Iran: Oil and gas workers strikes greets new president

Almost immediately after last month’s Iranian presidential election, a national strike began in the country’s strategically important oil, gas and petrochemical sector and is still continuing. Organised from below through unofficial bodies, this strike has attracted wide support. This is because of its specific demands but also over the wider issue of the right to organise freely.

The strike started on June 19 and initially involved contract and casual workers before spreading to workers with permanent positions. About 60,000 workers are now on strike. The struggle is taking place using the name “Campaign 1400” – referring to the current year in the Iranian calendar. It rapidly received many messages of support – from the Haft Tappeh sugarcane workers, the Tehran bus workers, Ahvaz steel workers, drivers’ unions, teachers, pensioners’ organisations and others.

Election showed regime’s narrow base

This strike came hot on the heels of the victory of the regime backed conservative Principalists’ candidate, Raisi, in the presidential election. However, despite this outcome, the election actually showed the currently weak base of the Iranian regime. Raisi did not get anything like majority support, winning just under 18 million votes from a 59.3 million strong electorate. Despite Iran’s ‘Supreme Leader’ Khamenei pleading for a high election turnout, officially just 48.8% voted, a record low in presidential elections in the Islamic Republic. Of the nearly 29 million who voted, around 4.16 million cast blank votes or spoiled their ballots – something Khamenei had specifically denounced as religiously forbidden. No-one could say Raisi received a popular endorsement.

In the campaign, Raisi had to hide his past murderous involvement in large-scale executions. Outgoing president Rouhani actually said Raisi’s record contained “nothing but executions and jail sentences”. But, aware of the scale of opposition to the conservatives, Raisi campaigned as an anti-corruption candidate and someone from a poor background. He also occasionally criticised Rouhani for not doing more to defend women’s rights, but all these words did not broaden his appeal.

His pre-election words does not mean that Raisi and his team will refuse to employ repression in the future. They still control the security apparatus. However, they do face the dilemma that, while they may want to suppress struggles, they also are fearful of provoking wider opposition. As a relative of the ‘Supreme Leader’ told the Financial Times: “People are angry and hurt. You cannot have (put) a spark in a barrel of explosives.” (June 30, 2021)

Offensive

Against a background of deepening economic and social crises and a regime with limited support in the population, workers have clearly sensed that this is the time for a renewed offensive. They may also be influenced by the fact that, formally, Raisi does not take office until early August. The outgoing president, Rouhani, promised the workers that “their problems would be solved”. However, so far this has not materialised.

Since 2017, as a growing independent workers’ movement has emerged in Iran, there have been repeated conflicts. There have included struggles in the workplaces and, in 2019, spontaneous protests on streets throughout the country against an increase in fuel prices. In recent days there have been public protests in the capital Tehran and elsewhere against unannounced electricity blackouts. Video footage has shown some protesters shouting “Death to the dictator” and “Death to Khamenei”.

A year ago, widespread strikes developed. Initially they centred on demands for the payment of wages and of social benefits. At their height last August, workers at over 40 companies in different sectors were involved in struggles, possibly the largest wave of strike action seen since the Islamic Republic was consolidated after the revolutionary movement of 1978/9.

A statement signed then by 50 trade unions, student organisations and others in Iran indicates the scale of support for this movement. As well as listing the workers’ immediate demands, it argues for “the establishment of independent workers’ organisations as the most crucial element for working class advancement”. It also says, “The realisation of this monumental task requires evermore support and the unity of diverse social groupings”.

Now similar joint appeals are being issued in support of the struggle initiated by the oil, gas and petrochemical workers. One, signed by the militant Haft Tappeh sugarcane workers and the Tehran bus workers’ unions amongst others, adds “To continue our efforts in achieving our demands, we must create trade unions and independent labour organisations; promote greater unity and communication between employees in different sectors; strengthen our solidarity with workers on permanent contracts; maintain vigilance in confronting employers and establish funds to help the striking workers and their vulnerable families”.

Next steps

The big impact that this latest strike has had, especially with its demand for a minimum wage of 12 million tomans (US $ 285), raises the question of what are the next steps to take.

There is a continuing danger of state and other repression. About 100 strikers have been sacked so far. Steps need to be taken to strengthen and expand the workers’ organisations that have already developed. As the strike continues, the creation of local, regional and national support/action committees is vital. With real roots in the workplaces such a development would assist the discussion of what to do and also represent further steps towards building independent workers’ organisations.

Strikes and protests pose very sharply the question of co-ordination of the struggles and organising solidarity activity. The strike leaders have rightly stressed the importance of the strikers remaining at, or near, their workplaces. They have appealed to strikers to stay together in accommodation at their sometimes remote workplaces and not go home.

Where possible, joint demonstrations of strikers in towns and cities in different regions (socially-distanced because of the coronavirus) could bring both strikers and supporters together in a show of strength. This could be the start of a national call for action on a number of key demands which could include a 12 million tomans minimum wage and the right to freely organise. Such a programme should be basis for discussing the calling of general strike action – possibility initially for 24 or 48 hours on a regional or national basis – as a show of strength in support of such demands and a step towards the next stage of struggle.

International solidarity can play an important role in supporting struggles in Iran, but it needs to be genuine solidarity. Because of the western imperialist powers’ conflicts with the Iran regime, they often hypocritically highlight repression in Iran while ignoring what goes on in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and among their other allies. The labour movement’s solidarity with the struggles of Iranian workers has to be clearly separate from, and opposed to, the imperialists’ cynical double standards.

Preparing to challenge the regime

The combination of the recent election result being followed by another wave of strike action has illustrated both the regime’s weak basis of support and workers’ willingness to struggle. This begs the question of what is the alternative and who will fight for it?

In last year’s struggles there were demands for workers’ control of workplaces, while more general slogans against the regime were also aired. These developments require the working class to have its own independent party. Such a party is necessary to unite the struggles of the workers and youth and all the oppressed, while keeping them independent from capitalist forces.

Any steps towards forming such a party, even if initially semi-underground because of repression, would inevitably include debating what its programme should be. Socialists need to continue to build their own forces, but also argue that a new workers’ party needs to be politically separate from pro-capitalists, who just want regime-change rather than system-change. It needs to be able to meet the needs of the majority by arguing for a socialist programme that can mobilise the working class and poor to break with the capitalist system.

A workers’ party would need to take up both democratic demands like the right to organise and have free elections, combined with economic and social demands. The issues of nationalisation and workers’ control over the economy which, for example, the Haft Tappeh workers have raised, would be a significant part of a socialist programme to transform society. A workers’ party with such a socialist programme could unite the struggles of all workers, as well as the struggles of other social and ecological movements. It could provide them with a clear path to break with oppression and capitalism by establishing a government led by representatives of workers and the oppressed people.

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