Working class at forefront of wave of protests in Iran

Striking steel workers in Ahvaz province, Iran

The Iranian economy is in downfall, and Iranian working class is the main target of this slump. Prices of staples are increasing day by day. The regime has only delivered empty words, and its explanation of the situation is contradictory and deceiving. In the summer, the regime’s supreme leader Khamenei said that “not all our problems stem from the sanctions but from internal issues and the way of our management and policy-making”. Afterwards, Rouhani, the regime’s so-called president, referring to the US sanctions, said “the country is a state of war and the people must tolerate the problems” but later he, like Khamenei, confessed that not all problems could be attributed to sanctions.


The economic crisis put an end to years of political stagnation. Protests in December 2017 heralded the beginning of a new phase of class struggle. The subsequent nationwide crackdown on protesters and the arrest of more than 4,000 people could not return the genie to the bottle. After a few months, in August 2018, protests occurred in tens of Iranian cities and towns.

These protests, like the ones in 2017, had two characteristics: 1) it was fully independent from both factions of the regime fully mistrusted both, 2) the bulk of the protests were the poor, workers, women, especially in remote and small towns.

Countless small and big campaigns, pickets and demonstrations by workers, women, university students, environmentalists, shopkeepers, farmers, lorry drivers and depositors of bankrupt banks filled the gap between the peaks of the protests, and in every step, the people and workers have learnt a new lesson.

Industrial workers in the forefront of the battle

Currently, the pinnacle of the new wave of protests is the strike of workers at the Haft-Tappeh Agro-Industry Company. Haft-Tappeh is an area located in the north of oil-rich Khuzestan Province of Iran. The fertile land in the area and its proximity to the Karun, Iran’s largest river, was the reason for the establishment in the area for planting cane and producing sugar in 1961. According to the latest figures, the company cultivates cane in 100,000 hectares. It can produce 100,000 metric tonnes sugar a year but the actual production is about 50,000 metric tonnes. The government declared that the company was bankrupt in mid-2000s, decided to get rid of it by selling it off to the private sector and it was privatised in 2015. Privatisation saw the number of workers reduced from 7,000 to 4,000. At the same time, the Haft-Tappeh workers, especially those working in the plantation, suffer intolerable and tough conditions in the area’s extreme humidity and high temperatures.

In a report by the government, the company suffers from inadequate liquidity, uses obsolete technology and has high production expenses. Some resources also refer to lowering the tariff for importing sugar that was a blow to domestic sugar production.

Workers have been victims of the crisis in capitalism and corruption and mismanagement. Haft-Tappeh workers have frequently gone on strike over unpaid wages. The Haft-Tappeh workers’ strike in September ended after the bosses agreed to pay wages. However, the failure to pay the wages for four months caused infuriated workers to not only go on again strike from 4 November but extend their protests to the nearby town Shush.

On 16 November, Haft-Tappeh workers occupied the Friday prayer’s compound to voice their protest in the regime’s heart of power. They disrupted the state-organised religious ceremony by roaring angry slogans, in which they called the religious official an enemy of the people.

The day after, the workers, together with their wives and children, took the streets of Shush, and thousands of the town people joined their demonstration.

The rise of class consciousness

The Haft-Tappeh strike has shown the rise of class consciousness among workers in every step they have taken. Esmail Bakhshi, one of the Haft-Tappeh union’s leaders, said: “Workers no longer allow the private sector to control the company, and if the government wants to take over, all the company’s business it must be managed by the workers’ council and based on collective decision-making.”

Many videos and photos went viral on social media that each displays a dazzling scene of workers’ rising consciousness. In a video, workers chanted “bread, job, freedom, council management”. This slogan was not only a direct attack on the regime and its tyrannical and barbarous rule but on the pro-imperialist, pro-monarchy and right-wing opposition. Both the counter-revolutionary camps alike dread the slogan.

Women workers bravely appeared as speakers and invited workers from all over the country to support Haft-Tappeh strike.

Workers in other industrial centres like Arak and Ahvaz declared solidarity with Haft-Tappeh workers. Workers at the steel company, on the sixth day of their strike, held a rally in Ahvaz, the province’s capital, and enthusiastically expressed their solidarity with the workers in Haft-Tappeh. An amazing video showed a woman teacher attended the workers’ picket and said she came to the workers because no protest happened in her town and she decided to voice teachers’ demands in the rally of workers.

‘More communist than communists’

Haft-Tappeh’s enthusiastic strike thrilled sections of the population. University students in Tehran, Ahvaz, Babol and Bushehr, and teachers and lorry drivers in different towns, came out to show solidarity with them. The militancy of the workers and their demands, which go beyond mere payment of arears, has frightened bosses, officials and pro-capitalist ideologues and politicians.

Pouri-Hosseini, the head of Privatisation Organisation, pointed to the speech of Esmail Bakhshi, a leader of workers in their rally, and said: “I have heard what has been distributed on social media. Somebody has said that Haft-Tappeh factory should be returned to the government, and has added that the workers would not allow the government to take over the factory, and the workers themselves will administer it and the income would belong to workers. These statements are not made even in the most communist countries in the world!”

A steel worker in Ahvaz addressed a Labour Ministry official who wanted to calm the workers: “We protested for twenty eight days. We cried our rights but we were arrested. Our files are open in courts. Haft-Tappeh workers have been arrested too. Is this Labour Ministry the ministry of workers or capitalists?! You back capitalists and bourgeoisie not we workers.”

Eqtesadnameh, the organ of most vicious pro-capitalist economists, advised workers to think about their empty libraries rather than their empty fridges! This was reminiscent of Mary Antoinette reportedly advising people to eat cake instead of bread. It also warned workers not to let the radical left manipulate their protest. So workers have to resist the repression by the police, on the one hand, and repel poisonous ideological offensive of the right, on the other hand.

Regime’s iron hand

The regime sent the anti-riot police forces to Shush on 18 November to its flex muscles to the hungry workers.

However, fearing that using force might pour fuel onto the fire, the regime evacuated its forces from the town. However, the regime arrested about 19 workers, including Esmail Bakhshi, and a female journalist who was preparing a report on the protest. Later, the regime released 16 detainees but three workers, including Bakhshi, are still in prison.

Undoubtedly, the regime may use force and arrest more workers but it is certain that time will not go back. Hungry workers have nothing to lose but their chains.

In less than one year, Iranian working class has taken big leaps forward. Everyday we can see spontaneous struggles occur, here and there. These expanding struggles loosened the regime’s grip and created a space, though still shaky and narrow, for political activity among the working class.

A number of Iranian left parties in exile have started an attempt to organise united actions but this decision must be completed with developing a network of workers’ movement activists and leaders inside the country, and raising the flag of internationalism and lining up with the world’s working people’s struggles.

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November 2018