Shortly before the Iranian New Year, on March 23rd, the Iranian Ministry of Labour decided to increase the minimum wage by 27%. Sounds large, but with this decision, the government broke its own law. According to paragraph 41 of the Labour Law, the minimum wage must be increased annually in line with inflation and the cost of a basic shopping basket. According to official figures, this would have meant an increase of at least 54.3%, as the official inflation rate is currently so high.
However, it can be assumed that Iran’s theocratic dictatorial regime systematically underestimates the real rise. Activists in Iran assume an inflation rate of between 75% and 100%, even the official Statistical Office of Iran has reported that food prices rose by 80% in the last year.
But regardless of how high the inflation rate is right now, the so-called increase in the minimum wage shows that this regime has nothing good to offer to the working class, whose standard of living continues to fall. With this decision, the political agents of the theocratic regime pushed even larger parts of Iranian workers into poverty, when at least 75% of the population already lives below the poverty line.
This is part of the background to the mighty, ‘Woman, Life, Freedom’ movement, spearheaded by women and young people, that erupted after last year’s killing of Jina Mahsa Amini by the so-called ‘morality police. That movement shook the regime, showing its relative isolation. The regime survived by a combination of waiting for the movement to subside and vicious repression, including killing demonstrators and executing prisoners, when it felt that was necessary. While that repression has had an effect, contributing to the current downturn in mass protests, it has not made the regime more popular.
Certainly, it did not stop workers in many sectors from deciding to protest against a rise in the minimum wage which in fact meant a real wage cut. For example, on March 25th, a group of workers from the Haft Tappeh sugar cane factory, a workplace with a history of struggle, declared that they would campaign against this decision and called on all workers to join in and the proposed protests and strikes.
The most broadly organized step in this direction was taken by the “Council for the Organisation of the Protests of Contract Workers of the Oil Industry”, which managed to organize and mobilise workers from 21 companies and enterprises of the petrochemical industry on April 21st. This strike was joined by workers from at least 100 companies with workers in all kinds of sectors. It also showed how the demands for a minimum wage on which workers can live and better working conditions, such as the regulation of 20 days of work and 10 days off work per month, are fundamentally shared by workers in all sectors of Iran’s working class. Clearly, given rapid inflation, these demands should be expanded to include the regular adjustment of the minimum wage to the inflation rate and also a well-financed social security system.
At the beginning of its campaign of protests and strikes for an increase in the minimum wage and for better working conditions, the Council for the Organisation of the Protests of Contract Workers in the Oil Industry stated the following:
“We declare that we will continue our strikes as long as our wage demand and our demand for twenty days of work and ten days of rest, which are a physical and social necessity, remain unanswered. The Council for the Organisation of the Petroleum Contract Workers’ Protests calls on all project colleagues working in the oil, gas, and petrochemical centres to join the strikes, in unity and solidarity with those who initiated them.
“The striking comrades and the rallies are two complementary components of the movement. We have the experience of the last two years.
“The experience of the Hefeshjan General Assembly last year is a good lesson and a model for preparing our assemblies and building a lasting consensus on how to continue our strikes.”
It is crucial that the statement points out that strikes and protests are the common pillars of resistance and campaigning. Due to the fact that there are no genuine trade union structures in many Iranian workplaces that would be able to carry out strikes, it is important to involve unorganised workers as well. This is possible precisely through protests that can be used to promote the emergence of independent, working class-based trade union structures. Given the current weakness of genuine trade unions and there is no strike pay in Iran, this means that protests are seen as the only way workers can make their political and economic demands audible and visible, especially if they have a short preparation time. In addition, such protests can also be used to prepare strikes in companies and businesses whose workforces are not yet ready to take action. Such preparation is necessary considering that organising and conducting a general strike is still one of the main actions that the Iranian working class can take to build a movement against the regime.
In the oil sector of Khuzestan and Busher, the ruling elite and capitalists sought again to divide workers on the basis of ethnic origin, methods that have been used in previous strikes. To counter these strike-breaking methods, the contract workers in the oil industry in these areas replied with the following statement:
“The strike of the workers of the oil project is still strong and fortunately more colleagues are joining the strike every day.
“But in the meantime, as on previous occasions, backward methods and reactionary propaganda are being used to distort the atmosphere of the protests and create a split in the protesting ranks of the workers, who must be vigilant against such efforts. Examples include the dispersal of pickets in some areas on behalf of the Bakhtiari [an ethnic group], Bumi [locals], etc.
“In the meantime, all of us, the workers from all parts of the country, are suffering from common pain and have common enemies. We are all protesting against poverty, the rising costs of daily life and the deteriorating working and living conditions every day. What unites us today are the common urgent demands around which we have gathered, such as a 79 percent wage increase, twenty days of work and ten days of rest.
“At the same time, we stand proud in the face of the tyranny of the entrepreneurs and the slave laws in the special economic zones, and we want to disempower the entrepreneurs and free ourselves from the slave laws that prevail in these regions. If today we are able to meet our two urgent demands through the power of our unity, we will be all the more powerful if we decide to continue the struggle to crush the employers.
“While we workers have been preparing for strikes for a long time and have raised our voices of protest against the deterioration of our working and living conditions, there are movements that speak of ‘campaigns’ trying to contain our protests and stifle our anger at employers and the government. They say that after this “campaign” there will be no more summer strikes, as we have seen in recent years. It is clear that behind such statements are the above-mentioned forces. We emphatically declare that we will not be slaves to anyone who claims to speak with our voice.
“We are pushing for these demands, which we are announcing today, while our other demands have not yet been answered, but which we continue to pursue. We will defend ourselves against any aggression, at any stage, if it proves necessary. We warn our comrades to beware of this kind of intrigue.”
It is important that the above statement points out the danger of splitting strikes along ethnic lines and emphasises that all workers in the conflict have the same interests. But it is also necessary that the workers’ movement fights against all ethnic oppression and for the right of people to self-determination. This is especially important in a multi-ethnic state like Iran, as the rulers in Iran repeatedly try to play off the different population groups against each other.
As Marxists, however, we think that it is at least as important that the strikers do not fall for the ‘false friends’ at home and abroad who aim to prevent the anti-regime movement from challenging capitalism.
Shortly before May 1st, the Organisational Council published the following statement:
“We are approaching May 1, International Workers’ Day.
“This is the day of solidarity and unity, and the day of struggle against the system that blindly leads us to an unequal war for survival.
“It is a system that has destroyed the lives and livelihoods of us, and our families, with low wages, delayed payment of wages, insecure working environments, insufficient health insurance, temporary contracts, and dozens of other inhuman means.
“This year, International Workers’ Day has a special significance compared to previous years. This difference is on account of the continuation of the movement, and of the revolution for ‘Women, Life, Freedom.’ This is a revolution of liberation, in which we, the workers, are a mainstay.
“Our words are those of society. We have always followed up on our demands. We have called out the wishes of society and the pain of the people. Our emphasis remains on the important provisions of the charter of minimum demands of twenty organizations, of which we were one of the signatories.
“We, the workers, have always pressed for freedom of expression, to protest and to strike without any restrictions. We have demanded an end to all oppression, humiliation and discrimination against women. We have called the hijab a means of suppressing the whole of society. We have expressed our opposition to the death penalty. We consider the rights of all citizens to be equal, irrespective of gender, ethnicity, or religious belief. We have made clear that we will not submit to the exercise of power over our heads in any form, whether in the workplace or in life and in society.
“To fulfill our wishes, we consider the best form of community administration to be council administration and the exercise of the collective will. These are all our commonalities with the Women, Life, Freedom movement, which is completely opposed to any discrimination, exploitation, subjugation, or class oppression. Let us announce together, on the occasion of May Day now more than ever, our determination to end more than one hundred years of slavery and oppression of workers and of the whole of society.
“Friends! Presently, a large part of our project partners are engaged in a powerful and widespread strike. We will enter the strike with strength. Now, thousands of us are on strike in nearly 100 centres, companies, workshops, and complexes. We have initiated a large and widespread movement for wages: a movement against poverty, discrimination, and exploitation that has forced us to live a life below human dignity. This movement must not remain at this level. The demand that we, as workers in this project propose, is the demand of all workers. Our call to all sectors and all workers in oil and other industries is to join this huge movement of struggle for wages, through the means of powerful nationwide protests.
“We will end this suppression of workers’ wages, as approved by the Supreme Labour Council. Besides the fact that our third party and official comrades have unanswered demands outstanding, in pursuit of our demands the strike can form the basis for oil workers to join hands in a nationwide strike to remove these arrogant contractors and end the atmosphere of oil barracks. Let us come to the square with greater strength and be the voice of protest for all workers and all people against poverty, slavery and insecurity.
“We workers suffer pains at the national level. Let us strike a more effective blow against the roots of the prevailing oppression with our means of nationwide strikes. Another important point, on the occasion of International Workers’ Day, is to emphasize the demands for the immediate release of imprisoned workers and those arrested during the eight-month revolution, and indeed all political prisoners. With our cry to free the political prisoners, we must emphasize the immediate and unconditional release of every one of them. May 1, International Workers’ Day, is the day of national protest of all workers and all peoples. On the eve of this day, all sections of society should shout their demands to end all slavery and exploitation by holding passionate gatherings. We must welcome the dawn of this great day.
“Long live May 1, International Workers’ Day”
The fact that this document stresses the centrality of the working class in the revolutionary process that is currently taking place in Iran and for a successful “revolution of liberation” is an important step forward. This also distinguishes this May Day statement from the ‘Charter of minimum demands’, published last February and mentioned in this document, which very clearly avoided the central role of the working class in the struggle against oppression and exploitation – i.e. capitalism, something which the Syndicate of Bus Drivers of Tehran has critically commented upon.
We will not dwell on the Charter there, as we have already commented on it. It should also be noted, however, that the Council organising the strikes and protests goes beyond the content of the Charter on several occasions in their own document. This May Day appeal, alongside arguing the centrality of the working class as the force for change, calls for both organising and joint action, something which is not in the ‘Charter of minimum demands’.
In addition, this May Day statement correctly formulates a concrete alternative to the rule of the Islamic Republic and, through it, the rule of Iranian capital. However, what the above document does not do is sketch out how this perspective can be translated into reality. For this, strikes and a general strike, as important as it would be, will not be enough. To achieve a fundamental change a revolutionary socialist organisation with a mass following in the working class is required. This could programmatically combine the individual strikes and movements with one another and thus develop them into a complete socialist revolution that is able to break the rule of both the religious elite and capitalists and, as a basic condition for this, first and foremost consign the theocratic regime of Iran to the rubbish heap of history.
It is clear that Iran is witnessing different waves of struggles. After the April strikes May and June saw protests by pensioners over falling living standards, like many other Iranians they have been badly hit by inflation.
Revival of workers’ struggles
This is in the context of Iran seeing, since 2017, a revival of workers’ struggles and organisations which have won some concessions but not yet fundamentally undermined the regime. But it is becoming clearer to many that simply protesting is not enough. The increasingly brutal punishment of those who participated in the protests sparked off by the Woman, Life Freedom movement by jail sentences and executions shows the regime’s fears and determination to continue ruling.
But despite this the regime cannot completely silence the opposition and it is aware of its weak popular base, something shown in the 2021 elections. A result are public divisions within the regime and its drive to lessen its international isolation by its deal with Saudi Arabia, attempts to revive the 2015 nuclear treaty with the UN Security Council and Germany plus now its recent direct negotiations with the US.
Statements like these from workers’ organisations and opposition groups clearly reflect the discussions and debates taking place to draw lessons from the struggles over the last years and work out a way forward. The importance is that sooner or later new movements will develop which, despite their individual characteristics, will face the same general issues as previous struggles and so can learn from the past experience both in Iran and internationally.
Last October, when the Woman, Life Freedom movement had real momentum we summed up what the political issues which the CWI believes the workers’ movement faced both then and now:
“It is clear that sooner or later this regime will go, either being overthrown or being undermined by its own divisions. But that immediately poses the question of what next?
“The current movement has a cross-class makeup in the sense that it encompasses different elements opposing the current rulers, however, once the regime is overthrown or even severely weakened, the question will be posed of who takes over the power.
“Inevitability in every revolution this question of who rules comes up. There can be powerful calls for unity, or at least unity against the forces of the old regime, which are made in arguments for the formation of a ‘temporary’, ‘provisional’, ‘unity’ government to ‘secure’ the revolution, organise elections, etc. Certainly, there can be unity of action against counter-revolution, but that is very different from the question of workers’ organisations collaborating with pro-capitalist forces in a government maintaining the capitalist system.
“The workers’ movement needs to set its own agenda, a socialist agenda which combined together the immediate demands with the need to break with capitalism so that the working class and power can begin the socialist reconstruction of society. Today, the revolution needs to seize the opportunity to do this and not limit itself to only ending the decades-long repression by the counter-revolution that pushed the working masses aside and seized power after the mass revolt that ended the Shah’s dictatorial rule.
“Amongst the bourgeois – liberals opposing the country’s leadership, or even the entire regime, there will be those who want a more ‘normal’ capitalist system without the constraints of the top religious leaders and apparatchiks of the Islamic state bureaucracies. But the continuation of capitalism means that the fundamental issues facing Iran will not be answered. Inevitably class struggles will break out, as the interests of the capitalists and the working class come into conflict. If the capitalist power is not broken this would pose the danger of counter-revolution, probably not on the same lines as 1979/80, but possibly like in Egypt in 2013, as the ruling class moves to secure its position.
“It is necessary for the Iranian working class and youth to have no illusions about the role of Western imperialism. Aware of the potential strength of the Iranian working class, western powers have long attempted to cultivate links with Iranian oppositionists and workers’ leaders, with a view to drawing them into a pro-capitalist orbit. These are false friends; they may now pretend to support democratic rights in Iran, but they didn’t do so in the time of the Shah and have long supported other dictatorial regimes in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and elsewhere in the region.
“The alternative that the workers’ movement needs to stand for is the replacement of the present regime by a provisional government made up of representatives of the working class, youth, and poor which immediately takes action to implement the revolution’s basic demands. At the same time, it needs to encourage the development of local democratic bodies which can become the foundation of a new regime. Such bodies could be the basis for the election of a Revolutionary Constituent Assembly to decide the country’s future.
“To achieve this, there needs to be a socialist force, a revolutionary party, which can argue for these ideas. This was the case in Russia in 1917, when the Bolsheviks, led by Lenin after the February revolution refused to join the pro-capitalist provisional government and instead campaigned to win majority support amongst the working class for the socialist revolution. That is the example that needs to be followed by Iranian socialists. Such a policy, the basis for the October 1917 socialist revolution in Russia, is in contrast to the many “all-party” governments established after revolutions in other countries, which resulted in socialist opportunities being lost and capitalism continuing to rule.
“The developing new Iranian revolution is a tremendous development; it is already starting to inspire youth and workers in other countries. If successful, it will have an electrifying effect in the Middle East and beyond. The energy and bravery of the young people are an example to all. What is needed now is the widening of the movement and a clarification of the concrete steps necessary to both defeat repression and open the way to real liberation from oppression and all the ills of capitalism.”