Interview: In Iran, Labor Activists Face Repression

Interview by Bill Balderston, Oakland Education Association and U.S. Labor Against the War

Iran has seen incredible tumult in the last few months, with massive street protests challenging the government, even as the U.S. and allied nations continue to threaten the Iranian government under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

But most people in the U.S. know little about Iranian society, and especially its working class. Iranian workers have been organizing for more than a century but today largely have to function in a secretive, underground way. It is therefore very fortunate that we have obtained an interview with a labor organizer (whom we shall call Homayoun Poorzad), who is based in Tehran, the capital city of Iran.

Labor Notes: How has the Iranian labor movement fared under the Ahmadinejad regime?

HP: This has been the most anti-labor government of the Islamic Republic over the last 30 years. The 1979 revolution was not regressive in every sense; it nationalized 70 percent of the economy and passed a labor law that was one of the best in terms of limiting the firing of workers. This is a target for change by capitalists, both private and those in the government bureaucracy.

The economic crisis has helped Ahmadinejad ram thru a new agenda. This is also aided by the acceleration of the percentage (60 percent to 70 percent) of the workforce who are temporary contract workers.

Iran, like other countries, has had an import mania—from food to capital goods. Many local firms are being driven to bankruptcy. Workers’ bargaining power has suffered, with labor supply far outstripping demand. The Ahmadinejad government has been “bailing out” firms, but the government is running out of money.

The situation for labor is at its lowest status since the start of the 20th century, leaving out the years of the two world wars.

LN: What government actions have led to tensions with Iranian workers?

HP: The Ahmadinejad government is trying to make it easier to fire workers. There have also been massive privatizations, including turning over many firms to the Revolutionary Guards and the armed forces. Again, this has intensified the pushing of more workers into temporary contracts.

In addition, there is a “subsidies reform law” that is imminent. Previously, the government has provided the equivalent of billions of dollars to subsidize utilities, transportation, gasoline, heating oil, electricity, and water—for both individuals and factories. What people pay is as little as 5 percent to 18 percent of the actual costs. Two years ago gasoline was about 40 cents a gallon. This bill would double or triple costs in a few months and eliminate many subsidies over a period of five years.

This will have a double effect: it will lead to massive inflation, but the main damage will be that when factories’ costs increase, it will lead to massive layoffs. We believe this will spark huge labor actions, in somewhere between three months to a year.

LN: How does this situation relate to past developments with workers’ struggles and rights in Iran?

HP: There have been major reductions in labor actions in the last five or six years. Most workers can't afford to strike, and temporary contract workers have virtually no rights. Full-time workers can engage in peaceful protests, according to the Iranian constitution, around working conditions or being paid on time. That leaves more than 8 million workers prevented from organizing themselves. Six years ago, under former president Mohammad Khatami, the situation was better. ILO [International Labor Organization] covenants were signed, which provided some freedom to organize, combined with some encouragement by certain government spokespeople.

It must be said that since the Islamic Revolution, it has been harder in many ways for workers to organize than even under the Shah.

After 1979, there were workers councils (these were politicized organizations). But after 1982, they were expelled and replaced by the Islamic Workers Councils. They pushed the politics of the regime and stymied independent labor action, but they did defend some workers. They have an umbrella organization called the Workers House, which has a newspaper and is represented in the Iranian parliament. In order to maintain their base, they have actually opposed changes in the labor law, and their representative was the only outspoken opponent of the new subsidies cutbacks legislation.

The older workers of the earlier revolutionary period are still respected by younger workers and in that way exert an indirect influence on labor activism.



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LN: What sectors of the workforce are active?

HP: The main sectors of the workforce in Iran are in oil and gas, followed by automobiles, steel, textiles, and mining. There are over a dozen nuclei of unions underground and 10 or 11 sectors of the workforce involved, despite the fact there are many less labor actions than 10 years ago.

The best example of recent labor activism is the bus drivers union in Tehran. They have set up workshops and classes on organizing, the history of the labor movement, and legal and constitutional rights for workers. In a work stoppage around wages and working conditions not long ago, they brought Tehran, a major city, to a halt. Even the baseej [the Islamic paramilitary assigned to communities and worksites, at the center of the recent repression] were sympathetic to their strike; the mayor of Tehran addressed more than 10,000 of their members.

After a second strike, the union was banned and the security police arrested their leaders, including Mansoo Osanloo. [Editor: After last May 1st, other Iranian labor leaders were also arrested--see the U.S. Labor Against the War website.] Over 40 of their leaders were fired and some are still unemployed. The government started privatization; over half the buses are now “owned” by individual drivers. There has also been an attempt to co-opt the bus drivers with some small benefits and pay raises.

The other important union involves the sugar cane workers. They are active in an area near the oil fields and have massive (over 90 percent) support of these agricultural workers and their families. After petitioning for work improvements and meeting with bureaucrats, which led nowhere, they took direct action and blocked a freeway. They have been involved in a three-year struggle.

LN: What has been the role of workers in the recent post-election protests? How do workers view the election of Ahmadinejad?

HP: Some people in the U.S. saw Ahmadinejad as a populist; but workers are not fooled; they know it is a police state, with a right-wing ideology. He has a base in small towns and rural areas amongst the poor. The regime gives handouts of money and coupons to such people before the elections.

The recent protests are often portrayed as just a middle-class movement, but workers are in support of the Green Wave actions. The protests are centered in Teheran, especially in the northern part of the city, which is more middle-class. There are less agents there of the regime, like the baseej, so people are not so easily identified. That is the second reason there are not many workers currently out on the streets in these protests. If they are arrested, they would lose their jobs and starve; middle-class demonstrators don't face starvation as a result of their activities.

Overall, there is an ongoing danger from a core of religious radicals, especially the baseej, who believe that by imprisoning and torturing those opposing the Islamic state, they are gaining access to paradise.

The labor movement does not identify with any political faction in the current struggle, but once the labor movement becomes strong, it can effect an overall change in policies, including at the international level. We could stop people such as Ahmadinejad from making such an outrageous speech in the UN about the Holocaust.

LN: What is the Ahmadinejad regime's agenda in this crisis?

HP: First, the whole regime supports an IMF-type structural adjustment [which usually includes privatization, deregulation, and government cuts to education, public health, and social safety nets].

Second, the government is desperate, facing a possible U.S. or Israeli attack, and is seeking funds for its political agenda. They are sensitive to other oil producers (and their unions), but any outside intervention (even more sanctions, which we believe are not now helpful) will allow them to label any Iranian labor activists as agents of foreign powers.

Third, there will be major layoffs, which would be aggravated by sanctions as well as government policies, which can lead to huge labor actions, especially amongst industrial workers.

It is a unique opportunity to go on the offensive and push the government.

The current regime desperately wishes to join the WTO (World Trade Organization), which requires meeting certain ILO guidelines. Therefore, union members and leaders in the West can pressure their national and international federations to demand union organizing rights in Iran as well as freeing imprisoned labor leaders. Hopefully, there could be a delegation sent by such federations to Iran and perhaps a committee of trade unions to demand such rights.

The Network of Iranian Labor Unions can be reached at niluinfo [at] gmail [dot] com and a new website,