Iranian working class begins to move again

Almost one year since the most widespread mass protests in the history of the Islamic Republic of Iran, there is no sign that the mood of anger and resentment has gone away. While that movement died down due to repression and a lack of leadership or organisation, further protests – as well as strike after strike – have been taking place on a daily basis ever since.

Hundreds of strikes, by factory workers, truck drivers, teachers, and other groups have taken place in the past year in response to extremely low wages, lack of insurance and spiralling inflation.

Haft Tapeh

One of the most prominent strikes is at the Haft Tapeh Sugar Cane plantation: the largest sugarcane company in Iran, employing upwards of 4,000 people. For years, the workers at Haft Tapeh have been striking and protesting against the dire conditions they are faced with, such as wages going unpaid for months on end.

The present strike started around 2 November and has developed to a major focal point locally, drawing in the whole town of Shush in which the company is by far the largest employer. Thousands of people have been taking to the streets on a daily basis for more than a month, in spite of repression and threats from security forces. The female workers have also been very active since the strike has started. There are only around 50 female workers in this factory but they had a leading role in the strike, have made several powerful speeches and have been actively participating in the demonstrations:

Several of the leading members of the strike have been arrested, one of whom, Esmail Bakhshi, is reported to be in a critical condition due to torture at the hands of the regime. Nevertheless, the workers are determined to continue the struggle.

Over the last period, the workers’ activists at the plant, especially Esmail Bakhshi, played a significant role in mobilising the workers and putting forward the idea of resisting the privatisation of industries. Bakhshi’s radical speeches were widely spread amongst worker and student activists in the country. In these addresses he exposed the fraud that the owners of the company are involved in, using the Haft Tapeh name as a cover for dubious import-export operations, which have nothing to do with sugar production. He also exposed how hundreds of billions of Rials were syphoned off from the factory and from state coffers during the company’s shady privatisation process. He pointed out that claims by the authorities about the benefits of the privatisation, such as higher productivity, have no foundation in reality and went on to say that the only real way of raising productivity and getting rid of mismanagement would be the nationalisation of the company, and ensuring that the workers, organised in democratic councils, would run the company:

The workers were surrounded by security and riot police forces from the beginning. In one of his speeches Bakhshi defiantly told the workers: “Our protests have been spectacular so far, without any trouble for the city, because the whole city has been supporting us and they want to join our protest. Those riot police are here to make these angry people angrier. They want us to confront them, to give them an excuse for them claiming we are troublemakers and show that on their state TV. We will not be deceived by these tactics.”

On 18 November, in his last speech, Esmail said to the protestors:

“Those police forces are those have not taken our slogan seriously so repeat it louder: Neither threats, nor prison, are effective anymore.”

Video of Bakhshi's last speech:

Following this, Bakhshi and 18 other workers (later to be followed by Ali Nejati, a prominent Haft Tapeh unionist), together with a news reporter Sepideh Gholian, were arrested. Under the continuous pressure of the protesters, the state had to release most of the detained workers after a couple of days. It was reported that Esmail Bakhshi was tortured and transferred to hospital, he finally got released on 12 December. Sepideh Gholian and Ali Nejat are still imprisoned.

The Haft Tapeh company was state-owned until 2015, when it was handed over to two companies owned by two young men – Mehrdad Rostami and Omid Asadbeigi – both under 30 years of age, with no prior experience than their connections within the state apparatus. Following this, as is often the case in Iran, these two men began the work of plundering and all but dismantling the company. They transferred the contracts of 2,700 workers to a contractor company, and even rented out some of the lands, which repurposed the sugarcane fields for the production of other products. Along with many other instances of corruption and mismanagement, production at the company has slowed significantly, bringing it to the verge of bankruptcy. Meanwhile, the conditions of the workers have been in continuous decline, which has forced them to organise successive strikes.

In the last months, the protests of the workers have intensified, leading to the present strike, which has frozen production completely. While the workers’ initial demand was to receive their unpaid wages, it has now become the renationalisation of the company, to be run by a council of workers’ representatives.

The decline of Haft Tapeh clearly encapsulates all the problems caused by privatisation in Iran. According to Article 44 of Iran’s constitution, the supreme leader enforces the government transfer of 80 percent of its properties (including big industries like oil, gas, mining and the banks) to the private sector. Of course, this usually means those who have high-level political and financial positions, and/or are close to the supreme leader and revolutionary guards.

Iran used to be self-sufficient in sugar. But beginning in 2002, the sugar industry has been gradually privatised, going 26 percent private in 2003, and 100 percent by 2008. Meanwhile, sugar tariffs have been lowered from 100 percent in 2002, to 4 percent in 2008. The main benefactor of this trade is said to be the multi-millionaire, Grand Ayatollah Makarem Shirazi, also known as the Sultan of Sugar. Meanwhile, domestic sugar production was gradually dismantled and sold off for quick profits by the regime insiders.

In the present economic conditions, these instances of looting, corruption and mismanagement are acquiring a more prominent place in the consciousness of the millions who are living on the brink of destitution. Thus, the demand for nationalisation of privatised industries is becoming more widespread. The Haft Tapeh strike in particular is becoming a focal point of these struggles. After the arrest of a series of leading worker activists, workers throughout the country started sending solidarity messages and organising pickets for Haft Tapeh. A group of attorneys announced that they are ready to take the case of the arrested workers.

Furthermore, workers from Tehran, Ahvaz, Arak, Kermanshah, Asaluye, Kurdistan, teachers from Kermanshah and many more started sending solidarity messages to the workers of Haft Tappe. Students of Polytechnique University and the University of Tehran also held several demonstrations on campus, demanding the release of the detained workers. Some of the students of Tehran University even joined the workers in Shush to show their support:

Seeing the impact of the Haft Tapeh workers – and especially afraid that its call for nationalisation of industry under workers’ management might spread – the regime quickly released all but two of the arrested workers.

In the same province of Khuzestan, the Haft Tapeh workers have also been receiving strong solidarity from another group of workers on strike from the National Steel Industrial Group:

The four steel works of this company have recently been re-privatised. The steel workers, who are presently on their 32nd day of strike, have been on several militant strikes this year, one of which lasted 56 days during the spring. The steel workers initially started by demanding the payment of their insurance fees, new years’ bonuses and months of overdue wages. But, in the course of the struggle, workers have become radicalised and their struggles increasingly politicised, calling for the right to form a workers’ council, demanding the freeing of arrested worker activists, an end to privatisation and the return of their factory to public ownership.

Ahvaz workers protesting on Monday 11 December:

The final video depicts the Ahwaz steel workers’ 28th day of strike and protest. The workers' slogans are:

"Exploitation and slavery are the flag of the capitalist system!

"Down with the mafia!

"Students thank you for supporting us!

"Students, workers, unite!

"Free all jailed workers!

"Threats, imprisonment won't stop our protests!

"No to slavery, we will take back our rights!

"The workers would rather die than succumb to a life of indignity!

"Don't be frightened, we are all together!

“Free all Haft Tappeh prisoners!"

Teachers

The struggles of Haft Tapeh and Ahvaz steel are the most radical at the present moment, but a whole series of other struggles are developing, including those by teachers. This profession used to be a pillar of the Islamic regime after the ‘79 Revolution, but in the last period, like many other layers, they have drifted into opposition. In fact, teachers are the only group to have organised a real, national, semi-legal trade union organisation. This is on the basis of steadily declining conditions for teachers, most of whom live under the poverty line and are forced to work several jobs to survive.

Teachers' wages are between 4 million and 13 million rials per month, making the lowest pay grades no more worth than $100 at the unofficial exchange rate. According to The Conversation, in 2016, the average monthly wages of an Iranian teacher with 15 years’ experience was 2m tomans (US$473), far below the official poverty line of 2.7m tomans ($600) a month. In 2018, the average was raised to 2.5m tomans. But due to a drastic fall in the value of Iran’s currency, that is now worth around just US$227. Meanwhile, a huge scandal, where US$2.5 billion was embezzled from the Teachers’ Reserve Fund, has not led to anyone being officially charged by the authorities. In fact, one suspect was allowed to escape abroad, making off with more than $100 million of the teachers’ money. This fund was established by the government and has more than 800,000 members, each contributing 5 percent of their wages in return for a share of the interest. It is therefore no surprise that resentment is on the rise amongst the teachers.

Calling for a national two-day strike on 14-15 October, the Coordinating Council of Teachers Syndicates in Iran (CCTSI) said that:

“Out-of-control inflation and climbing prices have gripped the country, and the purchasing power of teachers, like that of many other hard-working classes, has fallen significantly. What’s more, the cost of education is on the rise, and the Iranian government and parliament have failed to answer to teachers’ faltering quality of life and the ailing education system. The time has come for us to protest this systemic disorder.”

The council said the two-day strike was being launched to protest “unfair wages,” “degradation of education quality,” “inflation,” and “the continuation of the arrest of teachers rights activists.”

One teacher on strike made a video, which went viral, in which he explained the reasons for the strike to his students:

In the video, he says:

“In protest over arrest of teachers’ trade union activists;

“In protest over commodification and privatisation of education;

“In protest over unsafe and overpopulated classrooms;

“In protest over the content of the coursebooks;

“In protest over discrimination in the education system;

“In protest over vast embezzlement and plunder of public assets.”

According to union reports, the first strike call was adhered to by more than 130 schools, in more than 66 cities and 23 provinces. The union escalated the struggle, calling for another round of strikes on 14-15 November. The second strike saw even higher participation, with action in more than 340 schools in 80 cities and 25 provinces:

Truckers

Another important strike movement has been led by truckers, who in May organised weeks-long, nationwide strikes against inflation and price manipulation. Thousands of truckers in more than 200 cities parked their vehicles, demanding the state intervene to curb runaway inflation in their running expenses, such as spare parts. According to law, spare part importers benefit from state-subsidised dollar prices, so as to keep costs down for domestic distribution and transport. But the manufacturers nevertheless sell the parts at three to five times above the officially guaranteed prices. Meanwhile, the state strictly regulates the truckers’ fares, meaning they cannot make ends meet. The state has increased fares by 20 percent this year, but with runaway inflation, the truckers are demanding a minimum of 40-50 percent.

On 22 September 2018, a new round of strikes started, which (according to The Free Truckers Union) spread to 31 provinces across the country. This time, the regime cracked down hard, and members of the judiciary threatened that those arrested could face the death penalty. After 19 days of strike action, the movement has temporarily died down with up to 300 truckers under arrest. But threats and persecution do not have an effect any longer, as the workers and poor have little left to lose.

Students

The movement of the working class is accompanied with heightened activity amongst students at universities. In the run up to Student Day (7 December), hundreds of students gathered throughout the country, calling for democratic rights, releasing political prisoners, making a particular point of showing solidarity with the Haft Tapeh and Ahvaz workers. Student Day is a commemoration of the killing of three students by the former Pahlavi regime in 1953. But while the regime organises official commemorations to prop up its own image, university students use the day to organise anti-regime protests. This year, the struggle of the Ahvaz and Haft Tapeh workers and general worker-student solidarity was at the centre of all student activities. The below videos are snippets of the protests, which were taking place at many universities nationwide. The below videos offer a glimpse of the mood at the universities during these days.

From the elite Amir Kabir University in Tehran, the slogan being chanted at the beginning of the video is: “Cannons, tanks, machine guns, no longer have any effect!”, as well as “Workers, students, unite, unite!”

From the elite Amir Kabir University in Tehran, the slogan being chanted at the beginning of the video is: “Cannons, tanks, machine guns, no longer have any effect!”, as well as “Workers, students, unite, unite!”

Babol University protest:

Various university protests from around Iran:

Tehran University protest on Student Day:

The mullah regime thought that it could weather the storm, using the Trump administration’s reimposition of crippling sanctions on the Iranian economy to divert the attention of the masses and rally them behind it against US imperialism. This has been a key strategy of the regime since its inception. But while the sanctions have certainly had an effect on certain layers, in particular the upper middle class, the vast majority of poor and working people are in a desperate situation. At the same time, the rampant corruption and greed at the top of the regime have alienated even the most loyal of its supporters. Many people ask themselves, “why are we the only ones are asked to sacrifice?”

Victims of Caspian Credit Institute, which went declared bankruptcy, swallowing up thousands of people’s savings. The women are chanting: “High prices, inflation, death to Rouhani!”

Although they largely ignore the brewing workers’ movement, the western-supported “opposition” media is trying to tap into the mood of resentment and demagogically use it to put pressure on the regime. But, as we can see from the demands that are maturing amongst the masses, they have not been very successful. While the masses resent the regime, they resent western imperialism even more. Particularly now, when US-imposed sanctions are tearing the economy apart.

As we wrote almost a year ago, the protest movement in January 2018 shook the mullah regime to its foundations. Behind the thousands of poor-middle-class and working-class youth who took the streets, stood the millions of poor, desperate and deprived working masses, burning with indignation against the corrupt status ruling class. Since then, nothing has been solved. Those people are now coming to the fore, led by the Iranian working class which is beginning, once more, to enter the arena of struggle. With it have also revived the radical traditions that brought the workers to the cusp of power in 1979. The regime is terrified of the prospect of a working-class uprising. It knows full well that, once the movement of the workers acquires a generalised character, there is nothing on the planet that will be able to stop it.