Iran: Why Workers Aren't Joining the Protests

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Protesters throwing stones at riot police during an antigovernment demonstration in Tehran on Feb. 14, 2011

Iran's opposition green movement proved it was still viable when it defied the government's crackdown on public protest and marched through the streets of Tehran and other large cities last Sunday. The showing was inspired, in part, by the ongoing wave of people power in North Africa and beyond. But there is a telling difference between Iran's green movement and the coalitions that booted out autocratic rulers in Tunisia and Egypt. Labor groups and workers' demands have been mostly absent from green demonstrations, whereas they proved crucial in forcing Zine el Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak to step down. In Egypt, especially, widespread strikes in tourism and shipping — two key sectors of the country's economy — tipped the balance of power in favor of the demonstrators occupying Cairo's Tahrir Square.

Iran certainly has its share of unruly worker unrest. Over the past year, strikes and walkouts have broken out in the automobile, tire, sugar, textile, metals and transportation industries. Many of these protests were concerned with bread-and-butter issues: wages not paid, unexpected layoffs, deteriorating benefits and rising unemployment. Even the valuable gas and oil industries are vulnerable to labor unrest. Construction workers went on strike recently at a gasoline refinery in Abadan — the heart of the Iranian oil sector — demanding back wages for 500 laborers who had not been paid in six months.

Yet an organized alliance between Iranian workers and students has still not materialized as it has elsewhere. In Egypt, the young student activists who coordinated January's Day of Anger protests called themselves the Sixth of April movement. The name itself was a tribute to the attempt by Egyptian workers in April 2008 to call a general strike for better working conditions, higher wages and the right to form independent unions. The 2008 general strike failed, but it stirred Egypt's youth to push for new protests once the example of Tunisia proved that public demonstrations could be effective.

At the height of the Iranian green movement uprising in the summer of 2009, young activists called for a general strike. The call went mostly unheeded by workers. After the opposition marches dwindled, the large Tehran bazaar shuttered its gates in July 2010 to protest an unexpected tax hike by the Ahmadinejad government. The greens anxiously watched but did not join up in support. Workers in Iran's aging industrial sectors in large and small cities courageously voiced their complaints against being squeezed amid an economic crisis. But so far there has been little organizational coordination between these other social actors and the country's frustrated young middle class.

Such an alliance is not necessarily impossible. Iran has a long history of worker movements that could be drawn upon for inspiration, stretching back to the country's 1906 Constitutional Revolution. In 1949, workers in Abadan participated in the largest strike to date in the Middle East, objecting to their poor treatment by a British oil company. During the 1979 Islamic revolution, workers around the country hammered the final nail in the coffin of the Pahlavi monarchy, effectively shutting down the economy until the Shah fled.

Nor is there a lack of common grievances in Iran today. The Ahmadinejad government recently embarked on a massive economic program to reduce subsidies for fuel, electricity and other basic goods. To compensate for the inevitable price hikes, every Iranian now receives a monthly cash supplement of $40. But if inflation eats away at this amount, workers will bear the brunt of Ahmadinejad's plan.

Yet strong links between a rekindled green opposition and Iranian workers will not come about spontaneously. Activists constructed the broad coalitions that toppled the Tunisian and Egyptian regimes through outreach and planning. Although hundreds of thousands of individuals were able to break through fear of their government and take to the streets, underneath it all was a network of groups that coordinated strategy and responded to events on the ground. By working together, students and workers were able to perceive common interests and decide on shared goals. This unity proved crucial when demonstrators were violently repressed by government forces.

What keeps Iranian workers and young people from coalescing? Several factors should encourage it. Income inequality in Iran is far less pronounced than in major Latin American or African countries. There are paths for upward mobility via government jobs for a segment of the population, and Iran's welfare system ensures that fewer citizens experience the sort of grinding poverty that is widespread in the slums of Cairo. And a universal criticism of government incompetence and corruption exists across the class divide, helped by the spread of literacy, new roles for women in the workplace and a deep sense of nationalism. Nevertheless, the divide persists. Poorer Iranians easily perceive vast differences between their own lives and those of the wealthier, educated Iranian middle class.

Green movement leader Mir-Hossein Mousavi has spoken out on labor rights and better conditions for workers in recent public statements. Some Iranian labor activists have indicated support for the green movement, but they also urge the opposition to highlight workers' problems more forcefully. As Iranians look to Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere, many see new possibilities for their own country. But while the tide of unrest and change spreads in the Middle East, a broader coalition in Iran remains to be built.