Deutsche Welle Radio
Translated by Frieda Afary,
Iranian Progressives in
Translator's Note: Dr. Mohammad Maljoo is an Iran-based researcher and lecturer
who specializes in political economy. On February 6, 2010, Mahindokht Mesbah of
the Persian language Deutsche Welle Radio conducted an interview with him.
Translated excerpts follow.
Labor Actions: Three Decades
of Ebb and Flow
DW: Our discussion concerns the ebbs and flows of the labor movement in Iran
during the past 31 years. First, let's address the movement itself and then its
ebbs and flows. Can we essentially speak of a labor movement in Iran?
MM: I think the phrase, labor actions, would be a more appropriate title for our
discussion today. A movement has its own definitions, organizations and leaders.
It is difficult to speak of a labor movement during the rule of the Islamic
Republic. The working class, has had actions here and there. These actions can
be divided into different periods. It is difficult for me to speak of a labor
DW: Let's start by reviewing these periods. What were the specific features of
the first decade [after the 1979 Revolution-tr] given the utopian air of the
immediate post- revolutionary period, the war [Iran-Iraq War 1980-1988-tr], and
the establishment of the House of Labor and Islamic labor councils?
MM: In order to answer your questions, I will skip the first two years after the
revolution. I will start from the time when the leftist organizations which
defended the working class were destroyed by the ruling forces in a variety of
ways and were practically eliminated from the political scene.
The formation of workers' councils after the revolution, made the Islamic
Republic realize that the working class had been guided and assisted by various
political leftist groups in demanding its rights. These demands naturally
created problems for the ruling political establishment. Therefore, the Islamic
labor councils were formed to confront these difficulties. These councils were
practically tools for the ruling political system to control the working class
or to control labor activists.
During the reign of the governments for which Mir-Hossein Mousavi was prime
minister [1981-1989 -tr], the independent and semi-independent workers' councils
which had been formed during the honeymoon of the revolution, were completely
destroyed. During these same ten years, we saw serious developments on the
political scene. With the expropriation or escape of the bourgeoisie, which had
risen under the system of monarchy, this class was replaced by another newly
rising class. This newly rising class which became well established in the 1990,
did not create any improvements in the condition of the working class to advance
the workers' welfare or rights. During the sixteen year period of the
governments of Mr. Hashemi Rafsanjani [1989-1997-tr] and Mr. Khatami [1997-2005-tr],
despite the ups and downs, the dominant economic outlook was concerned with
advancing the upper economic class formed in the 1980s. This outlook set the
rules of the game in such a way as to allow for the accumulation of capital by
the new class. Only through the "trickling down effect" would other social
classes including the working class and the poor benefit.
DW: Was the political logic of the second period, different from the first
period? How did the labor councils or the remaining organizations operate during
MM: These two periods are parts of a larger puzzle. During the first period,
independent workers' organizations were eliminated and suppressed on the basis
of the claim that they were tools of leftist groups. This period was
characterized by property expropriations, and the granting of privileges and
monopolies on import and export. This trend was intensified with the end of the
war. During the second period, no organization even existed for the government
to confront. During this period, Islamic councils remained and had a monopoly on
labor organizations. In addition to the pressures imposed by the rulers, the
Islamic councils would not allow any other organization to grow.
During the 1990s, the upper class which had risen during the first decade after
the revolution, was able to provide the finance capital, the human capital and
the increasing knowledge of the global world that allowed it to develop. The
strategy of this class was also to promote the accumulation of capital as the
only way to benefit the lower classes.
DW: What was the outcome of this situation among wage laborers, workers and
toilers? Did they accept these terms? Were they not demanding their rights or
MM: Yes they did. That is why I say that we should speak of labor actions and
not a labor movement. At that time, communication and the flow of information
was not as speedy as today. As a result, the information we have from this
period is limited. Strikes and protests mostly spread through word of mouth.
Labor actions during this period were often controlled by the Islamic councils
and the House of Labor. The key point is that the majority of the protests
during the 1990s were over bread and butter issues and did not challenge the
political system and the capitalist class. The actions concerned unpaid wages,
the shortening of the working day, etc.
DW: How did the labor laws after the revolution benefit the workers?
MM: During the first decade, there was no labor law. There were drafts about
which different groups had various views. These drafts which were shuffled back
and forth in the thick of political battles between the parliament, the Council
of Guardians and the government, only became law in 1991 with the mediation of
the Expediency Council. This is the law that is enforced today.
This law has granted some benefits to the working class and toilers. It has
placed some restrictions on the summary dismissals of workers. The degree of
actual enforcement of this law, and the degree to which it has restricted
employers in the actual power relations, is a matter of debate. On the other
hand, by banning independent workers' organizations, this law, has given
privileges to the established political system. This law does not recognize
workers' right to collective action and collective bargaining. Chapter six of
this law has been consistently under attack by labor activists, writers,
economists, etc. during the past eighteen years. Only previously existing
Islamic councils that exist under the umbrella of the House of Labor, have come
to terms with this law.
DW: Let's return to your periodization by decades. Tell us about the specific
features of the third decade.
MM: This period begins with Mr. Ahmadinejad [Ahmadinejad became president in
June 2005-tr]. Despite his popular election slogans, his policies represented a
type of class reconfiguration. Ahmadinejad and his ninth cabinet were determined
to elevate those loyal and committed to the government, who were in the middle
layers of the power and wealth pyramid.
The ninth government's effort to change the class configuration of society, did
not benefit the bourgeoisie that was formed in the 1980s and 1990s. The [ninth
government's -tr] goal was to displace the technocrats associated with parties
such as Participation, Kargozaran, the Mujahedeen of the Islamic Revolution, and
other reformists organizations, and to replace them with newly emerging classes
and sectors dependent on the ninth government.
DW: Did the ninth government attempt to buy off the toilers in order to
strengthen its own front?
MM: No, the ninth government at best allowed the lower classes to participate in
the reproduction of economic wealth in limited and ineffective ways. This
limited distribution only included the sectors that were anticipated to vote for
and support this government.
Proof for my statement can be found in the amendment to the labor law which was
proposed by the Ministry of Labor during the second year of the ninth
government. This amendment has been going through various channels and is being
ratified without public knowledge. As in the past, chapter six of the labor law
does not give workers the right to create their independent organizations. . .
DW: Despite the increase in lay offs, unemployment, inflation and costs, why are
we not hearing anything from the masses of workers? Why aren't the workers
MM: But they are exerting themselves! According to research done by Dr.
Bashirieh, there have been labor actions. There have been factory protests,
strikes, petitions etc. The masses of workers have exerted themselves. However,
prior to the historical juncture marked by June 12, 2009 [the date of the
fraudulent presidential election which set off the current wave of mass
protests-tr] these exertions were fragmented and not under the umbrella of any
national organization. In fact, we can say that although labor actions have not
taken the form of a movement, they have been a problem for the ninth government.
DW: Can we expect new labor actions in the post-June 12, 2009 period?
MM: A new period started after June 12. However, the outlook is still not clear
in labor discussions or in many other arenas. A unique feature of this period is
that labor actions are more prominently placed on the agenda than in the past.
Among workers, there is a potential for coordination with the civil rights
. . . The plan to impose targeted monetary subsidies [to phase out existing
subsidies on basic goods and gas-tr], or the ratification of the amendment to
the labor law, can link labor actions to the recent movement and the middle
class. In this context, the formation of various workers organizations is within
sight. Of course this is a possibility.
The current political movement has created a division within the ruling
political class. This gives an opportunity to the dissatisfied to express
themselves. The working class has an opportunity. In this context, the
possibility of the transformation of labor actions into a national movement in
the coming months or in the coming two or three years is likely. . .
DW: Let's speak about the visible networks. Why are the existing workers'
organizations present in the service and non-industrial fields? Examples are the
Syndicate of Vahed Bus Drivers, the [Haft Tapeh--tr] Sugar Cane Workers
Syndicate, the Syndicate of Khabbaz workers, etc. Why don't these organizations
exist in heavy industry?
MM: There are two possible reasons. In heavy industry, the government is the
employer. The possibility of bankruptcy, delayed payments, or financial problems
is less likely in these enterprises, because the government supports them. Less
pressure on workers reduces the interest in organization. The other reason is
that, the small sector of the aristocracy of labor that may exist in Iran's
economy, is employed in heavy industry. There is also more governmental control
over large enterprises. . . . Another barrier is the Islamic labor council which
continuously seeks influence. Don't forget that, in addition to governmental
mistreatment, severe pressure has been placed on the Vahed Bus Drivers Syndicate
by the Islamic labor council. . .
DW: In order to sum up this discussion, let's recall the determinant role of
labor strikes in achieving victory in the  Revolution and the determinant
role of the oil workers in bringing the Pahlavi regime down to its knees.
MM: In order to respond to your question, I will refer you to unpublished
research done by Dr. Ahmad Ashraf, to which I have had access. Based on this
research, the working class and workers' organizations in Iran embarked the ship
of the revolution on its last stop. In contrast to what is commonly believed by
many leftist intellectuals and especially intellectuals abroad, the working
class was not the vanguard of the revolution. The group that embarked the ship
of the revolution on its last stop, did not constitute all sectors of the
working class. It was only the industrial working class. However, as the
researchers state, once this group embarked the ship, it became the determinant
in the victory of the revolution. . . .
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