A Look At The Labor Movement in Iran
In Iran, a corrupt and theocratic regime has made life extremely difficult for workers, the poor, and for the great majority of the country’s citizens. Almost 50 percent of the population lives below the poverty line; the unemployment rate is about 20 percent, more than 1,500 factories have closed, and inflation runs around 30 percent, in part due to mismanagement of the budget by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s government. At the same time, the country has undergone increased privatization in which state firms are sold—underpriced—to those with connections to the regime’s insiders, among them the rich and powerful. As a result, the country’s wealth is being redistributed, mainly in favor of a tiny minority. The richest 10 percent of the population has 21 times more income than those in the lowest 10 percent.
In the last 30 years, the clerical rulers and their economic partners in the traditional commerce centers (bazaars) have brutally suppressed the legitimate emancipatory and economic demands of the people, particularly the poor, the working class, women, and youth. These oppressors have been joined by security/military members whose organizations either own major financial firms or exert control on the basis of "friendly" privatization of previously state-run economic institutions.
In the recent mass demonstrations against the presidential election results (apparently rigged in favor of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, with the support of Ali Khamenei, the religious supreme leader), the Revolutionary Guards and Paramilitary Basiji participated in the violent attacks against the protestors. In fact, in the past 30 years, the regime has been able to suppress dissidents and periodic uprisings by consistently playing the "anti-imperialist," nationalist card and using populist-religious propaganda. As a last resort, it does not hesitate to violently repress any mass resistance.
In the meantime, the Iranian people have never stopped their resistance, striving for freedom, democracy, social justice, and the right of social self-determination. The labor movement has long fought for its rights. In the first months of the 1979 revolution, workers organized labor councils and seized some factories and institutions. Soon, however, political repression began and these labor activists, along with progressive and socialist individuals and groups, were violently suppressed. Thereafter, regime-sponsored labor centers and institutions, such as the Worker’s House and Islamic Labor Councils (ILCs), were installed to control workers. Under Iranian labor law, these councils can be set up in companies with more than 50 workers. Their objectives are to "propagate and spread Islamic culture and defend the achievement of the Islamic Revolution."
In the past few years, labor activists have organized independent unions. Their efforts have been a response to privatization, in which new owners, searching for quick profits, closed down many companies. That, in turn, caused a dramatic increase in layoffs and difficult conditions for workers, who endured longer periods of pay delays and forced temporary employment at lower wages.
Some activists, conscious of the fact that Iran has signed the charter of the International Labor Organization (ILO), have made connections with a few international unions, including the ITUC (International Trade Union Confederation) and EI (Education International), according to the Trades Union Congress (briefing document, issued April 13, 2009). The ITF (International Transport Worker’s Federation) and the IUF (International Union of Food Agriculture, Hotels, Restaurants, Catering, Tobacco and Allied Workers Associations) called a worldwide action on June 26, 2009 to demand the recognition of basic democratic labor rights in Iran.
Teachers demonstrate during a 2008 strike—photo by Roohollah Vahdati, ISNA
In the labor struggles in Iran during recent years, some activists with radical political tendencies were able to form smaller solidarity groups, such as the Free Union of Workers in Iran, the Center for Worker’s Rights in Iran, the Coordinating Committee to Help Form Worker’s Organizations, and the Committee to Pursue the Establishment of Free Worker’s Organizations. A key event was the announcement of the formation of the Syndicate of Workers of Tehran and Suburbs Vahed Bus Company in 2005 and its recognition by ITF and a few other international unions. Another major move by the Iranian labor movement was the formation of the independent Syndicate of Workers of Haft Tapeh Sugar Cane Company in October 2008, which brought the regime’s wrath down on militant workers.
Since 2005, members of the Bus Company Syndicate, and, in the last three years, labor activists belonging to the Haft Tapeh Syndicate, the Teacher’s Union, the Painter’s Syndicate, and many other labor groups have been harassed, flogged, tortured, and sentenced to many years in prison. In the last few years, labor activists have celebrated International Workers’ Day, even though the regime has made it clear it will suppress such symbolic actions. As a result, many are still in prison or have been taken to court for participating in May celebrations and similar activities.
Nevertheless, efforts by militant workers have had important political reverberations. The proclamations issued by labor activists include a statement that indicates a politically sophisticated labor force. It reads, in part: "The workers of Iran face severely low wages, mass layoffs and expulsions, non-payment of wages for millions of workers, enforcement of temporary work contracts, subcontracting…blank-signed contracts, arrest and incarceration of workers, repression of workers’ protests and organizations…medieval sentences… flogging workers…violations of worker’ rights…. Such oppressive conditions have gone [on] for years…. We workers…are the organized producers of all wealth and riches in the society and consider it our most basic right to live in peace and comfort according to the highest standard of today’s humanity."
The statement raises numerous demands, including:
- Guaranteed job security
- Immediate increase in minimum wages
- The right to form independent workers’ organizations
- Full equality for women
- Release of all incarcerated workers
- The recognition of May 1 as an official holiday
In the recent demonstrations against the presidential election in June and July 2009, organized labor solidly supported the people’s demands for free elections, civil liberties, political democracy, and economic justice. Although labor activists are not united and the pro-socialist opposition is very weak, certain radical groups stress participating in the people’s struggle to change the existing political system. For example, among the demands raised by the coordinating committee to help form workers’ organizations are "unconditional political freedom" and freedom of association, including the "anti-capitalist organization." Another group, the Committee in Solidarity for Formation of Construction Labor Union, supported the mass revolt and called for a "free and democratic election," freedom of political parties, and freedom to demonstrate. Undoubtedly, the Iranian working class is already involved in the ongoing democratic struggle.
Faramarz Dadvar is a socialist feminist writer and activist.