Strike wave of oil and gas workers sweeps Iran

On 20 June, contracted oil and gas workers in Assaluyeh went on strike. Since then, more oil and gas workers across Iran have joined the strikes, with over a hundred strikes now ongoing and that number continuing to grow. The workers are demanding: 10 days off after 20 days of work (10-20 scheme), a minimum wage across the sector of 12 million tomans, and trade union rights. These demands have found widespread support in the entire hydrocarbon sector and in the working class at large. Inspired by the oil and gas workers, strikes are breaking out among railway construction workers, truck drivers and steelworkers. All the while, protests by pensioners, teachers, medical staff and farmers are ongoing.

Following the outbreak of the strike, the workers’ strike organising council explained: “Our strike is a warning strike and will last for a week. On June 29, we will join the ranks of our official colleagues [i.e. of the regime-led state unions] who have announced protests.” As of that day, a majority of the refineries and many oil fields in the province of Khuzestan had already joined the strike, expanding beyond casual workers. By 25 June, the strike had grown to 44 workplaces, and as of yesterday, 60 workplaces were on strike, involving workers from Tehran, Markazi, Khuzistan, Fars, Azerbaijan, Razavi Khorasan and other regions.

In the Ilam petroleum plant, a worker explained why he joined the strike: “Our situation is unbearable. How long must we go without pay? Why won’t they sign contracts with us like other officially employed workers? Some of us have more than eight years of experience, yet still, we only have part-time contracts.” The national strike has created a very militant mood. For example in Mahshahr a striking worker called for “this strikes must continue and become like the one during the last days of the shah”.

In their statement in support of the strike, the Ahvaz steelworkers called the national action: “a beacon for the future of the workers and the unemployed,” continuing, “[we ]ask our comrades [steel workers] to work for a united struggle, to join these strikes. Let us show that we do not want promises and that we want a better life today. An uncertain future will not do us any good. Our struggle today has a simple aim, and that is to change the state of our lives and our society”.

Iran workers striking Image fair useSince 20 June, a strike wave has rippled across Iran's oil fields and refineries, involving over 100 workplaces / Image: fair use

Under the pressure of the strike, the regime-led unions were forced to threaten to escalate their planned protests to pressure parliament into negotiations, threatening to now join the national strike if their demands aren’t met by 30 June. This strike and its demands are uniting the Iranian working class, with a flurry of statements in solidarity with the workers streaming in from the Haft Tappeh trade union, Ahvaz steel union, the Marivan and Sarvabad Construction union, various teachers’ organisations, pensioners’ organisations and more.

Many of these organisations have recently held their own strikes and protests. In their statement of support, a group of teachers explained how the working class is united by common interests: “The current situation faced by workers and all toilers is the same, the result of increased exploitation and privatisation policies in which contractors make the greatest profit and impose poverty and misery on the majority of society. These policies go beyond factory workers, with the discrimination and oppression in the educational, medical workforce and the service sector.”

For a militant strike leadership

The regime is exploiting the misery of the Iranian masses in order to force the majority of workers into insecure contracts, reducing some to the level of day labourers. This is especially true of the hydrocarbon sector, the most lucrative part of the Iranian economy, which has been placed over the years under economic free trade zones, in which the capitalists are free of any labour legislation. The hydrocarbon workers call these free trade zones legalised slavery and are demanding their abolition. 

The regime has always feared the oil and gas workers, and for good reason. They have always been among the most militant sections of the working class, and as such have been subject to strict controls in order to suppress trade union activities. Despite this, in August last year, a national oil-gas workers’ strike erupted spontaneously, and involved over 300 workplaces and thousands of workers. Unfortunately, the strike was sidelined by the bureaucracy of the state union in exchange for the empty promises of the regime. 

Since then, a growing minority within the state union has drawn the conclusion that their leadership is bankrupt, and have been campaigning for a national oil and gas strike since December. Nevertheless, there remains as yet still no national leadership of the movement, with most workers spontaneously joining the strike. In some instances, the spontaneity of the movement means that it is just a minority in the workplace striking, thus allowing the capitalists to single them out for layoffs and repression.

To avoid a repeat of the strikes in the autumn of 2020 – when the state bureaucracy hijacked and defused the strike – the strike organising council explained: “the only way forward is for the workers to make decisions for themselves through councils [strike committees],” stressing that, “we must prevent any kind of division and intrigue by doing our utmost to advance a united struggle.”

This is absolutely correct. The revolt of the Iranian working class is bursting out in numerous streams today. To become a force that can sweep away the regime, and the capitalist system upon which the regime rests, these streams must be united into a single roaring torrent. The striking oil-gas workers can become the unifying force around which the rest of the working class could coalesce. But to do so, the oil workers themselves must unite the workers of the entire sector under a common programme of demands, expanding this strike into a truly national strike. By forming strike committees, representing workers both in and out of the regime-led unions, and connecting these bodies up to the national level, a powerful rank-and-file organisation capable of bypassing the bureaucracy and formulating a common programme and joint action could be forged.