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One of the world’s biggest trade unions has expressed support for Iranian workers, in particular employees at the Haft-Tappeh sugarcane factory in Khuzestan and their fight against corrupt management, unpaid wages and ill treatment.
Mehrdad Payandeh, who sits on the executive board of the Deutscher Gewerkschaftsbund (German Trade Union Federation, DGB) and is president of the union’s Lower Saxony federal region chapter, told IranWire: “When the union leaders of the striking workers of Iran’s Haft-Tappeh sugarcane [factory] were arrested by the Iranian regime, the DGB fully supported their cause and urged other unions in Europe to follow suit.”
IranWire interviewed Payandeh to learn more about the DGB, its history, the impact it has made in the lives of millions of German workers and the international solidarity movements in which the DGB participates to advance the cause of workers’ rights worldwide.
The DGB is the umbrella organization for eight German trade unions, and is Germany’s biggest confederation of trade unions. With close to six million members, it’s also one of the biggest national confederations of trade unions in the world. Speaking to IranWire, Payandeh, who is of Iranian origin, expressed solidarity and full support for Iranian workers, teachers, and union activists on behalf of the DGB, and condemned the repression that they have been subjected to lately — including the arrest of the workers’ union leaders and their most prominent advocates.
“In the name of all the German unionists who also fought hard against the Fascism of the Hitler era by risking their lives, we declare our full solidarity with all the hardworking union activists, teachers, bus drivers, steelworkers, and all Iranians,” Payandeh said. “We sincerely hope that they will one day enjoy the rights of which they are deprived today. They are fighting for their human rights. They are not asking for too much. They are asking to get paid because they worked hard. They are not out begging. They are asking for their inalienable rights as workers, as [workers do] in many other parts of the world. They are asking for a decent wage to be able to lead a decent life. That’s why Iran’s workers went on strike. It is the basic right of all workers to be able to unionize and be independent; the Iranian government is depriving them of this right and many other things. We at the DGB follow these developments in Iran very closely and my colleagues and I fully support and empathize with Iranian workers.”
The Unity of Forces
One of the striking aspects of the DGB is the fact that it is a confederation that includes various unions of different ideological backgrounds. “In 1949, the time when Germany was invaded by the Allied Forces, German unionists got together by drawing on their previous union experiences of the pre-World War II period,” Payandeh said. “The goal was to eradicate the conflicts between different unions and to establish a strong unionist force capable of standing for the rights of workers in various sectors of the economy. Unions of different ideologies such as the Communist Workers’ Union, the Protestant Workers Union and the Catholic Workers Union had all suffered when the Weimar Republic in Germany [in existence between 1918 and 1933] ended up in the hands of the nationalist and anti-unionist forces of Hitler. After the end of World War II, Western Germany’s unions of these different ideological orientations decided to put aside their differences and join forces to better represent their stakeholders’ interests.”
The idea was, Payandeh said, that “instead of competing with each other, they needed to work together to advance the same interests. For example, instead of campaigning for the rights of Catholic steelworkers, Protestant steelworkers, and communist steelworkers separately, the idea was to campaign for the rights of steelworkers irrespective of their religion or ideological orientation.”
This rejection of political tribalism sets the DGB apart, Payandeh said. “Compared with trade unions in Belgium, France or the Netherlands, the DGB doesn’t have a political orientation and is comprised of unions with very diverse ideological backgrounds. We have come together to promote the unity of our forces,”
The DGB’s Impact on Workers’ Lives in Germany
One of the most marked achievements of the DGB is its incorporation of workers in various industries in Germany into its decision-making process. In fact, workers’ representatives comprise an important portion of the management. For example, he said, “when it relates to the iron and steel industry, 50 percent of the direction consists of workers’ representatives, while the rest of the direction is made up of company owners. This means all decisions involving management need approval from workers.”
Another achievement for workers has been a decrease in the total number of hours employees work per week. “We’ve managed to reduce full-time work hours to 35 hours per week [30 hours in certain industries] without leading to pay cuts.”
The DGB has also been influential in the implementation of a system that enables workers to accumulate overtime hours and use them to their own advantage in the future.“For an employee that has to regularly do overtime, it’s possible to accumulate these hours and to eventually even take a one-year paid sabbatical leave to travel the world or spend time with family. This is a system that equally benefits employers; it relieves them of the requirement to pay overtime to employees, especially at times of economic downturn or reduced production times.”
Countervailing Powers on the German Government
Strong unions exerting countervailing powers on the government help advance democratic values and create a more worker-friendly legal framework. This is very much the case in German political life as well. “We meet the German government on a regular basis to help it steer its policies on a more worker-friendly basis. We met [Chancellor Angela] Merkel recently and she acknowledged our positive role in the lives of workers in Germany,” Payandeh said. “The leaders of the three most influential parties in Germany, the Social Democrats, the Greens, and the Christian Democrats, are in regular contact with us and take our positions on many issues very seriously.”
Germany is a federal republic consisting of 16 partly sovereign states. So politics on a state level counts as well. The DGB has been very active to maintain ties with the representatives of the state governments “to better advance the causes of workers within those states too.”
Fight against Austerity and Neoliberal Reforms and Contemporary Challenges
Arguably, one of the biggest threats to unions worldwide has been the unstoppable spread of neoliberalism and its attendant reforms, such as austerity. Fighting against neoliberal reforms has been one of the implacable principles of the DGB. In fact, the DGB’s fight against neoliberal reforms has actually yielded some tangible benefits for millions of German workers. “What you see as austerity in today’s Europe actually used to take place about 20 years ago in Germany under the rule of [Chancellor Gerhard] Schroeder,” Payandeh said. "It’s paradoxical that although Germany was recommending neoliberal belt-tightening policies of austerity to places like Portugal, Greece and elsewhere in Europe, it has recently started repealing such policies within its own borders. In other words, German rulers have understood that austerity doesn’t necessarily bring about the desired economic recovery in the long term and that workers’ rights should not be compromised at times of acute economic hardship. Many of the policies that had become the victim of neoliberal restructuring such as retirement wages and other laws are now being gradually repealed to become more worker-friendly again. We can say that although Germany still to some extent prescribes neoliberal policies to other states, it actually does the exact opposite within its own borders. That has a lot to do with our work at the DGB; we have worked hard to safeguard workers’ interests.”
At times when Germany was overtly promulgating neoliberal reforms to other European Union governments, the DGB has not been shy to condemn it. “We believe that sacrificing society for the sake of short-term economic goals harms society; it creates discontent and paves the way for the rise of radical right and [populist] movements. Even when Germany imposed neoliberal policies of debt restructuring on Athens when Greece lived [through] an economic meltdown in 2009, we vociferously opposed the German state and expressed solidarity with Greece.”
With close to six million members, the DGB has played a defining role in the lives of German workers from across various industries: “We have 6 million members. But if one were to take into account family members of our workers as well, our impact is bigger. Moreover, one can also gauge our impact in the agreements that employers sign with workers. We can proudly state that close to 57 percent of such agreements have been made with the framework that we have contributed to develop. So we are a force to be reckoned with.”
While the DGB has been an influential actor in the lives of Germans, it also faces a slew of challenges. “Demographically speaking, Germany has a fast ageing population and this is also taking its toll in the DGB’s number of members,” Payandeh said. “Many of our members, i.e., part of the working population, are retiring. Although we approximately gain close to 1000 new members per day, we also lose as many due mostly to such retirement.”
A Tradition of International Solidarity
The DGB has been involved in various international solidarity movements and has also co-ordinated its actions with other trade union syndicates. “We are a member of European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC)," Payandeh said. “As part of our practices, we also encourage ethical treatment of workers worldwide. For example, we urge the consumption of products that do not involve the exploitation of women, children, or any other type of workers. We showed solidarity with textile workers in Bangladesh, for instance, who have been on the receiving end of injustice. Whenever a Bangladeshi union files a complaint over a German product produced in Bangladesh by notifying us, we follow up with that German company here. We even go to court to defend the exploited workers. This is part of our international duty of solidarity.”
That solidarity has been crucial to many important cases, he said. “We were also involved in a solidarity movement to safeguard the rights of Colombian union activists when the Colombian government used to kill union activists between 1986 and 2010, alleging that those killed were drug dealers. We helped reveal the role of the Colombian government in these killings. As DGB, we personally intervened to champion the cause of these murdered union activists.”
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