Oil workers in the Iranian revolution

The oil workers' strike of 1978 and early 1979 played a crucial part in the overthrow of the shah's regime in Iran. On the 30th anniversary of the strike we publish a translation of an interview with Ali Pichgah, one of the founding members of the oil workers' shora (council) who later played an important role in the first major oil strike against the Islamic republic government. Comrade Pichgah is a supporter of Hands Off the People of Iran

Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your political history?

I am from the north of Iran. I was born in Babolsar, and grew up in a family of toilers. My mother was a housewife but she also worked in the fields. My father was a tailor. I started working in the Tehran oil refinery in 1975 and in the summer of 1978 became involved in setting up what was to become the strike committee - in the spring of 1979, soon after the revolution, I was involved in the setting up of the shora.

After the abolition of shora by the Islamic government I was sacked and barred from taking employment in the state sector. In addition, no-one in the private sector dared employ people like me. To cut a long story short, I was eventually forced to go into exile, moving from one country to another. I currently live and work in Sweden.

How do you assess current workers’ struggles in Iran?

First of all, I must say that as long as capitalism rules class struggle exists. The capitalist order in Iran has managed to survive through repression and force, and the spreading of religious superstition and falsehoods. However, as far as the workers’ struggle is concerned, our ranks are divided; and as long as we can’t unite on a large scale, this repression will continue. Unity requires the building of strong, mass workers’ organisations.

This cannot be achieved in a voluntarist manner, but requires patient and long-term work. Such organisations can only become mass if they are built by the workers themselves. Conditions exist today for this to happen - workers in different sectors are setting up local branches in their workplaces. This will make the next step of setting up a nationwide organisation more feasible.

The main difficulty is the dispersal of our forces, with nothing bringing together separate struggles for immediate demands. While supporting such struggles, we must lay the basis for a movement with socialist aims. Otherwise, the struggles themselves will achieve nothing. What is required  when we confront the capitalists and defend our fellow workers is a revolutionary perspective.

If we don’t have such a clear perspective in mind, even if we succeed in building independent organisations of the working class, they will inevitably be destroyed sooner or later. When, in 1978, we set up independent workers’ organisations, the situation was similar to that of today: at that time too there was the risk of sacking, arrest and even execution, but eventually we managed to shake the foundations of the shah’s regime.

In the current phase of struggle, I believe Iranian workers are in a position to force the capitalists to retreat over unpaid wages, sackings, etc. However, this is only achievable when we have a unified understanding of the challenges we face, an understanding free of sectarianism.

You were one the organisers of the historic oil workers’ strike which played a crucial part in the overthrow of the shah’s regime. What were its original aims?

At first achieving our demands for better working conditions. On the other hand, when the shah’s regime opened fire on demonstrators in Tehran in September 1978, and when a cinema in Abadan was set on fire, killing many innocent people, we couldn’t put up with such a situation any longer. That is why we didn’t stay silent, and we entered the political arena rather than remain spectators. In other words, we were influenced by the people’s struggles.

That is why we set up the strike committee and we decided to encourage all oil industry employees to demonstrate, stage sit-ins and, later, a strike. We were now determined to overthrow the shah. In fact, when they accepted some of our trade union demands, that was precisely when we started the strike.

Fearing the spread of discontent among other workers, they gave us a month’s salary, calling it a special bonus. We took the money, but we also announced loud and clear that the state was trying to bribe us to end the strike, and this in itself had a positive effect - workers, and others, became aware of the state’s vulnerability.

We wanted political freedom. We didn’t trust the shah at all. We were on strike when Bakhtiar, the shah’s last appointed prime minister, was in office. He promised that all our demands would be met, provided we ended our strike. We didn’t fall for this - most of us did not believe he would grant political freedom. Thanks to the oil workers in the south of the country, all oil exports from Iran were halted.

The important point was that we now had independent workers’ organisations in one of the major industries. Such organisations remained illegal in other industries like steel. Of course later, when the revolution was defeated, our organisation was made illegal too. Let me add that we paid a heavy price for this achievement of the working class. Many workers were sacked, others were arrested and some were forced into exile or executed.

Were there negotiations between the workers and the employer?

First of all, let me explain how Tehran refinery worked: it was divided into many sections producing different types of products - and the same is true now. For example, one section produces car oil; gas is produced in another section; and there is a repair section. Only those working in the repair section are called workers; everyone else is considered an ‘oil employee’. This is a deliberate tactic, as strike action by ‘employees’ was and is forbidden. The workers in the repair section were the first to go on strike and they had even demonstrated outside the refinery with their families. However, as their protest did not affect levels of production, their demands were ignored until, in the summer of 1978, all employees - ie, workers in the production section and the repair section - went on strike. At that stage the officials of the shah’s regime wanted to talk to us, but it was too late; we were so united that no power could stop us, neither divisions nor guns and tanks. That is why we, the strike committee, did not accept any discussions.

What did the security forces do?

Once, when we were gathered in the canteen, the army surrounded us. The military commander was general Norouzi, who had said he was coming for ‘negotiations’. One of the workers said: “What kind of negotiation is this, with tanks!”

On another occasion when we went to the central offices of the oil ministry, the army warned us to disperse or they would open fire. They gave us three warnings but we didn’t move, and they opened fire. One worker was hit in the stomach - he was paralysed for life - and two workers were arrested. That day we were forced to retreat, but we returned the next day and managed to unite with employees in the ministry - I read out the strike committee’s resolution. A number of employees surrounded me so that I could not be harmed and one of them drove me to my house and helped me move to a secret hideout.

How did the oil strike affect workers in other sectors?

Well, as you know, Iran is (and was) a single-product country, exporting oil. So oil and its by-products constitute the jugular vein of the country’s economy. That is why I am sure our strike had considerable influence in other factories and workplaces. When we were demonstrating in Tehran in an independent oil workers’ demonstration, the crowds were behind us, shouting slogans in our support.

In those days everything was different. You couldn’t contact people using the internet or various TV channels. That is why when we were on strike we went to the main newspapers and asked their reporters - who were workers, after all - to report our strike. They did this and in this way supported us.

At one meeting we were at, a member of the Islamic Republic Party was speaking - obviously he was defending the setting up of an Islamic government. Unfortunately we didn’t take him seriously and we didn’t even criticise him, partly because we didn’t want to cause divisions! We didn’t even ask questions. If we had acted differently, maybe we wouldn’t be in such a big mess now.

Hedayat wasn’t alone. Everywhere, Rafsanjani and Ardabili spoke in favour of Islamic law and governance. We remained quiet for the sake of ‘unity’. Our main concern was to force the shah to leave. After that, we thought, we will gain political freedoms. We ought to have realised at the time that we must fight world capitalism - the big bear - as well as internal capitalism - the small bear.

Did your working conditions improve after the shah was overthrown?

There were only two years between the victory of the revolution and its defeat. Throughout those two years the rulers of the Islamic regime were trying to push us back and defeat us and eventually they succeeded - of course, using repression and killing many.

The war with Iraq was a godsend for them. They silenced every protest with the excuse that there was a war going on. But even during those two years the oil workers’ shora managed to win some concessions. We reduced the working day, forced management to agree to a weekend of two days (Thursday and Friday), increased workers’ pay and set up a housing cooperative - we even managed to create a small oil workers’ city. We established funds to support workers from the war zone and won full employment status for contract workers in the Iran National Oil company. The workers’ shora achieved all this.

Once when we tried to challenge discrimination in workers’ wages, they arrested me and a number of other shora delegates. They took us to Ghassr prison in Tehran, but hundreds of refinery workers came to the prison gates and they freed us that same night. Later on, however, after 1981, they managed to break our unity. All the gains we had made were destroyed.

If the shah’s government was overthrown by workers and the masses, why did the religious government come to power?

Yes, it was the workers and the deprived masses who overthrew the shah’s regime, but religious reactionaries and capitalists were always trying to take control of the movement. Eventually they succeeded and the revolution was defeated.

I remember an occasion in 1978 when there was a chance for us to change the direction of the movement. There were workers’ protests and demonstrations in shanty towns over high prices. One day we were demonstrating and a helicopter was hovering over our heads. They were probably looking at us with binoculars. We were told that the shah and general Azhari - who was prime minister and in charge of the military at the time - were in the helicopter. This made the demonstrating oil workers very angry. We looked up and for the first time, it was us, the workers, who started shouting the slogan, ‘Death to the shah’. Seeing him in the helicopter made us angry. The very next day the shah made his famous address to the nation, saying: “I heard the sound of the revolution” - and he mentioned oil workers’ protest, saying he couldn’t understand why we were opposed to him.

When we started our struggle, we only considered the shah and the Iranian capitalists as our enemy; actually we were also fighting international capitalism, but were not conscious of this. We thought that if we could defeat Iranian capitalists we would achieve our aim of ending exploitation. But all the time world capitalism was defending its Iranian counterpart.

Another important problem was religion, which has always been strong in our society. Muslims have 1,400 years of experience in organising in Iran - they had their own set-up in mosques and elsewhere. For centuries, if anyone needed anything, even if it was a service or a worker - they would go to the mosque to find one. Reactionary religious forces have always been supported by various royal regimes and, in recent times, capitalists. Today the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank support this Islamic government. Yes, it is true that during the revolution we did the fighting; but soon afterwards these clerics were executing former members of the ruling class, so they could replace them.

Especially since 1981, we haven’t heard much from Iran’s oil workers. What is the reason for this?

One can point to a number of reasons - dictatorship, brutal repression and the incarceration of worker activists, putting pressure on workers families - to mention a few.

For example, in 1982 we decided to go on strike. However, some of the workers’ delegates thought we would be defeated, because a refinery strike is only effective if all the workers join in; even if only two workers in each section continue working, the plant can survive for up to four months.

We decided to discuss this issue at a general meeting and all the workers gathered in the canteen, but only those workers who were against the strike dared speak - those in favour were too scared to voice their opinion because they had already been warned by the herassat (factory security). Pasdars (Islamic guards) were stationed in the refinery. One of the Herassat people told me: “Ali, be careful; they have already decided to shoot you.”

So an atmosphere of terror was created. In each section of the refinery, there were two people whose only job was to sit all day listening to the workers, making sure they did not talk politics or speak against the government. If anyone did, they would be reported immediately and sacked. All workers who were not Hezbollahi - not only those who were delegates to the council - were dispersed.

By now the workers had lost their independent organisations and couldn’t set up new ones. The labour legislation forbids workers in essential industries to organise. And there is the fear of unemployment. Also most workers have home loans from the housing cooperative and they could lose their home as well as their job.

The Islamic regime has done all in its power to divide workers. In the factories they have created divisions even among the Hezbollahi. When they wanted to beat us up in the factory, they would accuse us of being a member of this or the other group, so that workers who disliked that group would not support us. Of course many of us had no association with any group. The authorities said I was working for several illegal political groups - all at the same time.

Today there are many debates among worker activists about setting up independent workers’ societies, committees, etc. How do you assess these efforts?

In a dictatorship, especially a religious dictatorship, workers cannot easily set up their own organisations. Now if you use the term shora you are arrested, so workers choose other names, such as ‘society’ or ‘association’ to avoid arrest. When they do that they are not immediately accused of being communists, and that helps them survive. I am not in favour of such names, but I understand why workers choose them. Workers want to be independent of the state and of the Islamic party. We should support that and we should expose the Islamic societies set up in the workplace by the regime.

In a dictatorial state, workers can be arrested and even executed for demanding the most basic things. Under such circumstances workers choose their own ways of forcing the capitalists to retreat, paving the way for their next struggle. In the current situation setting up independent workers’ organisations is important to allow workers to get in touch with each other and create larger formations.

However, I must stress one point. Some Iranian workers give interviews and insist they are only interested in trade union issues - and they keep repeating these terms. This in itself shows to the capitalists that these workers are weak and fearful. This does not help their struggle. The capitalists realise that these labour activists aren’t very strong and in fact the insistence on purely trade union activities does not save them.

On the contrary, in a dictatorship like ours the state makes use of such obvious signs of weakness. In a country where the religious leader is Vali Faghih (‘guardian of the imbecile’) it doesn’t matter whether you say you are political or just economic. No-one has the right to protest, so you might as well avoid self-censorship. This is an Islamic regime and the supreme leader is supposed to decide what everyone eats, drinks and wears, where they go and how much salary they get.

The important issue is to emphasise the independence of the workers’ organisations from the religious state; by definition such organisations are political.

What do you mean by independence?

When I talk of independent workers’ organisations, I mean organisations that do not accept orders from the state and do not depend on the state authorities; I also mean workers’ organisations that are independent of political parties. This does not mean that the workers in such an organisation are not members or supporters of various parties: they are, and no-one should question their political affiliation.

But a mass workers’ organisation must go beyond political differences and unite the class. In such circumstances the delegates must represent the views of the majority of the workers. In my understanding the independent workers’ organisation will allow workers to achieve class independence. In our fight to end exploitation, we workers face prison, execution, exile - yet we don’t unite. Of course, unity will not descend from the skies: we have to achieve it by being more modest and flexible towards fellow workers, as opposed to showing flexibility towards the capitalists.

There is also the issue of international solidarity. Of course, basic needs, such as food, clothes and fuel, differ from country to country, and workers’ demands vary. But in addition to uniting within the borders of one country we must think of international solidarity. I despair of exiled Iranian workers whose only concern is to unite with fellow Iranian exiles. Surely our task is to unite with workers in the city and the country where we live as a first step towards uniting with workers throughout the world?

By saying this I don’t want to underestimate the work of support committees abroad defending fellow workers in Iran. It isn’t sufficient to talk of freedom and democracy. We must be seriously concerned about the plight of fellow workers and their families. Such support has saved the lives of many worker activists in Iran.

We might have tactical differences with other workers, but we share the same objectives: to end private property and establish social ownership of production and distribution. Only workers are capable of achieving this and they must do so by their own efforts.