This is a guest post by Peter Kohanloo, a law student and activist in Boston’s Iranian-American community.
The Wisconsin State Assembly’s recent decision to curtail the collective bargaining privileges of state workers has drawn the ire of labor unions throughout the country. The state’s embattled governor, Scott Walker, has been compared to Adolf Hitler, and opponents of the governor’s plan have even analogized the situation of Badger State public employees to that of democracy-deprived demonstrators in Cairo, who braved tear gas, torture, and sniper fire to reclaim their fundamental liberties. America’s labor unions are clearly angry.
Meanwhile, Mansour Osanloo – Iran’s most prominent union leader – remains confined in a jail cell thousands of miles away from the political tumult in Madison. On February 13, Osanloo was transferred to a Tehran hospital from Rajai Shahr prison – the medieval dungeon serving as his most recent home – after complaining of chest pains caused by a heart attack. He was chained to a bed by his hands and feet as he recovered. Three days later he was sent back to prison where his health is unlikely to improve. He has suffered the cruelty of imprisonment for four years now, but his crusade for living wages and improved working conditions began in 2005 when he helped found the Tehran Bus Workers’ Union, an independent trade union with 17,000 members. He and his fellow bus drivers successfully led protests demanding a $50 increase in monthly wages, uniforms, and a $40 child-care credit for female employees. Their goals were entirely reasonable and non-political in nature; the problem was that in Iran, every thought, desire, or action conceived independent of the state is deemed inherently suspicious by the clerical regime and thus anti-revolutionary.
The viciousness with which Iran’s government has treated this humble man would break any ordinary person – the fact that he endures is a remarkable testament to his indomitable will. During one of his earlier encounters, his office was ransacked by regime thugs who – according to Osanloo himself – trampled on his copy of the Quran. Worse, they thrashed him and sliced off part of his tongue in order to silence him. Then came the constant detainments and releases from jail – a total of three times before they finally kept him indefinitely during his fourth trip in July 2007. Three years later the Iranian regime committed one of the most inhumane acts imaginable when agents from the Intelligence Ministry abducted his pregnant daughter-in-law from a subway station as she was returning home from work. She was severely beaten and tortured while in their custody; hours later they left her under a bridge alone at night. Sadly, that traumatic experience resulted in her miscarriage.
Osanloo’s current situation is precarious – the many years of physical and psychological abuse have finally taken their toll on him. It would certainly be an ugly stain on our collective conscience if this man were to perish in silence. And this is exactly why American unions must play an active role in aiding him and other Iranian workers fighting for their basic rights. There exists an undeniable bond between American unions and their Muslim counterparts – one recently affirmed by the AFL-CIO’s Washington-based Solidarity Center, which relayed daily messages from Egyptian laborers resisting Hosni Mubarak’s dictatorship to trade unions throughout the world. It is this sense of brotherhood that led the AFL-CIO – which also played a key role in defeating communism – to lend a helping hand to their Egyptian peers. But such acts of solidarity must also include Iranian workers, who are some of our best allies in achieving a peaceful and democratic Middle East. There is no doubt that American labor has the ability to contribute to the reemergence of freedom in Iran and the greater region. What better time to prove it to the rest of the world than now?
Gene adds: In 2006 I participated in an AFL-CIO-sponsored protest in front of the Iranian Interest Section in Washington after Osanloo and other leaders of the bus workers’ union were first arrested.