Iran: The Oil Workers’ Strike

Against the Current, No. 32, May/June 1991

Ali Javadi

TENS OF THOUSANDS of oil industry workers throughout Iran took joint strike action from December 29, 1990 until January 13, 1991. Beginning with a hunger strike by workers in Isfahan and Abadan refineries, the strike soon spread to refineries in Tehran, Tabriz and Shiraz.

Four days into the strike, receiving no response from the authorities to their demands, the workers decided to go on nationwide strike. The strike included all employees from the oil, gas, pipeline, petrochemical and communications to the distribution workers.

This strike’s extent is comparable only to the strikes of October and November 1979 that led to the overthrow of the Shah’s regime. It also took place despite the Gulf crisis, which provided a pretext for the government to suppress labor action.

This massive strike has occurred in a context in which Iranian workers are legally deprived of the right to strike and to organize. Strikes are banned and strikers usually face the harshest measures of suppression. All these anti-labor policies have recently been legislated in the Labor Law of the Islamic Republic.

According to Yadollah Khosroshahi, the ex-Secretary General of the General Council of Oil Industry Workers who lives in exile, the strike included 100,000 blue- and white-collar workers, 25,000 of whom took part in the hunger strike. During the strike twenty-six worker activists were arrested by the Islamic government forces, and their release was immediately added to the demands.

As reported by Worker Today, the demands included indexing wages to inflation, determination of the employment status of workers not covered by the labor law, implementation of the Job Classification Scheme, provision of housing and a higher housing benefit, payment of overdue essential-goods coupons, and honoring a 1978 collective agreement on provision of food allotments instead of the present 9000 Rial ($70) monetary payment.

A Labor Ministry representative who came to the strikers’ assembly in Tehran asked the workers to end their strike and, by choosing a representative, to give the authorities time to look into their demands. In reply to workers’ questioning whether the election of such a representative would be legal and endorsed by the Labor Ministry, he said no such authorization existed but that they could choose a “contact”!

It should be noted that even forming state-made Islamic Councils is prohibited in the oil industry. Refusing to elect a so-called “contact,” the workers demanded to meet with either the Oil or Labor Minister.

Oil Workers as Vanguard

As the strike expanded, on January 12 an official from the Information Ministry (secret police) spoke at a workers’ assembly and, referring to the Gulf war crisis, threatened “As of today we are taking over responsibility for the refinery’s security, and you have to deal with us. It is in the national interest that you end your strike.”

He also asked for more time to be given for the government to review the matter. Later that day the workers decided to return to work, giving the authorities until January 20 to meet their demands.

Facing the workers’ determination and fearing the spread of the strike to other sectors of society, the government, through a decree of Rafsanjani, gave in to a major portion of their demands. Those arrested were all released and returned to their jobs. The workers subsequently ended their strike and celebrated their victory.

The oil industry workers possess a special place among Iranian working people. It is one of the oldest industries and these workers constitute an experienced section of the industrial working class in Iran. Furthermore, the oil industry plays a major role in Iran’s economy; the lifeline of the Iranian government, which has monopolistic control of the country’s oil, is tied to the industry.

Therefore every government has been forced to deal very cautiously with the oil workers. Indeed the back of the Shah’s regime was broken when workers took the initiative in the 1979 mass uprising to cut the flow of oil.

Recent major labor actions in Iran in-dude strikes by 13,000 workers in twenty-two factories of the Melli industrial group; by more than 10,000 steel workers in Isfahan; by 2,000 metalwork-era, 2,000 machine tool workers, 2,000 carpet workers and 2,000 city workers in Tehran.

Despite severe dictatorial rules imposed by the Islamic Republic, the execution of hundreds of workers and the arrest and imprisonment of thousands more, the Islamic Republic has not been able to put down workers’ struggle Workers have been able to adapt their struggles to these severe conditions.

The oil workers’ victorious strike will greatly boost other workers’ actions, all of which indicate the great potential and willingness among Iranian workers to bring about fundamental changes in society and give control to its real owners, the working people.

May-June 1991, ATC 32