Karmel Melamed
Iranian American Journalist and Commentator

UAW Local 2865: Why no BDS for the Iranian regime?

Late last month the United Auto Workers (UAW) Local 2865, a statewide University of California student-worker union, became the first major U.S. labor union to support divestment from Israel by membership vote of 65 percent of its members across nine universities in the UC system. UAW local 2865 members who voted to join the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel claimed that they were supporting human rights for the Palestinian people being “oppressed” by Israel and to join Palestinian union members against Israel. This move by the UAW local 2865 is one that is surprising to me as an Iranian American journalist and supporter of international union workers rights. While I will not engage in a debate regarding the meritless claims by UAW local 2865 members that Israel is a supposed “apartheid” government violating Palestinian human rights, I am frankly baffled at why the UAW local 2865 has not launched or voted on a similar BDS movement against the current Iranian regime for their heinous human rights abuses. Surely the very clear facts and countless figures regarding the Iranian regime’s far worse 35 years of torture, imprisonment and execution of countless individuals is worthy of some boycott or divestment by groups like the UAW local 2865. What utterly shocks me is why the UAW local 2865 has failed to recognize and condemn the horrible human rights record the Iranian regime has had against labor and union leaders in Iran? One would think the UAW local 2865 would want to focus on championing efforts to help their fellow union brethren suffering a worse fate in Iran, but they seem to remain silent, why?

According to a United Nations Human Rights Committee’s report on Iran released last September, union leaders and members in the country have alarmingly become the primary target for persecution by the armed thugs and revolutionary guard of the Iranian regime. Those involved with the labor movement in Iran have become the new targets for oppression because Iran’s radical Islamic leaders see how massive organized groups of union members can protest and even bring the country’s economy to a halt with possible strikes. Therefore the Iranian regime has preemptively imprisoned, tortured and executed union leaders who they see as a direct threat to their rule. While a handful of European labor organizations have begun human rights campaigns to help stop the unspeakable brutality of the Iranian regime against union members, major influential U.S. labor groups or smaller unions like the UAW local 2865 have by in large remained on the sidelines regarding this pressing issue. According to a June 2011 report released by the U.N. “International Labor Organization” (ILO), nearly 90 major trade unions leaders, union journalists and union human rights defenders have remained imprisoned in Iran today for more than three years for the “crime of attempting to organize unions”. Even though the current Iranian constitution purports to protect the freedom of association, union rights are not guaranteed by law in Iran. Moreover, the independent formation of unions in the private or public sectors are strictly prohibited by Iran’s laws and instead a government-run “Islamic Labor Council” is tasked by the Iranian regime’s leadership to “protect workers’ rights”. This bogus “labor group” in Iran is an incredible sham because it is not only filled with Iranian government officials and employers, but this fraudulent council requires workers to seek their approval prior to striking or conducting any collective bargaining contracts! Sadly any quasi-labor laws enacted by the Iranian parliament are not enforced by the regime against any private business with less than 10 workers or in exporting zones. In the end, there are no substantive legal rights for labor workers in Iran, as the laws that are on the books are either ignored or carry little if no weight by the totalitarian regime in Iran.

Yet the greatest brutality the Iranian regime has carried out is against public sector labor unions. These unions have essentially been prohibited to strike altogether. According to a 2013 annual report put out by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), the Iranian regime has used “national security” laws to convict public sector union leaders in sham trials, alleging that the unions have been conspiring to “bring down the government” by plotting work stoppages in state-run industries and public utilities. Perhaps the most well-known case of public sector union leaders in Iran, who have been imprisoned and tortured, is that of Mansour Osanloo, the president of the Tehran and Suburbs Bus Company union. Since July 2007, Osanloo has been imprisoned after he sought to organize his union to order to address issues such as workers’ rights, including low salaries, withheld wages and a lack of benefits from the Iranian government authorities. Instead, he was convicted on trumped up charges of murder, often held in solitary confinement and regularly denied medical care despite his deteriorating health. Osanloo has not been the only labor leader in Iran targeted by the regime. According to the ITUC report, hundreds of union activists remain imprisoned without formal charges brought against them and they are routinely tortured by the Iranian regime in order to extract bogus confessions. The U.N. ILO report listed countless examples in 2010 and 2011 of union workers and their families being subjected to harassment, violence, intimidation and arrest by plain-clothes thugs hired by Iran’s Intelligence Ministry.

Likewise teachers unions in Iran have especially encountered a significant brutality by the regime in recent years. In 2007 all teachers unions were officially banned in Iran. In 2010 alone, members of the Iranian Teachers’ Trade Association, who published a statement demanding the release from prison of one of their members, were arrested and publicly flogged by the regime’s police in the Iranian cities of Yazd, Tabriz and Kermanshah. Iranian state-run news reports at the time indicated that these teachers were flogged for “inciting violence against the state”. Moreover in May 2010, Farzad Kamangar, a 35-year-old teacher and union member was secretly hung in the notorious “Evin prison” in Tehran after endless days of physical and psychological torture at the hands of the Iranian regime’s jailers. According to Iranian state-run news media, Kamangar had been imprisoned since 2008 and was convicted after a five-minute sham trial for “national security violations” and “enmity against God”. Another major segment of unions targeted in Iran has been freelance journalists who have publicly spoken out against the Iranian regime’s brutality toward voters following the country’s fraudulent 2009 presidential elections. Since 2009, the Iranian regime has severely cracked down on independent media in the country and imprisoned more than 50 prominent freelance union journalists and bloggers who dared to report on the human rights violations committed by the regime after the elections. Today many of those same journalists and bloggers are still held in prison without any formal criminal charges brought against them. According to an October 2013 report released by Amnesty International, nearly 1,000 union members and their families were subjected to brutal attacks and intimidation following the 2009 election protests by the Iranian regime’s secret police or hired armed thugs.


Considering all of these very horrific crimes the Iranian regime has committed against those fighting for union rights, better wages and better working conditions in Iran, Iranian activists are left confused by labor union groups like the UAW local 2865 who relentlessly continue to focus on issues of the “Palestinians” while totally ignoring the plight of union members and leaders suffering a far worse fate in Iran! Is not the plight of union leaders tortured and left languishing in the Iranian prisons not worthy of mention in a campaign of divestment and sanctions against Iran? Are the workers and labor leaders in Iran who have been silenced with imprisonment and execution by far larger numbers not important enough for the UAW local 2865 and other western union groups for support? Does the Iranian regime which strictly prohibits unions and curbs all labor activities not worthy of your attention? Is the Iranian regime less criminal in their crackdown on labor groups than a country like Israel which has the best labor rights record in the Middle East? As an Iranian American journalist, my heart breaks for my fellow journalists suffering in the prisons of Iran for reporting on the truth of the human rights crisis in that country and I am utterly baffled at why groups like the UAW local 2865 have not uttered a mention about their plight and the plight of other union leaders facing a dire situation in Iran today.

Today we in the U.S. and in the Western world can no longer remain silent while both innocent private and public workers in Iran are suffering immeasurable cruelty at the hands of their government and cannot even make ends meet to feed their families. Prominent U.S.-based unions such as the AFL-CIO and the Teamsters must come together to help organize a massive new campaign of political pressure and divestment of their union pension funds from multi-national companies that do business in Iran. In order to save the lives of millions of workers in Iran seeking freedom and rights, organized labor in America must now speak with one strong and clear voice to both Wall Street and to Washington D.C. conveying that unions will no longer tolerate the Iranian regime’s horrid mistreatment of union workers. Without such an ambitious effort in the U.S., the tremendous suffering and human rights violations against unions in Iran will likely never end. If the UAW local 2865 wants to engage in a fruitless BDS effort against Israel, I cannot stop them. However if they are genuinely interested in standing in solidarity with workers’ rights and labor movements rights in the Middle East, I challenge them to step forward and launch a serious nationwide BDS movement against the Iranian regime for their crimes against labor unions in Iran. If the UAW local 2865 and other U.S. unions fail to openly and vocally oppose the Iranian regime’s human rights abuses against union leaders, women, religious minorities, journalists, artists and others– then they have only proven they are mindless sheep simply following the herds of Israel haters instead of proving that they are serious human rights activists who care about the freedom of those in Iran and other all people worldwide.

About the Author
Karmel Melamed is an award-winning internationally published Iranian American journalist based in Southern California; He is a member of the Speakers Bureau of JIMENA: Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa