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.

New Book

Secrets of a successful organizer

A step-by-step guide to building power on the job. Buy Now. »

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, Iranlaborreport.com.

Comments

getorganized (not verified) | 01/20/10

At its 2009 National Assembly, U.S. Labor Against the War heard about the conditions under which the labor movement of Iran is operating from Homayoun Pourzad. He predicted that as the regime implements its program to reduce subsidies for basic necessities of life (food, fuel, electricity, water, housing), the class struggle in Iran will sharpen. Workers will be compelled out of self-preservation to organize and the independent labor movement will grow. The accuracy of that prediction is borne out by the report below from Iranian steelworkers at the state-owned Isfahan Steel Company. USLAW will continue to make available reports it receives from the workers' movement of Iran on its website at www.uslaboragainstwar.org. Also visit www.iranlaborreport.com for ongoing coverage of the independent Iranian labor movement.

Michael Eisenscher
USLAW National Coordinator
_______________________________________________________________________


IRAN LABOR REPORT

As the escalating economic crisis is eroding the workers living standards and as the government of Mahmood Ahmadinejad is preparing to implement its draconian Subsidies Rationalization Law, the pace of resistance by workers is showing unmistakable signs of an upsurge. We are clearly witnessing the rebirth of the labor movement in Iran after nearly 25 years. Below is the text of a statement by a labor group in the Isfahan Steel Company, one of the country’s largest, which was issued last Sunday, January 17. The translation has been provided by Network of Iranian Labor Unions (NILU). It has to be noted that these workers are operating in complete secrecy and at a considerable risk to themselves. Iran Labor Report will continue reporting on such activities in the weeks and months to come as they are unfolding.

A Better Life is Every Worker’s Right

The Isfahan Steel Company (ISC) has been one of the largest industrial enterprises in all Iran. Nevertheless, despite many small and large efforts by workers throughout the years to improve their working condition, they have been strenuously deprived of the right to have a workers-led organization of their own to defend their rights and just demands.

In this connection, faced with an uncertain future and generally worsening conditions, and mindful of the crushing weight of the economic crisis on the workers’ shoulders, we, a group of ISC workers, have decided to form the “Ad Hoc Council of the Isfahan Steel Workers”,whose mission it is to unify the workers’ ranks and defend their rights.

Clearly, since the Council has commenced its work under conditions of underground activity and its members are by necessity not openly elected by the rank and file, it has decided to qualify itself as ad hoc. However, the Council pledges to have an open and free election encompassing the entire labor force the moment conditions allow for open activity. Up until that day, the Council, as the only existing representative of the ISC labor, will spare no effort to defend each and every worker’s right, while keeping everyone informed of its deliberations with periodic statements.

The Council’s guidelines, general outlook and positions are as follows:

The Council believes that all workers should be seen on equal footing and that blatant and/or subtle discrimination among the workers between the permanent and the temporary or subcontracted workers are artificial divisions created not by the workers themselves but by the country’s decision-makers. These people are the ones responsible for these problems and they are the ones who must answer for them. As a result, the Council believes that the discriminatory policies serve the express purpose of dividing the workers’ ranks.

The Council is of the opinion that strikes are an inalienable right of every worker. Under conditions where some workers have not been paid in well over 6 or 8 months, strikes are the only weapon in their hands. The Council states its unconditional solidarity with the courageous workers at Shoja Ehia Gostaran Espadan, Nasooz Azar, Isargaran Hadid, Nasir Bonyad, and all the other enterprises where strikes have taken place.

The Council would like to alert all permanent workers against the danger of decisions by management to delay or forgo the payment of their due wages, overtime pay and bonuses. In that event, the Council urges all workers to resort to hunger strike, “white strike” (such as slow-downs or limited disruption in production line) and finally a full strike as both defensible and legitimate initiatives.

The Council views the factory’s policy of blaming the workers for any and all safety mishaps in and around factory grounds - particularly those resulting in death or permanent disability - as cruel and inhumane. It believes that the primary cause of accidents are harsh working conditions, antiquated equipment and the management’s constant pressure on the workers for faster and larger production quotas.

The Council considers the minimum wage for “direct-contract” and sub-contractual workers set at 400,000 Tomans ($400)--at a time when the ‘poverty line’ for an urban family is officially set at 800,000 Tomans ($800) per month--to be patently unjust for workers and their families. The Council further calls for the gradual rollback of discrimination between all contractual workers and permanent workers.

The Council firmly believes that privatization of the Isfahan Steel will leave a ruinous and lasting effect on the workers’ lives and livelihood. The disastrous results of the reconstruction period is a constant reminder to us. Isfahan Steelworkers are witnessing them first-hand every day.

The Council strongly condemns the company’s multi-million-Toman venture in the soccer team while permanent workers’ wages and bonuses have been paid tardily, and while temporary/contractual wages are falling under the poverty level. The Council considers this gross injustice to all the workers.

The Council considers Atashkar, the management’s internal weekly journal, to be merely a forum for self-aggrandizement and peddling of the management’s ludicrous claims - such as the one about production and delivery of rails to the National Iranian Railroad­that absolutely fools no one. The Council therefore demands the publication of reports on workers’ wages, the workers’ strike actions, full coverage of shop-floor accidents resulting in death and disability, announcement of names of workers who have lost their lives on account of accidents and finally a tally of all monthly work-related incidents in the weekly Atashkar.

Considering the total absence of conditions for open activity, the Council calls upon all workers to set up autonomous labor cells throughout Isfahan Steel. It is our strong belief that without forming these cells, the workers will not be able to advance their aims in any meaningful way. The prime goals of these cells would be to disseminate news and information, to unify the rank and file, and to elect individuals who can represent them and provide leadership for their efforts. These cells could take form on the basis of friendship networks, sports and recreation links, in-house loan associations, etc.

We shake your hands in solidarity;

The Ad Hoc Council of the Isfahan Steel Workers

Network of Iranian Labor Unions -- Iran Labor Report
Email:
info@iranlaborreport.com