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.