A YEAR ago last Saturday, Ali Khamenei ordered the abduction of
trade-union leader Mansour Osanloo. In so doing, Iran's top ruling
mullah hoped to kill in infancy the independent trade-union movement
that Osanloo had launched in '05 with the help of colleagues among bus
drivers and conductors in Tehran.
A year later, Osanloo is still in prison, sentenced to five years
on a charge of "undermining the security of the Islamic Republic." Yet
the free-union movement that he inspired has spread like wildfire.
Transport workers in Tehran and its suburbs have refused to disband
their union and rejected the mullahs that Khamenei appointed as their
Workers in the auto, construction and petrochemical industries have
set up their own independent unions, as have teachers, miners, dock
workers and bakers. The Workers Organizations and Activists'
Coordination Council, an umbrella group for the free unions, now boasts
more than 700 groups across Iran with almost 2 million members.
Earlier this month, the 6,000 workers of the Haft-Tapeh sugar
plantation and refinery, the Middle East's largest, announced their own
independent union after a year of strikes and demonstrations that led
to violent clashes with security forces and the arrest of 20 trade
Osanloo is kept in the dreaded Evin Prison, where the Islamist
regime locks up those it fears most. In a statement relayed by his
family, he accused the authorities of "systematic mistreatment, insult
and abuse." Suffering from an eye infection and a heart condition, the
union hero isn't permitted proper medical care.
Despite "intense psychological pressure and physical hardship," he
has refused to call for a dissolution of independent unions and a
return to mullah-controlled "Islamic labor associations."
Labor is fast emerging as the biggest threat to the mullahs' rule.
Over the last year, the country has witnessed hundreds of strikes,
including some involving tens of thousands of workers. The regime has
responded with brutal repression, organizing armed thugs known as Ansar
Hezbollah (Supporters of Hezbollah) to break strikes, beat up strikers
and abduct trade unionists.
In the latest incident, Hezbollah gangs in April attacked striking
workers at the Kiyan Tire Factory at Char-Dangeh with electrical
batons, injuring dozens and abducting more than 100.
WOACC has also reported at least 20 "suspicious deaths" over the
last year, workers believed to be victims of Hezbollah killers. The
Ministry of Islamic Labor has classified the deaths as "work-site
No one knows quite how many workers are under arrest; WOACC
estimates 4,000-plus. Thousands more are picked up for a few hours or a
few days, beaten, bullied, warned and released. "Every day, millions of
people go to work in Islamic Iran in a state of fear," says a WOACC
activist. "Basically, terror is the principal instrument of social
control in this country."
The regime isn't relying on violence alone to crush the workers'
movement. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has presented legislation to
abolish most rights won by Iranian workers over the last 100 years. The
reasoning is a claim that Islam doesn't recognize a division of the
community of the faithful into employer and employee and rejects
international labor codes "invented by Zionists and Crusaders."
Ahmadinejad's administration has also lifted most legal limits on "contract work."
Rajab-Ali Shahsavari, an independent unionist and leader of the
Association of Contractual Workers, reports that more than 85 percent
of private-sector workers now labor on short-term contracts lasting
just a day to a month. "This is slavery in the name of Islam,"
Shahsavari says. "In Iran today, workers are worse off than slaves in
The regime also is trying to isolate the labor movement by accusing
some of its leaders of hidden ethnic or ideological agendas. For
example, it has accused Mahmoud Salehi, the popular imprisoned union
leader in Kurdistan province, of being "a closet Communist" and a
"Kurdish secessionist." These charges are so ridiculous that it hasn't
dared actually bring them - even in the mock trial it organized against
Sadly, the struggle of Iran's workers against one of the world's
most evil regimes has yet to receive the attention it deserves from the
major democracies, including the United States. With one or two
exceptions (including The Post), the US media seem to have ignored what
could be the biggest story in Iran.
Amir Taheri's next book, "The Persian Night: Iran Under the Khomeinist Revolution," is due out this fall.