Venting anger

Iran: Need our support

Yassamine Mather reports on the developing social catastrophe

The Iranian new year is only two weeks away, but most Iranians do not feel like celebrating. As hundreds of workers protested in Tehran on March 4 against non-payment of wages, one placard summarised the mood: “99% are facing death”.

Non-payment of wages is only part of the problem: food prices have rocketed and even rents are beyond the means of the overwhelming majority. This week, Vahed busworkers took to the streets demanding better wages - and similar protests have taken place throughout the country. In Arak, angry workers set fire to tyres outside the factory gates. Last week farmworkers clashed with security forces near Isfahan in southern Iran, protesting against government proposals to divert water from the city. Peasants blew up the main pump taking water from Isfahan province to Yazd, before closing the main highway road near Khorasgan and setting fire to a number of buses.

Over the last few months, Iranian workers have stepped up their fight for a considerable increase in the minimum wage in view of the abolition of subsidies and spiralling prices - month-to-month inflation is running at around 70%. There is little reliable information about government proposals for next year’s minimum wage. However, it is bound to be well below the government’s own poverty line. It has been so for the last few years. For example, in 2010 the government announced that the new rate would be the equivalent of $303 per month, but the same government had set the poverty line at $800.

Every worker knows that the minimum wage does not even pay for accommodation for a family of four people. However, they also know that Iranian capitalists, supported by an Islamist state, use non-payment of wages as a systematic method of increasing profits. During the current Iranian year, workers have faced delays of six months or more before even the official minimum wage has been paid. Many have two or three jobs and work 12 hours per day, seven days a week, just to be able to pay for basic necessities.

The cost of medical services, including laboratory tests, has risen by almost 400%. Most medical equipment falls into the category of goods that cannot be exported to Iran due to sanction restrictions. But for the rich that is no problem. They are able to travel abroad for medical treatment, while the poor die from common ailments. Many sell their prescription, their place in the queue or even their organs in order to survive.

Thanks to sanctions, then, the economy is in serious trouble. Iran’s oil exports are at an all-time low, having fallen to one million barrels a day, and oil income is down 46% compared to last year. Foreign currency reserves are seriously depleted. Corruption has also contributed to the economic crisis. In 2012, the Islamic Republic was one of the most corrupt countries in the world, according to Transparency International. The clerics and capitalists are busy sending money abroad and the currency is in freefall. Attempts to limit foreign exchange transactions have not managed to save the falling rial.

Given this desperate situation, it is not surprising that workers throughout Iran have taken to the streets to vent their frustration. Nor is it surprising that the ‘reformist’-led green movement is trying to find allies amongst workers. A March 1 press conference in London featured Mansour Ossanlou, former leader of the Vahed busworkers’ union, as spokesperson on labour issues, with responsibility for organising “workers’ support” for the green movement.

The appointment came three weeks after the union had announced not only Ossanlou’s dismissal from the presidency, but his expulsion from the union. Its short statement declared the union’s opposition to his self-imposed exile, confirmed that the former president no longer held any union position and made clear that he did not speak on behalf of Vahed busworkers. The slogan was clear: ‘No man is above the union.’

However, this defection to the reformists, at a time of heightened workers’ struggles, has lessons for the Iranian left and beyond:

  1. Severe economic hardship, whether caused by economic crisis, sanctions or government mismanagement, do not necessarily lead to a turn to working class politics. In the absence of a clear political direction, at a time when the organised working class is weak, protestors express despair, but most see no end to the cycle of unemployment, poverty and devastation. Reformists and class-collaborators may gain from such a situation, but so may fascists and rightwing forces, who can just as easily recruit from the ranks of the working class.
  2. We should combat the cult of personality and the role of the bureaucracy in our organisations. Ossanlou might have had a heroic prison record, but he always was an individualist, a maverick. But the left, both in Iran and internationally, went along with the elevation of his status, eager to please the Vahed union.
  3. Workers’ struggles must be political, especially under a religious dictatorship, and, although it was understandable that sections of the busworkers’ union wanted to concentrate on economic demands, in order to reduce the possibility of arrests and other forms of repression, the left should have been more critical of Ossanlou’s insistence on this apolitical syndicalism. As others have now pointed out, it is ironic that this ‘non-political’ worker activist is now associated with the green movement.

As for that movement, or what remains of it, the attention paid to Ossanlou speaks volumes. After years of claiming that the greens represented the interests of the middle classes, that the vote they received was “more significant” than Ahmadinejad’s because it was “cast by educated members of society”, they now have to admit, in this indirect way, that the force with the power to defeat the dictatorship, the force that has shown stamina in fighting the regime, year in year out, is the Iranian working class.

However, the opportunism of the green movement in trying to gain support amongst workers is likely to fail, with or without Ossanlou. Iranian workers are well aware that ‘economic readjustment’, massive privatisation, short-contract work, non-payment of wages, etc were as much part and parcel of ‘reformist’ economic policies under Khatami as they were Ahmadinejad.

As workers’ protests take on a new dimension inside Iran, we are duty-bound to promote and support them. A number of labour activists are currently languishing in Iranian prisons, in far worse conditions than ‘reformist’ prisoners. We need to show solidarity with these workers - there is a real urgency in the need to act and form international support groups. What is required is the active participation of British rank-and-file trade unionists in support of Iran’s working class. In this respect this call by Labour MP John McDonnell, a leading figure in the leftwing Labour Representation Committee, is very timely:

“The Labour Representation Committee is an affiliate of Hands Off the People of Iran and I call on others to support its important work. With the war drums beating again in the Middle East and the imperialist pressure on the working people of Iran growing daily, principled international solidarity is vital. Hopi is at the forefront of that activity and deserves the backing of activists and organisations in our movement”.