By Peter Kohanloo and Sohrab Ahmari
August 09, 2011
Iranian workers were not at the forefront of the country’s recent pro-democracy uprising. With a few notable exceptions, that struggle was spearheaded by students, women, professionals, and other members of the urban middle class. Yet Iran has a rich history of labor activism. Labor played a decisive role in the 1979 revolution that overthrew the Shah and gave rise to today’s Islamist dictatorship. Despite a brutal government crackdown against independent trade unionists, workers continue to take industrial action to secure their basic rights. Moreover, the increasing domination of the Iranian economy by the regime’s repressive apparatus – most especially the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) – is transforming a hitherto economic confrontation into a fundamentally political one.
Westerners often view Iran’s pro-democracy movement as an “elite” phenomenon. That perception is correct – but only to the extent that Islamic Republic elites led the reformist “Green” movement that grabbed headlines during the disputed 2009 election. Iranian workers have not wholeheartedly embraced the Green agenda. That is largely due to the fact that the Greens have not, for the most part, addressed labor grievances in forceful and concrete terms.
Throughout the 20th century, however, the Iranian labor movement played decisive roles in the nation’s political development. In 1906, for example, leather workers organized Iran’s first industrial action in support of the constitutional revolution. And by staging mass protests that “shut down the flow of oil, electricity, and most government offices,” labor activists tipped the balance of social forces against the Shah during the 1979 revolution.
Under the Islamic regime, independent labor unions are banned. Two official bodies – the Islamic Labor Councils (ILCs) and the Assemblies of Workers’ Representatives (AWRs) – purport to represent the interests of Iranian workers. But as Amnesty International has reported, these organizations “are not fully representative because candidates standing for election to ILC boards are subject to discriminatory screening procedures” and “must demonstrate their Islamic belief and ‘practical allegiance’ to Islam and show that they are faithful to the ideological basis of the Islamic Republic.”
Even so, workers in various industrial sectors continue to form independent trade unions, often in the face of enormous personal risks. Most notable among these is the Union of the Tehran and Suburbs Bus Company. Since its founding in 2005, government security forces have subjected the union’s members to a sustained and brutal campaign of repression. Its president, Mansour Osanloo, for example, has spent much of the past six years in and out of jail for allegedly undermining “national security.” At one point, security agents sliced Osanloo’s tongue to silence him. In 2010, his pregnant daughter-in-law was abducted and severely beaten by regime forces in retribution against Osanloo’s activism; she suffered a miscarriage shortly thereafter.
Meanwhile, economic conditions in Iran have severely worsened over the past few months. The official unemployment rate currently stands at 11.5 percent, but the actual rate is likely to be much higher. The government has fallen far short of the one million jobs per year needed to meet annual demand in a country where 60 percent of the population is under the age of thirty. The implementation last December of President Ahmadinejad’s plan to cut longstanding subsidies on dozens of essential commodities has added to the pain. According to a report by Iranian economists cited by the Wall Street Journal, prices of basic foodstuffs have increased by as much as 137 percent, and many average families have found themselves unable to pay their utility bills. Moreover, since the cuts went into effect, “[i]nflation has shot up well above the 14 percent level cited by the Iranian government and IMF, while demand for Iranian-made goods is plummeting.”
The subsidy cuts have coincided with increased labor activity. In recent months, workers in the education, transportation, manufacturing, food production, and – most alarmingly for the regime – petrochemical industries have staged protests to demand unpaid wages and an end to layoffs in newly privatized companies. The government has counterpunched by proposing draconian new laws designed to curb workers’ rights and empower management. Under the new laws, “workers’ holidays have been reduced to 20 days; workers’ organizations are to have no say in lay-offs; leave of absence for bereavement are to be eliminated; and the forty percent advance for special work shifts and other hardships will be [withheld].”
These confrontations have unfolded against the backdrop of ever increasing domination of numerous sectors of the Iranian economy by the regime’s security apparatus, most notably the IRGC. “Taking advantage of their vast alumni network and influence, the Revolutionary Guard has arranged no-bid contracts to develop everything from the oil and pipeline projects abandoned by foreign corporations to automotive parts, farming, and telecommunications,” the intergovernmental Task Force on Financial Integrity and Economic Development reports. “Consequently, it’s estimated that the IRGC may control as much as 1/3 of the Iranian economy.” IRGC-linked firms, for example, have been tapped to develop Iran’s largest offshore gas field, South Pars. More recently, President Ahmadinejad appointed a senior IRGC commander, Rostam Ghasemi, to serve as Iran’s next oil minister.
This is a significant development for the future of Iran’s labor movement – and the quest for civil rights and popular dignity in the country. Workers may have reacted coolly to a Green leadership seen as offering “more of the same” and consistently failing to articulate its constituents’ far more radical demands. Yet, in the long term, the militarization of the Iranian economy means that labor is headed for a crash course with the country’s theocratic rulers. With the repressive apparatus at the nation’s economic helm, the struggle for economic security and basic rights will be transformed into a political struggle over the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic. Western governments concerned with the risks posed by a radical Islamist regime with ambitions of regional hegemony and driving toward nuclearization, then, would be wise to lend solidarity and support to Iran’s embattled workers.
Peter Kohanloo and Sohrab Ahmari are law students in Boston. Their writing has previously appeared in the Weekly Standard, among other publications.
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