The Shah left Iran on 16 January 1979. Crowds celebrated on the streets of Tehran. His last prime minister Bakhtiar, appointed only at the end of 1978, lasted less than a month. The sense of liberty, throwing off the shackles of years of repression, was tangible. As one worker at the Caterpillar factory put it: “The greatest grace that the revolution has granted to us is freedom… Nowadays, a man can speak out and protest; he can criticise; he can read books, can breathe…” (Bayat).
Khomeini had already appointed the Islamic Revolutionary Council in exile. He returned to Iran on 1 February 1979, greeted by millions at the airport. On 5 February he appointed Bazargan as his provisional prime minister.
An insurrection 9-11 February 1979 brought the end of Bakhtiar’s farcial regime. On 9 February the Fadaiyan held an open demonstration in celebration of its first guerrilla operation in 1971. The demonstration coincided with armed clashes with the Imperial Guard. The following day the Tehran air force base rebelled against the government, coming under attack from the Shah’s Imperial Guard. The Fadaiyan joined the defence of the air force. On 11 February the battle continued, until the army’s supreme command ordered the troops back to barracks and for Bazargan to form a government.
As the old state began to crumble, working class people took control of the basic societal functions — most importantly set up shuras (councils) in workplaces. These shuras took many forms — in Tehran alone there were as many as a thousand — and in the first months of 1979 they thrived (CARI).
As Maryam Poya put it: “Strikes committees in all the factories, installations, offices, schools, universities and other workplaces re-formed and began to function as shuras (councils): workers’ shuras, students’ shuras, office workers’ shuras. Peasants in villages established their own peasants’ shuras. In the cities power passed power passed to local ad hoc bodies called Komitehs (committees). The membership of the Komitehs was made up mainly of supporters of the guerrilla organisations but also included local clergy and other fanatical supporters of the idea of an Islamic republic. Among the national minorities, power fell into the hands of their local shuras.”
The workers’ shuras were factory committees, shop floor organisations whose executive committee represented all workers in the factory or industrial group. They also elected sub-committees for particular tasks. Their major concern was workers’ control. Bayat argues that the “successful shuras were those which exerted full control over and ran the workplace without any effective control on the part of the officially appointed managers. Their politics and activities were independent of the state and the official managers and were based upon the interests of the rank and file workers.”
In the best examples — such as the Fanoos and Iran Cars factories — there was “continuous contact between the shura and the rank and file. The result of any activity or negotiations with any authority would be reported to the workers. This form of rank-and-file intervention reduced the bureaucratic tendency” (Bayat).
Bayat argues that in the period from February to August 1979, workers “waged a struggle independent from, and at times directly against, the [clerical] leaders of the revolution”. He suggests that the shuras were embryonic soviets or workers’ councils.
For example at the Chite Jahan textile factory near Tehran in the first few months of 1979, the shura organised to increased production, doubled minimum wages by cutting the pay of top engineers and managers and provided free milk for workers (Poya).
At the Fanoos factory, the shura constitution gave the committee the authority to organise workers to deal with “counter-revolutionary sabotage”, military training and “the purge of corrupt, anti-popular and idle elements, in any position”. Anyone, management included that was indicted came before a mass meeting to decide their fate (Bayat).
Workers struggled for canteens, sports facilities, clinics and workplace education. In workplaces where bosses had fled, workers took control of production, regulating the pace of work, the buying of raw materials and the sale of products.
They also took action to gain control over their workplaces. Workers’ general assemblies put directors, foreman and SAVAK agents on trial and sacked them. For example at the Arj factory, a worker explained that, “after the revolution, the management began to implement the same patterns of exploitation and oppression. But our lads had become conscious enough not to tolerate such a burden. As a result the lads threw the gentlemen out with a sudden rush ” (Bayat).
At the Eadem Motor Company in March 1979, the factory shuradecided to sack 11 managers, following an investigation of their cases. At the Pars car plant, workers struck, arguing that, “the employer has no right to hire or fire anyone without consulting the shuras” (Bayat).
At the Fama Beton cement works in Tehran, after forming a shura, workers forced their employer to accept the following conditions: “return to work with the payment of delayed wages and benefits; forty-hour week; monitoring properly the decisions of the Board of Directors, contracts, new recruitments, the determination of wages and salaries; and an inquiry into the financial situation of the company ” (Bayat).
In May 1979 workers at the Mitusac Company, faced with redundancy, staged a 25-day sit-in and a 4-day hunger strike. When this did save their jobs, they decided to “take over the workshop, running by our power” (Bayat).
The level of working class struggle remained high. The new provisional government estimated that 50,000 workers took part in new strikes in the first few months of 1979. Between February 1979 and February 1980 there were 350 separate industrial disputes (Bayat).
Workers struck for higher wages, with average wages increasing by over 50% in 1979 and the minimum wage more than doubled (Bayat).
One worker interviewed by Bayat explained the high level of understanding reached by many workers during this process: “Look, the reason why the Revolution was made at all, was because we wanted to become our own masters; to determine our own destiny… We did not want the situation where one or a few make decisions for two thousand. When we, 2,500 workers, are working around these walls, we want to know what is going on here; what we’ll achieve in the future, in what direction we are running the company, how much profit we get, how much we could take for ourselves, how much we could contribute to government for national investment.”
However other shuras, such as the Behshar Car factory, functioned only as a form of co-determination, with two members on the board of directors, some consultation and participation in administering the firm.
Some shuras did link up different workplaces. The Union of Workers’ Shuras of Western Tehran and the Union of Workers’ Shuras of Gilan were coordinating bodies between different workplace committees. National links were made by rail workers and by oil workers.
The high point of national organisation was the creation of the Founding Council of the All-Iran Workers’ Union. On 1 March 1979 it issued a declaration of 24 demands (see box).
Unemployed workers were one of the most militant sections of the working class. For example unemployed workers occupied the Ministry of Labour and occupied the headquarters of the former SAVAK-controlled syndicates, turning it into the Workers’ House (Khaneh Kargar).
A worker explained their attitude: “I suggest that we remain in this place until this ministry of bosses becomes a ministry of workers. The Minister of Labour should know that he is a minister in a provisional government, and is himself only provisional, not permanent. It is his duty to tell the owners and managers that for 25 years they robbed millions and millions, so how are they now suddenly bankrupt? We don’t want your promises, we want action. Don’t accuse us of being non-believers. You meet our demands, and we will pray 37 times instead of 17.” (Poya)
The power of this workers movement was demonstrated on May Day 1979, when one and half million workers marched through Tehran.
“Unemployed workers also played a major role in the first of May demonstrations… The Founding Council of the Iranian National Workers’ Union called on all employed and unemployed workers to celebrate May Day, by joining a march from Khaneh Kargar. On the day, unemployed men and women and their children led the march, carrying their banners and congratulating each other on the celebration of Workers’ Day. They were followed by employed workers. Each plant or industry represented with its own banners. School and college students and political organisations also supported the march” (Poya).
The workers demonstration was massive: it took six hours for the one and a half million marchers to pass in the streets of Tehran.” Marchers carried banners in Farsi, Arabic, Kurdish and Azari with slogans such as “Long live real unions and shuras”, “free speech, free press”, “Down with the old labour law”, “Workers and peasants, unite and fight” and “Work for the unemployed”.
However it did not pass with incident. “At times the march was harassed by small groups of Islamic thugs shouting anti-communist and pro-Islamic slogans. The demonstrators replied: ‘The workers will be victorious, the reactionaries will be defeated’” (Poya).
Khomeini supporters organised a separate rally from ‘Iman Hussein Square’ in Tehran, which only drew a few thousand demonstrators. The Mujahedin refused to join the independent workers’ rally, holding their own event near Tehran, attracting only a few thousand supporters.
Khomeini’s attitude towards the working class was clear from the outset. He made preparations to confront the strike committees before his return to Iran — and began attacking the burgeoning labour movement from the moment he returned.
On 20 January 1978 Khomeini established the Committee for Coordination and Investigation of Strikes (CCIS), which included Bazargan and future president Rafsanjani. Its main tasks were to “call off those strikes which jeopardise the work of the main industries involved in the production of people’s urgent needs, and those threatening the country’s survival”. (Bayat) Within ten days it had persuaded over 100 striking workplaces to go back to work.
The CCIS was not completely successful. The Railway Strike Committee refused a number of times to resume work and carry fuel for the ‘consumption of the people’ as it requested.
According to Bayat, “The Oil Strike Committee accepted the request of the CCIS to resume production for domestic consumption only after a long debate, negotiations and assurances.
“The Strike Committee of the oil industry possessed a high degree of independence and authority, and seemed to Khomeini and his allies a parallel organ of power… The confrontation culminated when, some three weeks before the insurrection and before the Shah had departed, the leader of the oil strikers [M J Khatami] resigned as a gesture of protest against ‘the dogmatic reactionary clergy’, and against ‘the new form of repression under the guise of religion’. His immediate concern, according to his open letter ‘to the masses of Iran’, related to the ‘existing repression… and arbitrary interferences by the Especial Envoy (of Khomeini) in the duties and responsibilities of the Committee of Strikers representatives’.”
There was further outrage and bitter confrontation immediately after the insurrection [9-11 February] when oil strike leaders were arrested by the new regime and charged as counter-revolutionaries (Bayat ).
The new government made its intentions clear. Bazargan’s spokesman said: “Those who imagine the revolution continues are mistaken. The revolution is over. The period of reconstruction has begun.” (Bakhash)
Three days after the insurrection Khomeini ordered all strikers to return to work “in the name of the revolution”. The provisional government opposed the shuras and set up a special force of appointed inspectors inside the plants to report on their activities. Instead the government advocated syndicates. (Bayat).
On 18 February the Islamic Republic Party was formed to spearhead Khomeini’s supporters in official politics. Militias and other storm troopers such as the Hezbollahi (Party of Allah) were organised to attack opponents in the streets and in workplaces.
Speaking in Qom on 1 March 1979, Khomeini said: “Democracy is another word for the usurpation of God’s authority to rule.” (Dilip Hiro, Iran under the Ayatollahs).
He added: “What the nation wants is an Islamic republic; not just a republic, not a democratic republic, not a democratic Islamic republic. Do not use the term ‘democratic’. That is the Western style.” (Bakhash)
In March 1979 Khomeini resorted to threats: “Any disobedience from, and sabotage of the implementation of the plans of the Provisional government will be regarded as opposition against the genuine Islamic Revolution. The provocateurs and agents will be introduced to people as counter-revolutionary elements, so that the nation will decide about them, as they did about the counter-revolutionary regime of the Shah ” (Bayat).
On 31 March the Minister of Labour announced that the government “was in favour of Syndicates and believes that workers can defend their interests only through a health Syndicate; therefore the ministry will support such organisations and intends to dissolve any other forms of organisation which are wasteful.” (Poya)
The government began interfering in the workplaces, appointing its own representatives as managers and trying to downgrade the role of the shuras. It encouraged groups of supporters to establish Islamic societies in workplaces to emphasise the priority of religion and Islamic attitudes to work and property.
Many workers did not accept this. One worker at the Roghan Pars, a subsidiary of Shell put it very well in March 1979:
“The revolution was victorious because of the workers’ strike. We got rid of the Shah and smashed his system, but everything is the same as before. The state-appointed managers have the same mentality as the old managers. We must strengthen our shuras, because the management are afraid of them. They know that if the shuras remain powerful they’ve had it. They can’t impose their anti-working class policies directly; but they’re now opposing the shuras on the basis of religious belief. If we say anything, their answer is, ‘This is a communist conspiracy to weaken your religious belief’. What I would like to know is, what have shuras got to do with religion? Workers are exploited all the same: Muslim, Christian or any other religion. That bloody manager who’s been sucking our blood has suddenly become a good Muslim and tries to divide us by our religion; so we should know that the only way for us to win is to keep our unity through the shuras.” (Poya)
Another put it stridently:
“If they don’t recognise the rights of our shuras, there will be sit-downs and sabotage. If they outlaw the shura, the workers will never let them inside the factory. If they dissolve the shura, they themselves must go.” (Poya)
The foundations of the Islamic state
The provisional government pressed ahead with plans for an Islamic constitution. On 30-31 March they organised a referendum, with the question: Yes or No to an Islamic Republic. The voting slips were red for No and green for Yes. Members of local Komitehs handed voters their preferred voting slip and stamped their identity cards. (Hiro)
The government also resorted to outright repression. On 10 April 1979 an unemployed workers’ demonstration in Isfahan was attacked by Khomeini militias and one worker was killed.
In May 1979 the government introduced the Law of Special Force to prevent shuras intervening “in the affairs of the managements and of the appointments” of government-nominated managers. (Bayat)
On 6 May Khomeini ordered the creation of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards, the Pasdaran), which were formally founded on 16 June. (Hiro)
The regime nationalised 483 factories, 14 private banks and all insurance companies in June 1979 (Bayat). It took control of 70% of the private sector, paying compensation to foreign and domestic capitalists. They did so in reality because workers in many plants had already effectively ousted their bosses and the regime wanted to regain control by imposing its own managers.
In addition, the Islamic Mustazafin Foundation took over the assets of the Shah’s family Pahlavi Foundation, which included 20% of the assets of all private companies. State managers were appointed to impose government policy.
The regime also used economic sabotage to undermine factories with shuras. Transactions with the SAKA plant shura were banned by the state and the bazaar merchants, the grounds that the shura members were communists. In the Orkideh Chinese factory the state cut off the import of raw materials from West Germany after the workers took control of the plant. Credit to two factories of the Naz-Nakh and Isfahan Wool industry were cut back, in order to dismantle the shuras (Bayat).
On 22 June a demonstration at Tehran University demanding a popularly elected assembly was broken by the Hezbollahi. The government decided that an Assembly of Experts would draft the new constitution. The new constitution, endorsed by referendum in December 1979, contained articles designed to restrict the shuras. For example Article 105 said that, “decisions taken by the shuras must not be against Islamic principles and the country’s laws” (Bayat).
During Ramadan, on 25 July 1979 Khomeini announced a ban on music on radio and television, comparing it with opium. (Hiro 1985 p.127)
On 7 August 1979 the government enforced a two-month old press law, with the Pasdaran occupying the offices of the liberal daily paper, Ayandegan. Later that month the government banned 41 opposition papers and took over two large publishing houses. This was a significant blow to the left, who’s papers had a circulation of around a million (CARI).
In August Khomeini created the Reconstruction Crusade, to repair roads and government buildings. Workers from General Motors, Caterpillar and Iran National, were sent out on the grounds that parts were not available in their factories. Strikes and sit-ins were declared illegal, as “communist conspiracies”.
The first widespread wave of outright suppression against the shuras was launched in August. According to Bayat, “many independent shura activists were arrested and a number of them executed.”
Khomeini’s forces also attacked the left. On 12 August a demonstration called by the National Front, Fadaiyan and Mujahedin was attacked by Hezbollahi and Pasdaran. The following day the offices of the Fadaiyan and Mujahedin were besieged by Khomeini’s forces.
Khomeini made his attitude clear in a speech on 19 August in Qom: “We made a mistake. If we had banned all these parties and fronts, broken all their pens, set up gallows in the main squares and cut down all these corrupt people and plotters, we would not be facing all these problems.” (‘Why Khomeini wants gallows in the streets’, Workers’ Action No.150, 25 August 1979)
In October 1979 the Khaneh Kargar was occupied by the local Komiteh — though not without unemployed workers taking it back twice.
The government also used Islamic Associations and “Islamic shuras” to undermine independent organisation in workplaces.
It was in this context that the occupation of the US embassy occurred on 4 November 1979. According to the Campaign against Repression in Iran (CARI), “it was designed and organised by the ruling party (IRP) and its main objective was to divert the mass movement”, using “empty anti-imperialist demagogy”.
In early 1980 many factory shuras, including in oil, rail and toolmaking workplaces, were shut down. In August 1980 the regime abolished profit-sharing and passed a law giving shuras only a consultative role.
Workers continued to resist. One worker told the newspaper Keyhan: “This law aims to weaken the power of the workers; this is in effect the recognition of semi-Syndicate rights, which only preserves the rights of the capitalists. Shuras are the basis of our power in the factories. It is now clear that as long as capitalists are running the factories, they will continue to weaken our power.” (Poya)
The Khaneh Kargar became the headquarters of the Islamic Associations and the “Islamic shuras”.
These Islamic Associations had the following functions: indoctrination of labour with the ruling ideology; policing the workplace; mobilising workers behind the regime. According to Bayat they were viewed by many workers as “new SAVAK agents who grow beards instead of wearing ties”.
When Iraq attacked Iran in late September 1980, the result was “an hysterical chauvinist wave which rapidly engulfed the country, including the working class and most of the left”. The other major effect was the militarisation of society, with the regular army revived, the Pasdaran trebled and new organisations such as the Basij corps set up up. Even the Islamic Associations were armed. (CARI, The Iranian Workers’ Movement)
Workers continue to resist
Even in 1981, militant workers were defying the dictates of the government. Bayat reports an incident he witnessed. “In the state-run Iran Cars factory, a severe confrontation occurred after the shura withdrew funds from the financial department to pay the workers their year-end bonus in March 1981. Some of the shura members were jailed as the state reacted against the action. The workers withdrew their claims in order to get their shura members released. The day I visited the plant, the representatives of the Imam (Khomeini) and of the Prosecutor-General turned up at the factory to settle the continuing dispute. After a bitter argument between the workers and the representatives, one Azerbaijani worker stood up and declared, ‘Just as we brought down the Shah’s regime, we are able to bring down any other regimes’. At this moment the workers started clapping.”
But by June 1981 the last traces of independence by the shuras were stamped out. In the Iran Cars factory, “the armed Pasdaran had rushed into the factory and begun arresting shura members and other activists according to a blacklist prepared by the Islamic Association.” (Bayat).
The number of industrial disputes fell from 180 in 1980-81 to 82 in 1981-82. Workers in the oil industry, who had won a 40-hour week through struggle, lost it as the Revolutionary Council decreed a 44-hour week.
Based on a quotation from Mohammed that “to work is like jihad in the service of God”, an instrumentalist conception of work was used by the regime to raise productivity. It aimed to impose a “classless” Islamic community over worker-capital relations. To do so, even language was changed: the word kargar (worker) was replaced by karpazir (one who agrees to do work).
As Bayat described it: “As for workers, Islamisation of workplaces goes hand in hand with Islamisation (better to say regimentation) of leisure. The factory is assumed to be a barricade against koffar (infidels), where the agirs (labourers) have to listen to official religious sermons as well as perform ‘the divine duty of production’. Hence, massive dispatches of factory mullahs, a religious transformation pf the atmosphere in factories, the putting up of special picture, posters, huge slogans on the walls and the loud broadcasting of official speeches during break and lunchtimes etc.”
The subordination of workers was summed up by the head of the judiciary in March 1983: in the factories “the management is the brain, the Islamic Associations are the eyes, the rest the hands” (Bayat).
However resistance, passive and active continued. In 1984-85 some 200 industrial disputes were reported. Bayat reports on some significant incidents:
“In a metal factory in Tehran, I attended a mass prayer at the factory’s mosque. Out of a workforce of 700, less than 20 workers, most of them old, were in attendance. The rest of the workers were playing football in the factory yard or chatting. From then on (spring 1981), participation in mass prayer became compulsory in the factories and offices. In another plant, a junior manager explained that the workers themselves demanded prayer sermons, but did not participate. Instead, I observed, they would sit in the sunshine talking.”