Rereading the Jina uprising in the light of National Steel Group’s strike

By: Shirin Kamangar

All departments and production lines of Ahvaz National Steel Group were on strike for 8 consecutive days in January 2024. Of course, the workers’ strike in this industrial sector is not a new issue. In the past months and years, the workers repeatedly protested against the non-fulfillment of their demands. These demands include lifting the ban on the entry of suspended workers into the company, reinstating fired workers, equalizing wages according to those received by similar companies, fully implementing and urgently planning the classification of jobs, contractualizing all Shafaq workers, dismissing the CEO, removing ownership from Melli Bank, and allowing workers to participate in the management of the company. The purpose of this article is to explore the connection between the Zina uprising and the workers’ demands. Additionally, it aims to critically examine the positions of various leftist political currents towards the labor protests during the Zina uprising. Unfortunately, due to their detachment from the workers’ demands and struggles, these leftist currents were unable to foster unity and solidarity. In essence, this article aims at raising questions about the nationwide movement that were overlooked both during and after the uprising.

One of the factors contributing to the strikes of National Group workers was the suspension and blocking of entry cards for 38 workers. This punitive measure was taken after they protested against their wage status, arrears, and other demands. Such actions represent a common strategy employed by both public and private sector employers to quell workers’ protests and suppress their demands. Recently, two contract workers at Chavar Ilam Petrochemical Company tragically took their own lives within the factory premises, citing the same issue as the cause. It is crucial to recognize that workers’ suicides are not merely a result of individual psychological disorders but stem from the dual pressure arising from wage suppression, escalating poverty, unemployment, dismissals, and work suspensions—issues inherent in the problems resulting from neoliberal economic relations.

The active role of security institutions and employers in exerting dual pressure on workers and pushing them into a dire situation is evident in a report published on the Telegram channel of the “Free Union of Iranian Workers” concerning the National Group workers. According to the report, following a complaint from the employer of the National Group of Steel Company in Iran, the Revolutionary Court of Ahvaz has issued sentences of whipping and fines for seventeen protesting workers from this company. The court has mandated that each of these workers pay a fine of two million five hundred thousand tomans (~$600) to the government fund as an alternative to three months of imprisonment, in addition to enduring 74 lashes. These workers are accused of “disturbing public order by creating commotion and controversy” during the protests of the National Steel Group last year. This verdict was rendered based on the complaint filed by the “Shafaq Rahian Aksin Industrial and Trading Company” and the security report from Iran’s National Steel Company.

It is essential to note that the Ahvaz National Steel Group is among the signatories and contributors to the “Charter of Minimum Demands of Trade Unions and Civil Institutions,” published on the 14th of February 2023 during the Jina uprising. The content of this charter makes it evident that these trade unions explicitly advocate for freedom of speech and thought, the abolition of executions, full equality of women’s rights with men, formal recognition of the “LGBTQI Plus” community, elimination of laws rooted in national and religious oppression, addressing environmental issues, advocating for free education, health and medical care, and the prohibition of child labor. Contrary to claims from various political spectrums suggesting that workers’ demands are limited to their specific interests and lack a public dimension, the content of the charter reveals that labor institutions acknowledge the rights of all social groups and classes. Consequently, it is imperative for activists in relevant fields to collectively declare their active support for the workers’ demands. This collaborative effort aims to foster solidarity and unity, safeguard the accomplishments of the mass uprising, and persistently strengthen the struggle to help fulfill the workers’ demands while minimizing the possibility of suppression.

Examining the strikes of the national group can not only provide instructive lessons about the progressiveness of workers’ protests but also highlights the gap between the ideas raised during the Jina uprising and the demands of the working class.

In the videos published on the Telegram channel “Independent Voice of the Workers of the National Steel Group,” attention is drawn to the holding of a general assembly at the gathering place. The purpose is to exchange collective opinions about the workers’ demands and how to continue the strike. During the November protest rally, one worker stated, “Don’t think that this place is subject to whoever takes the course. Anyone who has anything to say should say it. There is no problem. No, we are leaders. No, we draw the line somewhere. All of you are leaders.” The collective and active participation of workers in dialogue and decision-making serves as a concrete example of the practice of direct democracy in the workplace. This approach removes decision-making from the monopoly of representatives, “elites,” and experts, transferring it to the workers themselves.

This gathering is not the exclusive domain of one person or representative; rather, it is achieved through the collective will of the workers and unity of action. Together, they contemplate ideas and plans for the future to fulfill their aspirations. However, this dialogue extends beyond ideation, reflection, and thinking; it takes a practical form, including a protest march, production stoppages, the dismissal of the employer, challenging the right to own the means of production, advocating for the right of workers to participate in hiring and firing, and ensuring transparency in the company’s financial balance.

This collective dialogue is the creation of a new form of democratic and just political power in which workers are directly involved in determining crucial decisions. All political currents that champion democracy, freedom of expression, dialogue, and public participation, while opposing domination and authority, should be aware of this example of practicing direct democracy at work and actively support it. 

Now, let us examine and evaluate the reaction of some left intellectuals towards this manifesto and the workers’ demands. In an article titled “Two points about the charter of 20 trade union and civic organizations in Iran,” Saeed Rahnama identifies the absence of the word “democracy” in the charter as one of its shortcomings. He questions, “But it is not clear why one of the most important demands of all the movements of more than a century, that is, democracy, has not been mentioned… why there is no mention of the word ‘democracy’ anywhere in the articles. Was it intentional, or was it missed?” 

Rahnama then explains the meaning of democracy, questioning whether the guide refers to direct democracy and workers’ control, a primary demand in recent workers’ struggles, or to parliamentary democracy. The latter, he argues, may pass numerous bills, laws, and rights in the legal field to ensure the equality of “citizens,” but fails to achieve equality in reality. Rahnama clarifies his interpretation of democracy, stating, “It is not necessary to explain that none of the progressive demands of this progressive group can be realized without the existence of a democratic system that allows elected representatives of the people to legislate and shape policies desired by the majority, with the active participation of the people themselves. It will not be possible for them to act freely in many decisions.”

He suggests that the reason for the absence of the word democracy in the charter may lie in the difference between the concept of democracy among the workers and this segment of the left movement. The workers emphasize a type of democracy realized in practice, within the factory and through direct participation in protest gatherings and collective decisions. This contrasts with the other type of democracy linked to elections and voting, which tends to restrict and exclude workers from direct participation. Workers, Rahnama argues, prioritize democracy in their political practice by relying on their collective power and wisdom, rather than relying on a formal parliamentary system lacking executive guarantees and susceptible to suspending laws by declaring a state of emergency.

Another highly progressive aspect of the National Steel Group workers’ strike is their demand for participation in the management of the company, which they assert as “belonging to them.” This particular demand poses a challenge to the right of ownership over the means of production and the broader neoliberal economic relations currently in place. The call for expropriation of ownership from Melli Bank, as expressed by the workers of the Melli Group, and the direct involvement of workers in the overall management of the company, stands as a prominent demand shared by workers in various industrial sectors, including Haftappeh, Hepco, Azarab, and Ahvaz Steel. These demands have been put forth through sustained struggles, labor strikes, and protests.

In the mentioned text, the guide rightly emphasizes the need to address “Work Councils” in the charter. However, when elaborating on the distinction between cooperative and management councils, he deems labor control impractical. He states: “I am referring to the labor council, participatory councils, not the management council, which is equivalent to labor control. The management council implies controlling and assuming responsibility for all aspects of the production, distribution, and investment unit, essentially entailing ownership of that unit by the direct producers. This is not feasible in today’s capitalism, especially in large industrial units. …More importantly, large industries require substantial investments that are not achievable through workers’ ownership.”

As known, according to the guidelines, workers are not vested with the power or capacity to make decisions concerning ownership, control, production, distribution, and investment. However, the reality is that workers possess practical and tangible experience in production, and without their power and action, production would come to a halt. If worker involvement is limited to decision-making or consensus without active participation in production, distribution, and investment, what purpose does the existence of the labor council and industrial unions serve, and whose interests are they intended to protect? Does this idea not conflict with the demand for transparency in the company’s financial balance sheet from the workers, necessitating direct labor control?

This political program starkly contradicts the workers’ demand for the management and ownership of the company, articulated by the National Steel Group workers as follows: “Steel workers are more qualified to manage this industry and are capable of completely eliminating rent and corruption. They aim not only for companies to generate substantial profits but also for all of Khuzestan and Iran to reap the benefits of the workers’ struggle.” Is the establishment of a “Work Council” aimed at preserving existing capitalist property relations? Is this political program essentially a formulation of a conceptual regime to uphold capitalist relations and transform “class conflicts” into “class cooperation and reconciliation”? Does it not risk depriving the working class of its primary weapon—the class struggle—turning the working class into a mere bargaining and compromising group? By safeguarding the capitalist class’s weapons, namely their private ownership of industries, does the trade union not become a tool for protecting the employers’ interests against the workers?

“Participation at the level of co-determination” implies that workers remain entwined in capitalist relations, publicly accountable for the significant profits enjoyed by owners without actually having a role in controlling affairs. Additionally, by concealing accounts and investments from workers, private owners create fictitious debts to avoid raising workers’ wages and ensuring workplace safety. Contrary to its name, the idea behind the “Labor Council” excludes worker control and participation in matters of production, instead safeguarding the interests of industrial owners.

Another point we learn from the political practices of the workers at the factory is that they are not “independent” individuals, but rather individuals with “collective” power. This power stems from “collective” organizations, struggles, and protest marches. They have the possibility to take to the streets and factories to achieve their demands.

In an article titled “Which Alternative for Workers”, Parviz Sadaqat presents the concept of class as a limiter of individual freedom. He states, “But how can a free and self-founded person be achieved? This subject can be realized when freedom prevails over necessity.” This implies that individuals should be able to freely determine their own destiny, without visible and invisible compulsions imposed by class, descent, gender, race, nationality, or any other factors predeterminedly shaping an individual’s life path.

Discussing class as a form of coercion and a constraint on freedom may seem peculiar, especially from an honest perspective, given the years of analyzing the working class’s struggle. It’s evident to all left-leaning theorists that the primary weapon workers wield against the capitalist order is class organization and unity. The workers’ class identity holds a long tradition of struggle, and losing it translates to a loss of strength and the ability to fight. Without relying on collective power, the “self-righteous individual” stands little chance against oppressive forces and won’t attain any of their demands. A compelling example highlighting the precedence of collective power over individual autonomy is the comparison between the National Steel Group and Chavar Ilam Petrochemical cases. The National Steel Group workers, leveraging their collective power, successfully secured a significant portion of their demands, including reinstating 38 suspended workers, and implementing almost half of the job classification plan. In contrast, the lack of such collective action in the Chavar Ilam Petrochemical case led to tragic consequences, with workers resorting to suicide.

A system grounded in individual self-regulation aims to strip workers of their power, silence their collective voice, and dismantle their organizations, rendering the knowledge and experience gained through years of class struggle ineffective. Advocating for the idea of the “self-ordained individual” creates a platform for heightened worker exploitation, aligning with market rationality by dismantling collective power and isolating individuals. This approach essentially urges the working class to forsake their tools of struggle, their organizational structures, and their collective fighting power. The plea is for them to relinquish their collective strength, become atomized, isolated, weakened individuals, all in pursuit of individual rights within the legal domain – an unrealistic proposition without the material resources and organizational frameworks needed to enforce power in the real world.

The left-wing Republican movement has also articulated similar ideas in authored and translated texts. According to their perspective, the establishment of a president with an all-inclusive claim is rooted in the foundation of the “self-righteous subject,” transcending class, gender, and national identity. Mehsa Asadollahnejad, in a piece titled “Republican Freedom: Self-Regulation and Political Voice”, states: “From a republican standpoint, the growth and expansion of self-regulation voices, in trans-identity solidarity, can instil hope for living in a free and equal society.”

In this framework, the question arises: How can the solidarity of workers and their organizations, centered around the “defense of class identity”, be reconciled within this intellectual system? Does the power of the working class derive from their class identity and unity, or does it manifest through “trans-identity correlation” and autonomous voices? In another text titled “The Future Left: Red, Green, and Republican” by Stuart White, the following definition of democracy is presented: “Republican democracy does not envision an economy in which the market and private property are abolished.” If market relations and private ownership are to be retained, how can republicanism be seen as the “foundation of the new” or a “radical imagination”? This idea not only lacks novelty but is also responsible for a significant portion of destructive social and economic consequences. Moreover, the extensive struggle of workers against market relations and private property stands in stark contrast to this system of thought.

Republicans advocate for a deceptive notion of totality, wherein to actualize it, all details molded into class, national, and gender organizations must be dismantled. This process aims to enable the possibility of entering the realm of citizenship as individuals. In essence, achieving an “inclusive” and democratic citizenship necessitates the undemocratic mechanisms of exclusion and elimination. It requires breaking down micro-organizations and structures that have evolved over years under the weight of oppression to pave the way for acceptance into the citizenship domain.

One of the expectations from various political spectrums during the nationwide uprising was that workers should join the movement by organizing nationwide strikes to overthrow the regime. A few months after the protests, it was noted that the workers, as a class, did not actively participate in the movement. For example, in a video titled “An Overview of the Situation,” Mohammad Reza Nikfar stated: “The strikes were not overtly political, and the workers did not unite with the movement as a class”.

It is necessary to remind that the workers of South Pars Gas Field project went on strike and protested on October 9th, in solidarity with the nationwide uprising and in protest against suppression and massacre of protestors. Within a few hours, the wave of strike rippled to other parts of the South Pars region, and their strike began straight away with the slogan “Death to the Dictator” and they declared solidarity with the nationwide movement. They called on the formal and precarious workers, technical, administrative and operational workers to join the strike. However, their protest was immediately, and severely oppressed and widespread arrests were made. On the same day, more than 250 project workers were arrested. Was there any active support for the workers’ strikes in the streets, universities and schools?

Obviously, this widespread suppression, eliminated any possibility of strikes centered around overtly political demands. Following that, numerous strikes occurred in key industries, among which, the following cases can be mentioned:

(1) Automotive industry, such as Cruise Parts Company, Bahmandizel Qazvin, Nirou Moharekeh Ind.Group, Bahman Motor, Iran Tire Factory and Moratab Industrial Co.,

(2) Oil, gas and petrochemical industries, such as oil project workers in South Pars, Masjid Suleiman Petrochemical, Abadan Refinery, and the 11th Refinery of South Pars Gas Complex.

(3) Iron smelting industry such as Zob Ahand Isfahan, Southern Aluminum Industries Complex (SALCO), Bafq Steel Complex,

(4) Four service sectors such as businessmen and marketers, drivers and freight workers, construction workers and master craftsmen in Kurdistan province, firemen in Mashhad, and Abdul Abad Bazaar in Tehran.

How were these workers’ strikes addressed? A significant portion of the political spectrum, ranging from right to left, not only considered these strikes as insignificant and lacking revolutionary potential but also began to downplay and condemn them under various labels, such as “trade and subsistence demands,” which they perceived as lacking nationwide and comprehensive dimensions. Naturally, such a disdainful attitude towards workers’ demands, a lack of solidarity, non-support for their needs, and failure to incorporate their demands into the movement’s agenda – something that could have benefitted both the working class and the majority of society – served as one of the obstacles to creating nationwide unity.

In other words, engaging in strikes around subsistence needs does not obstruct the formation of unity and solidarity; on the contrary, not supporting these demands can impede unity. In a situation where 30% of the population lives in absolute poverty, how can one claim that the livelihood and subsistence demands of workers are deviant and lacking revolutionary potential?

One of the reasons for the failure of the Jina’s uprising was, in fact, the commodification of workers’ strikes. Instead of supporting their subsistence needs, demands for food, clothing, housing, education, and healthcare for workers and their children were treated as selfish, unimportant, and deviant. This opportunistic approach towards workers’ strikes not only hinders the formation of unity with them but also alienates one of the pivotal political forces, which has a long tradition of struggle and various forms of organizations and mobilizations.

Workers’ strikes contribute to street-level struggles, benefiting mass uprisings, and protests without the involvement of striking workers often fail to yield results. The spread of strikes and their transformation into a nationwide movement aimed at overthrowing the regime will only occur with solidarity and strong, active support for workers’ livelihood demands, instead of disdain, ignorance, and belittlement of their strikes.

The possibility of creating nationwide solidarity and unity is negated unless workers’ demands are supported, their needs are included as part of nationwide demands, and the necessary insistence and support are provided to achieve them. Therefore, the correct question is not why the working class did not join the nationwide movement, but rather why the nationwide movement did not support the workers’ demands.

It should be noted that organizing strikes is a highly complex and challenging process, and the workers alter their tactics and strategies according to the conditions and severity of suppressions. Following the extensive arrests occurred in South Pars, any form of strike centered around overtly political demands, faced expulsion and security forces. As a result, concurrently and along with the nationwide uprising workers organized strikes around subsistence demands in solidarity with the movement.

Organizing strikes, particularly within oil facilities with intense security and policing, poses a significant challenge due to various tactics employed to prevent unity and solidarity among workers. One such tactic involves dividing workers into formal and precarious groups, operational and headquarters and employed and retired categories. Therefore, when discussing labor protests and strikes, it is crucial to consider the context in which these protests unfold.

Despite the minimal possibility for independent protest activities and the presence of a surveillance-discipline system and stringent security measures, certain segments of oil industry workers managed to organize protests during the Jina uprising. Given the monitoring and control at the highest security levels, organizing strikes among oil industry project workers marked a significant and unprecedented advancement for the labor movement. Instead of disregarding it, full support should have been provided to facilitate its expansion into other industrial sectors. However, such widespread solidarity with workers’ strikes did not occur from the nationwide movement’s side. By reducing the uprising to a singular demand and focusing solely on the issue of “compulsory hijab,” other demands, especially those related to class, were sidelined.

Essentially, the imposition of such levels of policing and security control on the working class itself signifies the potential for workers’ struggles and their strikes to weaken the existing neoliberal order and challenge the structures closely associated with it. Therefore, instead of having disdainful and belittling attitude towards workers’ strikes, they should receive the highest level of support for their actions.

More importantly, it is impossible to separate strikes cantered around economic demands from their political and social dimensions. For any progressive intellectual on the left, it should be abundantly clear that the concept of “political economy” clearly illustrates the intertwining of economic relations with dominant political mechanisms and order. Strikes revolving around trades, livelihood, and economic demands are protests against governance policies that exacerbate widespread impoverishment and impose deprivation on a significant portion of society. In this regard, strikes cantered on economic factors serve as a catalyst for confronting the government and its economic policies. 

The expansion of strikes with economic and livelihood demands serves several crucial functions:  these strikes serve as a practice for workers empowerment, foster self-confidence derived from internal unity and solidarity and prepare them for nationwide strikes. It also strengthens the collective fighting spirit, bridges the gap between the streets and the workplace, and perpetuates the struggle in the public sphere.

To neutralize the collaboration between security, executive authorities, and employers in suppressing protests and rightful demands of workers, active support from students, schoolchildren, teachers, retirees, women’s associations, environmental activists, children’s rights activists, labor institutions, and activists is necessary to prevent the social harms resulting from the unmet demands of workers and wage earners.

It is worth mentioning that movements aimed at creating nationwide unity and solidarity do not necessarily expect workers to raise nationwide demands. On the contrary, for example, in the May 1968 movement, students and academics went to factories and defended the workers’ demands in solidarity. Disregarding the demands of workers, who not only possess revolutionary potential but also have the capability to bring about fundamental changes in the existing neoliberal economic relations, will hinder the creation of solidarity and nationwide unity. Only when the nationwide movement can harness this immense revolutionary potential by actively and continuously supporting the struggles and demands of workers, fundamental changes in the existing order be deemed possible.

Finally, I would like to express my gratitude to Maysam Al-Mahdi, an active Arab worker, whose conversations on social media have taught me great deal and whose words and experiences I have incorporated throughout this text.

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