Iran: national teachers’ protests – Islamic republic is playing with fire

In the past month, there have been over 230 strikes and protests across Iran. Since their national three-day strike from 10–13 December, teachers’ protests, led by a Teachers’ Coordinating Council, have continued across Iran. Sporadic strikes continue among oil workers in Khuzestan, and on a nearly daily basis, there are reports of workers at major factories spontaneously launching indefinite strike action.

This is just a continuation of the massive wave of protests and strikes that has been underway since 2018. The Islamic Republic is faced with an unparalleled crisis. According to the regime's statistics, so far in the current Iranian solar year [which ends on 20 March], there have been 2,410 strikes and protests across the country. There is not a section of the working class that hasn't been on strike or protested. The regime is fully aware of the threat it is facing. Ahmad Tavakoli, former MP and current member of the expediency council, said: “We must not deceive ourselves. In the last 40 years, the people’s trust in our government has never been lower than it is now.”

The continued struggle of the Teacher’s Coordinating Council

The 11-12 December strike was led by the Teachers’ Coordinating Council, which is an independent organisation outside of the state-controlled unions, also known as the Islamic councils. The strike was the best-organised national strike since the outbreak of the latest wave of class struggle, which has reached every corner of the country! The regime responded by sending riot police and arresting over 250 people. In face of this repression, the workers extended the strike to another day, with even-larger rallies of tens of thousands of teachers across Iran. Up until this strike, the regime tolerated the existence of the coordinating council as an independent and non-state union. However, the national strike revealed how weak the regime’s state-controlled unions’ hold on the mass of teachers really is. In fact, due to the pressure from below, many local regime-led workers’ organisations joined the coordination council in calling for strikes and protests.

Aside from open repression, the regime tried to divide the teachers by giving some layers higher wages than other public sector workers. But these special wage increases would only be given to individual teachers on the basis of their “general, specialised and professional competencies”, which would be determined by their individual employer. This is far from the coordination council's demand for a living wage for all teachers, and nothing but empty words at best, and a demagogic attempt to divide the workers at worst.

Furthermore, it is far below what the teachers need to maintain a decent existence. One teacher explained that, even if this raise is implemented, it wouldn’t be enough:

“Right now I have a monthly salary of six million tomans with about five years of experience. If the ranking plan is implemented, my salary will be almost eight million tomans, which is still below the poverty line”. The Coordinating Council directly rejected the regime’s ranking plan, calling for continued protests for their demands, which are as follows:

  1. Scaling of teachers’ salaries to a minimum 80 percent of university faculty staff.
  2. Full implementation of pensions as according to the Civil Service Management Law from 1 October.
  3. The creation of job security and formal employment in the education system.
  4. The release of all imprisoned teachers and union activists, the closure of all cases and stopping of all interrogations.
  5. Returning all the looted funds from the state pension, for transparent economic investments.

Continued national protests have been met with a campaign of intimidation, arrests and a heavy police presence at rallies. Despite this, protests continued across Iran. On 19 December, teachers protested in over 60 cities, on 28 December in over 40 cities and most recently on 13 January in over 100 cities. These rallies are smaller than those taking place under the strike, but the Coordinating Council has continued to consolidate its support, openly calling for teachers to form organisations to associate with the Coordinating Council, and circulating demands and reports from various branches through the Telegram messaging app.

At the most recent protest on 13 January, despite being smaller than during the strike, the mood was very militant. In Shiraz, one speaker at the protest said:

“We have all come here today. This is our classroom. We raise our voices in protest today, so that the freedom-loving people of the world can know that we are living in bondage to the ignoble bastards of Iranian history. My voice is the voice of a nation. My voice is the voice of the oppressed people of Iran. My voice is the voice of justice and truth. The troubles of a teacher are the troubles of the whole of society. All our troubles come from poverty across the whole of Iranian society, poverty caused by the rulers, and the ignorant and treacherous politicians. We have come here because here is our true classroom. A teacher's job is to educate. We shall give a mighty, thorough lesson to the embezzlers, and we shall teach a grand lesson to the white-collared thieves [referring to the mullahs]. We shall teach a great lesson to the thieves, who hide behind their fake piety, their posts and clerical garb. You white-collared thieves! Is it the call to prayer that you are waiting for or the call to plunder? How are you enjoying your loot under the shadow of the pulpit? You pious thieves! You ignoble embezzlers! You shameless bastards of Iranian history! By god, you shall be overthrown soon! (...)”

Met with ruthless police repression, especially in Khuzestan, Bushehr, Mashhad and Shiraz, open clashes broke out between protesters and the police. The Coordinating Council made a statement denouncing the regime’s violence, and explaining: “[The] recent actions [of the government], including arrests, beatings, disrespect, and disregard for the legal and legitimate demands of teachers, reveal the hypocrisy and totalitarianism in the country”. The Shiraz teacher’s union, which is affiliated with the Coordinating Council, issued a statement, calling for new protests, showing repression from the regime is only emboldening the teacher further:

“We will definitely come to the streets again. This time, even if you have installed four 21mm anti-aircraft cannons on each side of the crossroad at the average street; even if you have sent in so many riot police they look like a swarm of locusts, we will come again. This time we will come in tens of hundreds, tens of thousands. I swear to God Almighty that we are no longer afraid of your threatening messages, nor of your rifle bullets, which you might use.”

Already, on 13 January, the Coordinating Council issued a final statement, saying: “ignoring the demands of retired and employed teachers and not complying with their demands will lead to the widening of protests. [The regime] will face a new and much wider wave of protests and indefinite strikes”.

A national, indefinite strike from teachers would be met with massive support amongst the population. In order to ensure success, it must aim at capitalising on this support, and appeal to other exploited layers of society to join the struggle, which in essence is the same struggle that all workers in Iran are facing.

For a national labour movement!

These methods of organised struggle show the way forward for the entire Iranian working class. They show the most advanced elements of a process that is taking place across the Iranian working class, the struggle that up until now has been largely spontaneous and without organisation.

The teachers’ movement developed out of a series of continuous, spontaneous protests and strikes since 2018. But on the basis of the experiences of this period, the teachers’ Coordinating Council has risen to unite these protests under its common programme, sidelining or winning over local regime-led teachers’ organisations. For the last 8 months, the Coordinating Council has become the dominant force in the teachers’ protests, organising nearly weekly national rallies.

The same process can be seen among petrochemical workers, with spontaneous strikes since 2018 developing into a spontaneous national strike in 2020. The suppression of this strike through deception and repression by the regime only led to continued spontaneous strikes and protests, out of which the oil worker’s organising committee came to be.

What we see here is that, under the impact of events and its experiences in the class struggle, the Iranian working class is reawakening and beginning to rediscover its traditions of struggle. The teachers and the oil workers are the most-advanced elements of this process. They are being observed, and their experiences noted by the masses throughout the country. The formation of national independent workers’ organisations is an enormous step forward, widening the struggle from a single workplace to an entire sector of the economy, thereby raising class consciousness. In the Telegram channels linked to these organisations, the workers circulate reports about work conditions, demands, strikes, protests from across the country, uniting workers on a national scale.

This is precisely the strength of the teachers’ Coordinating Council. For the workers to be successful, not only must these methods of organised struggle spread to every section of the working class, each section must in turn begin to connect for a united struggle of the whole working class.

Teachers, for instance, are not alone demanding living wage, funding, renationalisation into the public sector. There have also been continual protests from medical staff, university staff, telecommunication workers and many more. Already, in the course of their action, the various workers’ organisations are making statements of support for one anothers’ various struggles. Their problems share a common root: Iranian capitalism. What is needed, thus, is more than statements. What we need is a united struggle of the working class and the oppressed masses against the system as a whole.

The Islamic Republic: pouring gasoline into the fire

As noted, the regime is the fully aware depth of the crisis it is facing. It admits that already 72 percent of the population live in poverty, and that the real cost of living, at 12 million tomans, is far above the average wages, which hover in the 5-8 million toman range. Officially, food inflation is at 43.5 percent; but in reality, it is much higher. The Minister of Labour and Social Welfare placed it at 83 percent. The masses have already cut meat out of their diets, with the average Iranian consuming 6-7kg of meat in 2021 - a sixth of the 2017 figure. In the poorest regions, people are even buying bread on credit. The masses are not only facing poverty, but are on the brink of starvation.

Isolated by US-led sanctions, the most parasitic characteristics of Iranian capitalism have come to the fore. Given the high unemployment, the regime forces workers into barbaric conditions, in which two-thirds of the workforce are employed under temporary contracts, while wages and insurance are going unpaid months at a time. Pensions go either unpaid or underpaid. The social security fund, which pays for pensions, unemployment, disability benefits and healthcare insurance, is bankrupt in all but name, with the government owing over 400,000 billion tomans - equal to more than a third of the state budget. Unemployment is only worsening, as decades of capitalist mismanagement has led to the collapse of infrastructure, with worsening power cuts leading to worsening layoffs. Lack of investment in sustainability has also led to severe drought, exacerbated by climate change, forcing farmers into unemployment.

While the masses suffer, the wealth of the rich in the country has increased, with Iran ranked now 14th in the world in terms of the number of dollar millionaires. In order for the capitalists to continue to enrich themselves through the misery of the masses, and for the state to avoid economic collapse, they must force the masses into even worse conditions.

The recently approved state budget for the upcoming Iranian solar year was cut by one-fifth by the Raisi government. Subsidies on imported essential goods, including rice, meat, flour, tea dates, bread and milk, will essentially be removed. VAT will be introduced on these goods at 9 percent. This will only worsen the soaring inflation. Pensions are to be cut and the retirement age raised in order for the government to reduce debts. Tax revenue is to be raised by 63 percent, not by taxing the capitalists, but the masses! Even with these cuts and taxes, the deficit is expected to be massive, at 500,000 billion tomans, with continued privatisations and printing of money anticipated.

Already, since 2018, there have been three uprisings, and the regime is completely aware of the calamity it is threatening upon itself. Ali Babaei MP for Sari voted against the budget and explained: “This will incite protest”, but conceded that “the government can’t do anything”. Another Mp Ruhollah Izadkhah, referring to the elimination of subsidies, spoke of “events like in Kazakhstan”. The reality is that nobody in the Islamic Republic has anything to offer the masses, they are all more concerned with stuffing their own pockets.

The regime has prepared accordingly, strengthening the security forces and propaganda apparatus. Adjusted for inflation, the funding of the Iranian Revolutionary [read counter revolutionary] Guard Corp (IRGC) will increase by 240 percent. The civilian police is being reorganised to incorporate the IRGC and Basij (paramilitary force). The regime is also strengthening its propaganda apparatus. The regime’s broadcasting service, IRIB, has received 56 percent more funding and seminaries will receive a 133 percent increase.

This has only been met with disgust by the masses, with the anger in society simmering towards a boiling point. Already, 30 workers’ organisations have threatened “widening strikes and protests” in response to the budget. A commenter in the Teachers’ Coordinating Council Telegram channel highlighted the mood in society quite well: “You do not have money to equalise pensions? Do not have quarantine money? Do not have money to buy vaccines, do not have money to pay backed up salaries for medical staff and workers? Do not have money to complete stalled projects? Do not have money for urban and rural infrastructure? But you have 151 billion tomans, which means 450 million tomans a day, for Islamic propaganda!”

Revolutionary potential: workers of Iran, unite!

The class struggle will continue to weld together workplaces into a united front, with national strikes expected in the near future. Despite the strikes and protests continuing, the number of arrests decreased in 2021 compared to 2020. The regime is unable to suppress every strike and protest, fearing the backlash that would follow, and the risk of being overwhelmed. It is possible that, under the pressure of the national strikes, the regime could promise concessions. Such concessions represent an existential threat, both economically and politically, to the regime, as they will only encourage more strikes. Inevitably, out of the struggle, the Iranian labour movement will be forged into a powerful political force.

At the same time, discontent is already simmering across the country, now only sharped with the continued onslaught of the regime on the masses’ livelihoods. Aside from national strikes, the regime is building the basis for more uprisings in the near future. The three national uprisings since 2018 have all failed because of a lack of participation from the organised working class. The independent trade unions have limited their participation to statements, with content ranging from general support, to slogans and demands denouncing the violence of the regime. But due to their isolation, all the uprisings were completely overwhelmed by repression.

Despite the enormous step taken in building national organisations, such as the Teachers’ Coordinating council, the current situation demands a united struggle of the whole working class. It is only with the abolition of the Islamic Republic that the demands of the masses can be completely fulfilled. Already faced with the repression, the workers’ organisations are increasingly becoming political - this is only the beginning, and will continue. As the burgeoning workers’ organisations continue to develop, they must be prepared to intervene in future uprisings as an organised force. Had these organisations called for a general strike during the 2021 Khuzestan Uprising, the whole working class would have followed. It is ever more clear that the only reason the regime remains in power is the lack of revolutionary leadership.

For a political struggle! Down with the Islamic Republic!

This absence of a national labour movement was inevitable after 40 years of a brutal dictatorship, but the situation has never been more ripe to overthrow the Islamic Republic. The three uprisings, constant strikes and protests since 2018, and the boycott of the parliamentary and presidential elections are a testament to the revolutionary mood in society. The only thing lacking is a revolutionary leadership capable of melding together the separate protests and strikes into a unified mass movement. The continued class struggle will inevitably develop towards creating such a leadership; it is only a question of time.

The existing workers’ organisations have the opportunity to hasten the creation of such a leadership by campaigning for a united struggle, setting the ground for a future mass movement against the regime. The various workers’ organisations have already put forward essentially the same economic and political demands, which have already found an echo across society. Now, they need only to appeal to the wider working class and poor for a united struggle. This includes economic demands such: the reversal of all austerity measures; living wages and pensions that increase with inflation; an extensive programme of public works to repair and develop the country’s crumbling infrastructure; the renationalisation of all privatised companies under workers’ control; and the introduction of workers’ control throughout the state-owned economy.

They should also raise political demands, with a common call for the right to strike, protest and assembly; the right to form independent trade unions; and equal rights for ethnic, religious minorities and women. But it is also necessary to demand the abolition of the Islamic Republic, and the election of a constituent assembly. But the overthrow of the Islamic Republic would only be the first step in the struggle against Iranian capitalism - the first step towards fulfilling the demands of the masses for a decent and dignified existence.