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Iran: The Green Movement and the Labour Movement (Assadi)

An interview by Gozaar journalist Mohammad Tavahori in Paris with Professor Jamshid Assadi, an analyst of political economy and member of the opposition group United Republicans of Iran:

Tahavori: In assessing the breadth and depth of the Green movement over the past ten months, many political analysts and observers have pointed to the lackluster role of the labor movement. Mir Hussein Mousavi, in a recent meeting with members of the Sazman-e Mojahedin-e Enqelab-e Eslami (Mojahedin of Islamic Revolution), stressed the need for the Green Movement to band together with the labor movement and to voice the demands of workers, teachers and other social classes. In your view, why has the labor movement failed to have a strong presence in the Green Movement so far?

Iran: A View from the Labour Front (Rahnema)

Assadi: That depends on how you define the Green Movement. If we look at it as a civil-social movement that is rooted in the public’s soaring, long-rooted discontent, but which flared up in a violent reaction to the blatant rigging of the June 12, 2009 elections and spread from there, then we’d conclude that the Green Movement is at core a wide-ranging movement encompassing diverse social groups, such as youth, women, workers, teachers, journalists, Muslims, atheists–in other words, a majority of society’s citizens.

With this definition in mind, the labor movement has never been excluded or disjointed from the Green Movement. There’s no need to wait for workers to be invited to “join” the Greens; the labor movement has always been an active component of the Green Movement.

But allow me to pose a question on the apparent lack of presence of workers among the Greens: Has Mr. Mousavi presented any strategy and roadmap going forward for his supporters whom he believes constitute the main active body of the movement, for him to voice concern about the absence of the labor class? In my view, the labor movement’s inclusion in the Green Movement is less a cause for concern than the performance of prominent Green figures in roles of leadership and providing guidance for the road ahead.

Tahavori: The question, though, is why the role and presence of workers is not visible [in the Green Movement] despite their long record [of social activism]?

Assadi: How is it not visible? Have workers at Haft Tapeh sugar factory and members of the Vahed Bus Company Union not been active in recent years? Has Mansour Osanlou, the president of Vahed Bus Company Union’s executive committee and one of Iran’s most prominent trade activists, ceased his resistance for a single moment in the past few years?

Let me offer some examples of labor movement activities during Esfand 1388-Farvardin 1389 [February-March 2010]. In this period, workers at Simin and Milad factories (subsidiaries of Qaemreza Industries) in Isfahan, the Telecommunications Industries (ITI) in Shiraz, Qaemshahr Textiles in Mazandaran, Alborz China in Qazvin, as well as workers in several other cities convened and staged demonstrations protesting unpaid wages in front of the Governor’s office and other official institutes in their districts.

Also bear in mind that the persecution of trade activists has continued during this period --- Homayoun Jaberi and Qolamreza Khani, two Tehran Bus Company Union members, are two examples. The elected representative of Kian Tires has also refused to sign a letter of agreement with the Ministry of Labor. These are cases that have occurred in the last 40 days --- I can cite more!

Tahavori: Actually, that’s just the question: with such a shining record, why does the labor movement play such a weak role in the Green Movement?

Assadi: The point is that when the movement takes on a social and civil form, the primary, national slogans replace the demands of specific groups, including trade unions. This is not a bad thing.

Like the student, women’s, and teachers’ movements, the labor movement has embraced the common demands and slogans of the past ten months. Given the conditions of this struggle, instead of articulating group-specific demands, workers have also voiced these public demands. This is why we don’t hear worker-related slogans chanted during Green protests.

Do young people --- who comprise the large part of this movement --- voice slogans for student demands? Do women, who have been frontrunners in popular movements in the past 30 years, chant slogans for gender equality? These groups founded the Green Movement, without raising their group-specific demands at this point in time. This is a plus, not a minus --- that the labor movement not focus on exclusive demands and instead, alongside other social movements, champion the mantra of seeking freedom for all Iranians.

Of course, the process of prioritizing demands and slogans is not limited to the Greens in Iran. All over the world, when a social movement emerges and takes shape, the common denominator of demands --- namely: freedom, justice, democracy, human rights --- become pivotal. In Poland, labor unionists were the pillar of the struggle, but they did not elevate their trade demands above the public’s common demands. Indeed, the strength of social movements lies in the fact that group demands give way to core national demands.

Tahavori: I don’t think anyone is saying workers are not a part of the Green Movement. A look at the list of "Green martyrs" reveals the names of workers among them. But looking at the picture from another angle, we see that workers could have played a stronger role. For instance, consider that the neighborhoods where “Allah-u Akbar” (God is great) was chanted at night, such as Shahrak Qarb and Ekbatan, were actually not working-class districts. Besides, the main question is: how can the Green Movement foster stronger ties with social classes across the board -- including the labor class?

Assadi: To answer your question, allow me to note two things. First, the Green Movement, like mass movements everywhere, because it is a social and civil movement, has not chosen group-specific demands as the banner for its struggle. As I mentioned, I believe this is a strength of the movement, not a weakness.

Now to the second point: before inviting workers to join in the movement, Mr. Mousavi must clarify what way forward he is proposing. Let’s imagine no worker so far has been involved in the Green Movement: on what account must they heed Mr. Musavi’s call to join the Greens? What strategy has Mr. Musavi put forth on the kind of presence the labor movement should display within the Green Movement? What strategies has he proposed for those who do currently support him, for that matter?

Say workers do join the movement at Mr. Mousavi’s behest. Great—what’s the next step? Let’s say workers not previously involved in the Green Movement now join the ranks of supporters of the wartime prime minister. The invite is not to drink tea—what are they supposed to do? Should they, as Mr. Mousavi proposes in his Nourouz message, take up the path of “patience and perseverance” at their factories and workshops? Or, as he has suggested elsewhere, should every worker transform himself into a local “leader” for the movement? If that’s the case, why not leave the choice of whether to participate or not, or how to participate, in the movement up to these “autonomous leaders”?

My point, in effect, is that before we start thinking about the nature of the involvement of various groups in the Green Movement, we must think about the leadership of such a social movement. As long as the movement’s leaders and strategies are unclear, there can be no talk of getting various groups in society to actively take part in it and fight for its victory.

Additionally, Mousavi, Karroubi and Khatami are mistaken in thinking they can reduce the costs of the current struggle by venerating Ayatollah Khomeini and the [Islamic Republic] constitution. Of course, if they truly believe in such values, I’m not suggesting they forsake their beliefs. They are entitled to their view, and every person fights for the ideals that he believes in.

The point, however, is that for the regressive-minded ruling clique, the sole qualification for remaining a “regime insider” is loyalty and unconditional surrender to the hardliner Guards and Ayatollah Khamenei (which of them controls the other is another story!). By this token, there is not much difference between Mousavi and Karrubi, who openly declare their loyalty to Khomeini’s ideals and the Islamic Republic’s constitution, and diaspora opposition groups such as Reza Pahlavi, the Shah’s son, or the United Republicans of Iran.

Who has treated the establishment, the constitution, and the Supreme Leader more respectfully in these years than Mr. Khatami? What was his fate? An important point to note is that these [Reformist] statesmen’s lovely words—although they show commendable resistance and deserve appreciation—are not enough; they must break existing taboos with outspoken courage and thus fulfill their roles as the movement’s true leaders by guiding the way forward.

Tahavori: Mr. Mousavi says this year the Green Movement must focus on attracting the labor and teachers’ movements and other social classes. Isn’t that showing leadership and setting a general path for the movement?

Assadi: That’s not leadership; that’s stating the obvious. The role of a leader is to mobilize and organize forces, set effective strategy and provide a plan for the struggle. A leader who strategizes and guides the way, says, for instance, “People, we will march on so-and-so date to state our demand and nonviolent mission for free elections. If the government does not respond, we will increase our demands in the next demonstration.”

To claim that the Green Movement must bond with other movements but to leave it vague that after such bonding takes place, who does what and which strategies will be implemented, is certainly not leadership. In circumstances of severe repression, lovely words appear to symbolize resistance and courage, but they are insufficient and will never lead the movement to victory.

Tahavori: As a political activist and an economist, what strategy would you suggest the labor movement should follow?

Assadi: I’d need more time to answer that! But I can say that under the present conditions, the labor, students, and women’s movements will never achieve their demands until they part ways with the tyranny of the ruling regime. As long as the balance of powers are titled to the advantage of corrupt and dictatorial hardliners, no social demands will ever be met.

The labor movement is no exception. Today, workers are up against a regime that is unresponsive and ignores the wants of its people.

Let me add a last point. A vital condition for the success of the Greens is for them to impose the rules of the game on their opponent. They will lose the game if resistance figures continue to self-censor based on the pretext of “lessening the toll of the struggle”--to the point that they refrain from naming specific names in the dictatorial regime. Aren’t these leaders tired of having to prove to the regime’s ruling bullies day after day that they do not oppose the Islamic Republic and its constitution, and that they are not foreign stooges?

Tahavori: The question remains, how can workers continue the struggle at present? As you mentioned, the labor movement has been quite active in recent years. But due to the government’s fears that the Green Movement will return to the streets, workers and teachers will no longer be allowed to have their own peaceful protests. It even seems improbable that the state-sponsored march for Labor Day, which was organized by the Workers’ House [the official labor unions] every year, will be held this year.

Assadi: That’s a great question and it reflects what I’ve been saying. Your question illustrates the fact that while the balance of power rests with the hardliners, workers will not even be able to celebrate May Day—much less have the freedom to form unions to protect their rights and receive their wages on time!

In any case, I believe all defenders of freedom should march on May Day to demand freedom and to symbolically show their support for the demands of workers in the framework of the larger struggle for democracy. The first of May, May Day (International Labor Day), should be recorded in history as another successful day for the Greens, even better than Nov. 4 and Student’s Day … why not!

It is also important for the Iranian diaspora to mark this day. They should work to raise awareness among international labor organizations about the widespread repression of workers in Iran, and thereby give Iran’s labor movement hope for a better tomorrow.

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