WeeklyWorker

05.08.2021
Oil workers: a vital force in toppling shah

The Imam, the strikers and the black, black oil

There are rich lessons for today in the experiences of the oil strikes of 1978. In the first of two articles Peyman Jafari charts the incredibly difficult struggle for organisation, hegemony and strategy

“We are melting away,” lamented the shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, on December 26 1978 in a phone tap of a conversation with his advisor and former prime minister, Ali Amini.1 Although mass demonstrations were creating havoc at the time, his desperation was caused by the strikes in the oil industry. Less than seven weeks later, the monarchy was gone.

Although there are other historical examples of mass mobilisations among oil workers, the oil strikes from September 1978 to February 1979 in Iran are, to my knowledge, the only case that heavily determined the outcome of a revolution. Therefore, this episode provides a particularly interesting opportunity to explore the politics of labour in the oil industry in two ways. One puts politics back into the study of labour in general, and in the oil industry in particular, since it has been often left out following the ‘cultural turn’ in labour studies. The second refers to the importance of putting labour back into politics, as most political science studies have tended to attribute the mediation between oil and national politics solely to the nexus between finance and elites, thus ignoring the agency of labour.

The first part of this article provides a brief summary of the development of the oil strikes prior to the 1979 revolution and demonstrates their paralysing impact on the state apparatus. The second part argues that the oil strikes were a key link in the developments that created revolutionary centres of power that emerged in parallel to the existing state in early 1979 - a situation known as dual power. A detailed history of this episode is provided in order to explain the mechanisms through which the forces around ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini took control of the oil strikes - a strategic move that allowed them to steer the revolutionary movement and determine its outcome.

This latter aspect has received much less attention in the historiography of the Iranian revolution, which has focused more on its causes. Moreover, the outcome of the revolution is often discussed in mere ideological terms - the resonance of Khomeini’s discourse through Shia symbolism2 - and focuses on the ‘consolidation’ period following the fall of the monarchy in February 1979. Arguing that the political strategies of the preceding months and the role of the oil strikes in the emergence of dual power were crucial, this article makes a new contribution to the historiography of the Iranian revolution.

Fuelling revolution

On the eve of the revolution, the oil industry was organised around the National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC) and its subsidiaries, plus the Oil Services Company of Iran (Osco), owned by foreign companies, and a number of private subcontractors. The oil industry employed relatively few workers, compared to its production of five to six million barrels a day, but their numbers were still considerable. Around 2.3% of the 3.54 million Iranian workers - 4.5% when those employed by subcontractors are included - worked in the oil industry.3

When the first oil strikes took place in September 1978, a revolutionary movement had already been developing since January, mainly in the form of mass demonstrations. By June, however, the demonstrations had receded and, when they resurfaced in late August during the holy month of Ramadan, they were violently repressed on Bloody Friday (September 8). By then, it looked as if the regime would survive the political crisis, as it had on other occasions. As late as September 28, the prognosis of the US Defence Intelligence Agency was that the shah “is expected to remain actively in power over the next 10 years”.4 In the next two months, however, the revolutionary movement acquired a qualitatively different character, as protests spread to workplaces and mass strikes erupted in the major economic sectors.

In the oil industry, the strikes developed in four phases. The first strikes started on September 8 in the Tehran refinery and spread to other refineries and the oilfields of Ahwaz, Gachsaran and Aqajari. This prompted Savak, the shah’s secret police, to report that the oil strikes “have no precedent in recent years; the strikes must have developed among workers in the national oil company very quickly”.5 By early October 1978, however, they had subsided after officials made concessions. But a second wave started when oil workers in Abadan staged a sit-in on October 16. These strikes faded in the last two weeks of November, but in the meantime oil workers had become better organised.

At Abadan refinery, the blue-collar workers formed a 13-member strike committee (komiteh-ye hamahangi va nezarat) in late October.6 They were in contact with the strike committee of the white-collar workers in Ahwaz, the Association of Oil Industry Staff Employees, consisting of 60 representatives elected from the different offices of the oil company in Ahwaz. A founding member explained the process:

The representatives were not elected by secret ballot. The vote took place in front of everyone. We put up a list on the wall. People came and signed their names next to the name of their preferred candidate. There were usually five or six candidates per position. The first duty of these representatives was to organise the association of professional and office workers. So we called this body the Organising Committee of Oil Industry Employees.7

The association was further formalised in the last week of November, with the election of a coordinating committee. In the Tehran refinery, a secret strike committee of blue-collar workers had been active since September, but a new committee including white-collar workers was established in the second week of November. Its 12 representatives were elected from the various refinery departments.8 In late November, the Common Syndicate of the Employees of the Iranian Oil Industry was established to represent the blue-collar and white-collar workers in the oil, gas and petrochemical industry, but despite its name it mainly operated in Tehran.

The composition of the strike committees differed from place to place, but often the leading members belonged to or sympathised with the organisations of the left, including the Fedayeen and to a lesser degree the Tudeh Party, or the Islamist leftist People’s Mojahedin. Others were followers of Khomeini or independents. It is notable, however, that when the strikes erupted the presence of the organised left was very weak among the oil workers - state repression had diminished the space for open political activities, which was reinforced and exacerbated by the guerrilla strategy of the main currents of the left.

During the strikes, however, the left recruited new members and increased its influence. In Ahwaz, 35% of the delegates of the strike committee that oil workers had elected in November 1978 were “Marxists”. But, after the fall of the monarchy, the supporters of Khomeini - in coalition with liberal Islamic figures like Mehdi Bazargan, who headed the Provisional Government - manoeuvred to marginalise the left and organised new elections, in which the left gained 15%. According to the same report, only five of the 40 members of the Abadan refinery strike committee were leftwingers at this stage.9 It is important to note, however, that most of the Islamist members of the strike committees and later the Islamic shoras (councils) belonged to the ‘left’ faction that supported a form of self-management and thus clashed with the new managers in 1979-81 - a conflict that led to the repression and dissolution of the shoras.

Having established a stronger organisational structure, the oil workers resumed their strike in early December - this time with explicitly political demands that focused on the departure of the shah. Following Khomeini’s call for a general strike on December 2, to coincide with the beginning of the holy month of Moharram, the Common Syndicate issued a call for a general strike in the oil industry. The Abadan refinery took the lead once again, but the strikes spread to the offshore oil platforms and the Ahwaz and Marun oilfields in the following days.10 In Gachsaran and Aghajari workers were forced to work at bayonet point, but they went on strike at the end of the second week of December. The government’s increased repression in December backfired, as over 6,000 oil workers quit their jobs when officials threatened to dismiss striking workers.11

Demands

The fourth and final phase of the oil strikes that started in the last days of 1978 was not marked by an interlude, but by a qualitative change. While the strike committees of the oil workers had taken control of oil production at the local level, Khomeini set up a committee that took over national coordination of the oil strikes. I will return to discuss this phase, which lasted until the strikes officially ended on February 17 1979, but let us first look at the oil workers’ demands during the strike.

The oil strikes, like any other class-based protest, involved an uneven and complex process of social mobilisation and articulation of demands that depended on various factors, such as one’s position within the labour process, traditions of activism, as well as political, ethnic and religious factors. Oil workers’ propensity to strike differed, of course, but the resulting tensions were usually overcome by persuasion or social pressure.12 As far as violence was involved, the targets were foreign and Iranian managers and the perpetrators were political activists.13

Oil workers had different demands, which shifted from economic to political ones in the context of the revolution and due to the fact that the oil workers’ employer was the state. The claim that oil workers in Iran, as in the rest of the developing world, constituted a “labour aristocracy” ignored the great differences among white-collar and blue-collar workers, the permanent and the contract workers, their harsh working conditions, and their connections to the wider working class communities. The oil workers did not have many acute socioeconomic grievances except rising house prices, but the blue-collar workers intensely resented the structural differences they experienced with white-collar workers.

The latter felt the same about foreign workers, the proportion of which in the total white-collar staff increased from 4% in 1968 to 13% in 1977. Opposition to political repression in the workplace and in wider society, as well as the foreign domination of Iran, also motivated oil workers.14 By late October 1978, they were demanding among other things an end to martial law, the release of all political prisoners, the Iranianisation of the oil industry, an end to discrimination against female employees, and the dissolution of Savak.15

Although a full account of the oil strikes still needs to be written, there is no doubt about their crucial role in toppling the monarchy by damaging its revenues and boosting the morale of the opposition. As a journalist predicted at the time, “The survival of the government may well depend on the shah’s ability to put an end to the oil strike before the loss of export oil revenue combines with the effect of other labour disruption to put Iran’s economy in total disarray.”16 As the strikes continued, both the military and ministries faced fuel shortages.

The oil strikes severely undermined the state’s administrative, financial and repressive capacity, but they had the opposite impact on the revolutionary movement. While the media were strictly censored until November 1978 and did not report on the demonstrations, the oil strikes created fuel shortages that could not remain unnoticed. Most importantly, after the strike of workers in the oil depots near Tehran was announced on national radio on October 21, thousands rushed to petrol stations. “The shortage of fuel creates havoc in Tehran traffic,” read the front page of the widely read daily Ettela’at the next day. For the first time, the official media gave broad coverage to the oil strikes, which helped them take centre stage in the revolutionary discourse and increased the self-confidence of the oil workers.

The fuel shortages intensified in the last weeks of 1978 and in early 1979, creating an acute awareness of the gravity of the crisis that engulfed the state, because an increasing number of Iranians were directly experiencing the consequences - for instance, when queuing for fuel. Thus by targeting a commodity that everyone in Iran considered to be the life-blood of the monarchy and something they depended on in their own everyday life, the oil workers helped to create the sense of what Charles Kurzman has called a “viable” movement - a movement that was perceived as a challenger of the status quo in the consciousness of a broad layer of the population.17 Given its place in Iranian everyday life, oil was a key transmitter of revolutionary consciousness, which flowed from the sites of production and refining into the households.

Dual power

As we saw earlier, the oil strikes had become more organized and effective by December 1978, causing a massive shortage of fuel by early January 1979. On January 6 1979 Ettela’at reported:

Tehran and most of the provinces are confronted with a shortage of petroleum, gasoline and diesel. More than half of the cars are not used, most houses can’t be warmed while the weather is cold, and there are long queues for petrol and gasoline in the streets.

It added that domestic consumption of fuel in the winter was estimated to be around 960,000 barrels per day - almost four times higher than oil production at that time.18

At this crucial stage of the revolution, the oil strikes became a launching pad for the establishment of revolutionary institutions: the Oil Strikes Coordinating Committee (OSCC), the neighbourhood committees (later the Committees of the Islamic Revolution) and the secret Council of the Islamic Revolution. All three, I argue, are closely linked to the dynamic of the oil strikes - a connection that has received little attention in the historiography of the Iranian revolution.19

The nucleus of an alternative political pole had already emerged in September 1978, when Khomeini appointed a small number of clerical leaders to act on his behalf in Tehran. Khomeini then asked Mehdi Bazargan, leader of the religious-liberal Freedom Movement of Iran (FMI), to propose the inclusion of new members who could lead the transition of power in the post-shah era. This group of 18 people regularly met to discuss strategies and advised Khomeini, forming the core of the future Council of the Islamic Revolution that was established in January 1979.20 The transfer of power into the hands of the Council of the Islamic Revolution was aided by the establishment of the Oil Strikes Coordinating Committee, which was created to prevent the autonomy of the strike committees in the oil industry.

As the oil strikes were becoming more organised and effective in December 1978, the idea of establishing a committee for their supervision was floated in the group of 18. Bazargan then asked Ebrahim Yazdi, another prominent FMI member, to propose the creation of this committee to Khomeini.21 On December 29 1978, Khomeini wrote a letter to Bazargan (the text of which was mainly written by Bazargan himself), requesting him to lead a committee, to which I will refer as the Oil Strikes Coordinating Committee (OSCC).22 As the letter made clear, Khomeini was worried that the shah would use the fuel shortage to legitimise the crackdown on the revolutionary movement, and at the same time he tried to win the oil workers’ support by demanding that the military leave the oilfields and installations.23

In the letter, Khomeini asked Bazargan to lead a committee of five people, which should include Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and the engineer, Mostafa Katira’i. The remaining two members were to be selected by Bazargan, who then appointed two more engineers, Kazem Hasibi, a veteran of the oil nationalisation movement and a leading figure in the National Front and the FMI, and Hashem Sabaghian, another prominent member of the FMI. Other engineers played an important role in organising the practical activities of the committee - highlighting the essential role university-trained religious members of the new middle class would come to play in building the post-revolutionary institutions.

After praising the oil workers, Khomeini describes the main task of the OSCC, which was to visit the oilfields and installations in order to convince the workers to send some of their colleagues back to work to guarantee production for domestic consumption. This was not an easy task, as oil workers blamed the fuel shortages on the military government. The Common Syndicate, for instance, issued this statement on December 31:

Compatriots, there is a variety of fuel present in depots to serve domestic consumption for a year, but the regime, which is installed by foreigners, is not distributing it in order to change the direction of the holy struggle of the people and to sow discord in the rows of the militants.24

Following Khomeini’s letter, on December 29 Bazargan started his activities as head of the OSCC, meeting with the new director of NIOC, Abdollah Entezam, who agreed to the following measures:

Having won these concessions, Bazargan and Rafsanjani travelled to the oil workers in the south, calling on them to resume work.25 Khomeini and more than 200 clerics threw their weight in as well, urging oil workers to negotiate with Bazargan and NIOC head Entezam.26

In the following weeks, the OSCC issued a number of internal reports, public communiqués and decrees that provide an overview of its activities and decisions, establishing its authority as an administrative organ. The decrees illustrate how the OSCC was gradually taking over the organisation of the oil strikes and related activities. The first, on January 5 1979, for instance, called on the security guards to guarantee the safety of the oil installation,27 while the second called on the pipeline workers to resume work and conduct the necessary maintenance work in order to enable the transport of oil products from the Abadan refinery to Tehran.28 Further statements called on the workers in the refineries of Tabriz, Shiraz, Kermanshah and Tehran to resume production.29

Islamist hegemony

Following the negotiations with Bazargan during the first week of January, the “striking employees of the oil industry in the south” issued their first communiqué, stating their “willingness to implement the edict of Imam Khomeini”, because it served “the welfare of the defiant nation of Iran and the consolidation of his holy struggle for the overthrow of the illegal government”. They also announced the distribution of gas to the entire city of Ahwaz from January 4;

The final point, of course, seriously limited the oil workers’ ability to collectively and independently coordinate, take decisions and implement them. The communiqué also stated:

It is necessary to bring to the attention of the defiant nation of Iran that the blue-collar and white-collar workers who are responsible for effecting the Imam’s directive are pious strikers, who are working in the production units and the refineries for the welfare of the defiant nation and have no intention to gain anything for themselves.

Hence, the statement continued, the workers will stop production whenever the government violates the points mentioned in the Imam’s directive.30 On January 18, Bazargan’s committee issued its 14th decree, calling on the Abadan refinery employees to return to work in order to increase production.31 By late January, the committee was overseeing almost the entire activities of the oil industry, including issuing permits for exports.32

As these developments illustrate, the establishment of the OSCC signified a crucial turning point in the revolution, as it involved two power struggles. First, it represented the attempt by the Islamist forces - both the radicals around Khomeini and the liberals around Bazargan - to take control of the oil strikes at the expense of the autonomy of oil workers. Bazargan was very clear that his objective was to do just that and the OSCC realised it had to bypass and marginalise the leftwing oil workers, who, despite their small numbers, played a leading role in the strikes. As Hakimi explained.

The main issue confronting us was that we had to deal with different groups of oil workers… We treated them well, but we also tried to find out the level of their influence and popularity among the oil workers and in discussions we tried to understand whether they were committed and Islamic or leftist … The labour troubles in Tehran were mostly in the pipelines and depots of Rey …, but the Tehran refinery was in our total control, especially [because] there was a very faithful and intelligent brother among the refinery workers, called [Assadollah] Amininian, who was enormously popular and influential … The committee of the Tehran refinery travelled a number of times to Abadan, Tabriz and Shiraz and had various talks with them … through the workers of the Tehran refinery we could discipline them as well.33

The methods by which the pro-Khomeini forces became hegemonic in the oil strikes need more scrutiny, but an important factor was the lack of a strong, independent, national organisation among oil workers. Every workplace had one or more strike committees, but there was no single organisation capable of representing the strikers and coordinating their activities at the national level. The Common Syndicate of the Employees of the Oil Industry had been established in November 1978, but it was mainly rooted among the workers of the Tehran refinery. A closer look at the reasons behind this lack of national coordination is beyond the scope of this article, but it is instructive to summarise the most important ones.

The material and social conditions of the oil industry certainly did not pose an obstacle to national coordination. The internal telephone network of the industry enabled communication between different locations and oil workers’ delegates could also travel to these locations. There were also social networks in existence between oil workers. Some oil workers, particularly the experienced ones, had come to know each other through the official trade union activities before the revolution - and more importantly through the overhaul procedures in the refineries and training schools.

But there were a number of obstacles too. First, the developments unfolded very rapidly, leaving little time for oil workers to strategise and react to the new situation. Second, the militant oil workers were not politically prepared for this situation. Some had a background in the Tudeh Party, which steered them away from any move that could challenge the leadership of Khomeini within the revolutionary movement. The younger generation of left oil workers, who often sympathised with the guerrilla organisations, lacked the network, experience and the strategic outlook that could help them to unite the struggles in the working class communities around the strikes in the oil industry. Third, generational and regional divisions among oil workers exacerbated the political differences. In the Tehran Refinery, for instance, there was an active group around the left trade unionist, Yadollah Khosroshahi, mostly from Abadan, but they lacked organic links to the younger workers, who had been recruited from the small workshops of Tehran and had stronger religious dispositions. None of these obstacles, however, were insurmountable if the required political and organisational steps had been taken prior to and during the revolution in order to increase the coordination among oil workers.

More concretely, the existence of a leadership among oil workers was indispensable for the independent coordination of the oil strikes.34 Surveillance and repression in large workplaces made this task daunting, but not impossible. If it was possible to print banned leftwing publications in the Tehran refinery and smuggle them out, for instance, or to distribute pro-guerrilla pamphlets in the Abadan refinery before the revolution,35 then it also must have been possible to organise a network of militants around industrial issues. The strikes in the 1970s in the oil industry provided an opportunity to do this, but at that time the new organisations of the left, with which some oil workers were sympathising, were engaged in underground guerrilla warfare rather than workplace and community activism.

In my next article I will look in more detail at the failures of the left.

p.jafari@uva.nl

Peyman Jafari is a historian and a contributor to the International Socialism journal


  1. Published on the Tarikh-e Irani website on December 26 2014: tarikhirani.ir/fa/news/4/bodyView/4877. I am grateful to Kaveh Ehsani for drawing my attention to this document, and to Touraj Atabaki and Maziar Behrooz for commenting on an earlier version of this article.↩︎

  2. M Moaddel, Class, politics and ideology in the Iranian Revolution New York 1992, p206.↩︎

  3. Calculated from the figures in F Nomani and S Behdad Class and labor in Iran: did the revolution matter? New York 2006, p89.↩︎

  4. Quoted in D Yergin The prize: the epic quest for oil, money and power New York 1991, p677.↩︎

  5. Savak, ‘Report on workers’ strikes’, IICHS archives, Tehran.↩︎

  6. ‘What can we learn from the striking oil workers? A report of the big and united strikes of the workers of the Abadan refinery’.↩︎

  7. ‘How we organized strike that paralyzed shah’s regime. First-hand account by Iranian oil worker’ in P Nore and T Turner (eds) Oil and class struggle London 1980, p293.↩︎

  8. H Pelaschi, interview with Ali Pichgah Manjaniq No2 December 2011-January 2012.↩︎

  9. J Randal, ‘Khomeini followers struggle for control in oil fields’ The Washington Post February 26 1979.↩︎

  10. ‘Spreading protest: strike cuts output of Iranian oil’ The Washington Post December 4 1978.↩︎

  11. M Parsa Social origins of the Iranian Revolution: studies in political economy London 1989, p160.↩︎

  12. For a number of examples, see Y Khosrowshahi, ‘Bar ma cheh gozasht?’ (‘What happened to us?’) in M Roosta et al (eds) Goriz-e Nagozir. Si Ravayat-e Goriz az Jomhuri-ye Islami 2008.↩︎

  13. On December 23 1979, for instance, three gunmen from the Islamist guerrilla organisation Movahedin ambushed and killed the American director of Osco in Ahwaz. Malek Borujerdi, an Iranian oil official was assassinated on the same day by Mansurun, another Islamist guerrilla organisation.↩︎

  14. P Jafari, ‘Reasons to revolt: Iranian oil workers in the 1970s’ International Labor and Working-Class History special issue 2013.↩︎

  15. A Bayat Workers and revolution in Iran: a third world experience of workers’ control London 1987, pp80-81.↩︎

  16. W Claibourne, ‘Ending of oil strike viewed as pivotal in Iranian crisis’ The Washington Post November 3 1978.↩︎

  17. C Kurzman The unthinkable revolution in Iran Cambridge, Mass 2004.↩︎

  18. ‘Shortage of petroleum, gasoline and diesel’ Ettela’at January 6 1979.↩︎

  19. Although Misagh Parsa notes that “these classes [blue and white-collar workers] brought about a situation of dual power”, he does not explain its concrete mechanisms and manifestations. See M Parsa Social origins of the Iranian Revolution p166.↩︎

  20. S Bakhash The reign of the ayatollahs London 1985, p51.↩︎

  21. Interview with Mostafa Katira’i Iran-e Farda No18.↩︎

  22. In its own communication, the committee called itself the ‘Delegation Appointed by the Imam’. Ayatollah Khomeini took a similar initiative to gain control over the strikes in the transport and the customs sector, appointing a committee headed by Ezzatollah Sahabi.↩︎

  23. R Khomeini, ‘Appointment of the five-person committee in the oil regions’ in Sahifeh-ye Imam December 29 1978.↩︎

  24. Ministry of Information The Islamic Revolution based on Savak documents Vol 22, 2006, p519.↩︎

  25. ‘Bazargan’s communiqué’ Ettela’at January 6 1979.↩︎

  26. M Parsa op cit p161.↩︎

  27. Hey’at-e E’zami-ye Imam Khomeini statement No2, January 1 1978, Islamic Revolution Document Centre archives, Tehran.↩︎

  28. Hey’at-e E’zami-ye Imam Khomeini statement No4.↩︎

  29. ‘Refineries have been ordered to resume production’ Ettela’at January 8 1979.↩︎

  30. ‘Communiqué No1 of the strikers in the oil industry’ Ettela’at January 7 1978.↩︎

  31. ‘The oil production of the Abadan refinery will increase to 360,000 b/d’ Ettela’at January 18 1979.↩︎

  32. ‘Minutes of the 41st session of the Committee for the Coordination of the Oil Strikes, January 30 1979’ Documents of the freedom movement Vol 9, part 3: www.mizankhabar.net/asnad/archive/archive.htm.↩︎

  33. ‘Interview with engineer Abolfazl Hakimi’ Asnad-e Nehzat-e Azadi Vol 9, part 3: www.mizankhabar.net/asnad/archive/archive.htm.↩︎

  34. See M Lavalette, C Barker and A Johnson Leadership and social movements Manchester 2001.↩︎

  35. Interview with a leftwing former oil worker in Abadan refinery Delft July 25 2013.↩︎