Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Strikes Follow Police Arrests

Shahram Rafiizadeh, Rooz Online:
Three days after ten Sherkate Vahed (the company that provides bus services to Tehran) employees and members of the workers union were arrested, Tehran on Sunday witnessed one of it’s the largest workers protests since two decades ago. News agencies reported the number of participants to be anything between 2,000 to 5,000 and said the strike paralyzed the city’s transportation life. Following the strike, the judiciary released some of the detainees. But new arrests were later claimed by some of those released. READ MORE

Following the resumption of the work of the workers syndicate of Sherkate Vahed, some of its leaders were arrested in Tehran last week. Mansour Osanloo, the union worker and Ibrahim Madadi, Alizad Hossein, Akbar Yagoobi, Re Boorboor, Hamid Reza Rezaifar, Javad Kefayati, Seyed Javad Sidvand, and Morteza Kasari are among those who remain detained. The arrests began on Thursday morning and continued throughout the day as police rounded up the activitists at their home or anywhere it would find them. They have been charged with creating an illegal syndicate.

The next day, many syndicate members staged a sit-in in front of the syndicate offices and other leaders called on the workers to start a strike in support of the arrested union members and refrain from going to work.

The Sherkate Vahed workers syndicate was born in 1989. It remained banned for the next 25 years but resumed its work just one year ago. When Sherkate Vahed fired 18 union employees last year, the union protested the move. In the words of Ibrahim Madadi, the deputy teamster who is now under arrest, the syndicate protested the firing on the grounds that what the workers were requesting was the promised but unfulfilled rights of the workers. Sherkate Vahed workers used other means to communicate their discontent and demands. For example on designated dates, they kept their bus headlights on during the day – an unusual practice in Iran. They also held talks with Sherkate Vahed managers, but were threatened and violently confronted. “We continued to be denied our overtime payments, were subjected to unnecessary change of assignments or bus routes, were denied due promotions, were repeatedly summoned, etc,” Madadi said.

When company mangers refused to reinstate the fired workers, more workers joined the union as they saw it pushing for their interests. Then Sherkate Vahed managers called in law enforcement officials to stop the activities of the syndicate.

On Thursday morning when security agents went to arrest eight union leaders, the press was told that the arrests were because these individuals had formed an illegal workers union. Other workers and their leaders hoped that those arrested would soon be released, which turned out differently: six more were arrested immediately. This led the syndicate leaders and the members to conclude that arresting syndicate leaders must have been on the agenda of higher government officials. These arrests followed the many strikes by workers who had not been paid for months in the past.

Sherkate Vahed workers syndicate was particularly interesting to officials because their methods of expressing their demands and protests were being copied by other worker groups. They used all non-violent means available to them simultaneously, rather than in succession. They used their lights, did not take tickets from passengers, filed suits in courts, wrote letters to government officials, held sit-ins, etc to attract the attention of others in their struggle. These measures made the union more popular in the eyes of the workers which in return weakened the effectiveness of the government unions or workers associations.

Contrary to the days when arrests of political and social activists, journalists, writers, etc were supported by other sections of society, this time the strike of the bus drivers was not widely supported, even though a few other guilds expressed their solidarity with striking workers.

Iran’s writer’s guild released a statement of support for the striking workers, condemning the arrest of the union leaders and workers. In the statement it reveled that syndicate members had been beaten up in their offices earlier because of their syndicate work, some were stabbed and one worker even had his tongue cut in the brawl that followed. The statement calls on the Iranian nation to join them in their drive to attain the right of association for all sections of society.

Daftare Tahkim Vahdat, the largest student organization too issued a statement of support for the workers and their syndicate, calling on officials to release the imprisoned workers.

Mohammad Seyf, a renown lawyer in Tehran and a member of the Kanoone Modafean Hogooge Bashar (Center for the Defense of Human Rights) told the press that the cause for the arrest of the union members is not acceptable. No court has ruled that the Sherkate Vahed syndicate was illegal, therefore to arrest people on that charge is in itself a violation,” he said. “Until such a court ruling is make, the syndicate is legal.” It should be noted that the 25 year ban on the activities of the syndicate too was not the product of a court of law after a hearing and a fair trial, i.e. the due process of law, but due to mafia tactics on part of authorities.

Tehran’s newspapers published the news of the workers strike only after Tehran City Council chairman, Chamran, announced that the demands of the workers were not just professional, but also had political content. He also claimed, contrary to what workers have said, that all the dues of the Sherkate Vahed workers had been paid. It should be noted that the chairman is a former military commander who enjoys the status of presidential advisor to president Ahmadinejad. “The syndicate is illegal, even though the proper response to it did not take place some 6 or 7 years ago,” he said. He confirmed that the strike had created transportation problems for the city, despite the efforts of the company to bring in back-up drivers. But he also distanced himself from the actual arrests and the way they were carried out by saying the City Council had nothing to do with it and is not responsible for the way the strikers were handled. According to him, the decision to arrest the workers was made at the Provincial level.

Political observes have noted that this is the most serious confrontation between workers and government officials during the last two decades. In the past most of the official attacks were against cultural organizations and so this is the first violent handling of an association which comprises workers blue-color workers. He doubted this measure would produce the desired results the government was after.

A workers activists told Rooz that even though workers movement remained passive during the last two decades, it continued its life nevertheless. “The existence of millions of dissatisfied workers is like having a box of explosives ready to be ignited. It is not wise to push things to shove at this time especially as the workers were testing the promises of the new president’s calls for justice,” he said.