Iran: bread subsidy cuts, inflation and the converging class struggle

Since last week, spontaneous protests have been breaking out in Iran following cuts to subsidies on basic foodstuffs, combined with spiralling inflation. Prices for staples like cooking oil, chicken, milk and eggs have abruptly raised by as much as 300 percent. In past weeks, the price of a kilogram of flour has increased by 500 percent. Subsidy cuts have also caused a 169 percent surge in the price of pasta. This is creating a desperate situation for the masses, provoking a backlash that is combining with workers’ struggles, resulting in an explosive mix.

The protests first erupted in the cities of Khuzestan province, including Izeh, Shadegan, Hamidiyeh, Dezful, and Andimeshk, before spreading across the country. They have now reached the Chaharmahal-Bakhtiari and Lorestan provinces, and the city of Ardabil. These huge movements have developed into localised uprisings, with protests now affecting over 100 cities.

Crowds, mainly young, took to the streets despite fierce repression. In some areas they attacked the buildings of the Ministry of Propaganda and Islamic seminaries. Protesters were met with violent crackdowns by the regime, leading to multiple deaths.

Fearful of the protests spreading further, internet coverage has been sporadically shut down by the state. In Khuzestan, an unofficial state of martial law has been declared, with security forces patrolling streets continuously.

This has only radicalised the protesters further, with anti-regime slogans predominating, including: “death to Khamenei, death to Raisi”, “death to the dictator”, and “death on the principle of Velayat-e-Faqih [Islamic Republic]”. The funerals of those killed in the crackdowns have in turn turned into huge demonstrations, which the security forces have also attacked. These dramatic events could rapidly develop into an uprising – the fourth since 2018.

Meanwhile, and extremely significantly, these uprisings in the provinces are coinciding with a new wave of very militant strikes. The Teachers’ Coordinating Committee is engaged in a radical strike campaign, and is calling for national protests to free their imprisoned trade union leaders and to achieve their demands. In Tehran, where until now the movement has not reached the proportions seen in the provinces, bus workers have launched a significant round of strikes demanding higher pay after being offered a paltry, below-inflation 10 percent increase.

Retirees have also been engaged in a long-running campaign against the degradation of pensions, and a national movement of contracted oil workers – who work under extremely harsh conditions and poor pay – has raised calls for a new campaign of protests, as of late April.

We publish below the excellent statement of the movement of oil workers, who are correctly calling for the exploited and oppressed masses of Iran to link up their struggles.

It is clear that the lull in the class struggle since March, following increased government suppression and COVID-19 restrictions, is coming to an end.

Statement of Contracted oil workers

The tsunami of devastating inflation inflicts common pain on all of us workers, teachers, retirees and the whole of the popular masses.

Wages several times below the poverty line have ruined the lives of many workers.

In such a situation, we see that our colleagues on both temporary contract and fixed contract in the oil industry and in government agencies, which should be subject to the labour law, have not been included in the 57 percent wage increase – which is already many times below the poverty line – approved by the Supreme Labour Council. It is said that their wages will increase by only 10 percent.

These problems also affect the retirees. The implementation of the equalisation and adjustment plan for pensions has faced a thousand setbacks, and people who have worked for years and should live in comfort are now worried about getting their piece of bread.

Teachers are struggling with the same problems. The implementation of the tiered waging plan has become part of a plan to ensnare and harass the teachers, who have undergone a whole series of attacks.

We are all protesting against wages that are below the poverty line, especially now that prices have multiplied, and the mere procurement of bread has become a problem for the workers and poor.

The deprivation of the most basic social needs, such as free healthcare and education, and necessary means to attain housing, has also made the situation extremely critical.

It is in this situation that the people from city to city have taken to the streets, crying out against the high prices and the tsunami of inflation.

This is the cry of all of us, the people, against the mafia that constitutes the ruling system.

The protests of the people on the streets, the protests of teachers and retirees, and various protesting sections of society is also our protest, that of fully employed and casualised oil workers.

Therefore we strongly support and back these protests, and in unison with the protesting people and with the cry that: “livelihood and dignity are our natural rights”, and in that spirit we pursue our demands.

Thus, as we have already stated, the demands of the teachers are the demands of all of us workers, and all of the people. We strongly support their protests, and we strongly protest the escalation of security pressures on our dear teachers, as well as their arrest and detention. We are very worried about the situation of our dear teacher Ismail Abdi.

Abdi, all imprisoned teachers and workers, and all political prisoners must be released immediately, without any delay and without any conditions.

As an urgent demand, we reiterate that our wages should be increased without any excuses, in accordance with the figures we have requested, and that the wages of no worker or individual should be less than 16 million toman. 20 working days and 10 days rest are our inalienable rights.

We are not slaves: we must break the grip of the contractor companies over us, and from the dining cloth of the oil workers. The slavery laws of the special economic zones and free trade zones must also be abolished.

We, the oil contract workers, together with the people who are protesting against the price hikes, are demanding that the government pay. It is impossible to tolerate this situation and there is no other path before us workers and people of Iran but to protest and to struggle.

This barbarism and slavery must end.

Right now, immediately, the basic goods that we use must be subsidised so that we can survive.

Health insurance, free education and housing are the rights of all of us people and must be implemented immediately.

At the same time, we cannot tolerate this repression, and the [intervention of security forces against] our struggle must come to an end.

The right to organise, protest and assemble are our basic rights.

Finally, we call on all the workers, teachers and various parts of our class, as well as the people who have reached the limits of poverty and hunger: let us come together on the common basis of these demands and mutual support of one another’s struggles.

Let us assure the dear retirees that we are with them on their Sunday protests, and let us all announce in unison:

Only on the streets can we claim our rights!

Livelihood and dignity are our inalienable rights!

Establish councils for the organisation of casualised oil sector workers’ protests!

Iranian capitalism: a waking nightmare

The overwhelming majority of Iranians live in poverty, even according to the regime. Inflation is over 100 percent, while the minimum wage has only increased by 10 percent. Isolated from the world market by US-led sanctions on the Islamic Republic, the Iranian capitalists are enriching themselves through the most brutal exploitation of the Iranian working class. The massive social crisis in the country has only been sharpened by the pandemic, with the most recent shutdown occurring at the beginning of this year.

The Islamic Republic is completely incapable of offering a solution. Faced with near constant strikes and protests, and three uprisings since 2018, they are terrified of the growing militancy of the working class. So far subsidies on basic goods have been one of the few levers they could use to stabilise the situation. But the country is bankrupt in all but name. These attempts to stave off unrest have been financed through the massive printing of money and the draining of the country’s foreign currency reserves, which have only worsened the economic crisis.

Subsidies and price controls have become increasingly ineffective in the face of rising inflation. In 2018, the previous president, Rouhani, introduced “currency with preferential rate” – a state subsidy on foreign currency for the import of necessities (a shrinking list of 25 commodities including wheat, red meat, chicken, oil and rice). But this only subsidised the speculation of the parasitic capitalist class, who pocketed the cheap dollars or used it to speculate on the open market. All the while, the workers were forced to queue for subsidised essential goods, often returning home empty handed.

Fully aware that this situation is completely unsustainable, with Iran’s foreign currency reserves hitting an all-time low, worsened by the global rise in prices being sharpened by the war in Ukraine, the current Raisi government is trying to replace subsidised goods with cash payments to only the absolute poorest families - although even here millions of the poorest are being left out. This would mean putting the full weight of inflation on the shoulders of the working class and poor, who never really benefited from the “preferential rates” in the first place. The economic crisis of the global capitalist system is multiplied in Iran by its backward economy, inefficient and eroding industries, corruption, and its isolated and starved market.

The workers united, can never be defeated!

The uprising of Dey 1396 (December 2017-January 2018) was a turning point, an unprecedented movement involving the most downtrodden layers of society, in which the enraged youth, robbed of a future, were at the front line. Since then, an unparalleled period of class struggle has begun. There has not been a single section of the working class that has not been actively involved in strikes and protests.

Last year alone, the regime faced a national oil-gas workers’ strike, a national teachers’ movement with more-than-monthly national protests, farmers' protests in Khuzestan leading to a localised uprising, and farmer protests in Isfahan that were quickly repressed amidst fears of another uprising.

fuel protests Image Alireza Vahabzadeh Wikimedia CommonsThe Islamic Republic is completely incapable of offering a solution – faced with near constant strikes and protests, and three uprisings since 2018, they are terrified of the growing militancy of the working class / Image: Alireza Vahabzadeh, Wikimedia Commons

The Teachers’ Coordinating Committee, the largest independent trade union, led the teachers’ movement. This found a massive echo across Iranian society, with support from various other independent trade unions that have developed in the last period. By February, the teachers, encouraged by the massive support, called for national strikes with the threat of an indefinite strike if their demands weren’t met.

The regime saw this as a threat, especially the prospect of a general workers’ movement breaking out, and decided to arrest the teachers’ local and national leaderships, with hundreds being detained. But despite the suppression and lies of the regime, the class struggle continues. The Teachers’ Coordinating Committee has organised a campaign of national protests since 20 April. Oil workers have organised sporadic protests led by the Oil Protest Committee, rejecting the empty promises of the regime. Events proved again and again to the Iranian working class that there is no other way forward but to struggle for their interests.

By May Day, the class struggle was building up towards a social explosion. A letter by Habib Afkari, brother of Navid, the 26-year-old wrestler who was arrested in the 2018 movement and executed in 2020, written on the verge of May Day, was circulated widely by independent trade unionists and the youth, and expressed the mood in society:

“Greetings to all the teachers and workers of our country and their families. My hope is that in this crucial and historical moment you, with your protests, have brought the light of hope and the search for justice back to the streets, we learn the lessons of enlightenment and resistance from you, as we always have, and stand by your side.

“Now that we are on the verge of workers’ and teachers’ day, while congratulating the teachers and workers of Iran, first I want to say to the teachers that we are your pupils. We always consider ourselves as standing beside you and in order for you to reach your economic and political demands, we are fighting hand in hand for a better future.

“Also to my worker brothers and sisters: while celebrating International Workers’ Day, you should know that the Afkari brothers are standing by you, shoulder to shoulder.

“I, Habib Afkari, as a humble member of the working class, have lived all the difficulties you are forced to experience.

“Issuing warrents and arrests, torture, imprisonment, and threats – I have witnessed them many times, not only did they not quiet the teachers and workers movement but made their voices louder, to be heard clearer than ever by all of the masses.”

On May Day, the Teachers’ Coordinating Committee planned a national protest in all major cities. The regime, fully aware of the potential power of an independent workers’ movement, responded by arresting the youth and trade unionists, including thirty teachers. On the day however, despite arrests and unofficial martial law being declared, there were over 70 protests across Iran. The Teachers’ Coordinating Committee isn’t backing down, and has been making continuous calls for protests. Meanwhile oil-gas workers have been organising growing protests in recent weeks that have the potential to rapidly grow into a new strike wave.

Reformists or Principlists, it never ends

The Islamic Republic sees no way out of its crisis. Since 2018, the regime has depended more and more on open suppression in order to survive. The previous “moderate” Rouhani government – fearful of revolution, especially following the second uprising of Aban 1398 (November 2019) – softened its austerity measures.

The Principlists, the ultra-conservative faction of the Islamic Republic, demagogically exploited the discontent in the 2021 presidential elections, presenting themselves as “pro-worker” and “anti-privatisation”. Regardless of this deception, in the elections it is estimated that just one third of the population voted, with the Principlist Ebrahim Raisi being elected as President by only 23 percent of the population.

Ebrahim Raisi Image Mahmoud Hosseini Wikimedia CommonsRaisi, who supposedly “knows the real taste of poverty” is now tasked to continue the attacks on the shrinking pockets of the masses / Image: Mahmoud Hosseini, Wikimedia Commons

Raisi, who supposedly “knows the real taste of poverty” is now tasked to continue the attacks on the shrinking pockets of the masses. Events will and have dispelled any illusion in the current government, which is pursuing the same capitalist policies as the previous one. The regime has armed the state to face the rising class struggle, and has unleashed intensifying suppression.

Neither the Moderates/Reformists nor the Principalists have anything to offer the masses. This has been clear to the majority of the Iranian working class and poor for some time. The regime cannot demagogically appeal to them any longer. They are fully aware of this and are prepared to directly confront the working class, increasing the budget for the Iranian Revolutionary [read: Counter-Revolutionary] Guard Corps, and reorganising the police to include paramilitaries, in addition to putting them under the command of the intelligence department.

Down with the Islamic Republic

While the Iranian working class has taken enormous steps forward in building national, independent workers’ organisations; the horror of Iranian capitalism, the dead end of the regime, and the constant strikes and protests demand nothing less than the overthrow of the Islamic Republic!

The independent trade unions must be prepared – in the event of a new uprising breaking out, which is only a matter of time – to play a leading role, and to campaign for a general strike. The ongoing protests against inflation can develop rapidly into a national uprising. But all previous uprisings have failed precisely on account of the lack of the organised force of the working class.

Once such a movement develops, it will be capable of bringing an end to the hated Islamic Republic. There would not be a force in society capable of resisting the united force of the working class and poor.

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