Unions Around World to Protest Iran's Treatment of Bus Workers

By Nora Boustany
Wednesday, February 15, 2006

While the international community is locking horns with Iran over its plan to push ahead with uranium enrichment -- a potential first step toward making nuclear weapons -- a separate global confrontation is gathering steam over labor practices under the Iranian theocracy.

Labor unions in 18 capitals, including Washington, are taking part today in demonstrations outside Iranian embassies and interest sections to protest the coercive treatment of bus drivers in Tehran and its suburbs, who have been beaten, jailed and dismissed for attempting to negotiate better wages.

A number of international and Washington- based organizations are responding to a call by the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, based in Brussels, for an international day of action on Iran. The AFL-CIO, its Solidarity Center here and the federation's Metropolitan Washington Council have called for a demonstration at noon in front of the Iranian Interest Section at 2209 Wisconsin Ave. NW.

Abroad, protests are scheduled by transportation unions in France, Britain, Spain, Austria, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Germany, Canada, Japan, Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines, Australia, New Zealand, Chile and Bermuda.

The catalyst for the global protests was the arrest on Dec. 22 of Mansoor Osanloo , president of the Syndicate of Workers of the Tehran and Suburbs Bus Co., along with the members of its executive board.

Under pressure from international labor and human rights groups, the board members were released, but Osanloo remains in jail and is reportedly in poor health. On Jan. 28, the 17,000-member Syndicate called a strike to protest his detention and demand that the government recognize the rights to form a union and engage in collective bargaining -- rights protected under the conventions of the International Labor Organization.

On the eve of the strike, police raided the homes of union activists and arrested workers, in some cases with their wives and children, including a 2-year-old girl who was bruised and hurled into a patrol van, according to a report posted on the Web site of the Solidarity Center.

The next day, the government and the public transportation company dispatched security and armed forces, who used tear gas and wielded batons while threatening to shoot at rioters. Others who arrived at the picket line were rounded up at gunpoint.

Hundreds of people were arrested in their homes, said Heba F. El-Shazli , regional program director for the Middle East and North Africa at the Solidarity Center. Some prisoners have since been freed but have been denied the right to go back to work.

Hundreds remain at Tehran's Evin prison without formal charges.

It was not possible to contact the Iranian Interests Section for comment. The Tehran government has accused some labor unions of acting against national security, holding illegal gatherings and being linked to banned communist and Kurdish groups.

In a Feb 1. letter, AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney wrote to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to protest the arrests. Sweeney wrote that the AFL-CIO "strongly condemns the arrest of workers exercising their legitimate, internationally recognized trade union rights and demands the immediate and unconditional release of all detained trade unionists."

According to Gholamreza Mirzaei , a spokesman for the Tehran bus workers union who was quoted on another Web site, 200 workers were freed by Feb. 7 but none have been able to go back to their jobs, and hundreds still languish in prisons.

Serenading the Ambassador

Norwegian Ambassador Knut Vollebaek celebrated his 60th birthday Saturday with a hilarious roast, masterminded by his wife, Ellen Sofie, and an illustrious cast of conspiring characters.

The evening included live classical and rock music, as well as skits and serenades to Vollebaek. Among the leading chorus girls was former secretary of state Madeleine K. Albright , who belted out an ode to his passing years. Former USAID director Andrew S. Natsios and others joined the chorus. John J. Hamre , president and chief executive of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and Rep. Martin O. Sabo (D-Minn.) were also part of the choir.

The highlight was a rapid display of quirky hats, ranging from metal-horned Viking caps to Amish hats, plopped on Vollebaek's head and then pulled off by his spouse as he sat patiently on a stool. A video of Vollebaek hopping around during an obligatory hospitality dance with indigenous Alaskans was projected onto a large screen.

Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Roger Pardo-Maurer , who played the piano but had to read the music, blamed his boss, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld , for not leaving him time to practice. Hungarian Ambassador Andras Simonyi performed on the electric guitar, singing some blues numbers and an old Beatles favorite, "Norwegian Wood."

Adding sweetness to roars of laughter, Ellen Sofie presented her husband with a large red heart-shaped box of chocolates. In diplomatic circles, at least, it seems that life can start at 60.

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