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Iranians Continue Struggle for Unions that Aren't Backed By the Government

By 1981, all the independent unions and councils from during and after the Revolution had been forcefully taken over by pro-government workers and other supporters of the regime.

The establishment of independent labor organizations has always been problematic for the Iranian working class since its inception in the early years of the 20th century. The recent resurgence of independent collective labor activity has generated a search for new ideas and new debates among labor activists, labor committees, and several independent trade unions concerning the formulation of workers' demands and effective organizational practices.

Some of these activities have been overt, while others have been kept out of the authorities' sight for fear of a brutal reaction by the state. Labor organizers have reached out not only to working class organizations outside of Iran, but also to women, students, and ethnic civil society organizations to find support for their cause. As has been true for most of the long history of the Iranian workers' struggle, labor leaders and activists confront not only intimidation by their employers and the loss of their jobs, they frequently suffer imprisonment, torture, and state harassment of their families, as well.

Many labor organizers and political activists have come to the conclusion that in the absence of a viable secular democracy neither the labor nor any other progressive movement is sustainable. In fact, democracy is essential for the transformation of class structure (in itself) to class organization (for itself). In the absence of democracy such a transformation can hardly take place. Yet in a class-divided capitalist society, political democracy is inevitably in conflict with the system of socioeconomic power and inequality.

For this reason, the working class is an ardent advocate of deepening democracy with social justice, that is, creating a viable social democracy. Further, the long history of labor movements shows that the working class has become conscious of the fact that the chances for democracy at any level of development can be facilitated by the progressive activities of civil society and working class organizations. (In a book forthcoming from Jahanbegloo, we discuss the role of democracy and progressive civil society organizations in advancing the cause of the working class, as well as the particular case of the Iranian working class under the Islamic Republic.)


This article explores some of the objective and subjective obstacles facing the Iranian working class in its struggle to attain the right to form independent organizations and to protect and promote civil liberties within the Islamic Republic. In 1976, about 40 percent of the employed workforce in Iran was working class, about half of whom worked in enterprises larger than 50 workers. The middle class was tiny -- 5 percent -- and less than one-third of its members worked in the private sector. Nearly one-third of the employed workforce was self-employed petite bourgeoisie, 99 percent of whom were in traditional occupations -- farming, textile or rug making, carpentry, groceries, truck or taxi driver-ownership. Among capitalists, a large majority owned small enterprises in similarly traditional occupational fields.

The 1979 Revolution represented a social rupture, egalitarian in character and openly antagonistic toward large capital and capitalists, especially those affiliated with foreign enterprises. The Revolution disrupted the "normal" functioning of society. Most significantly, it jeopardized the sanctity of property rights and the safety of capital, weakening capitalist relations of production and obstructing the elaborate maze of market networks. This condition was conducive to the growth of petty-commodity production and small-scale capitalist activities. We call this degenerative process "structural involution." The Islamic state amplified the involutionary trend with its populist policies, at times even inciting anti-capitalist tendencies and encouraging small-scale economic activity. The resulting changes in political and economic structure affected the class composition of the Iranian workforce.

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