January 19, 2010 -- Labor Notes -- Iran has seen incredible tumult in the last few months, with massive
street protests challenging the government, even as the US and allied
nations continue to threaten the Iranian government under President
But most people in the US know little about Iranian society, and
especially its working class. Iranian workers have been organising 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 labour organiser (whom we shall call Homayoun
Poorzad), who is based in Tehran, the capital city of Iran.
Labor Notes: How has the Iranian labour movement fared under the Ahmadinejad regime?
Poorzad: This has been the most anti-labour government of the Islamic
Republic over the last 30 years. The 1979 revolution was not regressive
in every sense; it nationalised 70 per cent of the economy and passed a
labour 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 through a new agenda.
This is also aided by the acceleration of the percentage (60 per cent to
70 per cent) 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 labour supply far
outstripping demand. The Ahmadinejad government has been “bailing out”
firms, but the government is running out of money.
The situation for labour is at its lowest status since the start of
the 20th century, leaving out the years of the two world wars.
What government actions have led to tensions with Iranian workers?
The Ahmadinejad government is trying to make it easier to fire
workers. There have also been massive privatisations, including turning
over many firms to the Revolutionary Guards and the armed forces.
Again, this has intensified the pushing of more workers into temporary
In addition, there is a “subsidies reform law” that is imminent.
Previously, the government has provided the equivalent of billions of
dollars to subsidise utilities, transportation, gasoline, heating oil,
electricity and water—for both individuals and factories. What people
pay is as little as 5 per cent to 18 per cent 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 labour
actions, in somewhere between three months to a year.
How does this situation relate to past developments with workers’ struggles and rights in Iran?
There have been major reductions in labour 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 organising themselves. Six years ago,
under former president Mohammad Khatami, the situation was better. International Labor Organization (ILO) covenants were signed, which
provided some freedom to organise, 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 organise than even under the Shah.
After 1979, there were workers councils (these were politicised
organisations). But after 1982, they were expelled and replaced by the
Islamic Workers Councils. They pushed the politics of the regime and
stymied independent labour action, but they did defend some workers.
They have an umbrella organisation called the Workers House, which has
a newspaper and is represented in the Iranian parliament. In order to
maintain its base, it has opposed changes in the labour
law, and its 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 labour activism.
What sectors of the workforce are active?
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 labour actions
than 10 years ago.
The best example of recent labour activism is the bus drivers' union
in Tehran. They have set up workshops and classes on organising, the
history of the labour 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
centre 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 Osanhoo. [After last
May 1, other Iranian labour leaders were also arrested--see the US Labor Against the War website.] More than 40 of their leaders were fired and some are still
unemployed. The government started privatisation; 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
per cent) 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.
What has been the role of workers in the recent post-election protests? How do workers view the election of Ahmadinejad?
Some people in the US 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 centred in Tehran, 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
The labour movement does not identify with any political faction in
the current struggle, but once the labour 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.
What is the Ahmadinejad regime's agenda in this crisis?
First, the whole regime supports an IMF-type structural
adjustment [which usually includes privatisation, deregulation and
government cuts to education, public health and social safety nets].
Second, the government is desperate, facing a possible US 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 labour 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
labour actions, especially among industrial workers.
It is a unique opportunity to go on the offensive and push the government.
The current regime desperately wishes to join the 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 organising
rights in Iran as well as freeing imprisoned labour leaders. Hopefully,
there could be a delegation sent by such federations to Iran and
perhaps a committee of trade unions to demand such rights.
[Bill Balderston is from the Oakland Education Association and US Labor Against the War. The Network of Iranian Labor Unions can be reached at email@example.com and a new website, Iranlaborreport.com. This interview first appeared at Labor Notes, a US-based magazine for trade union activists.]
Ahmadinejad a progressive? Ahamdi’s anti-imperialism is a myth and so are his leftist credentials
Network of Iranian Labor Unions (NILU)
Iran Labor Report -- There
is a fiction going about in some progressive circles around the world
according to which Ahmadinejad is a great nationalist crusader, that he
is a champion of the poor and that he is a man of the people. This is
certainly shocking to the ears of most Iranians (including many Iranian
workers) who consider their president to be a demagogue and a petty
dictator. Let’s look at the facts in detail:
Subsidies Rationalisation Plan. The government’s Economic Reform Plan
first introduced in March 2008 followed up by the Doctor-Jekyll-like
Subsidies Rationalisation Plan is a carbon copy of the IMF
prescriptions for neoliberal restructuring. Its centrepiece is the
wholesale axing of national subsidies within five years starting from
One of the few victories of Iranian working class from the 1979
revolution has been the constitutionally guaranteed right of the
Iranian people to make free use of billions of dollars in assistance
provided in the form of state subsidies. Gasoline users, bakeries, city
bus commuters and consumers of public utilities are among the tens of
millions of people who have benefited to one degree or other from this
For instance, bus commuters in urban areas pay only about a
tenth of the fares they would have otherwise paid. Gasoline is only 40
cents per litre. Cooking gas is a fifth of its so-called market rate.
It is important to note that these benefits were not a result of an act
of generosity or some kind of government largess but an achievement
wrought by the sacrifice and blood of millions of Iranians. It is now
all coming to an end. Ahmadinejad's government has brazenly set about
ending this 30-year arrangement with a fanatical zeal. Starting this
January, subsidies will be cut in large increments. In this, the
government is supported by the majority of the country’s ruling
factions who expect to grab various chunks of the bonanza.
(Significantly, opposition figure Mir Hossein Mousavi has sharply
criticised the plan as ill advised and misguided.)
There is nothing novel or redeeming about the Subsidies Rationalisation
Plan. Ahmadinejad’s price liberalisation scheme is nothing but a
regurgitated version of the infamous shock therapy treatment devised by
the late Milton Friedman of the University of Chicago fame. It was
first applied in Chile in the late 1970s and later in east and central
Europe with devastating effect for the poor and working classes.
Privatisation. Ahamdinejad has dutifully signed on to the
so-called Amendment to Article 44 of the Constitution, which
envisions the wholesale dismantling of the public sector and its
handover to crony capitalists.
According to the government’s own 2008 statistics, one third of the
state assets have already been privatised (US$37 billion out of $110
billion) of which 78% occurred under the Ahmadinejad administration.
This too is a carbon copy of the IMF model for structural adjustment.
In fact, despite abundant national resources, Ahmadinejad is eager to
have Iran join the World Trade Organization at the earliest possible date. Too bad the WTO has
only allowed his government observer status!
The only difference between privatisation in Iran and privatisation in
the rest of the world is that it is not really the private sector that
ends up with the public enterprises in question. Rather, it is the
Revolutionary Guards Corps of Iran (RGCI) and its sundry
subsidiaries—followed by less powerful players—that have grabbed the
prized state assets. It would be a real stretch of imagination to call
these RGCI-controlled entities as Iran’s private sector. In the last
year alone, tens of billions of dollars in state assets were handed out
to the RGCI in no-bid, below-market-price sweet deals. For example,
last October, in the stock market’s largest transaction ever, an $8
billion purchase was made of the country’s telecommunication industry
in a sweet deal that is costing the RGCI next to nothing.
In other words, the Iranian people are getting the worst of both
worlds! They are gradually losing their public ownership rights while a
small clique of hard-line military men and militocrats with absolutely
no managerial or technical skills are calling themselves the new
masters of the country. Already, many fraudulently “privatised” firms
are being run to the ground or cannibalised of choice assets thanks to
the inexperience, greed and venality of the RGCI.
Income redistribution. Much has been made of Ahmadi’s pseudo-leftist
Robin Hood-style rhetoric to steal from the rich and give it to the
poor. The last four years have seen, thanks to the huge oil income
windfall, possibly the largest-ever budget increase in Iran’s 2500-year
history; yet, all that Ahmadinejad and his defenders have to show for
are the so-called Justice Shares; small salary increases for selected
groups; and some paltry micro-credits for low- or middle-income families.
The much-touted Justice Shares have an uncanny resemblance to the voucher privatisation scheme that was practiced in Russia during the
1990s. The plan led to the destruction of the state sector and the
accumulation of power and wealth in the hand of mafia oligarchs.
As for the salary increases, the 2007-2008 inflation rates of 36%
and 33% swept away whatever income boost the government had promised to
prospective voting blocs. As for micro-credits, according to the minister of trade, 56% of the
micro-credit allocations “failed to reach their goals” with the
majority given out to favoured individuals.
In short, as far as Iran’s working people are concerned, Ahmadi’s
economic performance is at best poor and probably abysmal. But what of
his social and political policy?
Social Policy. Since coming to power in 2005, Ahmadinejad has once
again unleashed the loathsome religious "vice squads" on the population
of the urban areas. In the last four years, hundreds of thousands of
young people, particularly young women, have been subjected to
searches, arrest and humiliating behaviour for such innocuous infractions as wearing boots in winter. Ahmadinejad has also closed
down 48 newspapers and magazines; rolled back the limited social and
cultural freedoms won in the old administration and generally allied
himself with the most retrograde social forces in the country—possibly
in the world—such as the fire-breathing ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi. The
budget for the arts have been cut by 62% while that of the hard-line
religious centres have increased exponentially.
Women, particularly working-class women, have seen their status eroded
or under severe attack. For example, in 2007 the government introduced
a bill on the floor of the parliament called the Family Protection Act
which nullified a woman’s legal right to be notified of her husbands’
intention to seek a second wife and to annul it once it has occurred.
In the end, Iranian parliament members, no doubt fearing a backlash
from their own wives and daughters, voted the disgraceful bill down.
But they didn’t veto another bill which made it obligatory for female
civil servants to refuse overtime work and pay on the grounds that
“women’s true place was at home”.
Democratisation. To our knowledge, Mr. Ahmadinejad has never had the
pretense of being a democrat and we would certainly not want to
contradict him on that score.
Anti-imperialism. It is a grave mistake to brand anyone who rails
against the United States as an anti-imperialist. If that were the
case, Osama Bin Laden and his murderous followers would have been the
greatest anti-imperialists the world has ever seen. Ahamdinejad’s
anti-Americanism is fueled by a desire to become the region’s new
hegemon and nothing else. Iran’s working classes have no interest
whatsoever in seeing their rulers exploit other nations’ peoples and