The Iranian Tsunami

ConnEarthquakes, like the recent Haitian and Chilean monsters, are not subtle events: They flatten buildings, crush houses, and turn infrastructures into concrete and steel confetti. But earthquakes can also generate a power that remains largely unseen, until a huge tsunami rises out of the sea and obliterates a coastline.

This metaphor comes to mind when Amin is talking about the political earthquake in Iran. Amin can’t use his real name, nor can he afford to identify where he lives or works. Being an active trade unionist in Iran is a dangerous job description. “If three workers meet they get thrown into solitary confinement,” he said in an interview for Foreign Policy In Focus.

When most Americans think about the recent upheavals in Iran, they think of marches demanding democracy and challenging the June 12 presidential election. The face of those protests is the “Green Movement” — so called because its supporters wear green —that put millions of people into the streets of Tehran and other large cities throughout the country.

Largely unseen and rarely reported on, however, are thousands of strikes, slow-downs and sit-ins by workers challenging the erosion of trade union rights and the government’s drive to privatize the economy. Tehran’s economic policies will impoverish tens of millions of people — and they aren’t passively accepting the situation.

Cutbacks and Resistance

According to Amin, over the next few months the government will begin dismantling $20 billion a year in subsidies for gasoline, water, electricity, rice, flour, bus fare, and university tuition. “The Iranian people made these things, fought for these things,” says Amin. “They are all that is left of the [1979] revolution.”

Along with the draconian cutbacks in subsidies, Amin says the government of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is rapidly privatizing the public sector and turning it over “to his buddies in the Revolutionary Guard.” According to official government statistics for 2008, the government has privatized a third of state assets, the vast bulk of it under Ahmadinejad. In many ways, this dismantling of the public sector resembles Russia’s privatization plan in the 1990s, which turned over vast sections of the economy to oligarchs at bargain-basement prices.

Resistance to the cutbacks and privatization comes mainly from the trade union movement, much of it underground. But that can be a very perilous undertaking in Iran.

Hundreds of unionists have been fired, threatened, or jailed under brutal conditions over the past few years. The government recently released Mansour Osanloo, president of the Teheran bus drivers’ union, from solitary confinement, but only after an international campaign led by the International Transport Worker’s Federation and the Indonesian seafarers’ union, Kesatuan Pelaut Indonesia.

The International Trade Union Confederation, Iranian unions and human rights groups have called for the United Nations Human Rights Council to investigate the persecution of trade unionists in Iran.

Strike!

In spite of the efforts by the government to stamp out unionism, strikes continue to roil Iran. According to Amin, “there are thousands of small and large labor actions.”

Some 600 workers at Bandar Abbas Refinery Development Company struck to recover five months of unpaid wages. Over 800 workers at the Dena Rah Sazan civil engineering company struck over the same issue, closing off the main gates with heavy trucks. Shiraz Iran Telecommunications Industries workers staged a sit-in at the provincial governor’s mansion over back wages, and a series of strikes over wage and pension reductions paralyzed the Mobarakeh Steel Complex.

Amin says the government is trying to undermine labor laws enshrined in the constitution. “Workers are guaranteed collective bargaining rights and the right to organize. Iran’s labor law is one of the most progressive in the world. And they are trying to change this.”

One employer strategy is to increase the number of “temporary workers.” According to Amin, “temps” now represent 60 to 70 percent of the workforce. They receive no benefits and often experience arbitrary firings and periodic layoffs. The trade union movement is trying to organize these “temps,” a risky undertaking in the current climate created by the government. “We have a police state and we can’t organize ourselves,” he says.

Which is why, he says, the unionists are “100 percent behind” the democratic reform movement.

On the Ropes

For the moment, the reform movement appears to be on the ropes. The government has closed over 50 newspapers and magazines, and the brutality of the police and Basij militia largely prevented the Green Movement from filling the streets of the nation’s major cities on February 11, the 31st anniversary of the revolution.

The authorities first silenced the Internet — one of the Green Movement’s key organizing tools — and then flooded the streets with the police and militia. Hundreds of people were beaten, tear-gassed and arrested, and many still remain in jail. The regime also executed two dissidents on the eve of the demonstrations, and sentenced nine other political prisoners to death.

While the Green Movement has support in many of the nation’s cities, it has not yet recruited the bulk of the Iranian people to its banner. According to a recent poll conducted by the Program for International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland, a majority of the population believes that Ahmadinejad won the June 12 election, and shows no particular interest in regime change.

But the same polls also reflected increasing disillusionment with the general economic situation, and specifically with the Ministry of the Interior. Only a little over a third supports the ministry’s policies, and that disillusionment will almost certainly sharpen when subsides disappear, and rising prices and inflation cut yet more deeply into people’s incomes. Unemployment is around 12 percent, and many workers must hold multiple jobs to make ends meet.

Bread, Roses, and Ballots

On one level, the Green Movement and the trade union movement are very different creatures. The reform movement has a strong base in the middle class and its interests are focused on democratic rights. The trade union movement is mainly concerned with resisting privatization and the end to subsidies. But both movements also share a considerable patch of common ground.

“We are 100 percent behind the reform movement,” Amin says, “because without democracy it is extremely hard and dangerous to organize workers.” And many leading reformers are increasingly critical of the Ahmadinejad’s neoliberal formulas. Former presidential candidate and leading reform leader Mir Hossein Mousavi has strongly criticized the cutbacks in subsidies.

The Green Movement draws the attention of the international press, but as a February 15 statement by a coalition of trade unions points out, “We millions are the producers of wealth, the wheels of production. Society moves only because we move it.” As Amin says, “We have the muscle.”

The stage is set for some sort of major upheaval — possibly around the March 20 New Year’s celebrations — but a number of things could derail it, including new sanctions, or the bombing of Iranian nuclear sites.

Sanctions “might let the regime off the hook,” says Amin. “They could let the government claim that any subsidies cutbacks are the result of Iran’s enemies. ‘See, it is not us, it is our enemies.’”

Labor Strikes, Not Military Strikes

A military attack by either the United States or Israel would be a disaster. “That would wreck everything,” says Amin. Behind the cover of nationalism the government could crush the opposition with impunity.

But silencing opposition never makes it disappear. It is useful to remember that the tipping point in the 1979 revolution that overthrew the Shah was a nationwide strike by workers against the National Oil Company. The walkout shut down the pipelines and refineries.

And the walls came tumbling down.

Conn Hallinan is a columnist for Foreign Policy In Focus.