More than 200 steelworkers staged a demonstration Tuesday in front of the Iranian parliament, protesting layoffs and unpaid salaries in an illustration of the daunting economic challenges facing President-elect Hassan Rouhani, the Los Angeles Times reports:
Protests by unionized workers are common in the Islamic Republic, but the latest action comes in a charged environment. Rouhani, who takes office next month, has elevated expectations with his vows to boost Iran’s ailing economy, battered by international sanctions tied to Iran’s controversial nuclear program. He has also called on the government to respect unions and not meddle in their affairs.
Iran’s unionized workforce is losing ground because salaries are not being adjusted for galloping inflation, Yousef Babadi Farhadi, a local reporter who covers the labor movement in Iran, told the Los Angeles Times. The nation’s economic slowdown has resulted in layoffs and delayed paychecks for some workers.
Labor activism has been largely absent from discussions about democratic change and the role of civil society in Iran, writes analyst Sina Moradi. But labor militancy played a key role in the pro-democracy revolts in Tunisia and Egypt, suggesting that Iran’s democrats must expand their social base into the organized working class.
During the last decade, Iran has witnessed a modest revival of labor activism. Not a week goes by without reports of demonstrations, strikes or other forms of protest against lay-offs, low or non-payment of wages, hazardous working conditions and so on. At the same time, labor activists are subjected to arrest and violence, while independent trade unions are banned. Thus, the issues of labor activism and democracy are tightly connected. This working paper aims to analyze the development of labor activism in Iran and its relationship with the wider struggles for democratic transformation.
Labor activism has been largely absent from discussions about democratic change and the role of civil society in Iran. However, two recent developments have catapulted this issue to the center stage. First, the question ‘where are the workers?’ was raised during the Green Movement protests between June 2009 and February 2010. It is now commonly acknowledged that the core of the Green Movement depended on the mobilization of the middle class.
Behind the pro-democracy activists’ sense of urgency lies a strategic logic: in order to overcome state repression, the Green Movement has to broaden its social base to include larger sections of the working class, and thus arm itself with a more powerful instrument than demonstrations.
The second recent development is the role that workers’ strikes played in the revolutions in Tunisia and to a lesser extent in Egypt.
‘The trade unions’ role is one of the most striking aspects of the December  protests’, wrote the Tunisia expert Christopher Alexander in Foreign Policy. On January 11, 2011, a general strike began and three days later, Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia. In Egypt, according to Anne Alexander, ‘the workers’ organizations which have grown up since February 2011, and which have their roots in the pre-revolutionary strike wave, have already shown a remarkable degree of common purpose in articulating a set of demands for social justice and the “cleansing” of the state apparatus.’
The most salient development that brought national and international attention to Iran’s labor movement was the formation of the Union of Workers of the Tehran and Suburbs Bus Company in 2004. The veteran labor activist and bus driver Mansour Ossanlou (right) was elected president of the union. The state reacted by arresting Ossanlou and fourteen other union members on December 22, provoking a demonstration of five thousand bus drivers. When the union announced a strike on January 28, 2006, the Pasdaran arrested dozens of bus drivers. This was the start of a heavy crack-down on the union and the imprisonment of several of its leaders, most notably Ossanlou.
The Green Movement and labor activism
Labor protests are part and parcel of the socio-political life in Iran. However, they have remained confined to local struggles and economic demands, without becoming nationally coordinated and connected to the societal struggles for democratization. The demand of independent trade unions, of course, demonstrates both the necessity and the transformative potential of this linkage. Free trade unions are indispensable for altering the balance between civil society and the state in the advantage of the former.
Until now, the Green Movement has provided the best opportunity to connect socio-economic demands with the political demands for democratization in the context of a concrete social movement. This potential however, has yet to crystallize through conscious efforts. Workers did not join the protest movement with strikes and the spirit of rebellion did not descend into the workplaces. Why not? This is the question that has puzzled many activist and observers.
There are two common answers. First, some point to the fact that while Iranian workers are confronted with economic problems, their situation is not as bad as their colleagues in, for instance, Egypt. Kevan Harris, for instance, has written: ‘Income inequality in Iran is far less pronounced than in major Latin American or African countries. There are paths for upward mobility via government jobs for a segment of the population, and Iran’s welfare system ensures that fewer citizens experience the sort of grinding poverty that is widespread in the slums of Cairo.’
The second line of reasoning is that leading figures of the Green Movement did not articulate a socio-economic programme that could mobilize workers in large numbers because of their adherence to free market politics.
There is, of course, some truth in both these claims. Poverty in Iran is not as severe as it is in other parts of the region, but inequality is in fact relatively high compared to other countries (Iran’s Gini coefficient hovers around 0.4) and economic dissatisfaction is increasing. It is also true that the leading segments of the Green Movement support the kind of free market politics that has harmed workers’ lives under Rafsanjani and Khatami. However, it is also true that leading figures in the Green Movement did bring forward demands for social justice. Mir-Hossein Mousavi, for instance, said: ‘The fate of the movement should be tied to the fate of all walks of life – in particular the two groups in charge of [the] economy and education, meaning workers and teachers.’
Over the past two decades the concept of class has been marginalized or dismissed by many pro-democracy activists who have turned to fashionable notions of civil society and related strategies like NGO activity and discourse formation. However, civil society is not socially homogeneous; it is a space of struggle, divided by class and other inequalities. Thus, social class still plays a crucial role in creating limits and possibilities for political conflict and mobilization.
On the other side of the spectrum, others have perceived social class as a factor that almost automatically leads to certain political dispositions and actions. This view is, for instance, prevalent among dogmatic currents of the radical left in Iran.
The challenge of brokerage
Labor protests are not a marginal phenomenon in Iran. There is a growing network of labor activists who put their lives on the line in order to fight for the collective interests of their colleagues in an economic and political context that is becoming harsher by the day. The enormous obstacles to establishing independent trade unions will not go away any time soon. Their creation has to be the result of enduring struggles, patient formation of networks, and the training of labor activists. International solidarity and pressure can help Iranian labor activists to achieve these goals.
There is, however, one crucial thing that can be done immediately, and that is the creation of strong links between pro-democracy activists and labor activists. This is what Charles Tilly called the mechanism of brokerage, i.e. the production of a new connection between previously unconnected sites, groups and individuals.
In Egypt and Tunisia, for instance, the involvement of workers through strikes was due to the hard work of a group of activists who had participated in the labor movement, but also in various pro-democracy movements and organizations like the Egyptian Kifaya years before the revolution. In Tunisia, grassroots activists of the official trade union and its middle cadre had maintained contacts with protests against privatization and for democratic rights. If in Iran the two sites of the workplaces and the pro-democracy movement become connected through individuals who consciously choose to do so, a powerful movement for change can be created when the opportunity arises next time.
This is an extract from a longer paper published by the Hivos Knowledge Program – Civil Society in West Asia.