The “cold war” between the US and Iran took an icy turn on Monday 1 February when the US announced plans to station missile defences in states bordering Iran. So now Obama’s diplomatic “offensive” against Iran, ostensibly over the country’s uranium enrichment programme has ground to a halt. Just as those segments of Iran’s opposition movement that are more regime insiders were reportedly negotiating with the “hardliners”.
Meanwhile the so-called “green” opposition of “moderate” Islamists continue to call for a mass demonstration on 11 February, the anniversary of the 1979 revolution. The regime says it will crack down hard on any demonstrations.
One point of view, a hopeful one, says that the longer the protest movement in Iran goes on, the more likely that the workers will begin to reorganise themselves. The following extract from an interview with Homayoun Pourzad from the Network of Iranian Labor Unions by Bill Balderston of the US journal Labor Notes describes the situation for Iranian workers.
Labor Notes: How has the Iranian labour movement fared under the Ahmadinejad regime?
HP: This has been the most anti-labor government of the Islamic Republic over the last 30 years.
The economic crisis has helped Ahmadinejad ram through a new agenda. This is also aided by the acceleration of the percentage (60 percent to 70 percent) of the workforce who are temporary contract workers.
Iran, like other countries, has had an import mania — from food to capital goods. Many local firms are being driven to bankruptcy. Workers’ bargaining power has suffered, with labor supply far outstripping demand.
LN: What government actions have led to tensions with Iranian workers?
HP: The Ahmadinejad government is trying to make it easier to fire workers. There have also been massive privatisations, including turning over many firms to the Revolutionary Guards and the armed forces.
In addition, there is a “subsidies reform law” that is imminent. Previously, the government has provided the equivalent of billions of dollars to subsidize utilities, transportation, gasoline, heating oil, electricity, and water—for both individuals and factories. [This will go.]
This will lead to massive inflation, but the main damage will be that when factories’ costs increase, it will lead to massive layoffs. We believe this will spark huge labour actions, in somewhere between three months to a year.
LN: What sectors of the workforce are active?
HP: The main sectors of the workforce in Iran are in oil and gas, followed by automobiles, steel, textiles, and mining. There are over a dozen nuclei of unions underground and 10 or 11 sectors of the workforce involved.
The best example of recent labor activism is the bus drivers union in Tehran. After a second strike, the union was banned and the security police arrested their leaders, including Mansoor Osanloo. Over 40 of their leaders were fired and some are still unemployed. The government started privatisation; over half the buses are now “owned” by individual drivers.
The other important union involves the sugar cane workers. They are active in an area near the oil fields and have massive (over 90 percent) support of these agricultural workers and their families.
LN: What has been the role of workers in the recent post-election protests?
HP: The recent protests are often portrayed as just a middle-class movement, but workers are in support of the Green Wave actions. The protests are centered in Teheran, especially in the northern part of the city, which is more middle-class. There are less agents there of the regime, like the baseej, so people are not so easily identified. That is the second reason there are not many workers currently out on the streets in these protests. If they are arrested, they would lose their jobs and starve; middle-class demonstrators don't face starvation as a result of their activities.
The labor movement does not identify with any political faction in the current struggle, but once the labor movement becomes strong, it can effect an overall change in policies, including at the international level. We could stop people such as Ahmadinejad from making such an outrageous speech in the UN about the Holocaust.
LN: What is the Ahmadinejad regime's agenda in this crisis?
HP: First, the whole regime supports an IMF-type structural adjustment.
Second, the government is desperate, facing a possible US or Israeli attack, and is seeking funds for its political agenda. They are sensitive to other oil producers (and their unions), but any outside intervention (even more sanctions, which we believe are not now helpful) will allow them to label any Iranian labour activists as agents of foreign powers.
Third, there will be major layoffs, which would be aggravated by sanctions as well as government policies, which can lead to huge labor actions, especially amongst industrial workers.
The current regime desperately wishes to join the WTO (World Trade Organization), which requires meeting certain ILO guidelines. Therefore, union members and leaders in the West can pressure their national and international federations to demand union organising rights in Iran as well as freeing imprisoned labor leaders.
• The Network of Iranian Labor Unions can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and a new website, iranlaborreport.com.
• Full interview can be found at http://www.uslaboragainstwar.org/article.php?id=21312