May Day and the Green Movement

Just when I was about to write about the Green Movement’s lack of attention to workers and the upcoming May Day, Musavi releases a 9 minute video message publicly addressing workers and teachers ahead of May Day. Still, this one statement will not completely do away with some of the larger problems and questions raised about labor and the greens, so let me offer some thoughts.

Among the criticisms of the green movement–and particularly criticisms directed at its leaders–is that they have not been doing enough to reach out to potentially sympathetic groups, such as workers and bazaaris. Considering how poorly the economy has been doing under Ahmadinejad, workers should be a natural ally. Thanks to economic mismanagement, cronyism and corruption, during Ahmadinejad’s tenure Iran has still experienced high levels of inflation, unemployment and underemployment, and rising prices of staple goods–all during a time of record-high oil prices in a country that derives 80% of its income from oil. This on top of Ahmadinejad’s maddening charts claiming to show economic progress and claims that tomatoes are still the same price at his grocer. With all these economic shortcomings, labor should be a huge force within the green movement, right?

Well, yes and no. It’s true that laborers have been amongst those in the green movement. They’ve felt the brunt of the regime’s repression too, numbering among the detained and killed since the June 2009 election. But the labor movement is simply weaker now than it was previously, through no fault of the movement’s own. The labor movement in Iran goes back over a hundred years–even before the 1906 constitutional revolution–and has long been politically active. During the 1979 Islamic Revolution workers, particularly recent migrants to urban areas, were among the frontlines of revolutionaries. However, as Khomeini and his supporters began to consolidate their power after successfully establishing the Islamic Republic, former allies–principal among them leftist groups aligned with laborers–fell out of favor. By the 1990s May Day in Iran had changed from large public demonstrations for workers’ rights to smaller, state-controlled gatherings (mainly at Khomeini’s mauseleum) that extolled the state rather than labor issues. Now May Day is essentially an annual day of arrests of labor leaders and ‘unsanctioned’ labor demonstrations.

The labor movement is up against some serious obstacles. Independent unions have never been recognized by the state–neither during the Shah’s time nor the Islamic Republic. There are state-sponsored unions, such as government-controlled “Workers Houses,” Labor Basij groups (run by the Revolutionary Guards), and Islamic Labor Councils, whose candidates must be confirmed by the Ministry of Labor, with heavy involvement from  the Ministry of Intelligence. Non-sanctioned unions, such as the Vahed Bus Drivers Union or Haft Tappeh Workers Syndicate, have their leaders imprisoned and their activities constantly harassed. Strikes are illegal and there are security/intelligence officials inside every small factory. The costs of attempting to unionize or strike are extremely high, with people who attempt to do so arrested, imprisoned, or fired.

There are still unofficial labor unions (or ‘syndicates’, and they are often translated as) attempt to operate despite these restrictions, but Musavi’s statement notwithstanding, the Green Movement has still done a very poor job of reaching out to workers. Granted due to economic and structural changes, both in Iran and globally, there may not be the same pool of workers ready to be politically mobilized as during the heyday of labor movements. But there is still a significant percentage of people employed in industry (about 1/3rd back in 2004–sorry no link) that the Green Movement should be targeting.

So what about Musavi’s statement? Going off what has been translated into English so far, this is a good first step. But it’s just that, a first, and very small step. Statements such as “it is vital that teachers and workers realize that the problems they face in their day to day life is a direct result of the general and current problems of the country” are dead on, but as others have pointed out, statements such as these are agonizingly lacking in detail. I saw this with extreme caution because my Persian is not good enough to understand the whole video, and the full English is not yet up, but where is the evidence of the Green Movement incorporating the demands of workers? Where do they talk about raising the minimum wage, improving working standards, or freeing labor leaders like Mansour Osanloo? The way forward for the labor movement, according to Musavi, is the same as his overall strategy: a return to purity of the constitution and the ideals of the revolution. The problem is that such a strategy is increasingly falling on deaf ears (and this is not just related to the labor movement). For many members of the labor movement, this is not the way forward, but backward. And if Musavi and the leadership of the Green Movement is serious about broadening their base to other sectors of society, they are going to need a better strategy to do so.

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3 Responses to “May Day and the Green Movement”

  1. More on the Labor Movement « HGU's Blog Says:

    […] HGU's Blog Thoughts on Iran « May Day and the Green Movement […]

  2. Jared Israel Says:

    You wrote that Mousavi et al “are going to need a better strategy to do so.” The problem is, their role, in this world-changing struggle, has been precisely to try to prevent the people — a force which has often during the last 11 months taken the stage without or even in opposition to Mousavi — from rejecting the system. The moment Mousavi calls for rejecting the system – a requirement for workers’ rights – he will be a dead man.

    And at the core of that system – and this is the basic reason that in so many ways the West helped bring it to power, and has, despite statements to the contrary, continually aided it — at the core of that system is that it repress workers. Indeed, the IRI is basically a post-modern form of what under the British empire came to be called “indirect rule,” where a thoroughly anti-national local ruling class suppresses the lower classes in the interest of the colonial power. (Post modern because post modernism permits the most surreal distortions of reality, as when the IRI leaders pose as anti-imperialist, when in REALITY the West has waged two wars so that the IRI leaders may dominate Iraq and Afghanistan as well!)

  3. hgunderwood Says:

    Hey Jared,

    Thanks for your thoughtful comment. I’m definitely in agreement with you that once Musavi et all explicitly reject the system (that is, the system of velayat-e faqih) that they’re done. Either literally or politically done. I think that’s why he needs to come up with a different strategy for reform. One that is different from extolling the virtues of the revolution and the constitution, and moves more towards progressive reform. Obviously there’s a fine line to walk here between reform of the system and outright rejection of it, but it’s a line that needs to be gone down.

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