At a time when Iran is struggling to deflect international pressure over its nuclear program, the ultra-conservative Iranian government finds itself grappling with a potentially potent domestic threat to its authority the emergence of an independent trade union movement.
On February 4, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) voted to refer the Iranian nuclear research issue to the United Nations Security Council. In retaliation, Iranian leaders announced that they would cease cooperation with the IAEA. Labor discontent threatens to serve as a major distraction for the Iranian government as it contemplates new steps to frustrate attempts by the United States and the European Union to coerce Tehran into abandoning its current nuclear research course. Iran insists that its nuclear program is designed for civilian purposes, namely enhancing the country's atomic energy-generating capacity. US and EU officials suspect that Tehran strives to obtain the ability to manufacture nuclear weapons.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's administration, which is backed by conservative clerics and elements of Iran's security establishment, has moved quickly and forcefully in an attempt to stamp out the nascent independent union movement. Recent history shows the emergence of such a union movement could be potentially fatal for an authoritarian political system. For example, the development of the Solidarity Trade Union in Poland in 1980 helped spark a chain of events that caused the collapse of the Soviet empire.
The government's trade-union troubles began December 25, when Tehran's bus driver's union staged an unexpected and effective strike. Taken by surprise, officials sought to mollify the union's rank-and-file, while arresting the group's leaders. The union had planned a follow-up strike on January 28 with the aim of securing the release of its leaders, including Mansour Ossanlou, but officials preempted the labor action by engaging in mass arrests. Since then, an information blackout has been imposed on the issue.
According to some estimates, hundreds of union activists remain jailed. Many of them, including Ossanlou, have been transferred to Section 209 of the infamous Evin prison, where political prisoners are held. A February 1 statement issued by Human Rights Watch (HRW) condemned the government's action, saying that detainees had no access to counsel. "Iran's new government boasts of representing the interests of working men and women. [The] violent crackdown on the bus workers' union make these words ring hollow," said Sarah Leah Whitson, head of HRW's Middle East and North Africa Division.
Despite the government's efforts to suppress the labor unrest, observers in Tehran say the union has quickly gained a large grass-roots following. The December 25 strike appears to have tapped into a deep well of pent-up frustration among the population over Iran's stagnant economic conditions. Already, at least a half dozen other independent unions -- including those belonging to textile workers, shoe makers and steel workers are in the planning stages.
Labor experts in Tehran believe the existence of the 9,000-strong bus drivers' union and its strike are landmark developments for labor relations in the Islamic republic, where the government is at the same time the country's largest employer. Since 1980, all labor-related issues have been controlled by an entity called the Workers' House, which has long had ties to the executive and legislative branches of government. It was originally designed to stem the influence of left-wing ideology among urban workers.
Over time, however, the Workers' House established a stranglehold over collective bargaining and labor actions. Until recently, the organization managed to beat back all efforts at independent labor organizing, often working closely with law-enforcement agencies. The Workers' House reportedly resorted to the use of violence and intimidation to frustrate the development of the bus drivers' union. On June 8, a vigilante group belonging to the Workers House attacked the main offices of the bus drivers union sending some of the unionists to hospital. Such tactics could not prevent the independent union from materializing, however.
The bus drivers' union traces its roots to 2004, when former president Mohammad Khatami's administration signed an agreement with the International Labor Organization, providing for the standardization of labor practices in Iran, including the right of free association. Soon after the agreement was signed, Ossanlou and his colleagues immediately began organizing Tehran bus drivers. In addition to unionizing the workers, activists established classes on labor law, constitutional law, and international labor rights. They also began negotiating with the Labor Ministry on a wide array of issues, including improved housing and educational benefits, better working conditions, the establishment of a bill of rights for the bus drivers and official recognition of the union. When officials balked at engaging in substantive discussions, the union staged the December 25 strike, which paralyzed the capital.
Given that Ahmadinejad draws much of his popular support from the poorest sectors of Iran's population, his administration was initially unwilling to resort to violence in an attempt to break the strike. Instead, authorities rounded up top union leaders, while Tehran's mayor, Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, promised to satisfy the workers' economic demands. It was only when the union started to agitate for the release of its leaders that police and Intelligence Ministry agents resorted to mass arrests and violence.
Given that Iranian newspapers are filled with daily stories of labor unrest in the country's cities and provinces, officials now apparently see a need to use all possible methods to prevent the emergence of independent unions. Some hardliner-controlled newspapers are attempting to erode public support for the bus drivers' union with a propaganda campaign, in which the labor organization is labeled a "tool of the outsiders." According to other reports, investigations have been opened against some of detained union activists to explore supposed links to banned opposition groups. Regardless of the outcome of these campaigns and investigations, one thing seems clear: the union's emergence has exploded Iran's enforced social peace that has existed during the last few years.
Kamal Nazer Yasin is a pseudonym for a freelance journalist specializing in Iranian affairs.