The Islamic Republic of Iran is facing a number of serious political and economic crises. On February 11, the nation celebrated the 41st anniversary of its founding as well as the 40th day after the US killing of Qasem Soleimani, the head of the Iran Revolutionary Guard Corps (‘Pasdaran’ - IRGC). The government celebrated by providing state-organized nationalist rallies reflecting all-time-high anti-American sentiments. The Army wheeled out new missiles which rolled out along the main streets; the crowds shouted out their traditional “Death to America” chants; and the usual nationalistic fervour of the hard-line loyalists declared that true revenge would be exacted only after the United States is fully ousted from the Middle East.
Despite these public protestations of fealty to their theocratic masters there was a continuing undercurrent in the crowds, reflecting the protest movements which have polarised the political landscape in Iran since 2018. Strikes, protests, demonstrations and conflict between working people and the Ayatollahs and the forces of control (police, soldiers, ‘basij’ – a Pasdaran para-military force), and other civil forces were a constant undercurrent in these demonstrations. In recent years Iran’s government has beaten down, killed, jailed and injured thousands of its citizens who demanded a better life and opportunities. This opposition to the government has spread across the country and involves millions of people. This is particularly important as the national elections in Iran will take place on February 21 and, despite heavy repression and the removal from the ballot of the Reformist groups by the Ayatollah’s Guardian Council, the election is not certain to favour the status quo.
There are political groups like the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI-MEK) and the broader opposition coalition, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) which are trying to contest the February 21 elections. However, an integral part of almost all the reformist groups are the powerful organisations of the Iranian labour movement. In the last four years, the Ayatollahs have carried out a bitter and violent campaign against the Iranian working people to a degree that rarely makes the news outside the country. The regime’s response in November 2019 was even more brutal than before. The security forces opened fire on protesters in the street and killed more than 1,500 civilians in the span of a few days. More than 12,000 people were arrested, at least 4,000 were wounded and 12,000 were detained, some of them with injuries. Scores have died under torture.
Images of defenceless Iranians who stood up for freedom
These 2019 protests started after the government’s sudden gasoline price hike of 300% which added to the struggle for survival in an Iran reeling in the throes of the deprivations caused by international sanctions. The latest round of demonstrations was also a protest against the government’s downing of the passenger plane heading for the Ukraine and its lying about the fact.
“Numerous videos obtained from inside Iran show security forces shooting at protesters from helicopters. Several videos show security forces directly aiming their rifles and handguns at the demonstrators and shooting them from point-blank range. According to one report from the southern city of Mahshahr, the Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) have killed at least 100 people, surrounding them in a marsh and massacring them with machine guns. There were several reports that Iranian security forces inspected hospitals, rounding up injured protesters and the bodies of the dead. They also refrained from handing over the dead bodies to the families and only did so on the condition that they do not hold a funeral and bury their loved ones in silence and solitude.”[i]
The nature of the Iranian protest movement has changed since its inception in 2017 and 2018. These earlier protest movements were mainly driven by the lower middle-classes, students, teachers and intellectuals who made up the Green Movement. Today’s protestors now include a broad participation by the working class and their unions which are facing serious economic and human rights complaints.
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 based on gender and religious affiliation, unfair wages, disregard for workers’ rights in compliance with the Labour Code, exploitation of child labour, unemployment, and lack of freedom of association and union membership. In many cases workers have not been paid, or their pay was late. Their wages, even when they are paid, are not sufficient to allow them to survive in the inflation and galloping price rises brought about by sanctions, corruption and the funding of foreign armies by the Iranian state. Unlike the protestors of the Green Movement in 2017 and 2018, these new labour movement protestors are not only talking about reform; they are demanding a change of regime. There is no amount of ballot-rigging in the February 21 election which will assuage them. The elected Majlis has no real power. Power lies with the theocrats and the security services. That’s where the revolution will have to take place.
These developments cannot be fully understood except in the context of the history of the interaction of working people with the forces of the state throughout Iranian history. In theory, labour rights are included in the Iranian Constitution and provisions for trade unionism are included in many international statutes which cover labour rights and which Iran has ratified. Iran is a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which mandates in Articles 21 and 22 freedom of association and guarantees the right to form trade unions, and to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which guarantees in Article 8 the right of workers to form or join trade unions and protects the right of workers to strike. The Iranian Constitution contains specific provisions for such rights: Article 26 guarantees the right to form "parties, societies, political or professional associations," and Article 27 states that "Public gatherings and marches may be freely held, provided arms are not carried and that they are not detrimental to the fundamental principles of Islam." Despite this, independent labour unions are banned in Iran, strikers are often fired, and risk being detained, and labour leaders face long prison sentences on trumped up national security charges.[ii]
Background To The Development of The Labour Movement In Iran
Iran has come a long way from the ancient days of the Persian Empire. It began to take its modern form with the Persian Constitutional Revolution against the Shah in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The Shah managed to remain in power, granting a limited constitution in 1906 (making the country a constitutional monarchy). The first Majlis (parliament) was convened on October 7, 1906.
Employment was mainly agrarian with centres of craft guild-like structures in the major urban centres and indentured farm labourers in the countryside. Iran’s fortunes changed forever in 1908 when the British discovered petroleum in Khuzestan. Iran then became a hotbed of international interest and intrigue when the control of the Iranian oil fields was taken over by the newly-formed Anglo-Iranian Oil Company run by the British. The right to these vast oil reserves did not go unchallenged by neighbouring Russia. The battle for control of Iran was contested between the United Kingdom and Russia, in what became known as ‘The Great Game’. A solution to this battle for control was legally established in the Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907, which divided Iran into Great Power spheres of influence.
During World War I, the country was occupied by British, Ottoman and Russian forces although Iran was essentially neutral. In 1919, after the Russian revolution and the withdrawal of Russian forces, Britain attempted to establish a sole protectorate in Iran, which was unsuccessful. Finally, the Constitutionalist movement of Gilan and the central power vacuum caused by the instability of the Qajar government resulted in the rise of Reza Khan, who was later to become Reza Shah Pahlavi, and the subsequent establishment of the Pahlavi dynasty in 1925.[iii]
In 1921, a military coup established Reza Khan, an officer of the Persian Cossack Brigade, as the dominant figure in Iran for the next 20 years. In 1925, after being prime minister for two years, Reza Khan became the first Shah of the Pahlavi dynasty. Reza Shah ruled for almost 16 years until September 16, 1941, when he was forced to abdicate by the Anglo-Soviet invasion of Iran. He had established an authoritarian government that valued nationalism, militarism, secularism and anti-communism combined with strict censorship and state propaganda. However, Reza Shah also introduced many socio-economic reforms, reorganizing the army, government administration, and finances. He introduced a number of reforms which promoted the interests of working people, but these were couched in authoritarian and paternalistic clothing. His other secular reforms, like those of Kemal Ataturk in Turkey, provoked the Muslim clergy to periodic bouts of fury; mosques were required to use chairs; most men were required to wear western clothing, including a hat with a brim; women were encouraged to discard the hijab; men and women were allowed to freely congregate, violating Islamic mixing of the sexes. Tensions boiled over in 1935, when the Bazaaris (the merchant class) and the villagers rose up in rebellion at the Imam Reza shrine in Mashad. Dozens were killed, and hundreds were injured when troops finally quelled the unrest.
The rich oil fields of Iran were also a great temptation for the Germans in the Second World War, both to secure their supply of oil to the Axis Powers and to deprive the supply of oil to the British and to the Soviet Union. In 1941 the Germans staged a coup in Iran, and, despite the supposed neutrality of the Shah, the Iranians refused to remove the Germans from the oilfields. In August 1941 the British and the Soviets prepared a military response to try to take control of the oil fields. The British and the Soviet forces invaded Iran in August 1941 and effectively took control of the nation as well as the oilfields. The Shah was deposed, and the crown passed to his son, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.
Post-War Agreements In Iran
At the Tehran Conference of 1943, the Allies issued the Tehran Declaration which guaranteed the post-war independence and boundaries of Iran. However, when the war ended in 1945, Soviet troops stationed in north-western Iran not only refused to withdraw but backed revolts that established short-lived, pro-Soviet separatist national states in the northern regions of Azerbaijan and Iranian Kurdistan; the Azerbaijan People's Government and the Republic of Kurdistan respectively.
In the confusion and anarchy engendered by the Anglo-Soviet invasion a prominent Kurdish chief embarked on a revolt against the Iranian state. The Hama Rashid Revolt erupted in the Kurdish region of Iran. Its main faction was led by Muhammed Rashid, lasting from late 1941 until April 1942 and then re-erupted in 1944, resulting in Rashid's defeat by the government. While it was unsuccessful it spawned the growth of Kurdish nationalist political and labour movements which emerged in the immediate post-war Iran 1945-1946.
With the occupation of Iran by British and Soviet troops a key supply line from the Levant to the Soviet Union had been created and expanded. One consequence of the Soviet presence in Iran was its takeover of the administration of the Kurdish areas of Iran. The Soviets established the Tudeh (the Iranian Communist Party) whose first acts were to pit the local farmers in an uprising against their landlords. In addition, the Soviet authorities announced the creation of an independent Kurdish Peoples’ Republic and a People's Republic of Azerbaijan under Soviet control. Iranian Kurds were given autonomy. This Soviet Republic of Mahabad, as it was called, was led by the Kurdish Movement (Komeley Jiyanewey Kurd) under the leadership of Qazi Muhammad and his Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan (‘KDPI’). Some Kurds were attracted by the promise of autonomy but most Iranian Kurds eschewed contact with it. The Republic of Mahabad lasted less than a year, but. Soviet troops did not withdraw from Iran proper until May 1946 after receiving a promise of oil concessions. The Soviet republics in the north were soon overthrown and the oil concessions were revoked.[iv]
The new Shah attempted to introduce a more liberal policy and democracy in Iran leading to a constitutional monarchy but was ineffectual in making real reforms. The Shah attempted to control the centre-ground of politics by convening the Iran Constituent Assembly in 1949. These measures were considered to be too weak a response to the strength of foreign domination of the nation, especially with the election of Mohammad Mossadegh as Prime Minister in 1951.
The Era of Mossadegh
Reform and modernisation began in force with the election of Mohammad Mossadegh. He introduced a wide range of social reforms: unemployment compensation was introduced, factory owners were ordered to pay benefits to sick and injured workers, and peasants were freed from forced labour in their landlords' estates. In 1952, Mossadegh passed the Land Reform Act which forced landlords to turn over 20% of their revenues to their tenants. These revenues could be placed in a fund to pay for development projects such as public baths, rural housing, and pest control.[v] Trade unions began to form in several key areas of the economy, especially among the Kurds whose brief periods of independence had fostered a greater class consciousness than the more religious Iranian workers and peasants and among the Arabic-speaking oil workers of Khuzestan.
Labour unions, suppressed under Reza Shah, had bloomed during the war and, promoted by Tudeh [Community Party] and Kurdish politicians, began to clamour for higher wages and better living conditions. But, since the unions were still illegal, the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company chose to ignore the galling discrepancies between the luxuries enjoyed by the British nationals and the misery of the Iranian workers. However, the original 1933 Concession with the British had specifically stipulated that the company would provide workers with schools, hospitals, telephones, roads, decent salaries, and the opportunity for advancement.
The workers were not willing to wait. Within days after the evacuation of British forces from Iran in March of 1946, they began a series of wild-cat strikes. Anglo-Iranian Oil, scrambling to protect itself, encouraged Arab minorities to organize into a separate union, possibly with a view to splitting the province of Khuzestan off from the rest of Iran and folding it into Iraq.[v]
The Iranian workers began to call for the nationalization of the British-owned oil industry. On May Day in 1946, the British consul in Khorramshahr noted in alarm that a female speaker had not only demanded a comprehensive labour law with equal pay for equal work, but had also called for the total nationalization of the oil industry, accusing the British company of exploiting the “jewel of Iran” and of spending more on dog food than on wages for its Iranian workers. This was probably the very first time that the call for oil nationalization had been heard in Iran. It would not be the last.[vi]
By July 1946 the labour and political unrest culminated in a widespread riot. Forty-seven people were killed and more than 170 injured. The British fortified their troops in Basra and sent two warships into Abadan.
With increasing support from the urban Iranians, and especially the oil workers and other unions, on May 1, 1951 Mosaddegh nationalized the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company cancelling its oil concession and expropriating its assets. Mossadegh saw the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company as an arm of the British government controlling much of Iran's oil, pushing him to nationalize the Iranian oil industry. The next month, a committee of five Majlis deputies was sent to Khuzestan (the oil region) to enforce the nationalization.
Mosaddegh explained his nationalization policy in a 21 June 1951 speech:
Our long years of negotiations with foreign countries... have yielded no results thus far. With the oil revenues we could meet our entire budget and combat poverty, disease, and backwardness among our people. Another important consideration is that by the elimination of the power of the British company, we would also eliminate corruption and intrigue, by means of which the internal affairs of our country have been influenced. Once this tutelage has ceased, Iran will have achieved its economic and political independence. The Iranian state prefers to take over the production of petroleum itself. The company should do nothing else but return its property to the rightful owners. The nationalization law provides that 25% of the net profits on oil be set aside to meet all the legitimate claims of the company for compensation.[vii]
The British retaliated against this nationalisation by pulling out its technicians and blocking the international sale of Iranian oil, including a blockade against any ship loading or carrying Iranian crude. The entire Iranian oil industry came to a virtual standstill; oil production dropping from 241,400,000 barrels in 1950 to 10,600,000 barrels. This Abadan Crisis reduced Iran's oil income to almost nothing and created high levels of unemployment in the country. In 1951 Mossadegh called elections and tried to mobilise the labour forces in support of his reforms. The British responded by openly trying to influence the election by pouring cash into the country to influence the army and the conservative religious forces against Mossadegh. The growing unrest and demonstrations caused the elections to be suspended.
The Shah removed Mossadegh from his post and put in Ahmad Kavam as Prime Minister. Kavam immediately contacted the British and tried to set up negotiations for a settlement of British grievances. Mossadegh, and his National Front Party, along with various Nationalist, Islamist, and socialist parties and groups (including Tudeh) responded by calling for protests, assassination of the Shah and other royalists, and continued their strikes and mass demonstrations in favour of Mossadegh. Major strikes broke out in all of Iran's largest urban centres, forcing the Bazaar to close in Tehran. Over 250 demonstrators in Tehran, Hamadan, Ahvaz, Isfahan, and Kermanshah were killed or suffered serious injuries.[viii]
After five days of violent protests across Iran the Shah panicked and told the military to return to its barracks on Siyeh-i Tir (the 30th of Tir). He reinstated Mossadegh as Prime Minister. Mossadegh returned to power, bolstered by the labour unions, the Tudeh and other Left parties, as well as the Islamists of Ayatollah Abol-Ghasem Kashani. The Islamists had joined because of their antipathy to the secular reforms of the Shah. Together with Mossadegh they proposed a series of major reforms for the nation, including a major land reform which established village councils and increased the peasants' share of production. This weakened the landed aristocracy, abolishing Iran's centuries-old feudal agriculture sector, replacing it with a system of collective farming and government land ownership. In addition, Mossadegh reined in the power of the Shah, cutting the Shah's personal budget, forbidding him to communicate directly with foreign diplomats, transferring royal lands back to the state and expelling the Shah's politically active sister Ashraf Pahlavi.
While this served to consolidate the power of Mossadegh and established the process of reform it didn’t stop the loss of revenues from the oil industry. This standoff between Iran and the British came to a head in October 1952 when Mossadegh declared the British an “enemy” of Iran and cut off all diplomatic relations with Britain.
At that point, the British Prime Minister, Churchill, contacted the new U.S. President, Dwight Eisenhower, and warned of the rising power in Iran of the Tudeh (Communist) Party in the light of what Churchill called the “Iron Curtain” falling across Europe and the Middle East. Churchill reported that British intelligence had won the support of three key Mossadegh supporters Mozzafar Baghai, head of the worker-based Toilers party; Hussein Makki, who had helped lead the takeover of the Abadan refinery, and the leading Islamist, Ayatollah Kashani who were willing to break with Mossadegh and restore relations with Britain.
In March 1953, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles asked his brother, Allen Dulles, the director of the CIA, to make a plan for the overthrow of the Mossadegh government. The CIA had just successfully completed a similar coup in Guatemala against the government of Jacobo Arbenz who had come to power with the support of the Guatemalan unionists and who had attempted to nationalise the banana plantations of United Fruit. The CIA program in Guatemala (APB/Success) was led by Raymond Leddy and Tracey Barnes. In Guatemala the CIA enlisted the support of the military (General Castillo Armas) and the dissident unionists (controlled by the AFL-CIO’s Serafino Romualdi). The CIA provoked a military response from Arbenz and then proceeded to send in planes and troops and soon had Arbenz replaced as head of state by Castillo Armas.[ix]
On 4 April 1953, Allen Dulles approved $1 million to be used "in any way that would bring about the fall of Mossadegh". Soon the CIA's Tehran station started to launch a propaganda campaign against Mossadegh. In early June, American and British intelligence officials met in Beirut and put the finishing touches to Operation Ajax, led by Kermit Roosevelt. Using their experience in Guatemala, they tried to get the Shah to dismiss Mossadegh, but this was unsuccessful. They then started to split Mossadegh’s support by telling the Islamists that Mossadegh was threatening to move against the Ayatollahs. They also enlisted the dissident (mainly Arabic-speaking) unionists to split the oil workers from the rest of the labour movement.
With all this unrest, the Shah was persuaded to dismiss Mossadegh. In August 1953, the Shah finally agreed to Mossadegh's overthrow. He signed two decrees, one dismissing Mossadegh and the other nominating the CIA's choice, General Fazlollah Zahedi, as Prime Minister. These decrees, called ‘Farmans’, were actually dictated by Donald Wilber, the CIA architect of the plan. Soon there were massive protests across the country, financed by Kermit Roosevelt. The CIA paid both pro and anti-Mossadegh activists to protest and riot. They burned mosques, attacked newspapers and each other, leaving over 300 dead. With this rioting and discord the military was unleashed, and a tank regiment was dispatched to the Parliament and Mossadegh’s house. He surrendered to General Fazlollah Zahedi.
Mossadegh was kept in solitary confinement and his followers rounded up, put on trial, imprisoned and tortured. Mossadegh was tried and kept under strict house arrest until his death in 1967. Zahedi soon renewed the British and U.S. oil concessions and Iranian oil returned to the market. The labour movement was suppressed, and its rights removed. The Ayatollahs were then encouraged to take a direct role in national politics; a portent of what was to come in Iranian politics.
The Questionable Role of Tudeh
The anti-Mossadegh coup was opposed by most of the non-Communist trades unions but was undercut by the support given to the coup makers by the Tudeh Party (the Iranian Communist Party) and its unions. Tudeh acted on the commands issued from the Soviet Union to support the Shah against Mossadegh’s nationalists in the hope of reducing tension with the West and expecting the restoration of Soviet oil concessions promised them earlier. The Soviet Communist Party has had a long and inglorious history of betraying local Communist unionists and politicians across the globe by switching sides during nationalist uprisings to do Moscow’s bidding.
At the same time, in Iran, the overthrow of Mossadegh, with the support of the dissident unionists, the Islamist clergy and the Tudeh, left the Shah in charge. He began a program of reform called the “White Revolution” (‘Enghlab Sefied’) a major part of which dealt with the problem of rural poverty by promoting land reform. He concentrated on removing the vestiges of the obsolete feudal society and allowing greater freedom among the urban workers. It provided generous welfare and social improvements, such as profit sharing, employee stock ownership plans, company housing, minimum wage, and an improved Social Security Act. New personnel practices were introduced, including payroll administration with time management, job descriptions, job classifications and evaluations, and organizational hierarchies. Many of these state programs were adapted in the emerging private sector
The fact that the overthrow of Mossadegh left the Shah in control of the nation, embarked on such a program of reform, was a goad to the anger of the Ayatollahs and the religious establishment. Ayatollah Kashani’s betrayal of Mossadegh did not reduce the religious opposition of the Islamists to the Shah. They feared that the reforms instituted by the Shah would lead to the “Westernisation” of the country and their loss of control of the Iranian social base. They gathered together many of their supporters and marched on Tehran and Qoms in June 1961. The demonstrations were brutally put down by the Shah and his security service, SAVAK.
SAVAK and the army then turned on the Tudeh, despite its collaboration with the Shah in removing Mossadegh. Many of its leaders were jailed, tortured and killed. This repression was not only reserved for the Tudeh and its unionists, it was also directed against all labour and dissident movements on a far wider scale across the nation.
From 1953 until the shah was overthrown in 1979, Iran endured a period of economic reformism combined with a repressive political environment. Trade unions were banned in 1953 and were not permitted again until 1961.
The End of the Shah
The labour movement, despite the Shah’s reforms, was reconstituted in a highly controlled form in 1961 and grew dissatisfied and hemmed-in because of rising inflation and the slow growth of the economy. On January 9, 1978, government security forces shot and killed protesting theology students in Qom, sparking widespread demonstrations that culminated in the shutdown of Tehran's Grand Bazaar on January 19, 1978. This sparked a widespread reaction across the country. Millions of ordinary Iranians subsequently took part in massive protests, with textile, sanitation, car assembly line, and paper mill workers joining the demonstrators in the summer of 1978. Major strikes included a walkout by 37,000 workers at Iran's national oil refineries and at Iran Air, paralyzing the country's energy and air transportation sectors. The labour movement's participation in the protests was a major turning point in the revolution. Those protesting now included a critical component of the Iranian economy. [x]
Although the government and SAVAK managed to keep control of the demonstrations, they were followed a few weeks later by similar demonstration in Tabriz with which the government had a less successful outcome. The armed struggle and resistance on 8th, 9th and 10th of Feb. saw the popular opposition forces triumphant and dealt the final blow to the regime of the Shah and put an end to the 2,500 years of monarchy in Iran.
The 1979 coup saw a new wave of populist and nationalist feeling across the country. Many political prisoners were freed, and new political and labour groups started to form. They all participated in a general election to guide the country through the transformation from a monarchy to a republic. Unfortunately, the majority of the seats in the Majlis were won by the Islamic Republican Party of Ayatollah Beheshti and the leftist and nationalist organizations were soon pushed out of power. The Ayatollahs were now fully in charge of the state.
The problem for the new President, Abolhassan Bani Sadr, was that the religious establishment lacked the coherence of unity and purpose which would allow him to govern. The religious establishment felt it could dictate to Bani Sadr what his policies should be while, at the same time, carrying out summary executions and extra-judicial trials of their enemies. The clergy began to attack Bani Sadr and tried to force him from office in 1981.
The people took to the streets to support civil rule in the country and the nation was besieged by demonstrations and protest marches against the clergy. The clergy formed its own militia, the Pasadaran (Revolutionary Guards) to combat the demonstrators. They took to the streets and arrested thousands of youths, activists and unionists. Many ended up in Evin Prison. The “Hanging Judge”, Lajevardi, often sentenced as many as twenty-five prisoners a day to execution. President Bani Sadr fled the country. Power passed to the Supreme Ayatollah, Sayyid Ruhollah Musavi Khomeini; although, in reality, Khomeini had already controlled much of what was going on in Iran since the fall of the Shah and Khomeini’s return from exile.
Labour Unions After the Ayatollahs Came to Power
The 1978 oil industry strikes played a significant role in the victory of the revolution. Many of the factories were nationalised after the fall of the shah and were managed by councils of workers known as ‘shura'. The new Iranian Constitution reflected this spirit in a number of articles including Article 28 (Right to Choose Work), Article 29 (Right to Free Social Welfare), and Article 43 (Fair Working Hours). Even in the period of labour strength, the Bazaari capitalists and the religious zealots resisted their demands. The conservative faction of the new government, who were supported by the Bazaari, argued against any governmental establishing a system of labour relations. In their opinion, labour contracts should be private affairs and should fall under the category of ‘rent of persons' (resembling the 1937 Civil Law).[xi]
In the initial proposal, which was tabled in 1981, child labour was legal, and employers had full control over working hours, paid leave, and minimum wage. The Iranian Labour Code (ILC), which demarcates the overall framework for labour relations, is one of the most important legal texts in Iran and one of the most divisive. State factions struggled against each other for a decade just to pass the code in 1989, and every subsequent government has attempted to amend, edit, or reform it in some way. What it produced was not a framework for trade unionism and collective bargaining; it produced the “House of Labour”, a controlled aggregation of quasi-unions and worker groups under the control of the employers and the theocracy. In the West this is called “Yellow Dog” unionism; the yellow-dog contract is an agreement between an employer and an employee in which the employee agrees, as a condition of employment, not to be a member of a labour union. Even though the independent unions and secular opposition, which had been incredibly active during the build-up to the revolution, were being heavily repressed, the proposed bill was strongly opposed by the Prime Minister, the House of Workers, and the leftist Islamists.
A new Labour Code, drafted by the left-leaning government, was handed to parliament in 1985, but was vetoed many times by the conservatives of the Council of Guardians, a constitutional body verifying compatibility of all bills with the constitution and Sharia . In 1987 the Council of Guardians registered 74 objections, and in 1989 they registered more than 130 objections. The passing of the Iranian Labour Code required juridical intervention, and Ayatollah Khomeini established the Expediency Council to overcome the constitutional deadlock that had arisen. The Expediency Council passed the Iranian Labour Code in November 1990.[xii]
Since the rise of Ayatollah Khomeini as the Supreme Leader and his political allies (like Ahmadinejad) Iran has created a parallel universe for labour rights. Instead of legal, free and independent unions, Iran is organised under yellow-dog Islamic Workers’ Councils (Shora-e Islami Karagaran) which are supposed to give the same rights to labour organisations as in non-theocratic nations but under Islamic rule. This was enshrined in the period following the Iran-Iraq War in the 1990 Islamic Republic of Iran Labour Code.
The main problem for Iran was that a theocratic state which captured and held U.S. diplomatic personnel in custody and fought a long and costly war against its neighbour was not a very attractive place for companies to invest. The main growth in employment was civil servants and soldiers; none of whom generated income. The notion that some Islamic oversight would produce prosperity, economic growth and a satisfied workforce was a pipedream. With the death of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1989, the new leader Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani entered the stage as a champion of economic liberalization. By 1992 liberalization policies were in place for the reconstruction and rejuvenation of the market and its institutions. Unfortunately, its success was very limited.
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). The Iranian working class unionists 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, their share in the employed workforce substantially declined. [xiii]
The Growth of Labour Militancy
Despite the lack of official recognition of their unions the Iranian labour movement has continued to grow, both in numbers and influence. In recent years, long-term strikes in Iran have become routine and sometimes have lasted for a month or even more. More and more large industrial centres are striking frequently, despite the fact that gatherings and organizations are prohibited in Iran. Workers and protesters demonstrate somewhere in Iran almost every day because of their urgent demands. In Iran, workers and teachers are deprived of the right to organize, but they have independently acted to form unions, and inter-union organisations. such as the Free Trade Union of Workers of Iran, The Vahed (city bus company) Syndicate, the Haft Tapeh Sugarcane Syndicate, the Coordination Committee for the Establishment of Workers Organizations, the Follow-up Committee for the Establishment of Workers’ Associations, the Kermanshah Electric and Metal Association, the Labour Defenders Association, the Alborz Painting Workers Syndicate, the Workers’ Union for Electric and Metal Workers and Trade Unions and in various fields of construction, bakery, and other organizations like the Teachers’ Association which have firmly established themselves and have been in contact with international union organisation.
The Iranian unions regularly communicate with international labour organisations like IndustriAll, the International Transport Workers, the International Federation of teachers, and the Global Federations of national centres like the International Trade Union Confederation. In October 2016 the Union of Metalworkers and Mechanics of Iran (UMMI) became the first affiliate from Iran to join IndustriALL. The UMMI was originally formed in 1960. After 1983 the union was forced to operate underground for more than two decades, but since 2005, it has operated openly. Although not officially recognized by the state or employers, UMMI represents a considerable number of workers in vehicle assembly, components factories, steel plants and detergent companies.
The union is not able to operate openly in the workplace, as workers suspected of being union members are dismissed and arrested. Despite this, the union is able to mobilize workers, who are inspired by UMMI’s independence, militancy and resistance. In theory, workers have the right to organize, but actual union organization in the workplace is not allowed. Strikes are suppressed by the security forces, militia and riot police. In 2016, 17 workers from the Agh Darreh gold mine in West Azerbaijan were publicly flogged for protesting the firing of 350 of their colleagues.
The government has a monopoly on workplace organization, and the labour ministry supports the Workers’ House of the Islamic Republic of Iran. It sponsors pro-regime Islamic Labour Councils, tripartite organizations containing worker and employer representatives and government appointees.
The contacts between Iranian unionists and trade unions in the West have been a thorn in the side of the authorities. Ali Nejati, a 55-year-old board member of the sugarcane company’s workers’ union (Haft Tappeh), was ordered to serve a prison sentence issued against him by the Revolutionary Court in Dezful for allegedly contacting labour activists abroad, organizing workers in the province and holding weekly union meetings, In 2011, Nejati served one year in Fajr Prison in Dezful for his peaceful trade union activities and in 2015 he was held for three months in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ detention centre in Ahvaz, the capital of Khuzestan Province, for leading ongoing protests to demand unpaid wages and benefits for the workers of Haft Tappeh. The authorities sought to punish Mr. Nejati to intimidate the other 60 or so Haft Tappeh workers who were facing prosecution for demanding their rights. Protests over three months’ unpaid wages at the company flared in July 2017 resulting in 53 protesters being summoned to court. When the workers began their protests, the security agencies sided with the employer. Some of the workers were summoned and detained and the workers were paid some of their back wages, but when the protests died down, the company warned it would not tolerate any more protests and anyone who didn’t like the status quo should quit the firm. The back wages have never been paid.
Protesting workers have their cases heard in camera in clergy-led courts; often without any right of appeal. In 2018 Iranian labour rights activist Mahmoud Beheshti-Langroudi., an Iranian imprisoned teachers’ rights activist, declared a hunger strike until his nine-year combined prison sentence and five-year prison sentence was reviewed in a public trial. Mahmoud Beheshti-Langroudi, the former spokesman for the Iranian Teachers’ Trade Association (ITTA), was taken to Evin Prison in Tehran on September 12, 2017, to serve the sentences that was issued for his peaceful defence of labour rights permitted under the law. Based on Article 168, “Political and press offenses will be tried openly and in the presence of a jury, in courts of justice.” Now, the revolutionary courts pass verdicts in closed sessions in a matter of minutes. This is, in no way, compatible with Article 168.
Perhaps the most famous of the Iranian labour leaders to fall afoul of the Ayatollah’s justice is Mansour Osanloo. He is one of the principal founders of the Syndicate of Workers of Tehran and Suburbs Bus Company, leading one of the largest strikes in Iranian history and campaigning vigorously for workers’ rights. Osanloo was arrested and imprisoned several times from 2005 to 2008 for his organizing activities. In 2008 Osanloo was sentenced to 5 years and was held in Evin Prison and freed in June 2013. Osanloo’s uncompromising stance for labour rights and his resolve as a political prisoner has earned him international praise and support.
Currently, dozens of workers and labour activists and reporters and teachers are imprisoned. Many unemployed or laid off workers are also imprisoned. Behnam Ebrahimzadeh a syndicalist worker is currently imprisoned. After serving a 5-year sentence, instead of being freed, he was given a new 9-year sentence in Gohardasht prison in Karaj and is currently serving his time there. He is in poor health and under intense pressure. Rasul Boudaghi a teacher who was imprisoned for 6 years, was sent to the notorious ward 209 of Evin prison. He is under pressure to testify against himself and a teacher’s labour organization. In 2015, Ebrahim Madadi , Davood Razavi, Mahmoud Salehi, Osman Ismaili, Pedram Nasrollahi, Jafar Azimzadeh and dozens of other labour activists and organizers in Khuzestan have all been arrested. In prison, the rights of prisoners are never upheld. They do not provide them with proper meals, or sanitary living conditions. They are denied adequate medical care, and they are condemned to a silent and slow death. [xiv]
Since the violent protests of November 2019, when the gasoline price were trebled, the workers have escalated their protests and the government its violence. Because of the sanctions and government corruption, consumer prices in Iran have risen by 52%. The current wages amount to just under 70% of the living wage in Iran and are falling behind every day. The large majority of the Iranian workforce live below the Iranian poverty line, with income of less than 70% of the living wage. The National Statistical Centre announced the annual inflation rate as 38.9% for the Persian month of Dey (Dec. 22- Jan. 20). According to the report, inflation for foodstuffs such as meat and vegetables has reached 70%. Inflation in housing and rent is around 23% while health care has reached 26.4%. The report said that transportation rates had increased by 3% compared to last month and had now reached 46.6%.[xv] Next year’s budget bill, presented to parliament on December 8, showed a 25% increase compared to last year. However, Iran would need to export 870,000 to one million barrels of oil per day to reach those numbers, which is impossible with the current US sanctions and with the current price of crude at below US$54 a barrel.
Labour has responded with frequent and militant strikes. Since the November protests the pace has picked up. A overview of a small selection of the strike actions in recent months illustrate this phenomenon.
- On Feb 2 in Fars Province, Retired workers of the Shiraz Telecommunications Company gathered outside the Fars Governor's Office to demand the wages they were promised 13 years ago
- On February 1, 2020, the Apadana petrochemical workers in Asaluyeh, southwest Iran, went on strike in protest of their six months' delayed pay.
- 30 January, 2020 over 300 workers at the Chadormalu iron ore mine were fired after protesting low wages and wage discrimination against contractors.
- On February 2, 2020, a group of workers in Khuzestan province's Water and Wastewater Company rallied in front of the company building to protest their delayed wages.
- On February 2, 2020 the Arvand petrochemical workers protested their unpaid wages and the reduction of the workforce.
- On 21 January, 2020, hundreds of workers at the Bandar Imam Khomeini petrochemical complex in Iran, launched a protest which lasted for several days over precarious work conditions, the non-payment of wages, reduction of bonuses, and the end of overtime pay.
- On January 10, 2020 Nima Saffar, a journalist and prominent author in Iran, was summoned to Gorgan prison to serve an 8-month jail term for his writing. He has been denied access to his medicines. The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) strongly condemned his imprisonment and urges officials to grant him access to proper health care.
- On January 2, 2020—Protests continued in several Iranian cities over economic woes and government corruption despite heavy security measures by the regime to avoid the eruption of further uprisings. A group of bakers from Qazvin held a demonstration in front of the governor’s office about their demands. Teachers joined their protest.
- On 30 December 2019 Hassan Saidi, one of the May Day 2019 detainees and a member of the Trade Union of the Tehran and Suburbs Vahed Bus Company, was sentenced to five years’ imprisonment in a lower court. The appeal court has now upheld his sentence.
Poverty Does Not Include the Ayatollahs or the Revolutionary Guard
These poverty figures and markers of economic decline do not mean that the Ayatollahs and their families are not doing well. Much of the economy is owned by bonyads, Islamic foundations that pay modest pensions to war widows and such, and very large amounts to those who run them, mostly clerics and their kin. The largest, the Mostazafan Bonyad, with more than 200,000 employees in some 350 separate companies is involved in everything from farming to tourism and is a very generous employer for its crowds of clerical managers.
This is particularly true in Iran’s second largest export market, pistachio nuts. The pistachio king, Akbar Hashemi “Rafsanjani,” former president and a top regime figure for decades controls the pistachio trade and owns most of the pistachio orchards in his home province of Rafsanjani.
His son Mehdi Hashemi is very prominent among the aghazadeh (“noble born”), the sons and daughters of the rulers. He preferred industrial wealth to pistachios, and his name kept coming up in other people’s corruption trials. The Rafsanjani clan as a whole took a couple of billion dollars at least.
The Supreme Leader Khamenei himself is not known to have personally stolen anything—he has his official palaces, after all. but his second son, Mojtaba, may have taken as much as $2 billion from the till, while his third son, Massoud, is making do with a mere $400- or $500-hundred million. His youngest son, Maitham, is not living in poverty either, with a couple of hundred million. The ayatollah’s two daughters, Bushra and Huda, each received de-facto dowries in the $100 million range.[xvi]
This is not secret information. Among the Greens, the dissidents and the unionists this is widely discussed. The Iranian government owns many of the factories and industries in Iran. It is the major employer of labour. The advances made since the 2009 protests have been facilitated by the widespread availability of social media on the internet. Simultaneously, the opposition politicians and the labour unions also began to have access to the internet and social media. This had a dramatic effect on labour consciousness. The workers were able to download translations of what other labour movements were achieving; texts and handbooks on occupational health and safety; and a wide variety of publications about news outside Iran.
IranWire published an article that attached a dramatic figure to the corruption of both the country's government and its private sector. The article indicated that as much as US$30 billion dollars in revenue might have been moved out of the country over just a one-year period, as wealthy individuals and participants in a "corruption mafia" sought to consolidate their positions.
The Center for Human Rights in Iran featured an interview with Iranian-American businessman Khosrow Semnani in which he stated that rampant corruption in the Iranian oil industry has led to hundreds of billions, or possibly trillions of dollars being lost to the Iranian people and channeled into unknown, government-affiliated hands. Semnani specifically alleges that during the Ahmadinejad presidency, from 2005 to 2013, at least 304 billion dollars in oil revenue went missing.[xvii]
But beyond the corruption of the mullahs and their children, the largest cause of popular anger is undoubtedly the Pasdaran, an altogether more costly lot than the several hundred aghazadeh or tens of thousands of high-living clerics. The IRGC’s tab starts with the trillion dollars or more that the Pasdaran-provoked nuclear sanctions cost the nation before the Obama team agreed to lift them. It continues with the billions that Iran still loses annually because of the ballistic-missile sanctions that Trump seems determined not to lift. Then there are the variable costs of the Pasdaran’s imperial adventures, as well as the fixed cost of Pasdaran military industries that spend plenty on sophisticated missiles, as well as on “stealth” fighters and supposedly advanced submarines that exist only in the fantasies of regime propagandists. Pasdaran militarism and imperial adventures are unaffordable luxuries that the demonstrators very clearly want to do without—hence their shouts of “no-Gaza, no-Syria.”
Ironically, Iran's receiving more than $100 billion in frozen assets after signing the agreement to stop nuclear testing succeeded in breaking the solidarity between the Iranian people and the Ayatollahs' regime better than the sanctions did by highlighting the carrying cost of Iran’s foreign military endeavours like its support for Hezbollah. Without Iranian money, Hezbollah would not exist. At least, not exist as an Iranian foreign legion, militarily engaged against Israel and in other Middle East regional conflicts. Without Iranian subsidies, Hezbollah would be just a narco-mafia. Hezbollah has developed deep connections to Mexican and Colombian drug cartels, directly to facilitate the distribution of drugs throughout the Middle East and the US. In the holy city of Qom in Iran, on December 30, 2017, anti-regime demonstrators shouted, "Death to Hezbollah", "Aren't you ashamed Khamenei? Get out of Syria and take care of us", and "Not Gaza, or Lebanon".[xviii]
Hamas, in Gaza, is also a client of the Pasdaran and its Quds special forces. Millions more are being spent in the Yemen and in the war in Syria. There is even more expenditures on the Shia militias in Iraq. This massive diversion of Iranian resources into the pockets of the mullahs and the armed services of the Pasdaran leave very little for the Iranian working people. The unions are intent on changing this; not like the Greens who want to reform it but as a force to revolutionise the Iranian system of governance.
The Polarisation of Iranian Politics
The elections on the 21st of February are not likely to reduce the increasing frustration of the Iranian people, especially the working poor, with the theocracy and its military wing, the Pasdaran. The Islamic Consultative Assembly, also called the Majlis, is the national legislative body of Iran. The Parliament currently has 290 representatives. This body has lost much of its influence in the last eight years. There is also the Assembly of Experts (Majlis-e Khobregan) an 88-member body of Islamic jurists, elected by direct popular vote every eight years who have the right to dismiss or appoint the Supreme Leader. The Experts are required to be Islamic specialists with a mastery of Islamic jurisprudence. Above them is the Guardians’ Council (Shoura-ye negahban), a 12-member body appointed by the Supreme Leader and the Majlis. Five of the 12 Guardians’ Council members are also members of the Assembly of Experts. The Guardian Council is where most of the political power lies and to which the Supreme leader is accountable. There is no chain of accountability between the Majlis and the Supreme Leader or, indeed, the Guardian Council. So, despite the upcoming election of the Majlis on the 21st, no one reckons that this will open up a dialogue between the polarised population of the nation and its leaders.
Still wider is the gap between the Iranian population and the giant military-industrial complex of the Pasdaran. The killing of Solemani led only to his replacement as head of the Pasdaran and the Quds force. Even the Supreme Leader does not have the power to control the Pasdaran or curb its adventurism in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, the Gaza and Yemen. The Supreme Leader had successfully asserted his influence on the nation when he signed the ill-fated Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), also known as the Iran nuclear deal, despite the objections from the Iranian military. When Trump abruptly cancelled US participation in the JPCOA in May 2018 he undercut the ability of the Iranian Government and the religious establishment to control the Pasdaran.
The working people of Iran understand that there is no political mechanism or policy line that they can follow which will lead them to a more tolerant and democratic system. When the forces of the state massacred 1,500 demonstrators and injured and jailed the others the message was clear. The protestors marched under the banners which targeted the Supreme Leader, chanting “Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, resign, resign,” “Death to Khamenei,” “Death to the principle of the velayat-e faqih,” and ‘IRGC commits crimes, the Supreme Leader supports them.” In many protests, people chanted “No to oppressor, be it the Shah, or the supreme leader (i.e. Khamenei),” “No crown, no turban, Khamenei your days are finished.”
These protests continue. They have attracted, as well, many of those who have also been discriminated against by the Iranian government; women (whose rights in Iran have been dramatically curtailed), Kurds (who make up a large proportion of the labour leadership and the opposition) and the Baha’i (who have just had their ability to function in Iranian civil practices by the Government passing a ruling in January 2020 barring member of that faith from obtaining a new national identification card unless they renounce their religion). Since that identity card is required for access to basic government services or to make bank transactions, this is a serious blow.
When all routes to reform are blocked; when the leadership steals the money of the state to put them into the pockets of their robes or into military endeavours in the Middle East, the only solution is a revolt. Any kind of a confrontation with the forces of authority, as shown by the wild abandon of the last demonstrations are not likely to prevail The only solution is the withdrawal of labour. This is the only method that can work, the withdrawal of labour. However, the workers still have to live, buy food, pay bills. The withdrawal of labour must be done carefully and sequentially. In the Italian auto industry they developed a unique formula for success. In the FIAT factory not everyone went out on strike. One week it was the engine shop; the next week the paint line; the week after the body assembly line, etc. All the other workers showed up at their work stations and were paid because they weren’t on strike. Only the small group suffered. The next week a different group suffered. However, there were no cars produced and management suffered the most. If this were done across the factories, farms, classrooms and hospitals of Iran this might persuade the mullahs to take a greater interest in the welfare of the Iranian working people.
The long-suffering Iranian workers deserve a better chance at creating a better life for themselves and their families.
[iii] George Lenczowski,. Russia and the West in Iran. Greenwood Press 1968.
[iv] Gary R. Hess, "the Iranian Crisis of 1945–46 and the Cold War." Political Science Quarterly 89#1 1974
[vi] Gita, Labour Strikes in the Oil City 1946-1951, Headquarters 06/01/2013
[vii] Abrahamian, E.A History of Modern Iran. Cambridge University Press, 2010
[viii] M. Fateh, Panjah Sal-e Naft-e Iran, 1968
[x] Gary Busch, “The Political Role of International Trades Unions”, Macmillan 1983
[xiii] Sohrab Behdad and Farhad Nomani , Iranian Labor and the Struggle for Independent Unions , PBS 18 Apr 2011
[xiv] Hamid Yazdan Panah, " Iran’s Labor Movement:" Interview with labor activist Mansour Osanlou, Middle East News, 1/5/15
[xvi] Edward N. Luttwak, "The Ayatollah Empire Is Rotting Away", Tablet January 2, 2018,
[xviii] Yves Mamou, "Is Hezbollah Eating the Iranian People's Bread?" Gatestone, January 4, 2018