Defending the labor struggle in the middle of the uprising

Street protests which have transformed into a nationwide uprising definitely show that the ruling political-class structure in Iran has blocked all the ways that citizens could determine their lives. This manifested in the popular slogan “reformist, fundamentalist / the story is over” heard in the streets of Iran throughout the December 2017 uprising, and the slogan had previously been used at protests by sections of the organised working class. In the last four decades, lack of representation of the working class in the ruling political factions, and unfulfilled promises of the authorities in relation to workers’ demands were two manifestations of blocking the official channels of pursuing the demands of the working class. This is why the workers, including teachers, nurses and retirees, have always announced their demands through rallies and strikes. It is obvious that as a result of suppression and the lack of open channels in the governance structure, massive dissatisfaction and opposition are being channelled through street protests. The uprising that has been going on in Iran since September 2022 following the murder of Jina (Mehsa) Amini by the government is an excellent example of the street manifestations of opposition and dissatisfaction that are the continuation of the November 2019 and December 2017 uprisings, of course at deeper and broader levels. 

Apart from street protests and uprisings, we have witnessed a large number of labor protests in recent years, which have also been carried out in forms other than the [non]existing channels in the governance structure. In this way, in parallel with the widespread attack of capitalism on the social life, political representation, work and livelihood of the working class, the workers in industrial, production and service units, depending on the special conditions of their workplace, have organized protests in factories and the streets, or gone on strike. In the past years, although these protests have faced many ups and downs in terms of quality and quantity, they have never stopped expanding. For some years, and even in the heat of the presidential elections when the middle classes were mostly seeking their political integration into the state, we have rarely witnessed the subsidence of labor protests. Labor protests introduced some class-based themes such as the necessity of forming an independent trade union, labor self-management, and council administration of the workplace [and living space] into the political space and, consequently, to the organization of mass uprising. In this article, we argue that the class-based experience obtained from organised working-class and trade union struggles is the determining factor in where this mass uprising goes and how it is concluded. 

Before expanding the argument, let us first demystify the common myth of ‘classless uprising’ in which each force in the struggle has the same horizons for the future. Clarification of this common myth is important as the reality of the political field and social developments are exactly the opposite. The participants of the uprising are neither in the same position, nor equivalent with the same aim, and even their motivations are not based on a common existence and the same understanding of oppression, discrimination, and dictatorship. The political message underneath ‘classless uprising’ is to disguise the war of alternatives. Alternatives primarily are nothing other than the political translation of the hegemonic class nature of an uprising. In this way, in the course of the development of a popular uprising and to find out the determining features that are inevitably class-based, we are initially facing a strategic question and option; the horizon of the uprising will be in line with the fundamental interests of which class?

In the following, we will discuss briefly what we mean when we are talking about a class orientation stemming from labor struggles. Specifically, we explain what the unique effects of labor struggles are on the course of a popular uprising. 

Labor movements and trade union struggles have specific subjects and demands; the relationship between workers, capital owners, and employers, and in a broader sense, the dominant relations of social production. These movements are not necessarily homogeneous and consistent. They, despite their class origins, can pave the way for coming to power of a bloc of capitalism that is the political opposition of the current dominant capitalism. Hence, what we mean by labor and trade union struggles, regarding the internal dynamics of the Jina Uprising, is in line with overcoming the right-wing orientations within it. In other words, we presuppose that the labor movement is able to overcome the anti-working-class forces. The question of how this agency can overcome these forces is partially answered in this text concerning the labor struggles and the positive horizon it can lead to when connected to other elements.

What have been the demands of labor struggles in Iran over recent years? To name a few, we can point out: the right to organize & act, being protected from persecution and criminalization due to gatherings and strikes, a living wage, having bargaining power on determining the minimum wage annually, changing discriminatory rules in the workplace, elimination of the wage gap between men and women, the right to all-inclusive social and health security, the right to have permanent jobs, avoiding from dismissals, the right to have pro-worker institutions, preventing legal rights violations, cancellation of privatizing processes, and the right to self-determination and workers’ control. In addition to labor demands, independent workers’ organizations have always supported general political demands such as abolition of the death penalty, release of political prisoners, the abolition of torture, end to judicial persecution, and so forth.

A material, objective look at the subject matter of labor struggles in recent years shows how the relations between the workers and the capitalist employers, and, at a larger scale, the dominant dynamics of social production have been the causes and grounds of class inequality. Class inequality is the dominating relationship that creates subjugation, oppression, and discrimination. All of this underlines the detailed, objective description of the everyday lives of most Iranians, filled with poverty, inequality, class oppression, trampling of social dignity, lack of freedom, and lack of democracy. The desire for freedom, democracy, human rights, the elimination of poverty, and the removal of class oppression is precisely expressed in the demands. It is freed from the generic, subjective expressions that have the potential to become something against the majority’s wants. 

The themes of labour protests show in detail how oppression and class discrimination work, and the majority of society is denied the freedom of assembly, the right to organize, and the right to exercise political power while discrimination, subjugation, domination, and class inequality take place instead. These protests are the place to reveal this mechanism. Apart from that, what other mechanism is there to understand the practical direction of a political movement when it talks about freedom, democracy, and welfare? What details are embedded in these words? Indeed nothing! There is no practical mechanism to evaluate the political currents’ claims on democracy, freedom, and welfare and measure their relevance to that which is the source of dissatisfaction, opposition, and protests of the insurgents. The same relevance or lack thereof can be observed regarding the liberation of women and the elimination of gender oppression. We have seen that in the current uprising, whenever women’s radical rights are argued for by relying on undeniable observations, facts, and details, the right-wing opposition to the Islamic Republic expresses endless fear and tries in every way and by every trick to “purge” from the uprising any feminism and, at the same time any “left”. 

Workers’ struggles are one of the most important possibilities for the formation of the direct agency of workers as a class. By constantly referring to worker union themes and establishing itself in the political nature of the workers’ struggle, the labor movement also keeps its class independence and avoids merely following the political movements of other classes. The labor movement should be summoned by the constant reference to the class struggle of workers and its main themes. These themes start from the demand for higher wages and logically reach the negation of private ownership of the means of production (whether owned by individuals or by institutions, including the government). This is the central theme of the class struggle which enters the uprising to change the relations of social production as a class.

This is that significant class element that was, in the past, and is, at present, along with the uprising, constantly emphasized by the union fighters. Its absence will create a vacuum that will inevitably be filled by the forces of opposition that are yet another bloc of capitalism.

Following the Zhina uprising, the right-wing opposition to the Islamic Republic took two apparently different approaches toward the labor movement and union struggles. The first approach, with the slogan “let’s unite the protests with strikes,” apparently prescribed a strike among workers and business owners and tried to bring street protests to a new stage of progress by calling for a nationwide strike. The storeowners’ strike – not necessarily following such calls – was successful in some parts and able to disrupt everyday life, when the government was trying to pretend all was normal. This strike obviously did not cause disruption of the production cycle. Especially, except in small parts of the oil industry with auxiliary functions, which were quickly suppressed with mass arrests, we have not seen strikes in the oil and gas sectors and other sources of exclusive wealth production in the hands of the government. Their second approach to the labor movement was to condemn its trade union nature: matters related to the increase of wages, payment of arrears, and the like, which are the central theme of the trade union struggle. In this approach, the agenda of the right-wing opposition was organized attacks against workers. Of course, such an approach had precedent among the right-wing opposition. These two seemingly different approaches have the same nature. 

On the one hand, we are faced with the provocative prescription of a nationwide strike with a pure focus on political goals, calls for which are broadcast day and night from the right-wing forces’ media. It was to strengthen this approach that self-styled Crown Prince Reza Pahlavi stated in several announcements that he was ready to work with a group of forces to create a monetary fund for the strike. 

On the other hand, we have seen the attack on trade union struggles, which targets the most basic nature of the labor movement and its content. They treat the struggle for payment of wage arrears and wage increases, improvements to contracts, and so on, with humiliation, mockery and insults, while constantly noting the irrelevance of such a struggle at the time of a nationwide uprising against the entire system.

In the first approach, if we are faced with the politicization of strikes in a reverse way, in the second approach, we are faced with the depoliticization and, more precisely, the effacement of the class-based struggle of the labor movement. This approach attempts to strip labor strikes of their union and class themes as well as their independence, consciousness, and determined will. In this way, it is ultimately the agency of the working class that is targeted. In this approach, the argumentative level of the negation of the class politics of trade union struggles is set to present their struggle as “demanding”. But what does holding onto the demands mean? More importantly, what are the demands and who is the target audience for them in the state of uprising? And how do these demands find class determination? And why is class determination based on trade union struggle, strategic and necessary?

In situations where we are not facing an uprising, the labor struggle is clearly addressed to the private/state employer. The specific aspect of this statement is that it has limited inclusiveness due to the predetermined nature of the labor struggle. But in the situation of an uprising, these demands go beyond this limit and find a public utterance. This utterance is not necessarily descriptive. Rather, it contains a kind of prescription. “Extend the trade union’s demands from the limited address to a specific private/state employer and address all private/state employers, regardless of the established political regime”! This prescription, nevertheless, does not come from an omniscient position that looks at the state of things from above, but more than anything else, it is rooted in the combined will of the workers within the transformative condition that has created the uprising. Therefore, while being prescriptive, it stems from observation and description. In a nutshell, this prescription should not come from outside. Rather, it should be from within and on behalf of progressive demands of the labor movement itself; from the organized will that would direct the current uprising with a class perspective. This is not only a technical description of how the working class should join the uprising. But also, it is a material and objective necessity for the labor movement without which an inclusive and general horizon would be practically impossible.

Labor struggles are one of the most necessary tools for advancing the uprising through a class lens, inclusive of the demands of the majority of the participants of the uprising. This would include working-class neighborhoods, peripheral cities under discrimination, and the many workers and unemployed people in the uprising. In this vein, the joined cause between labor struggles and the uprising—as the organic forces participating in the uprising show such a link on the street—is one of the necessary conditions for a class-conscious uprising. As such, the utterance of the labor struggle must address not a specific private/state employer but all private/state employers. The condition of such generalizability is not necessarily to give up on the pursuit of union demands in a limited and localized form towards a specific employer at the workplace. Rather, being localized and generalizable at the same time can provide both aspects of the trade union struggle without carrying a contradiction. In this way, by going beyond itself [its localized demands], labor unions can highlight the class aspect of the uprising, manifest it in the themes of their demands, and turn the uprising into a class-conscious movement.

With the generalization of the trade union demands (from the issue of labor wages to proletarian governance and the public ownership of the means of production) and by turning it into one of the main aspects of the current uprising, the nuances of an alternative system of governance will stand out. This would in turn make a withdrawal from these important demands in the nation-wide uprising rather impossible. It would further indicate drawing a decisive class-conscious boundary with other forces, and to avoid becoming a shapeless mass in the path that would only care about overthrowing the regime. This is participation in the class-based uprising and strengthening the voice and image of the forces participating in this uprising when they shout: down with the dictator, oppression and discrimination. The positive form of these slogans contains nuances that are represented within labor struggles. Slogans such as political freedom, democracy, equality, welfare and many other basic rights that span from workplace to living space, and from the education system to legal and governmental levels, would be abstract and general conceptions with no tangible reference in the material world if defined outside of the realm of labor struggles. These empty slogans, uttered by the farthest right-wingers as well as the ones on the left, only lead to further political chaos and the blurring of political and class boundaries. In order to go beyond such chaos and obscurity, it is more necessary than ever to strengthen the labor struggle with which we can consolidate the overall movement as well.

The right-wing forces’ fear of labor struggle and their welcoming of classless workers’ strikes has been prompted by this constructive statement that comes out of the labor movement’s class-conscious struggle. Attacking trade union struggles and making workers’ strikes faceless would create a gap that the right-wing forces are able to fill temporarily with the help of the capitalist governments’ hegemonic media. In this scenario, the workers become a tool for the right wing to carry on the project of overthrowing and changing the regime. This is in contrast with the necessary condition for turning the uprising into a revolution and its subsequent victory, that is: for workers to stand on their feet as a class. It further suggests defining the exploited and the suppressed as the main force of this uprising, instead of a building block of capitalism that has been looting public resources, exploiting and subjugating workers for years. 

What is important in this direction and at the discursive level, is to defend the labor struggles specifically during an uprising that is expanding every day, and to overcome the intimidation that has been created against the class determination of the uprising. Representatives of fake alliances that are building an empty vessel [out of the uprising] to be gradually filled with right-wing political-class content, have long repudiated any independent movement. This fake alliance needs to be exposed and demystified more than ever.

The labor movement is both politically-oriented and class-conscious. Although these two aspects are occasionally separated from each other in terms of form and due to the objective necessities of the struggle, they follow the same logic in terms of content. Any political current that wants to depoliticize workers’ struggles under the pretext of defending trade union movements or, conversely, stripping workers of their class demands in a political project, is against the working class. It is particularly important at this point to break the atmosphere of intimidation against the labor struggle and at the same time highlight the political nature of the labor movement and emphasize demands that are both union-based and political. What needs to be done is clear: full defense of the labor struggle today. Otherwise, there will be nothing left of the labor movement but a force against the working class.

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