On the occasion of the International Labor Day, this article examines the condition of the working class in Iran and the economic and political problems they face. We briefly review some of the largest labor activities of the previous year and the structural barriers faced by labor organizing in Iran. The struggle of Iranian labor is analogous to the larger struggles faced by the world’s working class –especially of the global South– for safe working conditions, fair wages, and decent benefits. We wholeheartedly believe in what Marx noted in the Manifesto that “the struggle of the proletariat with the bourgeoisie is at ﬁrst a national struggle.” To acquire political supremacy, the working class must first defeat its own bourgeoisie. However, in the context of accelerated globalization and the rise of a global bourgeoisie, the workplace condition is closely linked to the global political economic context. Thus to improve the work conditions, the labor movement needs to confront workplace issues on domestic and international fronts. In such conditions, international solidarity is an indispensable step for the ultimate emancipation of the working class from the yoke of global capitalism.
Historical lessons direct us to the belief that solidarity must be constructed; it is erroneous to assume that it already exists because of the similarity of the crisis. Our attempt in this series and the following article is to put the spotlight on the analogous conditions of work in Iran with a special focus on the novel resistance used by the working class to overcome such obstacles. We hope that the lessons of the Iranian labor movement spark further conversations and eventual alliances with other workers of the world in developing a future alternative.
Labor Movement in Iran
Since 2010, class struggle in Iran has grown exponentially more militant and organized. Leading the most progressive factions of the labor movement, industrial workers at Haft-Tappeh Sugar Cane Co and Ahwaz Steel Co brought back Showras and the council management of the workplace to the center of the conversation. In other sectors, workers rose against the deterioration of working conditions, organizing some of the largest and long-lasting labor protests in the modern history of Iran. This phase of labor activism stands in stark contrast to the early 2000s when labor organizations were primarily focused on lobbying local governments for piecemeal reforms in the legal system. Today, however, with the intensification of neoliberal assault and brutal suppression of any opposition, the working class increasingly becomes aware of the ineffectuality of reform, moving to embrace direct action from the bottom.
2021 saw a rebirth of militancy among oil workers, teachers, pensioners, platform workers, railroad, and municipality workers. Across different sectors, workers have increasingly coordinated their resistance to the unbridled deregulation of the labor market, which has caused rapid deterioration of work conditions. Notoriously, many of the basic labor rights won during the 20th-century, like minimum wage and the 8-hour workday, have been destroyed. These changes have threatened workers’ livelihoods, causing job insecurity, lower wages, and widespread destruction of workplace security. Faced with such aggressive neoliberal policies, workers often find the only solution through protest and direct action.
In the following, we briefly expand on some of the structural conditions caused by neoliberal market liberalization threatening workers’ livelihood. We will then review some of the most significant cases of labor militancy over the past year.
Neoliberalism and the Flexibilization of Labor Market in Iran
Through its implementation of neoliberal policies, Iran has eviscerated labor rights, eliminated industrial regulations, and opened many state-owned industries and lands to private ownership or state-sanctioned exploitation. Like all countries that adopted the neoliberal project, the Iranian ruling class used a social, economic, and political crisis, specifically the one caused by the Iran-Iraq War, to inaugurate this new form of class war. In exchange for financial support from the US-backed International Monetary Fund, the Iranian government wholeheartedly embraced political and economic reforms meant to destroy the Iranian working class. Price subsidies began to be abolished, international trade was favored over domestic production, workplace safety and worker pay laws were reduced or eliminated, and public ownership began to be replaced by private and semi-private companies. These policies allowed the ruling class to centralize Iran’s capital and resources in ways never before possible, leading to levels of inequality never before seen.
The flexibilization of work is an important tool for the capitalists to reduce employment security and job protections. It also altered the arrangement of the work structure to a more flexible, short-term, and insecure labor relation. Labor market flexibility has become the standard of labor arrangements around the world. Legal provisions, including the rampant privatization of previously state-owned industries, changes in the legal system, the growth of non-standard short-term contracts, and the rise of subcontracting companies, are among the factors contributing to flexibilization in Iran.
The evaporation of labor rights has led to the exponential growth in precarity, neoliberalism’s indispensable tool to destroy the working class’s power. Replacing secure, contract-based work, the ruling class began pitting worker against worker, and the worker against themselves by hiring workers by the day or by firing workers on a whim. By prohibiting independent labor unions, collective bargaining, and other labor rights, the government was a key contributor to the precarity’s development in Iran. Responding to the working class’ self-defense, the state instituted military surveillance, violent suppression, and legal persecution. The government’s unprecedented suppression of the anti-austerity uprisings of December 2017 and 2018 and the bloody November of 2019 continue to haunt it.
Let us now examine the most popular methods of the ruling class in their class war:
Privatization of the State-Owned Enterprises
In 2004 privatization entered the Iranian constitution as an amendment, permitting state-owned enterprises to be sold to private companies and persons. In 2006 its fate was sealed when Supreme Leader Khamenei decreed that 80% of the public sector should be privatized. The government embraced his fiat, successfully privatizing more than 97% of industrial workshops by 2015, leaving only 1.17% of all enterprises in Iran publicly owned1. For decades prior to privatization, the livelihood of the majority of these industries depended heavily on state support and regulation of the market. In the face of market deregulation, which lifted tariffs and import substitutions, many of these newly privatized companies and manufacturing industries collapsed under the pressure of international competition.
Additionally, with the financialization of the economy, many of the newly private employers increasingly find non-productive capital investment through finance, real estate, derivatives, and other financial instruments more conducive to maximizing capital accumulation. This served as an additional reason for the high rate of the industrial shutdown after privatization. Over the past two decades, many of the labor protests revolved around demands to re-nationalize industries that saw major bankruptcies following their privatization.
International market pressures further weakened Iran’s manufacturing industry significantly, increasing dependence on extractive industries like oil and mining. Economic growth began relying on oil and mineral exports, with the nation’s economy linked to how high oil prices are in the global market. The imperialist global economic sanctions exacerbated this reliance on extractive resources, as the economic system is unable to shift into non-extractive industries, fluctuations in the world market brutalizing the working class even further.
The Rise of Subcontracting Firms
The rise of Human Resource Contract Firms, or triangular employment, is another factor diminishing labor conditions. To further reduce wages and evade the minimal legal protections that exist, employers rely on subcontracting firms to recruit the workforce and oversee the projects to completion. Often a single project can involve numerous contracting firms in addition to the company’s own staff. For example, the Ministry of Oil may hire a subcontracting company for a piping project. This subcontractor would then hire other subcontracting firms to take up different aspects of the project (piping, welding, plowing, construction, etc.). A hierarchy of subcontractors is created, functioning as a complex system to obfuscate responsibility.
Moreover, this labyrinthian subcontracting system makes it difficult for workers to identify the real employer and demand improved working conditions and benefits. When pursuing legal action, the contracting firm and the employer shift blame throughout the proceedings, obligating the workers to prove who is ultimately responsible for the working condition and labor rights. There is no official data on the number of these firms, but it is estimated that at least 3 million workers have been recruited through this mechanism2.
Short-term nonstandard contract jobs
First introduced in the 90s, short-term contract work increasingly replaced long-term contracts. Short-term contracts are generally split into three types: guaranteeing work for between an hour to a day, a month, or up to a year. In all cases, workers are not guaranteed the renewal of the contract. Importantly, a worker can be rehired ad infinitum on temporary contracts that provide no protections or benefits–a worker can work the same job for ten years and be fired at any time. In addition to short-term employment, the contracts permit immediate firing for any reason before the contract is finished. It is estimated that over 90% of the Iranian labor force is subject to these short-term contracts3.
Legal exemptions of small workshops, Free-Trade Zones, and immigrants from labor code
Compounding this struggle, a significant number of workers are excluded from the few legal protections and rights that exist. Workers in small workshops, critical industries (such as oil), those working in an economic Free-Trade Zone (FTZ), immigrant workers, municipal workers, prison labor, and workers in companies partly owned by the state (parastatal organizations such as Bonyad Shahid, Komiteh Emdad, etc.) are excluded from the labor code. It’s estimated that about 13 million workers, over 15% of the population, are excluded from the laws guaranteeing minimum wages, pensions, workplace safety, and insurance.4
Employers use these destructive policies to prevent workers from developing solidarity in the workplace. Fostering tensions based on age, ethnicity, language, skillset, and other forms of identity, managers, and industry owners have maintained low wages and poor working conditions by setting workers against one another. Employers threaten local-born workers with replacement by cheaper immigrant/migrant labor, stoking resentment towards the immigrants, while immigrant laborers become resentful at their low status and constant discrimination.
With the neoliberal project waging class war by attempting to leave the worker with few protections and many enemies, the working class has had to rebuild intra-class solidarity and its militant organizations completely. Though the suddenness and brutality of neoliberalism caught some off guard, we are beginning to see the seedlings of an organized and aggressive counterattack. This counterattack and its success is increasingly reliant on a cross-industry, cross-ethnicity collaboration, even though it is in its early stages.
Let us now look at some of the protracted labor actions in 2021
Petroleum and Oil Workers
The labor strikes in the petroleum industry– known as the “10-20 campaign” (10 days rest for 20 days of work)– were among the most significant labor activities of the previous year, both in terms of organization and scope. As one of the largest and longest strikes in the oil industry, these strikes bore strong historical resonance with the oil strikes that sparked the 1979 revolution. Strikes were initiated by skilled manual workers in the welding and piping section but quickly expanded to include more than 100 subcontracting companies across the petroleum industry in more than 15 provinces. Strikers demanded better work conditions, including fewer work hours, the right to a formal contract, and for the over 300 fired striking workers to be rehired. The significance of these strikes is particularly striking as they are organized by the most precarious workers in the oil industry, often hired on a daily or hourly basis with no legal protection and unions.
Strikes began in July 2021 in the Pars Special Economic Energy Zone (PSEEZ) in Asaluyeh, one of the world’s largest gas fields. Similar to the FTZ (Free-Trade Zone), workers in the PSEEZ are exempt from the few legal protections and rights that exist in the labor code. Hired by subcontracting companies, immigrant workers live and work under extremely difficult conditions with no workplace safety measures. With the temperature in summers could get as high as 140 F, especially dangerous for workers in the welding section, and living under inhumane conditions in small dorms without basic sanitary requirements, workers are at risk of numerous health conditions and even death. Additionally, precarious workers have no legal means to bargain for better work and living conditions.
Additionally, outsourcing the labor power to a labyrinth of subcontracting companies makes the work condition more precarious as subcontractors establish lower tiers of wages and benefits for workers hired by them. In contrast, formal workers mostly hired directly by the Ministry of Oil have a secure, permanent contract with wages often 3-5 times more than the temporary workers. In the oil industry, the skilled manual workers hired by subcontractors (who began the strikes) are placed at the bottom of the hierarchy, while white color, mostly formal workers, are at the top. This divisive employment scheme has in the past introduced serious obstacles for the precarious workers in their attempts to mobilize, as they faced resistance from the formal workers. However, 2021 was the first time formal workers did not condemn the general strike organized by the precarious workers. This is an important advancement for the labor struggles in the oil industry as workers successfully shone above the divisive employment practices and organized across different levels of recruitment.
These strikes were organized by the Organizing Council of Contract Oil Workers. A decentralized council that did not emerge as an elected representative body but consisted of progressive workers from different companies with impressive organizational skills. The Council also effectively put together a coherent list of demands that covered important issues, including wage increases to match the inflation rate, abolition of the FTZ and subcontractors, workplace safety, and finally, the right to strike and unionize. In an attempt to break the strikes, employers resorted to various tactics, including cutting the dorms’ water supplies, firing strikers, and establishing yellow unions. However, the Council successfully addressed these issues and kept the strikes alive amidst their length.
In the end, the outcomes remained inconsistent because of the multilayered employment structure by various subcontracting companies with different governing bodies and management policies. Some contractors conceded to workers’ demands, while others continued to ignore them by replacing the workforce. Although at first, some companies promised to fulfill strikers’ demands, the main demands, including job security, decreased work hours, and higher wages, have largely gone unanswered.
Platform workers (Snapp!)
2021 saw another widespread strike by Snapp food drivers. Snapp is the largest rideshare and the largest startup company in Iran. Despite crushing sanctions, over 80% of Snapp’s share comes from foreign investment capital (cite the article). Modeled after Uber, Snapp functions on a peer-to-peer network connecting couriers/drivers to those in need of a ride or delivery. This model is based on maximum exploitation by making precarity and unemployment the core feature of its business model. Taking advantage of chronic unemployment, precarity, and government austerity, Snapp offers a bare minimum income to a mass of unemployed workers in dire need of an income, undercutting wages and increasing precarity further. Exacerbating this hyper-exploitation, Snapp places all risks and responsibilities associated with the business on drivers, imposing all driving costs like insurance, gas, and maintenance on the workers. This has resulted in Snapp generating over $1 billion in yearly profits and achieving a valuation of $2 billion.
Contrary to other forms of economy, Snapp does not own the capital that creates its value. The capital (i.e., the car, bike, bicycle) that generates value for the company belongs to the workers who increasingly receive lower surplus value. Despite the labels of “entrepreneur” that the company attaches to its workers, Snapp has transformed its workers into no more than indentured servants. In this sense, the Uber/Snapp model is both the symptom and a cause of the increasingly precarious labor market.
Snapp workers are exploited in multiple ways. Considered as independent contractors with flexible arrangements, rather than employees of the Snapp company, workers are excluded from the meager protection offered by labor regulations, like minimum wage and workplace safety measures. Additionally, they are not covered by insurance, receive no protection against accidents and possible injuries while on duty, and do not qualify for unemployment benefits or retirement plans. Drivers are further constrained by arbitrary company policies. For example, drivers with more than 20 cancellations will have their account deactivated automatically without the legal procedures employers would have to go through to dismiss employees; they rarely are given the opportunity to appeal such decisions. Moreover, the sole responsibility carried by workers for almost all operating costs, including gas, insurance, car maintenance, and any costs associated with possible altercation or quarrels with customers, results in significant wage insecurity, as the earnings are often lost to operating costs.
This combination of job and income insecurity and the staggering inflation rate has increased the rate of dissatisfaction among Snapp drivers in recent years. Over the past four years, Snapp drivers have gone on strike on five different occasions. Each time low wages and work conditions were the main demands of workers. Last year’s strikes included demands for wage increases and encompassed broader economic and social issues, including job insecurity, insurance, ethnic hiring discrimination, corporate disciplinary practices, and demands for workers who were fired for protesting to be rehired.
While workers succeeded in organizing a large and scattered body of workers, their strike promptly ended when the company offered a meager increase in the ride fare. Their broader, more inclusive demands for a secure and safe work environment once again went unaddressed. This issue is linked to the nature of the platform economy and the direly precarious condition of its workers. The divided work relations and the temporary nature of work associated with neoliberalism have placed significant obstacles to organizing for the working class. This is exacerbated for Snapp drivers as they work in relative isolation, not in a similar location or time with other workers; thus, most workers do not know each other. In addition, employers bribe some workers with extra cash or higher positions to take advantage of the created division among workers. The culmination of these issues creates a major obstacle to forming long-term organizations with a clear strategy and committed members aware of prior struggles and knowledge of the company and its predatory practices5.
The pensioners’ movement has been at the forefront of the labor protests for years. In 2021, they organized at least nine simultaneous protests across multiple provinces. When most protest activities were halted due to the COVID-19-related public shut-down, pensioners maintained their struggle while many other groups temporarily ceased activity because of the shut-down. This is reflected in one of the main slogans of the pensioners’ movement highlighting the significance of public spaces for achieving their goals. In such conditions, pensioners played an important role in encouraging the working class to take back the streets and mend social ties after a long period of silence.
The pensioners’ movement consists of various sectors such as the oil industry, teachers, and municipal workers. While thought to be for workers and employees of various manufacturing and service sectors to come together after retirement, those fired for union activism are also part of the pensioner’s movement and organizations. This combination makes for a big movement with workers from every trade united on core issues. These features have also made the pensioners’ movement one of the strongholds of Iran’s labor movements.6
Pensioners are organized by two national organizations, including the Pensioner’s Alliance of Iran and the Iranian Pensioners’ Council. These organizations are relatively small but have a considerable popular base, in that pensioners entrust them. In addition to these national organizations, two other forms of organizations are prevalent among pensioners. First, the local organizations that connect retirees based on their geographical location, such as the pensioners’ organizations in the cities of Ahvaz and Rasht. The second form of pensioners’ organization forms around sectors and guilds, in which retirees are connected and organized through workplace ties. For example, the pensioners’ organization of the Ahwaz Steel Company or the Homa Airline Company emerged on a company basis.
Among the main demands are increased pensions to match the inflation rate and the right to collective bargaining. Regardless of their form, all these organizations have been the target of state repression, including intimidation, arrest, and imprisonment of their members. Amidst the government crackdown on these organizations, their ability to organize numerous joint protests in a short span of time attests to their influence among pensioners and tactical knowledge.
After two decades of struggle, the teachers’ movement has become one of the most unified and widespread labor movements of our time. Between January and March 2021, teachers took to the streets at least five times across more than 100 cities. These protests involved large sit-ins outside the Ministry of Education building in Tehran, lasting nearly four weeks. The movement involves teachers on a temporary or permanent contract, tutors hired by the day or hour without a contract, preschool teachers, school service personnel (i.e., janitors), and retired teachers. The teachers’ movement has also effectively made a broad coalition with other social groups. The labor movement, the student movements, and more recently, a large number of political and civil activists have continually expressed solidarity with the teachers’ movement.
In addition to effective organizing, the teachers’ movement has been similarly successful in the effective articulation of its grievances. Teachers’ demands have often gone beyond issues concerning daily their “livelihood,” including a range of socio-political and economic issues like the social rights of students and teachers, privatization, and state repression. For example, common demands have been the right to free and “non-ideological” education for all students, including the Afghan immigrants; the right to education in native languages (Baluch, Turkish, Kurdish, Gilaki, Arabic, etc.); better work conditions, job security, and benefits; the recognition of the right to the independent association; and the release of imprisoned teachers.
Education was one of the first institutions targeted when neoliberalism began immediately before the end of the war in 1988. Over the past decades, the rapid privatization of schools has turned quality education into a luxury commodity unattainable by working-class children. Data suggests that private schools have a significantly higher university acceptance rate than public schools.[iv] Notably, public schools are not entirely free, charging enrollment and transcript fees. Those who cannot pay these fees, mostly working-class children and ethnic minorities, are forced to drop out of school altogether and join the workforce. Thus, the commodification of education provides the material conditions for creating and exploiting child labor. The teachers’ movement’s demands for the right to free education and educational justice for the working class, immigrants, and ethnic minorities highlights the deep trouble with the marketization of education over the last three decades.
Neoliberal policies have additionally changed the nature of work for teachers. Similar to other sectors, “flexibilization” policies have stratified the labor force in the education system. While all teachers are deeply affected by job and wage insecurity, some have experienced more precarity. The hourly teachers are the most precariously situated within the education workforce. Capitalizing on a massive reserve army of unemployed university graduates, the ministry of education employs them without contracts or benefits, often delaying payment by months. Unlike most cases, where the division of the labor force resulted in the isolation of precarious workers (such as in the oil industry), the teachers’ movement has diligently placed the demands of precarious workers at the forefront of the movement. In doing so, the teachers’ movement has been relatively successful in unifying the labor force in the education system.
The main organizing center of the teachers’ movement is the Coordinating Council of Teachers Associations of Iran, an independent grassroots organization that has increasingly gained more influence and significance over the past few years. The Coordinating Council emerged out of a historical necessity in the early 2000s for Teachers’ Associations and the Teachers’ Union to organize on the national scale. Previously, the existence of teachers’ unions and associations served to demobilize the movement by localizing demands and channeling them through the bureaucratic apparatus. However, following the intensification of neoliberal policies in the 2010s and systemic suppression of popular opposition, teachers’ unions lost their credibility, opening the way for new organizations independent of the state with more militant strategies. This shift prompted the younger and radical forces within the teachers’ movement, who were previously mostly active on the margins, to take control of the movement. By 2017, the Coordinating Council of Teachers Associations resurfaced as the main mobilizing force capable of organizing across positions and geography, from contract to hourly to retired teachers8.
What is obvious is that the teachers’ movement has expanded into a more organized movement with more aggressive resistance strategies. While prior protests, especially during the 2018 and 2019 struggles, were limited spatially to schools in the form of classroom closure and sit-ins inside the school area, the most recent waves of protests have moved the struggle outside the school walls and into the public spaces. Thus recent strikes have mainly taken the form of occupation of important public spaces, including governmental buildings. This strategy has helped the movement to gain more momentum and visibility. The state has attempted to weaken and repress the movement by dismissing active teachers, prosecution and legal suits based on false charges, and long prison sentences. These methods have had little success in silencing the teachers’ movement and, conversely, have contributed to its growth and increased militancy.9
Service and Government Workers
Other sectors where workers were on strike last year are municipal workers, including landscape workers and garbage collectors. These workers are often recruited on temporary contracts by subcontracting companies hired by the city. Workers’ main demands involve overdue wages, increasing wages, and job security. Due to the absence of existing organizations and the unstable nature of work, the number of strikes was greater in small and remote cities. In these areas, local relationships and acquaintances play a mediating role in unifying workers who do not have a trade union or political organization. Despite these barriers, municipal workers in some large cities, including Ahvaz, one of Iran’s most important southern cities, went on a large-scale strike lasting for a week. During this strike, workers refused to collect garbage. The strike benefitted from public solidarity, with residents dumping their garbage in front of the Ahvaz Municipal Building. The municipal workers once again staged protests in February 2022 in solidarity with the protesting workers of the Ahvaz Steel Factory –one of the important centers of labor struggles in Iran. In both cases, however, the lack of organization and the temporary work conditions permitted government officials’ and employers to not disregard the workers’ demands. In various cities, service workers were arrested and detained by security forces, and day laborers were replaced to break the strikes.
Bus drivers employed by subcontracting companies also went on strike and received solidarity from the Syndicate of the Tehran and Suburban Bus Drivers. In a rare occurrence, in January 2021, firefighters protested in front of the municipality building in Tehran, signifying the presence of new sections of the Iranian labor force in the labor protests. More protests were seen in numerous governmental office workers, and in an astonishing turn of events, prison staff joined the protests, attesting to the depth of the crisis.
In the railway sector, after two large-scale nationwide strikes in 2018 and 2019, there was no nationwide strike in the last year, possibly due to the influence of government-affiliated labor currents among the strike organizers. Despite the demobilization, private employers’ refusal to pay wages on time caused scattered but numerous protests and rallies in the past year. Moreover, governmental pressures force important labor organizations such as the semi-secret Coordinating Council of the Railway Workers and Staff into silence. In the absence of such an important organizing body, employers succeeded in halting the protests by making empty promises and placing the blame on the Ministry of Roads. In the meantime, the Islamic Labor Council, the government-affiliated labor organization, utilized its power and influence to destroy the Coordinating Council of Railway, Maintenance, and Technical Workers, an important and independent organizing body for railway workers. In effect, this plot organized by the Minister of Work in collaboration with government-affiliated labor organizations seems to have been successful.
In addition to service workers, miners from various mines also went on strike several times last year. In one of the most significant strikes in May 2021, hundreds of chromite miners in Kerman province –one of Iran’s central provinces– staged a massive strike and engaged in a road blockade with their families. The strike was so massive and militant that despite the deployment of special counterinsurgency forces from the two neighboring provinces, local officials were eventually forced to make minor concessions. The miners’ main demands were to replace the contractors, implementation of one-year contracts and overall improvement of the work and living conditions for workers were promised but not met. The concessions were no more than a feint, however. After the government walked back on all agreements and refused further negotiation, workers resumed striking, only to be severely suppressed in November 2021. Over the past year, several strikes in other mines occurred, which were also violently suppressed.
In this article, we reviewed the changing structure of the labor market and its effects on labor organizing in Iran. We highlighted some of the important legal reforms that paved the way for further “flexibilization” and exploitation of the workforce in Iran. We showed how workers have become more alienated and estranged through specific legal means such as privatization, temporary and non-standard work, and the intertwined subcontracting system. Arbitrary and abrupt termination has been used to deflate wages and as a disciplinary tactic against dissent. In a transitory condition where workers are recruited by various subcontracting firms, organizing a unified body is exceptionally challenging. Such conditions place much of the workforce in a constant state of flux; hired by one company to do a job at another company, subject to corporate policies while being separated from fellow workers not part of their company. This separation is exacerbated further by a hierarchy of different tiers of wages and benefits established between workers based on their level of precarity. This hierarchical mechanism serves capital well in pitting workers against each other to limit solidarity. This was seen in the 2020 oil strikes, as precarious workers faced backlash from workers with long-term contracts.
The disruptive and isolating labor conditions that produce alienation and estrangement have engendered militancy across sectors in Iran. As the nature of work becomes more precarious, workers find bureaucratic unions’ focus on legal representation inadequate to their needs under new forms of capitalist exploitation. This prompted the precarious workers to rebuild their militant organizations. In some cases, workers successfully challenged existing organizations to represent their interests (as seen in the case of the teachers’ movement). In others, workers established their own parallel organizations either for the lack of an existing institution or the tight grip of reactionary forces over the current organization. This was seen both in the oil industry and with the Snapp drivers. In all cases, the precarious workers are forced to realize that bureaucratic processes are incapable of improving their material conditions. In the absence of recognized unions, the outcomes of these labor struggles are mixed. Still, evidence suggests that the labor movement is increasingly gaining traction, achieving some minor gains and improvement.
Additionally, the legal barriers to independent organizing are presented to workers from both the employers and the state. To ensure a safe environment for capital accumulation, the state has increasingly adopted an aggressive and authoritarian tone in responding to popular resistance with unprecedented levels of suppression and military surveillance. The state is not the only oppositional force to the working-class movement in Iran. If the state seeks to physically and juridically destroy the working-class movement, the reactionary right opposition seeks its destruction in anticipation of their eventual overthrow and conquering of the Islamic Republic. Utilizing the abundant resources provided by its imperialist masters, reactionaries attempt to hijack and redirect the popular resistance, remaining compradors in exile. Backed by the myriad of media outlets, foundations, polling institutions, and NGOs funded by the U.S., Great Britain, Saudi Arabia (itself an American puppet), and the European Union, the right opposition has used imperialist hegemony to claim a false ownership of political issues, avoiding economic issues to argue that their boot should be on the workers’ neck instead. Despite maintaining this narrative internationally, the working class is too militant to simply overcome with platitudes. Finding itself in a crisis of hegemony, the right opposition within the country has begun entering into an unholy alliance with the existing state. Most recently, the state and the right opposition’s extreme, proto-fascist wing simultaneously attacked the teachers’ movement, one of the most progressive factions of the labor movement in Iran.10
At the end of the day, what is most feared by the competing factions of the bourgeoisie unify against the thing they fear most: a militant, highly organized working class with demands beyond mere reformism. The calls for free, ethnically centered education and council democracy are examples of demands that are incompatible with the bourgeois state. A labor movement with such characteristics is an important social force with revolutionary potential and the only way to ensure that imperialism does not entrench itself once the current state falls.
Despite fundamental economic and socio-political constraints, the Iranian working class is stronger today than at any time in the past three decades since the bloody suppression of the left and the labor movement. The evidence drawn from the cases of labor militancy suggests that a profound movement is emerging among the working class with revolutionary potential. The organizational representation in all the cases is subordinate to the workers’ movement, with workers forced to go beyond conventional union demands of incremental reforms to attain their often short-term goals. As Gramsci perfectly puts it, “the structure of working-class institutions develops the way they do not because of internal necessity but because of external influences (the formidable pressure of events dependent upon capitalist competition).” In line with other examples of anti-austerity, anti-neoliberal resistance protests of our time, the Iranian working class is increasingly relying on grassroots mobilization and direct action such as occupations of important public spaces, road blockades, and other publicly visible disruptive actions. Overall, the struggle of the Iranian working class illustrated in the above cases demonstrates that workers are increasingly refusing to be ignored. The new working-class movement is emerging, and it will challenge capital on all fronts.
4 Kheirollahi 2018
Bruff, Ian. 2013. “The Rise of Authoritarian Neoliberalism.” Rethinking Marxism, vol. 26, no. 1, pp. 113-129. Taylor and Francis Online.
Gramsci, Antonio. 1977. Selections from political writings, 1910–20. London: Lawrence and Wishart.
Kheirollahi, Alireza.2018. Kārgarān bi Tabaqeh: Tavān-e Chānezani Kārgarān dar Irān pas az
Enqelāb (Workers Without Class: Bargaining Power in Iran after the Revolution). Tehran: Agah.
Maljoo, Mohammad. 2017. “The Unmaking of the Iranian Working Class since the 1990s.”
Pp.47–63 in Iran’s Struggles for Social Justice: Economics, Agency, Justice, Activism, edited by P. Vahabzadeh. Cham: Springer International Publishing.
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