Iranian Labor and the Struggle for Independent Unions

Sohrab Behdad and Farhad Nomani

A purple sign held up by one young man in Lorestan during Ahmadinejad's visit last month reads, "Swear to God, we've come to a breaking point from all the discrimination and injustice."

In the face of state repres­sion and sham rep­re­sen­ta­tion,’ the revival of a cen­tu­ry-old effort.

The estab­lish­ment of inde­pen­dent labor orga­ni­za­tions has always been prob­lem­at­ic for the Iran­ian work­ing class since its incep­tion in the ear­ly years of the 20th cen­tu­ry. The recent resur­gence of inde­pen­dent col­lec­tive labor activ­i­ty has gen­er­at­ed a search for new ideas and new debates among labor activists, labor com­mit­tees, and sev­er­al inde­pen­dent trade unions con­cern­ing the for­mu­la­tion of work­ers’ demands and effec­tive orga­ni­za­tion­al practices.

Some of these activ­i­ties have been overt, while oth­ers have been kept out of the author­i­ties’ sight for fear of a bru­tal reac­tion by the state. Labor orga­niz­ers have reached out not only to work­ing class orga­ni­za­tions out­side of Iran, but also to women, stu­dents, and eth­nic civ­il soci­ety orga­ni­za­tions to find sup­port for their cause.

As has been true for most of the long his­to­ry of the Iran­ian work­ers’ strug­gle, labor lead­ers and activists con­front not only intim­i­da­tion by their employ­ers and the loss of their jobs, they fre­quent­ly suf­fer impris­on­ment, tor­ture, and state harass­ment of their fam­i­lies, as well.

Many labor orga­niz­ers and polit­i­cal activists have come to the con­clu­sion that in the absence of a viable sec­u­lar democ­ra­cy nei­ther the labor nor any oth­er pro­gres­sive move­ment is sus­tain­able. In fact, democ­ra­cy is essen­tial for the trans­for­ma­tion of class struc­ture (in itself) to class orga­ni­za­tion (for itself). In the absence of democ­ra­cy such a trans­for­ma­tion can hard­ly take place. Yet in a class-divid­ed cap­i­tal­ist soci­ety, polit­i­cal democ­ra­cy is inevitably in con­flict with the sys­tem of socioe­co­nom­ic pow­er and inequality.

For this rea­son, the work­ing class is an ardent advo­cate of deep­en­ing democ­ra­cy with social jus­tice, that is, cre­at­ing a viable social democ­ra­cy. Fur­ther, the long his­to­ry of labor move­ments shows that the work­ing class has become con­scious of the fact that the chances for democ­ra­cy at any lev­el of devel­op­ment can be facil­i­tat­ed by the pro­gres­sive activ­i­ties of civ­il soci­ety and work­ing class orga­ni­za­tions. (In a book forth­com­ing from Jahan­be­gloo, we dis­cuss the role of democ­ra­cy and pro­gres­sive civ­il soci­ety orga­ni­za­tions in advanc­ing the cause of the work­ing class, as well as the par­tic­u­lar case of the Iran­ian work­ing class under the Islam­ic Republic.)

This arti­cle explores some of the objec­tive and sub­jec­tive obsta­cles fac­ing the Iran­ian work­ing class in its strug­gle to attain the right to form inde­pen­dent orga­ni­za­tions and to pro­tect and pro­mote civ­il lib­er­ties with­in the Islam­ic Repub­lic. In 1976, about 40 per­cent of the employed work­force in Iran was work­ing class, about half of whom worked in enter­pris­es larg­er than 50 work­ers. The mid­dle class was tiny — 5 per­cent — and less than one-third of its mem­bers worked in the pri­vate sec­tor. Near­ly one-third of the employed work­force was self-employed petite bour­geoisie, 99 per­cent of whom were in tra­di­tion­al occu­pa­tions — farm­ing, tex­tile or rug mak­ing, car­pen­try, gro­ceries, truck or taxi dri­ver-own­er­ship. Among cap­i­tal­ists, a large major­i­ty owned small enter­pris­es in sim­i­lar­ly tra­di­tion­al occu­pa­tion­al fields.

The 1979 Rev­o­lu­tion rep­re­sent­ed a social rup­ture, egal­i­tar­i­an in char­ac­ter and open­ly antag­o­nis­tic toward large cap­i­tal and cap­i­tal­ists, espe­cial­ly those affil­i­at­ed with for­eign enter­pris­es. The Rev­o­lu­tion dis­rupt­ed the nor­mal” func­tion­ing of soci­ety. Most sig­nif­i­cant­ly, it jeop­ar­dized the sanc­ti­ty of prop­er­ty rights and the safe­ty of cap­i­tal, weak­en­ing cap­i­tal­ist rela­tions of pro­duc­tion and obstruct­ing the elab­o­rate maze of mar­ket net­works. This con­di­tion was con­ducive to the growth of pet­ty-com­mod­i­ty pro­duc­tion and small-scale cap­i­tal­ist activ­i­ties. We call this degen­er­a­tive process struc­tur­al invo­lu­tion.” The Islam­ic state ampli­fied the invo­lu­tion­ary trend with its pop­ulist poli­cies, at times even incit­ing anti-cap­i­tal­ist ten­den­cies and encour­ag­ing small-scale eco­nom­ic activ­i­ty. The result­ing changes in polit­i­cal and eco­nom­ic struc­ture affect­ed the class com­po­si­tion of the Iran­ian workforce.

As a result of these set­backs for cap­i­tal­ist pro­duc­tion, by 1986, the work­ing class in the state and pri­vate sec­tors had shrunk to less than 25 per­cent of the employed work­force. At the same time, the ranks of the petite bour­geoisie increased at more than dou­ble the gen­er­al work­force growth rate to reach 40 per­cent of the employed, near­ly all in tra­di­tion­al posi­tions. The num­ber of small enter­pris­es, many with a mere two to three employed work­ers, almost dou­bled since the pre­vi­ous cen­sus in 1976. The aver­age num­ber of wage earn­ers per pri­vate employ­er (con­cen­tra­tion ratio) in Iran fell from 16 in 1976 to 5.3 in 1986.

In the same peri­od, the num­ber of mid­dle-class employ­ees in the pri­vate sec­tor decreased to half of what it was in 1976. Obvi­ous­ly, the small­er, more tra­di­tion­al enter­pris­es need­ed few­er man­agers and pro­fes­sion­al work­ers. At the same time, mid­dle-class state employ­ment increased by almost 90 per­cent. Between 1976 and 1986 more than one mil­lion were added to the rank of gov­ern­ment func­tionar­ies — 800,000 of them to the armed forces. Women’s employ­ment decreased not only rel­a­tive­ly, but also absolutely.

A dis­rupt­ed econ­o­my with a bloat­ed state machin­ery, faced with a cost­ly war, a glut in the world oil mar­ket, suf­fo­cat­ing eco­nom­ic sanc­tions, and a rapid­ly grow­ing pop­u­la­tion placed the Islam­ic state in a dire sit­u­a­tion. By the late 1980s, the state came to the real­iza­tion that its claim of estab­lish­ing the rule of the mostazafan” (oppressed) and its plan for erect­ing an Islam­ic econ­o­my were fan­tasies. With the death of Aya­tol­lah Ruhol­lah Khome­i­ni in 1989, the time to break away from rev­o­lu­tion­ary taboos had arrived. Akbar Hashe­mi Raf­san­jani entered the stage as a cham­pi­on of eco­nom­ic lib­er­al­iza­tion, and by 1992 lib­er­al­iza­tion poli­cies were in place for the recon­struc­tion and reju­ve­na­tion of the mar­ket and its institutions.

Eco­nom­ic lib­er­al­iza­tion poli­cies look attrac­tive in abstrac­tion from polit­i­cal real­i­ties. In short, they call for remov­ing all mar­ket bar­ri­ers — from for­eign exchange and domes­tic price con­trols to sub­si­dies and quo­tas — let­ting resource scarci­ty deter­mine mar­ket prices and direct resources to the high­est bid­ders. It is sug­gest­ed that these poli­cies increase pro­duc­tiv­i­ty and prof­itabil­i­ty, which could poten­tial­ly increase invest­ment and thus employ­ment and the eco­nom­ic wel­fare of all. These effects may indeed take place, if all goes well — which it often does not — but usu­al­ly only after a peri­od of high infla­tion, high unem­ploy­ment, the bank­rupt­cy of many small cap­i­tal­ists and petit bour­geois pro­duc­ers, and real income decline for many wage earners.

It did not take long before the lib­er­al­iza­tion poli­cies of Raf­san­jani came under pop­u­lar crit­i­cism. Dur­ing his pres­i­den­cy, the Islam­ic Repub­lic for the first time faced open polit­i­cal unrest as a con­straint on its pub­lic pol­i­cy for­mu­la­tion. Raf­san­jani thus pur­sued a zigzag pol­i­cy of eco­nom­ic lib­er­al­iza­tion. Despite the lim­it­ed advance of lib­er­al­iza­tion in the 1990s, which con­tin­ued into the suc­ceed­ing admin­is­tra­tion of Moham­mad Khata­mi, the invo­lu­tion­ary trend of the Khome­i­ni decade was sub­stan­tial­ly reversed. We call this trend a de-invo­lu­tion­ary process.

The for­eign exchange rate was realigned, price con­trols were most­ly lift­ed, some sub­si­dies were reduced, and oth­ers were elim­i­nat­ed. Ris­ing oil prices, allow­ing for a con­tin­ued inflow of imports, made the timid lib­er­al­iza­tion pol­i­cy some­what more palat­able. By 2006, the impact of this reju­ve­na­tion was vis­i­ble. The share of the work­ing class in the employed work­force increased to 30 per­cent (still much low­er than in 1976), and the mid­dle class increased to 12 per­cent (from 4 per­cent in 1976, and 7 per­cent in 1986). Dur­ing the same peri­od, the share of the petite bour­geoisie declined slight­ly to 36 per­cent. The num­ber of small busi­ness own­ers con­tin­ued to increase, so the ratio of wage earn­ers to employ­ers in the pri­vate sec­tor declined fur­ther to 3.6.

Thus, the Iran­ian work­ing class suf­fered a seri­ous decline in the first rev­o­lu­tion­ary decade. Although their num­bers increased from 3.6 mil­lion in 1976 to 6.2 mil­lion in 2006 (after a decline to 2.7 mil­lion in 1986), their share in the employed work­force sub­stan­tial­ly declined. The decline in the share of the work­ing class coin­cid­ed with growth in the share of the petite bour­geoisie and mid­dle class. The low con­cen­tra­tion ratio reflects increas­ing frag­men­ta­tion of the work­ing class.

How­ev­er, we should note that this increase in frag­men­ta­tion took place main­ly among small cap­i­tal­ist enter­pris­es. More than half of the work­ing-class pop­u­la­tion works in large, pri­vate or state-owned enter­pris­es with more than 50 work­ers. Mean­while, 15 to 20 per­cent of the unem­ployed labor force is com­posed of poten­tial mem­bers of the work­ing class. More­over, in the Iran­ian labor mar­ket, a sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of those who are con­sid­ered petit bour­geois are effec­tive­ly semi­em­ployed work­ers for whom unem­ploy­ment is not an option. These are small ven­dors of var­i­ous goods or ser­vices who eke out a liv­ing. They too are poten­tial mem­bers of the work­ing class.

***

The Iran­ian labor movement’s strug­gle for inde­pen­dent orga­ni­za­tions and ben­e­fi­cial laws has a long his­to­ry. Iran’s first mod­ern trade union was orga­nized in 1906, and the ear­li­est known labor strike took place in 1910. The dic­ta­to­r­i­al rule of Reza Shah Pahlavi (192541) sup­pressed the oper­a­tion of the small num­ber of inde­pen­dent labor orga­ni­za­tions. Labor unions and the labor move­ment flour­ished dur­ing the frag­ile democ­ra­cy of 1941 – 53. How­ev­er, after the return of Moham­mad Reza Shah Pahlavi to pow­er, inde­pen­dent labor orga­ni­za­tions were forcibly pre­vent­ed from oper­at­ing free of gov­ern­ment super­vi­sion. This was in the face of Iran’s rapid cap­i­tal­ist devel­op­ment and the expan­sion of the work­ing class in indus­try and pub­lic and pri­vate ser­vices in the 1960s and 1970s.

Iran­ian labor enjoyed a brief moment of free­dom dur­ing the rev­o­lu­tion­ary peri­od and the months fol­low­ing the upris­ing. That peri­od, how­ev­er, was also char­ac­ter­ized by social chaos and the afore­men­tioned nation­wide dis­rup­tions in eco­nom­ic activ­i­ty. By 1981, all of the inde­pen­dent unions and coun­cils and the sec­u­lar Work­ers’ House set up by work­ers and labor activists dur­ing and after the Rev­o­lu­tion had been force­ful­ly tak­en over by pro-gov­ern­ment Islamist work­ers and oth­er sup­port­ers of the régime. They were soon offi­cial­ly liq­ui­dat­ed and banned.

In their place, Islam­ic Labor Coun­cils were insti­tut­ed under the spon­sor­ship and with the sup­port of the Islam­ic state. At the top of the net­work of Islam­ic Labor Coun­cils was the new­ly recon­sti­tut­ed — and Islam­ic — Work­ers’ House. Evolv­ing into a self-appoint­ed fed­er­at­ing union” that grad­u­al­ly formed a labor empire,” it has relied on finan­cial and logis­ti­cal help from the gov­ern­ment, even though it receives mem­ber­ship dues and ben­e­fits from over­see­ing two lucra­tive coop­er­a­tives — one for dis­tri­b­u­tion of con­sumer goods (EMKAN), the oth­er for hous­ing (ESKAN). In 1998, Work­ers’ House assert­ed that one-third of Iran­ian work­ers were its mem­bers, a claim for which there is no inde­pen­dent verification.

In the Khome­i­ni decade, as the econ­o­my suf­fered from a deeply degen­er­a­tive invo­lu­tion­ary process, near­ly all polit­i­cal or civ­il soci­ety orga­ni­za­tions were either destroyed or tak­en over by the offi­cial or unof­fi­cial arms of the Islam­ic régime. Labor activism grad­u­al­ly sur­faced after Khomeini’s death in 1989. The effort at postrev­o­lu­tion­ary nor­mal­iza­tion of the econ­o­my gave rise to a de-invo­lu­tion­ary phase, which result­ed in an increase in the size of the work­ing and mid­dle class­es. More­over, Khata­mi, who ran for the pres­i­den­cy of the Islam­ic Repub­lic in 1997 on a plat­form of cul­tur­al lib­er­al­iza­tion, was instru­men­tal in open­ing the polit­i­cal space, albeit mar­gin­al­ly and briefly, despite oppo­si­tion from the more con­ser­v­a­tive fac­tions of the régime.

In his eight years as pres­i­dent, Khata­mi made the pro­mo­tion of civ­il soci­ety a cen­tral fea­ture of his agen­da. In this peri­od, inde­pen­dent-mind­ed pro­gres­sive labor activists suc­ceed­ed in mobi­liz­ing Iran­ian labor. How­ev­er, this nar­row open­ing repeat­ed­ly came under severe pres­sure from the con­ser­v­a­tive fac­tions of the repub­lic, both for­mal­ly and infor­mal­ly at the hands of their vig­i­lante gangs. Repres­sion of the work­ing class’s orga­ni­za­tion­al efforts, and of civ­il soci­ety in gen­er­al, has sub­stan­tial­ly increased since the elec­tion of Mah­moud Ahmedine­jad as pres­i­dent in 2005.

Labor law in Iran avoids using the word strike,” though it rec­og­nizes work slow­downs or stop­pages while labor­ers are present at the work site. How­ev­er, strikes do occur and unions fre­quent­ly clash with the government’s coer­cive organs as eco­nom­ic crises, high infla­tion, and high unem­ploy­ment rates place great strains on work­ers. Jobs are inse­cure as fac­to­ries close down for var­i­ous rea­sons. Wages are low and pay­ment is fre­quent­ly delayed for months. The use of tem­po­rary con­tracts, which are exempt from many ben­e­fits of the labor law, includ­ing pro­tec­tion from arbi­trary fir­ing of work­ers, has increased. State repres­sion in response to the artic­u­la­tion of labor griev­ances has often forced work­ers into a defen­sive strug­gle for basic eco­nom­ic demands.

The first decade of the Islam­ic Repub­lic, marked by the hege­mon­ic pow­er of Khome­i­ni, the Iran-Iraq War, and the mass killings of the mil­i­tant oppo­si­tion was suf­fo­cat­ing for Iran­ian work­ers and few labor strikes took place. Inde­pen­dent polit­i­cal and labor orga­ni­za­tion­al moves were vio­lent­ly sup­pressed. Those few dis­putes and strikes that did take place in 1980 – 90 were of a defen­sive nature, in the form of sit-ins, peti­tions, and let­ters to Islam­ic author­i­ties. Demon­stra­tions, work slow­downs, and strikes were con­front­ed brutally.

Work­ers’ dis­putes inten­si­fied dur­ing Rafsanjani’s pres­i­den­cy (198997). In this peri­od, the num­ber of labor griev­ances increased in reac­tion to the effects of the government’s lib­er­al­iza­tion poli­cies, whose imme­di­ate out­come was high infla­tion (mean­ing decline in real wages) and the elim­i­na­tion of cer­tain sub­si­dies. Oppo­si­tion to the poli­cies mount­ed among the dis­ad­van­taged mass­es and the work­ing class, and the state retreat­ed for fear of mass resistance.

Fol­low­ing the retreat, the state began its zigzag strat­e­gy to pur­sue eco­nom­ic lib­er­al­iza­tion. It pushed for­ward where it could, main­ly in areas that were incon­spic­u­ous, and gave in when pub­lic dis­con­tent rose. As riots and demon­stra­tions in oppo­si­tion to gov­ern­ment poli­cies grew (e.g., in Mash­had, Qazvin, Arak, Akbarabad, and Islamshar), the régime, to ensure polit­i­cal sta­bil­i­ty, was forced to pay greater heed to what the pub­lic was will­ing to tol­er­ate.

Nev­er­the­less, the growth of cap­i­tal­ist eco­nom­ic activ­i­ty dur­ing the de-invo­lu­tion­ary peri­od, stim­u­lat­ed by war recon­struc­tion activ­i­ties, led to an increase in the absolute and rel­a­tive share of work­ing-class employ­ment. The same con­di­tions result­ed in the sub­stan­tial growth of the mid­dle class in both the pub­lic and pri­vate sec­tors. There was an open­ing up of the pub­lic space, and dif­fer­ent social forces were par­tial­ly lib­er­at­ed from the hege­mon­ic con­trol of the Khome­i­ni peri­od and the offi­cial and semi­of­fi­cial repres­sive organs of the Islam­ic Repub­lic. Rep­re­sen­ta­tives of dif­fer­ent class­es, dom­i­nant and sub­or­di­nate – tech­nocrats, intel­lec­tu­als, stu­dents, women, and eth­nic groups — became more assertive.

The pres­i­den­tial elec­tion of 1997 and the advances of Islam­ic reformism result­ed in many new civ­il soci­ety orga­ni­za­tions. How­ev­er, in the eight years of Khatami’s pres­i­den­cy, Islam­ic reformists failed to effec­tive­ly alter the exist­ing polit­i­cal bal­ance of pow­er in favor of polit­i­cal democ­ra­cy and social jus­tice. Their poten­tial advances were lim­it­ed by their lib­er­al eco­nom­ic posi­tion, pre­vail­ing unfriend­ly (and some­what arro­gant) atti­tude toward sub­or­di­nate class­es, and pref­er­ence for a trun­cat­ed, exclu­sion­ary brand of lib­er­al democ­ra­cy in the face of ris­ing sec­u­lar­ism across every social class.

Despite crack­downs imposed by the hard­lin­ers, who still dom­i­nat­ed the judi­cia­ry, the secu­ri­ty forces — espe­cial­ly the Islam­ic Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Guard Corps and the Basij mili­tia — and the intel­li­gence organs of the state, the rel­a­tive open­ing up of the pub­lic space in 1997 – 2005 nonethe­less gave rise to inde­pen­dent civ­il soci­ety orga­ni­za­tions among work­ers, women, intel­lec­tu­als, and stu­dents. Since 2005, when Ahmadine­jad assumed the pres­i­den­cy, this rel­a­tive­ly open space has come under attack by the new gov­ern­ing military/​security/​clerical com­plex. The Ahmadine­jad admin­is­tra­tion has oper­at­ed through provo­ca­tion, con­fronta­tion, mar­gin­al­iza­tion, and exclu­sion. The administration’s anti-demo­c­ra­t­ic tac­tics have includ­ed the arrest and impris­on­ment of inde­pen­dent union lead­ers, exe­cu­tion of civ­il soci­ety activists, clo­sure of pro-labor web­sites and blogs, and attacks on May Day gath­er­ings of the advo­cates of inde­pen­dent trade unions. Under Ahmadine­jad, anti-labor poli­cies, such as attempts to change labor laws to facil­i­tate arbi­trary lay­offs, have received greater impe­tus and the Min­istry of Labor has come under the con­trol of the Motale­feh, a con­ser­v­a­tive, anti-labor coali­tion of entre­pre­neurs with tra­di­tion­al bazaari roots and a strong­ly anti-reformist orientation.

The ear­ly years of the 2000s had wit­nessed a resur­gence in the con­fi­dence of labor activists and intel­lec­tu­als, which led to wide­spread trans­la­tion of works on labor move­ments in oth­er coun­tries and the pub­li­ca­tion of new books and arti­cles on the left, trade union­ism, social move­ments, civ­il soci­ety, pol­i­tics, and phi­los­o­phy. In the mean­time, work­ers’ strikes for eco­nom­ic demands and bet­ter work­ing con­di­tions grew increas­ing­ly fre­quent. Work­ers in pub­lic and pri­vate indus­try and ser­vices protest­ed for unpaid wages (a chron­ic prob­lem in Iran­ian enter­pris­es), opposed the wide­spread use of blank-signed” and tem­po­rary con­tracts, and called upon the gov­ern­ment and pri­vate employ­ers to respect and apply the exist­ing labor laws.

Some of the most con­fronta­tion­al labor protests con­cerned the reem­ploy­ment of laid-off work­ers. But even sim­ple demands and peace­ful strikes were not tol­er­at­ed by the government’s secu­ri­ty forces. In many instances, the Islam­ic reformists of Khatami’s admin­is­tra­tion were either unable or unwill­ing to curb the vio­lent attacks on unarmed work­ers. One trag­ic exam­ple took place in July 2001, when work­ers from the Jam­co cloth­ing and Shadan­poor shoe fac­to­ries were seri­ous­ly beat­en in front of the Majles as they demon­strat­ed for pay­ment of back wages.

In Jan­u­ary 2004, con­struc­tion work­ers par­tic­i­pat­ed in a strike and sit-in at the cop­per smelt­ing plant near the vil­lage of Kha­toun­abad, in Kir­man province. The plant, owned by Nation­al Cop­per Indus­tries of Iran, was oper­at­ed by a Chi­nese con­trac­tor. The con­struc­tion work­ers’ com­plaint was the unful­filled promise that they would be hired by the firm upon the plant’s com­ple­tion. The work­ers’ fam­i­lies had joined the sit-in. On the eighth day of the action, Jan­u­ary 24, secu­ri­ty forces attacked the strik­ers and their fam­i­lies. In the ensu­ing vio­lence, four work­ers were shot dead, 300 were wound­ed, and many were arrested.

In March 2004, one-third of Isfahan’s teach­ers heed­ed the call to strike by a leader of the pro-demo­c­ra­t­ic Islam­ic group Anjoman‑e Esla­mi. The teach­ers’ cen­tral demands con­cerned unpaid wages and a raise in salary to com­pen­sate for infla­tion. Eight hun­dred schools in Isfa­han and 300 in Tehran shut down on the first day of the strike. This was an impres­sive dis­play of protest by Iran­ian work­ing women — 80 per­cent of teach­ers in the coun­try are female.

The trag­ic event at Kha­toun­abad was a cat­a­lyst for the esca­la­tion of the work­ers’ protest move­ment. The small num­ber of inde­pen­dent labor activist com­mit­tees that arose in the ear­ly 2000s became more vocal and new com­mit­tees were set up at some large fac­to­ries in the fol­low­ing months, for exam­ple in Iran Kho­dro and Toledi‑e Iran in Tehran. In ear­ly 2004 in Saqez, in Kur­dis­tan, groups of seam­stress­es, bak­ers, and brick mak­ers formed a sho­ra (coun­cil). A report notes: They linked up with labor activists in Tehran and five oth­er cities. … After secret meet­ings and coor­di­na­tion, a res­o­lu­tion was agreed upon that on May Day, work­ers would demon­strate simul­ta­ne­ous­ly in all sev­en cities.”

In May 2005, work­ers at the Tehran and Sub­urbs Bus Com­pa­ny formed the Tehran and Munic­i­pal­i­ty Vahed Bus Work­ers Syn­di­cate as an inde­pen­dent trade union. The for­ma­tion of this syn­di­cate was fol­lowed by the cre­ation of the Haft Tapeh Sug­ar Refin­ery Work­ers Syn­di­cate and the reac­ti­va­tion of the Ker­man­shah Elec­tri­cal and Met­al Work­ers Trade Soci­ety. Sev­er­al com­mit­tees and boards, includ­ing the Free Assem­bly of Iran­ian Work­ers, the Rein­au­gu­ra­tion Board for Met­al and Mechan­i­cal Syn­di­cates, and the Rein­au­gu­ra­tion Board for Paint­ing Work­ers Syn­di­cates, were formed to orga­nize the nascent labor asso­ci­a­tions and revive pre­vi­ous­ly active ones.

In addi­tion, numer­ous com­mit­tees have been formed by labor activists with the objec­tive of pro­vid­ing sup­port for the cre­ation of inde­pen­dent unions, coor­di­na­tion of union actions, and com­mu­ni­ca­tion with oth­er pro­gres­sive civ­il soci­ety orga­ni­za­tions. Most of these labor com­mit­tees are active in defend­ing work­ers’ rights to strike, to form inde­pen­dent trade unions and labor orga­ni­za­tions, and to elect their own rep­re­sen­ta­tives. There are also those that call for the abo­li­tion of waged labor” and the estab­lish­ment of rev­o­lu­tion­ary coun­cils. Labor com­mit­tees have set up many web­sites and news bul­letins, many of which have been used as sources for this article.

May Day, the inter­na­tion­al day for work­ers, has become a reg­u­lar oppor­tu­ni­ty to strength­en the sol­i­dar­i­ty among Iran­ian work­ers, despite state sup­pres­sion. In recent years, May Day cel­e­bra­tions have come under attack by secu­ri­ty forces, lead­ing to the bru­tal treat­ment and arrest of many demon­stra­tors and labor orga­niz­ers. Major inter­na­tion­al labor groups — includ­ing the Inter­na­tion­al Trade Union Con­fed­er­a­tion (ITUC) and the Con­fédéra­tion Syn­di­cale Inter­na­tionale (CSI) — have repeat­ed­ly expressed their sol­i­dar­i­ty with the plight of Iran­ian workers.

The pow­er of the work­ing class of Iran can no longer be ignored. Despite all the his­tor­i­cal, polit­i­cal, legal, and struc­tur­al obsta­cles, includ­ing repres­sion and intim­i­da­tion, its strength is once again on the rise.

This arti­cle was orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished by the Tehran Bureau.

Sohrab Behdad and Farhad Nomani are coau­thors of Class and Labor in Iran: Did the Rev­o­lu­tion Mat­ter? and What a Rev­o­lu­tion! Thir­ty Years of Social Class Reshuf­fling in Iran.
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