For the last nine days, Tehran residents wanting to get somewhere by bus were presented not with the usual service run by Tehran and Suburbs Bus Company, but minibuses with license plates belonging to the IRGC and the police. Drivers with the TSBC and also the high-speed Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) service were on strike over the municipality’s refusal to increase their salaries by 57 percent, as approved by the Supreme Labor Council.
According to Iranian Students' News Agency (ISNA), on the first day of the strike 700 buses belonging to the General Command of the Law Enforcement of Islamic Republic of Iran, the national police service, were dispatched to the streets of the capital. On the second day, May 17, Tehran municipality and the security agencies drafted in a number of unemployed ex-bus drivers to keep the service moving. The TSBC’s trade union revealed that the municipality had also asked fire department drivers to step in, but the request was declined.
On the first day of the strike, in a rally outside the TSBC headquarters, drivers and their colleagues shouted slogans such as “Resign, resign, incompetent mayor”. Regular commuters
reported long delays and disruption, with some of the BRT replacement drivers apparently not familiar with how the vehicles operate.
On the third day, air pollution came to the local authorities’ rescue. So bad was the smog on May 18 that officials closed down schools and government offices, also happily reducing the level of demand for road transportation.
Pushing for a Living Wage
TSBC’s active and retired workers and drivers have long expected an increase to their salaries and pension payments, which were hit hard by inflation in recent years as well as the very recent food price hikes.
The Supreme Labor Council has approved a minimum of 57 percent increase in the salaries but the workers say Tehran municipality has only agreed to 10 percent, which will make very little difference to their purchasing power.
Mayor of Tehran Alireza Zakani tried to pour cold water on the demands last week, stating: “The 57 percent increase only applies to the salaries of government employees, not to the workers of other institutions”. He asked them to return to work.
But Mohsen Bagheri, head of TSBC drivers’ union, retorted that only the Supreme Labor Council can rule on workers’ pay. According to Article 142 of the Islamic Republic’s Labor Law, workers and their union have the right to object to any decision around wages and to demand the Labor Ministry investigate.
Clashing Narratives on Basis for Strikes
A few hours after Zakani spoke to the protesting drivers, Fars News Agency, affiliated with the IRGC, claimed some of the drivers were paid more than 14 million tomans ($486) a month and if their salaries were increased by 57 percent, they would receive an average salary of 25 million tomans ($867).
A few hours later, however, Tehran municipality spokesman Abdolmotahar Mohammad-Khani had something else to say. He tweeted that the local authority had ordered a pay increase of 40 percent for its contract workers and associated companies “until the issue is finally settled through legal channels.”
Mohsen Bagheri, head of TSBC drivers’ union, criticized the confusing statements by officials about the extent of the increase. “Since yesterday when the drivers protested over the 10 percent increase, councillors have cited different numbers from 12 to 14 percent,” he told the Iranian Labor News Agency (ILNA). “It seems some of our friends at the municipality are not knowledgeable enough about the law... I advise these friends first to ask the opinion of the Ministry of Labor, then talk to the media.”
Who Are the Detainees?
During the first three days of protests by TSBC drivers and workers, at least 12 participants were arrested by security forces. The union’s Telegram channel reported that the detainees had been taken to Evin Prison, and included Vahid Fereydooni, a well-known member who delivered an impassioned speech at the rally outside the company headquarters. He was taken away by plainclothes officers.
The union also reported that a bail of 500 million tomans ($17,400) had been set for Fereydooni but when his family arrived at Evin Courthouse to post it, they were told it was under review. Some of the others arrested outside on the first day were Alireza Zarej, Javad Sadeghipour, Mohammad Abbas Daei, Ahad Salehpour, repairman Mohsen Akbari, an ICT worker named as Ms. Asadi, Mohamad Ramezani, Abbas Tajik, a man named Akbar Razmi and his wife, whose name is unknown.
The union has demanded the immediate and unconditional release of all detainees. In a statement on May 16 it condemned “fake” charges brought against the arrested parties by the Intelligence Ministry and other “forces of suppression”.
Referring to other ongoing protests by workers, teachers, retirees and other wage-earners some of whom have been arrested as well, the statement said: “The government is resorting its usual solution: crackdowns, framing labor activists, arresting them, spreading lies and bringing shabby charges against them.”
It also reported that Reza Shahrabi, workers’ rights activist and a member of its board, had been arrested: “Five agents of the Intelligence Ministry went to Reza Shahabi’s home and forced the doorman to knock on the door of his apartment. The moment that the door was unlocked they forcibly entered his home, even though his wife and his daughter were not appropriately dressed.”
Previously in 2012, Shahabi was sentenced to six years in prison by Branch 15 of the Islamic Revolutionary Court of Tehran: five for "gathering and colluding against state security", one for "spreading propaganda against the regime". He was also fined seven million tomans ($5,700) and banned from all trade unionist activities for five years.
In an open letter to judiciary officials on April 28, not long before his arrest, Shahabi reported that an unnamed person sending death threats to himself and his wife via text. Two motorcyclists had also attacked his nephew, he said.
On May 13, the Coordinating Committee to Help Form Workers’ Organizations reported that Reyhaneh Ansari, another workers’ rights activist, had been arrested as well. She and another activist, Maryam “Anisha” Asadollahi, were accused by the Ammar Cyber Headquarters, a body affiliated with the radical right wing of the Iranian regime, reported that they had been charged with “cooperation with a group aiming at subverting the regime”.