Condition of the working class movement

Torab Saleth of Hands Off the People of Iran assesses the strengths and weaknesses

On the eve of the 1979 revolution, the Iranian working class was relatively young in terms of its history. By 1977 there were probably about four million workers, more than half of whom had joined the workforce only in the early 1960s, after the shah’s series of reforms known as the ‘white revolution’. The industrialisation that took place after the white revolution increased the population of the working class tremendously. Most of these were migrants from rural areas.

So it was a relatively young working class without a lot of experience, without much of a tradition of struggle. For the first 10 years after the white revolution, the economy was booming - there was 8% or 9% growth every year and the number of jobs was on the rise. So, for example, there were hardly any strikes.

But then the economic crisis of 1975 happened, which is when the industrialisation model of the white revolution reached its limits. So gradually unemployment began to increase and we first encountered the phenomenon of large shanty towns. Migrants from the countryside could no longer find jobs. In Tehran alone there were 500,000-700,000 people living in shanty towns.

During the economic crisis there were the first signs of workers’ economic struggle. Gradually, as they gained confidence, there was wave after wave of strikes, each one involving greater numbers, until, just before the insurrection that took place in February 1979, there was a general strike involving over three million workers, which lasted for more than three months. During this struggle, strike committees were formed in almost every industry and these often linked up with the neighbourhood committees that had also developed.

However, there was no political leadership as such. Because of the political repression under the shah, mosques became centres where the latest news was exchanged, where advice was given and where some kind of action could be coordinated - the mosque was the main meeting place even for striking workers. So many of the most militant and active leaders of the strike movement became very closely associated with the mosque. That is not to say that the working class movement was dominated by Islamic ideology or leadership. During the general strike there was great confusion, reflected in the slogans and demands that the working class was raising. There was no single focus: everything depended on the nature of the local strike committee, the individuals leading it and the nature of the industry of which it was a part - how old it was, how traditional, and so on.

But there were some radical demands raised by the working class during the general strike, including freedom for political prisoners and what have been called ‘transitional demands’, such as a sliding scale of wages. But there was hardly any organisational focus because the working class movement was lacking political leadership.

When the insurrection took place, in Tehran it was mostly members of the strike and neighbourhood committees who were involved. Many of these committees had access to arms - some actually had their own militias - and, because many owners and managers had fled, workers basically took over industry. Of course, workers’ control is different from workers’ management, but in Iran that kind of distinction was very blurry and in most factories workers would elect someone from amongst their own ranks to act as manager. There was also a very interesting tendency towards control of distribution: this put workers in direct confrontation with the bazaari merchants. For example, factory committees would set up stalls in the middle of Tehran and sell their products directly to the public.


Unfortunately there was not a huge tendency for these strike committees, known as shora, to come together on a geographical basis: they tended to remain attached solely to particular factories and so did not act as a political force. It is impossible to arrive at a situation of dual power without winning political control over cities or sections of them. I would not call something which remains purely at the factory level a soviet-type movement. Soviets for me must be geographically based.

This distinction was, however, realised by the Islamic currents, including the students ‘following the imam’s line’ based at the Tehran polytechnic, who would later organise the takeover of the US embassy and provoke the hostage crisis. These students came up with a plan to unite the councils at the city level. Unfortunately the left did not take this up. The major forces of the left were organised mostly in the smaller industries and just did not know how to cope with larger industries, in which there were many different currents, including Islamic forces.

Tragically the organisational form of the workers’ vanguard that had emerged during the crisis was left to those Islamic forces. The left was incapable of organising the working class to control distribution. Nobody took up this challenge - to help develop it, to make it more widespread in the major cities.

Nor did the working class itself really challenge the new regime politically. The only strike committee that protested against the formation of the secret ‘revolutionary committee’ - it was set up by ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, basically controlled power and oversaw the change of government - was that of the oil workers, which pointed out that there was no workers’ representation on the revolutionary committee.

But the most important factor was the urban poor. They must have numbered around 700,000 in Tehran, with its population of three or four million - it was a huge force. In fact the shock troops of the counterrevolution were recruited from the urban poor. The working class made no serious attempt to take up any of their demands, let alone actually lead them. The working class neither challenged the political change that had taken place above, nor did it unite the organisations it had developed during the strike. The urban poor were abandoned to the counterrevolution.

Within a year or so you could say that the Islamic regime had more or less taken over the factory councils. The Tehran polytechnic students who ‘followed the imam’s line’ set out to unite the shora movement - in Tehran, for example, 400-450 different factories or industrial complexes were brought together in this united, Islamic, shora movement. Later on they were to play a crucial role in establishing new managers, who were actually appointed by the government, in these industries. The factory councils were transformed into ‘Islamic societies’ which acted as a police force inside the factories.

By 1981-82, a couple of years after the insurrection, it was obvious that the working class had been defeated. Every democratic gain of the revolution had been more or less destroyed by the Islamic regime. So there was a period of retreat.

During this time there was a debate within the Iranian left as to what to do. There were calls for the creation of new factory committees, for mass assemblies at the factory level, as one way to revive the movement. But, obviously, during a period of defeat it is not possible to undertake that level of activity, so that idea fizzled out. There was also the call to build trade unions. After all, there wasn’t much else that could be done, was there? But, again, for a newly created working class with no tradition of trade unionism, how could unions be established in clandestine conditions?

At the time some of us were looking at the model of the Portuguese and the Spanish movement just before the overthrow of the dictatorship in those countries: factory commissions based on small, clandestine groups of workers in each workplace, with the aim of national coordination rather than separate, individual trade unions. Something like Solidarity in Poland perhaps. It is easier under a dictatorship to organise in that way than to opt, as most of the Iranian left did, for the formation of trade unions - we do not have much to show for 30 years of struggling to build them. In fact, the few trade unions that have come into existence are more or less in the well established sectors of the Iranian economy, where there was a tradition of trade unionism from before the 1952 coup: print, transport, oil. But in most of the new industries where there was no such tradition, we have hardly succeeded in building anything over the last 30 years. As soon as any trade union activity begins to get off the ground, the Iranian state intervenes to destroy it. It determined not to allow any form of workers’ organisation of this type.

Although over the last 10 or 15 years there has been a huge upsurge in the struggles of the working class, in organisational terms there is hardly anything to speak of. A lot of committees have been set up by worker activists and socialists in order to help the formation of trade unions, but that has not got us anywhere either.


Lately amongst some of the statements of worker activists there actually seems to be more of an understanding of the necessity of the kind of strategy I have just outlined: for clandestine committees inside the factories; for an attempt to create a national organisation rather than working within the individual unions. It is a lot easier to recruit someone to a national union than it is to a union in a single factory, which is more susceptible to repression.

There is another tendency which is very significant amongst some worker activists - the understanding that without a party we cannot get anywhere. Individual struggles of workers are more easily defeated in the absence of a workers’ political party; and that question is being raised now by worker activists.

So these three phenomena - the need for clandestine factory commissions, an approach towards overall organisation rather than trade union organisation, and the understanding of the necessity for political organisation - together indicate grounds for optimism.

We are entering a dangerous new era in the politics of the region, which could go either way. The forces opposed to any US deal are very strong, but there are also indications that a strong section of both the American and the Iranian ruling class wants a deal. In a sense we are returning, after 30 years, to a period like that before the Iranian revolution, in that European and American capital actually prefers to rely on Iran to control the region rather than anyone else - in that earlier period the shah was being promoted as a sort of sub-imperialist. Today Iran has plenty of skilled labour and it is a huge country with a lot of resources.

The state bureaucracy has grown and become quite sophisticated. It is no longer a case of feudal mullahs in control behind the scenes: there is now a technocracy that has taken over that role. Neither is the Iranian government what it was 30 years ago. It is now a lot more professional - a whole layer of younger people have been recruited into the state apparatus.

It is important to remember that, despite everything, any deal would mean that Iran has been recognised as a ‘legitimate state’ - this in itself would be a major achievement for the regime. A few years ago the International Monetary Fund produced a paper on the investment possibilities in Iran - projects which would require something like $700 billion in order to get off the ground were mooted. Even if only a fraction of that was to happen, it would still be a huge boost for the Iranian regime. Virtually every European foreign minister has been in Tehran - nobody wants to be left out in the cold.

So for all these reasons I think we are entering an interesting new period in the activity of the working class movement in Iran. I myself am optimistic in two senses. Firstly, there are new elements in the Iranian working class, pointing to a more fruitful strategy in terms of workers’ organisation. Secondly, the working class is growing in confidence and the Iranian state is now less able to suppress it.