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Entering a New Phase: The Resurgence of the Labor Movement in Iran

During May Day weekend 2010, the Institute of Working Class History in Chicago held a conference to discuss, debate and analyze labor and social struggles.  Below is the text of the paper delivered by the Network of Iranian Labor Associations (NILA) to this international conference, “A Century+ of May Days: Labor and Social struggles”.

A New Beginning

Iran’s labor movement is one of the oldest in the Third World, with a rich history of militancy and collective struggle. Its genesis can be traced to the oil fields of Baku in the present-day Azerbaijani Republic, where oil was discovered in the 1870s and where thousands of Iranian workers traveled in search of work. They brought with them a collective identity and consciousness that set them apart from other classes, not to mention a knowledge of organized forms of economic resistance that was entirely new in Iran. The first documented record of a labor union in Iran is that of the Small Print Shop Workers Union, which was established in 1906. At the height of the Constitutional Revolution (1906-1911), workers at leather-making factories went on strike to defend the revolution against a military coup staged by the Qajar king. There were also strike actions by the telegram workers and the fishermen who were employed by Russian-owned firms. This period was terminated abruptly with the rise to power of the Pahlavi Dynasty in 1920s.

The period from the Second World War to the 1953 military coup was the heyday of mass unionism, with thousands of workers joining the Left-controlled unions throughout Iran. The 1979 revolution and its aftermath saw an upsurge in labor activism and collective struggle, which held great promise but which was cut short by the outbreak of the war with Iraq and the incipient tide of fundamentalist revanchism that was sweeping the country and monopolizing power.

We are now potentially entering the fourth major phase of trade unionism in the country’s century-old labor history.

With few exceptions, the current period should be counted as one of the most challenging and complex stages of this long and rich legacy, with many opportunities and pitfalls lying in the path of the nascent movement. On the one hand, Iran’s labor force is highly advanced in its makeup and its outlook. The present-day Iranian worker is no longer the semi-proletariat of yesteryear with one foot in the city and one foot in the countryside. It is not at all uncommon nowadays to have a lineage of three generations of workers in a single family. With this has been born a solid workers’ subculture, with all its particular and unique features — familiar in all the industrial countries of the world. Of course the influences of pre-industrial societies are still there but they are fast disappearing and giving birth to modern forms of consciousness. Aside from the modern middle class and the intelligentsia, the working class of Iran is the least tradition-bound and religiously-orthodox class in the country. With a size of well over eight million — out of a workforce of 25 million — of whom a little less than a third are concentrated in large or modern capitalist enterprises, the working class is well-positioned to play a significant role in the social and political life of the country. The oil and gas workers alone exert enormous powers over the functioning of the country’s economy as a whole, with 80 percent of the state’s earnings — the state being the largest single employer in Iran —directly connected to that sector. As has been witnessed countless times over the last hundred years, a powerful and well-organized trade union movement in Iran could be the best antidote to all forms of fanaticism and extremism that the country seems prone to. (Something about putting in eight hours of honest manual work, day in and day out, stops one from veering too far toward adventurism and extremism.)

Iran is entering a potentially convulsive period now. Given the alarming and increasing polarization of Iranian society along political, socio-cultural and ethnic lines with the attendant dangers of civil and national strife, wholesale disintegration, or even foreign intervention, a robust labor movement has the potential to lead and unify the country and navigate it through rough waters.

Objectively, the conditions seem rife for mass unionization. There are strong indications that with the lifting of police repression and prohibition of independent labor organizing, millions of workers would enthusiastically join labor unions to defend their interests. It isn’t hard to understand why. The dominant trend in the last two decades has been one of consistent chipping away of workers’ rights with absolutely no compensation received. The country’s rulers seem to think that the workers of Iran have gained “too much” from the 1979 revolution. Many of these gentlemen openly state that the workers supposedly got “too fair a treatment” because of pressure from the left flank. The attack on workers’ rights has been both practical and legal. The alarming use of temporary workers (over 60 percent of workers are now contracted on a temp basis), the non-payment of wages, lack of job security, privatizations, the deliberate closure of enterprises, the liberalization of labor markets,  and now the axing of state subsidies are among the most salient forms of anti-labor policies adopted by the Islamic Republic. These have been accompanied by new legislation or changes in the country’s labor code favoring employers. A new Labor Law is being prepared for the purpose of removing workers’ job security from the Islamic Republic’s constitution.

For these reasons, conditions could be said to be quite conducive for mass unionization in Iran — if the state’s repressive apparatus were eliminated or weakened. As the example of the bus drivers union amply demonstrates, there is a ready pool of unionists and labor leaders — the sons and daughters of the previous generation — who would provide the requisite cadre for such a historic undertaking.

Another promising element worth noting is the almost complete absence of sectarianism, ideological posturing, and pseudo-avant-gardism in the labor movement. Certainly, one reason the labor movement failed to take advantage of the brief 1979 opening for its self-organization was the influence of sectarianism and ultra-left tendencies within its own ranks. The ensuing divisions and impractical demands by many autonomous labor organizations paved the way for, and partly rationalized the subsequent clampdown on, independent workers’ activities for the next quarter century. Today’s labor movement, while not entirely immune from such proclivities, has grown and matured to more advanced levels of understanding and self-knowledge.

All this does not imply that the future of the labor movement is like a rose garden. There are still many dangers and perils facing the new movement. Chief among these — aside from the repression — is of course the political situation itself. Mass unionization is a process that needs time to germinate and grow – it won’t just “happen”. Sudden and precipitous national upheavals like military takeovers, coup d’etats, civil internecine strife or foreign interventions could postpone or completely derail such efforts (by the labor movement). One of the most prominent features of the present political configuration/situation in Iran is its utter unpredictability and instability. This is due to the large number of actors and variables. These same conditions make the possibility of committing strategic mistakes by people like the Supreme Leader or the Revolutionary Guards or Ahmadinejad — not to mention policy-makers in Tel Aviv and Washington — far more likely than would be the case otherwise.

There are other sources of anxiety for the labor movement. It is no exaggeration to say that the Iranian working class is at present in one of its worst states as far as economic conditions and bargaining power are concerned. Every year brings hundreds of thousands of new migrants from the countryside to the cities in search of work. There is also a large number of Afghan laborers, numbering between 700,000 and a million, who take a fraction of normal wages for comparable work. To these must be added the bankruptcy and closures of many enterprises to see the bleakness of the situation confronting Iranian workers today. In simple economic terms, the supply of labor is outstripping its demand. The ramification for workers has been catastrophic. In fact, it is believed that with the exception of the two world wars and the two the revolutions of the past century, no period has been so unfavorable for collective and individual bargaining with employers.

What threatens the labor movement today is the fact that with the further drop in purchasing power and an ever-smaller demand for new jobs, workers can easily be pit against one another. We are seeing the first rumblings of this age-old ruling-class tactic in such instances as the anti-Afghan fever attendant to criminal cases involving Afghans, the recent official talk about female work being more useful at home, and the regrettable group divisions between permanent-contracted workers and temporary-contracted ones manifest in frequent shop-floor disputes and discord. Time will tell how the new labor movement will navigate through these rough waters and regain its historic role. But there is little doubt that we are on the cusp of important changes both for our movement and the country as a whole.

Labor and the Democratic Movement

The attitude of the labor movement toward the Green Movement is an issue of intense debate and analysis within the labor movement at present. Some on the fringe of the movement consider the Green Wave phenomenon as part of a macabre and devious plot by the regime itself to confuse and divide the working class, while some on the other extreme call for the incorporation and organizational merger of the two. There are also many shades in between trying to chart a middle course. Our own position, that of the Network of Iranian Labor Unions, can be summarized as: active support, critical engagement, autonomous activity. In our view, it is an inexcusable mistake, even a monumental blunder, to stay aloof from the present democratic struggle in Iran. As long as the repressive force of the state precludes and violently crushes any form of independent labor activity, it is clearly in our interest to support efforts that defy such restrictions and strictures. Aside from self-interest, the labor movement has always prided itself on possessing a moral compass and a natural disposition towards emancipatory impulses in society. This is more or less true all over the world. How could we remain indifferent or ambivalent toward the most important struggle for democracy and self-determination that has hit the country in decades?

As for the issues of composition and the general aims of the Green movement, we have a generally favorable assessment. The present regime has forfeited the last vestiges of goodwill towards it by brazenly stealing the June 2009 vote and responding to the people’s just demands and peaceful protests with brute force. With the purge and defection of the reformists from the state, there are no longer any redeeming elements within the present regime. That is why we fully support the democratic movement in its broad demands and objectives.

We are also in full accord with the adoption of the non-violent civil disobedience struggle as the most efficacious and appropriate form of struggle for the movement. Any other form of struggle would have resulted in mass executions and much bloodier reprisals than we have seen. As far as its composition, contrary to those who cast aspersions on the Green movement because of its heterogeneity, we consider the astonishingly wide variety of participants in the movement to be among its greatest strengths. It is true that the movement has a heavy middle-class accent at present. But a sizable percentage of the Green movement activists have working-class backgrounds. As Nasrin Alavi writes:

A simple glance at the background of Iran’s prominent student leaders tells you that, by and large, they are not the children of affluent citizens of north Tehran, but instead come from provincial working-class families or are the children of rural schoolteachers and clerks. The Western media cliché of an opposition limited to the urban upper class belies the current realities. These future leaders of Iran commonly hail from the very heartland of Ahmadinejad’s purported support base.

Consider, as well, the following description by Ervand Abrahamian, author of the classic Iran Between Two Revolutions, of the silent rally of June 15th at Azadi (Freedom) Square in Tehran – quite possibly the largest rally in human history:

The call was heeded by around a million people — the conservative mayor of the capital put the number at three million. The scene was reminiscent of the rallies held in the same square during the 1979 revolution. … The rally drew all kinds of protester: old and young, professionals and workers, bazaaris and students, women with sunglasses and headscarves as well those with the full-length chador. Lines of protesters nine kilometres long converged on the square from the northern, better-off districts as well as from the southern, working-class ones.

But we must also recognize how the Green movement highlights the labor movement’s own weakness. Had the labor movement been stronger, it would have been in a position to call on union members and organized workers to join in the street protests. As it is, the fact that the bus drivers union, Haftape, and the well-known labor activists (known by the police) are beleaguered means it is too dangerous for them to call for street protests. Rectifying this situation would mean making the labor movement stronger through mass unionization and then plunging it headlong into the political struggle.

We also believe that the Green movement has much to learn from the labor movement. For it to be able to defeat the regime, it needs to incorporate some of the labor movement’s demands. It also needs to be more adaptable if it doesn’t wish to be pushed to a corner by a government that is far more powerful and far more cunning at its own game. Working-class activists can provide that needed flexibility in tactics which they have learned through long and arduous struggle.

Of course, not all working-class Iranians today share our views and our concerns regarding the relationship between the Green and labor movements. For some, mistrust of the Reformists has been translated into outright rejection of the Green Movement. For some others, the large presence of middle-class youth in the Green movement rallies and marches has been a major stumbling block for cooperation. What we would say to these friends is that even if the middle-class and affluent Greens have certain demands which are different from or even at variance with ours, these groups are far preferable for alliance-making than the other available socio-political actors in the field. Unless one is given to acting solo in politics, the working class needs for its own success to forge alliances with other strata and social groups in society. Of the available actors in the field, the choice between the obscurantist Islamists and the modern social classes is a no- brainer and unambiguous. Those who merely consider the income levels of the two groups as the yardstick for their political calculations fail to understand the concept of class. Class is not just about income levels. A highly skilled industrial worker usually makes more money than a typical shop keeper. This is true in most societies. But the latter is politically often far to the right of the former. The diverse forces that make up the present-day Islamist movement in Iran (known as “Osoolgarayan”), together with their variety of supporters, often hail from pre-capitalist social and economic formations. Although many are poor or have very modest incomes, from a working-class perspective they are far more reactionary than the most affluent Greens.

Fortunately, some in the labor movement have belatedly come to change their anti-Green approach somewhat, and this is welcome. Clearly, only with Green-labor unity can we stand up to the tyranny of the regime and free the country of its despotic rule. The popular struggle in Iran isn’t going away. The street demonstrations may have dwindled – for now – but a luta continua. Which side are you on?

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