Call for General strikes are all over Iranian social media. It’s a nod to history. When oil workers went on strike in October 1978, Iran’s oil production fell by two-thirds and the shah’s regime struggled to pay its bills. The ensuing general strike brought the country to a standstill. The following year, the monarchy was overthrown.
Protesters hope to harness similar energy this year to overthrow the theocratic regime that replaced the king years ago. In October, employees at several oil and gas plants quit their jobs after weeks of anti-government protests across the country. Workers burned tires and blocked roads.
Within weeks, however, the strike failed. Workers returned to work; oil exports were not interrupted. The incident is a reminder of the obstacles facing Iran’s labor movement and broader opposition to the regime.
Nationwide protests are now in their third month after Tehran’s “morality” police accused a young woman, Mahsa Amini, of wearing the veil improperly. The protests have become less of a mass gathering and more of a cat-and-mouse game with the authorities: small acts of defiance on city streets and university campuses, sometimes brutally crushed. More than 300 people, including 40 children, were reported killed. United Nationshuman rights officer. A Norwegian monitor put the death toll at closer to 400.
The strike fueled the unrest. In addition to the October shutdown, for a week in November workers walked out of a diesel company near the capital Tehran and did the same at an aluminum plant in the south. Firefighters went on strike in the eastern city of Mashhad. Many shops in Tehran’s bazaars were closed for days. Teachers and truck drivers organized their own school closures.
However, not enough workers joined the fight to pose a serious threat to the regime. After a decade of economic sanctions, life is hard for many Iranians. State media acknowledges that the percentage of Iranians living on less than $3 a day has doubled in recent years to 31%. Household spending among working-class families has fallen by 15% over the past decade. Even though many Iranians sympathize with the protesters, they cannot afford to strike.
As in 1978, the oil and related industries are vital to the regime’s survival. Despite U.S. sanctions, Iran managed to ship about 800,000 barrels a day of oil in October, mostly to China. Even at a discount, that provides vital hard currency for a country with few other lucrative exports.
But the strike in the oil industry was short-lived. Police arrested dozens of organizers and threatened more crackdowns. Bosses were pulled in by the authorities and told to keep their workers in line. Threats of arrest and jail time aren’t the only fears. More than half of the 205,000 workers in Iran’s petrochemical industry are on fixed-term contracts. Their jobs are unstable. If fired, they won’t be able to easily find new employees.
Trade unions are a force in Iran. In mid-2018, they held dozens of protests a week. The labor unrest in 2019 was the backdrop for mass protests following the government’s announcement of a fuel price hike in November. Now, the government is cracking down on unions, arresting their leaders, cracking down on demonstrations and blocking sympathy websites. Unions are also not as powerful as they were a few decades ago. Long-term economic changes have also weakened them. Researchers at the University of Tehran estimate that 40-50% of Iran’s workforce works in the informal sector, with no trade body able to organize them.
Weak unions and a large gray market help the regime divide workers. Earlier this year, it announced increases in public sector wages and a doubling of salaries for conscripts. While most of these increases were eaten up by inflation levels (see chart), the government later offered additional pay rises to civil servants and pensioners. For now, that may be enough to prevent the kind of strikes that paralyzed the shah’s regime.
Some dissidents in Iran and abroad have suggested setting up a strike fund to pay striking workers. However, the system makes it difficult for workers to claim even if someone is willing to pay. Others believe that diasporas can play a similar role through remittances. But that may require the United States to ease some of the sanctions on Iran that have cut Iranian banks off from the global financial system. This is unlikely to happen.
Therefore, the regime may last for a while. But it cannot bribe key voters forever. Printing money to pay higher wages only fuels inflation.
Even with higher oil prices and aggressive taxation this year, the Treasury still runs a huge deficit. In October, a member of the parliamentary budget committee said Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei had agreed to use the sovereign wealth fund to provide extra cash to the budget. As long as the regime has no good solutions to street protesters or workers organizing strikes, its very existence will be increasingly threatened. ■