There have been more strikes and protests during the past week for payment of unpaid wages and other basic demands.
There have been at least 600 such protests in the past year and they will probably increase as we approach the Iranian New Year, with workers demanding their new year bonuses and so on. Wage arrears of many months exist in many industries, including state-owned, part-private, fully-private, religious endowments and the Pasdaran [Revolutionary Guards]. The various businesses owned by the Pasdaran amount to about a quarter of the economy.
On 15 January, 500 day-labourers at Haft Tappeh (a sugarcane complex with plantations and refineries), warned management that if their demands have not been met by Friday then they will occupy the factory on Saturday. Today was also the 32nd day of the Tabriz Traktor-sazi (tractor) workers’ protest against the factory being closed down and the second day of the latest protest in Phases 22, 23 and 24 of the South Pars gas field, the biggest in the world, in Asaluyeh. The Asaluyeh contractor has agreed to pay the contract workers’ unpaid wages.
All trade union and workers’ organisations remain illegal. During the Khatami period, however, many labour activists tried to re-launch their old trade unions or even found new unions and organisations. Unfortunately many became involved in semi-open or even open activities to achieve their aims. So the leaders were quickly thrown in jail, or exiled, or put into a position where they could not be active.
Whenever you get a relative loosening of repression you have a blossoming of activity and organisation in the Iranian workers’ movement. After the regime tightens up again, leaders and activists are exiled or imprisoned. So you don’t get continuity, and in the next phase activists have to start from a lower level. The experience of the previous group or generation is not always transferred. (This is also true of other movements like the students.)
Ten years ago, workers at Haft Tappeh were talking about “general anti-capitalist united action” being necessary. It is clear that they have retained some continuity. This time they have adopted a tactic of keeping the organisers hidden from the regime.
A lot of the workers on the protests have had their faces covered, like guerrillas. There are a number of videos showing workers’ leaders with covered faces standing on a box talking to other workers, with many of those listening also covering their faces. Haft Tappeh has at least one woman leader who is not known to the regime.
This tactic of the Haft Tappeh workers is an important gain of the workers’ movement.
They first did it during the recent strike in November, and now they are able to threaten a takeover of the factory if management continues to hold on to their pay.
Haft Tappeh seems to be the most active section of workers, with the best slogans and tactics. They know that they can’t behave like a European trade union. With the bus drivers, for example, you know who their leader is, and he is in jail. The whole leadership is known. The bus workers’ leader Reza Shahabi, who has served his sentence, is back in Evin jail and has had two strokes while in there!
The street protests showed that other layers like the unemployed and the poor are also fed up with their sinking standard of living. Since January 2016, when the nuclear deal came into force, the excuse of “we are under attack from America” has gone. The economy has picked up: in 2016 GDP grew by 12.3% and oil exports have doubled. Now oil is $70 a barrel, the highest for three years. Workers and the poor see Maseratis, Porsches and other luxury items coming in, but suddenly the price of eggs goes up by 50%. Given such a situation, a simple thing like the price of eggs in Mashhad can spark big protests all over the country.
Ultimately, however, it is what the working class does as a class that matters. What is needed is workers’ clandestine action committees that can eventually co-ordinate their struggle and build towards a general strike. This is vitally necessary and it can develop from what looks like a defensive struggle for unpaid wages, like in Haft Tappeh.
Workers’ clandestine action committees can also link with clandestine neighbourhood committees as the balance of class forces change and the masses join what Haft Tappeh workers were hoping for in May 2008: “general anti-capitalist united action”.