In recent years workers from all walks of life have taken to the streets. On more than one occasion, frustration about falling living standards has erupted into large-scale popular protests. Politicians, too, are acutely aware that economic grievances matter to Iran’s electorate. In fact, as Esfandyar Batmanghelidj points out in his blog post, the 2021 presidential race is all about economics.
One might imagine that workers’ organizations and labor unions would benefit strategically from an election focused on economic issues. But this is not the case in Iran this year. Unions will sit out the electoral contest, waiting for better times.
Organized labor in Iran rarely makes international headlines. Yet labor unions do exist in the Islamic Republic. These organizations are officially licensed. They mainly organize occupational groups and professions. Certain professions such as nurses, teachers, engineers, journalists, and filmmakers are represented by more powerful and politically significant unions. There is also a union confederation that claims to represent the working class more generally, called the Workers’ House. The Workers’ House organizes the employees of large enterprises in the industrial and service sector and campaigns among the country’s many local pensioners’ associations.
Following a period of repression in the wake of the 1979 revolution and the eight-year war with Iraq, labor unions re-emerged in the late 1980s and 1990s as Iran’s political arena gradually opened up. Post-war governments agreed to liberalize the management of the country’s bloated public sector and give former revolutionaries and war veterans organizational tools to represent their professions in policy-making and collective bargaining.
Not all of Iran’s unions are created equally. Some unions have managed to organize a large share of their respective professions. For instance, the filmmakers’ unions provide members with generous social insurance, generating a strong incentive for workers to join. Most other labor organizations have not been so lucky. This includes the teachers’ unions and the Workers’ House, which are the largest unions in Iran today. Because these unions offer fewer benefits to members, they have remained rather small.
Over the past two decades, all unions have been forced to adapt to the country’s rapidly changing political economy. Economic liberalization and neoliberal reforms have undermined the political influence of organized labor. When union leaders tried to counter these trends by making their organizations more participatory and open to larger groups of new members, they often encountered state repression and intimidation. Thus the unions, especially the teachers’ unions, opted to keep their organizations small while trying to get as many as possible to participate in rallies whenever the political climate permitted it. For teachers, the 2015 nuclear deal created just such an opportunity. As the political arena opened up and became less repressive, teachers’ unions staged multiple rounds of nation-wide demonstrations that were entirely unprecedented in scale, often involving several dozens of towns across the country. Teachers demanded higher pay, lower wage discrimination, and more job stability in Iran’s increasingly privatized educational sector.
The relationship between the unions and the Rouhani government has been unstable and unhealthy, to say the least. Although the unions opposed many of Rouhani’s policies, they generally supported the political factions behind the Rouhani government. Unions gratefully accepted lower levels of repression and appreciated that the government engaged and consulted them directly. Rouhani also assigned a number of influential posts to individuals close to unions. For instance, Ali Rabi’i, who has long been affiliated with the Workers’ House, was minister of labor and social affairs from 2013 to 2018.
The unions cautiously benefitted from the first years of the Rouhani administration. However, after 2017 the situation worsened rapidly. In 2018, the Trump administration re-imposed and tightened sanctions on Iran, leading to a severe economic downturn. Foreign pressure and massive popular protests in 2018 and 2019 also combined to greatly increase unity across Iran’s otherwise divided political establishment, leading to a crackdown on dissent and much higher levels of repression. Although there is no evidence to suggest that the unions were directly involved in organizing the popular protests that shook the country in December 2017 and November 2019, some union leaders were called out for opposing state violence and expressing sympathy with the protestors’ demands. To make things even worse, the global pandemic hit Iran particularly hard. Crisis-response and lockdown measures excluded unions from policy platforms and made it hard to sustain workers’ organizing. Teachers’ unions in particular have borne the brunt of repression, with their leaders locked up or threatened with jail time for organizing protests.
While the unions have thus been severely weakened since 2017, ironically they have also become more central to reformist electoral coalitions. This is because the decline of the unions has coincided with a much broader backlash against reformist and moderate factions in Iranian politics. The Guardian Council has disqualified high-ranking reformist candidates from running for electoral office. However, weaker candidates associated with unions were allowed to run, probably because they posed less of a threat. As a result, the reformist coalition in the 2020 parliamentary elections was led by a combination of the Workers’ House, a group associated with the teachers’ unions, and the party of the deceased former president, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. Unsurprisingly, the elections ended in a severe blow to the reformists, as the limited outreach of these labor organizations failed to compensate for the absence of more powerful candidates.
This year, with the presidential elections now only days away, unions have mostly refrained from campaigning. The unions’ low excitement about the race will likely depress voter turnout further. There are two sets of reasons why the unions have declined to get involved.
The first set has to do with the elections themselves. Union leaders tend to follow the mandates of the reformist political establishment, which has so far not appeared eager to endorse any of the contestants. Added to this are the weak linkages between the contestants and unions. None of the contestants pride themselves on their occupational identity or working-class background. And none have served at any of the major ministries or welfare organizations involved in collective bargaining with labor representatives, such as the social security organization, the ministry of labor and social affairs, or the ministry of education. Two of the main reformist candidates are an economist and former head of the central bank, Abdolnaser Hemmati, and a bureaucrat and former provincial governor, Mohsen Mehralizadeh.
The second reason why unions prefer to wait out this election has to do with organizational survival. The last years of the Rouhani presidency have been incredibly tough for labor activists and organizations alike. Union leaders hope that by sitting out the electoral contest they will be able to engage any new government on friendlier and healthier terms. Many union activists also vividly remember the 2005 presidential campaign, when their support for losing candidates led to estrangement from and repression by the new administration.
Iran’s main union organization, the Workers’ House, is currently not directly represented in either parliament or government for the first time since the 1979 revolution. It lost its last parliamentary seat in 2020, and Ali Rabi’i left the labor ministry in 2018. Fighting to regain some influence, the Workers’ House is encouraging its constituency to vote. However, the union’s campaign has so far entirely ignored the presidential race. Instead, the Workers’ House is focused exclusively on a by-election to get its long-time leader, Alireza Mahjoob, re-elected into parliament. Like the teachers’ unions, the Workers’ House appears cautiously optimistic that its fortunes, thoroughly battered over the past four years, can only improve moving forward.
Zep Kalb is a doctoral candidate in sociology at the University of California, Los Angeles. He has done extensive research on workers' movements, economic sanctions, and contentious politics in contemporary Iran.
On Twitter: @zepkalb
Our blog aims to host a diverse, multi-faceted debate on the Iranian presidential elections on June 18. To this end, it highlights aspects that are important to Iranians in the context of the vote as well as fundamental issues like the question of the importance of elections in an autocratic system. We also consider the perspectives of selected regional actors.