A fresh breeze in the labour movement in Iran
Fariborz Pooya: What’s the news in the labour movement in Iran?
Bahram Soroush: There are many strikes that are taking place. They follow the recent successful textile workers’ strike in the city of Sanandaj, western Iran, which we have talked about on the TV previously.
Fariborz Pooya: What were the demands of the strikers?
Bahram Soroush: They had a series of demands: reinstatement of six sacked workers; payment of overdue wages, improvement of health and safety, an end to contract work, and the revoking of the disciplinary rules. Those were the main issues around which the strike took place. An important point to bear in mind is that this was a long-running strike; it went on for 17 days. It received a lot of support from the people in the city and from around the country, from workers in other industries, as well as from the labour movement internationally. The workers remained very united, despite the fact that the management and the government tried to intimidate the workers back to work.
Fariborz Pooya: Effectively, it turned into a national dispute. Everybody was focusing on it and there was daily reporting of the strike on TV International.
Bahram Soroush: On New Channel TV (which TV International is broadcast on) we had two live programmes about the strike in Farsi. As you know, the New Channel TV runs 24 hours a day. The textile workers and their families could follow the programmes live, and they were very happy that the strike was being covered on the TV. A lot of people from around the world called in to offer their support. The Iranian regime was saying this is a political strike because the Worker-communist Party of Iran (WPI) is involved. They said the WPI is showing it on its TV and is supporting it. The workers responded by saying, ‘meet our demands, so nobody will be involved’!
Fariborz Pooya: Absolutely.
Bahram Soroush: The radicalisation of the workers’ movement was very evident. That just shows the new developments in the labour movement in Iran.
Fariborz Pooya: That’s quite significant, because everybody in the city of Sanandaj could follow the strike as it unfolded. So it wasn’t as if the workers were facing the management and the oppressive forces of the Islamic government on their own. The government had to face not only the workers, but the people of Sanandaj and, to some extent, the whole of the people of Iran. Also, international opinion was constantly putting pressure on the Islamic government. Many trade unions from around the world in fact responded to the request and put their support behind the textile workers.
Bahram Soroush: Exactly. 51 Union Locals in the USA wrote solidarity letters. Oil workers in Norway supported the strike. The ICFTU (International Confederation of Free Trade Unions) actively supported the strike, just as they had done previously. The Hospital Employees’ Union (HEU) in British Columbia, Canada, supported the workers, writing protest letters to the president of the Islamic Republic, Mohammad Khatami. There was support from the public sector workers in Canada as well. These are just examples of the support we saw. So, as you rightly say, it became a national issue and the government sensed that as well. For them the victory or defeat of the strike was going to be decisive because the outcome of other strikes would depend on that. The other point is that although the strike was successful, what you are now witnessing is that the Information Ministry (the regime’s secret police) has started to intimidate workers’ representatives. The workers kept a united rank and voice by holding general assemblies. So whenever their representatives, who were elected by the general assembly, were threatened, they asked the management to come and face the assembly. That’s because they had the backing of the assembly. So holding general assemblies became like a tradition, and that’s something the Worker-communist Party of Iran and its predecessor organisations have been advocating for about 25 years. Workers’ general assemblies could be the precursors of a workers’ council movement in Iran. They allow the workers to exercise their will, directly, and increase their power and unity. So that was very significant. What’s happening now is that the Information Ministry is summoning the strikers’ representatives, in particular Mr Farshid Beheshtizad and Mr Sheis Amani, to the Information Ministry and making threats on a daily basis. That’s why the campaign in their defence is continuing.
Fariborz Pooya: So this is the campaign in support of the textile workers. Interestingly, the other sections of the workers’ movement in Iran came out openly in support. The workers of a plant in Sanandaj (Shaho) in fact dedicated a piece of music (‘Life is Life’) to them and solidarity messages were sent from different factories and workplaces in support of the workers. The strike was successful not only in the way the workers conducted the strike – holding general assemblies, electing representatives, successfully confronting the government – but also in igniting a wave of solidarity acts and networks in Iran.
Bahram Soroush: If you cast your mind back to a few years ago in Iran, it was very rare, because of the repression and the brutal suppression of the workers’ movement in Iran, for workers to come out openly in support of each other. But during the past six months to a year we are witnessing that workers more openly and publicly are supporting each other. So we had groups of workers from different industries sending solidarity messages – for example, from the huge Iran Khodro car manufacturing company, as well as from Mashinsazi-e Tabriz, a large engineering tools manufacturer. Let me also mention another point about the strike which I believe made it significant. One of the demands of the strike was the payment of the wages for the strike period. This is very interesting and refreshing. And that demand was won too. The workers really fought against all the odds. You see, during the previous episodes of the strike, the factory had been surrounded by the security forces, by the military, and workers even managed to break that. The strike received tremendous support, which was crucial.
Fariborz Pooya: So a combination of very clear demands, knowing what to do, TV International constantly broadcasting the news of the strike on live programmes, and solidarity from the international labour movement and by various sections of the workers in Iran actually led to the success of the strike. Recently, another group of workers near the Caspian Sea, the workers at Foomenat factory – who are textile workers as well – have been on strike. What has been happening there?
Bahram Soroush: Probably the reason we are hearing a lot from the textile workers’ strikes – and there have been a number of them – is because of the privatisation and the contracting out that is taking place in that industry. Actually, that is one of the issues uniting a lot of the sectors in Iran. The workers are afraid that the government and the employers are turning all contracts into temporary, often three-monthly, contracts, which is leading to a tremendous deterioration of the conditions in terms of job security, pay, benefits and protections. So the workers are taking a lot of strike actions around that issue and also on the issue of non-payment of wages, or overdue wages, which is an acute issue. If you bear in mind how low the level of workers’ pay in Iran already is, which even with overtime work is not enough to eke out a living for many workers’ families, you can imagine the disastrous consequences of that. The workers of Foomenat Spinning and Weaving Company in northern Iran have not been paid for 11 months! The workers were holding a protest assembly in front of the factory when riot police savagely attacked them, resulting in a number of injuries, with some workers ending up in hospital with broken limbs. We know that the Iranian regime has done that previously, and its record is one of killing, torture, imprisonment of workers and workers’ leaders, the smashing of labour organisations, etc., in its 25-year existence. The difference is that now the regime finds itself on the defensive. So the security forces quickly denied that they had attacked the workers and said that in fact they cared for workers! Of course, they talked rubbish, because the evidence was there, but what’s important is that now they have to go on denial from the next day. The workers are continuing with that fight. That incident has received widespread coverage in Iran and led to outrage among the people. The Foomenat workers have said they intend to sue those responsible for the attack.
As in the Foomenat strike, the issues around which workers are organising are more and more general issues, common to all workers, such as non-payment of wages, threats of redundancies, contracting out, and the dramatic rise in temporary and even so-called ‘blank’ (with no terms and conditions specified) contracts, which is creating, as the workers have called it, slave labour. The difference with six months ago, a year ago, is that the mood in the labour movement has changed. The demands are not just defensive, but increasingly offensive, with workers calling for improvement in conditions, pay increases, etc. Of course, it is still early days, but we are seeing a fresh breeze in the labour movement. That is what is interesting.
Fariborz Pooya: So the demands of Foomenat textile workers are still outstanding. They are calling on various solidarity organisations to express support for their struggle, first of all condemning the fact that they have been brutally suppressed, and also putting pressure on the Iranian government and demanding that they meet the workers’ demands.
The above is a transcript of a TV International interview conducted by Fariborz Pooya on March 7, 2005.