Workers Movement Growing In Iran

Though in the past few years much attention has been paid to Iran due to concerns over its nuclear power, another type of power has been slowly re-emerging, with little coverage from mainstream media: workers’ power.

Most significantly, between May 1, 2004, and May 1, 2005, two separate Iranian workers committees formed. The Committee for Co-ordination to Establish Workers’ Organization (Komittee Hamahangi Baaraai Eijad Tashakol Gargarie) announced its formation May 1 2005 by publishing the names of more than three thousand workers and labor activists who support its goals.

This committee’s goals flow from the “Iranian Workers May Day Resolution” of 2004. This resolution covered a wide range of workers’ concerns, from the need for independent workers organization, job safety, fair wages, retirement benefits, and women workers’ rights to protesting racial discrimination, child labor, and the ongoing wars and foreign intervention in neighboring Afghanistan , and Iraq.

The second group, the Committee for Continuation of Establishment of Free Workers Organizations in Iran (Komittee paygeirie-e Eijad Tashakolhai Azad Kargai Dar Erun), also recently announced its existence with close to four thousand separate signers as its initial base. This second committee is much more focused on legal advocacy and relying on existing labor institutions such as the Islamic Republic of Iran’s (IRI) Labor Ministry and the International Labour Organization (ILO).

GOVERNMENT INTIMIDATION

The current wave of worker discontent was sparked on January 23, 2004, by the shooting deaths of four copper miners in the city of Khatoon. The miners were shot while holding a non-violent demonstration in front of the copper factory protesting their temporary work status. As temporary workers, these miners received no medical or pension benefits, low wages, and were subject to arbitrary and irregular work scheduling.

The miners were shot by IRI “special guards”—government goons who have been used to intimidate and brutalize activists in the Iranian workers’, women’s, and students’ movements. When the shock waves of these killings reached different cities, numerous factory committees responded with statements of solidarity and a nation-wide protest in form of five minutes of silence, and work stoppage in memory of the slain workers was organized through out Iran.

This nation-wide solidarity movement was solidified on May 1, 2004 when the Workers Council for Celebrating May Day organized simultaneous May Day events in six cities throughout Iran-- Tehran, Rasht, Saghez, Bookan, Marivan, and Baaneh. The May Day Resolution was a part of these events.

As the supreme power in workers’ affairs for a quarter century, the IRI was not going to allow such displays of worker power and solidarity. The rally in Saghez led to clashes with the police and the arrests of seven workers and labor activists. However, all seven were released in less than two weeks due to an eleven-day hunger strike by the arrested and effective local and international campaigning.

GROWING MILITANCE

Since then, those arrested have been dragged through various legal proceedings and continuously harassed, but not silenced. On May Day of this year the same Workers Council held similar activities in various cities, without any clashes or arrests of the participants. What was initially most alarming to the IRI was how the workers boycotted the official Islamic Council’s event, held in a 12,000 capacity stadium.

As an additional factor it should be kept in mind that IRI has been in extensive negotiations with ILO to officially become a member in that body, and hence for the first time in its miserable existence has opened up itself to some measures of international norm, standard, and pressure.

ROOTS OF STRUGGLE

The seeds of this upsurge were sown twenty seven years ago -- in December 1978 -- when oil workers, by shutting down Iran’s oil production, put the final nail in the coffin of the U.S.-backed, C.I.A.-installed regime of Mohammad Reza Shah. The oil workers’ strike was the culmination of two years of countrywide industrial actions, and mass urban street protests.

From 1978 to early 1980, oil workers, and an overwhelming majority of industrial workers and the population at large, were organized into autonomous organizations called Shora (translates into English as “council”). Compared to other revolutions of the twentieth century, the 1979 Iranian revolution had some of the highest levels of industrial action and mass urban demonstrations.

Though it’s often forgotten, Shoras were largely responsible for the everyday functioning of factories and community institutions on local, regional, and national levels. During the Iranian revolution, what occurred was nothing less than workers and community councils controlling the economy on a national scale. Unfortunately, that glorious moment came to an abrupt, bloody, and tragic end during the systematic crackdown by the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI).

Using violent and repressive methods, the IRI replaced the original Shoras--which were a product of worker and community consultation and voting--with state appointed “Islamic” Shoras throughout the country. For the next twenty-four years (from 1980 to 2004), the workers movement in Iran was dominated by aggressive IRI policies which sought to maximize IRI control over and profit from both state-owned and private sector companies.

These aims were achieved through the spread of temporary work, privatization, mass lay-offs, and institutionalizing of poverty wages into the Labor Code. Though there were a few courageous attempts by oil workers, who demanded their own autonomous unions in the late 1980s and early 90s, and a few scattered industrial actions, these were systematically crushed and the balance of power remained heavily in favor of IRI.

GROWING UPSURGE

As this article was written, there was news of a general strike throughout all of Iranain Kurdistan. The strike, called by Komoalah, the Kurdistan organization of the Communist Party of Iran, was a response to IRI’s deadly July attacks on that region’s population.

Although a new IRI president was recently “elected,” all indicators point out to an intensification of workers’ struggles. At these times of increasing pressure and threats from internal reaction and external aggression, the international labor movement can and must assist their sisters and brothers in Iran.