Iran’s labor flashpoint

Kevan Harris
      Iran’s labor movement and working class have been pivotal political actors for more than a century, with one of the longest records in the Middle East.  Iran has witnessed hundreds of strikes in major industries over the past two decades.  And thousands of workers participated in the opposition Green Movement demonstrations during the post-election unrest in 2009.
      Workers and young middle-class activists have not yet created the kind of coalitions visible in the Egyptian and Tunisian uprisings.  But labor is a key factor to watch because of its deep grievances.
      Wages, working conditions and benefits for many Iranians have deteriorated as Iran has shifted from a mostly state-run economy to a mixed economy, with many semi-public and private sector actors.  As in other developing countries, such as China, Iran is undergoing “de-industrialization” as older factories are liquidated and shuttered instead of upgraded.
      Iranian labor activists have also long demanded the right to form independent trade unions.  The Islamic Republic allows only state-run local unions, organized by the official Workers’ House, which erratically deal with issues such as layoffs, nonpayment of wages, pension cuts, and illegal use of temporary contract labor.
Workers’ poverty
      Iran has less absolute poverty than Egypt, countries with comparable population size. In 2005, eight percent of Iranians lived below an international poverty line of two dollars a day, while 18.5 percent of Egyptians under this poverty line, according to the World Bank.
      But the gap between social classes in Iranian society is wider than in Egyptian society.  The Gini index of income inequality scales countries from 1 to 100, from equal to unequal. Iran scored 38 in 2005, while Egypt scored 32.  As a result, Iranian laborers and the unemployed poor believe they face acute relative poverty compared to the rich and even the educated middle class.
Labor divisions
      As in most developing countries, Iran’s labor force includes both formal and informal sectors.  Formal sector jobs—notably in industries such as steel, automobiles, and oil and gas as well as in education and the civil service—are government regulated and subject to wage and benefit contracts.
      Informal sector jobs are unregulated. They have no labor contracts. And they are often associated with the underground economy, even though their activities are legal.  Informal employment tends to be found in construction, agriculture, transportation, retail, and the textile industry.  Many informal workers are considered “self-employed,” since they make their living through piecework in multiple jobs with little security.  In 2002, the Statistical Center of Iran reported that the informal sector, depending on the source of measurement, ranged between 33 percent and 49 percent of the urban labor force.
Public Face
     Some Iranian labor activists have expressed conditional backing for the Green Movement.  But they have also pressed the opposition to emphasize labor grievances among its top demands.  Green Movement leaders, including presidential candidate and former prime minister Mir Hossein Mousavi, eventually included concern for workers’ living standards and labor rights in their public statements. 
      Two important Iranians who speak out on labor issues are:
•           Mansour Osanloo, who has been repeatedly imprisoned for helping to establish an independent trade union for transportation workers called the Vahed Bus Workers Syndicate.  He is currently in jail and reportedly suffering serious health problems.
•           Ali Reza Mahjoub, a member of parliament who also heads the Workers’ House in Tehran. Among law-makers, he has been one of the most critical of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s decision to reduce subsidies for fuel, food and other basic necessities because of the impact on workers.
A long history
      Iran’s labor movement has a long and courageous history.  Tehran printing workers formed the country’s first trade union in 1906 during the Constitutional Revolution, and leather factory workers carried out Iran’s first industrial strike.
      In 1946, 100,000 workers rallied in Tehran for increased wages, while the socialist Tudeh Party mobilized a three-day strike by oil workers demanding better housing and work conditions that lasted three days.  It was the largest strike in the Middle East to date.  The labor unrest, which endangered British oil interests in the country, prompted the young Shah to declare that growing class antagonism “poison our social attitudes and political life.”  He then asserted, “The best way to alleviate them is to apply the laws of Islam.”
      Although the shah suppressed independent trade unions, labor activism increased in the 1970s.  More than 800 workers went on strike in a Tabriz machinery factory, and deadly clashes took place between workers and police in textile factories in Karaj.  Workers were then represented by state-created trade unions, which channeled labor grievances into negotiation, often backed by coercive threats.
      Workers joined the 1979 revolution only in its final phase, but their impact was pivotal.  The widespread and often spontaneous protests by workers in large enterprises were fatal for the Pahlavi dynasty.  General strikes by public servants and oil workers shut down the flow of oil, electricity, and most government offices.
      Despite labor’s key role in the revolution, the Islamic Republic clamped down on independent unions.  Independent labor councils and left-leaning worker organizations were disbanded, often violently, and replaced with state-controlled Islamic workers’ boards. These organizations policed dissent and directed worker grievances into more manageable forms.
      The popular mobilization of workers in the revolution, however, had long-term effects. In 1990, parliament passed a worker-friendly labor law that made layoffs in large enterprises more difficult, reduced the workweek, and stipulated equal pay for men and women.  Many provisions are selectively enforced, apply only to formal sector workers, and economic liberalizers have pressed for more business-friendly regulations.  The law has gradually been watered down over the past two decades, including under President Ahmadinejad.
Future potential
      Tunisia and Egypt’s uprisings succeeded because of a broad coalition of social actors that included strong labor organizations. General strikes by workers in key industries and locations undermined lingering support for President Hosni Mubarak among top military officials, particularly in the final days. Intellectuals and students may launch revolutions, but workers often are the tipping point because of their leverage over a nation’s economy.
      Iran has the same potential for broader coalitions between young organizers and the wider community of workers. But historically, formal cooperation between different social actors does not happen automatically.  In Egypt and Tunisia, outreach by networks of young activists was pivotal in generating the support from labor organizations that finally forced their presidents to step down.
Kevan Harris, who frequently travels to Iran, is a doctoral candidate in sociology at Johns Hopkins University.  He recently traveled throughout Iran for a year doing research. He writes a weblog called “The Thirsty Fish."