SL: Working class organisations in Iran have taken different forms to lesser or greater degree during different historical periods. Trade unions. The desire and appetite for building workers’ organisations have always existed in Iran. In this interview we are discussing different aspects of workers’ organisations in Iran. Their successes, their defeats and the underlying reasons for their existence or lack of. Let's begin with the current events. Workers in Haft-Tapeh Sugar Cane factory have been protesting for years demanding better working conditions. They organised themselves in councils. Their leaders and activists have been arrested. Could you expand on their struggle?
AM: Unpaid wages and the right to create their independent organisation, i.e. independent of the state, have been among workers’ top demands at Haft Tapeh and for most workers. Workers’ organisations were crushed after the 1981 clamp down by the state. In the case of Haft Tapeh sugar cane plant, they created a union in 1974 which was later shut down by the state and re-launched in autumn 2008 after a long struggle by the workers.
Haft Tapeh workers have been periodically protesting against hardship, for overdue wages, for opening their organisation since 2005. In this year workers organised a round of protests demanding 3 months overdue wages; their main slogan: “we’re Haft Tapeh workers, we’re hungry!” Later, during 2007-2008, they escalated their protest and took to the streets, marching and sit-ins in front of government offices and blocking Ahvaz- Andimeshk road. In November 2007 a letter was written and signed by 2500 of workers to Khuzestan labour authorities demanding the re-opening of their organisation (Union/syndicate). The signatories of the letter were arrested. Nevertheless, the union’s re-launching board was officially introduced in May 2008 and in October the Haft Tapeh Union was re-opened by the vote of more than 1000 workers.
The last round of protests and strike began in 2017. All through 2017 and 2018 workers were protesting over unpaid wages, getting rid of the management, and the right to have control over their organisation. Workers’ leaders have been arrested and beaten up. For a short period in 2018 workers managed to get rid of some of the management and exercise a semi-control over the workplace. In winter 2018 Haft Tapeh workers went on strike for 27 days, took their protest to the streets, succeeded to attract a great deal of support not only by the people of Shush, but nationwide.
It was during this protest that Esmaeil Bakhsi, a workers’ leader introduced the slogan of creating workers’ independent council and general assembly. He also talked about workers’ control. These ideas were warmly received by the working class, left and communist activists in universities and nationwide.
This was the height of the working class movement in general and Haft Tapeh in particular. The regime clamped down on the workers, arrested some 20 activists. After couple of days all but Esmaeil Bakshi and Sepide Gholyan, a worker activist were freed. Later on, Ali Nejati, the senior member of the union since 2008 was also arrested. Since the clamp down, some workers have sporadically organised some protests, mainly for freeing their jailed comrades and over overdue wages. However, the initial momentum has been slowed down dramatically.
It must also be mentioned that during the same time of the last strike by the Haft Tapeh workers, workers of the steel plant in Ahvaz too went on strike for similar demands. They too, took their protest to the streets of Ahvaz and received nationwide support by workers, and the general public. They organised their general assembly regularly and decided on their actions. Steel workers were also attacked by the security forces and their leaders arrested.
Haft Tapeh and Steel workers’ protest movement was the height of the working class movement in the past one year and half since the mass uprising of January 2018. Their leaders gained national popularity and became well-known nationally and also internationally by the working class.
Their attempt to create councils was not successful but it definitely left its mark in the society. It must be mentioned that workers’ council are not a new phenomenon in Iran. During the 1979 revolution many workers organised councils in their factories and some managed to organise regional ones. However, as mentioned above, after the bloody clamp down of June 1981 all councils were abolished and workers leaders and activists arrested, tortured and many executed.
SL: What is the difference between different organisations for example General Assembly, Unions and Factory Committees?
AM: There is no rigid definition of these two forms of organisations. Workers’ councils have historically come to existence in revolutionary periods, or at times of deep political crisis; Paris commune, Russian Revolution 1905 and 1917, in Italy, Germany, Poland and some other countries in the 1920’s council movements were formed. Sometimes there were factory organisations, and in other cases, the most prominent Russian Revolution of 1917, they became political organisations in wider context. In Iran during the 1979 revolution a vibrant council movement emerged but it was mostly a factory council.
Workers’ committees also emerged during the 1917 October Revolution. They became widespread and powerful; however, the councils/ Soviets gained the upper hand. The committees seem to be more a delegate organisation, where the workers representatives gather to pursue workers demands and make decisions over the process of struggle. Whereas, councils are mass organisations, where all workers participate and make decisions in general assemblies and at times elect their representatives.
One must consider a very significant point, if workers’ organisations, i.e. councils, committees and unions, were once spontaneous organisations of the period, they are no longer politically neutral. Different political movements uphold and promote different workers organisations; e.g. trade unions soon became the organisations of social democracy and the left of the bourgeoisie, whereas councils have historically been promoted and organised by communists and as it was mentioned, they appear at the time of political turbulence and afterwards are crushed by the bourgeoisie; therefore General Assembly movement can be a more sustainable and practical alternative of workers’ organisation. The latter provides workers’ full participation and direct action in the factory where activists are not singled out, hence reducing security risks.
SL: All different forms of organisation within the working class in Iran is a reflection of different movements within the working class. Trade union movement being a reformist tendency; and Councils being direct participation of workers. Is that why the WPI-Hekmatist party favours the Council movement as opposed to Trade Union movement?
AM: This is definitely an important factor. Trade unions or syndicates (as they’re called in Iran) are the labour branch of the social democratic movement. They are an instrument of the bourgeoisie to subdue workers’ radicalism and militancy, they force agreements on workers, and they are bureaucratic.
Councils in Iran are a familiar phenomenon among the working class. They have contemporary history. The fact that workers in Iran, during 1979-1981 created councils, is also another factor. In Iran, materials to build councils is already available, so it facilitates their creation. Having said that we must emphasize that even though we promote councils and work for their creation, we support any forms of workers organisation that workers build to materialise their demand. We are not against other forms of workers’ organisations that struggle for workers’ rights and conditions; we believe councils are better forms of class organisation. Manssor Hekmat clearly explains:
“V) Councils and general assemblies (regular and organised) is the correct stance regarding workers' mass organisations in Iran, because:
Politically, it is nearer to the needs of the workers in Iran (not being limited to economic and legal arenas).
It is practically possible (general assembly is the natural form of most workers' struggles, it conceals the weakness of workers in Iran to form complicated hierarchal organisations, it relies on direct power of organised mass, and it is easy to defend).
Its practical backbone is not reformism or social democracy; it is the Paris Commune and the October revolution. Its educational weight for workers is precious.
With the development of the revolution and radicalization of the masses, it does not lose its capacity for struggle but rather it enhances it. General assemblies are workers' and councils' direct democratic basis.
The workers' movement has already proven the practicality of this policy.” - Mansoor Hekmat published in the journal "Towards Socialism" number 3, September 1989. Translated by Maryam Kousha - July 2009.)
SL: What is the underlying reason for the unsuccessful formation of trade union movement in Iran?
AM: To answer this question one needs to look at the history of the working class in Iran. Dictatorship and the absence of an ongoing reformist party definitely have played an important role. At 1979 the capitalist system was quite young in Iran, the land reform took place in 1960s and subsequently a massive migration of peasant population to urban areas changed the composition of the working class dramatically. Full employment and increase of oil revenue in a short time in the 70s were all contributing factors. At the time of revolution, revolutionary solutions came to fore and a strong council movement came to existence among the working class. The Islamic Regime has heavy-handedly crushed all efforts by the workers for creation of independent organisations, and imposed “Islamic councils” on them. The fact that IR has taken over the term council shows the strength and popularity of council among the Iranian working class. However, There have been efforts to create some syndicates (union) in the past 15 years, e.g. Tehran city bus drivers and Haft Tapeh sugar cane plant. They have constantly been harassed by the regime and their leadership jailed. In Haft Tapeh Esmaeil Bakhsi introduced the councils and gained popularity but soon crushed. Bus Drivers Syndicate has become paralysed by the state.
SL: To what extend is the Council movement more realistic to succeed in Iran? Does it depend on the growth of Worker-communist movement?
AM: As was mentioned, councils come to existence at revolutionary periods or in political crisis, this is the political climate in Iran now. If the bourgeoisie succeeds to crush the working class and popular movement, then councils will also be crushed. We, Worker-communists promote and work for councils, and hopefully as we become stronger so will be the council movement. But the history has shown that councils have solid place among the working class. Now they are becoming popular among the wider population.
It is interesting that in Iran, despite daily suppression, workers go on strike, form General Assemblies and stage protest meetings. Does this mean that formation of radical and progressive organisations within the working class can one day overcome all limitations; and promise a better world in Iran?
AM: When workers are desperate they are forced to take actions; this iMs a life lesson. At present the minimum wage is 4 times below the poverty line, how could anyone expect people to live under such harsh conditions. Particularly in the past one and a half years, there have been workers’ strikes every day, in all cities and all sectors. If you consider teachers and nurses and pensioners then the numbers will add up significantly. The anti-IR sentiments are deep and strong. People despise the regime and its leaders. The state tries to suppress discontent and opposition, as it can be expected. However, the balance of power has shifted. IR cannot crush the opposition the way it once could. The reformist faction of the IR has jumped ship and joined the old-regime movement. Taking these factors into consideration the downfall of this regime is in view. The question is which political movement finds the upper hand; If Worker-communism is able to become a prominent political force in the country the answer to your question is positive; otherwise we go through the same cycle.
⏭Asar Majedi is a Member of Hekmatist Party leadership & Chairperson of Organisation for Women’s Liberation