Opinion | Columnists

Workers of Iran unite under a new leader

Mansoor Osanloo, who is called the Iranian Lech Walesa, is the force behind the new movement.

  • By Amir Taheri, Special to Gulf News
  • Published: 23:24 June 26, 2007
  • Gulf News

  • Image Credit: Illustration by Nino Jose Heredia/Gulf News

Some Western commentators have called him "the Iranian Lech Walesa" after the Polish trade unionist who helped bring down the Communist empire. The mullahs ruling Iran, however, regard him as "a dangerous enemy of Islam".

The man himself, Mansoor Osanloo, a 48-year old leader of one of the many illegal trade unions that have sprung up in Iran in the past few years, shies way from both sobriquets.

"We do not have a political agenda," he says. "All we are asking for is for Iranian workers to be treated as free human beings, not as slaves."

Osanloo first made his name in 2004 when along with 14 fellow-workers he created the Syndicate of Workers of the Tehran United Bus Company.

Within weeks, most employees of the company, owned by the Tehran municipality and controlled by the Ministry of the Interior, had joined the new union. That left the so-called Islamic Workers Council, a regime-sponsored organ imposed in many industries as an ersatz trade union, exposed and isolated. Workers across the country soon emulated the example set by the Tehran public transport employees. On this year's International Labour Day more than 400 free trade unions, boasting a membership of millions, raised their banners in Tehran.

Osanloo and his colleagues were among the founders of the Workers Organisations and Activists Coordination Council (WOACC) which is emerging as the principal voice of wage earners, especially in the public sector that accounts for more than 70 per cent of the Iranian economy.

The emergence of independent trade unions has meant the demise of Islamic Councils in many work places and the virtual death of the so-called Workers' House set up by the mullahs to control labour. Hundreds of mullahs who headed the Islamic Councils, often enjoying high salaries and perks, have been chased away by the free unions.

Osanloo was first jailed in 2005 when his union organised an original form of strike in Tehran.

This consisted of bus workers announcing free rides for all comers. When the authorities sent armed security men to deal with the situation, the workers went on strike, bringing Tehran, a megapolis of some 12 million inhabitants to a virtual halt.

The authorities then tried terror and intimidation. A group of 300 members of the Iranian branch of Hezbollah, armed with clubs and knives, attacked Osanloo and his colleagues and beat up their families, including small children.

Osanloo himself suffered knife wounds, including a deep cut in his tongue, inflicted by a Hezbollah member who had vowed to "silence the enemy of Islam".

A partial return to work was soon interrupted when bus drivers refused to implement a new rule under which female passengers were confined to back seats of the buses which, in practice, meant that more than 80 per cent of the seats in Tehran's double-decker buses were reserved for men.

Anxious to prevent a prolonged strike, the authorities released Osanloo eight months later, only to re-arrest him, again without charge.

In February, he was presented at a one-day trial held in camera.

"They had a file against me running into 1,300 dense pages," Osanloo says. "I wonder how the judge could go through all that in a single day."

Released from prison last March on bail of £164,000, a huge fortune in Iran, Osanloo was allowed to travel to London and Brussels earlier this month to address the annual conferences of the International Transport Workers Federation and the International Trade Unions Conference.

Having spent almost a year in Tehran's dreaded Evin Prison, known as the "Islamic Alcatraz" on two occasions, Osanloo risks being rearrested and jailed at any moment.

Nevertheless, if the Tehran authorities had hoped that allowing him to visit abroad might tempt him to stay in exile, they would be disappointed. He has no intention of throwing in the towel.

"We are at the start of a long struggle," he said in a conversation in Brussels. "We are fighting for what is a basic human right: the right of workers to organise themselves in free and independent trade unions and negotiate conditions under which they accept employment."

New draft code

The current administration in Iran, however, considers such talk as "dangerous for the faith and the state".

President Mahmoud Ahmadi-nejad has unveiled a new draft labour code under which Iranian workers would lose almost all the rights they had secured over decades of struggle and as a result of Iran's membership of the International Labour Organisation (ILO).

The philosophy behind Ahmadinejad's position is simple: the division of people into employees and employers is a "Jewish-Crusader" invention. In Islam both employers and employees are part of the ummah (the community of faithful") and bound by divine laws that cannot be questioned, let alone amended.

If enacted into law, the proposed labour code would make the formation of trade unions, theoretically allowed under the existing Constitution, illegal, abolish the minimum wage and allow employers to fire any worker they wish instantly and without compensation.

The avalanche unleashed by the Tehran transport workers more than two years ago has continued with hundreds of strikes, sit-ins and other industrial action throughout Iran. Right now an estimated 100,000 workers are on strike in a range of industries.

"Iranian workers are discovering their power," Osanloo says. "The authorities would be wise to acknowledge that power and address the legitimate grievances of workers. At present, however, there is no sign that this is the case."

Iranian author Amir Taheri is based in Europe.

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