May Day in Iran

Protestors and labor groups challenge the regime.

The desperate economic situation in Iran is causing workers to lose their jobs or go months without pay, pushing them into the opposition camp. On International Labor Day on May 1, Iranians demanding freedom and better treatment of workers while the regime’s cronies live rich and comfortable took to the streets. With the exception of the Los Angeles Times, the Iranians also had to fight an inattentive Western media unwilling to help them by providing coverage.

Recent protests, including the ones on May 1, have failed to reach the levels seen after Ahmadinejad’s election “victory” was declared. The Iranian regime is taking aggressive measures to prevent the opposition from organizing and protestors from linking together into one mass. The Internet was dramatically slowed down, as has been done during previous times of unrest in an attempt to limit the amount of video, pictures and news leaving the country.

I received an enormous amount of reports in the week leading up to May 1 about factory workers being laid off and being mistreated. It is clear that the industrial base of Iran is crumbling, with unemployment quickly rising and factories constantly going out of business. Only brute force and a lack of outside support are preventing nationwide strikes from taking place.

Ahead of the protests, opposition leaders Mehdi Karroubi and Mir Hossein Mousavi released a videotape calling on workers and teachers to unite with the opposition, arguing that those fighting for democracy and workers fighting for fair treatment share the same struggle. The regime is frightened that the Green Movement could encompass these causes, and so they went after the largest teachers’ union by sending its director and spokesperson to Evin Prison, the notorious holding location of political prisoners where torture is routine. Schools are often used by students to stage protests, and if teachers unite with them, the entire education system could shut down.

Ten labor organizations united to make 15 demands of the regime as International Labor Day drew near. The demands included wage increases, stopping Ahmadinejad’s plan to decrease government subsidies, the right to form independent organizations, and an end to capital punishment and child labor. The unions were joined by the Council of International Workers’ Day that had eight of their own demands, which included the release of political prisoners.

Both groups announced their solidarity with teachers and other workers and “all freedom-seeking social movements.” The workers, teachers, and political activists are trying to create a common front. Should they effectively organize, it could paralyze the regime.

On May Day, a crowd estimated to be about 4,000 strong gathered on Azadi Street in Tehran and began moving towards the Labor Ministry, which was protected by about 600 security forces and helicopters keeping watch. The protests would have been larger if the regime had not forced buses full of workers headed to Tehran to turn around.

According to the reports I received, at least 30 protestors were arrested. They were treated well by the shopowners who gave them with beverages, sandwiches and ice cream until they were attacked for doing so. One owner of an ice cream shop said that stores were being required to hang posters of Ayatollah Khamenei inside, and he had to close his shop for ten days for refusing to do it. Taxi drivers on Azadi Street went on strike and did not take any passengers and teachers protested near Khamenei’s office. One person in Tehran said “There were groups of young men in military clothes at the corner of every alley standing next to black vans” that were used to drive those arrested to prison.

There were also hundreds of protestors at the local Labor Ministry building in Tabriz in northwestern Iran and at least 20 were arrested. About 8,000 workers protested at a stadium in Qazvin in the northwest, with workers claiming that they had not been paid for seven months and some said they hadn’t gotten the bonuses due them since 2008. In Shiraz in the southern part of the country, about 3,000 workers protested near the governor’s office. The stories of the workers remained the same, with telecommunication employees saying they hadn’t been paid in over a year.

Clashes between demonstrators and security forces were reported in Tehran and Isfahan. At around 5 PM in Isfahan, workers and students are reported to have surrounded and attempted to seize a command center used by security forces that had to open fire in order to stop them. Three of the regime’s thugs are said to have been disarmed and sixteen protestors were hospitalized.

Hundreds of students protested at Tehran University as well. At Ferdowsi University in Mashhad, intense security was reported. Some students went on a hunger strike and some classes were cancelled because students refused to attend.

The opposition is gearing up for major protests on the June 12 anniversary of when Ahmadinejad was declared the election victor. There is no doubt that the regime is aware that the opposition plans big events for that day and will use all of its resources to contain and extinguish any demonstration. The events on this year’s Labor Day show that the workers, teachers, and pro-democracy activists are forging stronger links.

President Obama and all the leaders of the West need to give them momentum ahead of June 12 by pledging our support to them. Obama and other officials need to call on labor unions and humanitarian organizations to support the people of Iran by providing them with resources and setting up a fund so that workers can feed their families if they go on strike. The West should call on members of the government to resist calls to oppress their Iranian brothers and sisters.

Sanctions on every Revolutionary Guards entity need to be implemented, as requested by Mousavi’s spokesman. And Congress needs to pass a bill proposed by Senators McCain and Lieberman that will require the President to publish a list of Iranians engaged in human rights abuses so their names will be known to everyone and their assets frozen. The Iranian people are looking forward to taking on the regime on June 12, and we should be on their side.