Union Democracy in Iran: Is It Possible?

In an eye-opening interview with Labor Notes about assaults on workers in Iran and their efforts to organize free trade unions, an organizer based in Tehran delves into the volatile situation for advocates of union democracy in a closed society.

Ben Weinthal, a journalist working in Berlin who specializes in Iran, asks about the inner workings of the Green Movement, the anti-worker policies of Iran's authoritarian regime, strike activity, and what the international labor community can do to help. Because of the severe repression in Iran, the organizer is using the pseudonym Homayoun Poorzad.

LN: What role are Iranian workers and unionists playing within the Green Movement, which aims to bring democracy to the Islamic Republic of Iran?

HP: Workers definitely play a part in the Green Movement, though it is impossible to gauge the exact magnitude of it.

There are some myths to address. Working people all supposedly support President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and the Green Movement is supposedly a middle-class affair. Admittedly, it has a strong middle-class accent, but the first thing to point out is that many of the young people protesting in the streets are from workers' families. They "look" middle class because they have been able to go to university—which until recently was quite affordable—and acquire the appearances of young educated people everywhere in the world.

Second, the reason workers participate at lower rates is because participating in street protests is a risky business. Nowadays everyone who does so knows that there is a chance of getting arrested, tortured, or even killed. If you are a middle-class person, you know that if something unpleasant happens to you, your family could always rely on wealthy relatives, some asset somewhere you could sell, perhaps a nice bank account.

Not so if you are a worker. You know for certain that the least you can expect is to get fired from your job. In these times of economic hardship, that's a death sentence. In fact, just to take a day off for a protest action is not something many workers could afford.

The average Ahmadinejad supporter is indeed poorer than the average Greener, but that doesn't make the fundamentalists one bit pro-working-class.

"Class" is not just about income levels. Many supporters of Ahmadinejad hail from the traditional sectors of society. In Iran, small production or property ownership and the bazaar have been around for well over a thousand years. They may support this government and many of them happen to be pretty poor and destitute—they are also extremely backward.

They are in conflict with modernity (you could call it industry, democracy, rationality, women's liberation). The working class, being a wholly modern phenomenon, has never had an affection for Iranian fundamentalism. That's why Ahmadinejad really hates the workers at heart.

LN: There have been media reports about roving merchant strikes in bazaars and about worker unrest and systematic sabotage within Iran's critical gas and oil sectors. What is unfolding?

HP: The last 30 years have seen real big changes in Iran's economy. The fast pace of oil-based development and also the emergence of the new non-cleric ruling group is undermining the dominant position of the bazaar.

The bazaar was one of the main pillars of the 1979 Islamic revolution. The bazaaris also benefited enormously from it initially. Some bazaaris became parts of the new ruling class.

But the lower-end merchants have been hurting recently, and not just because of the economic crisis. The bazaar is becoming modernized, like the rest of the society, at a sometimes bewildering rate. That's why these lower-end merchants went on strike twice (and they didn’t get crushed by the government, incidentally).

The energy sector is in worse shape because it has seen a total run-down, with the combined effects of sanctions on oil and gas and the shocking ineptitude of the Revolutionary Guards, who are custodians of that once-thriving sector.

The energy-sector workers’ plight is similar to the rest of the working class. There is an attack on wages that is quite unprecedented. There are plant closures everywhere. There is the higher cost of living. Competition with the Afghan labor force is there. And we have a government that destroys all independent labor organizations with exceptional brutality.

LN: Why is Iran's regime severely clamping down on efforts to form and join independent unions?

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HP: Because it instinctively knows that given a chance, an organized labor movement would not allow an assault on its living conditions as we see today. It wouldn't sit idly by while all the state subsidies get axed. It would definitely not turn a blind eye to the takeover of state-owned firms by well-connected interest groups or capitalists-in-uniform.

LN: What unions are flexing strike muscles in Iran? And what are they seeking?

HP: Unfortunately, the new wave of unionization was stopped in its tracks before it could reach critical mass. The reformist government of Mohammad Khatami in the 1990s signed agreements with the UN’s International Labor Organization that allowed for union organizing. There was a short period for workers to organize themselves.

But the older generation of labor organizers had been retired, dismissed, or eliminated by then. The new generation needed time to learn the ropes. By the time the climate had changed, there wasn't a lot of time for the labor movement to get its act together. We had only three sector-wide unions—teachers, sugar cane workers, and oil workers. The rest have either gone underground and are just trying to survive or are doing small-action organizing campaigns you may never hear about.

Still, there is maneuvering room, if you don't give any excuses to the forces of repression. For example, if you first go through the motion of sending petitions, then meeting with Labor Ministry officials, and then starting first with low-key labor action and steadily ramping it up, management may be forced to relent.

Fear of social unrest is more important for the regime than many other considerations. They could even send in some emergency cash from the central government coffers to some factory in the provinces just to stave off the threat of contagion. This regime is partly based on the populist lie that it is a friend of the common man. So the situation is more nuanced than it may appear sometimes.

LN: Is genuine union democracy possible under a political system animated by radical Islam?

HP: Probably not, if by radical Islam you mean governments which favor a form of theocracy. So far we haven't seen it. It doesn't make sense to have any form of democracy with a group of people in power who think there is only one way of life, one set of beliefs that is correct and everything else—including trade union pluralism—is alien or trash or dangerous.

That doesn't imply that all supporters of political Islam are undemocratic. Only the subset that is the radical wing is really undemocratic. Of course, the majority of Islamists have been radical so far. But we are seeing a gradual change in that, particularly in Iran.

LN: How are women workers treated in comparison with men?

HP: What we have in Iran is an official case of misogyny. For instance, the government introduced a bill in the parliament three years ago where female employees would be forced to have shorter work days—with a cut in pay, of course—and not be given the opportunity for overtime. This was justified by claiming they could then spend their "free" hours tending for their children and their husbands.

Companies stopped employing women to avoid the new costs. This was all a deliberate policy choice to deprive women of work opportunities and increase pressure on those already employed.

LN: What can the international union movement do to advance union democracy in Iran and help secure the release of imprisoned union leaders?

HP: Iran’s government is desperate to join the World Trade Organization. To do so it has to get a passing grade from the International Labor Organization. Therefore, the friends of Iranian labor have an opportunity to exert maximum pressure to achieve freedom for imprisoned labor activists.

It is no coincidence that the jailed bus driver union leader Mansoor Osanloo is given a furlough from jail right around the time the government is conducting negotiations with the ILO.

Letter-writing campaigns to the government generally have a limited effect when it comes to jailed worker activists. Letters should be directed to ILO headquarters, not to Tehran.

Information in English on Iran’s labor movement is at Iran Labor Report.

See an earlier Labor Notes interview with Poorzad here.