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Iran Workers’ Struggle: Historical Roots and Present-Day Challenges 


May 1 marks International Workers Day, a worldwide and general occasion for protests. While workers’ demonstrations in other countries aim at improving their situation, Iranian workers are trying to achieve their basic rights.  

Strikes and protests by oil and petrochemical workers have been expanding across Iran recently. These workers demand their basic rights, such as a salary, in accordance with Iran’s skyrocketing inflation. Instead of addressing their problem, Iranian authorities have fired thousands of workers.  

“In this region, eight petrochemical projects have been struck by numerous seasonal workers who are protesting their dire livelihood circumstances. Despite the legal deadline, approximately 4,000 workers will be replaced by new recruits,” the state-run Etemad Daily quoted the Manager of Pars Petrochemical Complex on April 29.  

Yet, according to the paper’s reporter, “Shockingly, the actual number of protesting workers is suspected to be as high as 10,000 individuals. These protests are predominantly being carried out by contract workers within the oil industry, including welders, rebar makers, mold makers, painters, insulation workers, and scaffolders.” 

Iranian workers have been struggling to have their righteous share of one the world’s richest nations, to no avail. Their situation has worsened in recent years due to Iran’s unprecedented financial calamity.  

According to the state-run Arman-e Meli newspaper on April 26, “Iran’s economy is plagued by serious issues that demand authorities’ urgent attention. Average inflation rates have remained above 40% since 2018, with February point-to-point inflation exceeding 64%. Initial hopes and the miracle of a 10- to 15-point decrease in inflation without government intervention have not happened. Meanwhile, the volume of liquidity has increased from below 50 quadrillion rials to over 60 quadrillion rials within a year and a half.”  

Earlier this year, and despite much fanfare from the Iranian regime regarding a 27% salary increase for workers at the start of the Persian New Year in March, it was deemed ineffective given the country’s skyrocketing inflation. Shockingly, authorities have failed to honor their own promises. 

Per the state-run Tejarat News site, dated November 13, 2022, a family of two residing in Tehran must endure severe financial distress as the absolute poverty line for them is an exorbitant amount of 320 million tomans. For those living in the city’s outskirts, the situation is scarcely better, with a poverty line of 150 million rials. 

“The 27% salary raise for workers is adopted, but their meager earnings stay behind the ever-growing inflation. So, they cannot make a living,” Tejarat News wrote on March 26.   

Ali Babaei Karnami, the President of Parliament’s Labor Commission, was quoted on the state-run Eghtesad News website on March 21, stating that the Supreme Labor Council’s decision to increase workers’ minimum wage by 27% was inadequate to match inflation rates and sustain households’ livelihood. 

According to the state-run IMNA News on April 13, “The government has declared general inflation rates of 47.7% and 43.7%, along with a point-to-point inflation rate of 63%. However, the inflation rate used to increase workers’ salaries at 27-28% is inconsistent with actual inflation.”  

Meanwhile, the state-run Setar-e Sobh newspaper wrote on April 15, “The prices of basic food items have increased since the beginning of the year. For example, the price of each kilo of poultry, which was around 600,000 to 700,000 rials last year, has now reached 840,000 rials. Taxi and bus fares in Tehran have increased by an average of 40%.” 

In his latest speech addressing his close-knit follower base posing as “workers,” the regime’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei shed crocodile tears for workers yet refused to provide any solution.  

Khamenei, who controls a multi-billion-dollar financial empire and dominates Iran’s economy along with IRGC, blatantly complained about “the accumulated wealth by some individuals.”  

“This has become a culture, and it is wrong. It must stop,” Khamenei postured.  

He also tried to portray workers as forces “siding with the holy system and avoiding being deceived by the enemy.” Yet, he declined to explain why his regime’s authorities deprive workers of their rights, fire them when they protest, and arrest activists.  

Although reaching its height in recent years, the Iranian workers’ plight and their struggle for change, the Iranian labor movement has strong historical roots.   

History of Iranian Workers’ Struggle 

The syndicate of workers and other trade unions began shortly after 1917, influenced by Russia’s October Revolution. These activities continued for a while as Iran was amid a power transition, and the Qajar Dynasty was at its weakest point.  

Reza “The Bully,” the founder of the Pahlavi dictatorship, saw syndicates and parties’ activities as a threat to his throne. So he passed a law called the “black code,” prohibiting any syndicate movement, and began oppressing them. Yet, Reza Khan’s oppression couldn’t stop the movement, and between 1941 and 1946, more labor syndicates and unions were created, with an estimated number of 30,000 enrolled workers.  

Iran’s labor movement reached its height in 1950, with oil workers staging their first strike, paving the way for the country’s oil industry to be nationalized under the leadership of Prime Minister Dr. Mohammad Mosaddeq. Yet, the Shah of Iran brutally oppressed labor unions soon after the 1953 coup against Mosaddeq’s government, stifling the workers’ voice for almost a decade. But workers continued their protests, and these scattered demonstrations and strikes turned into a nationwide movement in the last days of Shah’s reign, disrupting the dictatorship’s economic cycle. Iranian workers, mainly oil workers, played a key role during the 1979 anti-monarchial revolution. Their nationwide strike in late 1979 effectively crippled Shah’s oil-dependent economy and helped bring the dictatorial establishment to its knees.  

After usurping power, the ruling theocracy started a series of actions to curb labor and trade unions’ activities, particularly their growing cooperation with the Iranian opposition, Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK). Aside from brutal oppression, the clerical regime implemented the following measures:  

  • Dismantled labor unions and syndicates under the pretext of “recognizing individual demands.”  
  • Cut the relationship between Iranian syndicates and the global laborers’ movement.  
  • Creating a series of syndicates and unions headed by the regime’s loyal supporters, tasked with spying on workers.  
  • Giving factories and syndicates’ leadership to the Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) affiliates.  

The clerical regime’s main goal was to dismantle any independent workers’ unions, preventing them from organizing nationwide strikes. Yet, the recent strikes and hundreds of others within the last four decades, as well as the rising number of labor activists, indicate the regime’s failure in this regard.  

The Iranian working class, much like the rest of the populace, squarely blames the ruling theocracy for their plight. The clerical regime trembles at the thought of the 14-million-strong workforce, aware of its potential to cripple the kleptocracy’s finances and galvanize a nationwide uprising. Iranian laborers are convinced that the solution lies in nothing short of regime change. The international community must lend support to this resolute demand, echoing the Iranian people’s primary slogan during the past eight months of unrest.