Is There a Labor Movement in Iran? An Interview with Mohammad Maljoo

Translator’s Note: Dr. Mohammad Maljoo is an Iran-based researcher and lecturer who specializes in political economy. On February 6, 2010, Mahindokht Mesbah of the Persian language Deutsche Welle Radio conducted an interview with him. Translated excerpts follow.

Labor Actions: Three Decades of Ebb and Flow
Translated by Frieda Afary

February 6, 2010
DW: Our discussion concerns the ebbs and flows of the labor movement in Iran during the past 31 years. First, let’s address the movement itself and then its ebbs and flows. Can we essentially speak of a labor movement in Iran?

MM: I think the phrase, labor actions, would be a more appropriate title for our discussion today. A movement has its own definitions, organizations and leaders. It is difficult to speak of a labor movement during the rule of the Islamic Republic. The working class, has had actions here and there. These actions can be divided into different periods. It is difficult for me to speak of a labor movement.

DW: Let’s start by reviewing these periods. What were the specific features of the first decade [after the 1979 Revolution—tr] given the utopian air of the immediate post- revolutionary period, the war [Iran-Iraq War 1980-1988—tr], and the establishment of the House of Labor and Islamic labor councils?

MM: In order to answer your questions, I will skip the first two years after the revolution. I will start from the time when the leftist organizations which defended the working class were destroyed by the ruling forces in a variety of ways and were practically eliminated from the political scene.

The formation of workers’ councils after the revolution, made the Islamic Republic realize that the working class had been guided and assisted by various political leftist groups in demanding its rights. These demands naturally created problems for the ruling political establishment. Therefore, the Islamic labor councils were formed to confront these difficulties. These councils were practically tools for the ruling political system to control the working class or to control labor activists.

During the reign of the governments for which Mir-Hossein Mousavi was prime minister [1981-1989 –tr], the independent and semi-independent workers’ councils which had been formed during the honeymoon of the revolution, were completely destroyed. During these same ten years, we saw serious developments on the political scene. With the expropriation or escape of the bourgeoisie, which had risen under the system of monarchy, this class was replaced by another newly rising class. This newly rising class which became well established in the 1990, did not create any improvements in the condition of the working class to advance the workers’ welfare or rights. During the sixteen year period of the governments of Mr. Hashemi Rafsanjani [1989-1997—tr] and Mr. Khatami [1997-2005—tr], despite the ups and downs, the dominant economic outlook was concerned with advancing the upper economic class formed in the 1980s. This outlook set the rules of the game in such a way as to allow for the accumulation of capital by the new class. Only through the “trickling down effect” would other social classes including the working class and the poor benefit.

DW: Was the political logic of the second period, different from the first period? How did the labor councils or the remaining organizations operate during this period?

MM: These two periods are parts of a larger puzzle. During the first period, independent workers’ organizations were eliminated and suppressed on the basis of the claim that they were tools of leftist groups. This period was characterized by property expropriations, and the granting of privileges and monopolies on import and export. This trend was intensified with the end of the war. During the second period, no organization even existed for the government to confront. During this period, Islamic councils remained and had a monopoly on labor organizations. In addition to the pressures imposed by the rulers, the Islamic councils would not allow any other organization to grow.

During the 1990s, the upper class which had risen during the first decade after the revolution, was able to provide the finance capital, the human capital and the increasing knowledge of the global world that allowed it to develop. The strategy of this class was also to promote the accumulation of capital as the only way to benefit the lower classes.

DW: What was the outcome of this situation among wage laborers, workers and toilers? Did they accept these terms? Were they not demanding their rights or labor laws?

MM: Yes they did. That is why I say that we should speak of labor actions and not a labor movement. At that time, communication and the flow of information was not as speedy as today. As a result, the information we have from this period is limited. Strikes and protests mostly spread through word of mouth.

Labor actions during this period were often controlled by the Islamic councils and the House of Labor. The key point is that the majority of the protests during the 1990s were over bread and butter issues and did not challenge the political system and the capitalist class. The actions concerned unpaid wages, the shortening of the working day, etc.

DW: How did the labor laws after the revolution benefit the workers?

MM: During the first decade, there was no labor law. There were drafts about which different groups had various views. These drafts which were shuffled back and forth in the thick of political battles between the parliament, the Council of Guardians and the government, only became law in 1991 with the mediation of the Expediency Council. This is the law that is enforced today.

This law has granted some benefits to the working class and toilers. It has placed some restrictions on the summary dismissals of workers. The degree of actual enforcement of this law, and the degree to which it has restricted employers in the actual power relations, is a matter of debate. On the other hand, by banning independent workers’ organizations, this law, has given privileges to the established political system. This law does not recognize workers’ right to collective action and collective bargaining. Chapter six of this law has been consistently under attack by labor activists, writers, economists, etc. during the past eighteen years. Only previously existing Islamic councils that exist under the umbrella of the House of Labor, have come to terms with this law.

DW: Let’s return to your periodization by decades. Tell us about the specific features of the third decade.

MM: This period begins with Mr. Ahmadinejad [Ahmadinejad became president in June 2005—tr]. Despite his popular election slogans, his policies represented a type of class reconfiguration. Ahmadinejad and his ninth cabinet were determined to elevate those loyal and committed to the government, who were in the middle layers of the power and wealth pyramid.

The ninth government’s effort to change the class configuration of society, did not benefit the bourgeoisie that was formed in the 1980s and 1990s. The [ninth government’s –tr] goal was to displace the technocrats associated with parties such as Participation, Kargozaran, the Mujahedeen of the Islamic Revolution, and other reformists organizations, and to replace them with newly emerging classes and sectors dependent on the ninth government.

DW: Did the ninth government attempt to buy off the toilers in order to strengthen its own front?

MM: No, the ninth government at best allowed the lower classes to participate in the reproduction of economic wealth in limited and ineffective ways. This limited distribution only included the sectors that were anticipated to vote for and support this government.

Proof for my statement can be found in the amendment to the labor law which was proposed by the Ministry of Labor during the second year of the ninth government. This amendment has been going through various channels and is being ratified without public knowledge. As in the past, chapter six of the labor law does not give workers the right to create their independent organizations. . .

DW: Despite the increase in lay offs, unemployment, inflation and costs, why are we not hearing anything from the masses of workers? Why aren’t the workers exerting themselves?

MM: But they are exerting themselves! According to research done by Dr. Bashirieh, there have been labor actions. There have been factory protests, strikes, petitions etc. The masses of workers have exerted themselves. However, prior to the historical juncture marked by June 12, 2009 [the date of the fraudulent presidential election which set off the current wave of mass protests—tr] these exertions were fragmented and not under the umbrella of any national organization. In fact, we can say that although labor actions have not taken the form of a movement, they have been a problem for the ninth government.

DW: Can we expect new labor actions in the post-June 12, 2009 period?

MM: A new period started after June 12. However, the outlook is still not clear in labor discussions or in many other arenas. A unique feature of this period is that labor actions are more prominently placed on the agenda than in the past. Among workers, there is a potential for coordination with the civil rights protest movement.

. . . The plan to impose targeted monetary subsidies [to phase out existing subsidies on basic goods and gas—tr], or the ratification of the amendment to the labor law, can link labor actions to the recent movement and the middle class. In this context, the formation of various workers organizations is within sight. Of course this is a possibility.

The current political movement has created a division within the ruling political class. This gives an opportunity to the dissatisfied to express themselves. The working class has an opportunity. In this context, the possibility of the transformation of labor actions into a national movement in the coming months or in the coming two or three years is likely. . .

DW: Let’s speak about the visible networks. Why are the existing workers’ organizations present in the service and non-industrial fields? Examples are the Syndicate of Vahed Bus Drivers, the [Haft Tapeh–tr] Sugar Cane Workers Syndicate, the Syndicate of Khabbaz workers, etc. Why don’t these organizations exist in heavy industry?

MM: There are two possible reasons. In heavy industry, the government is the employer. The possibility of bankruptcy, delayed payments, or financial problems is less likely in these enterprises, because the government supports them. Less pressure on workers reduces the interest in organization. The other reason is that, the small sector of the aristocracy of labor that may exist in Iran’s economy, is employed in heavy industry. There is also more governmental control over large enterprises. . . . Another barrier is the Islamic labor council which continuously seeks influence. Don’t forget that, in addition to governmental mistreatment, severe pressure has been placed on the Vahed Bus Drivers Syndicate by the Islamic labor council. . .

DW: In order to sum up this discussion, let’s recall the determinant role of labor strikes in achieving victory in the [1979] Revolution and the determinant role of the oil workers in bringing the Pahlavi regime down to its knees.

MM: In order to respond to your question, I will refer you to unpublished research done by Dr. Ahmad Ashraf, to which I have had access. Based on this research, the working class and workers’ organizations in Iran embarked the ship of the revolution on its last stop. In contrast to what is commonly believed by many leftist intellectuals and especially intellectuals abroad, the working class was not the vanguard of the revolution. The group that embarked the ship of the revolution on its last stop, did not constitute all sectors of the working class. It was only the industrial working class. However, as the researchers state, once this group embarked the ship, it became the determinant in the victory of the revolution. . . .

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