Massive strikes by organised labour helped bring down the Shah of Iran, but today the government effectively controls the unions and the strike weapon in the hands of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s opponents has failed.
This month’s anniversary of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, when opposition leaders called for street protests, was a flop in part because police and militias swamped the streets and crushed any attempt by the Green Movement - the protest campaign that grew out of last June’s contested re-election of Ahmadinejad - to gather. There was no call for a labour strike then but such calls have been made recently and have been dismal failures.
Opposition websites have started mentioning strikes as a tactic but the prospects of success are not great.
Most recently, the opposition had promoted calls for a strike on February 1, the anniversary of the day in 1979 when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini returned to Iran from exile, leading to the revolution. People went about their business as usual as they had on two other occasions since last year’s controversial election when the opposition tried to arrange strikes.
Key opposition figures such as Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi have never endorsed a strike as tactics for the Green Movement.
Nationwide workers’ strikes – notably hitting the oil industry – had greatly helped speed the fall of the Pahlavi dynasty, with rising inflation and the recession that had started two years earlier providing justification for the protests.
The current economic situation in Iran shares many similarities with that period and the benefit that Ahmadinejad had from the boom in oil prices in his first term after 2005 has faded.
Economic growth has fallen to 3.3 per cent in the six months to October 2009 from 6.9 per cent for the same period a year earlier, according to Hossein Ghazavi, a vice governor of the Central Bank of Iran, CBI. Unemployment has increased from 9.5 per cent in October 2008 to 11.3 per cent a year later, according to CBI quarterly reports.
While the CBI governor, Mahmoud Bahmani, pledged in his first few days in office in October 2008 to reduce the 25 per cent inflation rate at the time to single figures, more than a year later inflation was still 15 per cent. Experts estimate the current inflation rate to be at least 18.5 per cent.
So why can’t the opposition exploit dissent over the economic situation and persuade people to strike?
Many workers are deterred from trying to organise even small-scale walkouts by the violence of official crackdowns. The economy’s woes have led to some employees being paid late, layoffs and changes in working conditions, which resulted in sporadic protests in industrial and manufacturing units. Since last July, semi official news agencies have reported at least 35 incidents of workers going on strike, sometimes in state-owned factories. They were crushed.
In 2005, protests by members of the bus drivers’ union in Tehran and the government’s refusal to recognise the union, ended in the arrest of its members. The head of the union, Mansour Osanlou, is serving a five-year prison sentence after being found guilty of acting against national security.
The same thing happened in February 2009 when workers of the Haft Teppeh sugar cane factory went on strike because they had not been paid. The court sentenced five of their union leaders to prison for agitation.
Both these cases have been raised by international human rights campaigners like Amnesty International and union groupings.
Iran’s labour laws include no right to protest, to organise or to strike, so employers can easily dismiss employees who dare to voice objections and the government can try these workers for disrupting public order or acting against national security.
For the past 30 years, the government has viewed strikes as a threat to its security and not merely a union-related matter. The officials of the Islamic Republic who during the Shah’s rule organised strikes themselves are well aware of the power of such measures.
According to lawmaker and member of the parliamentary economic commission Yousef Najafi, over 90 per cent of the Iranian economy is government-owned, which means giving in to strikes is seen as weakness in the face of anti-government protests that are going on at the same time.
During the eight-year Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, workers’ protests were considered to be activity against the security of a country at war which had to keep its industries functioning at any cost. After the war, with subsidies reducing and inflation at nearly 50 per cent, workers began to get restive.
However, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who was elected president with the critical responsibility of post-war reconstruction, saw workers’ protests as an obstacle to the path of economic development. The present restrictive labour laws were passed less than a year after Rafsanjani took office.
After the 1979 revolution, different leftist groups had made efforts to gain control over the labour sector. However, the Islamic establishment, which saw communism as anathema and was also concerned about its leftist rivals gaining power, successfully managed to disband all workers’ unions.
In their place, the government, in a bid to channel and monitor all labour activities, established an organisation named House of Labour. Its members have influence over the Islamic Labour Councils which, with no opportunity to form independent workers’ unions, is practically the only association granted the right to such activity.
The House of Labour gradually increased its control over industry during the 1980s and 1990s and prevented the formation of real workers’ unions. In the absence of the latter, the possibility of organising and coordinating workers’ actions has been minimal.
When the reformist government of Mohammad Khatami came to power in 1997, relative freedoms were granted to workers. Under an agreement with the International Labour Organisation, Iranian labour laws were supposed to be amended to include the right to strike and to organise freely.
The reformists also managed to attract the leaders of the House of Labour. Khatami appointed one, Hossein Kamali, to be minister of labour. In 1998, the founders of the House of Labour also received permission to establish a party named the Islamic Labour Party to pursue their activities within a political framework.
Ahmadinejad has ignored all these agreements. His labour ministry removed workers’ representatives from the Islamic Labour Councils and appointed its own worker delegates to the tripartite talks between the government, employers and employees.
In this way, the Islamic Labour Councils, which provided a small window of hope to defend the rights of workers, became a puppet organisation with no authority.
The Ahmadinejad government, which was unhappy about the support given by members of the House of Labour and the Islamic Labour Party to the reformists, made every effort to minimise their effect by appointing its own supporters to these associations.
The government took direct control over the distribution of labour coupons, a way of giving financial support to workers. Handling them had been a source of income and authority for the House of Labour. In the summer of 2007, the government blocked the website of the news agency of the House of Labour, ILNA, and the judiciary suspended the agency for a year.
ILNA was the only news service that circulated news of workers’ protests. The agency had in 2006 reported the death of a number of workers in the police crackdown on workers protesting in Bandar Deylam.
In another blow to the labour movement, the merchants in the bazaars, whose financial support helped the spread of strikes before the 1979 revolution, have turned against it. As employers, the merchants have begun reducing salaries, increasing workers’ hours and imposing contracts that mean they can be fired at will.
Regardless of the pressure exerted by the Ahmadinejad government, the members of the House of Labour and the Islamic Labour Party continue to have a great deal of influence on workers across Iran. They both endorsed main opposition candidate Mousavi in the June 2009 presidential election and called for the mass participation of the Green Movement in the February 11 demonstrations.
However, the absence of an independent workers’ union and the lack of interaction between their different associations across the country has resulted in low levels of political consciousness.
That and the fact that so many of the weapons are in the hands of the authorities, means there is no prospect of either the opposition or organised labour initiating widespread workers’ strikes to back Mousavi or any other opposition figure.
Javad Akbari is the pseudonym of an Iranian journalist and labour expert based in Tehran. Niloo Sarvi is the pseudonym of an Iranian Journalist and economic expert based in Tehran.