The Workers’ Revolt: Labor’s Role in Iran’s Nationwide Uprisings
Why, after more than two months of protests, have nationwide strikes not yet occurred in Iran, and how do the demands of the current uprising for “women, life, freedom” align with those of the working class? To address these questions, we spoke with Parvin Mohammadi, the vice-chairwoman of the Independent Iranian Workers’ Union. With years of experience in the labor movement and a history of interrogations, arrests, and trials due to her activism, Mohammadi believes that “national labor strikes will happen, but on a different schedule, when this movement becomes wider and involves crowds of thousands in cities.”
Here is an interview with Parvin Mohammadi, one of the leading figures of the Iranian labor movement, for the “AAsoo” platform. The translation of this interview is important for showing the way of thinking and struggle method of labor activists in Iran. This interview was conducted on the first day of December.
Maryam Fomeni: It is now the third month of nationwide protests that began following the killing of Mahsa (Zhina) Amini. What has allowed these protests to continue for so long, unlike the national protests of January 2017 and November 2019, which both subsided after a few days, or even the protests of the Green Movement, which did not exhibit such endurance? What sets these protests apart from previous ones?
Parvin Mohammadi: Iranians have been working towards a more progressive society and a better life since 1906 and the constitutional revolution. Over the past 43 years, in particular, Iranian society has been striving to achieve the unfinished goals of the 1979 revolution. Many of the scattered or nationwide events that have occurred during these four decades have been driven by the desire of the society to bring about change, but they have been unable to do so.
Both the constitutional revolution and the 1979 revolution in Iran were unsuccessful, and now we are seeing the emergence of a third revolution in the past hundred years. Iranian society has once again risen up to determine its own conditions, its own way of life, the administration of society, and its aspirations, which have undoubtedly evolved and become more specific over the past century.
On the other hand, this time Iranian society has learned great lessons from other societies and thanks to the growth of technology and the Internet, access to information has become easy even in the most remote parts of the country. As a result, once again the society has risen to realize its dreams.
Another point is that if we see the uprisings of the last 43 years in the form of sea waves, every time we retreated due to failure, the next wave came biiger forward and the distance between the protest waves decreased. If there was a gap of ten years between student protests in 1999 and protests in 2009, the next protests (2017-2018) happened eight years later and two years after that we had November 2019. Although the government immediately pushed the society back with bloodshed in the whole country after one or two weeks, but “Aban’s mothers Campaign” announced that “Aban continues”.
I also do not believe that the protests have subsided since 2018 and now they have started again. Mothers who raised the flag of justice in 2018 did not put it down, they constantly raised their voices in various events, for example, in their children’s birthday parties, and in solidarity with each other, and they played a special role so that November 2018 is not forgotten and in the minds of the whole society. In addition, in 2021, we witnessed protests related to water shortage in Khuzestan Province, which were suppressed in a very disastrous way, and then there were protests by farmers in Isfahan. But because these were related to one spectrum, it could not include the others.
During the year 2021, the society was so wounded in terms of livelihood and was dragged into poverty and misery that every year we protested to government that the wages you pay are hardly enough to cover the real costs of living, but they denied to hear us. Although the government believed it could stop everything with repression, we felt that this society would soon witness events as a result of the repression.
Mehsa’s murder happened when society was looking for a motivation to overcome everything. In the protests of the previous years, they did not shout so directly against the head of the government and about the abolition of the government, and at first they cautiously spoke against high prices, unemployment, etc. But this time, not even a slogan was given about the guidance patrol that caused this incident, and the protesters immediately went to the government.
Maryam Fomeni: It has been a violent crackdown that has resulted in the deaths of more than four hundred people and arrested thousands. We are still witnessing the continuation of protests despite this amount of crackdown. Why isn’t this crackdown able to send people home?
Parvin Mohammadi: As of November 2019, society did not believe that turning off a car’s engine in the street or sitting in the street could result in being condemned or shot. However, this time, society is aware of the true nature of the government and refuses to appease it. No promise, no word, no failure can convince society to believe the authorities’ promises and stand down. People on the street are aware of the risks they are facing and do not see their actions as merely a civil movement or civil disobedience. They are in the street to either win or perish. Society no longer wants to go back, as previous attempts have only led to worsening conditions.
This time, the community has protested in a completely different manner than the previous uprisings, and its protest is firmly anchored in politics. The slogans that are given in all parts of the country against dictatorship, infanticide and murder show that the whole society does not want the government and wants to take over the affairs.
On the other hand, the young generation now protests, a generation without a horizon for the future, a generation that is incapable of planning its future, no matter whether it is educated or uneducated, rich or poor. Even a rich young feels that there is no place to stay here and wishes to emigrate.
Now the literacy level of the society has increased and it is completely clear to them what is wrong with thire future and what will happen to them and therefore she/he has no choice but to go through this government. This community has seen the government’s violence in November 2019 and is not facing an unknown phenomenon. As a result, society gets more angry with each repression rather than retreating. In this society, retreat is no longer an option, and assignments have to be made with the government. Shah’s rule marked the end of his destiny on 17 Shahrivar (Black Friday of 1978). All dictators make this mistake when they are stuck in such a situation. It is the same now and these repressions have the opposite result.
Maryam Fomeni: In recent years, the labor movement has been one of the most dynamic and organized parts of the civil society in Iran. Where does the labor movement stand in the recent protests and what is its role in organizing and directing the protests?
Parvin Mohammadi: The labor movement, which goes through more than 4,000 strikes every year, has always been a field of protests. In these protests, we see that many of the dead are either workers or children of workers. It means that the workers are certainly present in the protests individually, but they have not yet come to the street in an organized manner. In 1979, the government realized that the fate of the revolution was determined by workers in the oil industries and that the labor sector could be the most significant part of Iranian protests. For this reason, from the beginning of the revolution, they never allowed the workers to have an independent national organization and to be able to appoint and organize themselves, and they prohibited all of this.
Then, they placed their own self-made institutions – the Worker House and the Islamic Labor Council – over the workers and prevented any cohesion between the labor groups. Undoubtedly, the workers need an all-encompassing organization for nationwide protests that has attracted the social trust of the workers. The role and place of this organization are empty.
Organizations like the “The Independent Iranian Workers Union” have been denied the ability to do their mundane and conventional work, recruit members, and have offices throughout the country. Several board members and other members of this union and other labor organizations have been imprisoned and accused of national security crimes.
The strike would play a central role in preventing the killings and bringing the protests to a conclusion sooner and at a lower cost if we had a media outlet, tribune, or national organization with influence in all factories. However, all of this has been destroyed by them. I believe that nationwide labor strikes will occur, but when the movement becomes wider and there are gatherings of thousands of people in the cities, the timing will be different.
Maryam Fomeni: Of course, during this period, we have witnessed some protests and even labor strikes. How do these relate to the nationwide protests of the “Women, Life, Freedom” movement and how much did they influence its process?
Parvin Mohammadi: Fortunately, labor protests have begun in recent weeks. While most of these protests are about legal and livelihood issues, they certainly have an impact on the country’s political environment as this dialogue has spread throughout society and a worker cannot simply look for his wages on his own. For example, we witnessed a strike in Isfahan iron smelter, which has more than 14,000 workers. In this environment, it may be true that this strike is about trade union issues, but it can have an impact. If the worker faces opposition from the employer and government over the same trade union issues, his protest will extend to political issues.
We saw a strike by oil industry workers at the beginning of the protests, which was totally political and had nothing to do with wages or trade unions. As a result, the government was able to quell the strike by heavily suppressing and arresting 250 workers because the protests hadn’t become widespread yet.
Over the past few weeks and days, Tehran and Nasimshahr truck drivers and workers, Bahman Motor workers, workers of three South Pars gas complex refineries, Iran Tire workers, Tehran pharmacist workers, three cruise company site workers and Isfahan City Center workers have gone on strike. The employees of the oil industry went on a symbolic hunger strike for more than four days. All this suggests that we can expect more labor strikes in the coming days or weeks.
Maryam Fomeni: Despite severe regime repressions, in recent years, organizations such as The Independent Iranian Workers Union, Haftpeh Workers or the Teachers’ Coordination Council have been able to organize nationwide labor protests. Is it likely that these organizations can launch a massive labor movement by issuing a joint call? Is there such a platform for joint movement, and can these organizations somehow fill the void of a nationwide organization?
Parvin Mohammadi: In May, the government imprisoned a wide range of famous leaders and teachers on the pretext of the trip of the two French activist. This has also happened to labor activists. Now a large number of labor activists are in prison because the government felt that the society was inflamed and on the verge of explosion. All active members of organizations such as the Independent Iranian Workers Union, Syndicate of Workers of Tehran and Suburbs Bus Company or the Haftepe Syndicate were also imprisoned or fired from the work before the protests began. But these organizations have a lot of social credibility and the call of these organizations can be welcomed by the public.
Effective people in these organizations are all known and may not be able to call due to some considerations. Therefore, it is possible that society is ahead, as we can see even now that the calls are anonymous and without name. The society has concluded that if it makes a call with a specific name, the government will arrest the callers. In order to advance the work, a kind of internal organization has been formed within the society.
Maryam Fomeni: The presence of women and women’s rights is one of the prominent manifestations of the recent protests. How does this presence and demand relate to the worker’s demands and the lower class of society? We know that the lower class is still struggling with livelihood problems, and on the other hand, we see that this time, like January 2017 and November 2019, this class and this class has a strong and effective presence in the protests. How are these demands tied together?
Parvin Mohammadi: Most of our society is worker, poor and inferior. When we talk about women’s rights, we are talking about the rights of half of this inferior society, and it is not the case that we only talk about middle-class women and their demands, like women in progressive western societies. In the last two months, I have heard that some people say that because the name of women is mentioned, then this movement is following the demands of the middle class. They say that if you want to have an equal role in the society politically, economically and culturally, or if you want equal rights of inheritance and child custody, and the abolition of the mandatory hijab, all these are the demands of middle-class women.
But in my opinion, half of the women in the society are from the working class and inferior. According to official statistics, more than 60 million people live in the lowest decile and below the poverty line. If we consider this statistic to be correct, then the women of the society also belong to this class and even if they are not members of this class, the rights that the women asked for are complementary to the rights that the whole society wants. Of course, we should not only talk about men and women, because when we say men and women, it is as if we consider gender to be exclusive to these two. Now the progressive part of the world has come to the conclusion that gender is not only limited to men and women.
For this reason, we must achieve the equality of all human beings and the discussion of eliminating discrimination. Discrimination against humans on the basis of gender in these 43 years has deprived many people from social, economic and cultural positions. Homosexuals are sentenced to death. Women are considered as the second gender and they are deprived of many rights. When a society becomes so progressive that it can see a person regardless of gender and does not discriminate and humiliate gender, then it will certainly question class and financial discrimination. That’s when you can say why should there be a difference between people because of the size of their pockets? For this reason, these two items are not separate from each other.
So that it can move forward, society takes one step forward and reaches this desire. Thus, women’s desires are the desires of the entire society, and men go along with them because they know that when these basic rights are institutionalized in a society, the members will get their other rights as well.