The MENA and Southeast Asia have undergone and continue to undergo massive political transitions. Differences in the process and outcomes of their transitions can be viewed through the lens of a “civil society infrastructure.” This essay series explores the roles and impact of civil society organizations (CSOs) in these two regions during the transition and pre-transition periods as well as in instances where the political transition is completed. Read more ...


How did the Islamic Republic of Iran’s dominant narratives over labor evolve since the 1979 revolution? What paved the way to neoliberal discourses, particularly since the 1990s? Which processes and legal measures made workers precarious? What role did workers play, and along which lines did they develop their trajectories of resistance?

These questions are at the core of this article, which explores the above-mentioned issues from two different vantage points: a top-down approach, which looks at official narratives, as well as the legal strategies that contribute to the precarization of workers; and a bottom-up perspective, which seeks to understand workers’ practices of resistance and counter-hegemonic actions. In between, it explores the modalities through which elites’ discourses circulated within society.[1]

Although not explicitly addressing current developments, it may help to contextualize the historical and social processes that led to the most recent waves of protests, such as the dey mah unrest of December 2017-January 2018,[2] as well as the November 2019 unrest.[3] In all three waves of discontent, economic grievances were accompanied by anti-establishment slogans of mostly impoverished Iranians; however, workers did not emerge as a distinct organized group, nor did cross-class alliances have the chance to develop in the street. How did we get there?

The argument of this article is three-fold: 1) A particular combination of the Islamic Republic’s public discourse and legal acts — beyond actual repression — has both narrowed workers’ political space and weakened social justice. 2) Through the neoliberal myth of success permeating the society from the top and the process of labor precarization, the social division among classes deepened considerably. 3) Despite prohibitions and repression, workers managed to: first, negotiate spaces for the struggle against liberalization policies and to express their political discontent; second, to adjust their strategies according to the changing context, as they moved — in certain circumstances — from formal to informal activism.

1. Narrowing workers’ space through discourse

Since the founding of the Islamic Republic in 1979, the IRI’s narrative on labor profoundly transformed. The workers’ role as social and revolutionary actors lost its centrality. This process developed along the following lines. First, the concept of work shifted from being an instrument of mobilization and a trigger to collective action, as it was in the last phase of the 1979 revolution.[4] Second, the terminology employed to refer to workers changed, from the “downtrodden” to tools of productivity. Third, the IRI gradually undermined May Day’s role within its broader rhetoric to leave room for a more neoliberal narrative.[5]

Concerning the first realm, the shifts connected to the concept of “labor,” the Islamic Republic’s dominant discourse were framed differently over the years. In the aftermath of the 1979 revolution, the IRI presented labor as originating from God and opposing the paradigm of capitalist exploitation. During the Iran‒Iraq war (1980-1988), the authorities called upon workers to make “an effort” towards production for the devastated country’s economy, as well as to perform “a religious duty,” “a moment of prayer.” It was in a May Day speech in 1982 that then-President Ali Khamenei referred to “production” (towlid in Persian), for the first time. Nevertheless, only in the 1990s with Ali Hashem Rafsanjani's so-called Dowlat-e sāzandegi (cabinet of the reconstruction) did the motto “produce and consume” enter the IRI’s dominant discourse. Terms such as “development,” “economic production,” “productivity,”  “privatization,” and “success” began to make the headlines. Furthermore, after 1997, when the reformist president Mohammad Khatami took the helm, labor became instrumental to the cultural progress and the “creativity” of the nation. Khatami expanded its meaning to entrepreneurship, casting it into a broader cultural framework, using words such as  “dialogue,” “equality,” and “democracy.” Nonetheless, masses and workers, in particular, were not at the core of either Rafsanjani or Khatami’s projects. This political lacuna contributed to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s election as a president in 2005. Indeed, he started to stress social justice (edālat-e ejtemāʿi) within his populist narrative, promising to return oil revenues to “the people” of Iran and pledging to make labor a high priority. Yet, Ahmadinejad did not abandon the IRI’s refrain of pushing laborers to increase productivity. Although the president’s anti-capitalist and populist rhetoric focused on the oppressed and workers, labor actions suffered harsh repression under his rule.

A second dimension investigates the terminology employed to address workers. One of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s main concerns, particularly in the years immediately after the 1979 revolution, was to nullify the leftist “threat” and chase those deemed as the “enemies of the revolution” from the factories. He used only a couple of times the term “class” when referring to workers, which were instead cast into the broader category of the oppressed. In Khomeini’s words, workers represented “Iran’s dorsal spine.” In the mid-1980s, Ali Khamenei (who was then president), specified that there was no other way to define workers but as a community of believers (ommat) and railed against those who insisted calling workers as a class. During the reconstruction era, Rafsanjani and his ministers dismissed terms such as tabaqeh (class) or mostazʿafin (oppressed). In their speeches, they use expressions such as niru-ye kārgar,  working force, or qeshr-e kārgar, working stratum. A further significant transformation occurred with Khatami, with workers subsumed in the broader concept of civil society (jāmeʿeh-ye madani). Ahmadinejad, who claimed to “give to revolution back to the mostazʿafin,” did not look at workers as a specific class. Instead, he addressed them in his official May Day speeches as “human beings” or “vibrant people.”

As for the role of May Day, Islamic discourse gradually absorbed its potential. After the first few years of the post-revolutionary period, during which the IRI was concerned with the suppression of the Marxist groups that had any connections in the factories, May Day lost its significance in the dominant narrative. Although still celebrated, Workers’ Day no longer made the newspapers’ front pages. The process of engulfment of leftist symbols and slogans connected to workers was considered complete.[6] Therefore, social justice was woven together with neoliberal narratives, particularly since the 1990s. Concurrently, while praising progress and success, as well as addressing middle class needs, the IRI narrowed workers’ space for mobilization while continuing to prohibit independent unions.

2. Glorifying success and production while undermining workers’ bargaining power

Following the Iran-Iraq war and Khomeini’s death, Rafsanjani “normalized” the birth of the “Second Republic.”[7] His cabinet, concerned with the reconstruction of the country, carried out a series of pro-market measures and launched the First Five-Year Plan. Iran’s economic restructuring plan developed along the following lines: privatization, removal of price control, increase of production.[8] Unlike the Western experiences of economic liberalization, Rafsanjani’s administration strategies did not champion a tax reduction tout-court. Furthermore, as extensively noted by Mohammad Maljoo and Parviz Sedaghat, among others, neoliberalism in the Iranian context took a more hybrid form, between welfare policies and neoliberal measures.[9] Regarding privatization, it is more accurate to refer to semi-privatization and to see Iran as a “subcontractor state” employing a specific, although a non-exceptional form of capitalism.[10] For instance, it was under the sāzandegi period that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) started building its economic empire. Furthermore, it is worth noting that, while trekking the path of neoliberal rhetoric and opening to the markets, Rafsanjani entourage’s never called it “liberal” or “neoliberal.” The top-down narrative manifested through public discourse, which openly repeated the refrain towlid va masraf, “produce” and “consume,” aimed at “overcoming the country’s problems.”[11] [12] Newspapers, such as Iran and Hamshahri, started going to press with full-page headlines, i.e., Iran is moving toward the following “objective: development, growth, efficiency;”[13] “National industry must be developed.”[14] Within this context, the youth represented the perfect target of rising consumer culture. The public discourse praising the glamorization of luxury and success gradually left workers and social justice slogans behind, as it was encouraging competition and individual achievements. The government policies were meant to achieve national growth, as universities became sites of knowledge production for future engineers, economists, or doctors, and factories were mere tools of production.[15] Beginning in the 1990s and throughout the 2000s, this process enlarged the social rift between workers and the middle-class, which embodied the model of the winner, as Iranian society became increasingly concerned with collecting “successes” (movaffaqyat-ha) and “progress” (pishrafteh-ha).

Moreover, a series of legal mechanisms initiated a process that eventually made workers precarious and alienated. Whereas in 1990 only 6% of the labor force worked under temporary contracts, by the end of the 2000s the number climbed to 90%.[16] The Labor Law of 1990 created the legal basis for short-term contracts. Article 7 of the Law explicitly states: “The maximum temporary duration for jobs which have a non-continuous nature will be determined by the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs and confirmed by the Cabinet.”[17] Temporary contracts de facto fragmented the labor force and undermined the chance of creating workers’ collective solidarity.

Furthermore, a specific filter between employers and workers transformed the labor sphere. Hiring agencies, which were controlled by the state and served as a tool of recruitment for temporary workers, emerged. Another crucial element introduced by the 1990 Code was the exemption of small workshops with fewer than ten workers from the legal regulations. This measure profoundly affected the bargaining power of workers and access to their legal rights vis-à-vis the employers.[18] Nevertheless, it is chapter six of the Labor Law that explicitly narrowed workers’ political space. It recognized state-controlled workers and employers’ organizations (Islamic Societies, Islamic Labor Councils, the Worker’s House) only. Independent unions that could represent workers’ grievances are excluded.[19]

3. Negotiating spaces: workers’ strategies of resistance

How did workers react to these narratives, policies, and state repression? Which strategies did they employ to negotiate their own political spaces? Liberalization policies, gradual reduction of subsidies, and high inflation widened the gap between rich and poor while increasing social inequalities. Although wages had dropped due to rising inflation, workers were not the first group to collectively take to the street and express their dissent. The urban poor manifested their discontent in the suburbs of big cities, where illegal huts had flourished in the run of the rapid urbanization of the country after the revolution. The downtrodden raised their voices. Several waves of protests erupted both in 1991 and 1992. The areas around Tehran, Shiraz, and Mashad experienced popular uprisings, as well as those in Khoramabad and Arak. First were rioters, then squatters.[20] They confronted the police with only stones in their hands and by setting cars on fire. The poor were protesting economic conditions and housing shortages. The mostaz’afin were creating the “most serious urban disturbances in 12 years.”[21] Yet, they were not politically organized or coordinated. Significant unrest continued throughout the 1990s, in Qazvin in mid-1995 and four years later in Islamshahr, south of Tehran, where protesters experienced a violent crackdown as their anger mounted over fuel and bus tickets prices.[22] State TV and Radio repeatedly referred to the rioters as “agitators” or “enemies of the revolution.” Along with jobless protesters, unpaid wages and labor precarization (due to the introduction of temporary contracts) made discontent erupt within the factories and among workers as well. Those from Khalifeh Abad, Gilan, struck several times in 1995, claiming that they had not received their salaries since months and millions of workers over the country were unemployed.[23] Between December 1996 and February 1997, Iran experienced other waves of protests, started by oil workers in Tabriz, Tehran, Esfahan, and Shiraz. It is worth noting that by then, as reported by Kār, the magazine of the Fedayān (Minority), workers framed more explicit political demands, lamenting the lack of rights and bargaining power in the refineries.[24] State repression silenced the strikes.[25] Nevertheless, after Arak workers went on strike again, claiming their unpaid salaries in September 1997, the IRI — in the words of the Ministry of Labor — decided to ‘meet their economic requests’ and eventually to mandate the employers to intervene. [26]

Under Khatami’s reformist government, the trend of protests and strikes did not stop. Yet, an element was different. The political arena was gradually opening, and workers slowly managed to negotiate their space, to organize more semi-private meetings and gatherings, although still dealing with repression and lack of actual rights of constituting independent unions.[27] Between January and April 1999, several groups of workers organized collective actions: first, it was in Kashan,[28] and then in Ahvaz, Abadan, and Shiraz. The authorities responded, once again, with activists’ arrests. In May, Azmayesh factory workers of Sarvdasht organized a march, asking for better salaries and working conditions. Under Khatami, the publication of the Worker’s house, Rāh-e kārgar, began to systematically report workers' strikes and protests, such as those occurring in June 1999 in Abadan, Mahshahr, Bandar Abbas.[29] Iran Khodro, the biggest car factory of the country, went on strike against temporary contracts.[30] By then, workers were more politically conscious of their role. Nevertheless, they did not find enough support among the reformists, and political representation was still highly problematic. The distance between intellectuals and workers had enlarged dramatically. Yet, spaces for labor activism — particularly on the internet — were growing.

In 2005, this trend was abruptly interrupted by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The new conservative president, who expressed words of support to “the people of Iran” and the masses, severely suffocated any seeds of activism in the country. Nonetheless, workers did not stop their actions but tried to shift from online to offline spaces. First, new independent unions such as Tehran Bus Drivers Syndicate (Sherkat-e Vahed Otubusrani-ye Tehran va Humeh), Haft Tapeh Sugar Factory Workers’ Union and Free Union of Iranian Workers, emerged between 2005 and 2008. Second, as the state crackdown regularly represented a threat and severely repressed activists with violence and arrests, workers’ expressions of dissent navigated the context by moving from formal to informal meetings and online networks.[31] [32] Indeed, Said Torabian, from Sherkat-e Vahed, openly declared that imprisonment or violence did not convince their members to quit.[33] Moreover, from 2007 onward, workers from the Haft Tapeh Sugar Cane kept going on strike every few months, despite their activists being jailed.[34] If, on the one hand, one can argue that repression did not prevent workers from protesting, it is worth noting that these experiences were still small, mostly isolated, and could not establish a broader network with other working groups precisely because of the fear of repression. It was within this historical framework that the 2009 Green Movement flourished: sharp social division, workers’ alienation, lack of cross-class alliances, the political distance between labor activists and the youth's more liberal demands, along with state repression were crucial features. In 2009, workers did not take to the street as a distinct group, along with other protesters.

Conclusion

This article showed how top-down strategies over labor and workers’ bottom-up responses both mirrored and contrasted with each other in post-revolutionary Iran, particularly in the period between 1979 and 2009. Exploring shifts, ruptures, and transformations in the processes of consolidation of the IRI, it argued that two main factors contributed to narrowing workers’ political space beyond actual repression: first, neoliberal narratives spreading since the 1990s; and second, specific legal measures. Nevertheless, it challenged the idea that the emergence of workers’ actions and new subjectivities relied on state mechanisms of repression versus concessions. Instead, labor activism in Iran systematically evolved between two critical moments for the Islamic Republic, and the top-down/bottom-up confrontation never stopped, although it was extremely fragmented.

Most academic research concentrates only on constraints and repression and depicts the IRI as an omnipotent entity. However, this methodology erases people’s agency. Particularly in the workers’ case, it is worth highlighting a few crucial points. Repression does not represent the only reason that may silence or block acts of resistance. Workers may lack formal connections and long-term goals. Therefore, they are discouraged and alienated by several sources of power within the society (family, friends) and public discourse.

This is not to minimize the role of the IRI’s control and repression towards forms of activism that can constitute a threat to its stability. Conversely, it is an attempt to push the critique forward and give a broader picture of Iran’s complex — though not exceptional — reality. Indeed, looking at the country through a historical lens helps avoid the risk (and fallacies) of trapping facts into the cage of the present. Therefore, what occurred in the streets of Iran during Dey Mah protests of 2017-2018 and November 2019 waves of unrest can be understood as part of a broader political process and transition. In both instances, the impoverished strata of Iranian society took to the streets. These manifestations of popular discontent arose from  a combination of domestic and external pressures, namely, devastating sanctions imposed by the United States and aggressive liberalization measures. In both instances, the protesters merged economic grievances and anti-establishment slogans. Nevertheless, these eruptions of anger did not have a clear connotation linked to labor activism, nor were they openly supported by the modern middle classes. This lack of evident cross-class alliance is to be inscribed into the nuanced historical process mentioned above. Beyond these similarities, the massive violence employed by the IRI to suppress the November 2019 unrest might prove to be a turning point in the political responses it generates.

 

[1] This paper builds on primary research and fieldwork conducted by the author in Iran for her doctoral dissertation, which focuses on the discursive conceptualizations of labor in the IRI between the 1979 revolution and the 2009 Green Movement.
 

[2] See Kaveh Ehsani and Arang Keshavarzian, “The Moral Economy of the Iranian Protests,” Jacobin Magazine, January 11, 2018, https://www.jacobinmag.com/2018/01/iranian-protests-revolution-rouhani-ahmadinejad. See also Asef Bayat, “The Fire That Fueled the Iran Protests,” The Atlantic, January 27, 2018, https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2018/01/iran-protest-mashaad-green-class-labor-economy/551690/.  
 

[3] See Omid Mehrgan and Setareh Shohadaei, “Do Fuel Prices Define the Fate of the People’s Politics in Iran?” Jadaliyya, December 3, 2019, https://www.jadaliyya.com/Details/40316/Do-Fuel-Prices-Define-the-Fate-of-the-People%E2%80%99s-Politics-in-Iran.
 

[4] See Ahmad Ashraf and Ali Banuazizi, “The State, Classes, and Modes of Mobilization in the Iranian Revolution,” State, Culture and Society 1, 3 (Spring 1985) and Asef Bayat, Workers and Revolution in Iran: A Third World Experience of Workers’ Control (London: Zed Press, 1987).
 

[5] For a more comprehensive analysis of May Day in the Islamic Republic, see Ervand Abrahamian, Khomeinism: Essays on the Islamic Republic (Berkeley: University of California, 1993), 60-87. For Workers’ Day speeches in Iran see M. Stella Morgana (2019) “Talking to Workers: From Khomeini to Ahmadinejad, how the Islamic Republic’s Discourse on Labor Changed through May Day Speeches (1979‒2009),” Iranian Studies 52, 1-2 (2019): 133-158, DOI: 10.1080/00210862.2019.1599713.

[6] See Peter J. Chelkowski and Hamid Dabashi, Staging a Revolution: The Art of Persuasion in the Islamic Republic of Iran (New York: New York University Press, 1999); and M. Stella Morgana. “The Islamic Republican Party in the Factory. Control over Workers' Discourse in Posters (1979‒1987),” Iran—Journal of the British Institute for Persian Studies 56, 2 (2018): 237–49.
 

[7] Anoush Ehteshami, After Khomeini: The Iranian Second Republic (New York: Routledge, 1995), 27-44 and 104.
 

[8] See Djavad Salehi-Isfahani, “Labor and the Challenge of Economic Restructuring in Iran,” Middle East Report 210 (Spring 1999): 34-37.
 

[10] See Kevan Harris, “The Rise of Subcontractor State: Politics of Pseudo-privatization in the Islamic Republic of Iran,” International Journal of Middle Eastern Studies 45, 1 (2013): 45-70.
 

[11] Keyhān, May 24, 1993 (3 Khordad 1372.)
 

[12] Irān, July 26, 1995 (4 Mordad, 1374.)
 

[13] Irān, August 8, 1995 (17 Mordad 1374.)
 

[14] Ibid.
 

[15] See Keyhān, May 22, 1993 (1 Khordad 1372); Keyhān, September 14, 1994 (23 Shahrivar 1373); Irān, 1-8-13 August 1995 (10-17-22 Mordad 1374); Irān, December 30, 1996 (10 Dey 1375); Irān, July 25, 1996 (4 Mordad 1375); Irān, January 9, 1997 (20 Dey 1375).
 

[17] Labor Law, 1990. Iran Data Portal, Syracuse University. Chapter two, https://irandataportal.syr.edu/labor-contracts.   
 

[18] Alireza Kheirollahi, Kārgarān bi Tabaqeh: Tavān-e Chānezani Kārgarān dar Irān pas az Enqelāb [Workers Without Class: Bargaining Power in Iran after the Revolution] (Tehran: Agah, 1398), 1-75.

[19] Labor Law, 1990. Iran Data Portal, Syracuse University. Chapter six, https://irandataportal.syr.edu/workers-and-employers-organizations.
 

[20] Asef Bayat, Street Politics: Poor People’s Movement in Iran (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997), 106-107.
 

[21] “Violence Spreads in Iran as the Poor are Evicted,” New York Times, June 1, 1992, https://www.nytimes.com/1992/06/01/world/violence-spreads-in-iran-as-the-poor-are-evicted.html.

[22] “Town hushed in 95 crackdown sees no reason to join Iran riots,” New York Times, July 16, 1999,  https://www.nytimes.com/1999/07/16/world/town-hushed-in-95-crackdown-sees-no-reason-to-join-iran-riots.html.
 

[23] Iranian workers’ statement, IASWI, https://workers-iran.org/old/asalem.htm.

[24] “E’tesabāt Sarāsari Kārgarān San’at Naft (Oil Workers Strikes),” Kār 298 (Bahman 1375 – February 1997): 1-3.

[25] “Tazāhorat-e hezarān az kārgarān san'at naft (Demonstration of thousand oil workers),” Kār, 299 (Esfand 1375- March 1997): 4.
 

[26] Quoted in a Statement of Confederation of Free Trade Unions, http://www.hartford-hwp.com/archives/51/090.html.
 

[27] Independent workers’ activist, interview with the author. Tehran, March 2019.
 

[28] Khordad, 15 Dey 1377, January 5, 1999.
 

[29] Rāh-e Kārgar, 24 Tir 1378, July 15, 1999.
 

[30] International Labor Organization, ILO. Report no. 337, 2005.
 

[31] Akhbar-e Rooz, 22 Dey 1391, January 11, 2013 (my translation), http://www.akhbar-rooz.com/article.jsp?essayId=50292.
 

[32] A list of labor news websites, eventually shut down during Ahmadinejad’s presidency is available here: http://www.ofros.com/payvandha.htm.
 

[33] “Jam'e Bandi Se Sāl-ha-ye Mobārzat-e Kārgarān Sendikā-ye Sherkat-e Vahed,” [Sum up of three years of Workers' Struggles of the Syndicate United Company], Asr-e Nou, 11 Bahman 1387/30 January 2009, http://asre-nou.net/php/view.php?objnr=2054.
 

[34] See “Kārgarān Haft Tapeh az sāzmān jahāni kār komak khāstand” (Haft Tapeh Workers ask International Labor Organization for help), Worker Today (in Persian) (11 Mehr 1386 - October 3, 2007), http://www.bbc.com/persian/business/story/2007/10/071003_mf_hafttappe.shtml.