A fresh wave of strikes and protests has swept across Iran since the beginning of 2022. Protests over water shortages and bread prices, as well as national strikes by teachers, have rocked the country. From the smallest province Khorasan, to the capital Tehran, people have taken to the streets with two chants: “Death to the dictator” and “Victory to the workers”.
The Iranian economy is in a serious crisis. The currency hit its lowest value ever in June and annual inflation is sitting at 41.5 percent and climbing, according to figures from the Statistical Center of Iran. The price of essential foodstuffs has increased by 90.2 percent, and household expenditures have tripled, while real wages continue to decline. The government has responded by intensifying austerity measures. Most recently, the state has slashed wheat subsidies—creating a thirteen-fold increase in the price of bread—and eliminated pharmaceutical subsidies.
Since 2018, the Iranian working class has shouldered the burden of crushing US sanctions. Then, in 2020, COVID-19 ravaged the country, with a (recorded) 7.5 million cases and more than 143,000 deaths—although the real number is likely to be much higher. Videos of hospitals flooded with sick people were posted on the internet, showing people pleading for medicine and dead bodies piled outside emergency rooms.
The current regime is incredibly unpopular. Last year hard-line conservative Ebrahim Raisi won the presidency after the lowest voter turnout in 40 years. Raisi is infamous for leading a series of witch-hunts against political dissidents. In 1988, he led the “death commission”, which presided over the execution of thousands of political prisoners. Raisi in power signifies the state’s increasingly repressive approach to internal crisis and dissent, as well as the ruling class’s growing imperialist ambitions in the region.
Bread riots first emerged in the southern province of Khuzestan in early May after the government slashed wheat subsidies. Home to a large Arab minority and the militant sugarcane workers of the Haft Tappeh union, the province is a flashpoint of struggle. Riots and protests spread across 40 cities and towns, people occupying government buildings, storming banks and seizing flour warehouses. People in Junqan even attempted to burn down the base of a state-backed militia.
These initial riots were crushed by the military, but soon anger resurfaced in Abadan city. The collapse of two high-rise buildings owned by Hossein Abdol-Baghi, one of the richest men in Abadan, killed more than 40 people. Protesters soon flooded the streets calling for Abdol-Baghi’s death and justice for the victims. Anger mounted to the point that Abdol-Baghi had to flee the city under the protection of security forces. When the government tried to pacify protesters by sending a spokesperson to the city, he was shouted down on live television by protesters chanting “Death to the dictator”.
These urban struggles have followed a wave of rolling industrial action that began at the start of 2022 in response to the cost-of-living crisis. Teachers have spearheaded this battle. Organised under the Coordinating Council of Teachers’ Trade Unions, these workers have led a series of nationwide strikes, rallies and occupations, including huge demonstrations across the country on May Day. As the campaign rolls on, teachers have advanced political demands, including the right to form independent trade unions, free education, the right to education for national minorities, release of political prisoners and the right to teach free from state control.
The radicalisation of teachers began in 2017, when a strike wave led to the creation of independent unions and the Coordinating Council of Teachers Trade Unions emerged as the national body representing teachers. But the onslaught of COVID-19 at the beginning of 2020 marked a turning point for teachers, as education went online and teachers began setting up communication networks involving thousands of workers across the country.
A Coordinating Shura—an elected national umbrella body representing all teachers’ unions across the country—was established online to coordinate collective decision making on the political demands, strategy and tactics of the movement. But as the Coordinating Shura launched into action, it also brought into the fold other layers of society, including students and pensioners. Most importantly, the Coordinating Shura began to organise workers collectively, across industries, to protest and strike; in this way it extends beyond the Coordinating Council of Teachers Trade Unions.
After teachers led the illegal May Day national mobilisation, the government rounded up hundreds of leading unionists and threw them in jail. Immediately, a campaign was launched by the Coordinating Shura to demand their release. Other militant unions like Haft Tappeh, Tehran Bus Workers Union, Vahed Syndicate and the Retirees Union launched solidarity campaigns with imprisoned teachers and held protests and strikes demanding their unconditional release. Impressively, the strength of their campaign to free imprisoned teachers has forced partial concessions from the regime.
Perhaps the most significant recent development in the Iranian labour movement is the re-emergence and popularisation of Marxist politics and organisation among sections of workers. The “Labour Organised Action Committee” (LOAC) is one of numerous revolutionary socialist organisations that currently builds among teachers, Haft Tappeh workers and oil workers. LOAC’s stated mission is to lay the foundations for a revolutionary socialist workers’ party that can one day overthrow the capitalist state via revolution. Activists involved in these groups risk abduction, torture and even death, and operate largely underground.
The growing influence of socialist politics among advanced sections of workers, despite the regime’s repression, is a product of the uptick of struggle in Iran. The seeds of revolutionary socialist organising are beginning to be planted across specific sections of the Iranian working class—teachers, bus drivers, factory and oil workers. This is a promising development that, if developed further in the coming years, has the potential to mount a serious challenge to Iranian capitalism.
There has been a vigorous argument over the direction of the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) industrial campaign at Sydney University this year. Most recently, those who have been reluctant to argue and organise seriously for frequent enough and long enough strikes are now leading the charge for a “smarter” strategy of administration bans.
In late August, around 50 union members at Knauf plasterboard held a meeting in their Melbourne factory to discuss recent EBA negotiations, which had begun a few months earlier. A new HR manager insisted on attending the meeting and wasted people’s time explaining the wonderful job that company management had done taking care of the workers, in particular their recent and significant safety concerns. As he spoke, one after another the workers turned their backs on him. Soon, they began challenging the manager about a worker who had just been sacked.
Minoo Jalali was among those who resisted Ayatollah Khomeini’s rise to power in Iran. In the early months of 1979, she joined a mass women’s protest against the compulsory wearing of the hijab in public. “That revolution was inevitable”, Jalali recounted 40 years later in an interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. “Nobody could have really stopped the force of it. We hoped that we could steer it [but] we were wrong. And the clergy hijacked it ... and deceived many people.”
Protests and riots have spread across Iran after a 22-year-old Kurdish woman, Mahsa Amini, was murdered by the morality police. Amini was visiting the capital, Tehran, on 13 September when she was arrested for allegedly breaking mandatory veiling laws. Police beat her into a coma and she died three days later. Amini was buried in her hometown of Saqqez.
The international working-class movement has long been divided between two strategies to win socialism: the reformist and the revolutionary.
Revolutionary Marxists argue that socialism is possible only if the working class leads a revolution. So why organise among students?