In the summer of 2018, six months after the suppression of protests in more than 100 cities, Iranian’s attention was turned by new struggles, this time by workers in two factories facing chronic uncertainty over their jobs and wages. This article looks at the background to strikes by sugar processing and steel workers, both industries with a high level of worker militancy, how they have continued and their influence on other movements. The names of these factories are Haft Tappeh Sugarcane AgroIndustry Co. and National Steel Industrial Group of Ahvaz, Foolad for short in Farsi. The first company was privatised in 2015, and the second one in 2009 and again in November 2017 to implement the privatization policy of the government. During the strikes in 2018, Haft Tappeh Co. belonged to the private sector and Foolad, after the execution of its first private owner in 2014 and many ups and downs including being transferred to the state-owned Bank Melli (National Bank), in November 2017, it was transferred to a private sector investor who renounced ownership of the plant in February 2018. The production conditions and the situation of the workers in both factories were very similar. Both factories faced a wave of workers’ strikes in the summer of 2018, while the factory owners were seeking bankruptcy and closure of the companies on the pretext that it would not be cost-effective to continue production. At the same time, workers’ situations in both factories were similar to a large number of workers in Iran. Permanent dismissal of workers, months of arrears and unpaid premiums, conversion of employment contracts into temporary contracts and even in most cases into blank signed contracts, i.e. contracts in which the provisions of the agreement are not written and the worker signs only a blank sheet at the time of employment so that the employer later fills it in as they wish.
After years of repression in Iran in the 1980s and 1990s, labor struggles slowly began, first in Tehran and then in other cities in an organized manner. It was in 2005 that the first strikes at the Haft Tappeh Sugarcane Company took place at a time when the company was still state-owned but workers’ wages had not been paid for several months. The strike, which began in the factory and took various forms, continued in early 2005 and 2006, with initiatives such as factory sit-ins, rallies in front of government offices, and lockdown of the city.
In 2007, as preparations for the privatization of the factory with the sale of 12,000 hectares of agricultural land were underway, workers demanded the reopening of the Haft Tappeh Workers’ Syndicate, which was shut down by security officials in 1983. Despite repeated detentions of militant workers, Syndicate elections were held and its board of directors was elected by 1,200 workers. Elected members of the syndicate board were immediately arrested and each sentenced to one year in prison.
2017 marked the beginning of another series of strikes in Haft Tappeh, when the private owner of the company since only 2015 started talking about bankruptcy and cessation of production, and on this pretext fired a large number of “surplus workers” and increased workers’ wage arrears. These strikes reached a new stage in the summer of 2018.
The Foolad Co., however, had a bloodier crackdown between 1980 and 1983. The factory workers ‘council, one of the most powerful workers’ councils at the time, was bloodily suppressed, and many factory members and militant workers were imprisoned, executed or forced to flee the country. The Foolad industry was one of the most important national industries at that time, and this intensified the suppression in this factory. In February 2018, a huge strike erupted in this large company following the resignation of the private owner of the factory and his refusal to pay wage arrears. For years, the Foolad workers paid the price for the factory’s constant exchanges between the public and private sectors, neither of which have paid workers’ wages and insurance premiums in full. All these resulted in a more widespread and radical strike in the summer of 2018, the very summer Haft Tappeh’s strike peaked.
Red summer of 2018
While both Haft Tappeh and Foolad strikes were increasing in numbers throughout July and August 2018, in the last days of August, a speech by Ismail Bakhshi, a member of the Haft Tappeh Workers’ Assembly, stepped up the labor movement and class struggle in Iran. The Haft Tappeh Workers’ Assembly was an informal structure that emerged from the numerous strikes of 2017 and 2018, alongside the factory’s syndicate which had been weakened over the years. The members of the assembly were informally elected by striking workers. Ismail Bakhshi, in his speech, spoke about the necessity of forming a “workers’ council” which should be in charge of managing the factory. This was the first time that the idea of running a council had been re-introduced after the repressed experience of the councils that emerged from the 1979 revolution. On behalf of the Haft Tappeh workers, Bakhshi made two proposals to government officials: transfer of ownership of the factory to the workers and its administration by the elected workers’ council.
Only a few days later, the voice of Ismail Bakhshi found its echo in the city of Ahvaz among the striking Foolad workers. In the gathering of the workers of this factory in front of the provincial government headquarters, Meysam Al-Mahdi, one of the representatives of the Foolad Workers ‘Assembly (a structure similar to the Haft Tappeh Workers’ Assembly) spoke about the same ideas of Ismail Bakhshi and made the same proposals. The toilers heard each other’s voices.
What helps to spread the idea of collective council-based ownership and administration of the factories was the fact that it was shaped through objective and materialist struggles of workers. It was not an abstract idea dictated by a few minor intellectuals. Activists of student union councils (alternative institutions to the official student unions, led by left-wing students in recent years) not only expressed solidarity with the workers’ struggles, especially the struggles of the Haft Tappeh and the Foolad workers, but were also inspired by them. These students want their universities to be managed by councils run by students and lecturers. Similarly, some in the teachers’ unions thought they had found the solution to achieve free education as well as to prevent monetization of education by running schools through councils. In both Haft Tappeh and Foolad factories, the workers themselves secretly published and distributed articles explaining the idea of council administration in simple language. A few small left-wing groups also embraced the idea, and started writing articles, translating books and producing pamphlets that were widely circulated on covert and semi-covert communications networks.
The radicalism of the December 2017 nationwide uprising had boosted the workers’ struggle in summer 2018, and empowered them to imagine other ways of managing themselves. With eyes open to new possibilities, one could speak of another form of factory, university and school management.
The warm and cold autumn
The struggles of Haft Tappeh and Foolad workers entered a new phase in the latter part of 2018. During the last month of summer, security forces repeatedly detained representatives of the Haft Tappeh and Foolad workers for several hours and – as it turned out later – threatened them to stop the strikes at the two factories. The strikes, however, did not stop. With increasing security pressures on the one hand and the lack of response to the workers’ demands on the other, the intervals between strikes were shortened until the strike became continuous from late October 2018. A few days later in November the strike turned into a daily street demonstration. The Haft Tappeh workers in the small city of Shusha and the Foolad workers in the large city of Ahvaz protested every day, disrupted government-run ceremonies of the Friday prayers, shut down the city bazaar, and closed roads in some hours of the day. Some of their families joined the protests too. Forms of solidarity arose at the local level: for instance some corner shops announced that workers at the two factories could receive items on credit and pay after receiving their delayed wages.
During the same period, in addition to municipal workers’ strikes in three southern Iranian cities, there were strikes in solidarity with Haft Tappeh and Foolad workers in Kurdistan and Qazvin. In Arak, a city in the central part of the country, workers from the Hepco and Azarab factories issued a statement expressing solidarity with the Haft Tappeh and Foolad workers. At two important universities in the capital, the University of Tehran (the oldest and largest) and Allameh University (the main university for the humanities), rallies were held in support of the militant workers of the south. It was rumored that on December 7, the Students’ Day, some representatives of Haft Tappeh and Foolad would be present at the University of Tehran, and it was later revealed that meetings had been held to coordinate such an action.
November 18 was the day security forces launched an offensive against militant workers of the south. Three members of the Haft Tappeh Workers’ Assembly were arrested, including Ismail Bakhshi and a female student activist who had joined the workers a few weeks before to help spread the news of their struggle. Just the next day, 19 other Haft Tappeh workers and the retired chairman of the factory syndicate were arrested. The workers’ reaction was a mass demonstration in the city of Shusha. A few days later, most of the detainees were temporarily released from prison pending trial, but four remained in custody. In the following weeks, security forces tightened the siege. They arrested some local activists in the south, particularly left-wing activists, and a girl activist in Tehran who was active in the student magazine Gaam. The left-wing magazine had devoted its last few issues to covering the strikes of Haft-tappeh and Foolad. The detainees were transferred to the detention center of the Intelligence Office in Ahvaz. The Intelligence Office is run by the Ministry of Intelligence belonging to the current “reformist” government. It is this office that is responsible for the repression of the workers in south of Iran, known as the “problem of the south”. Despite this fact, reformists attempted to shift the blame to the Revolutionary Guard, which in this particular instance, had nothing to do with the suppression.
On December 16, the workers of Foolad were attacked. With the exception of one member who accidentally managed to escape the clutches of the agents, every member of the Foolad Workers’ Assembly, in addition to any worker who the security agency thought played a role in continuing the workers’ struggle was arrested. Over three consecutive days, 41 Foolad workers were arrested in their homes or on the road. Although many detained Foolad workers were released after a few days, nearly 15 were detained for weeks or even months.
In January 2019, the Ministry of Intelligence arrested three left-wing students in Tehran as part of a predetermined plan. These students were all members of the editorial board of Gaam. The scenario to be performed on state television was to broadcast the forced confessions of some detainees and to accuse the Haft Tappeh and Foolad workers of being connected to the communist opposition abroad, or institutions backed by the imperialist countries. The program was produced under the direction of Ministry of Intelligence agents and by state television reporters who were later nicknamed “interrogator-reporters” in public parlance. At least two of those whose confessions were broadcast released letters after their release from prison stating that the confessions were obtained under torture, and that they had said what the intelligence interrogators and TV reporters had imposed on them.
Finally, the trial of the defendants in the Haft Tappeh case was held in Tehran and led to severe sentences. The five communist students arrested in the case were each sentenced to 18 years in prison. Ismail Bakhshi, chairman of the Haft Tappeh Workers’ Assembly, and Mohammad Khanifar, another member of the assembly, were sentenced to fourteen and six years in prison, respectively. Ali Nejati, the former head of the Haft Tappeh Workers’ Syndicate was sentenced to five years in prison a few weeks later. The other nine members of the Haft Tappeh Workers’ Assembly were tried not in Tehran but in the southern city of Shusha, far from the reach of the media, and were sentenced to short prison terms and flogging. The judge who tried the defendants in the Haft Tappeh case was one of the judiciary officials involved in the massacre of more than 4000 political prisoners in the summer of 1988. These verdicts provoked such a backlash in the society and public opinion that the head of the judiciary first ordered the verdicts not to be executed, then in May 2020, the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic pardoned the sentences. However, this was but a temporary pretence and shortly after the pardon was issued, Sepideh Gholian, one of the five communist students accused in the case, was sent to prison to serve a six-year sentence and in February 2021, Ali Nejati, the former head of the Haft Tappeh Workers’ Syndicate was summoned to serve a five-year prison sentence.
The new chapter of the struggle
Despite the severe crackdown on the Haft Tappeh workers, a new round of strikes began at the plant in June 2020. During these months, the security forces prevented Ismail Bakhshi from returning to the factory, managed to dissuade some representatives of the Workers’ Assembly from continuing the struggle – with threats in some cases and bribes in others, and tried to establish a new made-up union called the Islamic Council of Labor with the help of the double-crossing representatives. They especially tried their best to calm down the environment of the relatively larger steel factory (Foolad) to break the bond between the Haft Tappeh workers and the Foolad workers.
Despite all these measures, only seven months after the brutal squashing of the Haft Tappeh strike, the workers went on strike again. In this round of strike, the government first attempted to derail the workers’ struggle. In the early days, some local officials and pro-government students who claimed to oppose the cabinet’s economic policies and inequalities stemming from the neoliberal austerity policies showed up at the workers’ gatherings suggesting they demand the government to transfer the ownership of Haft Tappeh to another person instead of cancelling the privatization. At the same time, the head of the judiciary ordered that financial violations by the owner of Haft Tappeh be investigated. These “violations”, of course, had nothing to do with the situation of the factory and the Haft Tappeh workers, but were a case of “currency smuggling, unauthorized trading of government currencies, and bribery of the central bank of Iran.” This was while all the local officials in the Khuzestan province, even the judicial authorities, supported the private owner of Haft Tappeh right up to the present.
The Haft Tappeh workers, however, did not step back from their desire to abolish privatization, while trying not to create a tense atmosphere that would lead to the suppression of the strike. The workers’ strike lasted for nearly 70 days, until parliamentarians and judicial officials agreed to negotiate with them. During these negotiations, it became clear that the “principle of privatization” is sacrosanct for the Iranian government. The most cunning government officials and agents never promised the Haft tappeh workers to cancel the privatization of the factory. After months of conflict – which was every now and then accompanied by several days of striking by the workers, interrogation of their new representatives, and the detention of those representatives for several hours or days, the main government body tasked with implementing privatization policies got involved. The Privatization Organization sent a case to a cabinet-appointed jury seeking the expropriation of Haft tappeh; the type of expropriation which of course meant handing over the factory to another private owner. While all government officials and institutions were promising to oust the private owner of Haft Tappeh, who was on trial on charges of financial corruption, the jury announced at a meeting in late December 2020 that it did not have sufficient evidence to remove him and postponed the decision until further notice. This “further notice” has yet to be given. This period, of course, coincided with a new round of repression of the Haft Tappeh workers. The private owner of Haft Tappeh sued some of the workers’ representatives during the new round of strikes. The judiciary in the Khuzestan province immediately began investigating these cases. Haft Tappeh workers believe that summoning Ali Nejati, the former head of the factory’s Workers’ Syndicate, to serve a prison sentence, even though he had previously been pardoned by the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic, is related to the government’s determination to crack down on Haft Tappeh workers. The employment contracts of many workers who were active in the strikes of the past few years have been reduced from one-year to six-month or three-month contracts. Ten workers who have been more active than others, including some new workers’ representatives, have been fired.
The Iranian New Year in March 2021 saw the beginning of another strike of sugar processing workers in Haft Tappeh. They went on strike from the fifth day of the new year to protest the non-payment part of their wages. A few days later, workers from other parts of the factory joined the strike to protest the dismissal of their co-workers and overdue wages. Since April 4th, workers in the factory’s security department also went on strike for three months to protest the reduction of their contracts. Angry Haft Tappeh workers occupied the factory office for several hours that day. In the meanwhile, on April 2, Foolad steel workers learned that two members of the Workers’ Assembly (which no longer exists after the crackdown) had been fired. So, they went on strike on April 3rd. There are numerous reports of strikes and rallies by municipal workers in various southern cities as well. Pensioners in these cities are also actively participating in nationwide rallies. In the south, where the night is illuminated by towers of fire burning surplus gas from oil wells, the flames of workers’ struggle are flaring anew from beneath the ashes of previous repressions.