The labour movement in Iran: A year of increasing protest

Yusef Abkhun and Sohrab Yekta

A year of great hopes and frustrations

This is a brief summary of the Iranian workers movement between 1st of May 1999 and 1st of May 2000. We hope to give a snapshot of the inner transformations, potentials, limitations, key obstacles, and the general direction taken by the labour movement.

The limitations of the study have to be stressed. Our information is in the main limited to large protest movements in larger factories and labour gatherings: of a size that forced them unto the news pages of the regime’s press. These sources thus impose two constraints: the journalistic self-selection to the more "important" and "noisy" event – hence ignoring aspects of some struggles or even entire actions – especially if they take place in a smaller unit. The other is political – silence, censorship, distortion or outright lies. It is worth emphasising that despite the huge increase in the relatively freer press in the last few years [1] the reformist press has been reluctant to reflect the labour struggle as they judged it as a danger to the reform process they were conducting. They have indeed openly warned the ultra-conservatives not to write about events that might conceivably weaken their so-called reformist administration.

Furthermore there is the issue that under conditions of repression large elements of the labour movement takes place underground – both in large and small units. In particular the absent image of labour movement in middle and smaller manufacturing units will clearly give a distorted picture of the movement as a whole. Finally it would be naïve to imagine that it is possible to conduct an expert and objective sociological analysis of the labour movement without a minimum of freedom in the country – even if such a study did not have other enemies than the obscurantist despots in charge of the country.


Reported labour protests rose from 188 in the previous year to 244 episodes. As these figures are limited to major protests in larger factories and plants, during the last year there was on average a major labour protest move somewhere in Iran more frequently than every other day.

The Islamic Labour Party (an officially approved "workers" party) admitted in its May Day leaflet that it was "a year of the most widespread workers protests in most unusual formats". Unusual in terms of numbers, their more aggressive and offensive nature and in their content. It was simultaneously a year of great hopes and major disappointments.

Frustration in their fight for trade union rights and economic demands, forcing the workers to recognise that the normal forms of economic struggle are unlikely to bear fruit. And that without resorting to "unusual forms" of struggle to bring about changes in the political and economic arena at the national level, improvements, even small ones, in their unbearable living conditions will be unattainable.

It was also a year of hope, since they came to realise that in order to overcome the failures of the last, and indeed previous years, there is no way out but to organise independently, nationally and as a class. These potentials were realised in the nation-wide moves – unprecedented in their scale and persistence – in protest at the changes in the Labour Code and against the actions of the Social Security Organisation last year.

Tables 1, 2 and 3 summarise the specific features of the labour movement over the last 12 months with regards to demands, forms of protest and outcome. The total impasse of economic struggles is glaringly obvious from these snapshots.[2]

More than 70% of the protests were concerned mainly with the demand for payment of wages (124 episodes), against mass layoff of workers or factory closures and the demand to save jobs (59 cases). [Table 1]. Clearly the focus of the labour movement over the last year was over the basic right to survive and live. Yet the majority either failed outright or did not lead to any clear outcome. [Table 2]. Only in seven cases were the workers victorious.

The country faces a major economic crisis of unprecedented dimensions. Not only the wages of 1998 have not yet been paid in full, many workers have received no wages for 1999. The government itself admits that in more than 500 factories, salaries have not been paid for over a year and in some cases for more than two years. Inflation is such that even if three times current wages were paid in full and on time, workers would still find it difficult to feed a family of three.

Minimum monthly wages were set at 365,000 rials (approximately US$50), while even according to the government’s own estimates a family of three requires an income of 1,200,000 rials ($170) a month in order to cover basic needs. The economic crisis and paralysing recession in production worsened throughout the year. An increasing number of workers faced the consequences of complete recession in production. The closure, or virtual shutdown of over 1000 plants added to the increasing ranks of the unemployed and the hungry.

It is understandable that under such conditions other demands such as the demand for improved working conditions (8 cases), pay rises (8 cases), unemployment insurance cover (7 cases) and the demand for the implementation of job classification (4 cases) took a back seat.

Clearly this a picture of major defeats in economic and trade unionist struggles. This is not surprising. In addition to the dispersion and lack of organisation of workers, the complete failure of the Islamic regime in the so-called organisation of the economy and production has caused mass pauperisation of labour. In any country with such structural crisis, compounded by the complete collapse of the economy and production to this extent, even organised economic struggles by workers trade unions will achieve little. Yet these conditions have not forced Iranian workers to surrender

Faced with an impasse in their living conditions, workers have turned to more aggressive, and increasingly more organised, political and class-based moves in order to overcome the current deadlock.


Almost 64 % of the protests were street demos, rallies outside of government offices or the Majles (Islamic Parliament) and setting up road blocks to draw public attention to non payment their wages for a year or more. [Table 3]. In all, on 74 occasions the protest rallies were outside the workplace or government offices. On at least eleven occasions these were accompanied by strike action. The seven times workers blocked main roads – more than the previous years - have also been included under protest rallies. More extreme forms of protest also took place.

On two occasions management were taken hostage, the important Karun agri-complex in Ahwas was attacked by thousands of workers and on one occasion a factory was taken over and the exit of its products blocked. These and the visit to see Majles deputies are new departures in the labour movement.

Finally we had three nation-wide protests opposing the moves to remove small workshops from coverage by the Labour Code, and another by a wide section of those at work, laid off, pensioners, contract, and unemployed workers in protest at the changes in health care provision by the Social Services Organisation.

The fact that over three quarters of all protests in one form or another took place outside the workplace, in comparison to more traditional forms of labour struggles such as strikes (16%) is clear evidence that the workers have resorted to more political and aggressive tactics. Although, as expected, they continued with the usual forms of protest within the factory, but their failure forced them to extend the struggle outside. Letters to the president (8) writing to the press or mass signature campaigns (41) rallies outside government offices, demos and road blocks – were all efforts to attract public opinion. Significantly on no occasion did they address the religious ruler – Khamenei’.

What we saw is the early budding of the insight that they form a single class with similar interests and that these interests can only be realised by pressuring the government and to do this independently of state-related institutions. This showed itself in the organisation of nation-wide May Day celebrations, and in the protest moves outlined above.

On the other hand, the administration too could not ignore the direction the labour movement was taking. In its various gatherings discussing macro-economic issues and production it addressed the workers as a class. These gatherings of so called experts and academics from inside and outside the country – mostly with reformist tendencies - faced with what Rafsanjani had called the time bomb of acute problems in labour and unemployment. Yet they went no further than repeating the same formulas as the ruinous period of Rafsanjani’s economic construction.

Nevertheless they opened up debates that were unprecedented in Iran. These included a recognition in the reformist press of the right to trade unions, shamefully and surreptitiously, and the acceptance of the right to strike by labour institutions linked to the regime, although with the aim of preventing the danger of "widespread workers protests in most unusual formats". Yet in none of these gatherings, seminars, congresses was there anyone who could speak in the name and interest of workers.


Every city with a factory witnessed a protest. None missed out. At the top was Teheran and Karaj followed by Isfahan and Gilan and Mazandaran, the oil-producing regions of the south and Azerbaijan. The branches of industry effected were first and foremost textile, followed by metallurgy and automobile. Next came oil, gas and petrochemicals, paper and timber and shoes.

These reflect the concentration of industries in the Teheran-Karaj area, and the importance of the textile industry and where they cluster – Isfahan, Gilan, Mazandaran, Kerman, Semnan. This branch of industry has been under even greater crisis than other branches, confounded by the government’s import policy in this area which has gravely damaged domestic production.

The four nation-wide struggles need expounding. Their significance, despite their negative outcome, was that for the first time different sections of workers, from large industries to small, working, redundant or unemployed, on short-term contract, retired or pensioned joined in a nation-wide move with the same demand. This was a first for Iran.

The seeds of this was laid in previous years: years of scattered but continuous, unrelenting and repeated struggles by workers in large industrial units. Over the last two years labour struggles in various sectors of the economy took shape: such as the protest rally by retired and pensioned workers; demonstrations by the unemployed and laid off workers; and the protest by contract workers against the Ministry of Labour’s edict on short-term contracts and the ending unemployment insurance.

In May Day last year there witnessed the first nation-wide protest, after a parliamentary bill exempted small workshops from being covered by the labour code. Hastily the ultra-conservatives who controlled parliament at the time withdrew the bill. While the state-affiliated Labour House and the Centre of Islamic Labour Councils initiated this move – as part of their project to get concessions in the factional struggles, and to weaken the ultra-conservatives - the workers by effectively participating in these moves hijacked this project to present their own fundamental demands.

The ultraconservative faction was able to overturn these gains using the favourable atmosphere in the spring [3]. The outgoing Majles they controlled, with the backing of the so-called reformists and because the state-sponsored labour organisations feared a nation-wide independent labour movement taking shape, finally passed the bill removing Labour Code provisions from small workshops – and hence the majority of the country’s labour force.

In the atmosphere surrounding the struggles for a change in the labour code different sectors of the working class, and in particular the dispersed and unorganised workers, were brought closer to the relatively better organised sectors in larger factories. They found themselves debating and moving under a single banner – not just on labour issues but on fundamental economic and political issues facing the country. Naturally, in conditions of economic collapse, the discussions went beyond the labour code, which as a result of that crisis, became meaningless anyway.

The outcome and consciousness that came out of these struggles over the labour code resulted in the first independent nation-wide demonstration in protest at the actions of the Social Services Organisation. This was an entirely new experience. Even though these demos were again called on the initiative, and using the facilities, of the state-linked labour institutions they were conducted independently by the workers after those institutions retreated when the Interior Ministry banned the demonstrations.

In the end the nation-wide labour movement was unable to prevent the assault of the ultra-right wing faction to change the labour code, which they did with the consent of the reformists. Nor could they stop the Social Services Organisation from reducing health care and privatising the hospitals belonging to that organisation. And not surprisingly. The initiative was still at the hand of institutions whose main concern was not so much to oppose the changes in the labour code, than to prevent the "most widespread workers protests in most unusual formats". Moreover, these moves are still a long was off from a general labour movement in defence of workers’ rights, or to an organised trade union movement, despite the fact that the pre-conditions for both are there.

There is no a priori reason for the labour movement in Iran not to be able to compensate for the defeat of its first nation-wide struggle. Independent trade union movements in conditions of dictatorship normally bear fruit only after long and unremitting struggles, by moving beyond legality and by turning their backs on official organisations. Moreover the trade union movement in Iran, would need to understand that it is part of the general movement for democracy and its fate is decided in struggles that go beyond the labour struggle and in linkage to the general movement.

With the labour code having become meaningless in the general pauperisation of the labour force, the success of the labour movement will be determined by a struggle that takes in not just workers in larger industries but all the workers, and not just against this law but against all the laws and indeed the existence of the Islamic Republic.





Payment of unpaid wages and benefits



Return to work ( opposition to sackings)



Job security



Continued operation of factory



Against exemption of small plants from Labour Code



Against the policies of Social Services Organisation



Increase in wages



Official employment



Improved working conditions



Unemployment insurance



Jobs and employment



Implementation of job grading and classification









Table 1 Workers demands in the Iran March 99 –2000





Promise to deal with demand


Confrontation with the security forces and arrests






Table 2 Outcome of workers protests


Kind of protest



Rally outside factory or government office












Letter writing or signatures






Table 3. Forms of protest


  1. this article was written before the latest clampdown on the reformist press
  2. You can find details of all the labour protest events in our web site
  3. In the last days of the old Majles with the reformists split over the electorate’s catastrophic rejection of Rafsanjani.

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