Friday, November 20, 2009

Oil workers take on regime

More than 300 workers in the Abadan oil refinery gathered on Thursday November 12 to protest against non-payment of wages and bonuses, saying they had not been paid for more than three months. Yassamine Mather reports

The refinery authorities associated with what remains of the state-owned Iran National Oil Cohttp company say the workers are employed by a contractor and they cannot do anything about their demands. The protest followed a strike by the whole workforce of 450 involved in the development of Bandar Abbas Oil refinery. This was their third walkout in less than three months and the strike is continuing. The Iranian government’s privatisation plans are notoriously corrupt and generally help empower and enrich the Islamic Pasdaran (Revolutionary Guards). But in the oil industry it is different from elsewhere. Privatisation has been undertaken with the aim of dividing workers and hampering national negotiations over wages and conditions, in the knowledge that for oil workers deployed in various sectors of the industry, working for so many different contractors, it would be impossible to negotiate common terms and conditions.

Private ownership of some oil functions is still prohibited under the Iranian constitution, but the government has permitted buy-back contracts, allowing international oil companies to participate in exploration and development through an Iranian affiliate. The contractor receives a remuneration fee, usually an entitlement to oil or gas from the developed operation. Iran’s total refinery capacity in 2008 was about 1.5 million barrels per day (bbl/d), with its nine refineries operated by the National Iranian Oil Refining and Distribution Company. Iranian refineries are unable to keep pace with domestic demand, while the threat of sanctions and removal of fuel subsidies have created price rises and the fear of a shortage of refined fuel.

The current protests are very significant because the Islamic government, wary of the power of oil employees, has so far avoided confrontation with this section of the working class by making sure they receive regular payment and imposing very strict security measures in refineries, services to the oil industry and oil extraction fields.

Iran ranks among the world’s top three holders of both proven oil and natural gas reserves. It is Opec’s second largest producer and exporter after Saudi Arabia, and fourth largest exporter of crude oil globally. Natural gas accounts for half of Iran’s total domestic energy consumption, while the remaining half consists predominantly of oil. The continued exploration and production of the offshore South Pars natural gas field in the Persian Gulf is a key part of the country’s energy sector development plan. Iran has nine oil refineries with a total capacity of 1.4 million bbl/d. They include Abadan, which was one of world’s largest when it was destroyed in 1980 in the Iraq-Iran war. It was also the refinery where the first political strike took place in the late 1970s. Meanwhile, gasoline demand is forecast to grow at around 11.4% per year.1

The Islamic government has not forgotten the significant role of oil workers in the events that led to the February uprising of 1979. In November 1978, a strike by 37,000 workers at Iran’s nationalised oil refineries initially reduced production from six million barrels per day to about 1.5 million. That strike not only cost the government about $60 million a day in oil revenue, but also suddenly raised the spectre of petroleum shortages in Japan, Israel, western Europe and, to a much lesser degree, in the US; all these countries to one extent or another depended at the time on Iranian crude. After a week of strikes and protests, some oil employees went back to work. But the strike played a crucial role in encouraging further militant action and boosted opposition to the regime. It was also significant in asserting the role of the working class in political struggles. The oil workers’ walkout climaxed two months of labour unrest that had spread to nearly every sector of the economy. Demands ranged from pay rises to compensate for spiralling inflation to political reforms, an end to martial law and the release of all remaining political prisoners. A strike of a million civil servants and government workers followed that of the oil workers.

There are many parallels between those strikes and the current unrest amongst oil employees. The present strikes follow weeks of political protests up and down the country. Also Iran’s economic situation is worse than anyone can remember - in addition to rocketing inflation, mass unemployment and systematic non-payment of wages, the new subsidies legislation, passed only a week ago, has already increased the price of basic goods. Everyone is predicting major price hikes.

Bread prices reached 1,000 tomans ($1) in Tehran this week. The newspaper Hemayat said that the two traditional breads, barbari and sangak, were being sold for 600 and 2,000 tomans respectively. The semi-official news agency, ILNA, predicts that both a litre of milk and a kilogram of sugar will soon reach 1,000 tomans. The estimated average wage is around $223 a month, and many workers are not paid for months at a time, while the employer can use the threat of job losses to get away with this form of systematic super-exploitation. In recent statements Iranian workers have once more called for international solidarity and support for their demands - and they are adamant that such support must be from fellow workers. Over the last few years labour activists inside Iran have sometimes been innocent victims of the foolish mistakes of sections of the Iranian ‘left’ that have collaborated with social-imperialist political groups and pro-imperialist, rightwing trade unions.

Those who maintain the principled position of opposing war and sanctions have a duty to show genuine international solidarity with Iranian workers. We can do so by supporting their immediate demands. One of the major organisations trying to unite the current nationwide struggles, the Coordinating Committee to Form Workers’ Organisations, has issued a number of statements regarding recent events, as well as a list of basic demands. Sections of that statement can be summed up as follows:

The Iranian working class is struggling against the entire capitalist system (all factions of the regime). There is a need to safeguard the independence of the working class in the class struggle. Our movement uses the strength of its organised and conscious forces against political power in its totality; that is why workers must unmask ruthlessly the reformist capitalist faction, a faction that misleads workers by creating the illusion of reform within the system.

The unity of the working masses in the struggle against capitalism and the need for promoting its material and moral ability to struggle for the abolition of the wage-slavery system requires that this class initiates its organised and conscious struggle from basic demands as described in the Charter of the Fundamental Demands of the Working Class of Iran.

The main condition for the success of these efforts, including the takeover of factories, the general strike or any struggle for the abolition of capitalist social relations and seizing political power, is the existence of anti-capitalist councils of the working class.

There must be a struggle against unemployment caused by factory closures, against various forms of intensification of exploitation in the workplace. Proposed tactics include taking over closed down factories or those that are on the brink of closing down in the first instance, and strikes in the second instance.

“Based on the above points,” the statement reads, “we call upon all anti-capitalist activists of the working class movement to unite around the following points” for the organisation of the class against capitalism:

Agreement on the basic demands of the working class.

Efforts to form anti-capitalist councils of the working class within workplaces and neighbourhoods.

Unified planning for launching strikes in all centres of work and centres of production.

Preparations for the takeover of factories that have closed down or those on the verge of closing down.

Participation within the current movement, with the aim of forming an independent line for the realisation of the basic demands of the working class.

“Workers, let’s get organised against capital!” concludes the call from the Coordinating Committee to Form Workers’ Organisations.

We in Hands Off the People of Iran must continue our efforts in support of Iranian workers, not just as an act of international solidarity, but as an integral part of our international efforts to confront the economic crisis. Excellent work has been done in 2009, with funds raised by the Fire Brigades Union, Unite, Unison and the RMT, and the efforts of the Labour Representation Committee and Hopi cricket teams. But we must do a lot more in 2010.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Iran: Workers gain new courage

Workers gain new courage

Iranian demonstrations have given a real boost to working class opponents of the regime, writes Yassamine Mather

Every year November 4, the anniversary of the 1979 take-over of the US embassy in Tehran, is marked in Iran with a state-organised demonstration outside the building that used to house the American ambassador and his staff. On that date 30 years ago militant Islamic students stormed the embassy and took 71 hostages. Nineteen were released within weeks, but the remaining 52 were held for 444 days.

The ceremony commemorating the 30th anniversary of the ‘US hostage crisis’ was no different from recent years: a lacklustre ritual addressed by an insignificant minister. However, no-one in Iran will ever forget November 4 2009. It was the day when illegal demonstrations in at least six separate locations in Tehran and 20 cities and university campuses throughout the country overshadowed the state-organised event. As the national broadcasting service was showing live pictures of the gathering outside the former US embassy, shouts of “Death to the dictator” from protesters on neighbouring streets and squares were so loud that it was difficult to hear the minister’s speech. In Tehran the six locations were Enghelab Square, Ferdowsi, Haft Tir, Enghelab Square, Vali Asr and Vanak Square.

Revolutionary guards had issued stern warnings that they would not tolerate any protest demonstrations, and the night before dozens of political activists were arrested. On the morning of November 4 itself, government offices closed their doors at around 10am to stop employees leaving their workplace to join the protests. The ministry of the interior deployed special units of anti-riot police, many on motorbikes, as well as the religious bassij militia, to block main roads, intimidate potential demonstrators and attack any gathering. Yet despite all these measure, by all accounts - including admissions in the pro-Ahmadinejad press - tens of thousands of Iranians joined the protests against the regime.

Highly significant was the absence of any slogans regarding the rigged elections. Four months and 22 days after the June 2009 presidential poll, demonstrators in Iran have clearly moved on. Even the BBC Persian Service, that staunch defender of the ‘green movement’, had to admit in its broadcasts and analyses what most of the left has been saying for some time: as a result of the impasse within the factions of the Islamic regime the protests are no longer about the results of the presidential elections. Protesters are now challenging the very existence of that regime. ‘Reformist’ leaders are tailing the masses.1

The advice of their ‘leaders’ - most of whom, with the exception of presidential candidate Mehdi Karroubi, did not even dare show their face at the demonstrations - was totally ignored. Fellow ‘reformist’ candidate Mir-Hossein Moussavi had spent the previous 10 days warning everyone against “radical” slogans that would only “benefit the enemy”. Yet demonstrators did the exact opposite.

Even the bourgeois media had to admit that the radicalisation of the demonstrations has marked a new phase in the life of the opposition. The main slogans that dominated the day were directed at the supreme leader himself: “Our guardian is a murderer [the supreme leader’s official religious title is ‘guardian of the nation’]. His rule is null and void” (Vali ma ghateleh velayatesh bateleh), plus the usual “Death to Khamenei, death to the Islamic republic”.

The crowds were also at odds with Moussavi over the nuclear issue. In late October he and Karroubi met to discuss the recent US-EU offer to Iran, and made it clear that they considered Ahmadinejad’s response to be a sell-out. Moussavi was quoted by his own website Kalameh as saying: “If the promises given are realised then the hard work of thousands of scientists would be ruined.” Yet for the first time in many years, it looked like the nationalist defenders of a nuclear Iran had no supporters amongst the protesters, whose slogans were very clear: “We don’t want reactors, we don’t want the atomic bomb.”

A week earlier, Moussavi, after a lot of dithering, had called on his supporters to back the November 4 demonstrations, yet on the day he failed to show up at any of the protests. His supporters claimed he was prevented from leaving a cultural centre by the security forces, but witnesses deny this. For all his faults, Karroubi, the 70-year-old cleric, showed more courage. He was prepared to join the demonstrations, even though one of his bodyguards was badly injured and ended up in hospital.

In another qualitative development angry demonstrators tore down posters of Khamenei and trampled all over them in what were unprecedented scenes. The man who is supposed to be god’s representative on earth (for Shia Muslims) was called a murderer and his image defiled by demonstrators wiping their feet on his posters.

Most of all, though, November 4 will be remembered as the day Iranians realised their strength and found the courage to stand up to the regime’s supporters and security forces. A number of bloggers have remarked on how government supporters leaving the official gathering hid memorabilia and photos of the supreme leader that had been dished out at that event when they saw the huge number of protesters in neighbouring streets.

There were many reports and films of the bassij and militia attacking protesters, especially women. However, there were also many incidents where demonstrators confronted those forces and actually got the better of them. In some incidents old women defended young protesters and shamed the security forces into retreating.

Some protesters have also taken up a new chant: “Obama, Obama - either you’re with them or you’re with us.” On the face of it, this does not sound like the most radical of slogans. However, this is a country obsessed with conspiracy theories regarding foreign interference and it was the first time since 1979 that Iranians have directed a slogan at the leader of the hegemon capitalist power in the face of such conspiracy theories. It should be noted that since Irangate2 no-one in Iran takes slogans like “Death to America” and “Death to Israel” shouted at official demonstrations seriously.

A number of foreign reporters were detained, most of whom have now been released, together with an Iranian journalist working for Agence France Presse. The stupid leaders of the regime had thought that by making such arrests they would stop the world hearing about the protests, but the reality is that now Iran has millions of reporters, with their text messages, emails and video footage captured on mobile phones. Perhaps the regime will consider banning all electronic equipment in their desperation to stop the ‘wrong’ news spreading.

The demonstrations have given a real boost to working class opponents of the regime. For the first time in many years they are finding allies in their struggle against the Islamic government. Sections of the left, including Rahe Kargar, have been talking of setting up neighbourhood resistance committees and clearly, given the vicious attacks by security forces on the growing opposition, such committees are necessary. For the first time in many years Iranians are discussing the need for the masses to be armed to confront the state security forces, while maintaining their opposition to ‘militarist’ tactics.

But the regime will not give up easily. More than 200 people were arrested in Tehran and the provinces on or around November 4, while a number of labour activists from the Haft Tapeh sugar cane company have been sent to prison for organising strikes. There are unconfirmed reports that despite many efforts to save the life of Kurdish leader Ehsan Fattahian, he was executed on November 11 in Sanandaj Central Prison. Ehsan’s 10-year prison sentence for membership of an illegal Kurdish organisation was recently changed to execution for no apparent reason.

Hundreds of protesters remain in prison and we must do all we can to support and defend them. Let us step up our solidarity with the working class and democratic opposition.

Respond to this article

  1. See BBC Newsnight report, including interview with BBC Persian Service presenter:
  2. See for a summary of the ‘Iran Contra affair’, also known as ‘Irangate’.

Regime’s most persistent opposition

Ali Pichgah is a veteran of the Iranian oil strikes of 1979-81, when he was a representative of the Tehran refinery workers shora (council) on the National Shora of Oil Workers. He spoke to Yassamine Mather about the current situation in Iran

How do you evaluate the recent political protests and the role of the working class in them?

First of all, I think we have to ask ourselves why the protest against the regime’s rigged elections took such dimensions. I have no doubt that the majority of the population are opposed to the absence of political freedoms in Iran. In particular the youth, who constitute a high percentage of the population, feel contempt for the way the religious state interferes in their private lives. People are losing patience and in general opposition to the regime has reached unprecedented levels.

All these elements led to conditions such that when the regime fixed its own sham election protesters took to the streets. But let us not forget that there is nothing new in the expression of dissatisfaction with or opposition to this regime and this is not the first time one faction has resorted to fraud during what the regime calls an electoral process. I think what is different this time is the terrible economic situation. Inflation above 25%, mass unemployment, the growing gap between rich and the poor ... and from this point of view one can say that the relentless workers’ struggles of the last two years against job losses and poverty, against non-payment of wages (which has become one of Iranian capitalists’ favoured method of increasing profits), as well as the demonstrations by teachers, nurses and so on against the economic policies of the government, were precursors to the huge demonstrations we saw this summer.

Of course, many of these protests were defensive (wage-earners trying to maintain what little they had), yet the working class has remained the most persistent opposition to the entire regime over the last few years, in the run-up to June 2009.

Coincidently we see the continuation of the mass protests of early summer in the unprecedented level of workers’ struggles in recent weeks, the victory of the Iran Khodro workers (where the regime clearly retreated), the revolutionary tactics of Pars Wagon workers (from ransacking the refectory to mounting hunger strikes), workers bringing their families along to demonstrations ...

How do you explain the continuation of these protests when it appears one faction of the regime has defeated the other faction, at least for the time being?

Ordinary people - and here I mean wage-workers, irrespective of whether they are workers, clerks, teachers or this army of millions of unemployed - have nothing to lose but their poverty. That is why they come out onto the streets as soon as an occasion arises, such as for the recent Quds day [Palestine Day - September 18] or in front of their factory, their workplace, sometimes in front of where they used to work. As I said before, it is the economic situation that has given impetus to the current political opposition to the regime.

In some ways we could say this summer’s political struggles took place against the background of an unprecedented economic crisis, which is inevitably linked to the international economic crisis. Any crisis unleashes its own class struggles and, of course, world capitalism has a long experience of transferring the worst effects of such crises to countries of the periphery. But Iran’s parasitic and corrupt capitalist economy paved the way for a major intensification of its economic problems. If you add this background to the existing political discontent, it is not difficult to understand why protests are continuing.

I am sure you are aware that people talk of the absence of the working class from the political arena in Iran and it is interesting that you rebuff such views. But I wanted to know what workers, especially in the oil industry, think of the current political upheaval.

Let me emphasise this once again: the working class was not only present in the demonstrations against the regime and the government from day one (June 12), but it was protesting long before it.

However, recent events mean the situation has changed a bit. First of all, the number of workers’ protests has increased considerably (and, of course, this has something to do with the worsening economic situation), but more significantly during the last few months their struggles have moved from defensive to more aggressive forms - for example, amongst car workers. You have to remember that participation in workers’ protests is far more dangerous than going on a street demonstration. Your name, address, work details are known to the factory owner and the security forces and the minimum problem you face is losing your job - a serious matter when a high percentage of the workforce is unemployed. Yet with all these dangers we see a manifold increase in workers’ protests, so no-one should talk about the absence of the Iranian working class.

However sections of the working class and in particular oil workers are well aware of their historic role. Older workers remember the strikes of the late 1970s, which played a crucial role in the people’s struggles. The younger oil workers (I should say oil employees, because they all participated) have heard about the significance of the oil workers’ intervention in the struggles of 1979 from older workers. But the reason why they haven’t gone on strike is quite specific.

First of all, they are concerned that in the current political climate a strike might benefit the reformist faction of the regime and, of course, this faction is our class enemy as much as the conservatives - they only discovered the need to defend democracy when they themselves faced repression. There have been many discussions amongst oil workers about this issue, which are still continuing. The other concern is that the strike should take place only when there is coordination between all the refineries to make sure there is a successful nationwide action.

In 1981 we wanted to go on strike in protest against the political situation [the first mass arrests of leftwingers, the execution of political activists, the banning of secular and left organisations]. Some people were in favour of the strike; others were opposed to it. Of course, even then a section of oil workers were opposed to the regime, but now this opposition is much stronger. Let me tell you, if the political protests continue, I am sure (by that I mean I promise!) that employees in the oil industry will defend the political struggles and will do what is necessary.

My last question is about the proposed sanctions planned by the US, Britain, France and Germany on the export of refined oil to Iran. What is your opinion about such sanctions?

It is clear that sanctions will hit ordinary people. In winter, they will harm the impoverished working class and the poor in general. Essential goods will not reach the cities and villages. All this benefits world capitalism, but it will be an obstacle to workers’ struggle and its immediate effect will be to strengthen the regime. We have been working for the revolutionary overthrow of this regime since 1981 and every foreign intervention delays this process - they create conditions that hold back workers’ protests.

That is why we can’t stay silent: we must do all we can to oppose these sanctions.