June 27, 2007 -- SOME Western commentators have called him "the Iranian Lech Walesa," after the Polish trade unionist who helped bring down the communist empire. The mullahs ruling Iran, however, regard him as "a dangerous enemy of Islam."
The man himself - Mansoor Osanloo, a 48-year-old leader of one of the many illegal trade unions that have sprung up in Iran in the last few years - shies way from both sobriquets.
"We do not have a political agenda," he says. "All we are asking for is for Iranian workers to be treated as free human beings, not as slaves."
Osanloo first made his name in 2004 when, along with 14 fellow workers, he created the Syndicate of Workers of the Tehran United Bus Company. Within weeks, most employees of the company - which is owned by the Tehran municipality and controlled by the Interior Ministry - had joined the new union. That left the so-called Islamic Workers' Council, a re- gime-sponsored organ imposed in many industries as an ersatz union, exposed and isolated.
Workers across the country soon emulated the Tehran example. On May Day, more than 400 free trade unions, boasting a membership of millions, raised their banners in the capital.
Osanloo and his colleagues were among the founders of the Workers' Organizations and Activists Coordination Council, which is emerging as the principal voice of wage earners - especially in the pubic sector, which accounts for more than 70 percent of Iran's economy.
The emergence of independent unions has meant the demise of "Islamic councils" in many workplaces and the virtual death of the so-called Workers' House set up by the mullahs to control labor. The free unions have chased away hundreds of mullahs who headed the Islamic councils, often enjoying high salaries and perks.
Osanloo was first jailed in 2005, after his union launched an original form of labor action: Tehran bus workers announced free rides for all comers. When the authorities sent in armed security men, the workers went on strike - bringing Tehran, a city of 12 million inhabitants, to a virtual halt.
The authorities then tried terror and intimidation. A group of 300 members of the Iranian branch of Hezbollah, armed with clubs and knives, attacked Osanloo and his colleagues and beat up their families, including small children. Osanloo suffered knife wounds, including a deep cut in his tongue, inflicted by a Hezbollah member who had vowed to "silence the enemy of Islam."
A partial return to work was soon interrupted when bus drivers refused to implement a new rule under which women passengers were confined to back seats on the buses - which, in practice, meant that more than 80 percent of the seats in Tehran's double-decker buses were reserved for men.
Anxious to prevent a prolonged strike, the authorities released Osanloo eight months later, only to rearrest him, again without charge.
This February, he was presented at a one-day trial held in camera. "They had a file against me running into 1,300 dense pages," Osanloo says. "I wonder how the judge could go through all that in a single day."
Released from prison in March on a bail of $325,000, (a huge fortune in the Islamic Republic), Osanloo was allowed to travel to London and Brussels earlier this month to address the annual conferences of he International Transport Workers Federation and the International Trade Unions Conference.
Having spent almost a year in Tehran's dreaded Evin Prison - known as the "Islamic Alcatraz" - on two occasions, Osanloo risks being rearrested and jailed at any moment. But if the Tehran authorities hoped that allowing him to visit abroad might tempt him to stay in exile, they'll be disappointed. He has no intention of throwing in the towel.
"We are at the start of a long struggle," he told me in Brussels. "We are fighting for what is a basic human right: the right of workers to organize themselves in free and independent trade unions and negotiate conditions under which they accept employment."
The current administration in the Islamic Republic considers such talk as "dangerous for the faith and the state." President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has unveiled a new draft labor code under which Iranian workers would lose almost all the rights they had secured over decades of struggle and as a result of Iran's membership of the International Labor Organization.
The philosophy behind Ahmadinejad's position is simple: The division of people into employees and employers is a "Jewish-Crusader" invention. In Islam, employers and employees are part of the umma (the community of faithful), bound by divine laws that can't be questioned, let alone amended.
If enacted into law, the proposed code would outlaw the formation of unions; abolish the minimum wage and allow employers to fire any worker they wished instantly and without compensation.
The avalanche loosened by the Tehran transport workers more than two years ago has continued with hundreds of strikes, sit-ins and other industrial actions throughout Iran. An estimated 100,000 workers are now on strike in a range of industries, from textile factories in the Caspian region to sugar plantations in the southwest province of Khuzestan.
"Iranian workers are discovering their power," Osanloo says. "The authorities would be wise to acknowledge that power and address the legitimate grievances of workers. At present, however, there is no sign that this is the case."
Iranian-born journalist Amir Taheri is based in Europe.