The syndicate of the public bus workers in Tehran have called for a public strike. Two days ago, some of their leaders and representatives were simaltanously and separately arrested in their homes on orders of Tehran's prosecutor, while they were waiting for a reply to their lawsuit against those (rumored to have had government's tacit support) who had beaten and injurred some of them in their office a few weeks ago. The call for a strike is the union's basic instrument in playing an important political role, i.e. the protection of the basic freedoms of their members. Such freedoms must be protected, and once they are violated, the violations must be protested. This vital political role of a union is one that is greatly needed both in a civil society, and also in the struggle to reach it.
However, unions also try to play other roles, most importantly in economic decision makings through their political means and pressure instruments such as threatening or staging a strike. These economic roles become stronger compared to the political roles of the union once the society as a whole passes from a state of precarious basic freedoms to a state of predominant and protected freedoms. An example is provided by the recent New York Transit Worker Union's strike to achieve higher wages and a more comprehensive pension plan from their government boss, the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority. Although the strike was pronounced illegal by the state court, and fines of $1,000,000 a day charged the union and a two-day worth of wages individual workers, the basic freedoms being protected meant that the union members had the right both to discuss the strike before it happened, eventually go on strike, and only when their leaders were declared in contempt of the court, they would face the consequences of their breach of the court terms. This is of course in sharp contrast to the situation encountered in Tehran, where the union members are arrested without prior notice, for unknown and untold charges, in inhumane ways. On the economic side, as I have written elsewhere, the consequences of the TWU strike, and in fact the whole way of running an economic activity through the political channels of a government-controlled authority versus a workers union, yields disastrous consequences.
The political role of the unions in the struggle towards securing the most basic freedoms of their members in particular and the members of the society in general, and their continuing role in protecting those freedoms is hardly debatable. On the other hand, when the unions take it on themselves to do business and affect economic decision makings in an otherwise free market, and the government takes it on itself to perform economic tasks that could be performed by free markets and through voluntary transactions, the consequences are hardly desirable. Politics is the worst way of doing business: It constrains a non-zero-sum game (economy) with zero-sum conditions (politics), resulting in an overall loss for the system as a whole. A liberal mind who understands the importance of the principle of freedom in the well-being of the human society, and the effective allocation of its scarce resources, will support the former, but not the latter.