By ERWIN FREED
— UPDATED, JUNE 19 — At the beginning of 2018, Iran saw the largest uprising of labor militancy in a decade. The Islamic Republic’s armed goons managed to smash the resistance of workers and peasants, killing dozens and jailing hundreds in the process. But Iranian workers have remained mobilized, while the social conditions in the country remain the same, if not worse.
Iranian workers are still experiencing high unemployment rates, officially between 12% and 60% depending on the location; falling wages, with much of the working population going months without pay; and skyrocketing commodity prices. For example, “the prices of eggs, meat, and bread are rising more than 10% a year,” according to The Wall Street Journal (May 6, 2018).
The government of President Hassan Rouhani has been cutting back on state services, temporarily ending a very popular cash-transfer program in January before being forced to reinstate it due to popular opposition. Many workers do not have health insurance or pensions and are forced to take multiple low-paying jobs.
In response to these conditions, workers across the country have gone on strike and protested in the face of brutal state repression. The National Coalition of Resistance in Iran has reported daily actions since the beginning of the year.
Major actions include nearly a week of illegal mass protests in mid-April by workers and farmers in the county of Kazerun, a weeks-long strike of thousands of steelworkers in Khuzestan over back pay in March, and Tehran teachers’ protests in May for higher wages and to protest privatization of education. An international campaign has been launched to free the imprisoned teacher union leaders Mohammad Habibi and Esmail Abdi.
Thousands of sugarcane workers who were on strike in Khuzestan in March demanded the right to an independent union as well as protesting horrible working conditions and the non-payment of wages. The workers faced many attacks and arrests by security forces.
Truckers, who have been on strike in seven provinces since mid-May for better working conditions, received solidarity statements from transport unions worldwide, including London-based International Transport Workers Federation.
The state expected that normalized trade relations with the United States following the 2015 “Iran Deal” would lead to an improved economy; however, lifting sanctions only served to sharpen the class struggle. When the government’s promises of improved living conditions for workers after the deal failed to be realized, and food prices continued to rise, the country exploded.
Along with demands for better wages and social services, Iranians have been calling for an end to the one-party political system, freedom for jailed workers, and women’s rights.
On the last point, hundreds of women have been arrested since January for publicly taking off their veils.
In some cases, labor organizations have expressed solidarity with the struggle for women’s rights. On Jan. 30, the Association of Electrical and Metal Workers of Kermanshah issued a statement in which they defended the actions of women who have been protesting the compulsory hijab: “There is no doubt that the girls and boys who have become known as “those from Revolution Avenue,” also include women and men workers, and those from the lower layers of society. Therefore, the Iranian working class, half of whom are women, considers this current movement against the compulsory hijab as related to itself and is obligated to support it with determination.”
A further demand is that the Iranian government stop funding military excursions in Syria, Yemen, and throughout Africa, although it is unclear from what section of society this call is coming from.
As Trump moves to withdraw from the “Iran Deal,” the short-term future of the Iranian ruling class remains unclear. To maintain profitability, Iran needs foreign investment in new extractive technologies, meaning closer relationships with the technically savvy imperialist powers. On the other hand, Iranian development since the revolution has relied heavily on state direction, surely not the most attractive thing to big international capitalists. So far, the means of getting past this contradiction has been to drive Iranian workers into further misery.
However, the Iranian working class has a long and proud history of struggle, and given the current balance of forces, the scale could very quickly be tipped in their favor.