Teachers and other education workers last held mass protests in 2001, demanding equal pay with other state employees. Their action resulted in the drafting of a “Pay Parity Bill” which promised to lift salaries above the poverty level.- More than five years later the Bill has not been enacted and Parliament looks set to repeal the measures. The arrest of six key activists from various teacher organisations failed to halt a 7,000 strong demonstration on Thursday 8 March.
Teachers have the lowest monthly income of all public servants, earning around half the Iranian poverty line of $543 per month. To make ends meet many take a second job, but annual inflation rates of 15% compound a desperate situation.
Despite Ahmadinejad’s promise of greater distribution of oil revenue to public services, the government has said it will not fund school heating this winter. 45,000 classrooms remain derelict. Many teachers have no desk to work from whilst students, often attending school in three different shifts, crowd onto benches and chairs. Last year, one third of Iran’s four million students failed end of year examinations.
The recent protests are the culmination of action that began earlier this year. After the government said it would repeal the “Pay Parity Bill”, over 100 teachers demonstrated outside Parliament on 23 January. 1000 demonstrated on 4 February. Armed forces surrounded the demonstrators who dispersed only after issuing a statement demanding the enactment of the Bill by 14 February. With no formal reponse from government the teachers took mass action on 19-20 February. Iranian teachers have no formal right to strike so over two days many staged classroom sit-ins.
Despite the significant risk, up to 40% took unofficial strike action on the 19th. On 22 February, more than 3000 teachers and their supporters demonstrated outside the Parliament. Uniformed and undercover military forces were present in large numbers, photographing and intimidating the crowd.
With their demands going unheard the teachers protests continue. The Iranian regime has no tolerance for independent working-class action and has used “legal’ and paramilitary action to quash union organisation.
The teachers of Iran show that in the worst of circumstances, coordinated protests and solidarity are possible.