Emergence of Iranian Workers

Ali Javadi

IRAN IS USUALLY identified with Khomeini, Islam, execution, terror, war, poverty or discrimination against women. But this is only part of the truth. In such images there is rarely any place for the Iranian working class, its social role, its demands and social aspirations.

To give a real picture of the Iranian working class, in particular to the workers of other countries, is a task for which much remains to be done. How quickly it has been forgotten that it was the workers, and at their forefront the oil-workers, who broke the back of the Shah’s regime.

Khomeini’s value for the international bourgeoisie, despite the war of words, was essentially his success in restraining and bloodily crushing an immense and powerful revolution, which should and could have led to workers’ power, and in ultimately establishing in the name of revolution a hated Islamic bourgeois power over the workers.

The Iranian working class faces many obstacles, hardships and lack of rights. But these deprivations are being imposed in the context of a wide-scale confrontation and fightback by the workers, as testified by historical examples (shutting off the oil to South Africa and Israel in protest against apartheid, supporting the struggle of the Palestinians).

Advanced sections of Iranian workers consider themselves part of the world working class and count on international solidarity among workers.

The Emergence

The modem Iranian working class has its origin in Shah’s land reform (so-called White Revolution—ed.) of 19631%8. The land reform sent millions of peasants off to labor markets in industrial zones. By 1974 thousands of factories were set up, most initiated or subsidized by the government From the 1960s onward the working class emerged as the main producing class.

The Shah’s government itself made most of its revenue from oil explorations and sales, pouring into the country vast amounts of foreign capital through the government. This meant that while the formal investment of foreign companies amounted to a mere ten percent of the total investment, the Shah’s government pumped into the economy the other ninety percent from oil revenue.

Crash industrialization, or what the Shah called rapid modernization, marks the dawn of the contemporary history of Iran and emergence of its working class.

The sharp rise in oil prices in the mid-70s brought a short period of “boom” in Iran. The astronomical revenue of this period enabled the Shah’s government to revise its plans of development, accelerating the pace of industrialization. But this period of “boom’ was short-lived, and with the drop in the oil revenue in 1977, the Shah’s crash program went awry.

The government attempted to counter its huge budget deficit, and adopted austerity programs in financing development projects. Foreign capital began to see the darkness rather than light at the end of the tunnel, and began withdrawing their directly invested capital from the country.

Unemployment and inflation rose to unprecedented levels in a short period. Crisis had hit Iran, and its latent effects embraced the country all at once, to such a degree that in addition to the working class, middle classes also observed a huge drop in their general level of subsistence.

It was in such circumstances that the clergy, who had been marginalized with the land reform (which broke their traditional endowments and took away their rural social base) and the rise of large-scale industrial and commercial capital in Iran, raised their voice against Shah’s modernization plans.

The 1979 Revolution

As the economic crisis deepened further, many millions turned against the Shah and his despotic bourgeois rule, and the revolution gathered momentum. From the second half of 1979, workers’ muscle provided to be the decisive force in toppling the Shah’s regime.

In the 1979 revolution the working class was the backbone of the revolutionary movement and the workers’ nation-wide strikes were the most radical blows struck at the Shah’s regime. The slogan “Our oil workers are our staunch leaders” then became the general slogan of the revolutionary masses.

Right from the very beginning, the new regime attacked the gains of the revolution (such as forty-hour working week, the right to form independent organization, right of assembly, and so on) and its thugs attacked the workers’ demonstrations, women demanding equal rights with men, etc.

Workers’ struggle against the Islamic regime began from the very beginning of its power. The first bullets fired against the revolution by the new regime hit the hearts of unemployed workers who had launched a wide scale movement.

The revolutionary period of 1978-81 was a period of rich experience for workers and their direct intervention, by the millions, in the fate of society, leaving its stamp on the consciousness of the whole working class. But this period ended in 1981 with the Islamic regime’s massacre of the workers’ councils, destruction of the political organizations and unleashing of unprecedented repression in Iran.

Workers’ Organizations

The absence of permanent mass labor organization in Iran is an old problem. Except for brief and occasional periods, mass organizations in Iran have not existed. The continuous existence of repression and dictatorship and the banning of the right to organize is the major cause of this situation.

Fora better understanding we look at different mass organization in Iran.

The Unions. Despite their relatively long record of existence, trade unions in Iran have not left behind a tradition.

In two short periods in Iran’s history, marked by social upheavals and openings in the field of workers’ protests and struggle, we have witnessed the growth of unions. The first period was in the years 1921-31, the second from 1941-53.

Very few memories of those days are still alive in the minds of workers today. The 1931 Reza Shah’s repression and 1953 CIA coup and the renewal of repression destroyed the existing unions.

Other important factors that explain the absence of a strong and well-rooted trade-union tradition in Iran include the lack of continuity of reformist parties, the non-tolerance by the bourgeoisie in Iran of an independent trade-union movement, the failure of unions in their last great experience to thoroughly defend the interests of the workers, the existence of constant repression, the rapid change in the composition of the working class and its growth by millions in short time.

The Council Movement. During 1971-81 when a great field of action opened for the creation of labor organizations, the great majority of workers turned to building councils and council-type organizations. In practice the councils, due to their complete accordance with workers’ direct and immediate exercise of control, won an indisputable victory in relation to the unions.

The councils emerged from the heart of the mass, nation-wide strikes of 1977-81, headed by the oil workers. The strike committees that half-secretly led the strikes were, after the 1979 uprising, either chosen to be part of the leadership and executives of the councils, or themselves directly transformed into “councils” or “founding committees for councils.”

The councils were direct organs of exercise of workers’ will. Through the oil workers, workers had demanded to be included in the provisional government set up in the wake of the revolution, but had found no share in it.

A whole range of economic and political demands were placed on the agenda of the councils, including: work-era’ control in factories, expulsion of management, dissolution of the spying and surveillance organs, the introduction of democratic freedoms, wage increases, the reinstatement of all fired workers from previous years, the supervision of the general assembly over matters relating to the firing and recruiting of employees, equal rights for women and men, the abolition of the labor law dating to the Shah’s regime, drafting a new labor law with the approval of workers’ elected representatives, publishing reports of workers’ protests and demands in the official newspapers, radio and TV.

The fact that councils intervened and engaged in all matters, were free from bureaucratic strings, and provided the possibility for workers to voice and implement their wishes directly, was their remarkable point of strength compared to all organizations in previous experience.

The councils did not live long enough to give rise to council federations and national unions of councils. A number of attempts in this direction only reached the half-way stage. For example, the Union of Councils of the Organization of Development Industries, which made efforts to coordinate the councils of over one hundred factories, with tens of thousands of workers.

From the very beginning the Islamic Republic tried to destroy the councils through a variety of methods: by conquering them from within, by exerting economic pressures, especially in the case of councils which had taken control of the factory, and mainly by resorting to suppression, intimidation, arrest and even murder of council activists.

In the first days of the Iran-Iraq war, in September 1980, then President Bani-Sadr, appeared on national television, saying to the workers: “It is now war; councils and the likes are over; you have to produce, my dear.” On 20th June 1981 when the regime began its horrible massacres, the councils were smashed and many of their activists were fired, imprisoned, executed or forced to flee the country.

General Assembly. The regular assembly of the workers of every factory, in which workers made decisions and themselves carried out these decisions, was the core of the general assemblies. After the 1981 suppressions, the council tradition continued in the form of efforts to hold general assemblies.

Most of the important strikes since 1981 have been based on general assemblies organized during the period of protest The one-month steel workers’ strike in November 1984, in which 10,000 workers of the construction section of the steel complex took part and another 12,000 gave active backing could not have been waged without the assemblies.

In some factories regular general assemblies became institutionalized. The strikes of the brickyards, in the west of Iran, which break out every year over wages and involve several thousand workers, would be unimaginable without general assemblies.

The influence of the council tradition, the desirability and efficacy of the general assembly in meeting the needs of workers’ current struggles, and the ease with which it can be held, even under the repression established by the Islamic Republic, are the strongest points of the general assemblies. These merits have made the general assemblies the only available means for Iranian workers to build their own organizations.

Workers and the War

The Iran-Iraq war was a great disaster for all the people and particularly the workers. The war mobilized the whole of Iranian nationalism in the service of the Islamic Republic and the suppression of the workers’ demands. The war dislocated the greatest section of people in the west and south of the country and the most important section of the working class, the workers of the oil industry and other industrial workers in the south.

The legacy of the war has been nothing but one million dead, tens of thousands permanently disabled, millions of refugees from war-affected areas, hunger and misery. The war also provided the bourgeoisie with the most potent tool for lowering the living conditions of the working class, taking away workers’ rights.

The widespread struggles of the “war zones” people and war refugees demanding to be provided with living amenities, which continued for several years, were led by workers of the south, particularly the Abadan oil refinery workers. The forms of this struggle in the workplaces included resistance to wage cuts, refusal to go to the fronts, refraining from producing war products, refusal to do overtime because of the war, and the refusal to produce direct protest against the war.

In mid-1988 when protests against the war flared up, workers openly protested the war in their workplaces. No doubt this anti-war struggle was a decisive factor in the sudden and unexpected acceptance of a cease-fire by the Iranian government.

Post-War Period

But from the middle of 1987 until the Islamic Republic accepted the cease-fire there was revitalization in worker actions. Submission to cease-fire and the ending of the war, however, were important developments that immediately influenced workers’ lives.

The regime’s promise of postwar prosperity limited the scale and momentum of workers’ protests for some time-From early 1989 the protest began once again, expanding later in the year.

In 1989 the demand for increased wages, which were frozen in that year, was the main issue. The call by the people and especially workers for the rapid improvement of living conditions after the war has put the Islamic Republic under great pressure.

Today the Iranian workers continue to struggle for a just and decent life: better living and working conditions, higher wages, cost of living adjustment at least equal to the real inflation rate, a shorter workweek, and free and independent organizations.

In short, they want a life worthy of human beings and of free members of society. In this struggle the Iranian workers are counting on their co-workers across the world for support.

March-April 1991, ATC 31