Iran: Class struggle and neo-liberal capital accumulation

by Minna Langeberg

Recent months have seen protests throughout Iran, by teachers, nurses, labourers, retirees, oil industry workers, bazaar traders and shopkeepers, truck drivers, farmers, the unemployed, students, and many more.

The current wave of protests across the country is a continuation of those of December 2017- January 2018 that were brutally suppressed by the regime. Like the 2017-18 protests, they signal the deep crisis of legitimacy of the regime, as expressed by one of the most enduring slogans that emerged from those protests: ‘Fundamentalists, Reformists, the game is over’. The main slogan of current protests is ‘Bread. Work. Freedom’.

These protests are sporadic, self-organised, fragmented and generally small in size – but more or less continuous. They are grassroots protests against the current situation in Iran, which has reached a boiling point. These are protests of the working class, women, the poor, the unemployed, marginalised, the underclass and the ‘surplus population’ who cannot be absorbed into capitalist wage labour.

These protests are about starvation wages, slavery-like workers’ conditions, poverty and hunger, unemployment, inflation, currency devaluation, collapsed fraudulent financial schemes that have eaten up retirees’ savings, and systematic corruption at every level of government and society. Contrary to what has often been said, these protests are not merely about economic conditions, but about almost every aspect of life in Iran. And although US sanctions have worsened the economic situation, they are not the cause: the cause is a religious fascist regime that faces a deep crisis of legitimacy.

The crisis, to quote Gramsci, “…consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” Or to put it differently, Iran is in a ‘revolutionary situation’ as described by Lenin, where those ‘above’ cannot continue to rule, and those ‘below’ do not want to be ruled in the old way. The regime, in deep crisis on all fronts — economic, social, political, cultural, international — can neither continue to rule through ‘hegemonic’ consent, nor can it continue to use sheer repression indefinitely. This is a time of monsters.

Let us examine briefly the recent context of these protests.

Neo-liberal capital accumulation

Neo-liberal policies of ‘structural adjustment’ were adopted by various administrations at the end of the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988) under the auspices of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Adoption of policies of privatisation and deregulation of the labour market in the past three decades have lead to disastrous consequences: unemployment, a huge reserve army of labour, an underclass and the working poor, growth of shanty towns and closures of factories and industrial production. Overall the result has been socialisation of poverty.

Iran’s economy is currently in recession due to deep structural problems that can only be addressed politically.

It is very difficult to show the exact extent of this structural crisis statistically because of the nature of data. The government sees publication of economic and social data as a political act; data is either suppressed and withheld, or highly manipulated for public consumption. What adds to the problem is the existence of parallel government organisations and agencies, which produce their own data conflicting one another and sometimes themselves.

However, we can provide some information. In a November 2018 report, the IMF predicted that Iran’s inflation rate would rise to 40% by end of the year, and that the economic recession would deepen into a 3.6% economic contraction in 2019, partly aided by US sanctions, the devaluation of the currency and falls in oil production and exports. This inflation rate is possibly an underestimation; some economists estimate the inflation rate to be 100%.

The IMF’s inflation rate is very different from the official inflation rate. The official inflation rate is produced by both the Statistical Centre of Iran (SCI) and the Central Bank (CB). According to the latter, the inflation rate was 18% for the 12-month period ending in December 21, 2018. But recent inflation rates produced by the Central Bank contradict the SCI’s rate and are much higher and more accurate – 25% for the 12 month period to Dec 2018. There are reports that the CB has been put under pressure by the government not to publish its data.

There is a system of national minimum wage in Iran, determined by the Supreme Labour Council within the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs, composed of the Minister of Labour, employers representatives, workers ‘representatives’ (chosen by the Council itself) and a number of ‘experts’ in economic and social affairs. The national minimum wage is reviewed annually.

Reports indicate this minimum wage is so low, compared to the rate of inflation and cost of living, that it may cover only some 30% of living costs of a worker and her/his family. In other words, labour power can barely reproduce itself. Further, breaches of minimum wage payments are far too common, but the level of unemployment is so high, the size of the reserve army of labour so large, workers’ bargaining power so weak, and corruption so deep that there is no chance of seriously enforcing the law.

There are now plans to dismantle even this extremely low and barely enforced minimum wage. Some of the deregulatory measures proposed so far are the ‘floating’ of the minimum wage, introduction of a ‘multi-layered’ minimum wage, ‘regional’ minimum wage or ‘consensual’ wage, and exclusion of women household heads and rural workers from minimum wage and labour legislation protection altogether, all in the interest of ‘flexibility’, improving capital’s falling rate of profit and reducing the unemployment rate. These proposals have been advocated by various factions of the ruling class, members of the Parliament, Ministry of Labour officials, some ‘charity organisations’ and sham government-controlled ‘Islamic Labour Councils’. Many of the workers, whose terms and conditions are going to be further deregulated, are already on starvation wages.

The official rate of unemployment is over 12%, but in reality it is more than double that, perhaps between 25-30%. In some cities and regions, 60% of the population is unemployed. Realistically if all other categories such as ‘economically inactive population’ of working age, underemployment in the form of part time and precarious work (both very widespread), home-based work and ‘informal economy’ work are taken into account, we would arrive at a much higher unemployment rate. But as no data is collected on these categories, an unemployment rate more than twice the official rate is just an ‘educated’ guess.

Officially, the total labour force is just below 27 million, over 3 million of whom are estimated to be officially unemployed. Between 40- 42 million of the working age population is ‘economically inactive’. Some are students, but a large number are made up of ‘discouraged job seekers’, those with tenuous connection with the labour market, working from home, and absorbed into the informal sector. Officially, informal work is work not protected by the labour law and social insurance provisions. There is no data on the size of the ‘informal economy’ but it has grown massively in the past 10 to 15 years – an almost new phenomenon in Iran – the low official participation rate of about 40% is an indication of a huge reserve army of labour partly absorbed into this sector.

According to some estimates, 6 million people work in the informal economy. Of all the jobs created in 2015, only 30% had social protection and 70% were in the informal economy. Most of these workers are considered as ‘self-employed’, but, in fact, they are ‘wage hunters and gatherer’, engaged in ‘jobs without definition’: street peddlers, itinerant hawkers, fruits and vegetable sellers, taxi drivers and waste pickers. They can be seen everywhere across the cities, on street pavements, parks and subway stations where they sell whatever they can without paying rent or taxes. But, on the whole, the main categories of informal sector workers are street vendors, hawkers, and home-based and rural producers. Wherever there is high unemployment and poverty, there is also growth of the ‘informal sector’. Mostly young people, without any future prospects, and rural-urban migrants, are absorbed into this sector. A growing number of these informal sector workers have university-level education.

A broad sense of the reserve army of labour, therefore, beyond the officially unemployed, would include informal sector workers, those working from home, the ‘self employed’ as a disguised category of unemployed, forced part-time workers or the underemployed, precarious workers, that is, those without ‘permanent’ or clear contract of work such as hourly, daily or seasonal workers, those with ‘blank contracts’ (or ‘zero-hour’ contracts), ‘discouraged’ workers, ‘home-makers’, those categorised in the official data described as ‘not identified’, the sub-proletariat and the underclass. If all these elements and categories are taken into account, they may then amount to between 15 to 20 million of the working age population — an ‘educated’ guess again. If I am correct, then the size of this reserve army of labour, is quite close to the size of the employed population. This is alarming economically and socially. For some, these heterogeneous elements of the dispossessed, as well as the lumpenproletariat, should be theorised as sectors or factions of the working class – but this is a theoretical debate I cannot enter into here.

In Iran, 19 million of the population are slum dwellers and the marginalised. There is an overlap between them and some of the elements of the reserve army of labour described above, but they are not identical. There are also an estimated seven million child labourers, mostly between the ages of 5-10.

Decades of neo-liberal capital accumulation and kleptocracy have resulted in the growth of wageless proletarisation, precarious wage labour, shanty towns and child labour.

In terms of real wages, the fall has been dramatic in the past few years. During the first six months of 2018 estimates are of a 50- 90% fall in real wages, the lower rate being based on official inflation rate. This fall in real wages is partly due to the currency devaluations during that period, but also due to a very high inflation rate, and the government’s active neo-liberal policies of labour market deregulation and privatisations.

Likewise, there is no agreement on the definition of poverty line and thus the proportion of the population below the poverty line cannot be accurately determined.

The poverty line is generally measured in terms of income per month of a family of four. According to 2018 press reports, 33% of the population, or nearly 26 million, is below the absolute poverty line, and 6% of the population, or five millions, are starving: they cannot afford to buy enough food. On the whole, estimates of the population below the poverty line vary between 35-80%. An estimate of some 50% of the population below the poverty line would be a somewhat conservative one.

Iran ranks second in the world in proven natural gas reserves and fourth in proven crude oil reserves.

The drive towards privatisation began in the early 2000s with the 2006 amendment of Article 44 of the Constitution, allowing for the sale of state-owned companies. The Iranian Privatisation Organisation (IPO) was created by the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Finance, and the government declared a large-scale privatisation program in its Fifth Five-Year National Development Plan 2015-2020, aiming at privatising about 20% of the state-owned enterprises each year.

But full-fledge privatisation of the economy, dismantling of the social wage, cuts to social spending and state-subsidies, and thus socialisation of poverty, were implemented during Ahmadinejad’s presidency (2005-2013). The main beneficiaries of these policies were the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and economic institutions under the control of the Supreme Leader Khamenei.

During the first half of 2018, privatisation grew by 100% compared to the same period a year before. Nearly $600 million worth of state-owned shares were transferred to the private sector during this period. In Nov 2018 IPO announced that the sale of some 60% of state-owned shares to the private sector, envisaged in the March 2017- March 2018 budget, had been achieved. The government expected to earn about US $2.5 billion from these sales that year.

Privatisation via IPO led to corruption, nepotism and shady deals. A network of insiders and semi-criminal and corrupt cronies of the regime has grown, who share in the looting of the country with the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and his clan. While the number of those living at or below the poverty line and in shanty towns inhabited by the ‘surplus population’ grow, privatisation and neo-liberal policies have created a highly polarized society and an explosive situation.

Labour rights and trade unionism

There is no trade union system in Iran and independent trade unions are banned. Workers lack the power of collective bargaining and are ‘represented’ by state-controlled Islamic Workers’ Councils, which are present in most workplaces and sectors of the economy. These Councils are supervised by the (Islamic) Workers’ House, affiliated with the World Federation of Trade Unions. The Islamic Labour Councils are by no means trade unions; they are tripartite organisations made up of the government, employers and (sham) worker ‘representatives’ who are selected based on their royalty to the regime and commitment to Islamic ideology. One of the tasks of these Labour Councils is workplace spying on militant workers.

The right to strike is not recognised by law in Iran, and labour strikes are brutally suppressed. Labour activist are routinely harassed, arrested, prosecuted and sentenced to long jail terms. Torture, beating and murder have been the modus operandi of the regime from its very inception, and are neither new nor isolated practices.

The International Trade Union Council (ITUC) Global Rights Index 2018 ranks Iran as a country with ‘no guarantee of rights’, that is, a country where ‘legislation may spell out certain rights, but workers have effectively no access to these rights’. The ITUC Report 2018 states that in Iran ”… many labour activists remain arbitrarily imprisoned and in dire detention conditions”.

Reza Shahabi’s case is an example of long prison sentences for labour and civil rights activists, and their mistreatment and torture by the regime. Shahabi, a leading labour activist of the Syndicate of Workers of Tehran and Suburban Bus Company, was arrested and sentenced to five years in prison in 2010, accused of ‘collusion against national security’, a routine charge used by the Revolutionary Islamic Courts. He was also sentenced to one more year imprisonment for ‘spreading propaganda against the state’, fined, and banned from all trade union activities for five years. In March 2018 Shahabi was released from prison.

Esamil Abdi, a school teacher and secretary general of the Coordinating Council of Teachers’ Union, was arrested in 2016 and similarly charged with ‘collusion against national security’ and ‘spreading propaganda against the state’. He is serving a six-year prison sentence.

In May 2018, Mohammad Habibi, a teacher and member of teachers’ union was arrested during a peaceful gathering, and in August that year was sentenced to 10 years in prison. He was also banned from political and social activities for two years, and had a travel ban of two years imposed on him along with and 74 lashes.

Activists’ death in prison is common. Death occurs either following injuries received as a result of torture, or illness as a result of mistreatment and appalling prisons conditions and purposeful refusal of the regime to provide medical treatment. There are known recent cases of murder of imprisoned activists where the cause of death has been announced officially as ‘suicide’.

Haft Tappeh Sugarcane Company and National Steel Company strikes

Against this background, two simultaneous waves of labour protests stand out, both in the largely-industrial southwest province of Khuzestan: the Haft Tappeh Sugarcane Company protests, and the National Steel Company protests in Ahvaz, the capital of Khuzestan province, a region of Iran devastated by the Iran-Iraq war, environmental decay, water shortages, poverty, ethnic minority oppression and emigration.

Haft Tappeh is located in the southwest province of Khuzestan, some 15 kilometres from the ancient city of Shush. The sugarcane company was established in 1961, occupies an area of 24 hectares of land and was the largest state-owned employer in the area. In 2015 the company was privatised, which led to 7000 job losses. There is an Haft Tappeh Workers’ Syndicate, that has a long history but in its present form was established in 2008 in the course of a 42-day mass strike over unpaid wages. The trade union is not recognised by the company and government authorities.

Haft Tappeh workers have been struggling for a number of years over a host of issues: four months of unpaid wages and benefits; corrupt and incompetent management; casualisation of work; formation of independent workers’ councils; and nationalisation of the company.

It has become fairly common in Iran for workers not to be paid, for five, six or even 12 months or more. Non-payment of wages is an indication of the deep structural crisis of the state and the economy. For reasons we cannot go into here, during the past three decades, capital’s profitability in Iran’s industrial and manufacturing sectors has fallen and financialisation of capital has grown exponentially, with finance capital being a particularly corrupt sector of the Iranian economy.

Strikes in Haft Tappeh started about November 2 and continued for over a month, bringing production to a standstill. It was especially during these protests that Esmail Bakhshi emerged as a prominent labour rights activist. In his speeches, he has repeatedly denounced kleptocracy, systematic corruption and mismanagement under the disguise of privatisation, attacked workers exploitation and argued for the nationalisation of the company and the formation of independent workers council.

On November 16, workers occupied the site of the Friday prayer in Shush, chanting angry slogans against the clergy and government authorities. Friday prayers are state-organised religious-political affairs, and Friday Prayer leaders are chosen under the direct supervision of the Supreme Leader Khamenei. In post-revolutionary Iran they have become one of the main ideological apparatuses of the state and are a means of communicating official state policies and ideologies. They combine religion, politics and popular agitation. Invading and occupying these avenues is a serious step to take.

On Nov 18 the regime sent its anti-riot squads to Shush to flex its muscles, although fearing escalation, they acted cautiously and tried to avoid direct confrontation. The exercise was a warning signal on the part of the regime.

Bakhshi was arrested that day by security forces in Shush, together with civil activist Sepideh Gholian and 18 other workers. Other workers were released later, but Bakhshi and Gholian remained in jail. The latter was released on December 18 on bail.

Bakhshi was arrested on sham charges of endangering ‘national security’. During his 25 days in detention, there was a veil of silence on Bakhshi’s whereabouts and condition, except for the news on one occasion, that as a result of beatings, he had been taken to a local hospital with internal bleedings and a swollen face.

Bakhshi was released on bail on December 12. On January 4 he posted a letter on Instagram. In the letter Bakhshi revealed that during his 25 days in detention he had been subjected to torture, abuse and beating, and challenged the Intelligence Minister to a live televised debate on this issue.

In the open letter Bakhshi writes: “During the first few days, without reason or any conversation, they tortured me and beat me with their fists and kicked me until I was going to die. They beat me so much I couldn’t move in my cell for 72 hours. I was feeling so much pain that I couldn’t even sleep without suffering…Today almost two months after those difficult days. I still feel pain in my broken ribs, kidneys, left ear and testicles. But worse than the physical torture was the psychological torture. I don’t know what they did to me but I turned into a washed-up rat. My hands are still trembling. I used to walk with my feet firmly on the ground but I was humiliated into a different person. I still get severe panic attacks despite taking anxiety medication.”

Article 38 of Iran’s post-revolutionary Constitution states: “All forms of torture for the purpose of extracting confession or acquiring information are forbidden”. Article 7 of United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Iran is a party, states: “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”

But there is no Rechtsstaat (law-abiding constitutional state) in Iran. The system is arbitrary, brutal and violent. There are laws, but the state and its apparatuses, by routinely breaching them and violating the Constitution, have spread a general culture of lawlessness. No one feels obligated to abide by the law, especially the powerful and the rich.

Bakhshi’s torture by agents of Iran’s Intelligence Ministry has caused much uproar and outcry in the mainstream media and social networks because he is seen not as an ordinary activist, but a brave and outspoken labour activist representing over-exploited workers and the underclass.

After the publication of his post, several sources, including Bakhshi’s lawyer Farzaneh Zilabi stated that Bakhshi had been under pressure by intelligence agents to deny his claims, and received threatening telephone calls almost every day.

Given the extent of public reaction to Bakhshi’s post in Instagram, Islamic Republic authorities felt they had to react. There was a myriad of authorities commenting on the issue.

On January 7, the head of Judiciary Sadegh Larijani, in response to Bakhshi’s letter and under pressure from public opinion, said he had ordered an investigation into the matter, but reminded Bakhshi that a prison is a prison and not a ‘hotel’.

On January 8, Iran’s Prosecutor General Office announced that an independent ‘expert committee’ had been formed and sent to Khuzestan Province to investigate the allegations of torture. He tried to side step the matter by alluding to the possibility that a single security officer’s conduct should not be generalised to the whole system and warned against the appropriation of the matter by ‘enemy and hostile media’. At the same time, Hesamaldin Ashena, President Rouhani’s advisor, announced the president’s order for ‘quick and accurate’ investigation into allegations of torture.

Yet, on the same day, Heshmat Falahat-Pisheh, the head of the National Security Committee of the Parliament announced that Ministry of Intelligence had denied torturing Bakhshi, and that, after investigations, the Committee had reached the conclusion that no torture had ever taken place. Rather, Bakhshi had been involved in scuffles with the security forces during his arrest. He further claimed Bakhshi was connected to the ‘Workers Communist Party’, an Iranian political party in European exile. He added that ‘foreign media’ had created the uproar over this matter and Bakhshi’s case before the Committee was closed.

On January 9, President’s Bureau Chief Mahmoud Vaezi repeated the Ministry of Intelligence’s denial of Bakhshi’s torture, and threatened that the Intelligence Ministry had the right to prosecute Bakhshi for allegations of torture.

The next day, Asghar Karimi, head of the Executive Committee of the Workers Communist Party of Iran in European exile stated in a press interview that Bakhshi had never been a member of the Party nor had he ever applied for membership.

On January 14, Mohammad-Jafar Montazeri, Iran’s Prosecutor General went further and announced that Bakhshi’s claims have been lies and ‘politically motivated’. He added Bakhshi was ‘no ordinary person’ and due to his connections with ‘certain places’ (that is, communist parties overseas), he has spread these rumours as a cover up for political purposes. He threatened that ‘if Bakhshi has committed a crime, he will be dealt with according to the law’.

On January 16, Mohammad Reza Tabesh, the vice-president of the ‘reformist’ faction Omid (Hope) in the Parliament repeated the Ministry of Intelligence’s denial of Bakhshi’s torture. He added that according to documents and confessions, Bakhshi has ‘been in contact with communist parties overseas’.

Earlier January 8, Bakhshi and his lawyer had managed to meet with some members of the reformist faction of the Parliament, who later announced that Bakhshi had somehow revised his story and had claimed he had only been beaten up by security forces.

Therefore, in the course of less than two weeks a myriad of authorities — the Minister of Intelligence, the Public Prosecutor, the Judiciary and the Parliamentary Committee on National Security — have denied Bakhshi’s torture, and reduced the case to ‘scuffles’ with security forces at the time of arrest. Moreover, they have turned the table, and changed Bakhshi’s position, from a complainant to that of a potential ‘accused’ with threats of legal prosecution hanging over his head. In addition to the usual ambiguous charges of ‘spreading propaganda against the state’ and ‘disturbing public order’, Bakhshi has now been accused of links with Iranian ‘communists’ overseas.

Both Bakhshi and his lawyer have responded to these threats, but they in a disadvantageous position vis-a-vis the experienced and organised brutal repressive apparatuses of the state. On January 16, Bakhshi’s lawyer defended Bakhshi’s claims to torture and asked authorities not to comment on cases still before the courts. The Islamic Revolutionary Court in Shush is still investigating Bakhshi’s case.

There were also other major arrests during the last two months of 2018. Ali Nejati, a retired Haft Tappeh worker and labour activist was arrested at his home in Shush on November 29 when the Haft Tappeh workers’ strikes were taking place. According to his lawyer, Farzaneh Zilabi, he was violently beaten by the security agents when he asked for an arrest warrant, despite his age and serious heart condition. Nejati had been arrested before in 2015 for his labour rights activities. In mid-December 2018, his lawyer Ms Zilabi announced he had been arrested in relation to previous records and participation in the Haft Tappeh strikes, but that he had also been charged with ‘endangering national security’, ‘spreading propaganda against the state’, and ‘disrupting public order’. Nejati remains in prison.

On December 17 and 18, the government arrested 40 leading steelworkers and strike organisers from the National Steel Company in Ahvaz. The steelworks complex came under close surveillance by security and intelligence forces. The plan is to create an Islamic Labour Council there. The arrested workers were gradually released, the last two of them on January 19.

The latest developments, at the time of writing, has been the broadcast of a program on national television on January 19, in which both Bakhshi and Sepideh Gholian are placed before the cameras and deliver forced ‘confessions’ about their real subversive agenda of overthrowing the regime and their connections with Iranian ‘communist’ parties and groupings abroad. A day after the broadcast of this program, security forces attacked Gholian’s home, taking her and her brother away. According to the Haft Tappeh Workers’ Syndicate, security forces attacked Bakhshi’s home and took him away around midnight on January 20. The Syndicate has demanded the release of Bakhshi, Nejati and other imprisoned workers.

The new managing director and creation of ‘Islamic Workers’ Councils’

Given the extent of the success of labour strikes in attracting public support, and fearing an escalation in the situation, the government paid some of the workers’ unpaid wages and, on December 1, appointed a new managing director for the company.

In mid November, the Judiciary announced that the previous managing director of the company had fled the country, after stealing $800 million. Other reports in December claimed he was still in the country. It is still not possible to confirm his whereabouts, given the Mafia-like connections amongst the state authorities and their cronies. The state in Iran is run like an organised crime syndicate.

The formation of Islamic Labour Councils is a major means of breaking workers’ strikes and creating divisions among workers. On December 31, intelligence forces and the Minister of Labour hastily set up sham elections for membership into the Haft Tappeh Islamic Labour Councils. The very existence of the Islamic Labour Councils is a cause of bitter divisions among workers and, under threats and intimidations, some of the striking workers joined the Council. Some 800 of Haft Tappeh workers took part in these elections and eight workers were elected as members of the Islamic Labour Council of the Haft Tappeh Sugarcane Company.

On January 6, the Haft Tappeh Workers’ Syndicate, the true workers’ representative recognised by the workers but not the government, published an announcement in which it rejected the Islamic Labour Council as a bogus anti-labour formation.

The announcement says: ”Physical violence and force is only one way of enforcing anti-labour policies, another means of suppression is through formation of Islamic Labour Councils…Workers are aware and know that the Islamic Labour Councils are neither labour councils nor do they represent workers’ interests; rather, their real task is to act as informers for government intelligence forces…The real nature of the Islamic Labour Councils is defending and protecting the interests of the state; they are anti-labour organisations….To those who yielded to intimidation and threats by intelligence forces, we say it is not late yet, and you can still return to the fold; to those who resisted and defended their honour and reputation, we say thank you and well done! ”

There have been numerous other protests by wage and salary earners in Iran during 2018, notably:

* Truck Drivers — Between May and December, truck drivers were sporadically on strike, including for 10 days in May and 17 days in October. These strikes, organised by the Free Truckers Union, were against high inflation, low fares, insurance costs, and spare parts costs. Truck drivers also demanded the removal of brokers from terminals, increasing pensions and punishing corrupt officials. These strikes spread to more than 300 towns and cities across the country and lasted several weeks. In October 2018, the regime cracked down, arresting hundreds of drivers, charging them with acting ‘against national security’, and threatening them with death penalty. Several international trade union federations, including the US, Italian and Danish transport trade union federations, declared their support for the Iranian truck drivers. On October 12, the International Transport Workers Federation condemned the death penalty charges against drivers.

* Teachers — In October 2018, thousands of teachers went on a two-day national strike in which they went to school but did not hold classes. The Coordinating Council of Teachers Union (CCTU) called the strike. Teachers condemned high inflation, low pay, privatisation of the education system and poor working conditions, and demanded the release of arrested teachers and trade union activists.

Teachers are one of the lowest paid professionals in Iran; they often live below the poverty line and have to resort to a second job in the ‘informal economy’, such as driving taxis, to make ends meet. At least two teachers were arrested during this strike. Later, a 65-year-old retired teacher and union leader, who had written materials critical of the regime, was abducted by Islamic Revolutionary Guards officers and involuntarily committed to a psychiatric hospital. He was later released.

Other protests were by bazaar shop keepers and traders in June 2018, and taxi drivers, hospital employees, office workers, petrochemical workers, municipality workers, farmers and students throughout 2018.

There have also been protests by retirees and those who live off interests on their savings. In 2017, corrupt financialisation of the economy led to the collapse of large private banks and the disappearance of millions of Iranians’ savings. Private banks and financial institutions have been allowed to operate since 2000 and proliferated without Central Bank’s supervision. There were protests against the government and these institutions throughout the country and they continue to this day, but many people have been able to recover their savings.

Solidarity

Within Iran, teachers unions, bus drivers syndicates, the Union of Metalworkers & Mechanics of Iran, truck drivers unions, petrochemical workers, students and others have expressed their solidarity with Haft Tappeh and Ahvaz Steel Industry workers.

On January 9, the five major workers’ organisations — Workers of South Pars Projects, Petrochemical Workers of Mahshahr District and Imam Port City, Workers’ activists in Shush and Andimshek, and Workers of Tehran-Karaj Mehvar — published a statement in support of the Haft Tappeh and Ahvaz National Steel Industry workers.

IndustriALL Global Union and the International Trade Union Council Congress in Copenhagen have issued statements and passed resolutions in support of striking and protesting workers and have called for an end to the repression by the Iranian government. Uniting Food, Farm and Hotel Workers Worldwide (IUF), to which the Haft Tappeh Workers Syndicate is affiliated, also issued a statement in November in support of Haft Tappeh workers.

In early December, more than 80 foreign trade unions and workers organisations wrote an open letter to the Supreme Leader Khamenei expressing their solidarity with striking Iranian workers and asked for the release of Bakhshi and others. Trade unions and labour federations from France, Italy, Brazil, Spain, Indonesia, Senegal, Egypt, Paraguay and a number of other countries signed the letter. French, British, German, Swedish, Danish and Canadian trade unions and labour federations have expressed their support and solidarity.

Conclusion

The Haft Tappeh Sugarcane Company and the National Steel Workers protests are significant because they show the extent of working class consciousness and growing solidarity among sectors of workers in Iran, in the face of the common enemy that they correctly identify as capitalism and theocratic rule.

These protestors are also significant in the history of Iranian working class movement because of the nature of their demands: independent workers’ council, job security and an end to privatisation and casualisation of work. These are the common demands of the entire working class in Iran.

These protests are highly representative of the extent of anger among not only the working class but also the unemployed, the excluded and the marginalised — the social rejects and ‘surplus population’ of capitalism — against the regime and its pro-capital policies.

In both cases, protests that had started with demands over unpaid wages and working conditions have turned into protests against capitalism, neo-liberal privatisation and the deregulation of the labour market.

To keep them under control, the state met some of the lesser demands, such as the partial payment of wages, and beginning to deal with the re-classification of occupations, job security and casualisation of work, but the bigger demands of nationalisation of industries and formation of independent workers’ councils have not been addressed.

Iran’s state is a failed state that survives through sheer repressive control of the society. Its structural crisis is deep and intractable; there are parallel centres of power, some hidden and informal, others in bitter rivalry with one another, all equally corrupt and beyond any possibility of reform.

The situation is tense, but the struggle continues. This is by no means the end of the story.

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