, May Day is now more commonly known as the distress call that goes out from the bridge of a sinking ship. Several recent events have brought this sad irony into rather sharp focus for me.

Just the other day, the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) and several other worldwide labour federations issued an alert to unions around the world, warning that the approach of May Day in Iran meant the country's trade unionists were facing especially grave peril. After last year's May Day protests, scores of Iranian union leaders were fired from their jobs, sentenced to lengthy jail terms and publicly flogged. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's police thugs have begun yet another wave of arrests in recent weeks.

You'd think that Canadian trade unionists would have been at the vanguard of a massive response to ITUC's appeal. After all, the historic 1872 Toronto printers' strike was waged against laws that banned free trade unions, and these are precisely the kinds of laws the Tehran regime is using right now to persecute trade unionists in that country. These are laws that even the Tory Prime Minister John A. Macdonald called "barbarous" when he agreed to the Toronto strikers' demands for their full repeal.

I can't say I've noticed any great throngs of CLC-affiliated union members massing down Granville Street in Vancouver or Danforth Avenue in Toronto to show the world they stand in solidarity with their Iranian brothers and sisters.

Ahmadinejad and his 'press'

The ITUC appeal came just a couple of days after I'd had a rather nasty personal encounter with Zahra Jamal, a Vancouver journalist who works for Tehran's government-run Press TV. I'd refused to consent to an interview, recalling the brave Canadian photojournalist Zahra Kazemi who was beaten to death by government thugs after taking photographs of a student protest in Tehran in 2003.

Press TV is a holocaust-denial broadcasting service. It's as slick as the CBC. After I expressed the view that Press TV's bosses should rot in hell for eternity, Jamal threatened to report my sauciness to the faculty where I'm engaged as an adjunct at the University of British Columbia. This is just funny.

What is not so funny is that Press TV is the direct function of a Khomeinist crackdown that involved the firing of hundreds of Iranian journalists and the shuttering of dozens of Iranian newspapers and magazines. Last year, the Association of Iranian Journalists was arbitrarily dissolved by Ahmadinejad's officials. By any proper standard, Press TV is a nasty little racket and a masquerade, and its journalists are scabs.

You'd think Canadian trade unionists would have been proud that Canada was the first country to announce its decision to boycott the obscene "Durban II" process that recently concluded in Geneva. But this principled position actually made the Canadian Labour Congress positively angry.

To nobody's great surprise, President Ahmadinejad's star-attraction speech in Geneva ended up being what French president Nicolas Sarkozy later called "an intolerable appeal for racist hatred." The speech was in fact just more of Ahmadinejad's usual anti-semitic rubbish. Eight countries were already boycotting the event, but the speech was enough to prompt delegates from another 24 countries to walk out.

The response of the 11-member Canadian Labour Congress delegation in Geneva was to agree that anti-semitism is bad, and then denounce Ahmadinejad's detractors and dismiss their anti-semitism complaints as mere alarums and a "pretext" for avoiding the things the CLC wanted to talk about. It was all just a concoction dreamed up by "a cynical alliance among Western nations to avoid addressing the legacy of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, the human rights of Palestinian people, and the expropriation of the land and resources of indigenous peoples across the world."

A plea for international support

It would be unfair and wrong to leave the impression that such dizziness and the charade of "anti-war" activism are all that remain in Canada of the grand traditions of progressive internationalism.

Last year, the CLC' s Mehdi Kouhestaninejad tried with all his might to roust some solidarity for our Iranian brothers and sisters, among whom he says the big debate is about why "leftists outside Iran, is staying by the Iranian government by their actions." There were a few protest letters from Canadian unions, and there was a dismal little protest at Queen's Park, but at least Kouhestaninejad tried.

While CLC president Ken Georgetti flinches and sneers at Canada's efforts in Afghanistan and ennobles the counter-revolutionary thugs who plague that country as the "Afghan resistance movement," he's not exactly a representative sampling of what's happening out there. The group Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan has raised millions of dollars across Canada to pay decent wages for Afghan schoolteachers. There's nothing particularly complicated about the idea. What we want for ourselves, we demand for all.

CUPE Ontario president Sid Ryan is well known for his notion that the way to peace in the Middle East is to single out Israeli scholars at Canadian universities and kick them off campus unless they sign some sort of loyalty oath. Less known is that thousands of CUPE members have risen in protest against Ryan's posturing, and three CUPE locals have disaffiliated from the union over it.

Even more heartening is the emerging rank-and-file response in Canada to a "new global movement" established by senior Australian, British and American labour leaders. Trade Unions Linking Israel and Palestine was recently established to "challenge the apologists for Hamas and Hizbollah in the labour movement." The aim is to help strengthen the horribly strained relationship between the Israeli Labour Federation (Histadrut) and the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions (PGFTU).

One Voice needs more voices

This will require much harder work than making union-hall speeches that deliberately employ such words as ovens, blitzkrieg, holocaust and genocide in order to slag off Israel. It will mean actually doing real work. It will also mean having the courage to notice that while it may be popular in union circles to call Hamas the "legitimate government" in Gaza, the work of Palestinian union organizers has been made rather difficult since the Hamas takeover. The PGTFU has had its offices seized. Its general secretary has barely survived three attempts on his life. The federation's deputy general secretary has had rockets fired into his home and bombs detonated under his union offices.

There is also a very real "anti-war" movement among Palestinians and Israelis that is desperate for support among rank-and-file Canadians. It's called One Voice, and its activists are pledged to peaceful negotiations and a Palestinian state flourishing alongside Israel. More than 332,000 Israelis and more than 296,000 Palestinians have signed up for this work. A recent One Voice public opinion poll shows that an overwhelming majority of both Israelis and Palestinians want exactly the same thing as One Voice does.

What all these inscrutable, fractious and perfectly ordinary people want, in places like Iran, Afghanistan, Israel and Palestine, is no more or less than what we all want. It's a fair day's pay for an honest day's work, the rule of proper laws, and some peace and quiet. Any saboteur of this common purpose is a scab.

What we want for ourselves we should demand for all.

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