Against the status quo: An Interview with Iranian trade unionist Homayoun Pourzad


Despite unrelenting state repression, there have been rumblings throughout the 2000s of renewed labor organizing inside the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI). One result of this upsurge in labor organizing was the May 2005 re-founding of the Syndicate of Workers of the United Bus Company of Tehran and Suburbs, a union that has a long history, albeit one that was interrupted by the 1979 "Revolution," after which the union was repressed. The unions’ leader, Mansour Osanloo, was severely beaten and thrown in the Rajaei prison where he remains in a state of deteriorating health. Osanloo is an Amnesty International "prisoner of conscience."

Another important result of the new labor organizing has been the emergence of the Independent Haft Tapeh Sugar Workers Union which launched an aggressive 42-day strike in June 2008 over wage-theft and deteriorating working conditions. In 2009, the regime imprisoned five union leaders in an attempt to smash the union for "acting against national security through the formation of a syndicate outside the law."

Since the dramatic street demonstrations that so captured the international media’s attention beginning on June 12 of this year, the direction of events inside the IRI has sparked considerable debate as well as confusion. The continuing rivalry between various power factions within the government lends itself to no easy predictions, while little is known of the internal dynamics of the Green Movement responsible for the demonstrations. The fate of an already vulnerable organized labor movement in this volatile environment is likewise unclear. Whatever the outcome of the current power struggles, the future of Iranian organized labor is now an international issue. Its right to organize is in desperate need of support.

Following the U.S. Labor Against the War Conference, and in order to better grasp this situation, Platypus Review Assistant Editor Ian Morrison sat down with Homayoun Pourzad, a representative from the Network of Iranian Labor Unions, to discuss the current crisis and the effects of "anti-imperial" ideologies on understanding the character of the IRI. Morrison conducted this interview, which has been edited for publication, on December 3, 2009.

Ian Morrison: Before we get into the current situation, could you explain the organization of which you are a part, the Network of Iranian Labor Unions (NILU)?

Homayoun Pourzad: The idea for the NILU first arose about three years ago. Some of us already had union experience dating from before the 1979 Revolution. It upset us that, with millions of workers, there were no Iranian unions independent of the state, but only the semi-official Islamic Workers’ Councils. What gave NILU its initial impetus was the Tehran bus drivers’ actions led by Mansour Osanloo and his friends.

There was a nucleus of independent labor organizations in various trades, but the government always moved quickly to stifle that independence. Iran’s Labor Ministry and the Ministry of Intelligence have standing directives to crush independent workers’ activities, regardless of which faction is running the country. The government is very brutal in its attempts to destroy the nascent labor movement.

On the surface it looks like not much is happening with union labor activity in Iran, but even in the face of government oppression, many workers are secretly engaged in organizing underground unions. These efforts have not yet peaked. Also, organizers have to walk a fine line, since once you get too big you are more easily detected. So labor organizers have to be careful how they recruit, and how many workers meet together at once. But the nucleus of the movement is in place and once the situation allows for it there will be a huge mushrooming of independent labor unions. The NILU operates in two different trade associations. We are also doing our best to start publication of a national labor press. The task is to make labor news available and to begin to provide some political analysis.

IM: Could you explain the political crisis in Iran that has unfolded since the election and how it is affecting your efforts to organize labor?

HP: First of all, anybody who tells you that they have a full picture is lying, because the situation is very crazy.

There are at least five dozen, semi-autonomous power centers, factions, and groups vying for influence. Not even [Supreme Leader Ayatollah Sayyid Ali] Khamenei knows for certain what will happen tomorrow. But this does not mean there is complete anarchy. Speaking generally, there are at present four major centers of power, or rather, three plus one. The first three are Supreme Leader Khamenei, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Revolutionary Guards, while the fourth, the nascent popular movement, is of an altogether different character though is still remains somewhat amorphous. It is still finding its own voice, needs, and strengths — but it continues to evolve. For the foreseeable future, the first three powers will more or less effectively determine how things will turn out. This said, Khamenei is already weakened. This is for two reasons: He apparently has health problems and, more importantly, he has had made huge political blunders. In another country, people would probably say,

"He’s only human." But, in Iran, he is not only human. He is somewhere between human and saint, at least for his supporters and propagandists. But saints are not supposed to make blunders, at least not so many in so short a time!

IM: What is the relationship between the NILU and the nascent popular movement?

HP: There is no organic relationship between them, just as there are no organic relationships to speak of between the different elements of this movement. Mousavi does not even have an organic relationship with his own followers because of the pervasive power of repression. So, the nascent labor movement’s relationship with the popular movement is tenuous by both necessity and because of the way things have evolved. That said, we fully support their goals and will participate in all demonstrations. We even support Mousavi himself because he has remained steadfast at least up until now in defending the people. So long as he continues to do this, he deserves our support. Of course, if he changes tack, that is a different story. We think this is a truly democratic movement such as we have not seen in Iran before, including during the Revolution. Every group involved with the Iranian Revolution, without exception, believed only in monopolizing power; democracy was nobody’s concern. But now there is a very mature movement in that sense, particularly among the young people, and the fact that it has withstood so much violence in the last few months shows that it is deeply rooted. Many people were worried at first that the protests would fizzle out, but the continuance of the actions up to this day vindicate our support. The Iranian government has really gone overboard with stopping the protestors — it has been very bloody and violent — and still they have been unable to squash the protests entirely.

IM: But do you think Mousavi stands for workers’ rights at all? He seems to have a checkered political history.

HP: We do not know what his stance is. He seems generally favorable to workers’ rights, but, at any rate, our platform is not identical to his. The movement supporting Mousavi is a broad national-democratic front; we are all working with a sort of minimum program. The movement has formulated no long-term plans, and it is now in danger of being decimated. We do not have any illusions that anyone in the leadership of the Green Movement is 100 percent on board with workers’ rights, but this is not the time to discuss that. Right now, we are fighting a dangerously reactionary dictatorship. Things will become clearer as time goes on, but right now we do not seek to magnify the differences among those opposing the dictatorship.

IM: There are some who see Ahmadinejad, because he is so anti-American, as anti-imperialist, and thus as leftist. What is your response to such characterizations?

HP: Well, the problem with this argument is that it assumes everyone in the world who rants and raves against the U.S. or Israel is somehow progressive. Osama bin Laden, Mullah Omar, Sada’am Hussein, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — these men are all more truly anti-American than any leftist. But the rhetoric of Ahmadinejad and his ilk is all demagoguery, as far as we are concerned. Either it is in the service of power politics, or else it is just a fig leaf to hide the disgrace of their own politics, which in all these cases is profoundly anti-Left and anti-working class.

IM: Still, in the peace movement here some people are uncomfortable taking a stand against Ahmadinejad or policies in Iran because they think that this is tantamount to supporting American policy.

HP: Well, I can tell you how every democratically minded person in Iran would reply: Ahmadinejad is essentially creating the ideal situation for foreign intervention. He is deliberately provocative. For instance, there is no need to use the kind of language he uses against Israel; it is genuinely odious, his frequent comments about the Holocaust and the like. But he speaks like this for a reason: He is a right-wing extremist seeking to rally his people through fear and hatred. That is what he is doing. To us it is actually incomprehensible how anyone could support Ahmadinejad just because he rants and raves about America. It really makes no sense to us. When I tell people in Iran that there are some progressive groups in America that support Ahmadinejad, they think I am pulling their leg. It makes no sense to them. But I know that this goes on and, to the extent it does, it gives the Left a bad name.

IM: What is your take on Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who is very popular on the Left in America? He is interviewed in progressive organs such as The Nation, for instance. He appears on the mass media as leading a front against America together with Ahmadinejad.

HP: We really do not know. We are really confused as to why Chavez is Ahmadinejad’s buddy. It makes no sense to us. It has made it almost impossible in Iran to defend his Bolívarian Revolution. When you have people being beaten or tortured, and so on, and then tell them, "Well, there is this government that supports your government, but these guys are good guys," it is difficult to fathom, really. We hope that Chavez changes his policy, because when there is a change of government in Iran it will be accompanied by a total rupture with everyone who supported Ahmadinejad.

IM: What in your view is fueling the current crisis?

HP: Well, let me go back to a point I was making earlier. Ayatollah Khamenei, because of his errors, has seen his status diminished. He no longer has about him the mystique that once so terrified and intimidated people. Then you have Ahmadinejad, who has turned out to be a rogue element for the regime, one that is perhaps doing more damage than good for them right now. Then there are the Revolutionary Guards, who have the bulk of the real power in Iran. They have made a power grab all over the country, so that now they control the economy, the political situation, and the Parliament. Still, Khamenei, Ahmedinejad, and the Revolutionary Guards are in an ongoing struggle for power. They unite only in the face of common enemies, whether internal or foreign, and not always then.

The current crisis in Iran is best understood as a set of concurrent crises: First, there is the legitimacy crisis, which I discussed just now with reference to Khamenei; second, is the political crisis where the various factions within Iranian "politics" cannot agree on anything; third, is the economic crisis which the ruling class is utterly incapable of addressing. The country was in recession even before the election. What will bring the economic crisis to a head is Ahmadinejad’s plan to cut all the subsidies, which are quite big, between 15 to 20 percent of the GDP (though nobody really knows for sure the exact amount, due to the lack of transparency in the administration). The supposed populist Ahmadinejad intends to cut the subsidies for transportation, utilities, energy, and even for staples such as rice and wheat. After this happens, there will be spiraling inflation, of course. The cut in subsidies for energy and utilities will force factories currently operating at a loss and/or below capacity to engage in massive layoffs. That is when we will see a number of labor actions. There may also be short-lived and violent urban uprisings. But rather than these riot-like urban uprisings, we are focusing on organizing labor to bring the country to a halt if need be.

Iranian labor is in a really awful situation, arguably the worst since its inception a century or so ago. With millions of workers in the formal sector, we still lack official, legal independent unions. On the other hand, the situation is ideal for organizing. The labor force is ready for independent assertion, though they need the kind of support that only comes from dedicated organizers.

Iran’s spiraling political and economic crisis coincides with another crisis that is only just beginning, the international crisis regarding the nuclear problem. Diplomatic talks are failing, as was inevitable. We feel that the regime is trying to build a bomb, but probably not testing it for a while. There is a clear danger that this might lead to an air attack or to some other form of major military intervention, which would divert attention from the internal situation. Indeed, as I said above, this is what this regime is hoping for. It would be a monumental mistake if there were to be an attack against Iran, since the nuclear program can only truly be stopped if the popular movement becomes more substantial and is able to change the government, or at least force changes in its policies.

IM: So your sense is that, with the nuclear program, Ahmadinejad is actually trying to provoke aggression?

HP: Indeed. We condemn any kind of foreign intervention, but we also condemn Ahmadinejad’s provocative policies, in part because they are geared toward provoking just such an intervention. Anyway, we do not think the military route is the way to go with this, because it is not likely to succeed even in halting the nuclear program. We think the labor movement in Iran is poised to play a strategic role, even on the international stage, because once the working class organizes itself, it really can cripple the regime, especially given the current economic crisis. And, as I say, a major strike wave is looming in Iran.

The situation for Iranian workers right now is dismal. For the last 4 or 5 years the demand for labor has dropped. There is also the mania for imports that Ahmadinejad has encouraged for the last 5 years. The result is that across the country factories are facing shutdowns and bankruptcy. There is also an immigrant Afghan labor force of roughly seven hundred thousand, with whom we sympathize, and whose expulsion from the country we oppose just as we oppose the many forms of coercion and discrimination this government levels against them, but it is a fact that their acceptance of as little as 50 to 60 percent of normal salary exerts downward pressure on everyone’s wages. So, if you look at all these factors, you see that things are really awful for Iranian workers; their bargaining position is weak. In the current environment, once you go on strike or you have some sort of shutdown, they can easily fire you and find someone else.

The labor status quo has also changed. Few people are aware of this, but Iran once had very progressive labor laws. In the aftermath of the Revolution, it was very hard to legally fire workers. But now, 65 or 70 percent of the labor force consists in temporary contract workers who lack most basic rights. They can now get fired and be deprived of their benefits quite easily. This is what makes the situation so very ripe for organizing, and makes organization necessary, despite the regime’s brutal repression. They do not allow for any labor organizations independent of the state, and they are ruthless. The least that could happen to an exposed labor organizer is that he gets fired and thrown in solitary confinement for several months.

This year is critical for the Iranian labor movement in many ways, and we need support of all kinds. Iran is in great danger. The government acts like an occupying army. It treats the country’s ethnic minorities — Kurds, Baluchis, and Arabs — as though they were foreign nationals. The resulting national disintegration grows worse day by day. At the same time, extremist groups are finding it increasingly easy to operate. Among the Sunni minority, fundamentalism is growing.

There is nothing to be said in favor of this regime, after the election. Before the election, there were perhaps some disparate elements within the government working toward reform, but this has ceased to be the case. All that remains is extremely retrograde: the government is ruining the country’s culture and economy, while sowing discord among the people. They are turning minorities against each other and against the rest of the country — Shia against Sunni, not to mention men against women — all because the Islamic Republic state wants to retain and expand power. When these methods fail, they turn to brutal and undisguised repression.

IM: I am wondering about the comparison of what is happening today to the 1979 Revolution. There were mass mobilizations then, with various leftist groups and parties involved, but when the Shah fell, it left a power vacuum that was filled by reactionaries. First, is the comparison salient? Second, is there the possibility of there emerging a power vacuum, and what can the labor organizers do in this situation?

HP: You are wondering if, because there is not a clearly formulated platform for the movement, that it may go awry, and extremist groups come to power? Of course, this is a possibility. But I think there are reasons to be optimistic. Thirty years of this sort of psychotic, pseudo-radical extremism has really taught everybody a lesson. You have to be either extremely naive, or a direct beneficiary of the system not to see that the country has been harmed. In general, the young people are more mature than their parents’ generation. The youth do not have the same romanticization of revolutionary violence, which was one of the reasons things got out of hand in 1979. It was not only the clerics that were extremists, practically every group endorsed revolutionary violence of one kind or another; it is just that in their mind their violence was justified, whereas everyone else’s violence was "reactionary." The new generation does not hold those beliefs. Iranian society has a strong extremist strand, but I believe that is changing now. There is a belief in tolerance, in wanting to avoid force, and in trying to understand one’s political opponents rather than just crushing them. This is something extremely important and not altogether common in much of today’s Middle East.

Let me also say, along these lines, that Islam has never really undergone a Reformation. But we are seeing signs of this happening in the IRI today. It is happening very quietly in the seminaries. It could only happen where Islamists have actually come to power and shown beyond all doubt the inadequacy or even the bankruptcy of their ideas and their ideologies. This forces healthy elements within the clergy — not those who are out there to enrich themselves, but those who are religious because they are utopian-minded — to go back to their books, to the Koran, to revise the old ideas. Such clerics are not in the majority yet they are sizable and they are spread throughout the clerical hierarchy from grand Ayatollahs to the lowest clergy. Earlier, the idea of reforming the medieval interpretations of the Koran and Islam came mainly from Muslim intellectuals, but now a considerable part of the religious hierarchy is coming to the same conclusion. Some are operating in very dangerous circumstances. There is a special court of clergy, similar to the Inquisition courts, that want to silence them. But such ideas cannot be silenced so easily.

If there is a military attack on Iran, it will set back the progress of many years. This is exactly what the regime wants, at this point, which is why Ahmadinejad is so provocative. He wants the Israelis to launch an air strike. The West cannot simply bomb a few installations and think that it will all be done. The current regime would strive to escalate that fight. Even if Obama verbally condemns an intervention in Iran by another nation, Iran will use it as a pretext to expand the fight and things will rapidly get out of hand. It would provide him with a new recruitment pool, which is drying up, because right now the best and the brightest of Iran do not go into the Revolutionary Guards. Their recruits today are opportunists or those who simply need the money. The people are turning against the regime. What could change all this is if we came under attack, if, as they would claim, "Islam is threatened." The regime might then successfully stir up nationalistic sentiments, perhaps not so much in Tehran, but that is only 14 million or so. Most of the country lives in smaller towns, and the only news they get comes from state broadcasts. These people could become recruits, leading to all sorts of awful things. In the meantime, at the very least we will continue to see street fighting, riots, and so on. The youth will only endure torture and being kicked out of schools up to a point. As it is, the regime opens fire on peaceful street demonstrations — I have seen it myself. The government’s hope is that some of the young people will arm themselves and fight back. That is one of the dangers here.

IM: You are here for the U.S. Labor Against the War Conference. What sort of relationships do you hope to build with other labor unions in America and around the world?

HP: First, I want to communicate to them what is happening in my country, that there is a labor movement and that it needs support. More specifically, even though there is no guarantee that this will change what this government is doing, we hope with the help of our American friends to put together an international committee of labor unions in defense of Iranian labor rights. The Iranian state does not even pretend to care what the international community or the general public thinks of them. Still, they are weaker now than ever before, and the regime is concerned about what might come after a military action or major sanctions. So, for the first time it looks like they are going to be sensitive to what trade unions, especially those against intervention, have to say, or what they will do. In fact, Ahmadinejad’s government has been sending envoys to the International Labor Organization (ILO) and courting it assiduously. They go out of their way to placate them, whereas ten years ago they did not give a damn what the ILO thought. So there may now be some scope to pressure the regime to release imprisoned labor organizers. In addition to that, we would like to inform the American labor movement and the public at large of the dangers of any kind of military intervention.

IM: Do you think there are any possibilities for a party of labor in Iran? That is a problem all over the world. Different labor organizations meet up, and there are groups that believe in various trade union rights, and they release statements to that effect. But there is no political body that consistently stands up for working people.

HP: I may have sounded too much of an alarmist, for I emphasized the dangers. But the opportunities are also great. Like I said, you have almost eight million workers in need of organizing. They will even be able to organize themselves, if the situation changes. The Green movement holds promise, I think. It came totally out of the blue; no one expected it, from the Ministry of Intelligence to the opposition and the foreign governments. This means there are elements that could coalesce into a progressive and democratic labor party. It should not be forgotten that Iran not only has a huge working class, but also a tradition of left-wing activity going back some 100 years. The working class in Iran, moreover, is not semi-proletarian as it was during the Iranian Revolution. This generation of workers has advanced political skills and a mature political worldview. You are no longer dealing with peasants just come to the city. Iran is fairly industrialized in many ways and these workers have their own subcultures. We have a good situation in that sense. So yes, there is a good possibility that we will have a strong labor party. The conditions are there, but none of this will materialize without a strong, deeply rooted labor movement.

So what needs to be done? We must put across to other sectors of society what the working class stands for. The protest movement is now primarily middle class. That is its primary weakness. But once labor strikes get underway in the next few months, we hope they will change how the Green movement sees the workers, themselves, and their moment. It is our job as labor activists to put across a genuine working class platform and to familiarize the country with working class demands.

We cannot, as some Left groups do, start condemning the Green Movement just because it lacks a strong Left component. It is the Left’s job to influence the movement and to see that its demands and wishes are incorporated–not just with respect to Mousavi, but to the movement as a whole.

We cannot start condemning the movement even if and when it starts lurching to the right, because, again, it is the Left’s job to be there side by side with it. By being there, I mean, for example, our press must also reflect their concerns and their needs. We should not be supercilious, but rather have a healthy dialogue with all the different contingents within it. Above all, we should not speak from above in a condescending manner. Only when we are side by side with the people who are fighting on the streets will they listen to us. In the last six or seven months, there has been an incredible growth of interest in the Left. This has been very spontaneous, among young people. If anything, the old generation mishandled their political situation and turned young people off by looking down on them.

If the labor movement gets its act together, it could really help the present popular movement, which, on its own, lacks the muscle to stand up to the regime. With the workers on board there can be economic strikes. In 1979, for months there were people yelling and clamoring in the streets, but it was only when the oil workers entered the picture that the Western governments told the Shah to leave.

Because of all this and because of the fact that the labor movement, by its nature, tries to avoid extremism or revolutionary romanticism, there is reason to hope. The labor movement’s pragmatism allows it to stave off the dangers of extremism from both Left and right. The two main labor unions, the sugar cane workers and bus drivers, are resolute in protesting against the status quo and advancing their political and social agenda. They are supported by over 90 percent of the work force. If you talk to bus drivers in Tehran they are all upset about what has happened recently, but you never hear anything disparaging about the union leadership and what they have done. This shows the kind of work organizers have done. This was not a spur-of-the-moment thing. They organized over several years and held many sessions with intellectuals who taught them constitutional rights, economics, and so on. But, of course, there have been mistakes, as is to be expected. But those mistakes were necessary in some ways, so that the rest of the labor unions will not repeat them.

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