The Significance of the Crouse strike for Women, Life, Freedom Movement
Introduction by Slingers Collective
For International Women’s Day on March 8th, Slingers Collective will review one of the most significant women-led labor strikes of 2022 (and perhaps Iran’s modern history). In November 2022, during the Women Life Freedom movement (also Jina Uprising as known in Iran), more than 300 women workers organized and participated in a strike at the Crouse factory, Iran’s largest auto parts manufacturer. In the following, we briefly describe the deplorable conditions of work and life for Iranian women workers, then we highlight the importance of the women workers’ organizations in the quality and revolutionary direction of the Women, Life, Freedom Movement.
The ongoing economic crisis in Iran has made the lives of workers more difficult. Compounding the below-poverty wages many receive, prolonged two-digit inflation and constantly increasing unemployment have pushed women further into the unregulated labor force. While it is certainly true that all workers are subjugated in capitalism, women occupy a particular space of oppression. In its reproduction, the Iranian capital enforces a patriarchal, ethnocentric structure colored by religious orthodoxy. By fixing a woman’s legal rights to half of a man’s and requiring a husband’s or father’s permission to work and travel, the capitalist state guarantees economic insecurity and legal, social, and economic oppression. For this reason, we see women workers consigned to unstable, low-paying jobs as they enter an economy already marred by dropping wages and increasing prices at the expense of workers.
The gendered wage disparity was utilized by capital to increase surplus value by using low-wage labor, driving down the higher wages of men, and hiring women in sectors exempted from labor law. Capital has similarly leveraged patriarchal oppression to respond to its prolonged crisis, firing women before their male co-workers and subjecting them to lower wages with misogynistic limitations based on age and marital status. (For example, women workers at Crouse Co. must be younger than 32 and single). The myriads of these legal and labor limitations have placed the employment rate of Iranian women at 13%, among the lowest in the Middle East region. In the aftermath of Covid-19, women’s unemployment doubled, with over a million women losing their jobs.
If they are not shut back into the kitchen by unemployment, women are forced into the unregulated informal economy or the exempted formal economy to feed themselves and their families. A large number of women work in the informal economy, the majority of them in small workshops of less than ten workers, exempt from labor law. These workshops subject women to long work hours, few (if any) breaks, unreasonable quotas, unequal and subminimum wages, job insecurity, deprivation of social welfare benefits, unsafe working conditions, disregard by labor regulators, etc.
While it is clear that Iranian women suffer exploitation unique from their male counterparts, an organization designed to directly address their subjugation has not been created. These factors, namely the concentration of women in insecure and diffuse employment (domestic servitude, exempted industries, and the informal economy), have historically hindered the organization of the bulk of women workers. Recently we witnessed a growing revolutionary potential of women workers in the workplace alongside men in labor disputes and protests. Over the past several years, women have been active in the teacher, nursing, and pensioners organizations that have led large strikes and protests. Despite their strong presence, women rarely assumed leadership and organizing roles.
This power dynamic, however, shifted after Jina’s uprising. The 2022 Crouse Co. strike was the first industrial strike in Iran’s history to be organized by women workers. Given Crouse Co.’s economic importance, the historical subjugation of women workers, and the absence of experienced women labor organizers, the three-day Crouse Co. strike is a significant achievement and milestone for Iranian women workers as women have relatively little historical organizing knowledge. The strike started when the Jina uprising was being suppressed with increased force. The demands revolved around deplorable work conditions such as low wages and long work hours, including overtime shifts on Fridays (weekends in Iran).
Crouse’s strikes were suppressed immediately, with more than 200 women workers being fired. (One worker committed suicide in response to losing her job). However, the strike’s demands, its organization, and its linkages to the Jina uprising present a serious and important development in the women’s movement and attest to the historical significance of the Jina uprisings to the Iranian labor movement.
In what follows, we read a detailed account of the deplorable work condition at the Crouse Co. with respect to the Women, Life, Freedom movement.
Labor Strikes amid the “Woman, Life, Freedom” uprising: The Case of Crouse automotive workers
by Shirin Kamangar
Workers in various industries have organized many protests and strikes amid the revolutionary uprising of “Women, Life, Freedom.” Examining and analyzing these strikes can elucidate orientations within the current movement that the mainstream media have ignored (especially the economic dimension) by only focusing on the political and social aspects. It is clear that the protest movement provided a platform and favorable conditions, both mental and objective, for the formation of strikes because public or private sector employers had no choice but to meet workers’ demands to prevent the escalation of existing antagonisms. As a result, workers’ bargaining power has grown in these favorable conditions, and the possibility of successful strikes has increased. By delineating the entanglement of strikes with the ongoing movement, we can talk about the plurality of forces in this movement and negate any form of abstract unity or beyond-class demands. By defending the demands of the working class, we can spread the current uprising not only against political tyranny but also against the tyranny and dictatorship of capital.
Recent strikes occurred in four industrial sectors, including oil and gas, petrochemical, steel and iron smelting, automobile, and two service sectors, including transportation and small business. While some labor strikes were politically oriented and organized in solidarity with the mass uprising, others were formed around economic subsistence demands. However, one should not undermine the importance of the political demands nor ignore the political orientation of the economic demands in these strikes. This is because the state’s economic policies have fueled the situation where workers are repeatedly faced with problems such as arrears, job insecurity of short-term contracts, low wages, forced overtime, and various forms of labor exploitation. As a result, even strikes limited to workers’ subsistence needs, in a broader sense, challenge a larger range of economic policies and related institutions. The importance of these labor strikes is that we can tie particular economic demands to the policies that lead to proletarianization, devaluing of the labor force, job insecurity, and labor exploitation. At the same time, we can take a stand against the re-establishment of similar economic structures and seek liberation from the existing tyranny not merely by overthrowing the political order but by avoiding the formation of similar social and economic forces.
To prevent the impact of strikes from being limited within their respective sector, it is important for other social strata, such as students, intellectuals, social activists, and others, to support the workers by emphasizing the political aspect of economic demands. They can encourage the strikes to go beyond subsistence demands and expose their relationship with the macroeconomic structures. By examining the experience of the teachers’ movement, one can understand how the protests, which were initially centered around wage increases and other workplace-related demands, continued to flourish into radical socio-political dimensions, such as free education, the right of ethnic minorities to education in their native language and elimination of ideological and religious education. To borrow the words of the teachers’ council, they have succeeded in moving “toward the society” because their demands represented the needs of the majority of society. In other words, to continue the current movement and realize the revolution in its fundamental meaning (i.e., the transformation of class relations), it is necessary to incorporate all movements’ demands, including those of youth, women, workers, and ethnic-national minorities. By illuminating the overlapping demands of different social strata, we could expand and deepen the movement. The “Woman, Life, Freedom” movement can move forward in connection with various aspects of social formation only if it succeeds in making individual emancipation dependent upon collective emancipation.
Since the privatization of the automotive industry has been a hot and challenging issue in recent years, in this article, among a series of articles that deal with the strikes of other sectors, we aim to focus only on the strikes of the automotive sector. Indeed, without prior theoretical positioning and only considering workers’ conditions in this sector, we aim to study whether those fully privatized sectors have succeeded in solving the issues and challenges that the workers are facing. Privatization of public industrial sectors has brought catastrophic results, such as layoffs, wage cuts, precarious working conditions, and the closure of companies. Yet still, many believe that there has been no ‘real’ privatization, and the reason behind this failure is that these industries are handed to government institutions or people affiliated with political power.
Given that most of the industries which have been handed over to the private sector are still dependent on government institutions or that the government is still involved in the policies and pricing of their products, we will examine the strike at the automotive parts manufacturer Crouse Manufacturing Company, which -since its foundation- has been fully run by a private sector, owned by Hamid-Reza Keshavarz Touchai (an Iranian-American citizen) and Mohammad Alipour Fetrati.
According to Iranian news sources, 62% of the shares of Bahman Automotive Group have been bought by Crouse. Moreover, the company indirectly bought a significant share of Iran Khodro, Bahman Group, and Saipa, through subsidiary companies, namely Iskra Autoelectric and Tadbir Sarmaye Arad, among others. In 2021, Rouhani’s administration awarded Crouse owners as the best entrepreneurs of the year. Less than a year later, the owners and some shareholders were accused of Corruption and bribery in an ongoing court battle.
According to Fars news agency, Crouse’s annual sales to carmakers Iran Khodro and Saipa exceed four thousand billion dollars. The corporation has over 12 thousand employees, with 70% of them being women. Now, the question is, what is the share of workers from one of the most profitable industries in the country? And what changes has the expansion of the corporation and its higher economic growth brought to the workers of this sector?
To protest against low wages and the cancellation of all overtime shifts on Fridays, Crouse employees organized a three-day strike in November 2022. After the employer ignored their demands, they organized another rally in December 2022 in the factory yard. According to the ‘Free Union of Iranian Workers,’ Crouse workers have been dissatisfied with poor living conditions for years. Low wages were also visible in their slogan: ‘The poverty line is 20 million Tomans, while the minimum wage is 6 million Tomans’. The company owner, Hamid-Reza Keshavarz, threatened to contact security police if they continued chanting slogans.
In an interview with the news website ‘Khabar Khodro,’ a member of the board of directors of Bahman Group (owned by Crouse since 2016) said: “In his theory, Adam Smith argues that there is no need for governments to intervene in economic activities because governmental investment in private corporations has by no means economic justification. They ought to simply maintain the national security, and if, in any case, they want to invest, it should be in the sectors which are needed for the good of the country”. If, according to the advocates of privatization, the government should not intervene in economic issues, why can an employer resort to the intervention of governmental repression forces to oppress workers’ peaceful rallies? Doesn’t ‘maintaining national security’ mean indeed ‘maintaining the security of capital and capitalists’?
Being a single woman and under the age of 32 are among the employment conditions of this company. They clearly need young and single labor forces considering that ten hours of work must be done in a standing position during the day and night shifts. In addition, using mobile phones during working hours is prohibited, even in emergencies. In most of the comments recorded on the websites explained above, one of the points reported by the interviewees was the interview question about anger management ability. The degree of employment hardship and the fatigue caused by it is so extreme that workers must first commit to controlling their anger under any circumstances. In addition to suffering mental injuries endured by the workers of this sector, severe physical injuries such as back and neck disc problems have been reported in the comments by workers with years of experience in this company. To better understand the working condition, let us review some of the comments raised by the workers:
“Technical questions were not asked at all. During the three interviews, the only things brought up were personal information, work history, and explaining how much work pressure I could handle. Controlling anger was important for them. The company’s working hours are 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. which at first they said only up to 5 p.m. is compulsory. But when I started the job, I realized you must stay until 7 p.m. In general, working here disrupt/ruin your life.”
“I worked for six years and got out because my neck was injured. According to [the ruling of] the Ministry of Labour, in addition to the bonus, which of course, is not much, I was on the afternoon shift. Crouse doesn’t care much about the opinion of its employees…”
“If you care about your mental and physical health at all, don’t come and work here.”
Among other strikes of the automotive sector workers in December last year, we can mention the strike of Bahman Motor Company and Bahman Diesel, both of which are subsidiary companies of “Bahman Group” holding. Apart from Bahman Motor and Bahman Diesel, Bahman Group comprises several other factories such as Iran Casting Industries, Siba Motor, Iran Docharkh, Iran Industries Design and Manufacturing Parts, and several other companies and factories that have a total of over 4,000 workers and personnel. The Bahman Group was handed over to the private sector in 2016. The Crouse Co is its main shareholder and owner. Bahman Group has been cited as one of the successful examples of the country’s private automobile manufacturers by many news agencies.
According to “Asr Khodro” news website, a member of Bahman Group’s board of directors stated: “Our company has high productivity; Based on the assessment of the Industrial Management Organization, among the top 500 companies in the country, Bahman Diesel has won the first rank in terms of productivity for three consecutive years and has had a grade growth of 20 to 30 ranks/positions every year. This company has always paid dividends to its shareholders. Last year, it had the largest supply at the height of the sanctions. It is the only profitable company in the field of commercial vehicles, and at the same time, it also pays the highest taxes to the government. As such, it is one of the beneficiaries of the state and the government.”
Despite the high productivity and profitability of the company for the capitalists and the government, the factory workers have not taken any share of the profit except for the mandatory overtime as they have continuously protested against their low wages.
The workers of the Bahman Motor factory protested in the middle of December 2019 for a wage increase, reduction of working hours, Thursday closure, and job classification scheme. However, their demands have not been addressed so far. A report of the 2019 strike of this factory’s workers has been published by “The Free Union of Iranian Workers” as follows:
“Last Thursday, when the workers stopped working, the chairman of the board of Bahman Motor Company threatened the workers by cutting merit pay to overawe them. The workers protested the threat, then a delegate of the company’s main stockholders pledged that all the workers’ demands would be fulfilled by the next week. The workers were asked to send their representatives to negotiate with the company. Following this, the workers ended the strike.”
On Monday, the workers discovered that 3 of their representatives who were supposed to start negotiations with the company had been fired. To protest the dismissal of their colleagues, workers went on strike again; after half an hour, another company’s delegate appeared among them, promising that their co-workers would not be fired and that they should return to work. The workers did so only after ensuring their colleagues would be reinstated.
Thursday was the end of the one-week deadline for the fulfillment of the demands of the workers. However, the employer created a threatening environment as well as gave a justification that it was the weekend, so the workers were not able to gather to strike.
Previously the working hours were 7 a.m. to 4:10 p.m. (from Saturdays to Wednesdays), and the factory was closed on Thursdays. Since the Covid-19 pandemic, the working hours from Saturdays to Wednesdays changed to end at 3:30 p.m., and Thursdays were added to the working days (from 07:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.). In other words, while working hours from Saturdays to Wednesdays decreased by 3 hours, on Thursdays, the workers should work 6.5 hours. When the workers protested these working hours, the company’s managers asserted that “2.5 hours on Thursdays were supposed to be overtime hours, but it didn’t happen by mistake”. That is how the overtime hours of workers were cleverly stolen.
One of the other main demands of the workers is related to the job classification scheme and calculation of hardship allowance. Before the company’s new owner took over in 2016, workers were eligible for hardship allowance, which meant that workers with 20 years of work could be retired, but since privatization, the act on hardship allowance has been removed, meaning that workers cannot retire before 30 years of labor, despite their job being officially categorized as damaging, hard work.
The demands of workers at Bahman Motor are in common with those of the majority of other workers in the subsets of the Bahman Group and the Crouse Co. factory. As said before, one of the most controversial issues in Iran’s economy over recent years has been the privatization of automakers Iran Khodro and Saipa Motor Corporation, although a significant part of these companies’ stocks had already been sold to Crouse Company’s real owners.
One important question is whether job security and contracts improve or worsen after the privatization of state industries. Considering what the advocates of privatization suggest, we can foresee some of the difficulties and problems that workers will face after such a process. Here are some of the critiques by the advocates of the privatization of the automakers:
Twenty-five thousand surplus workers are employed in these two car manufacturers, most hired through connections to authorities. Several reports show that 12 to 15 percent of the production costs of car manufacturers are related to human resources. This amount is three times the global average, or in Saipa and Iran Khodro companies, 9 to 10 cars are manufactured per employee every year. In contrast, this amount is 30 to 35 cars globally and 45 to 65 cars in East Asia. According to these criticisms, it can be predicted that the first change that will occur when the auto industry is handed over to the private sector is the dismissal of 25,000 ‘human resources’ and not the ones connected to the authorities and politicians. The second change is to increase workers’ productivity so that this industry can compete with other car manufacturers globally. According to these policymakers, workers should be at least 3 to 7 times more productive to compete with East Asian car manufacturers.
Investigating strikes in “real” private sector industrial units is important because it shows that despite more “productivity” and economic growth, not only has no improvement been achieved in the conditions and livelihood of workers, but they cannot compete in the market. They have to work overtime and on official holidays. More importantly, a monopoly has grown in the private sector, as evidenced by the influence of the Crouse company, its ownership of many subsidiaries, and stakes in other large industrial companies. In other words, the policies of the private and public sectors have been completely against the interests of workers, and economic growth has depended on the exploitation of workers’ labor and reductions in their wages.