The Iranian class struggle: a ticking timebomb

Discontent continues to simmer across Iran. Since the beginning of December, there have been at least 240 strikes and protests. The protests are spreading to ever-wider layers of society, including students, bazaaris, retirees, the unemployed, and workers from every sector.

There are continued sporadic strikes and protests of 2,500 oil workers; the protests of nurses fighting on the frontline against COVID-19; the struggle of the Haft Tappeh workers against privatisation; and many strikes and protests over unpaid wages and social insurance across Iran. While this wave of protests and strikes grows, the economic situation is rapidly deteriorating. The Iranian class struggle is a ticking bomb waiting to explode.

Iran’s economy is completely paralysed by US-imposed sanctions, as well as the ongoing world economic crisis, worsened by decades of capitalist mismanagement. Since 2018, Iran's GDP has fallen by 12 percent and is expected to fall by an additional 5 percent in 2021. The regime has no option but to print money to keep Iranian capitalism afloat. Inflation is officially 30 percent but in reality is as high as 100 percent. Already, the programme of subsidies and bailouts to the capitalists is breaking down, with increasing layoffs and a growing number of bankruptcies.

This has created a waking nightmare for the masses. Officially, unemployment is estimated at 35 percent. The majority of workers are informally employed, living under constant fear of being laid off, leading to constant protests of unemployed and contract workers from Khorasan to Khuzistan, demanding full-time contracts. Social security - including pensions, unemployment benefits and subsidies - are becoming worthless in the face of inflation, and are eaten up by the corruption of the regime.

Throughout 2020, there were sporadic protests by pensioners, but since December, there have been over 10 national protests. On 10 January, demonstrations were organised in Tehran, Karaj, Mashhad, Ahvaz, Tabriz and many more cities. In Ahvaz, demonstrators held placards saying “pensioners are hungry”. In Tehran, Davood Razavi, chairman for the Syndicate of Workers of Tehran and Suburbs Bus Company, held a speech in which he said: “In the last 40 years, not only this parliament but all parliaments have done nothing for workers, pensioners and the poor and instead have constantly conspired against us”. These demonstrations demanded a living pension, repayment of state debts to the pension fund, and raised wider demands from the labour movement such a ban on privatisations and the introduction of a living wage.

Even when they find work, the masses can barely scrape by. According to the National Association of Retirees and Pensioners, the average income of a worker only accounts for 40 percent of household expenses. It is common for workers to go without wages for months at a time! Massive unemployment forces workers to remain under horrid contracts. In the most-impoverished areas there are even reports of workers buying bread on credit. A striking municipal worker from Omidieh explained:

“In 5-6 months I have only received one wage, my social insurance is unpaid. What have we done to deserve this suffering, to work and to be only able to buy a kilo of chicken and a small bag of rice? It is yalda soon (winter festival), I will have guests, but how can I feed them when I barely can feed my family? If my child becomes sick I cannot do anything. I am tired of this!”

This is the reality for millions of Iranians. The regime itself admits that 75 percent of the population should be considered poor and estimates from 35 to 50 percent of the population lives in absolute poverty. While the regime admits to the problem, it is completely impotent to solve it.

COVID-19: no end in sight

All this while the COVID-19 pandemic rages on. Iran has passed its third wave. In total, 1.31 million people have been infected and 56,621 have died. Though these are only the official figures, and the real number of deaths is possibly three to four times higher! While the tiered lockdown restrictions limited the spread of the virus, the healthcare system was still completely overwhelmed.

Underfunding, worsened by President Hassan Rouhani’s hospital privatisations, led to a chronic shortage of nurses, with the shortfall estimated at 250,000. The regime has placed the burden of shortages on the nurses themselves. A third are hired on 89-day contracts, in which they are paid no overtime, often paid nothing at all for months at a time, and lack protective equipment, leading to many deaths. A private sector part-time nurse in Isfahan explained:

“Our salaries are not even in accordance with the labour code. Last month, they paid us 1.7 million tomans (approx. £400 USD). There is no work anywhere else, forcing us into these contracts, working two or three jobs to be paid the same amount as a full-time contract. Even though we work more than them, we are paid a third less.”

Nurses protest Image fair useNurses are underpaid, overworked and lack PPE / Image: fair use

Since the beginning of the pandemic, many nurses have been doing nothing but working, and protesting to get their wages, protective equipment etc., in between their long shifts. In an attempt by the regime to buy off the workers, public sector nurses have been given a 50 percent pay increase, but the protests have continued. In the past two weeks alone, there have been over 20 protests in Tehran, Mashhad, Ahvaz, Shiraz, Tabriz and other cities.

Iran’s epidemiologists expect a fourth wave in February which would mean high pressure on the healthcare system, and also a return to stricter restrictions. The tiered restriction system slowed the spread of COVID-19 at great cost to the masses. During December’s strict two-week lockdown, workers were sent home with no or little pay. Baazaris and street peddlers forced to close down without government aid are joining the workers in poverty. In Tehran’s Grand Bazaar, a street peddler explained: “If I do not work for a few days or two weeks, I cannot support my family. While I am aware of the danger of COVID-19, I have no choice but to take to the streets and spread my goods for sale”. In Shiraz’s Vakil Bazaar, 70-80 percent of craftsmen closed their stores for good. The regime callously punished bazaaris for breaking the restrictions, in some cases destroying stalls and goods.

The struggle for workers’ control

The struggle of the Haft Tappeh sugar plantation workers, the most-radical strike, continues. A section of the regime is terrified by their radical demands, including nationalisation of the plant under worker’s control, the recognition of their trade union, the arrest of their current owner Omid Asadbeigi for corruption, the renewal of their insurances and the payment of unpaid wages. As a result, this section attempted to appease the workers by expropriating Asadbeigi through the national inspection agency. This has only led to infighting within the regime, with the government blocking the expropriation through the privatisation organisation.

In November, Asadbeigi (with support of part of the regime) attempted to intimidate the Haft Tappeh union: arresting and firing leading union members, and sending security forces to occupy the plantation. This completely backfired when the union’s appeal for solidarity overnight led 40 labour organisations coming out in support. The Haft Tappeh union said: “the private sector has turned Haft Tappeh and part of Khuzestan into a battlefield”, but this only strengthened the workers' resolve. Embarrassed by the clear conspiracy between part of the state and Asadbeigi against the workers of Haft Tappeh, the regime was forced to bring the case to a trial, starting on 23 December.

On the same day, Haft Tappeh published a letter addressed to the courts, reiterating their demands not only for nationalisation but also:

  1. Immediate payment of all unpaid wages and benefits.
  2. Return of all fired workers (including non-sugarcane workers) to work and payment of salaries and benefits for the period of their arrest or expulsion.
  3. Recognition of independent labour organisations and specifically the Haft Tappeh workers' union by the government.
  4. Recognising the right to protest, strike, rally, etc.
  5. Recognising the elected independent representatives of the workers in the field of monitoring health and safety conditions at work, preventing accidents, observing working hours, etc.
  6. Disposing of and removing responsibility from all previous management. Company managers must be approved by workers. To prevent all kinds of thefts and embezzlements, it is necessary that:
    • Workers supervise production, employment, machinery and raw materials, production warehouses and company-owned lands to prevent the sale of land by their elected representatives. Also that workers try to prevent layoffs and stabilise the finances of the Haft Tappeh Company, which have been undermined by corruption and embezzlement.
    • The workers' representatives have the right to review the documents related to the company's balance sheet, profits and losses, and cash flow accounts, or changes in the company's treasury.

The workers are also placing their demands in clear class terms, asking: “will you surrender to Rouhani, Jahangiri, Asadbeigi i.e. to capital? Will you consider the reality of the masses, of the thousand workers of Haft Tappeh?” This was followed by an open threat that “any delay in the termination of [Asadbeigi’s contract and the renationalisation of the company] will not be met with silence but will be recorded in history and met with serious protests by the workers of Haft Tappeh”.

Already, on 22 December, Haft Tappeh workers called a rally for the next day outside the Ministry of Justice in Tehran. The demonstration received enthusiastic support from students and trade unionists, including the demands for workers’ control. Unfortunately, the rally was hijacked by the Basij: paramilitaries linked to the principlist (conservative) faction of the Islamic Republic, who shouted over the radical slogans for “bread, freedom and councils [workers’ control]” with their own.

The Haft Tappeh union issued a statement saying: “Basij have been participants in all the actions of the regime against the working class”, and that the union’s struggle isn’t limited to nationalisation “[we] made other demands not only against the government but the whole of capitalism and all factions of the regime”. The Telegram channel of the independent Haft Tappeh workers explained more clearly that “we would add that in fact that both [factions of the Islamic Republic] are our class enemies linked to Iranian capitalism”. The “principlist” faction of the regime, linked to the religious establishment and state apparatus, attempts to present themselves as defenders of the public sector. In fact, this is for their own self-interest: they treat the public sector as their own private property, and subject it to rampant corruption and nepotism.

Whether private or public, it is the same rotten capitalist class in power. Their only interest is self-enrichment through theft and exploitation, at the expense of workers. The Haft Tappeh workers aren’t alone in fighting against privatisations and corruption. For example, 7,000 workers of Transverse (the largest railway construction and maintenance company in Iran) went on strike in November, leading to the renationalization of the company. Still, their workers in Tehran, Hormozgan, Lorestan and elsewhere haven’t been paid in some cases since September, with growing threats of a new strike. The Haft Tappeh workers’ demand for workers’ control outlines the way forwards for the struggle against privatisation and corruption.

No way out but revolution

The strikes and protests have been growing continuously, regardless of the empty promises of the regime. It's clear they cannot rule the country as before through appeals to Islam and national unity, nor through violence and empty promises. Every attempt to suppress this growing labour movement has backfired. The increasing pressure of the economic crisis and class struggle are leading to divisions and internal strife at the top.

On the economic front, the current government budget has been a complete disaster. Over a third of the budget’s funding has come from printing money, privatisations and loans from the national development fund. This has meant the Rouhani government attempted a tenfold increase in income from privatisations, which only but has widened the split between the Rouhani government and the principalists. Both factions have demagogically used the demands of the workers, corruption scandals and privatisations for their own benefit, leading to deadlock.

The working class can only depend on itself and its own organisations. Iran’s growing labour movement is seeing the emergence of a national movement. It is not enough to merely support the ongoing separate struggle of workers; it is necessary to wage a united struggle of the entire Iranian working class against the capitalists and the regime. The workers' organisations must build the foundation for such a struggle through a common programme of political and economic demands on the basis of “bread, freedom and councils”: the right to strike and protest, reversal of all austerity from past period, living wages and pensions that increase according to inflation, opening the books in all the banks and major companies, and laying the foundations for the imprisonment and expropriation of all those who have proven to be corrupt. Other demands should include the renationalisation of all privatised companies under workers’ control, and the introduction of such control throughout the state-owned economy. In face of the immediate tasks of the COVID-19 pandemic, the healthcare system should be fully nationalised and placed under workers’ control, along with any related industries.

The current situation is an uprising in the making, and such a programme would find a wide echo in Iranian society. A revolution is on the cards. All the movements of the past period have failed because they lacked the organised force of the working class. However, under the leadership of the working class and on the basis of a revolutionary programme, the struggles of the workers, the middle classes, students and farmers, could be linked with the aim of overthrowing the Islamic Republic. Such a movement, should it materialise, would swiftly break the back of the rotten regime and open a new era in the history of Iran.

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