Standing Tall:
Iranian Labor Movement and Solidarity

Maziar Seyednejad, a jailed labor activist, writes from Evin prison, recalling the struggles of the National Steel Industrial Group of Ahvaz and the Haft-Tappeh Sugarcane five years ago. He asks, “The most important question before us is why, after five years, amidst various circles of economic protests, general uprisings, and the advocacy of women and minorities, has there still not been a solid and amplifying connection between these two?”

Maziar was sentenced last year by the Tehran Revolutionary Court to two years in prison for the charge of “membership in communist groups,” one year in prison for the charge of “propaganda against the regime,” and as an additional punishment, he was banned from leaving the country for two years, prohibited from membership in parties and groups, and banned from online activities. He is currently serving his sentence in prison.

Evin Prison, Tehran – These days, concurrent with the intensification of labor protests and retiree strikes, we are witnessing a new wave of protests by the workers of the National Steel Group of Khuzestan. They are demanding equalization of wages, payment of delayed salaries, and reinstatement of the factory’s dismissed workers.

Five years ago was the peak of protests and strikes by the workers of the National Steel Group and Haft Tappeh Sugarcane. December 1, 2018, marked a magnificent scene of coordinated protests by workers of these two companies, held with slogans of worker solidarity. Some of these slogans included:

“We and the steel workers, against injustice and oppression, will fight, will fight,” “We are workers of fire, we will bring down oppression,” and “We are Haft-Tappeh workers, we are hungry, hungry.”

Undoubtedly, the strikes and protests by the workers of the National Steel Group and Haft-Tappeh were a shining chapter in labor struggles. They not only changed the framework of labor protests but also helped raise awareness in society at large. These protests sensitized the society to the looting and plundering carried out under the guise of privatization, and helped people understand the link between privatization policies and the widening class divide.

The protest of the National Steel Group demonstrated that labor representatives are not decision-makers beyond the protesting workers. These representatives consult the general assembly for every decision, and convey the decisions of the worker’s general assembly to the employer or the public.

Furthermore, these protests were a scene of workers’ presence along with their families. It showed the broader society that the job instability of workers is linked with the instability of life for vast segments of society, ending in the destruction of the future of subsequent generations. It also highlighted that women are the most affected by this instability, as it disrupts the reproductive functions of the working-class society the most.

It’s been five years since those days and since my first arrest, and now I proudly bear the cost and support the protest of the workers of the National Steel Group and Haft-Tappeh Sugarcane. In these five years, our society, including wage earners, women, youth, immigrants, and all oppressed minorities, has gone through numerous experiences.

My birthplace, Khuzestan, witnessed a general uprising for water, and last year, a progressive movement with the slogan “Jin, Jiyan, Azadî” (Woman, Life, Freedom) targeted the heart of the ruling ideological system.

Considering this five-year history, we need to review our protest experiences and clarify their positive and negative aspects. The most important question before us is why, after five years of various circles of economic protests alongside general uprisings and advocacy for women and minorities, a solid and amplifying connection between these two has not yet been established.

The overall answer to this question is difficult, but based on my personal experience with the National Steel Industrial Group and Haft-Tappeh Sugarcane, one of the main reasons for their difficulty in connecting with broader societal issues can be identified as the problems of forming stable organizations. Although the models tried in these two led to the empowerment of workers in decision-making, the unclear mechanisms and drifting into slogans far from the objective reality of the workers’ protests caused this organization to be unstable and weak against the erosive pressures of repressive forces and capitalists.

The new wave of labor and retiree protests, considering the past five years of experience, can potentially be accompanied by more cohesive and powerful mechanisms for collective organization of workers in the form of syndicates, unions, or any other form they decide.

A Struggle for Fairness and Dignity

About three thousand workers of Ahvaz Steel have been on strike for a month in protest against the ban on the entry of dozens of their colleagues into the factory and the incomplete implementation of the job classification plan.

The demands of the workers of the National Industrial Steel Group of Iran include lifting the ban on the entry of suspended workers into the company and the return of previously dismissed workers, equalizing wages according to the earnings of workers in neighboring steel companies based on the living costs of a four-person household, and the immediate and full implementation of job classification.

The workers of Shafaq have become contractual, the dismissal of the CEO of the group, expropriation from the National Bank, workers’ participation in the management of the company, and transparency of the company’s financial balance sheet, which belongs to the people and the entire society, have been announced as their other demands.

In a joint statement by four labor organizations, referring to this strike and the demands of the workers, it is stated: “These demands have been ignored by the employer and company management for years, and workers have never been given a clear response.”

The Haft-Tappeh Sugarcane Workers’ Syndicate, the Retirees’ Unity Group, the Coordination Committee for Assisting in the Formation of Labor Organizations, and Khuzestan Retired Workers wrote: “Many of these workers, who are now courageously standing against Mohammad, the corrupt manager of the National Steel Group, and the National Bank, which has been handed over the ownership of the factory, are demanding his dismissal. They belong to a generation of young workers who have learned the lesson of struggle from their veteran working comrades.”

They mentioned that in the 70s of the Solar calendar, “the workers of the Ahvaz Pipe Factory, which was shut down by the government and the private sector and its workers were also dismissed, were protesting in the streets for months to prevent the fate they wanted to impose on them, and it was during these protests that they pulled the door of the Khuzestan Governorate’s building and entered it due to the authorities’ shirking their responsibilities.”

According to this statement, the Pipe Factory was one of the factories of the National Industrial Steel Group of Ahvaz, which after the factory was shut down, its machinery was sold as scrap iron.

The signatory organizations of the statement, referring to the long-term strikes of the past years of the group and their marches in the city of Ahvaz, added: “Now, this generation of workers of the National Group has the right to stop production with their protest and strike and call the management corrupt and their enemy. Because they know that due to the irresponsibility and self-interest of the employer and management, if they do not fight for their demands, they will undoubtedly face the fate of the Pipe Factory workers.”

The Haft-Tappeh Sugarcane Workers’ Syndicate, the Retirees’ Unity Group, the Coordination Committee for Assisting in the Formation of Labor Organizations, and Khuzestan Retired Workers added that “today’s protest of the workers is a defense of their class identity and right to life, and the continuation of these protests is a practical lesson and experience for the workers of the Khuzestan Steel Complex, National Drilling, Oil Company, Gas Company, Petrochemicals, and workers of other factories and production centers who are deprived of their rights in the current political and economic system.”

They also emphasized the necessity of creating independent organizations in the form of syndicates or unions by the workers and said that independent labor organizations are the refuge and tool of collective power for workers.

My journey in creating this space was deeply inspired by James Baldwin’s powerful work, “The Fire Next Time”. Like Baldwin, who eloquently addressed themes of identity, race, and the human condition, this blog aims to be a beacon for open, honest, and sometimes uncomfortable discussions on similar issues.

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