Trade unionists and activists across the world are calling for the immediate release of hundreds of bus workers being held in Iran’s capital Tehran.
Workers employed by the United Bus Company of Tehran (Sharekat-e Vahed) have been arrested and detained in Evin prison over the last week in an attempt to prevent a strike.
The workers are demanding a pay rise, collective bargaining, recognition of their union and the release of their union’s president.
On 22 December last year, 12 leading members of the Union of Workers of the Tehran and Suburbs Bus Company were arrested following their fight for better pay and working conditions.
Three days later 3,000 bus workers staged a walkout in protest. Police responded by making further arrests.
On 27 December all those detained were released except for Mansour Ossanlou, the union’s president. Calls for his release continued into the new year, with almost 5,000 union members gathering outside the Azadi stadium complex on 2 January in protest.
Six members of the union executive were summoned to court on 26 January, following the union’s call for an all-out strike on 28 January to demand the release of Ossanlou.
They were interrogated then sent to Evin for their refusal to cancel the strike. On the eve of the strike, the state arrested hundreds of workers as a preventive measure.
Nevertheless many gathered the following day. They were attacked, rounded up and also sent to Evin. Family members, students and activists supporting the strike were also arrested.
With reports last week of a hunger strike against detention, the workers are courageously struggling on. Family members and supporters staged a protest outside the Iranian parliament on 1 February calling for the immediate release of all those imprisoned.
In the last week, this struggle has paid off – around 200 workers have now been released.
But hundreds are still in custody and two other union executive members have now been detained. And those released have been refused reinstatement by the bus company.
The bus driver’s union was formed in 1968 and played an important role in the 1979 revolution. In the early 1980s it was disbanded by the state in order to crush its militancy. In 2004 it was reactivated, but is still not legally recognised.
The strike is a sign of the new mood developing inside the Iranian working class, defying not only the bosses, but also government officials.
Last year thousands of Iranian workers rallied in Tehran on 1 May, international workers’ day, chanting “stop privatisation, stop temporary contracts”.
The struggle of Iranian workers has the potential to gather broader forces around it in the fight for democracy and social justice. Students and women’s rights activists have been at the forefront of the pro-democracy movement that developed from the mid-1990s.
This has seen the formation of grassroots NGOs and other civil society organisations. Their struggles, linked to those of workers, have a far greater potential to bring radical change than that of pro-Western “democracies” in the region such as Egypt.
But that potential is being strangled by the US’s sabre rattling against Iran. Regime hardliners have capitalised on this US intimidation to rally support and to quell any opposition.
Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s election campaign was centred on his promise to redistribute the country’s oil wealth to the poor.
Unable to deliver on this, he increasingly relies on an anti-Western and anti-Israeli rhetoric to strengthen his hand against other factions of the regime.
Campaigners in Iran, such as Nobel prize winner Shirin Ebadi, have already stated their opposition to any foreign intervention or sanctions against the country.
But there is an imminent danger that their struggle is hijacked by pro-war forces and derailed.
Something like this happened in Ukraine just over a year ago. Popular anger against one corrupt president was used to put in place Viktor Yushchenko, also corrupt, but pro-US.
This is why activists in Iran are facing two challenges. On the one hand they are fighting to enhance the lives of ordinary people.
On the other hand they have to stand up against the military threats from US and Europe. And in this they urgently need the support of the global anti-war movement.