In the months preceeding the February armed insurrection which led to the downfall of the Pahlavi regime, the term shura (council) appeared frequently in the speeches and literature of various political tendencies ranging from the Islamic right to the leftist organizations. The most ardent advocates of the shuras were the left organizations, including the Mojahedin, with an emphasis on workers’ shuras. Now, four years into the Islamic Republic, it is clear that repression was not the only cause of failure of these shuras. The question is to what extent the workers could manage to exert control within an overall framework of social relations. The failure of the shuras as the organization of workers’ control must be related to a proper analysis of the characteristics of Iranian manufacturing industries.

Social and political developments after the revolution were so rapid, complex and contradictory that any clear understanding requires discussion of three distinct periods in the evolution of the workers’ control movement. (Many commentators on the shuras have misconceived these particular forms of workers’ organizations, taking them as equivalent to soviets and expecting them to play the role of a proletarian state. Others understand them as soviet prototypes, or as radical syndicates. I would suggest that in terms of the particular historical conditions leading to their emergence, the workers’ shuras in Iran reflect the features of the Russian factory committees of 1917.) The first period, control from below, covers the time between the February 1979 insurrection and the first wave of attacks on the revolutionary achievements in August 1979. In the months leading up to the insurrection, workers had shut down almost all industrial establishments. While these two to three months on strike had a tremendous effect on their political involvement, the workers still did not have any experience of self-organization at work. The first period is characterized by a power vacuum in the factories after the flight of the owners and senior managers. The workers had achieved a new consciousness, a strong sense of “possession” of the factory, and hence a tremendous feeling of “commitment” to and “responsibility” for the factory as part of “our people’s wealth.”

This sense of utmost solidarity was not specific only to the working class. Among industrial workers, however, its mode of expression, its objective and its organizational manifestation assumed an entirely distinct character. The combined factors of a power vacuum and a sense of “possession” led to an actual experience of “workers’ control.” During this period, workers “managed” and “ran” the factories. The degree and extent of this experience varied in different factories. The Bazargan government expressed early and direct opposition to the shuras, claiming that the “triumph of the revolution” eliminated the tasks of the shuras. Different political tendencies—the revived left (except the Tudeh Party), the liberal clergy (such as Ayatollah Taleghani), and the Islamic right (Ayatollah Beheshti’s wing of the Islamic Republican Party)—all opposed this position. Khomeini at this point stood publicly between “not accepting” and “not rejecting” the shuras.

This period ends with the first wave of extensive repression in August 1979: the left organizations were attacked, and their headquarters ransacked; the government banned progressive newspapers, monopolized the official media, and launched extensive military attacks on Kurdistan. These events were followed by gradual attacks on the labor movement, purging the oppositional shuras and individual workers.

The second period, from September 1979 to June-July 1981, is marked in labor relations by a systematic return of “management from above.” The government appointed “liberal managers” to pursue “rational” policies. This approach was strongly opposed by the workers. Immediately after the hostage crisis erupted, the struggle in the factories mounted. In some instances, the workers themselves launched “wildcat” expropriations of private capital, particularly joint ventures with foreign capital. This led the post-Bazargan government to support Islamic shuras which would equally represent the workers and management, and include agents of the Ministry of Labor. The shura, under this proposal, was granted only a consultative role. This period saw the gradual establishment of the Islamic Associations in the factories under the clergy organized in the IRP. The associations were a vehicle for the consolidation of the clergy’s power, opposed to both “liberal managers” and the independent shuras. The maktabi (Islamic management) gradually replaced the “liberal management” as the conflicts of different wings of the government intensified. The maktabi management, in cooperation with the strengthened Islamic Associations, started a campaign against oppositionist shuras. Among the shuras closed were those of the Toolmaking Factory, Lift-Track, Pomplran and Kompidro in Tabriz; the Union of Workers’ Shuras of Gilan (with 30,000 workers); the Union of Workers’ Shuras of Western Tehran; those of the oil industry in Ahvaz and the railway workers. Khane-i Kargar (Labor House), previously a free headquarters for workers’ assemblies, became the center of pro-IRP shuras and Islamic Associations.

The third period began in June-July 1981, with the dismissal of President Bani-Sadr and mass executions of the opposition forces. Features of this period in the factories included the hegemony of the maktabi management and the Islamic Associations, militarization of the factories, attacks on the formal wages of the workers (the real wages had already been lowered by the mounting rate of inflation), and an official ban on the formation of even pro-government shuras for the time being. Bani-Sadr’s Minister of Labor, Mohammed Mir Sadeghi, who had a petty bourgeois attitude toward labor relations, was replaced by Tavakkoli, a follower of the hardline Hojjatieh faction. Tavakkoli rejected even the vague idea of “Quranic shura”: “Islam does not recognize the shura system; in Islam the government belongs to God, prophets and imams, and in their absence, to the na‘ib [deputy] imam.”

Inside the Factory

In April 1981, at the height of the mounting conflict between the fundamentalist clergy and Bani-Sadr and the liberals, I visited the PM factory, a modern metal works in Tehran, as part of a study of 15 modern plants. The PM factory was established in 1965, and had a workforce of 900. It was formed by Iranian private capital, with relatively little technical dependence on foreign countries. The PM workers had decided to go on strike about six months before the February insurrection, when their demand for a special Nowrouz (Iranian New Year) bonus was rejected. In response, troops surrounded the factory. The strike was defeated, but later, during the general strikes that had spread all over the country, the workers walked out until the February 1979 victory.

A week after coming to power, Khomeini ordered all workers to resume their work “for the sake of the revolution.” Most workers did return, and they found the same miserable conditions as before—the same dirty air, the same wages, the same supervisors and the same boss. The workers, however, were not the same. They quickly reacted against these “same” things. The first targets were the most notorious old SAVAK agents. The workers formed a commission to identify and investigate these cases.

Most accounts of the factory shuras attribute their genesis to a power vacuum in the factory, resulting from the absence of owners/managers or attempts by the workers to save their jobs. They pay little attention to the ideological transformation of the workers in the course of the revolution. The power vacuum in the production units, resulting from the overall “revolutionary crisis,” certainly provided an opportunity for this ideological transformation to materialize. In the PM factory, though, the workers constituted their shura not in the absence of the owner/director but because of his very presence. The investigation committee here was probably typical of workplace organizations which sprang up immediately after the revolution in order to deal with the oppressive and authoritarian elements within the factories.

About a year and a half after the revolution, in August 1980, the government itself moved to set up special committees in the production units dedicated to “the purification of the production units from the conspiracies of the agents of the West, the East and the overthrown Pahlavi regime.” (The resolution ratified by the Revolutionary Council of the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1980-81 concerning the purge in the production, industrial, service and agricultural units.) Since the workers had already gotten rid of lingering SAVAK agents, this invariably referred to the self-activity of the rank-and-file workers and the purge of militant elements. These “purging bodies” (heyat-i paksazi) consisted of a representative each of the provincial governor, the revolutionary prosecutor, the factory management, the Ministry of Labor, and one elected employee.

The workers’ creation of the investigation committee as a rudiment of the factory committee immediately after the revolution was essentially political in character. The issue revolved around the exercise of power by the workers. The appeals of the shuras were not limited to anti-Shah sentiments. The attempts of the owner of the PM factory to appoint a “new” administrative manager, though initially successful, soon ran into bitter opposition. As one worker argued, “Those who had been managers have become state-appointed managers! The lads protested: ‘Those men have oppressed us so much, how could the state have appointed them as our managers?’” Another old worker complained bitterly that “We will never put up with it, never accept such a burden as long as we have blood in our veins.”

In this factory, the impetus to create the shura did not come from the outside or from the left organizations in any significant degree. Nor were there any historical or traditional practices to which the workers could refer. The large majority of the workers in the PM factory had migrated from the rural areas since the 1960s, where no such traditions existed. (The breakdown of the workers’ origins in PM factory was as follows: City of Tehran—13 percent; the suburbs of Tehran (Shemiran, Shahryar, Ray and Varamin)—3.5 percent; Caspian Sea coastal areas—18 percent; Azerbaijan—19 percent; and the rest, 46.5 percent, from various parts of the country.) In the factories under the Shah, the workers had no experiences with factory committees or “workers’ control” although there has been a strong tradition of de facto “workers’ representation” at the shop floor level. The officially organized and mainly factory-based “syndicates” were supposed to be elected by the workers. The secret police often took over these “syndicates” in practice. If independent, it would be under strict observation of the state’s factory police organization, the “security bureau.” (In five out of 12 factories investigated, the “worker’s representatives” had been officially employed by SAVAK. One factory lacked any syndicate leaders. In three, the syndicate leaders, though not SAVAK agents, had sold out their worker’s interests. Three others were militant and loyal to their rank-and-file interests.) So even syndicate members committed to the workers’ cause were ineffective. For this reason, the workers in all the factories I visited had extraordinarily negative attitudes toward the syndicate.

In the absence of a genuine workers’ representative in any critical disputes with management during the Pahlavi period, a representative would be unofficially chosen from among the militant workers to conduct negotiations. (In the Zamyad car plant in Tehran, a militant worker had stood for the leadership of the factory syndicate. Since SAVAK was sure he would win the election, he was barred from entering the factory on the election days in two successive years. For this reason, in the third year, a day before the election, he hid himself at the top of the factory water reservoir for the night. The next day he was inside the factory, took part in the election and won. Immediately after his victory, he was fired.) This tradition contributed to the structural formation of the factory shura. In this factory, though, the main impetus behind the creation of the shura was ideological. The strong sense of “hatred of the past” and of possession with regard to their own work which developed in the revolution did not remain at the level of pure ideas. The workers experienced areas of authority which in the past were indisputably the territory of capital. The basic limitations on this movement were the anti-working class orientation of the state power, the structure of the economy, the defenselessness of the workers, and their lack of conscious determination, despite their militancy, for socialism. Their efforts at this stage, however, can be characterized as “socialist-oriented.”

The Function of the Shura

The constitution of the shura of the PM factory stipulated: “It is the duty of the shura to intervene in the whole affairs of the factory, e.g., in purchase, sale, pricing and orders for raw materials.” They indeed did intervene in all factory affairs. They did not set up “soviets” in order to oppose capitalist relations as a whole, yet they experienced an idea and practice of shura at the point of production which threatened the dominant position of capital.

There was considerable distance between the workers’ conception of shura and its function. The shuras never assumed the legal form set out by the government. (In August 1980, Ministry of Labor regulations granted only a consultative role to the shuras. Such regulations however could not regulate labor-management relations. When labor had the upper hand, it went far beyond the legal limits; when management could, it suppressed the shura, even preventing elections.) The actual practice of the shuras depended directly on the balance of forces within the production unit. The Islamic state has had different and at times contradictory effects on the balance of forces in the unit of production. The mode and degree of workers’ control varied widely not only from one factory to the other, but also from period to period within each factory. (The degree and extent of workers’ control can not be evaluated simply in terms of demands and practices of the workers. It should be located in the context of the balance of forces at the workplace, taking into consideration the position of the industry in the market, the nature of the labor process, the stage of capitalist development in terms of the organization of work, and the organization of the work force.)

First the PM workers formed an investigation committee to study the cases of those linked with the old regime, including the workers and management. Then the workers elected a 12-man shura, after refusing to set up a syndicate as advocated by the new managers appointed by the owner. The Ministry of Industry dissolved this shura when the shura demanded job classification. (Job classification provides a definition of what kind or work a worker is responsible for. An electrician cannot be suddenly assigned to do foundry work, for example. An absence of classification allows employers unchecked powers over the workplace, and gives them excuses for firing activists for failing to do their job properly. It is often one of the first demands that workers make when they organize.) Meanwhile, the shura had contacted the financial department to get information about the financial situation of the factory. The shura discovered and prevented the owner’s transfer of about $760,000 from the factory account. In late March 1979, it distributed a year-end bonus. The workers formed a second, provisional shura, to which the state appointed managers. The workers elected three other managers from the factory (two of them engineers) to serve on an executive committee responsible to the shura. According to the draft constitution of the PM shura: “The shura regards as its task to send periodically a delegate to the board of directors, in order to be informed of all the affairs of the factory and to intervene directly in purchasing, sales, pricing and orders (of raw materials).”

The provisional shura also investigated the owners’ relationship with the old regime, a question in which all the workers were extremely interested. After a seven-man “popular” shura replaced the “provisional” shura, clashes erupted between the shura and the board of directors, even those whom the workers themselves had elected.

When I visited the factory, it was “controlled” by the workers. The managers had been on strike for 25 days. The managers’ absence had created an unprecedented opportunity for the workers to discuss, plan and manage the factory. The basic shura-management conflict at the time concerned control of hiring and firing. These “frontiers of control” had not been specified either in the government regulations or in the draft constitution of the shura prepared by the workers. The provisional government had previously declared workers’ intervention in these matters unlawful, and set up a “special force” to “prevent the strike committees and shuras from intervening in the affairs of the management.”

Surprisingly, perhaps, when I visited the PM factory neither the workers nor the shura were happy about the absence of management. The basic workers’ conception of the shura may appear to be that of a trade union, representing workers in negotiation with management. However, its function goes beyond the legal rights and tasks of a conventional shop-steward committee. These workers considered the problems of the factory as a whole to be their problems. Almost all workers interviewed conceived of the shura as the sole responsible body in the factory, the organ through which the workers could exert their power and could question those who, until recently, ruled them in the factory. As one worker put it: “We have formed and appointed this shura to be in charge of the factory, to sort out the affairs and problems. We have built the shura for the sake of our revolution…. But now we see that this directing body by no means agrees with our shuras.”

The workers proved to be extraordinarily responsible for the affairs of the factory. The shura was the material expression of their strong desire for full control over the organization of production and distribution. At one level, the management represented an obstacle to their control, but was still necessary for coordination. The workers held a highly “technicist” conception of management, as opposed to conceiving it as the source of power and authority.

The workers appeared to be quite keen to legalize the shura. At the time of research, the workers could generally be divided into supporters of the regime and the “disillusioned.” My sense was that most of the workers were in one way or another disillusioned by mid-1981.

Supporters of the regime consisted of three groups. First were those who had been given a social and ideological role in a formal or informal organization of the state, such as the Revolutionary Guards, Islamic Republican Party and Khane-yi Kargar (Labor House). They might benefit from such “privileged” positions. They were active mainly in the factory Islamic Associations, and as such consciously supported the regime. The second type were those with strong ideological links, with close relatives in the state administration, or in the new “revolutionary institutions” (Nahadha-yi Enqelab). This type of worker made up a part of the active elements and sympathizers in the Islamic Association. A third group of workers regarded the state as the protector of the interests of the mostazafin (downtrodden). Official opposition to mostakbarin (oppressors) persuaded the most backward section of the working class to view the regime, and especially Khomeini, as the protector of their interests. This third group supported the regime openly in conversation but in practice opposed it.* For instance, one worker proclaimed that “The shura must be Islamic, must be recognized by law.” “What are its tasks?” I asked. “It must be resolute against the Board of Directors and the like,” he replied. “It must intervene in everything and must run the factory.” This worker believed in the Islamic shura, but opposed the Islamic government’s shura project. He was against the state-appointed managers. Workers with similar views stressed the importance of government recognition of their shura. They had accepted the government’s resolutions on the shuras, and they did not necessarily agree that the shura must intervene in everything. When I asked Akbar what the workers’ reactions would be if the shura was not recognized by the state, he cautiously replied: “If they don’t recognize the rights of our shura, then there will be slowdowns and sabotage. If they outlaw the shura, the workers will never let them inside here. If they dissolve the shura, they themselves must go.”

Workers’ Insecurity

The workers also had to contend with the mentality produced by the Shah’s infiltration and suppression of all independent organizing efforts. The situation had fostered an attitude of “fear your colleague,” “do not trust anybody,” “anybody can be an agent.” The Islamic regime reproduced this atmosphere, though less effectively, in the army, schools, offices and in particular the factories with its Islamic Associations. The waves of dismissals and arrests contributed to this atmosphere of insecurity. In the course of conducting an interview in the shura office, a member told me candidly: “Excuse me, I think you will get better results if you talk to people one by one, without anybody else being present, rather than talking to them altogether in a group. You went into the shops—but perhaps the workers can’t speak the truth, there, here or anywhere. For this reason I have told you that I won’t be interviewed.” This partly accounts for the workers’ frequent invocation of the regime and its ideology while fighting against its practices. This tactic goes back to the period of the Shah. In 1976, striking workers of the Chit-i Jahan textile factory faced the Shah’s troops with pictures of the monarch in their hands. In a strike incident at the Iran National Car factory (Talbot), workers disrupted managers’ speeches by chanting: “Long live the Shah.” This tradition lives now in chants such as “In the name of Imam Khomeini,” “In the name of God,” or describing the regime as “revolutionary.”

In the state-run Zamyad factory, a severe confrontation occurred after the shura withdrew funds to pay the workers their year-end bonus in March 1981. Some shura members were jailed. The workers withdrew their claims in order to get their shura members released. The day I visited Zamyad, the representatives of Imam Khomeini and of the prosecutor-general turned up at the factory to settle the continuing dispute. After a bitter argument between the workers and the representatives, one Azerbaijani worker stood up and declared: “Just as we brought down the Shah’s regime, we are able to bring down any other regime.” At this moment the workers started clapping! The worker stopped them by saying, “Takbir, please, my brothers!” (Applause is considered to be an un-Islamic form of praise and has been replaced by takbir—a call for the slogan Allahu akbar. Thus applause has become a form of collective expression of opposition to, and independence from the regime.)

The Role of the Managers

Following the confrontation over hiring and firing at the PM factory, the managers went on strike. The workers found themselves unable to run the factory properly. Asgar, a skilled worker, angrily complained that “since the revolution we have tried to keep this factory on its feet. But we have failed…. These people have gone and sat in the Central Office!… The engineer must stay at the factory and work.”

Coordination of production is necessary in a complex economy. It constitutes only one part of the work of management. A second function in all class-divided societies is the exercise of authority and power. In capitalist production relations, this constitutes the main aspect of the work of management.

In practice, the two functions reproduce each other. The PM factory workers were determined to exert full control over the process of production and distribution. They showed a strong desire to make decisions, and direct the factory affairs. Practically, however, they were unable to do so. As a result, they appointed three members to the board of directors. Still, no substantial change occurred toward realizing workers’ control. The workers wanted to assign the function of “control” to themselves, and that of “coordination” to the managers! In practical terms, as soon as the workers appointed the managers as the “coordinators,” they inevitably had to accept their authority and control. The following is the expression of this contradiction, in Akbar’s angry words: “The capitalists don’t allow our shura to work. [The shura members] want to work. We have had seven shuras so far. [The managers] now have gone off in a huff, and have gone up there to delay our advances. They want us to stop working. They want to make us go on strike. That’s it. They’ve gone up there, because they want to dismantle the shura…. If this shura is dissolved and if we build another shura, they will certainly dismantle that, too, because the power is in their hands.”

Management and the Ministry of Industry were aware of the workers’ technical weaknesses, and that they would be unable to pose a “proletarian solution” to end the crisis in the factory by running the workplace themselves. Their strategy was to defeat the workers through the paralysis of production. The “liberal managers” tried to shatter the authority of the workers through their effective role in the technical division of labor. Skill and expertise have played a determinant part in the success or failure of previous workers’ control movements in Germany, Russia and Britain, where skilled workers were in the forefront of such movements. Skill is a factor in the workers’ ability to challenge bourgeois relations of production although it tends to be a basis of “craft consciousness” rather than class consciousness. While the engineers in the PM factory were chosen to be the vehicle for “offensive control” by the whole workforce, they functioned in exactly the opposite way. In a factory like PM, with a work force of 900, the engineers were themselves in both social and technical authority, and thus engaged in the extraction of surplus value. The workers appointed the engineers in order to enable themselves to exert technical power. In practice, the move simultaneously resulted in the defeat of the shura. The mass of unskilled or semi-skilled workers could only exert a negative economic power, in the sense that they could halt production, which is indeed a determinant collective power. Achieving the power to reproduce and sustain their control would necessitate the seizure of political power.

In Iran after the revolution, the Islamic state used all economic, political, ideological and military means to resist the workers’ offensives. “Islamicization” of the factories, beginning in the second period of “managment from above,” was initiated by the maktabi Prime Minister Raja’i and the IRP to control the industrial workplaces both politically and ideologically. Raja’i, addressing the Conference of the Islamic Shura Members, expressed his concern in the following way: “Be aware especially in factories where different ideological influences are widespread. I am not going to say anything about them. But I know the Tudeh people who pray. My brothers and sisters, I have myself an experience with a member of Paykar being a chaplain and followed by a few Muslims. For reasons of ideological expediency, be on your guard. The problem has a deep root to itself.”

This initiative had three clear objectives: first and foremost, to eliminate the left forces; second, to reduce the independent shuras; and third, to remove the “liberal” managers who opposed the “irrational” interference of the clergy in factory affairs. The state and the IRP, through the Islamic Associations, attempted to transform the cultural and ideological atmosphere of the factories and the offices. They introduced compulsory collective prayer, dispatching the mullahs into the production units on a permanent basis. In the Zagros factory, I attended a mass prayer at the factory’s “mosque.” Out of a work force of 700, less than 20 workers, most of them old, were in attendance. The rest of the workers were playing “football” in the factory yard, or having chats. From then on (spring 1981), participation in mass prayer became compulsory in the factories and offices.

The regime also sent war victims into the factories, especially during the last month of the year when the workers demanded their “profit-sharing” bonuses. The state has been trying to instill the ideology of work as a religious duty. In Khomeini’s words: “To work itself is a jihad (crusade) for the sake of God; God will pay for this jihad—the jihad of labor which you [workers] are carrying out inside the barricade of the factory.” Such ideological appeals seem to have largely failed. In the Azmayesh factory, Khomeini’s famous statement, “We have not made revolution for cheap melons, we have made it for Islam,” is angrily mocked by the workers: “They say we have not made revolution for economic betterment! What have we made it for, then?” asked one Azmayesh factory worker. “They say for Islam! But what does Islam mean then? We made it for the betterment of the conditions of our lives.”

The deterioration of the workers’ purchasing power as a result of high inflation (40-90 percent), direct wage cuts, high unemployment (about 20 percent) and the idleness of at least 590 production units with 10-1000 work force capacity have not left much of a material base for the development of such a work ideology. The major alternative is the use of force and repression. The Pasdaran first attacked the factory before the war, after the closure of the universities. These bloody confrontations of Pasdaran and workers were not limited to a few occasions.

The need to combat the workers’ militancy led to the establishment of special labor sections in the Pasdaran, the Basij-i Mostazafin, and the Organization of the Mojahedin of the Islamic Revolution. These organizations have attempted to set up their own branches in the factories, conducting military training among the “reliable” workers. Further, a number of factories have full-time military guards under the command of the Pasdaran. This is particularly noticeable in the auto plants and the oil industry.

Workers’ responses to the attacks of the Islamic state have assumed such forms as sabotage, slowdowns and waste, along with taking managers hostage and demonstrations. An official report for 1979-1980 determined that industry was operating at only 58.3 percent of capacity. The same report indicates that some 40 percent of total waste is the result of industrial disputes. For 1980-1981, my own research in a few production units shows a correlation between the workers’ militancy and the economic situation.

The free existence of any democratic organizations, including the workers’ organizations in the form of shuras, or trade unions, can only lead to the mobilization of the masses against the regime. Democracy is determined by the historical ability of the state and/or capital to sustain and contain it. Khomeini’s regime, like that of the Shah, lacks this ability. The absence of a material basis for sustaining the shuras, as popular organizations, retards the institutionalization of class conflict in Iranian society today. That is why any “insignificant” economic or democratic demands bring the workers and the state into direct confrontation, especially in the 70 percent of industry which is state-controlled. This pushes the struggle increasingly into the political sphere, forcing the Islamic regime to resort increasingly to force as its only alternative.

The shuras are significant not as ends in themselves but primarily as organs of permanent class struggle, to make possible the existence of democracy in any form. For organizations like the National Council of Resistance, which claim to be working for democracy in a post-Khomeini society, it is legitimate to ask what they have done, in theory and practice, to advance the only existing means to this goal.

How to cite this article:

Asef Bayat "Workers’ Control After the Revolution," Middle East Report 113 (March/April 1983).

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