September 25th, 2021, saw one of the largest and most widespread rallies by Iranian teachers. In more than forty-five cities, hundreds of teachers gathered in front of education departments following the invitation of the “Coordination Council of Teachers’ Associations of Iran” to press for their demands, which included a fair income for retired teachers, defending contract teachers called ‘Green Record holders’ and the release of imprisoned members of the teachers’ unions. The Coordination Council of Teachers’ Associations of Iran is a trade union that most of the teachers’ unions are members of. Although some seeming trade unions, which are in practice political organizations affiliated with both the fundamentalist and reformist factions of the government, have refused to join. One of the reasons for the large scale of this rally, besides the position of the Coordinating Council among teachers, was the deep dissatisfaction that has escalated, especially in recent months, among the various sections of teachers. This gathering also shows the changes in the teachers’ union struggles in Iran, which are important for understanding the current struggles against the tyranny of the state and the invasion of capitalism in Iran.
Weeks of protest
In the weeks leading up to the September 25 rally, various sections of teachers repeatedly rallied in various forms. Perhaps the most persistent ones were the gathering of teachers known as the “Green Record holders”. These teachers passed the recruitment exam at the beginning of the 2020/21 academic year and the Ministry of Education has had a duty to hire them, but they refused to do so due to lack of funds and still considers them as contract labor. However, despite the existence of hired and contract teachers, the education system in Iran is still facing a severe labor shortage. According to officials, the capital alone needs another 12,000 teachers. It is likely that the farther we go from the center, the worse the situation will be. The most recent ongoing protest of the Green Record teachers, is a sit-in outside the Ministry of Education building in Tehran, which has lasted for nearly four weeks. In addition to the dozens of these teachers who are in front of the ministry building during the day, some stay there even during the night.
Other sections of teachers who have been less involved in teachers’ union struggles joined the protests in recent months. Teachers of “non-profit schools” are from those sections. Non-profit schools established in the 1990s were known as the beginning of privatization in Iran. In fact, these schools mark the beginning of education privatization in Iran. The teachers of these privately owned schools received higher salaries than other teachers, hence they did not participate in the teachers’ union struggles for years. The logic of privatization, however, was not only to grant permission to the private sector to establish a school but also, like all other sectors, to deregulate the labor market. This means handing temporary contracts to the teachers. This was the important reason that brought the teacher to the protest line. The deteriorating economic situation, in general, made it easy for these private schools to terminate the contracts of some of their teachers who wanted their salaries increased, and this forced non-profit teachers to join union struggles and hold protest rallies with the central demand for permanent employment. Another group of teachers who have been less involved in union struggles but have held numerous protest rallies in recent months are teachers of the Literacy Adult Education Institute, known as the “Literacy Movement.” The demand of these teachers is also to increase salaries in proportion to the growth of the inflation rate.
Dissatisfaction with the education sector is not limited to teachers. In recent months, school service workers and retired teachers have also gathered to protest their miserable living conditions in various cities. The extent and frequency of these protests indicate the depth of dissatisfaction of the labor force working in the education sector. These protests are increasing every day.
Attacking in form, defending in demands
The new round of Iranian teachers’ union struggles, which began a few months ago and now culminates with the reopening of schools, is different in comparison to past movements in several ways. The large nationwide teachers’ strikes in 2018 and 2019 were organized by the “Coordination Council of Teachers Associations of Iran” and the Teachers’ unions of Iran. The nature of demands in that series of strikes ranged from salary increases and implementation of a “ranking scheme” to free education, as well as the cessation of the privatization of education. In the new round of these struggles, however, the voices protesting against the privatization of education and defending free education are heard less often. The main focus instead is to end casualized contracts, increase the salaries of working and retired teachers, and implement the ranking scheme. The ranking scheme refers to a law that was passed during the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad when living conditions of the working class were considerably deteriorating. The realization of this scheme was on the teachers’ demands list ever since. According to this law, teachers’ salaries are calculated based on a pre-defined ranking system. The ranking scheme is believed to slightly improve the situation for teachers, hence it is placed in the center of recent protests’ demands. Currently, the official poverty line in Iran is about $440 a month, while most teachers’ salaries are around $220.
Although more than a decade has passed since the introduction of the ranking scheme, successive governments have refused to implement it under various pretexts, especially with the excuse of a lack of funds. The implementation of the scheme is, thus, indefinitely stalled in successive rounds between the parliament, the government, and the budget organization. The new government of Ibrahim Raisi promised during the election campaign the immediate implementation of the ranking scheme, but almost immediately after the formation of the government –while the Ministry of Education remained with no minister– private meetings were held between the head of the parliament, members of its education commission and the officials of the budget organization, who then announced that the ranking scheme will be implemented soon but, due to the budget constraints of this year in Iran, changes have been made to the plan. The protesting teachers, while never trusting the promises of the authorities regarding the implementation of the plan, now object to the changes that are undoubtedly far from the original plan. Nevertheless, despite this change in the core content of teachers’ protest demands, the form of protests has become more aggressive than before. In previous periods of the teachers’ union struggle in 2018 and 2019, the form of the nationwide strike was mainly closure of classrooms and sit-ins in school offices. This time, teachers have taken to the streets several times in recent months, thanks to the retired teachers who have established extensive ties with the pensioners’ protest movement.
A hopeful aspect of the Iranian teachers’ union struggle is that the far-reaching trade unions, such as the Coordination Council of Teachers’ Associations of Iran, whose serious material base among teachers across the country became apparent recently, are influenced by leftist teachers. Prominent figures among these teachers are being prosecuted by the state’s security and judicial institutions. In addition to Mohammad Habibi, one of the prominent leftist figures in teacher’s struggle, who was fired, Mahboubeh Farahzadi, a retired teacher and member of the board of directors of the Tehran Teachers’ Union, and Jafar Ebrahimi, an inspector with the Coordination Council of Teachers’ Associations, were recently summoned to court on charges of “disrupting order” and “distressing the public mind”. Mohammad Reza Ramezanzadeh, secretary of the North Khorasan Teachers’ Trade Union, is serving an eight-year prison sentence. Gholamreza Gholami, one of the union teachers in the Fars province, has been detained for two weeks. Asghar Amirzadegan, a retired teacher and union activist, is on trial in the small town of Firoozabad in the Fars province, and Aziz Qasemzadeh, a spokesman for the Gilan Educators’ Trade Union, was arrested a day after the magnificent rally of teachers on September 25th. In addition, there are at least eleven other teachers in prison whose charges are not directly related to the teachers’ union struggles, but most of whom have been involved in the struggles. What seems certain is that teachers’ organizations affiliated with one of the two factions of the Iranian government, including the Iranian Teachers’ Reform Organization, which played an important role in the teachers’ union struggle during the Ahmadinejad government, have lost much of their credibility among teachers. Despite the shift in the main theme of the demands of teachers’ union struggles, trade unions who insist on progressive demands such as free and public education and a halt to the privatization of education, are still widely trusted among Iranian teachers.