IranPolitik May Day Edition: The Iranian labour movement in 2013


As another May Day comes and goes, we at IranPolitik continue to be astounded by not only the worsening economic condition faced by Iranian workers, but also by the continued failure of the so-called opposition, particularly the Reformist and Green Movement political currents, to support and cooperate with the Iranian labour movement. This movement is potentially one of the most powerful of its kind in the Middle East, which according to Sohrab Behdad and Farhad Nomani numbers over six million workers as of 2006 and many times more if their families are included. Yet no mainstream Iranian political current has even seriously attempted to incorporate the labour movement and its demands. This is not merely a moral failure on the part of the regime and the official opposition. It is also a profound failure in political strategy. As we have argued in the past, the Reformists and Green Movement’s unwillingness to include the labour movement and its demands has likely been a contributing factor to their inability to regain and maintain political power. In this article we give a brief overview of how various political currents in Iran since 1979 have dealt with the labour movement, look at the condition of the movement today in 2013, and consider its future in the Islamic Republic.

The Islamic Republic of Iran’s political currents and the labour movement

The Iranian labour movement originated in the 20th century and became an important part of Iran’s political landscape in the post-Second World War era. For example before Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh, Iranian oil workers were the first to actively agitate for nationalization of the Iranian oil industry (then under the British-controlled Anglo-Iranian Oil Company) in 1946. Despite the repression of the labour movement by the Pahlavi regime (1925-1979), it would go on to play a very important role in the revolution of 1979 through labour strikes which brought the oil and other industries to a standstill.

Despite the important role played by workers in the revolution the Mehdi Bazargan administration (February – November 1979), Iran’s first post-revolution government which had a liberal orientation, attacked the spontaneous labour councils which had arisen. Bazargan questioned these councils’ right to represent workers economic interests, with his labour minister declaring that “the Ministry of Labor is either my place of work or the councils’.” The leader of the revolution and the Islamic Republic’s founder and first Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini directly threatened workers, saying:

“Any disobedience from, and sabotage of the implementation of the plans of the Provisional Government will be regarded as opposition against the genuine Islamic Revolution. The provocateurs and agents will be introduced to the people as counter-revolutionary elements, so that the nation itself will decide about them, as they did about the counter-revolutionary regime of the Shah.” (Malm and Esmailian 2007, 21)

All of the main revolutionary political currents, from Islamists to liberals to leftists, closed ranks against workers and their councils. After suppressing them, the Islamists replaced the spontaneous and independent councils with “Islamic councils” which were for all intents and purposes loyal to the regime and did not strongly represent workers’ interests. As one of the members of the government’s labour committee noted: “As long as workers’ councils act to defend class interests, they cannot be allowed to operate in an Islamic society. Order in an Islamic society is based on guardianship.” (Ibid.) During the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988) the labour movement, and indeed Iranian civil society more broadly, was largely repressed. Still, the government of Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi (1981-1989) did manage to create a greater level of socio-economic equality in Iran through central management of the economy.

With the end of the war and election of Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani as president (1989-1997), the Iranian state embarked on a process of economic reform which introduced economic liberalization through deregulation, privatization, and subsidy cuts. Although these reforms were never comprehensively implemented, they did shift the Iranian economy away from the statist model of the 1980s to one in which market dynamics were much more present. This process reintroduced high levels of socio-economic inequality and, alongside the more open social and political atmosphere of the post-war era, gave new impetus for the revival of the Iranian labour movement. The election of Mohammad Khatami as president (1997-2005), with his slogan of “civil society”, appeared at first as a boon for labour. The Khatami administration however never substantively engaged with the labour movement and in some instances actively repressed it, as for example in the Khatounabad incident in which the police killed four demonstrating workers. It soon became apparent to many in Iran that Reformists merely intended to instrumentalize civil society as part of their quest for power. This was best captured by Reformist theoretician Saeed Hajjarian’s “pressure from below, negotiations from above” strategy, whereby social forces would pressure the regime from below while Reformists used this pressure to negotiate with the regime for greater political power from above. However, the Reformists did not strongly invest in building a strong civil society, which would have to include a strong labour movement and institutions, and were thus never really in a strong position to create pressure from below on the regime beyond winning some elections.

The ultimate failure of the Reformists’ political project led to their downfall and enabled the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president (2005-2013). Ahmadinejad’s early populism and appeal to the socio-economically downtrodden gave some the impression that he was somehow a proponent of Iranian workers. This seems ridiculous today given that he has in many regards turned out to be the exact opposite, implementing economic policies that have worsened the condition of workers. This is not to say that the Ahmadinejad administration has not engaged in some populist actions, such as the short-term redistribution of subsidies as cash payment to Iranian families. However the thrust of his policies, from subsidy reform which has contributed to inflation to pseudo-privatization which has lessened the protections Iranian workers once had, have very clearly been a scourge for labour.

Even the 2009-2011 Green Movement, which emphasized both civil society and human rights, largely ignored the Iranian labour movement and workers. There was never a strong political strategy by Greens to attract the labour movement, with some exceptions at the grassroots level, as the Green Movement was a largely middle class movement not particularly concerned with the plight of workers. Today the Green Movement is like a phantom in search of a new host, and under these circumstances there have been some encouraging efforts by Green activists to incorporate the labour movement and workers, although the efficacy of this remains to be seen.

The Iranian labour movement in 2013

In the lead up to May Day 2013 there has been a flurry of articles and reports on the Iranian labour movement and workers. Human Rights Activists of Iran recently released a document entitled “The Report Card on the Violation of Workers Rights during the Tenth [Second Ahmadinejad] Government.” Some of the findings of this report have been summarized in Table 1 below.

Table 1: The Report Card on the Violation of Workers Rights during the Tenth Government

Year (Gregorian & Iranian calendar)




Number of labour activists sentenced to prison

Full and suspended sentences (months)

Fines (millions of rial)

2009-2010 (1388)







2010-2011 (1389)







2011-2012 (1390)







2012-2013 (1391)














 The latest calendar year appears to be one of the worst for the labour movement in recent memory, particularly in terms of the number of strikes, and may be a consequence of the worsening economic conditions as a result of the Islamic Republic’s ecomomic mismanagement as well as United States and European Union financial and oil sanctions. Iranian labour activists have also faced lengthy prison sentences, the most egregious including the following: Behnam Ebrahimzadeh (25 years), Sharokh Zamani (11 years), Pejman Rahimi (seven years and 40 lashes), Reza Shahabi (six years, five years ban on labour activism, and a 70 million rial fine), Rasoul Bodaghi (six years), Mohammad Esmailvandi (five years), Mohammad Jarahi (five years) and Mohammad Davari (five years).

Reza Shahabi, a senior leader of the legendary Syndicate of Workers of Tehran and Suburbs Bus Company (SWTSBC) who was recently sentenced to six years in prison, has released video to speak to fellow workers on the occasion of International Workers Day and express his outrage at his sentence. In the video Shahabi, dressed in a bus worker uniform and on a moving bus which is taking him back to Evin prison, stated that despite the fact that the he considers his prison sentence illegitimate he is returning to prison to show that the Iranian labour movement works within the law even as its opponents in the regime flout laws.

The SWTSBC, the independent union from which Shahabi hails, also released its own statement on the occasion of May Day. In the statement it called for labour rights activists like Shahabi to be released from prison, for better job security and an end to temporary contracts (blank contracts which most workers in Iran today must sign allowing managers to fire them at will), for an end to child labour in Iran, and objecting to the 2013-2014 (1392) calendar year minimum wage, which currently stands at 4.87 million rial. To give some context, the Supreme Institute for Trade Unions of Iranian Workers, a government-backed entity, has set poverty line in Iran for this calendar year as being 18.0 million rial, nearly four times the official minimum wage. The SWTSBC said in its statement that it views the massive disparity between the official minimum wage and the poverty line “…as insulting and belittling to workers”.


A strong labour movement is often a necessary if not sufficient condition for a strong human rights and democracy as well as socio-economic equality in a country. The current state of the labour movement in Iran has certainly contributed to the dearth of human rights, democracy, and socio-economic equality. The harsh repression faced by this crucial movement is not merely a function of the decisions of regime hardliners. It can also be linked to the official Reformist opposition’s lack of political foresight and the middle classes’ apathy toward labour’s needs and demands. Any future movement in Iran which is to be successful in bringing human rights, democracy, and socio-economic equality must include the labour movement and workers who after all are the ones who keep the economy spinning. It appears unlikely that the Reformists, at least for the time being, will change their ways and are thus unlikely to be able to represent the labour movement or workers in any substantial capacity. The Green Movement, though corporeally dead, nonetheless survives as a spirit which may someday re-emerge as something new and more broad-based that includes labour.

The Iranian labour movement is down but not beaten. Shahabi and the other brave men and women of this movement continue to struggle for their rights inside workplaces and prisons. Sooner or later, they will leave their mark on Iranian civil society and Iran’s political opposition movement. Will Iranian human rights and democracy activists learn from the mistakes of the past or will they continue to overlook the huge potential of the labour movement for bringing change to Iran?


Malm, Andreas, and Shora Esmailian. Iran on the brink rising workers and threats of war. London: Pluto, 2007.