“I thank the people of Iran for not politicizing the protests which are about their economic situation and livelihood.” It was last year, June 23, 2022. When Hassan Lotfi, a member of the 10th and current “parliament”, said these words, the drivers of the Tehran Bus Company had gone on strike before this thanks, storekeepers and businessmen in several cities of the country had come to the streets many times and held protest rallies and strikes. Scaffolding contract workers working in Phase 14 of Asalouye and Kangan Petrorefinery had stopped working.
A Year Later, Khamenei:
“Of course, there have been protests in the working environment, some of these protests, as far as I know, were proper protests; Objection to delay in wages, objection to wrong handovers. […] This is helping the system, this is informing the system. […] I was aware of some of these cases from afar and close. The labor community demarcated its border with the enemy, they did not let the enemy use these protests in a certain case and a certain complex that they protested; [They said] we object to this thing, but we also hate the enemy, we are friends with the system, we are companions, this is the labor movement.”
Two days ago, on April 29, when Khamenei said these things, contract and project workers in more than a hundred companies and industrial centers in different regions of Iran, in the oil, gas, petrochemical, steel industries, in power plants and copper mines had been on strike for a week.
A new round of labor strikes, which are called “1402 Campaign”(It is year 1402 in Persian calendar) and “2010 Campaign” in protesting the lack of wage increases and the catastrophic living conditions of the workers, began and expanded day by day; Strikes that still continue. Hassan Lotfi and Ali Khamenei, clarify the definition of “labor movement” approved by the regime: a purely union/domestic protest, a protest whose content does not leave the workplace, does not get involved in the problems of the society, and is indifferent to the sociopolitical issues, it is a “friend” of the regime, it is a “Velaei Strike!” (Referring to Velayat-e-Faqih and Khamenei as the Supreme Leader). And in contrast, a protest that is able to punch a blow – strike means achieving legitimate demands through hitting, through creating disruption – and achieve workers’ demands, is a political protest, a revolutionary strike. Khamenei knows very well, based on his 1979 experience, how much “political strike” endangers the survival of the Islamic Republic.
New York Times, November 13, 1978:
“The strike by 35,000 oil workers and administrative personnel has crippled production since Oct. 18. Spokesmen for the National Iranian Oil Company said output today was just under two million barrels, one third of normal production. […] The reduction in oil output is costing Iran, the second largest oil‐exporting country in the world, more than $60 million in lost export revenues daily. The country normally produces 5.7 million barrels a day. The oil employees have been demanding wage increases, the release of all political prisoners, an end of martial law and the dismissal of foreigners from oil operations. The Government has offered them a 22 percent pay raise and higher housing allowances.” When this report was published in the New York Times, the “strikes” in Iran had changed their quality for more than two months: from a trade union strike to a “revolutionary strike”.
The exact date of this change in quality and form in the labor movement of those days coincided with September 8, 1978. Yadullah Khosrowshahi, one of the organizers of the oil workers’ strikes in those days, explains that the members of the strike committee in a letter on July 8, 1978 had given a two-month deadline to the National Iranian Oil Company to deal with the housing problem of the workers in Tehran oil refinery, and they had warned in the letter that if their problem is not addressed within 2 months, they will put up tents in front of the oil company along with their families. September 8 was the end of the deadline. A martial law had been established in Tehran and Jaleh Square events happen: “200 workers with their families pitched tents in front of the oil company. They stayed for two nights. Because it was martial law, Shahr-e-Ray’s martial law enforcer who was a brigadier general, came in front of the refinery with some trucks and tanks and threatened the workers that if you don’t go, we have a shooting order and will shoot you. No one paid attention until the tents were pulled down and all the tents were loaded into trucks and emptied in the city. This all happened on September 10 when the official strike of Tehran refinery workers started.”
The workers’ demands on that day were no longer limited to salary increases and housing allowances.
It goes without saying that the employees of the oil company and the people working in the oil industry in general had much better conditions compared to the workers and employees of other sectors of the Iranian economy before the Islamic Revolution of 1979. For example, in the early 1970s,, the average salary of a person working in the oil industry was 82.7 Rials per hour in the extraction sector and 67.6 Rials in refineries. In the tobacco industry, this average was 37.5 rials per hour, and in the textile industries, the average salary of a worker was 12.9 rials per hour. Overall, oil workers had higher pensions and better job security, better banking services, job benefits, and more amenities and recreation than other jobs. From this point of view, they actually had no reason to strike. This fact also shows that the “livelihood situation” alone cannot be the trigger for strikes.
Transformation of the Labor Movement
But what happened in September 1978 was a coincidence of two separate protest streams that, due to their occurrence in the same geographical point, merged and created a new quality of strike: a revolutionary strike. It was not long from that September 10 to December 15, 1978 when the “Joint Trade Union of Iranian Oil Industry Employees” issued a statement which ended with these words:
“The continuation of our bold strikes and struggles in the street, in the factory and in the office, in the scenes of face-to-face fighting and night-time screams from the roofs, and finally our glorious and unique march with that revolutionary and organized order, now draw the world’s attention to the strength and unbreakable will of the Iranian nation to transform the existing system and establish a just national system, and it is necessary to put the enemy in a position of weakness as much as possible by undermining the threats and problems created by the ruling regime.”
Although the labor organizations did not include the two important factors of “geographical sharing” and “simultaneity” with street protests in order to change the quality of “Velaei strike” to “revolutionary strike” in 2022, but now during this period of strikes that started Friday, April 21, 2023, we can see this quality-change has occurred. On the first day of the strike, Friday, April 21, the Council for Organizing Protests of Oil Contract Workers wrote: “Let’s go on strike with strength” and in the statement, it summarized the demands of the workers as follows: “79% increase in wages, twenty days of work and ten days off in order to have an opportunity to be with families is one of the urgent demands of us project workers in these strikes, and at the same time, we are pursuing other unanswered demands, such as shortening the hands of shameless contractors, improving dormitories conditions and raising their standards to an acceptable level, and safety in the work environment.”
Although this statement “did not leave the workplace” and did not enter the non-working society, but it did not take even 10 days that this organization, along with 14 other “union and civil organizations” put forth twelve demands in a resolution that began with “immediate and unconditional release of all political prisoners” and continued with “unconditional freedom of opinion, expression and thought, press, party, local and national trade union and people’s organizations, gatherings, strikes, marches, social media and audio and video media”. It entered the world outside of work. It went on by listing demands such as: abolition of execution and retribution and “prohibition of all kinds of mental and physical torture”, equal rights of women and men in all fields, “decriminalization of all gender relations and tendencies”. Non-interference of religion in politics and laws, “normalizing foreign relations with all countries, banning the acquisition of nuclear weapons”, “prohibition of child labor and providing for their life and education” and “ending environmental destruction!” The statement transformed the “labor movement” in nature and made it completely revolutionary.
Workers and unions said: “We have objections.” We are not “friends” with the regime, we “despise” it. We are together with the people. This is the “labor movement.”
Translation of this article by Sahar.