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 regime. 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 regime. 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 regime.

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 regime, 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.

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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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