We need a movement for genuine solidarity with the working class
When it comes to Iran, the world’s media has concentrated on the crippling sanctions imposed by the United States and its allies and then the long-drawn-out nuclear negotiations. Meanwhile, not a day has gone by when there has not been a strike, a protest, a sit-in by Iranian workers demanding their unpaid salaries, job security, the right to organise in independent workers’ organisations … These struggles were taking place before the nuclear deal and they have continued – indeed escalated – since, especially as government promises of economic recovery and full employment have not materialised.
Because of this the life of a number of jailed labour activists hangs in the balance. Obviously we must do what we can to draw attention to their plight. Those in danger include the spokesman of the Iranian Teachers’ Trade Association, Mahmoud Beheshti Langroudi, who was hospitalised on May 8 after falling seriously ill following a 17-day hunger strike; and political prisoner and labour activist Jafar Azimzadeh, who has also been on hunger strike in Tehran’s Evin prison for the last 26 days.
According to Owen Tudor of the TUC,
Throughout the diplomatic standoff, unions globally and here in the UK have continued to demand that, whatever else happens, Iran’s international obligations to respect workers’ rights – especially freedom of association and the right to strike – must be observed. We have opposed the threat of war, but at the same time drawn attention to the way the Iranian theocracy has acted just like any other bosses’ club, cracking down on trade unionism and preventing workers getting a fair day’s pay for their work.
Now that the sanctions are being lifted, the Iranian government’s excuses are less and less believable. Without an external threat, violent repression of internal protest is even less justifiable. And, with growing trade, the money should now be available to meet demands for back pay and higher wages. But we are concerned that, as Iran becomes ‘just another regime’, the attention we have been able to secure for the harassment and physical attacks on trade unionists will ebb away.1
In other words, international pressure was only imposed up until the nuclear deal was signed. Western governments’ ‘concern’ for the plight of Iranian workers and other oppressed sections was an integral part of a policy of exercising pressure to force the signing of the nuclear deal.
Of course, Iranian workers continue to face hardship and many obstacles inside the country. Repression continues, wages remain unpaid, factories are still closing. The complete removal of sanctions is proceeding slowly and at a time of economic uncertainty there is little enthusiasm for major investments in Iran. At the same time, since the conclusion of the nuclear agreement Iran’s president, Hassan Rowhani, and his foreign minister, Javad Zarif, have travelled to most of the key European capitals declaring that Iran is open for business and that its labour force – intimidated by years of recession, mass unemployment and repression – will accept low wages, poor conditions and superexploitation.
These overtures have also been backed up by practical examples of the regime’s style of ‘labour discipline’. Thus, we have seen the brutal attack by the paramilitary basij on a group of striking factory employees in Kalaleh, the continuing attacks on workers in Haft Tapeh and the crackdown on protests at the Ardakan Foulad steel plant.2 Here one should also mention the destructive role of the government-sponsored Islamic ‘workers’ councils, nowadays gaining more prominence because of their association with the ‘reformist’ factions of the regime and the Rowhani government. They continue to play an important roles in containing and controlling workers’ struggles.
Following the February 1979 uprising, when the Iranian working class played a crucial role in the overthrow of the shah’s dictatorship, the Islamic government did all it could to undermine workers’ organisations and since then it has been illegal to set up independent trade unions. The only ‘workers’ organisation’ that the government authorises is the Khaneh Kargar (Workers’ House). This is not a trade union in any recognisable sense. Rather it is a political organisation that was set up by a faction of the Islamic movement after the destruction of the workers’ shora (councils) after the 1979 revolution. It does not have representatives or shop stewards in workplaces, but communicates from its office with the Islamic workers’ councils. Although these councils vary considerably, in general their members are nominated locally by clerical associations rather than directly elected by the workers.
The labour code stipulates that “the workers … may establish Islamic councils and associations at the workplace” in industrial, agricultural and service organisations of more than 35 employees. They consist of representatives of the workers and one representative of the management. Once these bodies are set up, no other workers’ organisation can be established. Labour activists arrested by the government are accused of plotting against national security. They are political prisoners with no rights, facing incarceration for long periods.
In such circumstances the Iranian working class needs international solidarity, independent of the interests of world powers. Of course, we should not be surprised that yellow trade unions in the west, together with social-imperialist groups and their fellow travellers in what passes as ‘solidarity movements’ (the pro-Zionist wing of reformist trade unionists), have taken up the cause of Iranian workers, but what is regrettable is the way the supporters of Iranian workers abroad have collaborated, willingly, or unconsciously, with such efforts and the inevitable damage this has done to the working class movement inside the country.
The Iranian left in exile has many major shortcomings. There is a failure to report, explain and inform the international working class movement of the struggles inside Iran in any language but Persian. Long before the region became known as the home of failed states, civil wars and military interventions, the sheer number of workers’ strikes, factory sit-ins and demonstrations in Iran was impressive, even though most of the time we have to admit the demands were and still are defensive. However, what remains of the various organisations of the Iranian left in exile compete with each other in posting news bulletins and reports about workers’ actions (almost always in Persian). You get exactly the same news from each of the various mailing lists about a particular struggle or the latest arrest.
Of course, there are valid reasons for these shortcomings. Many, if not most, of the comrades, who are long-term refugees in western Europe, and some in North America, do not speak the language of the host country – mainly because illusions about their imminent return to Iran and their full-time political activism in exile (mainly consumed in endless debates about the past) have isolated them from the workers’ movement and the radical left in the host country.
When the exiled Iranian left does try to gain solidarity for imprisoned workers, it often goes about it in the wrong way. In its impatience for publicity and high-profile support, some exiled groups have now become accustomed to ditching principles, when it comes to accepting financial or political support from the most dubious sources. We saw this time and time again in relation to campaigns regarding women’s rights, gay rights and the infamous tribunal for the victims of the Islamic Republic’s mass execution of political prisoners in the 1980s. So it is not surprising that Iranian leftwing exiles have not done better, when it comes to campaigns in solidarity with the Iranian working class today. They have associated themselves with some of the most unsavoury international forces such as the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions.
Anyone who has followed the daily confrontations with the Iranian regime will have no doubt that, faced with the ravages of neoliberal capitalism, a factory worker who goes on strike or takes part in a sit-in or demonstration in Iran is not simply demanding trade union rights or even just fighting the theocracy. That worker is conscious that his/her struggle is against international capital and its institutions, such as the International Monetary Fund and World Bank – organisations that have dictated the neoliberal economic policies being imposed on Iran over the last two decades.3 He/she believes that, despite differences and inter-capitalist rivalries, the imperialist military presence in the region will in the long term support the interests of both international capital and ruthless local capitalists. Such a worker has no illusions about the US military presence or intervention by CIA-sponsored trade unions in the region.
Over the last decade both the Iranian economy and the labour movement have changed dramatically. Young workers have internet access and are often well informed on international issues. Today’s labour movement is not limiting itself to trade union struggles. Nor is it simply fighting ‘Islamic’ capitalists and their legislation. Its leaflets and declarations show it to be against imperialism and, of course, western military intervention.
What is more, to reduce the Iranian workers’ movement to minimalist economic struggles is to underestimate and ignore the historic role of our class in leading revolutionary battles. After all, this is the working class that played a crucial role in the overthrow of the shah’s regime – and, of course, it is also opposed to Israel’s aggression. The continued US financial and military support for Israel is correctly regarded as part and parcel of imperialist strategy in the Middle East, adversely affecting radical political struggles throughout the region. So supporters of the Iranian working class cannot and should not turn a blind eye to the actions of the Zionist state – indeed the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is not a separate issue.
That is why we need an international campaign in support of Iranian workers that includes anti-Zionist activists, Arab, Kurdish and Palestinian supporters – a campaign that steers clear of opportunist forces, who, on the one hand, claim ‘solidarity with Iranian workers’ and, on the other, declare themselves supporters or apologists of Zionism – as proclaimed by Eric Lee, the coordinator of the LabourStart website.4
Such individuals and the groups they are associated with have no legitimate place in the movement for solidarity with the Middle East’s revolutionary struggles. Iranian exiled groups who, out of expediency, accept their support should be thoroughly ashamed of themselves. Having received repeated warnings about these groups, ignorance is no longer an excuse.
In the next few months the campaign, ‘Support Iranian Workers’ (Karegaran), will concentrate on reporting workers’ struggles in Iran with a view to gaining a different kind of international solidarity: genuine, independent workers’ solidarity between Iranian, British and Middle Eastern socialists. Our new website will play a crucial role in reporting the struggles, ideas and debates of the Iranian working class.
2. Short film of workers’ protests in Ardakan Foulad: www.bbc.com/persian/interactivity/2016/05/160519_l93_ugc_steel_workers.
3. ‘Iran’s political and economic crises’ Critique (www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/03017605.2010.492694).