Middle East Report Online magazine : MER 241
- Winter 2006
Worker Protest in the Age of Ahmadinejad
In June 2005, Mahmoud
Ahmadinejad unexpectedly won the presidency of the Islamic
Republic of Iran, after an intense campaign in which he
exerted great effort to present himself as the defender of
the poor and the working class. These classes, badly hurt by
neo-liberal economic policies in the period following the
1980–1988 Iran-Iraq war, had staged a number of organized
and noisy protests in the years preceding Ahmadinejad’s
campaign, and they responded in significant numbers to his
appeal for votes. The first year and a half of Ahmadinejad’s
presidency, however, has seen an erosion of the social
contract between working Iranians and the state of a
magnitude that may be decisive for the future of democracy
After Ahmadinejad assumed power,
collective action by Iranian workers has subsided, despite
strong popular dissatisfaction with the economy. Working
people increasingly resort to disjointed, individual and
quiet protests; what looked like a budding movement for
social justice in 2004 now looks like a non-movement. What
explains the downswing in labor activism? The commitment of
working people to pursuing their collective interests has
not flagged, but under Ahmadinejad, the political
opportunities for collective protest have been severely
restricted. Ensconced in power by elections in 2004 and
2005, hardline conservatives are more willing than their
predecessors to employ the force of the state to break
workers’ movements. Pending adjustments to the law governing
worker-employer relations appear to tilt the playing field
further in the favor of management. Finally, the demise of
the reformist movement inside the Islamic Republic, and the
corresponding return of the conservatives, has sent a chill
wind blowing through all realms of political activity. The
form and vehemence of workers’ collective action in the
future will depend on the political opportunities available
Dissatisfaction at a Glance
According to a national survey
of values and attitudes implemented in 2004 by the Ministry
of Islamic Guidance, about 71 percent of Iranians are
dissatisfied with “the economic situation of the country,”
while 25 percent are somewhat satisfied and only 5 percent
are very satisfied. The survey data showed about 71 percent
of men, 70 percent of women, 72 percent of the employed and
79 percent of university graduates classifying themselves as
Case studies of smaller groups
also indicate a high level of disquiet with the economy. A
questionnaire distributed to primary and secondary school
teachers in Tehran found that nearly 60 percent, when asked
to “consider your salary from the Ministry of Education,”
expressed dissatisfaction with their jobs, while only 18
percent evinced satisfaction.
These negative feelings are not confined to the capital.
Another research project revealed that about 10 percent of
teachers from the small town of Nishabur expressed strong
job dissatisfaction, while only 1?percent said they were
very satisfied with their jobs.
According to one study, “One
potent reason for job dissatisfaction could be tied up not
so much, as is generally assumed, with the characteristics
of the job as with the general satisfaction workers
experience as members of society.”
Strong job dissatisfaction, as among these Iranian teachers,
may have little to do with the particulars of the conditions
of their employment. Instead, it might be a clear sign of
deeper discontent with the situation of Iranian working
people in the private and public sectors. The discontent is
probably driven both by objective conditions, such as low
and stagnant wages and declining job security, and
frustrations related to the discrepancies between political
slogans, like those of Ahmadinejad on the campaign trail,
and state performance.
In January 2001, a series of
public gatherings unprecedented since the 1979 Islamic
Revolution engulfed Tehran and several other Iranian cities.
In Tehran alone, thousands of teachers assembled en masse on
four separate occasions to call for pay equity among public
employees, consistency in promotion policies and more
generous budget allocations for education. First, the
Iranian Teachers’ Organization called a meeting of
approximately 4,000 teachers on January 15.
This gathering was followed on January 18 by another meeting
convening some 2,000 teachers under the auspices of the
Teachers’ United Front.
Four days later, tens of thousands demonstrated without a
permit opposite the building housing the parliament of the
Islamic Republic (Majles), and on January 26, there was
another “illegal” gathering of 2,000 teachers in front of
the offices of then-President Mohammad Khatami, culminating
in scattered confrontations with the police.
“Neither left nor right—We are simply teachers,” their
placards read. Apart from the content of the teachers’
demands, what paved the way for the continuation of this
protest wave was the fact that the events took place in the
open street, uniting protesters at a concrete time and
place. The demonstrating teachers were joined by other
citizens, not teachers, who brought their own grievances to
This series of gatherings was
the zenith of teacher unrest until March 2003, when a second
significant wave of protest began, though in a completely
different mode. In this month, teachers in several cities,
including Tehran, went on strike, refusing to hold their
classes for a week. The one-week strike, which started on
March 6, was recorded as the seventh teachers’ work stoppage
in the years 2002–2003.
Some media outlets reported that more than 30 percent of
teachers throughout the country had withheld their labor in
this period, so that about 400 schools were closed down just
in the capital city.
In the 2003 school strikes, knots of protesters assembled in
multiple closed spaces within school buildings, unlike in
the 2001 street gatherings, with their open common space.
If the dominant methods of
teacher protest in 2001 and 2003 were the street
demonstration and the school strike, respectively, in 2004
and early 2005 discontent took a radically different form.
In that year, the third major wave of teacher protest saw
teachers sending petitions to the authorities. On January
19, 2005, a leading reformist newspaper, Sharq,
published an open letter to the conservative Seventh Majles
signed by a large number of teachers.
While such petitions to the authorities were accessible to
the public, the element of common space that had energized
protest in 2001 was, of course, absent.
The decision of the teachers—in
reality, an accumulation of multiple small-group
decisions—to switch to less and less confrontational tactics
points to their diminished ability to engage in loud and
public collective action. The teachers voiced the same
demands, and the organizations articulating teachers’
interests remained just as strong and effective in 2004–2005
as in 2001, but the ambient political struggle between
“reformists” and “conservatives” within the state was
shifting dramatically in favor of the conservatives by 2004.
With the victory of conservative forces in the February 2004
Majles elections, and then Ahmadinejad’s triumph the
following summer, the “reformist moment” that commenced in
1997 came to an end. The recrudescence of the conservative
faction brought back the fear of retaliation for vocal
protest and the suppression of weak civil society
organizations. No extensive protests were reported among
teachers after the early months of 2005.
That year, it seems, was the
year of the bus drivers.
The Union of Bus Company
Workers, which had been founded in 1968 and banned after the
1979 revolution, began to be reorganized in 2004 by a number
of worker activists, who neither sought nor received
official license. The drivers and service and repair workers
held a general assembly and then successful elections of
officers, reactivating the union in May 2005 under the name
of the Syndicate of Workers of the United Bus Company of
Tehran and Suburbs. The syndicate represents workers
employed by that state-owned company. From the beginning,
the syndicate’s reactivation had many diehard opponents, who
fell into three categories: the bus company management; the
Islamic Labor Councils, worker-management councils which
exist in every establishment with more than 35 employees and
which are overseen by the state-run Workers’ House; and,
last but not least, ideologues who are against all trade
unions and consider them illegal.
In December 2005, in a quest for
better pay, bus drivers in Tehran began refusing to take
passengers’ fares, in a protest called by the syndicate. On
December 22, police raided the homes of 12 of the
syndicate’s executive committee members and arrested them,
usually on charges of “causing trouble (ekhlal) and
disorder,” and immediately closed down the syndicate’s
office in Tehran. On December 23, those syndicate leaders
who had not been arrested invited all drivers and workers of
the company to take part in a general strike the next day.
Consequently, most of those arrested were released at
midnight, with the exception of Mansour Osanlou, head of the
syndicate. Nevertheless, the bus drivers in five of ten
Tehran Bus Company districts went on strike on December 25,
and 16 strikers were reportedly arrested. After promises
from Mohammad Baqir Qalibaf, mayor of Tehran, to secure the
release of all the arrested drivers and to address their
economic concerns, the strikers finally decided to call off
their work stoppage in the evening. On the other hand, the
United Bus Company’s management threatened workers who
supported the strike call with the loss of their jobs. The
official Mehr news agency reported unprecedented heavy
traffic in Tehran, not least in the southern half of the
city. All arrested drivers were released over the next two
days, again with the exception of Osanlou.
The next month witnessed another
wave of protests and arrests. On January 24, 2006, the
syndicate issued a declaration that the Tehran drivers would
go back on strike from January 28 onward. To prevent this
occurrence, the Revolutionary Court issued summonses for the
arrest of several key members of the syndicate’s executive
committee on January 25. Police also violently assaulted the
homes of key strike organizers during the night of January
27, arresting even their wives.
On January 28, the streets of
the capital witnessed important events. Tehran bus workers
were due to strike, calling for the release of Osanlou,
among other demands. From the beginning of the strike early
in the morning, police and security forces cracked down
severely, eventually arresting more than 500 of the roughly
2,000 strikers. Government forces made extensive use of
buses borrowed from various state institutions to transport
passengers and, thereby, to check the spread of news of the
strike in the city. In an interview with the official
Islamic Republic News Agency, the mayor of Tehran described
the union as illegal and said that the authorities would not
permit the strike to go ahead.
More than 200 striking drivers
spent the ensuing months in limbo. Forty-three of them were
referred to the bus company’s personnel office for
dismissal, even though that office has pretended that the
drivers were resigning rather than being fired.
Mansour Osanlou objected, in a letter dated July?25: “In
this country all the elite speak of being a democracy. And
in the words of the Supreme Leader, [this] year is a ‘year
of public participation and national unity.’ Then for what
crime have I and my colleagues been made unemployed?”
Osanlou was finally released on August 9, after the movement
had fallen into inactivity.
The activist bus drivers seem to
have made many missteps in undertaking to recreate their
independent trade union. The legal reasoning invoked by the
authorities in blocking the union has its origins in the
1990 labor law, according to which any independent trade
union must be banned when an Islamic Labor Council already
exists in the establishment in question. Security forces and
the Islamic Labor Councils cited exactly this statute in
their successful drive to prevent Tehran Bus Company drivers
from organizing a general assembly to establish a new union.
The 1990 labor law has been strongly criticized by worker
activists and analysts for not giving workers the right to
form independent trade unions. Possible modifications of the
law under Ahmadinejad do not offer workers any prospect of
To mollify the critics, the
Ministry of Labor submitted draft amendments of the 1990
labor law in 2006. The new draft seems, however, to be
strongly influenced by the discourse of the free market.
According to neo-liberal economists, the main conflict in
worker-employer relations is not so much between labor and
capital as between the employed and unemployed: It is not
labor in a titanic battle against capital, but one good for
labor against another good for labor. Such rhetoric holds
that Iran’s labor law offers a high degree of protection to
employed workers in the form of job security and fixed
remuneration unrelated to productivity and, accordingly,
advises more intense competition between the employed and
unemployed in the labor market.
If a modified labor law loosens restrictions on employers,
allowing them to dismiss workers more easily, employed
workers may lose their job security, but unemployed workers
will be better able to find jobs.
Rooted in such theory, the draft
amendments propose several changes giving carte blanche to
employers seeking to get rid of employees. The suggested
changes to sections 21 and 27 of the labor law are quite
important. According to section 21, which has to do with
termination of employment contracts, an employment contract
may be terminated only by such events as the worker’s death,
retirement, total disability and resignation. The proposed
draft, however, adds two other possibilities: a decrease in
the firm’s productivity, firm restructuring or technological
updating, and a decrease in the physical power of the worker
leading to a decrease in firm productivity.
According to section 27, “where
a worker is negligent in discharging his duties or if, after
written warnings, he continues to violate the disciplinary
rules of the workplace, the employer shall, provided that
the Islamic Labor Council is in agreement, be entitled to
pay to the worker a sum equal to his last monthly wage for
each year of service as a length-of-service allowance, in
addition to any deferred entitlements, and to terminate his
employment contract.” The new draft would alter section 27
so that the employer can terminate an employment contract
with a worker after two written warnings, without any need
for the approval of the Islamic Labor Council. These changes
to sections 21 and 27, if passed, will allow employers to
dismiss workers much more easily.
If employers are to obtain such
an advantage, is there any advantage accruing to workers in
the draft amendments to the 1990 labor law? A glance at
chapter 6 of the existing law shows that it does not allow
for the existence of any independent worker organization,
except the Workers’ House, which is really a channel for
government control over workers. According to section 130 of
the chapter, “in order to propagate and disseminate Islamic
culture and to defend the achievements of the Islamic
Revolution,” workers in industrial, agricultural, service
and craftsman’s establishments may establish Islamic
associations whose duties, powers and functions shall be
drawn up by the Ministry of the Interior, the Ministry of
Labor and Social Affairs and the Islamic Propagation
Organization, and approved by the Council of Ministries.
Moreover, according to note 4 of section 131 in the chapter,
the workers of any given unit may establish only an Islamic
Labor Council, a guild society or workers’ representatives,
which in practice means that workers are not allowed to set
up anything, since Islamic Labor Councils already exist in
every workplace of any size. All these provisions remain in
the draft, in which a single section has replaced six
sections of the 1990 law, but with the same consequences for
workers. According to the new section, “in order to
propagate and disseminate Islamic culture and to protect the
legitimate and statutory rights and interests of workers and
employers and to improve their economic situation, in a
manner guaranteeing the protection of the interests of
society as a whole,” workers subject to the labor code and
the employers of a given profession or industry may
establish Islamic associations, Islamic Labor Councils or
elect their own representatives. At least as far as workers’
demand for having independent organizations is concerned,
the changes made in the draft give no advantage to the
workers. The new draft proposed by the Ministry of Labor
under Ahmadinejad seems to be a lose-lose game for workers:
Employers get the right of expedited dismissal, without
workers gaining any right to form independent trade unions.
The decline in militant
collective action among both Tehrani teachers and bus
drivers under Ahmadinejad seems to capture the situation of
Iranian working people as a whole. Unhappy Iranian workers
increasingly pursue their interests through individual
activities, whether political or economic, rather than
collective political action. Indeed, the “vertical”
communication of grievances to the authorities that was
prevalent during the “reformist moment,” thanks to the more
open society of those years, has given way to “horizontal”
grumbling with co-workers and colleagues. Alternatively (or
simultaneously), Iranians dissatisfied with their jobs seek
additional income-generating opportunities in their
struggles to survive and improve their individual lots.
How do we explain this trend in
Iranian society? Fortunately, social theory has something to
say in this regard. The political economist Albert O.
Hirschman demonstrated that modern societies are predisposed
to oscillate between periods of intense preoccupation with
public issues and periods of almost total concentration on
individual improvement and private welfare goods. By taking
the psychological mechanism of disappointment seriously,
Hirschman explains the swing from public to private concerns
as the result of the frustrations of participation in public
activity. Nevertheless, disappointment by itself cannot
explain the recent downturn in labor activism in Iran.
As one of Hirschman’s critics
writes, people’s choices may change either as their
preferences change or as their possibilities change.
Indeed, in contemporary Iran, it is the shrunken
possibilities for working people that most credibly explain
their relative quiescence. At the legal level, the Ministry
of Labor is slated to forward amendments to the 1990 labor
law that appear designed to forestall independent worker
organization. At the level of the state, following the
reconsolidation of hardline conservative control over all
the branches of government, the authorities are determined
to continue the repression of mass protest as well as to
maintain an intimidating atmosphere of retaliation. Last but
not least, the power struggles among reformist and
conservative factions within the state, which protest
movements could sometimes exploit to promote their own
agendas, have disappeared with the defeat of the reformists.
The main question for Iranian workers is whether these
structural conditions of possibility will change in favor of
revived worker activism.
 Results of Survey in 28 Centers of Iranian
Provinces: Iranians’ Values and Attitudes
(Tehran: Ministry of Islamic Guidance, 2004), pp. 78, 84.
 Mohammad Maljoo, “The Economic Demands of the Middle
Class in Iran: A Case Study of Teachers,” Goft-o-Gu
46 (Spring 2006), p. 26. [Persian]
 S. Moidfar and G. Zahani, “A Study to Explain Job
Dissatisfaction Among Teachers: The Case of Nishabur’s
Teachers,” Iranian Journal of Sociology 6/1 (Spring
2005), p. 144. [Persian]
 Albert O. Hirschman, Shifting Involvements:
Private Interest and Public Action (Princeton, NJ:
Princeton University Press, 1982), p. 25.
 Shirzad Abdollahi, “Tasks That Had to Be Done by
Teachers Before the Demonstration,” Lowh 13 (July
2002), p. 43. [Persian]
 Resalat, January 19, 2001.
 Iranian Students’ News Agency, January 26, 2001.
 Sharq, March 11, 2003.
 BBC Persian, March 9, 2005.
 Sharq, January 19, 2004. This newspaper has
subsequently been closed.
 Naghd-e No (January 2006).
 Nameh (March 2006).
 Gooya.com, April 27, 2006.
 See, for example, Djavad Salehi-Isfahani, “Human
Resources in Iran: Potentials and Challenges,” Iranian
Studies 38/1 (March 2005).
 Arthur L. Stinchcombe, review of Shifting
Involvements: Private Interest and Public Action, by
Albert O. Hirschman, Theory and Society 12/5
(September 1983), p. 691.