Last year, workers in Iran organized several outstanding protests and strikes. Major examples include nationwide teachers’ strikes, as well as local protests by Haft-Tappeh Sugarcane Complex Workers and Iranian National Steel Industrial Group in Ahvaz, who gained widespread national attention.
It is in such conditions that May Day arrives in Iran. In the first hours of the planned protests, security forces have attacked protesters in front of the Iranian Parliament. Although Iranian security forces have suppressed workers’ protests with violence, Iranian labor activists inside the country have found optimism. Some of these activists predict that the existing workers’ movement can widen its social reach.
A Multilayered Social Protest Movement
“The labor movement is a social protest movement within society”, Shapoor Ehsani-Rad, a member of the Free Union of Workers in Iran (Ettehadiye Azad-e Kargaran-e Iran) told Zamaneh.
In Iran, protesters include social groups far beyond the workers in the industrial section: from pensioners to freelancers, truck and bus drivers to students, women to the unemployed youth; various social groups have initiated their own protests, and shown solidarity with each other in the course of a multilayered social protest movement which has been ongoing.
Protests and strikes have increased in recent years in Iran. Since 2008, protests have become more intense and progressively more nationwide.
The recent countrywide wave of protests and strikes in 2018-2019 reflect increasing economic hardship and government corruption.
In response, the Iranian government cracked down on protest movements and at the same time, put more pressure on syndicates, unions and employees.
“Over the last 40 years, the dominant force of capitalism has attempted to create a climate where workers are prevented from improving the labor movement. This has even been facilitated by the use of force, arrests, and firing of activists from their jobs. But it has not succeeded”, Shapoor Ehsani-Rad said about the security conditions against the labor activists.
While many factories have been reportedly halted production due to the sanctions and the shortage of raw material, Iranian President Hasan Rouhani on April 30 called for “extra work shifts” towards an “increase in productivity” to compensate for the economic loss due to the reinstatement of United States sanctions against Iran.
Iranian workers have a multitude of concerns including unpaid wages and benefits, the lack of workspace safety regulations, disregard for the implementations of existing safety regulations, occupational health hazards, discrimination against certain groups in the workforce, unfair wages, disregard for workers’ rights in compliance with the Labor Code, child labor, unemployment, and lack of freedom of association and union membership.
Zamaneh asked three labor activists inside the country about the future prospects for the Iranian workers’ movement.
Ehsani-Rad describes the Iranian labor movement as “too defensive” and “demand-oriented” but adds that the movement has had some success in attacking what he calls “the institutions of capital”.
According to him, there is no obstacle or barrier for the movement to move further forward: “Striking has become a tradition. Demand for union and association membership has been established.”
Javanmir Moradi is a member of the Electrical and Metal Workers’ Trade Union in the western city of Kermanshah. He predicts that workers’ protests will become more widespread in the coming months. He emphasizes that even the Iranian officials believe that the protests will spread.
“Living conditions are worsening, not only for workers but also for the majority of the Iranian population. It is obvious that daily price hikes and intense pressure on livelihoods will lead to more and widespread protest”, Moradi predicts. “It is very likely that we will see coordinated strikes and street protests by workers nationwide”, he adds.
Moradi agrees with Ehsani-Rad that there are no barriers in front of the Iranian labor movement:
“The recent protests in 2018 and the support of workers for strikes by other workers, students, retired workers, and women, showed there are no obstacles to moving forward. As a matter of fact, now is the best time for the movement to get mobilized and have a more unified campaign in their agenda.”
“You will see the effect of the workers’ movement in the next few months”, Maziar Gilani-Nejad, a member of the Machinist and Metal Workers Syndicate (Sandikaye Felezkar Mekanik) in Iran told Zamaneh.
He described May Day planned protests by various labor organizations as an event where “those who cry ‘No to War’ and ‘Yes to Peace’ come to street to raise their voice against those who will benefit from war”, implicating the new efforts towards militarization by Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).
After the reimposition of sanctions by the United States, Iranian officials have described the situation as “war situation” in the hope to justify the tightening security conditions and mobilize the nation to tackle the economic crisis.
Gilani-Nejad also said that the workers’ movement is expanding toward a brighter future: “the movement and its leaders are more experienced and if its effects are accompanied by policy-making efforts, we will see the consequent changes”.
The Iranian labor movement has a long history. It goes back to the time of the constitutional revolution. The first labor union was established in 1906, in Tehran, by workers of a publishing house. The earliest industrial action took place in 1907-1910. Since then hundreds of protests and strikes have been organized by workers, labor unions and activists.
Could the Iranian worker’s movement survive the current increasingly harsh security conditions and an expanding economic crisis in the country and build up on its momentum? It is yet to be determined.