The Green Movement Awaits an Invisible Hand

by Mohammad Maljoo | published June 26, 2010

For background on Iranian labor, see Mohammad Maljoo, “Worker Protest in the Age of Ahmadinejad,” Middle East Report 241 (Winter 2006).

It is the custom of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, to devise a name for each Persian new year when it arrives. On Nowruz of the Persian year 1388, which fell in March 2009 Gregorian time, he proclaimed “the year of rectifying consumption patterns.” But Iranians would not be content to mark 1388 simply with thrift. That year of the Persian calendar turned out to be the most politically tumultuous since the revolution that toppled the Shah, as the loosely constituted Green Movement mounted massive street protests against election fraud.

Undeterred, Khamenei has dubbed the year 1389 “the year of doubling ambition and doubling work,” telling Iranians that, having moderated how much they consume, they must now outdo themselves in how much they produce. On the eve of May Day 2010, however, a group calling itself the Iranian Celebration Council of International Workers’ Day posted an online statement heralding a work force “pregnant with strikes” soon to be born. The Celebration Council was not widely known before this statement, but its words spread like wildfire through the network of websites sympathetic to the Green Movement. Is it possible that the Supreme Leader has badly misnamed the annum for the second time in a row? Could the current year of the Persian calendar turn out not to double work but to halve it, as Iranian workers walk off the job in support of the last year’s political ferment?

To the Streets

The Green Movement has its origins in the deep splits within the Islamic Republic’s ruling elite at the juncture of the thirtieth anniversary of the revolution, the last occasion when the Iranian street reigned supreme. The undemocratic structures in the post-revolutionary state have since withstood numerous pushes, inside and outside parliament, for substantive change. Iran’s “reformist moment” of 1997-2004 was notable for the inability of parliamentary reformers to rally popular forces, whose demands were often too radical for the Islamist politicians. The 2009 upheavals were qualitatively different, as millions marched in support of one post-revolutionary state insider, Mir-Hossein Mousavi, against another, the hardline incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Not long before his death that December, Mousavi’s newfound ally, the key revolutionary leader Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri, made an unforgettable prognostication: “In the end the state will have no choice but to capitulate to the Green Movement.”

The intra-elite division is rooted in clashing political-economic interests, specifically the attempt of the narrow claque supporting Ahmadinejad to consolidate the levers of power in its own hands. Since Ahmadinejad won the presidency in 2005, his administration has largely ruled from behind closed doors, only rarely seeking to achieve its political goals through democratic procedure or even minimal consensus among other elements of the Islamic Republic. This move toward consolidation has been apparent in the economic domain as well, such as in the expansion of Revolutionary Guards business interests and the November 2009 statement by administration spokesman Gholam-Hossein Elham that “the Basij militia should do its best to take over the industrial sector in Iran.”

The deepest split of all may be in attitudes toward the very institution of elections. On one side, the reformists and others who value the republican traits of the Islamic Republic have tended to consider elections to be the best way for the elite to settle internal disagreements. Within the limits imposed by the Islamic Republic, the faction whose ideas the people like best will be in charge. On the other side, the hardliners have showed less and less respect for the concept of popular participation in politics, manipulating the voting in their own favor and then demanding that the official results be accepted. For them, elections are a rubber stamp. For the first faction, the institution of elections is now functionless. [1] The Green Movement -- demanding a credible system for determining “Where’s my vote?” -- feeds the antipathy between the two wings of the elite because it is focused on their main bone of contention.

Meanwhile, the hardliners’ shenanigans have brought their rivals within the state together with forces in the street. In the course of the mid-2000s, the reformist clerics and even moderate conservatives have lost the right to be elected, at least in practice, while Iranian citizens have been further divested of their already restricted choices in elections. There is an economic side to the partnership as well. The Green Movement is largely (though not entirely) made up of middle-class urbanites whose aspirations are tied to the greater liberalization that the reformists generally supported. They are technocrats where the hardliners’ backers are less-educated political loyalists; they want Iran to be more open to global commerce in goods and ideas; they are often pious, but they wish Iran could shed its puritan image and dispense with some of the more oppressively “Islamic” aspects of the post-revolutionary republic. In the late 1990s, it looked like such change could be achieved gradually through the ballot box, but no longer. With this alliance of interests forged, the institution of elections turned from a site of political struggle into a subject of political struggle.

The new site of struggle became the street. For eight months after June 12, 2009, date of the disputed presidential election, the confrontations in Tehran avenues went through numerous ups and downs, generating all manner of predictions of rapid political transformation. After a time, however, it appeared that a balance of street power had been struck. Neither side had achieved its goal and neither had retreated from its initial position: The Greens continued to demand that the state revisit the official election result and the state continued to refuse.

February 11, marked every year as “victory day” for the Islamic Revolution, was widely anticipated as the day when the Greens would reassert their dominance in the street. The state sponsors large rallies on this occasion, and the Greens believed they could humble the hardliners with enormous counter-demonstrations. Unexpectedly, however, it was the hardliners who stole the stage, sending hundreds of thousands into the streets to outnumber the Greens, whose ranks had been thinned by an intensive police crackdown. The stalemate endured on June 12, the first anniversary of the disputed election. Protesters lined major boulevards, but the sheer number of police and Basij paramilitaries deployed by the hardliners prevented the pro-Green forces from claiming the streets as their own.

Pinning Hopes on Labor

Since February 11, one reaction to this state of affairs has been to pin hopes on the Iranian working class. The idea is that workers, presumably the primary targets of Khamenei’s Nowruz pronouncement, will follow the middle class onto the scene of mass politics to create a new site of struggle at the point of production. This notion has been particularly attractive to those active in the labor and left movement before and during the 1979 revolution. Saeed Rahnema, for example, has been quoted saying: “The regime will be in serious trouble when workers and employees in the major industries and in social and government institutions start a strike as they did in the time of the Shah. Strikes are the most important aspect in my view. The regime will not change with street demonstrations alone.” [2]

Iran has witnessed several spirited labor actions in recent years, well-known examples being the wildcat strikes of Tehran bus drivers and schoolteachers. But these actions have not crystallized into what can be called a coordinated, militant labor movement. Furthermore, militancy has not yet appeared in the most sensitive sectors of the economy, oil and transportation of freight. Hossein Bashiryeh, for example, has reported that in 2001 Iranian workers embarked on 303 labor actions across the country, less than six percent of which took place in the oil and transport sectors. Over 45 percent of these 303 strikes were called in protest of delays in pay, and most others also concerned bread-and-butter issues; only 2.8 percent were directed at privatization of the workplace. [3] These trends of diffusion of protest and relatively small-bore economic demands have held during the Ahmadinejad presidency.

Having said that, the working class has certainly not been absent from the hurly-burly of politics nor from the Green Movement to date. In May, the Center to Defend the Families of Those Slain and Detained in Iran published the names of ten workers who have been killed in post-election street protests, and there is much other evidence that the post-election dissidents include many people without university educations. The hope of Rahnema and others, however, is that workers will go beyond joining the protests and paralyze factories and oilfields by refusing to work. Labor played precisely this role in October and November of 1978, when a coalition of pro-revolutionary white-collar and blue-collar workers in the public sector emerged to facilitate the final steps on the path toward overthrowing the Pahlavi regime. [4]

The expectation that the working class will save the Greens nevertheless seems to rely implicitly on an invisible-hand analysis, conveying the impression that the economically disenfranchised will join the struggle en masse as if by spontaneous combustion. More than anything else, Ahmadinejed’s plan to phase out price subsidies for such staples as gasoline, bread, water and electricity has lent this analysis its allure. Subsidy reform is predicted to have hyperinflationary consequences, combining with international economic sanctions to hit the working class especially hard. In the words of one pro-Green writer, “Iran is entering a severe economic crisis that increasingly will worsen the condition of the working class. [Ahmadinejad’s] coup d’état government is unable to manage this crisis. We will witness an expansion of working-class struggle that will ally itself with the Green camp.” [5]

Hope Against Hope

But the invisible-hand analysis of Green Movement supporters suffers from at least two flaws. It is not so clear, firstly, that the working class is eager to join hands with the Greens despite the unprecedented level of worker dissatisfaction with the establishment. Mir-Hossein Mousavi refers broadly to social justice themes in his own remarks about the economy, but the core of the Green Movement leadership is devoted to an Iranian version of trickle-down economics, according to which the masses will eventually enjoy the good life but only if the elites prosper first and furiously.

The Green Movement has offered little in terms of a redistributive vision that could motivate the working class to flex its muscles. From the viewpoint of the working class, the current battle is one between one faction that wishes to spread the country’s wealth around the various precincts of the elite and another that aims to monopolize it. The working class would just as soon cast a pox on both houses.

Secondly, there is reason to question a linear narrative whereby increasing economic pressures necessarily lead to the entrance of workers into the struggle and successful political action. One of the missing links is organizing. As Bashiryeh and others have shown, though job actions have been frequent in the last two decades, they have been scattered, as the Iranian working class has lacked an independent nationwide organization since shortly after the Shah fell. Since the revolutionary state became entrenched, and particularly since passage of a 1990 labor law, worker activism has run up against three types of diehard opponent: management, at both public- or private-sector firms; the Islamic Labor Councils that exist in every establishment with more than 35 employees and are overseen by the state-run Workers’ House; and, last but not least, economic ideologues who consider all trade unions to be illegal. The common will of all three categories of opponent echoes in the 1990 labor law, according to which any independent trade union that forms in an establishment where an Islamic Labor Council exists must automatically be banned. In practice, many unions that call themselves independent are subordinate to the state-run Workers’ House as well.

The Workers’ House is the only authorized nationwide labor organization. Although its Islamic Labor Councils have been under rank-and-file pressure in the last five years, they remain staffed with opportunists and careerists who are too cautious to initiate general strikes. As May Day approached, the Workers’ House announced a week of ceremonies for workers beginning with a gathering at the mausoleum of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, continuing with an audience with the Supreme Leader and ending with a staged mass meeting with Ahmadinejad.

Nevertheless, there are several promising ventures that give genuinely independent voice to Iranian labor. Two of the important institutions are the Syndicate of Workers of the United Bus Company of Tehran and Suburbs and the Independent Haft Tapeh Sugarcane Workers’ Syndicate. In a joint resolution on the eve of May Day, ten independent labor organizations including the bus drivers and sugarcane workers stated demands including “the right to establish independent organizations, a wage increase and a stop to the government program to cut subsidies.” There is also the Network of Iranian Labor Unions, founded in response to the bus drivers’ actions and the arbitrary imprisonment of their leader, Mansour Osanlou. According to a spokesman, Homayoun Pourzad, the Network is trying to establish an independent national labor press to encourage greater autonomy from the Workers’ House. Despite some clear signs of mutual sympathy, these independent labor organizations and the Greens do not form anything close to a united front. In answering a question about Mousavi’s stand on workers’ rights, Pourzad said: “We do not know what his stance is. He seems generally favorable to workers’ rights, but, at any rate, our platform is not identical to his.” [6]

Ironically, the elite Greens who are hoping against hope that the working class can be activated have had a hand in preventing workers from establishing an independent nationwide organization. The “Islamic left,” a cadre of clerics embracing strong social justice rhetoric and spawning many of today’s reformists, attacked the autonomy of secular-left labor councils in the first years of the revolutionary era. For much of the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-1988, when these attacks picked up steam, Mousavi himself was prime minister (a position since dissolved). President Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani elevated this repressive approach into law with the 1990 legislation whose sixth clause established the exclusive control of the Islamic Labor Councils in workplaces. The reformists under President Mohammad Khatami were known for promoting greater personal and civil rights, but not the collective bargaining rights of workers. The illustrative case is that of the schoolteachers. From 2001, when they began demonstrating in the street for better treatment, to 2003, when they struck at schools, to early 2005, when they submitted petitions, the teachers adopted less and less confrontational tactics. Civil society organizations like chambers of commerce, NGOs and reform-oriented newspapers drew sustenance from friends in high places in the Khatami administrations. Trade unions had no such backing, in keeping with the generally neoliberal economic outlook of the reformists, who made no move to loosen the restrictions on independent organizing of workplaces. Labor has also been enfeebled by overall economic conditions. Since the end of the Iran-Iraq war, high unemployment has been chronic and is exacerbated by the steady inflow of young Iranians into the job market. Joblessness in the last two decade is measured officially at 14 percent, and doubtless has been higher.

Having sweated and toiled under the Shah to establish independent organizations, and then helped to deal the monarch the coup de grace, the working class was muzzled by its fellow revolutionaries. It is a further irony that the muzzle seems to be restraining the working class from playing the role the Greens have scripted. Iranian labor is not so much an attacking force as a defensive one that can mount limited rear-guard actions against the worsening economic conditions. Should they count on labor to revive their movement’s fortunes, the Green elites may find themselves wrapped in the robes of Nessus, which burn those who put them on.

Instead of waiting for an invisible hand to usher workers onto the scene, the Greens must wield two visible hands if they wish to mobilize this latent social force. The first visible hand is a discursive shift from the neoliberal economic thought dominant in the Green Movement to a social-justice-oriented agenda that speaks clearly to workers. The second visible hand is concrete assistance to the efforts of labor activists to solve the problem of workers who want to organize at the point of production.

Year of Patience and Perseverance

There are three possible short-term scenarios concerning the position of Iranian labor in the second year of the post-election crisis. Fulfillment of the Supreme Leader’s Nowruz wishes would seem to be the most improbable scenario. In order for 1389 to be the year of “doubling work,” and Iranian workers obediently to ramp up production, there would need to be national reconciliation that puts the trauma of the last year in the past. Nor is it probable, however, that the new Persian year will be the year of halved work due to endemic strikes.

The most likely scenario is that 1389 -- corresponding to the Gregorian year March 2010-March 2011 -- will be the year of underwork, as intermittent street confrontations, additional scattered job actions, recession, and fresh US and international sanctions exert a drag on productivity. This short-term future is not what the Greens dream of but it can serve the strategy posed by their symbolic leader Mir-Hossein Mousavi, who has designated the new year as the “year of patience and perseverance.” Although time seems to be on the Green Movement’s side, opportunity knocks but once.

Editors' Note: A German version of this article will appear in the fall 2010 journal of the Informationsprojekt Naher und Mittlerer Osten, or INAMO. We thank the INAMO editors for permission to publish this English version.

Endnotes

[1] See Mohammad Maljoo, “The Political Economy of the Post-Election Protests,” Goftegu 54 (December 2009). [Persian]
[2] Interview by Ian Morrison with Saeed Rahnema, Tehran Bureau, March 28, 2010, available online at http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/tehranbureau/2010/03/not-by-stre....
[3] Hossein Bashiryeh, “Political Sociology of the Working Class and Worker Currents in Iran,” Moassi-ye Amoozesh-e Aali-ye Kar (2004). [Persian]
[4] Ahmad Ashraf, “Anatomy of Revolution: The Industrial Working Class and the 1979 Revolution,” Goftegu 55 (April 2010). [Persian]
[5] F. Taban, “The 30-Year Overarching Despotism,” Arash 104 (March 2010). [Persian]
[6] “Against the Status Quo: Interview by Ian Morrison,” The Platypus Review, January 8, 2010, available online at http://platypus1917.org/2010/01/08/against-the-status-quo-an-interview-w.... Homayoun Pourzad is a pseudonym.

Filed under: