Monday, May 15, 2006

The System Created by Khomeini Facing New Challenges

Amir Taheri, Arab News:
Talk to any “Iran specialist” about opposition to the present regime and you are likely to hear that it is marginal, exists largely in exile, and affects segments of the urban middle classes, especially students, mainly in Tehran.

The conclusion, therefore, is that the system now headed by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is firmly entrenched with no credible challenge looming on the horizon.

However, that picture, largely accurate for much of the past two decades, may be about to change as the system created by the late Ayatollah Khomeini faces new challenges.

These new challenges come from several sources.

The first, and possibly the most important, is the urban working class that has just started to flex its muscles. Last week, it showed its force with the biggest May Day demonstration ever seen in the Middle East. READ MORE

Shouting anti-regime slogans and specifically calling for the resignation of the new Labor Minister Ali Jahromi, tens of thousands of the demonstrators were careful to stick to work-related demands. But, talking to journalists, especially foreign reporters, the participants made no secret of the fact that they were unhappy with the Khomeinist system as a whole.

At one point, Ali Rabi’ee, a labor adviser to former President Muhammad Khatami, addressed a crowd of workers in unmistakably political terms. He charged President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s new administration with trying to destroy the workers’ movement in Iran.

What was remarkable about this year’s May Day parade was that it included delegations of workers from all of Iran’s 30 provinces.

This was also the first time that none of the Cabinet ministers or members of the Islamic Consultative Assembly were present at the parade. The chairs left for them remained empty and were eventually smashed by groups of angry demonstrators.

The authorities were apparently angered enough to arrest five workers’ leaders shortly after the parade, among them is Ibrahim Madadi, vice president of the Transport Workers Syndicate.

Despite the fact that independent trade unions are illegal in the Islamic republic, informal labor organizations have sprung up in many industries and led dozens of strike actions, affecting many walks of life, over the past year or so. By far the most dramatic strikes in the past few months have concerned primary school teachers and bus drivers and conductors in Tehran.

Workers’ grievances can be summed up in three demands.

The first is to lift the ban on trade unions and recognize the workers’ right to take industrial action. Under a protocol signed between the International Labor Organization (ILO) and the Islamic republic during Khatami’s presidency, this was supposed to happen in 2004 but did not.

The second demand is to amend the Labor Code, enacted under the mullahs, to restore the pro-worker clauses contained in pre-revolution legislature. The current Labor Code allows employers to hire and fire workers virtually as they please. More than 85 percent of all urban workers are hired under short-term contracts, often less than 40 days. Many employers ask the prospective employee to sign an undated letter of resignation before taking up the job.

These practices, initially limited to the private sector, have in recent years spread to the public sector as well. As a result an estimated 12 million workers, out of a work force of some 25 million, have virtually no social protection, health coverage, or pension scheme.

The employers including in the massive public sector, know that widespread unemployment, estimated officially to stand around 10.6 percent, means that they can always have access to an abundant source of cheap and vulnerable labor. This is especially so because unemployment rate for workers aged between 15 and 25 is estimated at over 40 percent.

The third demand put forward by Iranian workers is to develop a mechanism for consultation and negotiation among labor, industry and the government.

“No society can progress without dialogue,” says Hassan Dehqan, a labor leader. “We cannot allow the authorities and the employers to decide our fate without even consulting us.”

Apart from these three “imperatives”, the workers also want those of their colleagues sent to jail released and those expelled after taking part in industrial action to be reinstated. No one knows how many workers are in prison. But several sources put the number at “many hundreds.” The number of workers expelled as a form of punishment is said to run into thousands.

Workers also demand that government intervene to make sure they get paid on time. According to Massoud Cheraghi, a paper factory worker, some employees have not been paid for 26 months.

Can a rising labor movement pose a political threat to Ahmadinejad?

Some observers believe it might. Unlike students whose anti-regime strikes had no impact on the economy, labor, if organized, could cripple large chunks of the economy with well-targeted industrial action.

To prepare for such an eventuality, Ahmadinejad has worked out a carrots-and-sticks policy.

The carrots part consists of a scheme under which more than five million workers will receive shares in hundreds of state-owned enterprises. Called “Justice Equity”, the shares are supposed to produce extra income for workers. The problem, however, is that most of the companies concerned are either effectively bankrupt or operating at a loss.

The sticks part of the Ahmadinejad scheme consists of a veritable private army of strikebreakers recruited and trained to deal with protesting workers.

Labour Minister Jahromi, however, believes that the only sector of the economy that really matters is the oil industry. His theory is that as long as oil continues to flow the Islamic republic will have enough money to import whatever is needed and to keep its hardcore of support mobilized with generous subsidies and cash handouts.

This is why Jahromi has devised a scheme to increase the number of oil workers by thousands to be recruited from among “those committed to our revolution.” The idea is that, over time, a majority of oil workers would be people with special bonds to the regime.

Critcis of the scheme , including Rabi’ee, says that this is a recipe for fomenting perpetual tension between genuine workers and strikebreakers disguised as employees.

“Our workers have real problems,” he says. “The answer is to solve those problems, not to create new ones by creating hundreds of battlefields where some Iraians will be fighting other Iranians.”