Self-organized mass strike grows across Iran

15 July, 2021

Originating in the oil industry, the largest mass strike in the last 30 years is taking place throughout Iran. It is a movement self-organized by the workers and centralized through assemblies.
Originating in the oil industry, the largest mass strike in the last 30 years is taking place throughout Iran. It is a movement self-organized by the workers and centralized through assemblies.

The new wave of struggles involves more workers in a single assembly movement than the mass strike which swept through Iran’s petrochemical sector, steel mills and power plants last August. Organized at first through Telegram groups, workers tended to centralize the struggles from the first moment, organizing themselves in general village and city assemblies and then in assemblies between centers and localities, permanently connected. To this day, the workers have defeated both the companies’ attempts to divide the workforces and the threats of repression.

Table of Contents

Background and context of the current massive strike

Oil workers protest in Iran during the August 2020 mass strike
Oil workers protest in Iran during the August 2020 mass strike

At its highest point, last year’s mass strike eventually spread to more than 50 plants across the country. It was the biggest wave of struggles in 30 years. The companies gave in to some of the workers’ demands, but when push came to shove, nothing happened. This year, however, something has changed. Since last August isolated strikes broke out at various plants over the months and even a simultaneous strike at a handful of refineries in October, but several events in recent months have reheated spirits among Iranian workers and raised the scale of the struggles.

The Iranian economy keeps racing downhill, losing more and more capacity to support exploitation and domestic consumption. With a semi-colonial economy forcing the state to import much of the consumer goods and machinery to maintain productive capacity, the export blockade means the state has no access to dollars. And without those dollars it cannot pay for the imports that keep piling up: several million tons of basic goods are now stuck in Iranian ports

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The balance of trade disaster coupled with the dismal state of Iranian industry continues to push inflation ever higher: at the beginning of this year alone inflation was at 48.2%. The Iranian state sets the annual minimum wage – supposedly fixing it with respect to inflation – on the Persian New Year (March 20 in 2021) and this year has increased it by 39%. Not only does this fall below general inflation, it leaves most workers below the poverty line

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The state set the minimum wage at 4 million tomans (approximately 1000€ at the inflated official exchange rate), but due to rampant inflation, associations and unions calculate that the minimum wage to be able to access the basic consumption basket should be 12 million tomans, triple, a slogan we will see repeated as the struggle spreads to become a large mass strike.

Moreover, the increase in transfers from labor to capital by setting the wage well below inflation is not the only effect of the collapse of the Iranian productive apparatus, there are from repeated blackouts in midsummer causing deaths in hospitals to an absence of vaccines and anti-covid measures that have caused hundreds of deaths among salaried cab drivers and public transport drivers in Tehran.

How to organize a mass strike

One of the first clandestine face-to-face assemblies -in the middle of the countryside- that are at the origin of this mass strike
One of the first clandestine face-to-face assemblies -in the middle of the countryside- that are at the origin of this mass strike

With this backdrop a major strike broke out in the petrochemical and energy sector starting on June 20 this year. In less than a month it has already spread to over 100 plants and facilities, almost twice as many as last year, jumping over region, company and pay grade divides. By early July it was already a major mass strike and faced repression and layoffs, but it is still going strong and spreading territorially.

What seems surprising to several outside witnesses – as both Iranian and foreign media interviews correctly note – is the ability of the strikers to coordinate on such a large scale, especially given how geographically isolated they are in the midst of the fields and refineries, as well as the divisions in pay grades. How did the strikers organize themselves? A striking worker from Assaluyeh’s petrochemical plant replies:

Worker: Since the beginning of the strike, more than 90 percent of the workers joined the strike. That number has now reached 100 percent because now the same percentage that went to work in the first days of the strike are no longer going to work because there is basically no more work. These people who were going to work at the beginning of the strike were mostly service workers, entry level workers, and as I said, they were getting the lowest wages and they were afraid that the employer would fire them and easily hire other people in their place. […]

Later, when we talked to them, they said “we were afraid, we who are not experienced like you, the employer can fire us immediately and hire other people instead of us.” They said, “Our heart is with you and we want the strike to succeed.” However, as I said, they stopped showing up for work later.

Interviewer: How did the strike start? Since the contract workers or projects are employed by different companies and work in different refineries and petrochemicals almost separately, how could they strike simultaneously and across the country?

Worker: It is true that the workers work in different refineries and companies, but we are connected. Let me give you an example: for instance, I have worked in different companies, and over the years I have met and become friends with several workers who now work in other companies here.

Also, labor activists from different fields get in touch with each other, know each other closely, and generally know the working conditions in different companies. In addition to all this until a while ago, we had a Telegram group that had more than 4,000 members, and only workers here, by providing their personal numbers, could join. […] So to organize this strike, all these forms, facilities and connections have been used.

Worker: Let me also say that when workers see their own and their colleagues’ situation in the whole region, they clearly feel solidarity and unity. When you tell your colleague at work that I don’t feel well, I have stomachache and headaches, and I think it is because of the food they have given us, and he replies that he doesn’t feel well as he has also eaten that food, and it hurts, I don’t need to make anyone come now and explain to us that we share common pain.

Our pains share common causes. So the question arises what should we do now against these common pains. Strike is one of those things. Contract workers could not tolerate this situation any longer. That is why we went on strike.

The workers were fully aware of their shared interests and the need to come together and centralize the fight for the satisfaction of their common needs which keeps being denied to them, whether this denial comes in the form of misery wages, poisoned food and air or hellish shifts.

First they organized using encrypted tools such as Telegram in order to meet and discuss by circumventing surveillance and Telegraph in order to securely post and share insights and appeals. After this phase, clandestine assemblies of the entire workforce proliferated. When the process finally took hold and the assemblies coordinated and led the strike in each center, they centralized the struggles by forming assemblies between different work centers and opening the center assemblies to the town or city where they were. For instance:

On Saturday, July 10, welders from Hefshjan, Chaharmahal and Bakhtiari province, who are participating in the national strike of oil project workers, stressed in an assembly open to the whole locality that they will remain on strike and will not return to the projects in order to have their wages and insurances increased in accordance with their demands.

The holding of this meeting of welders is a blueprint for the formation of general workers’ assemblies, which is the most effective and best way to make decisions and implement collective decisions of the workers, and this should, if possible, become a model for striking workers in other sectors.

However, strikers still face attempts by companies to break up the strike, especially as long as the organization in assemblies is not completely centralized.

How to confront the attempts to divide the workers

Gachsaran Strike Committee
Gachsaran Strike Committee

The Organizing Council of the Oil Contractor Workers’ Demonstrations, a grouping of workers and activists in which some unionists also participate and which does not claim to be the representation of the assemblies but their dynamizer, summarized Tuesday the four demands of the strikers, which are at the same time the workers’ banner of struggle and the weak point through which the companies are attempting to dismantle the strike:

“We all know that the oil facilities are vast and fragmented,” says a recent statement from the Organizing Council of the Oil Contractor Workers’ Demonstrations. Each of these centers is in the hands of several contracting companies. And due to the exclusion of a nationwide organization, it is difficult to appoint national representatives and nationwide contracts at this time. […]

“In the meanness of this, the contractors try to use our dispersion and employ one party with optimal propositions, and then force the rest of us to work in the same situation as before.”

1. Double the wage increase at all wage levels so that no minimum wage of any worker is less than twelve million tomans. Just as some of our comrades returned to work with the proposal to double their wages, all striking workers must demand double wages. In addition, in many places, our comrades are demanding a portion of their wages from previous months, and their outstanding wages must be paid immediately.

2. Workers should be able to take 20 work days and 10 rest days from the first day of implementation.

3. Camp conditions must be improved, adequate canteens must be established and workplaces must be secured. Therefore, contractors must specifically state what they are taking action in this regard.

4. Agreements will be in writing and formally made. And the government will be obligated to enforce their implementation by contractors.

Indeed, companies have chosen to break the unity of the workers along their weakest fault line: wage differentials. They offer the most skilled welders and workers – who in many cases are the ones who launched the strike – to raise their wages to 12 million or double them in order to get them to break the strike and return to work while the remaining majority stay on the job at poverty wages. However, the trick is not working and as the strikers say:

The last point is to act united and not allow the contracting companies to create divisions in our formation with their conspiracies.

Even facing threats of militarization of companies by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and mass layoffs, Iranian workers keep on fighting and showing the world their great capacity for collective struggle throughout the regions of Iran.

The Iranian authorities are beginning to babble that they will fulfill several of the strikers’ slogans but – as last year’s strike and this March’s wage slashing show – no empty promise will do.

It only remains to be seen how far the struggle and organizing will develop, but what is certain is that the class continues to fight collectively and its struggle keeps moving forward on the basis of asserting the true meaning of centralism. The workers will keep on struggling in Iran and the assembly organization will go ahead, imposing general human needs on the criminal logic of the demands of accumulation, which reduces millions to poverty, and will keep on erecting the only real barrier against the permanent war drive of a stifled capital.