“The Working Class Negotiates With Nobody.” An interview with Meytham Al-e-Mahdi

The following is the transcription of an interview conducted by Manjanigh Collective, our parent organization, with Meytham Al-e-Mahdi about the relationship between the labor movement and the Women, Life, Freedom uprising.

Meytham is an exiled labor activist. He was a labor organizer in the National Steel Co. between 2016 to 2018 and led one of the longest industrial strikes in Iran’s history.

“The forms of workers’ organizations in Iran today are secret and semi-secret. The labor strikes in Iran do not happen spontaneously; workers do not strike impulsively. What is the process that leads to a strike? Workers in a factory first communicate with each other, talk about their needs and demands and make them clear, and finally, confrontation happens; this confrontation is the strike. Workers don’t go public out of foolishness or a need to be seen. But rather, workers see that the street [society] needs them, their demands and discourse are public, so they decide to go on strike, even if it causes them great sacrifices, and workers accept the costs.

Let’s look at the National Steel Co. strikes (in 2016). Why did workers decide to go on strike and protest publicly? Because they understood that their protests would be easily hijacked. When a protest is hijacked, it can be easily labeled by outside forces. Against this, workers understood the need to raise their voices and express their demands publicly.

Today we are in the middle of a movement that grows every day and is aware of the contradictions and more conscious than ever. We see the same development in the factory. Because the [factory] workers’ struggle is influenced by the streets, and in turn, the streets also learn from the [factory] workers.

We are not facing a revolting society in its entirety, but specific social classes are protesting! At the beginning of the movement, some participants are simply enthusiastic; others are there to watch, and some might be there just to unload their energy. But this only lasts a few days, but the interests become more apparent. Those who continue to protest have nothing to lose, so they don’t retreat or calculate their potential loss. They have nothing more to lose. So they stay and prolong the protest. Similarly, not all the workers in a factory are revolutionary. Not all of them are conscious of the contradictions.

Another important issue that needs to be discussed is the falsification of the labor news, the omission of the working class discourse, and the instrumentalization of the strike and the working class. The Iranian opposition has no economic plan for the future [It is only focused on the regime change]. We are amidst a protesting society and just one protesting strata. In other words, we must emphasize the working class and other layers of society, such as the impoverished, the teacher’s movement, the women’s movement, and the labor movement. We must then ask ourselves what has brought these groups to the streets: economic issues. So when the current opposition lacks a clear economic plan, why should society trust it?

The opposition has an instrumentalist approach to the working class by commodifying it.

When workers announce that they’re better equipped at running the factory than the employer; more capable at managing the factory than the employer, this suggests that workers are not simply a protesting tool nor an instrument of regime change at the hands of the opposition to undermine its subjectivity after the political change is achieved and be sent back to the same old working conditions, and the same poor living conditions.

Let me be very clear: in the future, even if the entire world unanimously shouts that the victory of this revolution depends on the working class, as long as the class discourse is omitted, the working class will not join the revolution because it doesn’t accept to be commodified and taken advantage of like a tool. We don’t strike because of someone else’s wishes. We don’t strike because of somebody’s lust for power. We organize ourselves and strike based on the existing potentials and the emerging contradictions.

Guilds are one of the factors aiding the class movement. And when they don’t see this factor, it’s not because they don’t want to see it; they are aware of its importance but intentionally ignore it. This disdainful attitude and humiliation [of the working class] is organized and catered towards specific political interests; that is to say, this behavior is not an unconscious or sentimental act, but it is an anti-working class discourse in the making. When the opposition ignores the working class discourse, they push forward their anti-discourse. While the society is chanting in the streets, “we want neither the Shah nor the supreme leader,” the oppositional media focus on [the deposed Shah’s son] Mr. Pahlavi’s call for protests! This call is as significant as [supreme leader] Khamenei ordering the people to empty the streets and return home. When the working class and the movement in the streets deny these groups, their call and orders are already invalidated.

When revolutions are defeated, the working class is blamed, and when revolutions succeed, the working class is praised but afterward sent back to the factories.

Protest is a necessity for the working class, not optional. Unfortunately, some [leftists] who believe in the class defend the Islamic Republic. The important question for them is: are you a leftist? If you see yourself as a leftist, you need to go and inspect where your true power lies; if you support the state apparatus against my class, your leftism is problematic. We cannot sit quietly and tolerate the oppression of the Kurd and Baluch nations. Left is identified through this intolerance [to injustice]. If anyone justifies oppression, they are not on the left; they don’t know who they are.

When the Iranian working class and labor activists (such as myself) search the Sudanese revolution with magnifying glasses to find the [working class] movement, it suggests that we understand liberation as collective and international. This also reflects in Iran’s movement: I wouldn’t identify myself solely as an oppressed Arab worker; this would be the commodification of identities. We acknowledge the additional oppression of the Arab working class, but liberation is universal. When we talk about working-class issues, it means that the core issues a Fars worker [from the center] faces are similar to my issues [Arab worker]. Iran’s vast, diverse geography makes it easier for us to understand the issue of class liberation internationally. To see the similarity of concerns and issues.

What are the marginalized groups in Iran’s economic, social and political structure? Let’s look at the case of women: those who reduce women’s issues to simply the mandatory Hijab are instrumentalizing women’s issues; the problem is that they are not paying attention to the social, economic, and political issues women are facing in Iran. And this is exactly the problem. Here is another question: can queer people live freely in that society [Iran]? They are omitted from all these three structures (politics, economy, and society). Economically, they cannot own anything or have a job or partake in a business. Politically… [laughing], Socially, can they even exist?! The marginalized social groups reproduce the structure of oppression within themselves and exclude these people [women and LGBTQ+].

When we come together as a social class and engage with these issues as a unified class, we don’t intend to instrumentalize these issues; rather, our sole purpose is liberation. We don’t ask our women comrades to join the strike only to increase the commodity value of our strikes; it’s not that! We understand that our path to liberation is shared. When society comes together, and the contradictions continue to grow, the issues of women and workers become closer. A women worker is a cheap worker: “she’s a woman,” “she’s weak,” “we’re letting her earn some bread,” “she’s lucky she has a job.” Similarly, for the Arab, Turk, Baluch, Turkmen, and Lor workers: “you’re lucky you have a job; we allowed you to make some money! If you don’t want it, go to Saudi Arabia [to the Arab workers], go to Iraq [to the Kurd workers]”!

These groups are treated similarly. When the superior treats all the subordinate groups the same, the gap between those groups closes off. And here is how these links are formed without ever being apparent before. The link between the women’s and labor movements is the unification of the marginalized groups who are eliminated from the [power] structures. They are excluded from the economy, political and social structure. And now, these groups want their place at the table. But this table isn’t the negotiation table, although some would like to think so.

This means that after the revolution, when the tables are turned, and the power structure is overturned, these groups will form a new order. They will NOT trade their pains and forget all that injustice and tyranny.”

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