Iran oil workers’ strike: a spectre haunting neoliberalism

More than 60,000 Iranian oil workers have joined a strike for better pay and contracts – the biggest such action since the general strike of 1978-79 that helped toppled the Shah’s regime.

The stoppage is supported by teachers, pensioners, and families seeking justice for their relatives killed during the big wave of protests in November 2019.

The protest began on 19 June, the day after the elections won by the conservative cleric Ebrahim Raisi, who takes over as president next month.

The Iranian oil industry is dominated by the state-owned National Iranian Oil Company. But in recent years it has employed a host of contractors – many owned and controlled by state officials and their relatives – who have slashed pay levels and undermined working conditions.

Striking workers at a refinery, late June

The Strike Organisation Council for Oil Contract Workers, that has been set up during the action, is reported to have said that the workers’ main demand is higher wages, and added:

We will no longer tolerate poverty, insecurity, discrimination, inequality and deprivation of our basic human rights. Given the skyrocketing cost of expenses, the [monthly] wages of workers should not be less than 12 million tomans ($491).

The strikers are demanding the elimination of temporary contracts, an end to the use of contract companies and the recognition of the right to form independent unions, according to other reports.

The strike is supported both by contract employees and by skilled workers in less precarious jobs, according to interviews published by the Kayhan Life media outlet.

Reza, a striker on a fixed-term contract, denounced the oil ministry’s claim that it was not responsible for poor wages paid by contractors. He said:

Why should someone who works 12-hour shifts on 20-meter platforms and in unbearably hot temperatures receive only the minimum wage? […] If this is fair, why then a worker on a permanent contract, who performs the same job in the oil industry, should be paid two or three times more than those on fixed contracts, and also receive other benefits?

As for the contracting companies, he said:

These companies either pay bribes to influential [NIOC] managers to secure plum contracts, or have close links to senior state officials. Otherwise, how is it possible that a contractor whose workforce is unhappy and has failed to finish a project on times wins another lucrative contract against in Asalouyeh?

Another interviewee, Alireza, a welder with more than a decade of experience, said that skilled workers such as himself had “started and spread” the industrial action. He added:

I regret wasting my youth working on oil projects in the Islamic republic. If I had worked in the neighbouring countries, my family would live in better conditions now. [The republic’s leaders] boast about their so-called resilient economy, when in fact they line their pockets with the fruits of our labour.

The conditions and dismal food in dormitories, where workers live for weeks on end, has added to workers’ anger.

Valuable commentary on the strike has been published on the Angry Workers of the World web site. Iman Ganji and Jose Rosales said:

The general strike of the project workers in the oil industry is not only a struggle over the wage. On a daily basis, project workers come to Clubhouse with borrowed phones and fake identities to report about the strikes, its development and also their ideals. The main slogan that has shaped the revolutionary fervour and guided the organisational practice is “government of councils”.

Council is a form of autonomous organization among industrial workers that emerged during the 1979 revolution and was suppressed immediately after the new Islamic regime established and consolidated power. It is in this sense that “deprivatisation” as one of the workers’ main demands should be understood.

The private sector in Iran’s rentier system has direct relationship with the governing elite or is owned by them. […]. Therefore, the workers’ demand of “deprivatisation” is mostly against the interest of the ruling elite.

It stands against the wave of privatisation that started after the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988) and the massacre of the leftist prisoners in 1988 Summer. It was the current supreme leader, Ali Khamanei, a right-wing Islamist who allowed for the “re-interpretation” of Article 44 of the Iranian Constitution to force privatisation and the liberalisation of the economy. Most of the private contracts subsequently went to figures connected to high-ranking officials – reformists as well as principalists (conservatives) or the Revolutionary Guards.

They also underlined the political nature of the movement:

Another sign is the workers’ rejection of support by the conservative’s “Egalitarian” fraction; a fraction of hardliner Islamists who are close to the supreme leader and have repeatedly tried to re-appropriate worker’s struggles and demands as a political weapon against the reformist wing of the government.

In another article, these two militants described the broad movement that has grown up around the strike:

Many statements by different unions and precarious workers, womens’ movement and feminists, pensioners, truck drivers, teachers, nurses, etc are supporting the strikers and show solidarity. This was a reminder of this year’s May Day, when various organizations called for protests or supported protests to improve living conditions.

The workers were once the main symbol of the lower class, but the coalition that has emerged in recent protests through the declaration of solidarity, including in the case of May Day, is more diverse and pervasive than what is traditionally called the “workers”.

Government retirees, teachers, nurses, contract workers, drivers, women, the unemployed, apprentices, ranchers, farmers, industrial workers and other small-scale producers are all now part of this protesting coalition, all with calls to end neoliberalization and precarization of labour.

The Iranian regime, despite its anti-imperialist rhetoric, has joined the international neoliberal offensive against working-class organisation and living standards. The infestation of the oil sector with contractors is the cutting edge.

Iman Ganji and Jose Rosales concluded that social forces from the “margins” have been brought to the centre of the struggle:

In rare moments of affective solidarity, youth (25 years and younger) stood beside old pensioners, shouting slogans against the Islamic Republic. Workers, unemployed, students, women, farmers, all participated in these nation-wide protests, resisting the Islamic Republic government as well as its neoliberal mode of governmentality, its particular formal subsumption in the globalised capitalism.

Happening almost simultaneously with ongoing protests in Iraq, Lebanon and elsewhere, Iran’s protests are not simply economic or political. They are targeting the local expression of a globalised regime: neoliberalism.

Neoliberalism is indeed the spirit of the times. Yet the “spectre of the times”, the spectre that is now haunting the West Asia, North Africa and other places on the world, is the protests of exhausted peoples who “are now fed up” (one of the new slogans in the recent Iranian protests) and want to throw out neoliberal governments and their sovereigns out of people’s histories.

These class struggle dynamics are hardly obstructed by the clash between the Iranian clerical regime and US imperialism.

The US sanctions have certainly hit Iran’s access to financial markets and made cooperation with the western-based international oil companies impossible. But the long-term trend of oil and gas production is relentlessly upwards. So was the trend of revenues from hydrocarbons exports, on which the regime depends – until the oil price fell from its 2009-10 peak, and sanctions came on top of that.

The revenues bind the regime, and its oil industry, into the international order dominated by capital.

This graph shows the steady increase of Iranian oil and gas production in the four decades since the 1979 revolution. Revenues from hydrocarbons exports soared as the oil price soared in the early 2000s, and first fell sharply as the oil price fell from its 2009-10 peak.

When the nuclear agreement between Iran and the western powers (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, JCPOA) was signed in 2015, exports and revenues began to recover. But that was reversed again, and production levels suffered too, when Donald Trump took the US out of the deal and re-imposed some sanctions.

The hole blasted in Iranian export revenues is likely to be repaired soon.

Even under Trump’s sanctions, Iran continued to sell oil to China, to European customers, and to markets in the Middle East, Turkey and Iraq especially. Other volumes continue to be re-labelled to avoid sanctions.

The second graph, below, shows Iranian crude oil exports in 2012-19. Most of these went to the “Asia & Pacific” area – and there is no doubt that, primarily, that means China.

Earlier this year, exports to China surged so sharply that ports in Shandong province were congested and storage tanks full to overflowing.

Now, US and Iranian diplomats are talking in Vienna about restoring the JCPOA, and oil markets are betting that there will be a deal, which will include agreement on a rapid ramp-up of Iran’s oil exports.

Iran is locked in to the international economy. Its government lines up with the neoliberals against workers. Let’s find ways of lining up on our side.

Simon Pirani, 16 July 2021  

More on People & Nature:

Sedition, revolt, revolution and social disintegration by Torab Saleth (2018)

Break the silence on Azerbaijan oil workers’ deaths (2016)

Kazakh oil workers

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