Since Saturday, 19 June, thousands of workers at oil and gas projects and petrochemical plants have been on strike across the country in several provinces. They are coordinating their action under the title of Strike Campaign 1400, which refers to the current year in the Iranian calendar. The number of industrial centres that have participated in this strike is reported to have reached more than 100 units in 10 provinces and the number of workers on strike has passed 105,000. Significantly, there has been very little news coverage of these massive strikes, both in the domestic and foreign media but the strikes are still going on as we write.
Since Saturday, 19 June, thousands of workers at oil and gas projects and petrochemical plants have been on strike across the country in several provinces. They are coordinating their action under the title of Strike Campaign 1400, which refers to the current year in the Iranian calendar. The number of industrial centres that have participated in this strike is reported to have reached more than 100 units in 10 provinces and the number of workers on strike has passed 105,000.(1) Significantly, there has been very little news coverage of these massive strikes, both in the domestic and foreign media but the strikes are still going on as we write.
Because of the wildcat nature of the strikes, there is no official centre for issuing statements as such. However, there has been coordination through the workers’ strike committee, called the Council for Organising Protests by Oil Contract Workers (or Protest Organising Council), that has so far issued 11 statements which have been re-issued by other workers’ groups and unions. Below are extracts from 6 of these statements by the Protest Organising Council which we have translated to bring the workers’ own words to a wider international audience before we go on to explain the full context.
In the First Statement, which was published on Sunday, 20 June, we read:
We are going on a nationwide strike to pursue our demands
We, the oil contract workers in refineries, petrochemicals and power plants, are protesting against the low level of wages and the daily reduction of our purchasing power and the non-fulfilment of promises. As we announced, we will resume our massive strikes and gather in front of the centres of production … In this regard, on 19 June, our colleagues in Farab Bidkhoon Power Plant Company went on strike, demanding an increase in wages as well as introducing a monthly rota of 20 days of work followed by 10 days leave, known as the Twenty-Ten Plan, and then left the plant collectively for their homes. The workers have stated that they will not return to the plant until their demands are met.
Our strike is a warning strike and will last for a week, and on 29 June, we will join the ranks of our official colleagues who have announced their protest. During this week of protests, we are gathering in our workplaces to try to make collective decisions and make our voices heard by our co-workers everywhere.
Our demands are:
• The wages of any worker working in the oil industry should not be less than 12 million Toman (1USD =25000 Toman) and wage levels should increase immediately as the price of goods increase. In addition, other workers’ wage levels must be agreed upon with the elected representatives of the workers.
• Delaying the payment of wages is a crime and an obvious theft. Salaries must be paid on time each month.
• We are protesting against temporary and contract work and we want the contractors to be cut out so we have job security and permanent employment contracts. The dismissal of workers is to be prohibited.
• The slavery laws of the special economic zones, according to which arrogant employers are free to attack our lives and livelihoods, and which are a barrier between us and other sections of society at the community level, must be repealed immediately.
• We want our work environment to be safe …
• We oil workers are tired of the insecurity of our work environment and this situation must end. Organising, gathering and protesting is our inalienable right.
• In conclusion, we express our firm support for our permanent work colleagues in oil who have announced that if their demands are not met, they will protest on 29 June, and their call is to gather on that day.
The demands we enumerate are the demands of all oil workers, including our permanent work colleagues … We want the realisation of these basic rights and free treatment and education. We are for all people. Decent human life is the right of all of us people.
Council for Organising Protests by Oil Contract Workers
20 June, 1400(2)
The Second Statement, released a week later on Saturday, 26 June, reads:
The strike continues until our demands are met
As we have already announced we, the contract oil workers in refineries, petrochemicals and power plants, went on strike on 20 June. Tens of thousands of our fellow workers are currently on strike, and more permanent colleagues will officially join the strike on 29 June. Some of these colleagues in Assaluyeh’s Section 14 have already joined the strike. So far, we have done well and send greetings to all our colleagues …
… 700 day labourers were fired at the Tehran refinery. We demand their sackings and those of other fired colleagues be rescinded. Our strike is nationwide and any attack on this strike must be answered with our united struggle …
Finally, we are talking to people. We thank our fellow workers at Haft Tappeh Sugarcane, and the labour organisations, teachers, pensioners, and students who have supported us with their statements. These solidarity actions are undoubtedly a point of strength for us oil workers. The demand for higher wages is not just our demand as oil workers: we know that all workers, teachers, pensioners and wage earners throughout society have the same demand. And it is the same with our other demands, so we expect to have more support. Protest, for example, against the dismissal of seven hundred of our colleagues and demand their return to work.
Council for Organising Protests by Oil Contract Workers
5 July, 1400(3)
In the Third Statement, which was published on Sunday, 27 June, we read:
By uniting, we will thwart the conspiracies of parasitic contractors against our strike
As our nationwide strikes of oil workers is growing in strength, the blood-sucking employers and contractors are constantly seeking to conspire against us. According to the news, they are also holding national consultations in order to work in unison to repel our workers’ strike. We also stand by our demands. …
There are reports in places where workers have been asked to appoint representatives to discuss their problems, and then in these meetings, just being told that it is your right to strike and to demand a wage increase. It is not the fault of the government that wage levels are low, but the contractors who give only a very small percentage of the money received from the government to their workers and you have to get your rights from them. They implicitly threatened that there should be no further extension of the struggles and warn against strikes becoming political, and their strong emphasis has been on refraining from taking protests to the streets …
We must also resolutely declare that even if all of us workers are forced to leave the dormitories and return to our homes due to lack of water, electricity and living facilities, we will still be reunited and continue to make collective decisions and follow-up through our social media groups. We will try our best and if we do not get an answer by the end of August, we will surely move our protest forward in wider forms …
Council for Organising Protests by Oil Contract Workers
6 July, 1400(4)
In the Fourth Statement, published on Sunday, 3 July, we read:
The formation of the Islamic Council is against our wishes
No worker’s salary should be less than 12 million.
People from the Twenty-Ten campaign met with a number of officials from the government of Ibrahim Ra’isi, including Saeed Jalili, and apparently discussed with those who have raised their voices in protest at the deplorable living conditions and problems facing our workers. According to one of the participants in this meeting, another meeting to discuss these issues is scheduled, with the presence of cabinet ministers, once Ibrahim Ra’isi’s government takes office, and it is possible that the Assaluyeh Labour Office will introduce major changes for South Pars. And require it to act as an Islamic works council. Then the refineries will have to follow the rules of this “labour” organisation. The justification will be that the so-called Islamic Council that is formed can support the workers against the employer and the contractor. So far, this is what has become clear about what happened behind the scenes in this meeting.
We declare from now on that the formation of the Islamic Council and the assembling of any kind of organisation under the name of “independent” workers’ organisation by the cabinet is an action against us workers and our answer is “no”. The record of Islamic Councils and similar artificial organisations is clear to the workers. These have always been, and will continue to be, tools which the employers can use to control workers . The 40,000 security forces stationed in the oil industry are not enough, to which you want to add the Islamic Council.
We, the oil workers, like our colleagues in the Haft Tappeh Sugarcane Factory and Ahvaz Steel and other workplaces, firmly declare that we will not accept the establishment of the Islamic Council in Oil. The Protest Organising Council is our own real and independent organisation. The workers, indeed any worker who is in charge of the organisation and the trade union, must strengthen this organisation and organisations of this kind, not the tail of the Islamic Council.
The Protest Organising Council is the voice of our oil workers and a symbol of the unity and solidarity of the workers. The Protest Organising Council has so far been well received by workers. The demands of the council have been made public and the workers want a response. Our council explicitly states its demands and demands an answer. Here we declare these demands once again. Workers are calling for the strike to continue until wages rise immediately.
Council for Organising Protests by Oil Contract Workers
3 July, 1400(5)
In the Fifth Statement, which was published on Sunday, 4 July, we read:
The strike continues
As tens of thousands of our contract project partners continue to strike at petrochemical plants, refineries and various oil centres, contractors here and there have come up with proposals to end the workers’ strike. We, some of the project workers, discussed this issue in meetings, and our condition for reviewing or accepting any proposal is that it be formal, put in writing and made public. In addition, it should be noted that workers’ wages have to be paid on time every month, at the agreed national level. Thus, our principle is that all striking colleagues should be treated equally across the country. Dear colleagues! Our strike is nationwide and we must not allow the strike to be disrupted by scattered proposals here and there. In addition, along with clarifying the level of wages and their rate of increase, as well as a shift pattern of ten days off for every twenty worked, which are the two main axes of our demands, the aim of our other demands and how to respond to them must also be clear. Among other things, we demand the reinstatement of fired colleagues. It is also the right of all workers in the oil industry to have access to free medical facilities of a quality that is acceptable and in accordance with the required standards. This is especially important in these days of the COVID-19 epidemic. On the other hand, workers in the oil industry, including welders and painters, are at high risk of physical injuries and diseases such as cancer. Workplace safety standards must be raised immediately, including standard air conditioning. Our dormitories and living quarters for workers must be improved to an acceptable level. In our view, government workers are responsible for the living and working conditions of workers. It is the duty of the government not to allow the contractor to impose such looting and oppression on the workers. The tools of these oppressors must be taken away, along with the abolition of the oppressive laws of the special economic zones.
Council for Organising Protests by Oil Contract Workers
4 July, 1400(6)
In the Sixth Statement, which was published on Sunday, 4 July, we read:
A few important points
• Given the scale and pervasiveness of the strike, the fact that most workplaces have joined this strike and the support that has been given to it so far, we are in a very good position today to achieve important parts of our demands. So far, our massive strikes have put a lot of pressure on predatory contractors, and our work has reached a point where the interests of all of them demand that the strike end sooner rather than later.
• It is clear that we must find a solution to the outcome of the strike and the achievement of our demands and the circumstances in which we will enter into negotiations. But you should refrain from any hasty action and early steps to negotiate.
The main danger that threatens our nationwide strike is creating divisions and dissension among the workers and ambiguity in our work plan. Employers and officials try, or will try in different ways, to create divisions or play on existing divisions among workers, and then by making minimum concessions to a part of the workers and encouraging them to return to work, a large part of us will be left isolated. We must be vigilant against it.
Council for Organising Protests by Oil Contract Workers
8 July, 1400(7)
This new wave of strikes is taking place mainly in the same sectors that witnessed some of the largest and widespread strikes in the past year. This time, both the scale and the manner in which it has been coordinated reflect the valuable experiences that workers have gained in recent years during the numerous protests and strikes that have taken place in almost every corner of the country. The formation of regular mass assemblies not only shows the strength of the strikes, it also indicates how excellently both clandestine and open work has been executed. The other strong aspect of these strikes is in attracting the support of other workers as well as the wider public, which has shown the maturity of the worker’s movement in Iran in this period, something we will come back to later in this article.
But despite all these admirable efforts, the failure of permanent staff to join the strike as was planned for 30 June, shows that the unity and integrity of the workers faces not only subjective obstacles but also objective ones too.
The end of the Iran-Iraq War and the emergence of the Rafsanjani government marked the beginning of official decisions and passing of laws that paved the way for the entry of the IRGC and security agencies into economic activities. This, in turn, was followed by the announcement of general policies under the Article 44 by the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic. This had three major consequences:
Many state-owned companies, such as Haft Tappeh and Hepco, were privatised. Of course, given the existence of corruption at every level, mafia gangs were formed around these companies, well known in Iran, as the mafias of oil, sugar, rice, paper, drugs, land, medicine, meat, saffron, football, cars … Later moderates in Rouhani’s faction would criticise the measures for not being implemented fully, calling it semi-privatisation, meaning of course that they were just bidding for their share of the privatisation windfall.
Oil contractors are nothing but the product of macro-policies after the end of Iran-Iraq War. The Third Development Plan, which focused on “downsizing” the government and the public sector, allowed all government agencies to outsource some of their tasks and activities to the private sector. Article 33 of this law specifically authorises the Ministry of Oil to outsource:
“… activities related to refining, distribution and transportation of petroleum products and its main and by-products in a way that does not lead to monopoly in the non-governmental sector and deprivation of government authority in government affairs and guarantees the continuity of services to domestic and legal entities.”(8)
This led to the dominance of contract agencies in these companies, especially in the Oil Ministry itself. Let us hear how they put it themselves. The official news agency of the Islamic Republic of Iran (ILNA) reported on 25 June under the headline “because of corruption the oil sub-contracting favour officials’ relatives and without fair tendering, contractors dominate the oil industry. Workers’ are worrying about the attacks on them and the loss of rights”:
“… Hundreds of industries have built their heavy installation on a vast sea of resources. This is the most rudimentary image that comes to mind when looking at the masses of refinery pipes, fillers and deep-sea platforms. Deep down, this is how hundreds of companies, big and small, have been conquered by contractors. Thousands of service and industrial contractors operate these facilities and earn billions of Tomans for each project. In recent years, corruption in the transfer of contracts to anonymous companies has shifted the spotlight to the performance of state-owned companies. Companies that have relied on public resources have opaquely managed thousands of billions of Tomans of foreign exchange and rial income while in the document of revenues and expenditures of the country in 1400, more than 1500 thousand billion Tomans of budget has been allocated for them.”(9)
In fact, the sub-contractors, by hiring these workers, who are mainly welders and electricians, scaffolding workers … in short, technical workers, act as a buffer between the workers and the oil and gas companies and control workers’ demands by concluding short-term contracts with them. Workers brought in from other areas are housed in dormitories, which are unsuitable, overcrowded, and insanitary.
To the extent that this policy imposed short-term, temporary contracts without job security and even verbal contracts on workers, it also encouraged the government to resort to manoeuvring and irresponsibility in many cases, even in its formal and apparent form.
“President Hassan Rouhani has said he will solve the problems of oil industry workers. He stressed, of course, that the problems of temp workers had nothing to do with the Ministry of Oil. The cabinet today passed a resolution in this regard, which, according to the first vice president, only includes workers with formal contracts.”(10)
This gave the state a free hand to manoeuvre in such a way that a member of the Budget Consolidation Commission could write to the head of the parliament, Qalibaf: “The recent government decree on the amount of salaries received by the employees of the Ministry of Oil this year violates the budget law.”(11) And one of the regime’s reformist critics, with a “radical” gesture could object that “Correctly written, but the reason for the oil strike is your law. You can’t have your cake and eat it too. If you can, then cancel the budget resolution.”(12)
3) Militarisation of the workplace
The main reason for the permanent workers’ failure to join the 30 June general strike, is to be found in the structure of the workforce in National Oil, as well as the National Gas and National Refining and Distribution Companies. Just after the end of the Iran-Iraq War, when “commanders returned from the war”(13), they became the new owners/managers of privatised companies, a certain quota of jobs were reserved for the lower-ranking elements and in particular for those families who had lost members in the battlefield, or were injured. All government departments, from universities to the oil ministry were told to allocate a certain quota of jobs for these people. This is the same strata that comes to the aid of the regime in desperate times; like the counter-demonstrations that the regime has mobilised on many occasions in the past. We have written about this before:
“In Iran, this is even more true, as the regime was formed after the February 1979 uprising, in addition to using intense violence through thugs who are always present on the scene or so-called plainclothes, they are also able to organise counter-demonstrations. Just days after the protests began, the regime staged demonstrations in most cities. Thus, despite being involved in a political crisis, the regime seems to be able to control such demonstrations. This is simply because street demonstrations that are not related to anything other than virtual social networks will undoubtedly subside in a short process, without gaining experience of how to organise.”(14)
In any case, in this specific case of the National Oil and Gas and the refining and distribution companies, these groups have been employed, under the name of Devotees (“Eisargaran”):
“Until 2013, 33% of regular employees in the oil industry had a military background. This means one out of every three employees! After this date, although we face lack of statistics, but due to the adoption of other laws, including the calculation of the 30% quota of new entrants (which was not available before 2013) as well as other regulations, including the obligation to employ a child from staff members who are Devotees, it can be said with certainty that the share of military personnel in this industry has definitely increased by more than 33% during the last decade.”(15)
Even if the regime has been able to temporarily prevent permanent employees from joining the strike by manoeuvring, threatening, and of course with the help of Devotees, sooner or later this tactic will be ineffective since most of the Devotees work in administration and do not have key skills. On the contrary, technical and key functions are run by welders, electricians, scaffolding workers, who were the vanguard of the call for the strike.
Furthermore, with the deepening of the economic crisis, which has been intensified by the continuation of the intense pressure of the United States, it now seems that the political crisis is accelerating. The recent election was a clear manifestation of this.
For the first time in the Islamic Republic’s entire history the number of voters fell below 50 percent. According to the regime’s own statistics only 48.8% of the electorate voted. Spoiled votes came second place in the number of votes won, after Ebrahim Raisi, now president. Hence a joke among Iranians that if something happens to the president, there is no need to worry, the spoiled ballots will take over. Regardless of this, the Ayatollah Khamenei, leader of the Islamic Republic, called the election “an epic”! Only a few days before the election, he had banned spoiled ballots and had declared it forbidden (“haram”) from a religious point of view. Yet after announcing the result that spoiled ballots came second, he had the indescribable gall to remark that this showed the people’s commitment to the Islamic Republican of Iran! By contrast, former President, Ahmadinejad indirectly reacted to Khamenei’s statement by saying:
“I feel sorry for the person who says the election was a huge victory.”(16)
Majid Zarouqi, a reporter for Le Monde newspaper, who went to Iran to cover the presidential election, described the current situation in Iran thus:
“… After the November 2019 protests and then the recent elections, self-censorship and fear in Iran has decreased and anger has taken its place. Although the authorities of the Islamic Republic admit dissatisfaction, the link between the regime and society has been diminished. Now the “barefoots”, who were traditionally considered supporters of the regime, are fed up with the poor economic situation and political stalemate in the country and speak openly about it. The riots in November and the hundreds of people killed in the incidents also show that most of the protesters were young and belonged to the lower classes …”
He then quotes Hatem Ghaderi, a prominent Iranian thinker:
“There is no solution to the current political stalemate. A democratic and tolerant system does not exist” … and Hatem Ghaderi continues that despite the deep dissatisfaction of the people, it is unlikely that a major protest movement will emerge, because there is no “common slogan that could unite all protesting strata”. And he says that in Iranian society, everyone thinks of solving their problem in individual ways. This is likely to increase repression in Iran in the medium term.”(17)
Before the social crisis had become so acute, these pundits and defenders of the capitalist order, dismissed any class-based critique as the “usual communist propaganda”. They insisted on capitalist left wing reforms as “real”, “possible” and “practical” options. However, when the very reforms and alternatives that they were promoting hit a dead end in practice, they then became the prophets of despair.
If this election was a big defeat for the regime as a whole, it certainly was an even bigger defeat for the reformists. Those reformists who, despite their disqualification, still asked the people to participate in the elections by voting for the lesser evil, only managed to convince 4% of the public to participate in the election. This reveals how much of their social base has diminished, so no wonder why Khamenei, in the last election did not bother to engage with them in any form or shape. When the reformists are allowed to participate in an election by the Guardian Council, then they refer to it as the “elections”, but if they are disqualified by the same Guardian Council, then they refer to it as the “appointments”. The same goes with the rest of the opposition: if they are ousted, like Ahmadinejad, or completely out of the regime, like ex-Shah’s son, Reza Pahlavi, then they jump on the bandwagon in favour of protests and workers’ strikes in order to find a place for themselves, should the regime collapse.
However, the extent and the depth of both the economic and political crisis that the regime faces today, are a lot more complicated than the crisis in 1979 when the uprising took place. And the working class, also both objectively and subjectively is not the same as it was then. 40 years of severe exploitation, repression … from flogging of workers(18) up to committing all sorts of crimes, has left no room for illusion among the workers. Moreover, this working class is no longer the kind of class that would be inclined to follow Khomeini or Bazargan’s call to postpone or give up their demands as they did in 1979. As we have said before, this time it is different…
In 1991, when Yadollah Khosrowshahi, one of the founders of the Oil Industry Workers’ Union and a member of its executive committee, took refuge in London, he wrote a letter to a group of South African trade unionists who had travelled to London.
“Today, with a thousand regrets, we have realised that the only genuine struggle against imperialism is the unconditional struggle for all our demands.”(19)
This statement was made 30 years ago, at the early stage of drawing lessons from their experience of the 1979 uprising. During this time, some parts of the working class sought their future in Khomeini’s promises, some had religious illusions, and some others saw their aspirations reflected in the mirror of leftist and nationalist organisations. Those days are gone. Today workers have realised that “The Truth of History Lies in its Class Antagonism”(20) and express their class independence in this admirable way. Meysam Al-Mahdi, a steel worker in Ahvaz, now a refugee in London in an interview with the BBC said:
“We are by no means a blank canvas on which just anyone’s thoughts can be painted, but the masses fighting for our own emancipation.”(21)
This working class currently enjoys such a degree of unity and organisation that, just a day after the election, without any illusions about the newly-elected president, it symbolically started its own strike by preventing a ship from docking and announcing nationwide strikes. There is so much self-sacrifice that despite water and electricity being shut off from workers living quarters, strikes have continued solidly and have lasted for 38 days. By holding regular mass assemblies and rallies a new page in the workers’ movement has opened:
“You hear the voice of the greatest wage negotiation of 1400, the voice of the national strikes of oil project workers who did not have a syndicate but formed a general assembly. They were fired, blacklisted but organised. They want a minimum wage of 17 million tomans. They also managed to raise good wages last year.”(22)
“Video of the 7 July gathering of third-party contract workers in the South Pars Special Economic Zone. The workers gathered to protest the recent remarks of the Minister of Oil in the Parliamentary Energy Commission and to ignore their legal demands.”(23)
There is no doubt that, for the international working class movement as a whole, and for the Iranian working class as one of its bastions, what we have witnessed may be insignificant by comparison with what lies ahead. However, brave workers in Iran have shown so much self-sacrifice and admirable flexibility that despite all the dangers and hardships, they have continued to protest. In recent weeks, in addition to these strikes, there have been numerous crises that have made the despairing toiling masses take to the streets again including, as we go to press, the uprising against the lack of water in Khuzestan.(24) Iran is pregnant with such events. Will the working class be able to take the lead, with the focus on “Bread, Jobs, Freedom – Soviet Power”? It is not possible to give a definite answer, but one thing is clear, and that is: if the working class does not organise itself around its own independent political programme, failure is certain.
24 July 2021
(20) From a workers sympathiser’s journal whose members were imprisoned when Bakhshi and others from Haft Tapeh were imprisoned. Their Telegram channel is: t.me
(24) Our next article will be an update on the strikes but we will also be dealing with the events in Khuzestan in a more general article on the social and environmental crisis engulfing an increasing number of of countries on the periphery of an economically crippled world.