On the importance of the Iranian oil workers’ strike

The general strike of oil workers in Iran, in which at least 25,000 oil workers in various companies have been on strike for several weeks, is an important event on its own account, and has frequently been compared with the historical strike of oil workers right before the 1979 Iranian revolution. This article will explain why this analogy is wrong, and why we should consider the current strike from many more aspects.

Our oil workers, our stubborn leaders!

In October 1978, a nationwide strike by Iranian oil workers began at the Abadan refinery, Iran’s most important oil refinery, and spread rapidly to all areas where there was oil, gas, and petrochemical industry. It was not only the cessation of oil exports that broke the Pahlavi monarchy, but also the message of a union that was being spread throughout the country among the workers of the country’s most important national industry at the time. Although the people were short of fuel in the cold autumn and winter of 1979, and did not have enough food due to the suspension of road transport, the rationing and self-management of available resources by spontaneous local organizations in the form of the district committees enabled them to endure those difficult months until the overthrow of the Pahlavi regime. The oil workers’ strike was so important that the slogan of “our oil workers, our stubborn leaders” became a widespread slogan in demonstrations across the country.

The oil workers’ strike in 1978 did not require a political organization to fuel the strike. The state of society, which was rapidly moving towards a revolutionary state, played a constituent role to organize the workers. Nevertheless, the remnants of secret political organizations, some of whose members had been arrested and imprisoned by the Pahlavi regime security apparatus (SAVAK), as well as the children of workers who were politically active at universities, were well employed by secret strike committees. These forces, which were the main political force organizing the oil workers’ strike, were mostly supporters of leftist and communist organizations at the time. Khomeini’s supporters also had connections with the striking oil workers and sought to deepen their position among the oil workers by financing the striking workers with the support of the religious market. This position, however, did not deepen as Khomeini wished for. Sadegh Qutbzadeh, a very close person to Khomeini during his stay in France, was expelled from the oil company in the first month after the overthrow of Pahlavi. In contrast, when the communist workers of the oil company who were imprisoned during the Pahlavi regime returned to the oil company after the revolution, they were widely welcomed by the workers. 

The Islamic Republic has always tried to deny the role of the left and the communist forces in the great strike of the oil workers in 1978. Despite the attempt, it did not manage to introduce even a single fake pro-Khomeini figure into many distorted documentaries made about the oil strike and the 1979 revolution. After the revolution, in many branches of the oil industry including the important oil-rich cities, self-organized local councils and a national union were formed by the workers. The vast majority of elected representatives of councils, leaders and organizers of unions, who had won the trust of the workers during the trade union and political struggles of the oil workers, were imprisoned and some executed. Those who had the opportunity were able to escape from Iran. Some of the organized leaders and elected representatives of the councils, even months before the large-scale executions starting from June 1981, were forced to live semi-secretly away from their home cities in order to save their lives. Even if all the opponents of the Islamic Republic had forgotten these stories, the Islamic Republic remembered the “danger of the oil workers.”

Repression in the “adjustment era”

With the end of the Iran-Iraq war, the death of Ruhollah Khomeini, and the beginning of the presidency of Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the Rafsanjani government took on the task of implementing neoliberal austerity policies called “economic adjustment.” The main purpose of this economic policy was the consolidation of capitalism, which had not been able to stabilize its position due to the war in the years after the overthrow of Pahlavi. The results of this policy, which was implemented over all the following decades and by all governments, were extensive privatisation, the elimination of subsidies, the liberalization of prices, the deregulation of the labor market, and weakening or dismantling of cooperatives.

The post-war economic policy of the Islamic Republic penetrated the oil industry as well. The architects of the organized capitalist suppression of the oil industry workers were two figures close to Rafsanjani, both of whom had held various government positions since the beginning of the presidency. Gholamreza Aghazadeh, who served as oil minister for 12 years in three cabinets, and Bijan Zanganeh, now in his 16th year in charge of the oil ministry. These were two technocratic managers who were trained in other cabinets during the war before playing a role in Hashemi Rafsanjani’s government. Important figures on the modern right, which on the one hand was in conflict with the traditional pro-market current and on the other, implemented the most brutal neoliberal policies in Iran. 

Even the most critical political changes in Iran could not end the domination of this policy in the Ministry of Oil. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who had gained all his credibility from ostensibly opposing Hashemi Rafsanjani and the gangs affiliated with him, eventually elected one of Bijan Zanganeh’s deputies for the Ministry of Oil in his first cabinet. Hence, in the last thirty-two years, except for a four-year hiatus, the same policy has been implemented in the Ministry of Oil. That four-year gap occurred under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s second cabinet, when he made an unsuccessful attempt to appoint one of his gang of supporters.

The main policy pursued to break the power of the oil industry workers by the various cabinets was to deregulate the labor market in favour of capital. The architects of the class repression reduced the number of oil workers with permanent contracts over the years. In the past, the division of oil workers between permanent and seasonal projects increased the possibility of creating alliances and lasting relations among oil workers within the same category, which became a force that could bring the Pahlavi regime to its knees. Now, as a result of the policies of the Ministry of Petroleum in recent decades, industrial workers are being employed on eight different types of contracts. The imposition of this form of division of labor has broken the cohesion among the labor. This in turn results in the intensification of conflicts among the workers which clearly benefits the employers. Moreover, various parts of the oil industry, with the exception of its main parts, have been entrusted to private sector contractors in recent decades. In this tyrannical hierarchy, the main contractors working for the government, themselves contract out jobs to several smaller contractors. In this way, the protesting oil worker has been separated from the government by two and in some cases three layers of private contractors. It is clear that this policy enables further harm to unity among the labor force in the oil industry.

Meanwhile, the most important “national” industry of the country, as a result of these policies has become the arena for invasion of large and small foreign companies. One of Bijan Zanganeh’s honours is that during his sixteen years in office, the largest number of foreign investors has been attracted to the country’s oil industry. Not only have foreign companies been able to invest heavily in the country’s most important industry, whose “nationalisation” more than seven decades ago led to one of the biggest international conflicts in which Iran has been involved, and led to the August 1953 US-British coup in favor of the Shah in ​​Iran. 

Organizing with empty hands

The real significance of the recent strikes has been that workers in 96 oil production and service units have joined, despite all the policies of recent decades intended to destroy class cohesion among oil workers and disperse the workforce between dozens of contractors. The anti-labor policies of the Ministry of Petroleum have been defeated from the very point where it was thought to prevent possible protests.

During the divestiture of various sectors of the oil industry to contractors, the state oil structure was faced with many surplus workers. The policy was to fire them. This was essentially part of the larger oil macro-policy, as explained earlier. As a result, large numbers of contracts were terminated. This abandoned labor force in the labor market was part of the working class that enjoyed more prosperity and well-being than other sections of the working class in recent years, especially during the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88), due to the essential importance of the oil industry. While this abandoned workforce turned to contractors, these – often private contractors preferred to hire young workers, especially young professionals, who were just entering the job market and could be abused under oppressive contracts as they were in dire and immediate need of work. Thus, a protest force was formed among the fired workers and a resistance began in the still government-run sectors of the oil company against the divestitures and the dismissals of the labor force. To overcome this obstacle to privatization, officials forced contractors to hire a certain percentage of workers who had previously been employed by the government-owned oil company, and in return, the government pledged part of their wages and insurance benefits.

What eventually became the Achilles’ heel of the Ministry of Petroleum’s economic and security policies was this complex policy that sought to advance privatization at all costs and thwart possible protests by oil workers in advance. Current Minister of Petroleum, Bijan Zanganeh, in his first reaction to the massive strikes said the strikers’ demands were “extravagant” and they also had nothing to do with the government. What unites the dispersed labor force at dozens of contractors is exactly the fact that they still request part of their demands from the government and the Ministry of Petroleum. The exact meaning of this situation is that thirty-two years of neoliberal policies in the oil industry have failed miserably. Despite the fragmentation of the oil industry, the workers have been able to act in a united fashion and build large-scale strikes from within the fragmentation that was supposed to prevent the possibility of joint action.

At the same time, the spread of the strikes, while the oil workers have no union, syndicate, or organization, indicates the invention of new forms of organizing; new forms, which once would have been a weakness, have so far been a strength. Organizing the strikes began on Telegram, a social media application. Some of the Telegram groups had nothing to do with union issues and were created solely to connect workers in a company. While several years of demands and protests against frequent delays in payment of wages as well as low wages, job insecurity, lack of safety, insufficient leave days, poor conditions of dormitories and their facilities, poor quality of food in canteens and the like, have deepened the discontent in various sections of oil workers, larger Telegram groups with more workers became the mainstay of large-scale strikes. Subsequently, calls to strike found their way into WhatsApp groups, Instagram pages, and smaller Telegram groups.

Although the new way of organizing is prone to the abuse of forces that can systematically confiscate the voices of oil workers, so far, its class content and the clash of thousands of workers with the government and dozens of large and small private contractors have prevented the right-wing opposition to the Iranian government from using it to their advantage. The son of the deposed Shah of Iran, who claims to be his father’s successor, issued a message of solidarity with the striking workers in the very first days, but the class content is so significant that not only was the message not welcomed by the workers, but one of the workers of Haft-tappeh, a sugar cane factory whose workers have been fighting against privatization for years, wrote a fierce response to him, asking the “prince” to return to the Iranian people the money that his father had taken when he fled Iran. Perhaps that is why the mainstream Iranian opposition media, which often receives large sums of money from governments hostile to the Islamic Republic, including Saudi Arabia, remained completely silent for a week in the face of such a massive strike.

Coming days

The general strike of the oil workers in Iran not only surprised many of the repressed revolutionaries, but also frightened and dizzied the supporters of the monarchy overthrown by the 1979 revolution, one of the most important stages of which was the nationwide strike of oil workers. The repressed revolutionaries, including former and current members and supporters of leftist organizations and parties, were misled by the nostalgia for the old revolutionary struggle. For the proponents of monarchy’s return to power, these strikes are a sign that the regime is ‘finished’ (as usual), but also see that the national unity of a significant part of the Iranian proletariat puts their own political future in danger. The second part of this assessment, of course, is correct because of the class orientation of these forces. Nevertheless, the massive nationwide strike by oil workers, while glorious enough, is not meant to bring the Iranian government to its knees. This strike is a brilliant moment of the proletarian struggle in Iran. The result will be the accumulation of struggle experience among the thousands of currently striking workers. It will also open possibilities within itself for the future. On the one hand, the other sections of the working class, which have witnessed a united and massive struggle in recent days, will be more self-confident, will further believe in their power, and by learning from these struggles, will move more than ever towards organizing. On the other hand, the existing atmosphere of discontent, the strengthening of ties between the dispersed oil workers, and the common experience they have had together during the days of the strike will increase the possibility of trade union organization and, of course, political organization within the oil workers. Whatever the outcome of this strike, thousands of workers will eventually emerge from it better prepared for the wider and larger struggles of the coming days.

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