Iran: Massive strike of more than 6000 petrochemical workers

Since Sunday, September 25th more than 6000 casual workers at the Bandar Imam petro-chemical complex – Iran’s 14th largest company, based on reported sales – in the south eastern part of Iran have been on strike. In solidarity with them, workers from at least four other petrochemical plants in the “Petrochemical Special Economic Zone” (PETZONE), housing some of the largest petrochemical complexes of Iran, have been involved in the conflict.

For more than ten days the workers have been demonstrating through the streets of the complex and rallied in its main square in front of the administration building. The slogans they have been shouting are: “We will not leave until we get results”, “benefits are our rights”, “Don’t be afraid, we are all here together”, “To take the right of a worker is to betray the country” and “For how long will discrimination of workers continue?”

Background to the conflict

The massive struggle is a continuation of a movement that escalated in the month of April, when more than 10,000 workers went on strike for more than 13 days demanding the end of casual labor in the complex. Back in April the management promised to address the demands of the workers, but claimed that a six month period was needed to make the necessary preparations. The end of that period was reached on September 24th and the workers had not yet heard anything from the management or the governor of the province, who had both promised to address the workers’ demands.

As a matter of fact the workers were specifically targeting the governor of Mahshahr, Manouchehr Hayati, in their slogans because in April he had made the following statement: “After the agreement that we – the management of the Bandar Imam complex, myself as the representative of Mahshahr, the managing director of Bandar Imam complex, the security council of Mahshahr and the representatives of the workers – have reached, I will personally assure its implementation. I promise all you workers, that if the government approvals have not been cleared by September 23rd, I will join you in your protest. And I am man enough to stand by my words…”

Of course, on September 23rd there is no need to explain that there were no signs of either the governor or his promises. Instead the management asked for another 15 days to address the issues. But the workers, both from their own experience and through the experience of all major strikes in Iran over the past 2-3 years, correctly do not trust the management. They understand that the management of the companies only uses these postponements to buy time in order to manoeuvre, regroup and undermine the struggle of the workers. They understand that they have no intention of meeting their demands. The workers on September 24th pledged to embark on an indefinite strike until their demands are fully met.

Halting production

The workers are aiming at bringing production to a complete halt and it seems that they may succeed, especially because a series of important maintenance and repair jobs is piling up and clogging production which has already been significantly reduced.

The company on the other hand has used a number of tactics to undermine the strike. Initially they completely ignored the strike, and forced the permanent workers to take on the tasks of the casual workers. But the permanent workers resisted and in one of the packing units (packing being one of the tasks of the casual works) the permanent workers even ended up breaking some of the machines and thus getting into conflict with the management of this unit.

The management also tried bringing in workers from the outside to do the packaging. But as soon as these workers heard about the strike they immediately changed back out of their work clothes and refused to do the work.

After this the management starting upping the stakes and on the 7th day of the struggle company security, in clear coordination with the state intelligence agency, arrested three of the main leaders of the strike. This act, however, seems to have further provoked the workers whose fury forced the security forces to let the arrested workers’ leaders go. The workers, despite the fierce opposition, have stood their ground and the strike entered its 11th day today.

Struggle reaches higher level

Through the struggle the workers have understood the tactical and strategic need for permanent organization and a strike fund. Thus, last week they announced the setting up of an official strike committee and a strike fund. The aim of the committee is to set up an independent trade-union.

The announcement reads:

“Greetings to the workers and the struggle for their demands.

“This is to announce the setting up of the strike committee of the workers of the Bandar Imam Petrochemical Complex in Mahshahr. Workers who have embarked on a large strike to achieve their rights, to abolish all subcontracted work, to achieve a direct [permanent] contracts and to achieve the [official] approval of the state in this regard. We have reached the conclusion that without organization and coordination we will not achieve anything. Even if our strike is successful and reach certain achievements, we will not be able to hold on to those achievements with organization and structures. Thus in the first instance we have appointed a committee and we expect help and support from all, whether inside the country or outside. We must also highlight that the first act of this committee was to set up a strike fund for the workers of Mahshahr. We would like to thank everyone for their help, but we also hope that their support is not limited to written statements – but that they will also assist us in action – for our final aim is the setting up of an independent union of all the workers of Mahshahr.

“In hope of success,

“Strike committee of the Mahshahr Petrochemical Complex”

The outcome of the strike is not clear yet, but many elements in the situation indicate that the workers are in a good position to win the struggle. First of all they are in position to bring the company to a halt, which would cause serious economic damage. Secondly, and more importantly, the struggle is in the petrochemical industry that in the last few years has become a strategically important sector for the Iranian regime. Due to the sanctions imposed on the regime it has been forced to refine its own petrol, although at a far higher price than in a normal refinery, in the petrochemical plants of the country. Thus the workers, if they manage to connect the struggle to the permanent workers of the factory and in the rest of the industry, have a good chance of putting enough pressure on the regime for it to have to give in to the demands of the workers.

Simmering discontent

The regime fears such a scenario since it would immensely raise the confidence of the working class as a whole and open the floodgates to working class action on a massive scale.

Discontent is simmering within Iranian society. Although the movement in 2009 was defeated, none of the contradictions have been solved. Unemployment has shot up and even according to official statistics, that are heavily doctored, underemployment [i.e. the unemployed and the non-working hours of part-time workers put together] stands at more than 34 percent. At the same time official inflation stands at 17.5 percent, whereas the minimum wage has only been raised by 9 percent. The fact is that the rate of inflation for products bought by the poorest layers is never announced because it is in reality far higher. The price of bread alone has more than quadrupled over the last year as the government has applied its cuts in subsidies on basic goods.

The whole situation is ripening to on an even higher level than was the case before the 2009 elections. Although the regime has managed to retain control of Tehran, which was the centre of activity in the 2009 movement, eruptions continue to take place in other parts of the country.

Minaa Saadadi in an interesting note on Shahrzaadnews.org explained on September 13:

“The ancient city of Uromieh in western Iran is in the vanguard of this new round of anti-government protests. The nearby Unesco-listed Uromieh Lake, the second largest salt lake in the world, is in danger of drying up completely, and tens of thousands of locals have taken to the streets, blaming the regime’s policies for the environmental disaster. The protests became more widespread and violent last week when the Majles (parliament) refused to pass an emergency bill to save the lake. The protestors then used the occasion of a football match between Tehran and Tabriz to storm the stadium, shouting anti-government slogans and clashing with security forces. Similar protests and confrontations with the police have been reported from the nearby cities of Khoi, Miandoab and Maraghe. Hundreds of people have been arrested so far.

“In Kurdish regions too, protesters have clashed with security forces during street demonstrations against the continuing bombardment of Kurdish villages by Iranian and Turkish forces.”

There has been a clear rise in strike activity. Hundreds of workers are reported to be going on strike every week to fight for permanent contracts, back wages and against the closure of factories.

IranLaborReport reports:

“On September 5, Zhaveh dam workers in Kurdistan went on strike in protest for non-payment of back wages going back some six months. The workers indicated that they would continue their strike until they receive due compensation.

“200 Pars Paper workers also gathered by Shoush provincial governor’s office protesting non-payment of wages. The factory once employed more than 3000 permanent and contracted workers. The work force has now shrunk to only 700.

“600 expelled contracting teachers staged a sit-in by the presidential human resources deputy offices protesting their expulsions. The teachers have between 1 to 10 years experience of teaching. Earlier in August, teachers protested for the third time across the Parliament building complaining of the way the hiring exams were organized. They were asking for more of the contracting teachers to be employed permanently by the Eduction Ministry.

“Thirty workers from Abhar Metal Works factory representing 230 workers gathered by Zanjan governor’s building. These workers were protesting non-payment of benefits for the past two years.

“Meibod Steel workers protested for three consecutive days by the governors’ mansion in the city (Meibod) demanding their back benefits following the closure of the plant ten months earlier. The workers represent 500 workers who have lost their jobs following the privatizations which comprise 46 percent of the factory. Meibod Steel starting operations in 2004 produced 300 thousand tons of gray cast iron for the domestic market and 72 thousand tons of steel which were exported to South Korea, Thailand, and China.

“A group of Iran Khodro Diesel workers staged a protest gathering recently by the Administrative Justice Court in the City of Tehran against a ruling which had effectively punished them for the wrong doings of the management. The ruling had followed law suits against Howo trailers which called for closing down the accounts and cutting the water and electricity supplies to the plant. The workers were protesting that these actions would result in loss of jobs as had already taken place with the bus production line at their plant.”

So far, these struggles have scattered and isolated, and mostly defensive and economic in character. Also they mostly do not draw in all the workers, but like in Mahshahr, the most downtrodden and oppressed elements like casual workers, maintenance workers, etc.

But it is clear that at a certain stage, as the workers become more and more conscious of their own role, these struggles will acquire a more general and political character. As we can see from the struggle in Mahshahr, even a relatively small strike quickly becomes political in character and is forced somehow face the government and the state.

In 2009, as was later confirmed by the successful Egyptian and Tunisian movements, the main weakness of the mass movement against the Iranian regime was the lack of the independent participation of the working class. But within the present developments lies the key to the revival of the revolutionary movement in Iran on a qualitatively higher level.