Correspondence from Iran: Why new trade unions would not be a step forward
We have recently received a letter from Iran that raises a number of issues. In this response we will focus on the part of his letter that deals with the unions. We have made some minor changes to the text but have left the language unchanged.
“About Iran I can tell you that the situation is very bad. Even the reformist and syndicalist [union] organisations are disbanded. One syndicate which belonged to bus drivers was about to start working few months ago but it was attacked by the government vandals (which are with the Labour House and the Islamic Labour Councils  and are controlled by the intelligence service of Iran) in its first day of work and several activists were damaged. One month later ILO [International Labour Organisation] accepted those who had attacked the syndicate as ‘workers’ organisations’ from Iran. Although the Iranian government has accepted 87 and 98 conventions of ILO (which allow the workers to form their willing organisations or unions and are needed to join the WTO) but still all of the worker’s organizations and even the reformist trade unions are disbanded and several activists are in prison.
“The site which I referred to belongs to ‘Coordinating Committee to form Workers Organisation’. I don’t believe in all of their positions but I think all of the activities should be supported in order to force the government to accept the worker rights.
“… The Trotskyists are playing a very reactionary role in Iran these days. The worker class has already began to end the reformist ways (for example asking the Labour House, Islamic Councils and capitalist organizations such as ILO for assistance) and it’s going to start the radical (not exactly revolutionary) movements but these Trotskyists want to take the worker movement one step back and into reformism again. They have started a campaign called ‘Iranian workers are not alone’ and they ask the capitalists such as the Labour Party of England to support the workers in Iran! This kind of activities can only disarm the revolutionary movements.”
The working class in Iran
The Iranian workers have a history of struggle. In 1978 and ’79 massive strikes, especially in the oil industry, were marked by exemplary class solidarity and a willingness to confront the state and all of its forces of repression. In this, the Iranian proletariat stood alongside its class comrades around the world:
“Workers have refused to accept the increasing poverty demanded by the capitalist crisis… They have responded militantly, violently, to a standard of life which, for example, demands 60-70% of their income for housing alone.
“Workers have struggled autonomously, organising (as at the oil refineries) their own independent committees, whose delegates – the bourgeois press has complained – are too devoted to ‘utopian ideals’ rather than the ‘give and take of labour-management struggle’. In other words these committees are no doubt the genuine expression of workers’ interests…
“The strikes have given rise also to an inspiring class solidarity – the oil workers have refused to return to work until the demands of 400,000 teachers have been satisfied. The seriousness of the workers’ struggle is shown by the courage with which it has confronted the bourgeois state – ignoring the imposition of martial law (in fact the struggle has tended to escalate after the formation of the military government). Instead of being intimidated by the troops sent to the oilfields, the workers have attempted – often successfully – to fraternise with the soldiers” (World Revolution 21, December 1978/January 1979).
The government in Iran today stands in continuity with its predecessor of 1979. There was no revolution in Iran in 1979. For the workers, the change from the Shah to Ayotollah Khomeini was merely the substitution of one oppressor for another, although the ability of religious obscurantists and bigots to take over a whole country was an early sign of the irrationality that was beginning to develop within capitalism, which was about to enter what we now describe as its phase of decomposition. Both then and now there have been calls from the left for the formation of ‘real’ trade unions rather than the puppet unions of the state. In 1979, many on the left thought Khomeni would put an end to feudalism and promote the growth of democracy, under which unions could flourish. Today, the ‘Co-ordinating Committee’ that our correspondent refers to repeats the call for the formation of a union, even if they avoid the word in favour of a more amorphous term ‘organisation’ .
It is certainly true that the working class needs organisation. Indeed many of its most important struggles have been to form and defend its organisations as much as gain increases in wages and the like. The question is surely what sort of organisation? Can a trade union, no matter how ‘real’ or ‘radical’, actually help the working class today? Does the desperate situation of the working class in countries such as Iran mean that we should support any hint of organisation, as our correspondent suggests when he writes “I think all of the activities should be supported in order to force the government to accept the worker rights”?
What kind of organisation?
The question that determines our attitude and our actions is: whose interests does an organisation defend? In other words, is it an organisation of the proletariat or the bourgeoisie? This is not a straightforward question. The ‘Labour House’ our correspondent refers to is probably filled with workers, but that does not make it a workers’ organisation. Today it seems that it is only when workers take organisation directly into their own hands that their struggle can have any success. This is what the Iranian workers did in 1979; it is what the Polish workers did the following year. It is what the Russian workers did in 1917 when they formed the Soviets or workers’ councils. Such organisations are weapons of the struggle, rising with it and disappearing when the struggle ends. Many see this as a weakness and long for some permanent organisation, but this ignores the reality of workers’ struggles in this whole period.
The unions developed when capitalism was young and growing, when it could grant reforms and allow the working class some place in society. Today this is no longer the case. Throughout most of the last century we have seen capitalism attack the working class again and again, imposing new demands on workers to produce more and faster and cheaper. The unions, which grew up to win improved conditions for the workers, to force the ruling class to strike a deal, can do nothing for the working class when the only deals on offer are speed-ups, job cuts and more exploitation. Striking deals can only mean betraying the working class. There is no place for the working class in bourgeois society today. Any permanent mass organisation of the working class can only exist by making deals with the bosses and so betraying the working class. The only long-term organisations the working class can have today are organisations for fighting against capitalism without compromise: its class-wide councils and its political organisations . Of course the very appearance of the councils signifies a revolutionary situation; until that stage, the worker’s struggle can only be organised through assemblies and committees which exist for and during the movement but don’t attempt to perpetuate themselves after the struggle has died down. Otherwise they will be turned into a new form of trade union and become an obstacle to the next round of the fight.
Trotskyism against the working class
We agree fully with our correspondent about the reactionary role played by Trotskyism. The example he gives of the false ‘solidarity’ of the ‘Iranian workers are not alone’ campaign is a good example of how the language and aspirations of the working class are twisted into their opposite by these practised hypocrites. However, this is nothing new. In 1979, many Trotskyists echoed the Iranian Stalinists in their support for the ‘revolution’ led by Khomeini: “By urging continuation of the strikes and mass demonstrations against the Shah, and by refusing to support any government formed under the royal butchers auspices, Khomeini has played a progressive role” (The Militant – US Socialist Workers Party – quoted in WR 22). In reality the workers were beginning to be drowned in the reactionary movement being built up by the mullahs. However, contrary to what our correspondent says, the Trotskyists do not aim merely to take the working class “back and into reformism” but actually to drag it onto the bourgeois terrain and defeat it. This is as true today as it was yesterday: “All over the world the left wing of the bourgeoisie – the Stalinists of the Communist parties, the Maoists and the Trotskyists – are calling for the defeat of the Shah and his replacement by another part of the bourgeoisie which they see as being ‘more progressive’ than the Shah, always under the call for democracy in the shape of ‘free elections’” (WR 21).
In Iran, as everywhere else in the world, the working class has to learn to struggle again. After years of uncertainty, confusion and loss of confidence workers are beginning to get a sense of who they are and what they are, to understand that they have interests opposed to the ruling class and can only rely on themselves. News about the real situation of the working class in Iran is hard to come by, filtered as it is through the propaganda of the ruling class. We salute the suggestion that the working class is still trying to struggle and encourage our correspondent to write again with any news about the class struggle.
Despite all it has suffered, despite all of the weight of the Islamic regime, we have confidence in the working class in Iran as we have confidence in the working class as a whole.
 “Workers’ House” or “Labour House” are English translations of “Khane Kargar”, which is the name of the Iranian regime’s official trade unions.
 We do not intend to consider the ‘Co-ordinating committee’ in any detail since the information available to us about it is patchy. However, it clearly aspires to a union organisation of some type, as this excerpt from one of the main documents available to us indicates: “We do have the right to be organized. We must form our organization and then ask the government to officially recognize it. To form workers’ organizations does not require any governments’ permission, and this is so self-evident and obvious that it is stipulated in the Convention 87 of the ILO concerning the freedom of association and, ironically, this is even approved by the Iranian government. Therefore, the ILO who has itself compiled the conventions and had the governments sign them must force the Iranian government to put an end to the suppression of the workers’ activities and activists instead of conceding to the government. And the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran must assure the security of the working class activists” (“Let us form workers organisation with our own power!” at http://www.komiteyehamahangi.com).