Unlike in 1979, much of the Iranian working class is precariously employed—and they have more to lose than their chains by joining the protests.
For six weeks, major protests have roiled Iran. The killing of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Iranian from Saqqez, a city in Iran’s Kurdistan province, has forced a reckoning between Iranian society and the state. Iranian women are asserting their rights, and more broadly, the Iranian people are demanding fundamental political change. The Iranian state has so far responded to the protesters with force, leaving hundreds of people dead. Authorities have made no indication that they will initiate a political process to meet the public’s demands. The protests are set to continue.
Workers have played an important role in the protests so far, organizing demonstrations and using their role in the economy to both express solidarity with the protests and put pressure on authorities. Lawyers and doctors have staged protests in Tehran and other major cities. Various groups of industrial and transport workers have organized demonstrations. Teachers have helped organize talking groups and discussion forums among school students, whose acts of civil disobedience have become among the most notable of the nascent movement.
But even as different labor groups contribute to the cause and call for strikes, workers are not yet joining the protests in larger numbers or staging ongoing mass strikes to put significant economic pressure on authorities.
On social media, the hashtag “general strikes” has trended since the beginning of the protests. Supporters of the demonstrations, including those outside of Iran, hailed the bazaar strikes held by shopkeepers in numerous cities during the first weeks of the movement. They then shared reports of oil strikes in Kangan city, Bushehr, and Abadan. Anticipation grew when the Coordination Council of Iranian Teachers’ Trade Associations declared a national strike from Oct. 23 to Oct. 24.
However, these strikes were unsuccessful—none were large enough to affect the production of goods or the provision of services. The bazaar strikes largely consisted of shop owners boarding up their windows to prevent property damage. The oil strikes were limited to small pockets of contract workers, mostly during lunch or shift breaks. The teachers’ strike was limited to only a few classrooms in Kurdistan. The much-anticipated general strike has yet to materialize.
The notion that a general strike could make the difference in Iran’s new protest movement is tied to the memory of the 1979 revolution that led to the founding of the Islamic Republic. Beginning in 1978, strikes carried out by civil servants, municipal workers, and even oil workers put significant pressure on the shah’s regime. But the conditions that enabled major labor mobilizations in 1979 do not exist today. Those strikes were successful in part because they were led by workers with stable jobs in integrated and state-dominated sectors. Beyond the bazaar, strike action among more precariously employed workers in the private sector was limited.
Today’s Iranian workers are more precariously employed than in 1979, making it difficult for them to mobilize. Iran’s Ministry of Petroleum directly employs less than a third of all oil workers in the country and relies on private contractors to provide support. Public-sector teachers and doctors face fierce competition from lower-paid workers in sprawling private sectors. After years of privatization, fewer than a hundred large industrial enterprises remain in state hands. Most of the workers in these firms are employed on temporary contracts.
Widespread union busting and privatization in the 2000s, combined with layoffs and job insecurity, have left Iranian workers unorganized.
The 1979 revolution contributed to workers’ organization, but today, unionization rates are dismal. Widespread union busting and privatization in the 2000s, combined with the layoffs and job insecurity of the sanctions-afflicted 2010s, have left Iranian workers unorganized. Over time, the loss of union structures has made it more challenging for political struggles to translate into workplace strikes. In the late 1990s, for instance, workers were able to mobilize their organizations to support the reformist leader Mohammad Khatami. A decade later, declining unionization prevented stronger workplace action during the 2009 Green Movement. The situation is even more dire today.
Aside from a lack of formal organizations, economic factors have become a greater impediment to worker-led political action. Between 2010 and 2020, the median annual expenditure of households headed by blue collar workers had fallen from $4,600 to $3,900, a decline of 15 percent, according to data from the Statistical Center of Iran. With little savings, most workers live paycheck to paycheck. They cannot afford to forgo wages and fear getting fired in an economy with significant unemployment.
In October, managers at the Haft Tappeh Sugarcane, a large state-owned firm, were reportedly urged by authorities to “do anything to prevent workers’ protests.” One day before workers had planned a protest, they suddenly agreed to pay out months’ worth of delayed wages. More recently, the Persian Gulf Mining and Metal Industries Special Economic Zone urged major employers in Hormozgan province to pay wage arrears “in order to prevent workplace grievances that might become a reason for participating in protests.” Iranian authorities recognize that economic grievances are a major motivation for protests and have stepped up repression.
An oil workers’ strike planned for Oct. 29 was postponed because, as organizers explained, “our workplaces have become securitized.” But authorities also understand that Iranian workers are in a precarious position—many workers will refrain from protesting if their wages and jobs are on the line.
In a recent interview published in Persian, Jack Goldstone, a leading theorist of social revolutions, suggested that “continuous strikes at oil installations and among workers of other important and key sectors” are among the conditions necessary for the success of the current protests in Iran. But organizational and economic factors make it unlikely that these kinds of major strikes will materialize in Iran. Even so, that does not mean that workers cannot contribute to the protest movement.
Strikes played a major role in the 1979 revolution because they were a viable and effective tactic. But strikes are not the only form of political action that workers can take. As was clear in just the first few weeks of the protests, workers can show solidarity and make their demands heard in a variety of ways. It is important for those observing the protests from afar not to foist on workers their ideas of what effective mobilizations look like, especially in the short term.
Moreover, while Iranian workers currently lack the unions and structures to quickly organize, the political necessity to engage in the protests may itself spur new kinds of organizing. In the lead-up to the 1979 revolution, national strikes only became a feature of the movement after months of popular demonstrations. If the protest movement manages to sustain itself in the face of state repression, that will give time for labor activists to build new networks, taking advantage of the extraordinary solidarity being expressed among various Iranian social groups and among the diaspora.
Iranian authorities are likely to move aggressively to block any financial transfers made as part of a strike fund.
Finally, the economic conditions for workers could also change. Iran’s economy remains in a fragile recovery, and continued unrest as well as diminished prospects for sanctions relief will prevent any significant improvement in Iranian household welfare. But there is scope for actors outside of Iran to provide economic support to Iranian workers. The most prominent proposals of this kind call for a strike fund. But any such fund would create a perverse financial incentive by only assisting those workers who put themselves in harm’s way. Iranian authorities are also likely to move aggressively to block any financial transfers made as part of a strike fund.
A better approach would be to make it easier for Iranians in the diaspora to send money to family and friends in Iran in the form of remittance transfers. This would give many workers the means to partake in strikes by helping them overcome the fears associated with a loss of income. For other workers, remittances would help make ends meet in an economy in which Western sanctions have contributed to skyrocketing inflation.
Encouragingly, research shows that unconditional remittance transfers are associated with greater political participation, including in protests. Increased remittance transfers would help restore mobilization capacity among Iranian workers but would leave it up to individuals to decide when they are prepared to join strikes given the inherent risks.
Addressing Iranian workers on Labor Day, former Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini once declared, “One of the goals of the Islamic Republic is to give the whole industry of the country into the hands of believers, who are the ones the revolution belongs to.”
More than four decades after the founding of the Islamic Republic, there are fewer believers in the revolution than ever before, and the state’s failure to ensure the welfare of workers is among the many reasons for this loss of faith. Today, little belongs to Iranian workers, who are unorganized and disempowered. That is precisely why a new revolution may prove difficult to foment.