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Transport workers strike in Tehran up against the regime

6 February 2006. A World to Win News Service.

The Islamic Republic of Iran sent its enforcers to prevent a threatened strike by Tehran bus drivers on 28 January, arresting between 500-1200 members and leaders of their union, which had defied the regime by breaking away from the government-run Islamic Labour Councils.

Security forces, Hezbollah civilian vigilantes and, in at least one instance, Islamic Labour Council members broke into homes in the middle of the night, brutalizing whole families as they searched for members and leaders of the United Bus Company of Tehran union. Some men escaped the roundup by staying away from their homes. In retaliation, the regime took their wives and children (as young as two years old) hostage to force the workers to turn themselves in.

The workers had announced that they would go on strike 29 January to demand the release of one of their colleagues, leading union executive committee member Mansour Asanloo, and legal recognition of their union. This call was enough to prompt a harsh reaction by the terrified regime. They started to arrest dozens of union activists and leaders before the strike even started. The official news put out by the authorities reported the “arrest of a few terrorists” and even tried to connect the strike to explosions in the southern city of Ahvaz that week. But neither the threat of mass firings, nor the midnight raids and the kidnapping of families stopped the one-day walkout. In some areas workers, family members and other people supporting them reportedly clashed with security forces and the regime’s civilian thugs.

 Many of the men who have not yet been caught are spending their nights in the streets or elsewhere, looking for ways to continue the struggle. Those arrested, now being held in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison, are on hunger strike. Morale among most of the workers is said to remain high.

 Some background

Over the last year the Tehran bus drivers union has faced vicious harassment. These attacks were intensified when union members announced their independence from the Islamic Labour Councils. Last May, the leadership of the Islamic Labour Council and the House of Workers – who are mainly regime bullies and management – raided the union’s offices and assaulted its members. News of this attack went beyond the borders of Iran and echoed internationally. Nevertheless, the International Labour Organization recognized these gangsters and regime flunkies as the official representative of the Iranian workers.

On 22 December 2005, the regime escalated its repressive measures against the independent union by arresting a dozen of its leading members, accusing them of causing disruptions and forming an illegal union. But the workers didn’t back off. They called a protest rally in front of their union headquarters the next day and organized a one-day strike 25 December. Thousands of workers took part. It was not business as usual in Tehran. The whole city was disrupted and paralysed. Despite the inconvenience, people reacted with a supportive spirit and did not hide their joy and feelings of solidarity with the workers.

In the face of this stubborn resistance the regime retreated and released all but one of those arrested, the union leader Osanloo. In an attempt to appease the workers, the mayor of Tehran appeared at a gathering of 10,000 workers in the city’s Azadi Stadium to promise Osanloo’s release and “consideration” of the workers’ situation. Nevertheless, workers shouted slogans demanding the right to form their own independent unions and urging strike action. This is what led to the strike of 29 January.

Notes on different trends

This strike has sparked broad interest and solidarity among the people. The communist activists support this just mass struggle, just as they support all of the people’s protests, and assist its organization and development. But at the same time they cannot ignore the different political tendencies that arise within these sorts of struggles. The future of the workers movement can be determined by the degree to which a revolutionary political line and communist outlook influences its activists.

The communists are far from the only ones who want to influence the workers. Every class and political trend seeks to do that. It is not surprising that people associated with Mohammed Khatami (the former president who called for reforming the Islamic Republic from within instead of overthrowing it) and his movement signed a statement protesting “the illegal handling of workers’ issues”. They warned the other faction of the ruling class and the Islamic Republic, the current ruling clique, that this could “have dangerous and unpredictable consequences”. If proper measures are not taken, they said, it could “give rise to despair and cause a recession in production and an economic crisis.”  In fact their main concern was for their ailing economy and “the dangerous consequences” of the inevitable rebellion of the poor masses. This time they also intend to use the workers for their own aims.

From the other side, many leftist organizations have enthusiastically supported this struggle in order to strengthen the workers’ movement. But within this there has been an incorrect tendency to concentrate only on the organizational and trade unionist aspect and forget revolutionary politics. Some of these organizations are so fascinated with trade unionism that they do not recognize the possible dangerous impact of ruling class attempts to use this movement. This sort of outlook thinks that a strike is the highest form of struggle and the highest thing workers are capable of – and that the workers will automatically adopt a communist ideology and be immune to bourgeois ideologies. This dangerous pragmatism would liquidate the necessity and importance of bringing political consciousness to the workers.

This doesn’t mean trying to use the strike movement as prestige or “capital” in competition between political organizations, but understanding the political issues at stake and making them clear to all, particularly the workers, and seeking to raise the workers’ political understanding and consciousness to a higher level. Today the difficulty in linking the communist movement and the workers’ movement is a very important question to be solved, since the future of the workers’ struggle depends on how much worker activists are armed with the communist outlook and programme.

The struggle of the United Bus Company workers over the last year has shown that even if they try to keep “politics” out of their movement and strikes, the regime will react brutally and take their resistance as a political act because it could spark the rage of the people against the regime. The process of the struggle in the course of the last year had a considerable impact on the workers and the poorer sections of the people in Tehran. Students have been following developments closely and supporting these struggles in their publications. Some students also were arrested alongside strikers in clashes with the authorities on the morning of 29 January. This struggle has affected the political mood of the country, boosted the people’s morale and given more momentum to other struggles of different sections of the people.

Considering that transport in the big cities is a potential weak point for the regime and its economy and also considering the direct contact these workers have with the masses, the struggle of the transport workers could cost the regime dearly, politically as well as economically. And most importantly, given the instability of the regime and the rising discontent and combative spirit of the people, any such outbreak could spark a political upheaval all over the country.

Despite broad international support for the workers from progressive organizations and people all over the world, the Western media have hardly mentioned this strike and the brutal repression it has faced. Instead they have focused on their respective government’s main concern: the referral of Iran to the United Nations Security Council because of its nuclear energy programme. In fact while the imperialist powers have been putting pressure on the Islamic Republic in relation to the nuclear issue, their silence about the suppression of this strike signals approval of the Iranian regime’s hard line against workers struggling for very basic rights.