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May Day in the Islamic Republic

by ERVAND ABRAHAMIAN

29 Apr 2010 00:284 Comments

It is not only today that should be considered Workers' Day. Every day should be honored as Workers' Day. For labor is the source of all things, ...even of Heaven and Hell.--Ayatollah Khomeini, Ettelaat, May 2, 1979

May Day: The Early Years (1921-1991)

ft6c6006wp_00006.gifMay 1, 1979, was a major public festival in Iran. Waves of joyful demonstrators poured into the streets celebrating International Workers' Day as well as "the true spring of freedom after the 2,500-year-old monarchy." Since then the Islamic Republic has continued to observe, in one way or another, May Day.

Nothing could be more incongruous. May Day is an "invented tradition" of the nineteenth-century socialist movement in the West. It conjures up images of the Haymarket tragedy; Chicago martyrs at the gallows reaffirming their faith in socialism, anarchism, and atheism; heavy machinery, proletarian caps, and smokestacks; and Marx's Second International, not to mention Lenin's Third International. It also evokes industrialism, militant trade unionism, and socialist internationalism breaking down all forms of parochialism, especially of religion, nationality, and gender. The Islamic Republic, on the other hand, views itself as the authentic embodiment of pure Islam; is highly conscious of the political potency of rituals, images, symbols, and language; and claims to reject all Western concepts, especially those of humanism, socialism, feminism, and, the most insidious of all, Marxism.

The incongruity, however, has a clear-cut explanation. The Khomeini regime, in advocating an Iranian variant of Third World populism, wants to mobilize the urban working class, forestall any threat from the secular Left, and, at the same time, bring as much of that Left as possible under its own hegemony. Meanwhile, May Day, although originally an imported tradition, has become over the years an integral part of the leftist tradition in Iran and has been observed whenever possible since 1921. It is associated with labor struggles of the past -- with demonstrations, work stoppages, general strikes, and violent confrontations. What is more, it is the moment of historical awareness which all the Left, whether Stalinist, Maoist, Castroist, Trotskyist, or Social Democratic, meticulously observe. In fact, a mark of being on the Left in Iran is to observe May Day -- sometimes as a counterfestival to the official religious and nationalistic holidays.

Thus in 1979 the Islamic regime, to prove its radical credentials and appropriate the leftist tradition, celebrated May Day with much fanfare and revolutionary rhetoric. Since then the celebrations have continued, but with less and less fanfare, radical promises, and free participation. In fact, the way May Day has been observed can be used to gauge how far Khomeini's populism has been toned down as his regime has established itself and become economically more conservative. In other words, May Day is a revealing lens through which to observe the Thermidor of the Islamic Revolution. By the late 1980s May Day no longer produced street rallies and freewheeling mass meetings but highly controlled and carefully orchestrated indoor shows designed to drum up support for the regime.

May Day as a Political Gathering (1921-41)

Left-wing groups in Iran, especially the Printers' Union in Tehran, began to celebrate May Day in the early 1920s. These early celebrations, however, invariably took the form of indoor gatherings, often in secret. Most were organized by the newly founded Communist and Socialist parties jointly with their ally in Tehran, the Central Council of Federated Trade Unions (CCFTU).

At its height in the mid-1920s the CCFTU had over 8,000 members from about sixteen unions. They included teachers and municipal employees; skilled craftsmen, particularly printers, cobblers, tailors, carpenters, masons, pharmacists, telegraphers, and postal and telephone workers; and relatively unskilled wage earners, such as bath attendants, bakery assistants, bricklayers, and the weavers from Tehran's sole modern factory. Much of the recruiting was done in the teahouses and coffeehouses found throughout the bazaar and the poorer neighborhoods. The CCFTU's leadership comprised not only left-wing intellectuals but also a surprising number of craftsmen, especially printers, masons, and cobblers. The unions were interdenominational, with Muslims and Christians (mostly Armenians and Assyrians) in both their leadership and rank and file. The CCFTU also had affiliated unions in the provinces, particularly among fishery and dockworkers in Enzeli, carpet weavers and tailors in Mashad, and textile weavers in Isfahan. In the late 1920s they were joined by oil workers in Khuzestan.

The early celebrations avoided street rallies for two major reasons. First, outside the oil region, the industrial proletariat was too small. In 1925 the whole country had fewer than twenty modern industrial plants; only five of them were large factories. Second, the government restricted such street demonstrations. In the early 1920s Colonel Reza Khan, the commander in chief of the armed forces, imposed martial law on most cities. By the late 1920s he had seized the throne and was ruling the country with an iron fist. And by 1931 he had enacted the Anticollectivist Law, which banned all activities smacking of socialism, communism, and trade unionism.

The first May Day meeting was organized in 1921 by the CCFTU in Tehran. A modest-sized crowd gathered in the large Shah Mosque in central Tehran. The printers even closed down most of the publishing houses to honor the day. That evening a left-wing drama group put on a three-act comedy in the Grand Hotel located in the fashionable part of northern Tehran.

In preparation for the day, Haqiqat (The truth), the trade union organ, published a long editorial on the significance of May 1 (Ardibehesht 11 in the Iranian solar calendar). This editorial became the model for later May Day articles. It began with a brief history of the festival, stressing that it was a modern holiday to mark, on the one hand, the end of the rule of "feudalists, clergy, and aristocrats" and, on the other hand, the beginning of working-class enslavement by industrial capitalists and their factory system, with its tendency to produce mass unemployment. It continued with a description of how in 1889, on the centenary of the French Revolution, the Second International, with the encouragement of Engels, had chosen May Day as the date to demonstrate working-class solidarity, demand the eight-hour workday, and honor the martyrs of Chicago in 1887 and the Paris Commune in 1871. The article went on to explain how May Day had served not only to celebrate class solidarity but also to strike fear in the hearts of the bourgeoisie and the authorities, demand the eight-hour day, and mark the dawn of a new age of human liberation. It ended with the proclamation that the young Iranian proletariat now joined the international proletariat in demanding work, liberty, equality, fundamental reforms, freedom of expression, elimination of class privileges, an end to foreign exploitation, the lifting of martial law, and the recognition of May Day as a public holiday.

Similar May Day celebrations occurred throughout the 1920s. For example, in 1924 printers in Tehran organized a one-day strike, and fishery workers in Enzeli attended an indoor rally near the town docks. In 1928 a picture of Lenin was displayed in the First of May Club in Rasht, prompting a government crackdown. This club had been organized by a group of Armenian intellectuals and Muslim trade unionists to bring together men and women for political lectures and theatrical shows. In 1918 they had, in fact, organized the first International Womens' Day in Iran.

Also in 1928, on the Friday closest to May 1, small groups of Communist activists, totaling no more than 800, quietly made their way to a picnic in a rented garden outside Tehran. The program included music, lectures on the meaning of May Day, and recitation of an ode to workers written by Lahuti, a well-known revolutionary poet who had fled to the Soviet Union. Their May Day Manifesto called for the overthrow of the shah, the landlords, the mullas, and the capitalists. Red flags were draped on the garden trees. After the picnic, some of the participants gate-crashed a small May Day gathering at the Socialist party clubhouse in northern Tehran. This disruption drew the attention of the police and probably prompted the closure of the clubhouse. One of the gate-crashers admitted years later that looking back on this incident he was embarrassed by his "ultraleft" infantile behavior.

The largest of these early May Day celebrations came in 1929. Radicals in Mashad, many of them teachers, tailors, and carpet weavers, met secretly on an isolated hill a few miles outside the city to listen to lectures and sing revolutionary songs. In Abadan, refinery workers who had recently formed an underground union sparked off a general strike throughout the oil industry by demanding recognition of the union, a minimum wage, replacement of foreigners with Iranians, worker representation in the oil company's labor office, and the acceptance of May Day as a paid holiday. The strike was broken four days later when the provincial authorities, under orders from Reza Shah, moved troops into the region and rounded up over forty-five labor organizers -- five of whom were kept in prison until Reza Shah's abdication in 1941. The British government "thanked" and "congratulated" the shah for having dealt "so speedily" with the crisis. Although this strike has received scant mention in history books, at the time it was serious enough to prompt the dispatch of a British battleship to Abadan.

In the same year in Tehran, small groups of radicals, this time totaling 2,000, gathered outside the city early in the morning for another picnic, where they listened to poetry, an hour-long lecture, and a band, many of whose players were union members. The picnic lasted until midafternoon and was paid for by the trade unions. The departing crowd was large enough to arouse the interest of the police, which led to the arrest of about fifty participants, one of whom died in prison, probably as a result of mistreatment.

The last of these early May Day gatherings came in 1931. In early spring of that year, the Communist party organized an underground union in the newly founded Vatan textile mill in Isfahan. On May Day, this union met secretly in a garden outside the city and drafted a list of demands, including the eight-hour day, union recognition, Friday pay, and an end to corporal punishment in the factories. The union also wanted management to refer to laborers as kargaran (workers) rather than as camaleh-ha (hired hands). The meeting displayed banners with the slogan "Workers of the World Unite!" When management refused to negotiate, the workers struck. The strike continued for two weeks until management made concessions and the government arrested over thirty labor organizers, one of whom soon died in prison, again probably as a result of mistreatment.

In the wake of this strike, Reza Shah decreed his Anticollectivist Law, which threatened labor organizers and advocates of radical ideas with ten years' imprisonment. This law was used on a number of occasions in the 1930s, the most famous being in May 1937 when the police arrested fifty-three intellectuals and labor organizers, accusing them of publishing a May Day Manifesto to incite strikes in the Vatan mill, the railways, and Tehran University. This group became famous as the "Fifty-three." Dr. Taqi Arani, their leader and a professor of physics at Tehran University, was charged with writing a May Day Manifesto, the main evidence presented to the court. Found guilty, Arani died in prison, probably as a result of being placed in a typhus-infested cell. The others, however, survived to create the Tudeh party immediately after Reza Shah's abdication.

May Day Parades (1941-53)

In the twelve years between the fall of Reza Shah and the creation of Mohammad Reza Shah's autocracy, May Days often took the form of mass street rallies -- whenever, that is, the political authorities allowed it. These events had become mass celebrations in part because the radical intelligentsia had grown much larger and in part because Reza Shah's industrialization policies had greatly increased the ranks of the urban proletariat. By 1941 the country had 146 large factories, including 36 textile mills, 8 sugar refineries, and 8 chemical enterprises.

The May Day parades were organized by the Tudeh party and its ally, the CCFTU, which had announced its reestablishment on May Day 1944 and set up headquarters in the former Socialist party building, which it renamed May First Club. In 1946-47 the CCFTU boasted 180 unions with over 300,000 members. These figures are probably inflated, but the CCFTU did have branches in all large factories and modern installations, in many small factories, and even in some bazaar workshops. According to the British labor attaché in Tehran, the CCFTU claimed 45,000 oil workers, 45,000 construction laborers, 40,000 mill hands, 20,000 railwaymen, 20,000 carpet weavers, 11,000 dockworkers, 9,000 shoemakers, 9,000 food processors, 8,000 miners, 8,000 tobacco cleaners, 6,000 truck and taxi drivers, 5,000 fishery workers, 3,500 employees in the Education Ministry, 3,000 slaughterhouse workers, 3,000 brewers, 3,000 munitions workers, 3,000 cart drivers, 3,000 sugar refiners, 2,700 hospital attendants, 2,300 chemical workers, 2,000 printers, 2,000 glassmakers, 2,000 cotton cleaners, 2,000 silk workers, 1,500 bath attendants, 1,200 cement workers, 1,000 engineers and technicians, 600 electricians, and 150 newspaper sellers. The CCFTU also had affiliates in nonindustrial employments where Armenians and Assyrians were well represented: carpenters, pharmacists, cinema attendants, and pastry cooks.

The Tudeh organized its largest May Day celebration in 1946. Huge street rallies marked the end of World War II and demonstrated the strength of the labor movement. On the eve of the celebration, the government, pressured by the Tudeh, announced a one-day paid holiday, even though May Day fell on a Wednesday. At 7 A.M. workers from the major factories in Tehran, most of which were near the railroad station in the southwest of the city, began to march to the CCFTU headquarters near Ferdowsi Square in northern Tehran. They had music bands, union signs, and banners declaring "Factory Owners, the Workers Have Awakened" and "Bread, Work, and Health for All." At the CCFTU headquarters they were met by students marching from the university in the northwest. Zafar (Victory), the CCFTU organ, claimed that the festivities involved some 80,000 people, making it the largest May Day parade thus far not only in Iran but in the whole of the Middle East. According to one reporter, the streets were full of men, women, and children, some wearing red carnations, listening to music, watching puppet shows and folk dances, and in some places doing the foxtrot. According to Donald Wilber, the well-known art historian and American undercover agent, the most impressive of the marching contingents was the Union of Dry Cleaners. "I am certain," he wrote, "that they were wearing their customers' suits; at least one suit looked very like one belonging to a man in the Legation."

The festivities concluded at 2 P.M. with a factory worker reciting a poem, a representative of the main left-wing women's organization reading a message, and the head of the CCFTU honoring those killed in Reza Shah's prisons and reading off a list of union demands. The list included equal pay for men and women, work for the unemployed, housing for the homeless, support for the Republican cause in Spain, and, most important of all, a labor law that would guarantee an eight-hour day, recognize trade unions, and accept May Day as a public holiday.

There were similar celebrations in every provincial capital and in such smaller towns as Qom, Kerman, Rafsanjan, Mallayer, Ardekan, Arak, and Nain. In some places, the unions held their rally at the local football field. In Abadan, where the oil company had declared a paid holiday, the parade was three miles long and probably as large as in Tehran. Its banners were in Persian, Arabic, Armenian, Assyrian, and Hindi, reflecting the ethnic composition of the oil workers. The organizers, some of them veterans of the 1929 May Day strike, demanded better housing, a minimum wage, improved rations, union recognition, and a labor law. According to a British report, the union leaders were mostly "drivers, fitters, and plant attendants." The parades in Abadan and the oil region were so impressive that the British consul in Ahwaz reported that the "effective government of the province was in the hands of the Tudeh." Meanwhile, a British colonel in charge of security in the oil regions was warning London that the May Day parades had proved that the "Tudeh were masters of the situation," that the safety of the refinery and oil fields as well as of British personnel depended on "the goodwill and pleasure of the Tudeh Party," and that its mass meetings were increasingly targeting the British -- in one such rally a woman speaker accused the company of plundering the country's resources and called for the prompt nationalization of the whole oil industry. This was probably the first time the call for oil nationalization had been heard in the streets of Iran. The British -- repeating their 1929 actions -- anchored two warships off Abadan, reinforced their base at Basra, and drew up contingency plans for military invasion of Khuzestan.

In the coverage of the 1946 May Day, the Tudeh press printed pictures not only of large crowds but also of women participants, some veiled, others not; of men wearing cloth caps; and of the Iranian flag displayed prominently near the main speakers. All the parades were peaceful except in Kermanshah, where the police attacked workers as they came out of a cinema showing a Soviet film. Six workers were killed, becoming the first May Day martyrs in Iran. Even though these rallies did not substantiate CCFTU's inflated membership claims, they did show that the labor movement was a force to be reckoned with -- so much so that two weeks later the government decreed the country's first comprehensive Labor Law, which was quickly shelved as soon as royal autocracy was reestablished.

May Day Under Autocracy (1953-78)

The memory of the mass festivals survived, especially among the older generation of industrial workers, despite government repression and the dramatic social changes of the 1960s and 1970s. Immediately after the 1953 coup, the regime banned May Day meetings and effectively dismantled the whole Tudeh party, especially its labor unions. It created government syndicates, which, unlike trade unions, were confined to individual factories, and placed paid informers in large industrial installations -- even the tsarist police had not been able to afford to set up such an extensive spy apparatus. May Days were observed only in prison, in private homes under the guise of weddings and family celebrations, in factories where leftists had managed to get elected into the government syndicates, and in exile, where leftist papers, irrespective of organizational affiliations, scrupulously observed the occasion. In fact, the observance of May Day distinguished leftist papers from others.

Industrialization produced a new generation of factory workers. By the mid-1970s, Iran had over 900 large and medium-sized factories, employing nearly 270,000 workers. These included new textile plants in Isfahan, Tehran, Kashan, Behshahr, and Kermanshah; steel mills in Isfahan and Ahwaz; additional oil refineries in Shiraz, Tabriz, Qom, Tehran, and Kermanshah; shoe factories in Tehran, Tabriz, and Isfahan; petrochemical plants in Abadan, Shiraz, and Kharg Island; machine-tool factories in Tabriz, Arak, and Abadan; aluminum smelters in Saveh, Ahwaz, and Arak; assembly plants for cars, tractors, and trucks in Saveh, Tehran, Arak, and Tabriz; and food- and beverage-processing plants in many of the large urban centers. Nearly half of these factories were located in the Tehran region -- most of them in the city's western, southern, and eastern suburbs. If one includes wage earners in oil, transport, lumber, docks, mines, and fisheries, the modern working class reached half a million. About 20 percent of the workers in the large factories were enrolled in government syndicates; but a secret 1973 survey showed that even they had little faith in these syndicates.

These years also saw a massive influx of landless peasants into the cities. They outnumbered not only the older but also the newer generation of industrial workers. In fact, urbanization outpaced industrialization, producing sprawling slums, shantytowns, and squatter settlements -- most of them without teahouses and coffeehouses, which served as social centers for male workers. Between 1956 and 1977, Tehran grew from 1,512,000 to 4,500,000; Isfahan, from 254,000 to 670,000; Mashad, from 241,000 to 670,000; Shiraz, from 170,000 to 416,000; and Qom, from 96,000 to 246,000. By 1976, nearly half the country's population resided in urban centers. The migrants who did not find employment in the new factories tried to make ends meet by working as street peddlers, household servants, or unskilled day laborers, especially in the construction industry.

Nevertheless, the memory of May Day survived, because government newspapers reported such celebrations in other countries, underground leftist papers commemorated the day, and so many had actively participated in the 1941-53 mass rallies. The regime, which had promised a national holiday honoring workers in its Labor Law, began in the mid-1970s to openly observe May Day. It needed the support of the expanding industrial proletariat to oppose the dramatic emergence of the Mojahedin and Fedayin guerrillas, and it wanted to neutralize repercussions from a violent May Day confrontation that took place in 1971 between police and striking workers at the large Chit-e Jahan cotton mill in Karaj (Karaj, originally a separate village west of Tehran, was fast becoming an industrial suburb of the capital).

In the early 1970s, the shah drastically expanded the state-controlled syndicates, placing them under the new Resurgence party, giving them a newspaper, decreeing improvements in the Labor Law, and substantially increasing real wages -- those for skilled workers rose by as much as 22 percent. He also began to mark May Day. On May Day 1974, he addressed four thousand "syndicate representatives" who had been bused to Saadabad Palace. He promised them houses, factory shares, a workers' holiday, and "justice against exploiting employers." On May Day 1975, the Resurgence party convened a nationwide congress which gave prominence to workers' issues. In the same week, the crown prince held a special audience in Niavaran Palace to award medals to young model workers. On May Day 1976, the shah promised a higher standard of living to a Congress of Syndicates convened at the main Tehran sports stadium. Similarly, on May Day 1977, the shah decreed that the Labor Law would be extended to small factories and bazaar workshops, which previous labor laws had not covered.

May Day in 1979

The Khomeinists, despite their populist rhetoric, initially paid little attention to May Day. In fact, they were caught off guard when they discovered in late April 1979 that the leftist parties were making major preparations for the occasion. Not to be outdone, the Islamic Republican party (IRP) -- at the time, the main nucleus of the Khomeinists -- rushed at the last minute to organize its own May Day rally. To help, the government upped the minimum wage and declared the day to be a paid public holiday. Khomeini broadcast a resounding May Day speech warning workers to beware of nonbelievers and proclaiming that their true guardian was Islam. "Every day should be considered Workers' Day for labor is the source of all things, even of heaven and hell as well as of the atom particle." This sounded more radical than the Marxist labor theory of value.

On the eve of May Day, all the major newspapers, including those of the IRP, carried special articles on the working class. These invariably included histories of May Day, beginning with Haymarket, continuing with the Second International, and ending with the 1941-53 mass rallies. Most discussed the rallies without mentioning the Tudeh. Some exaggerated the size and militancy of these rallies, claiming that they would have culminated in a successful revolution if it had not been for their organizers' "reformist" character.

Early in the morning, four separate rallies began to assemble in Tehran. The IRP marched to Imam Hosayn Square in the city's northeast district from Railway Square and Shush Square near the southern slums, from Revolution Square near Tehran University in the west, and from the industrial districts of Narmak in the east. According to an anticlerical newspaper the procession from Revolution Square to Imam Hosayn Square alone was three kilometers long. The rally was cosponsored by the IRP-dominated factory councils and the Society of Tehran Clerics. The sponsors warned demonstrators to carry only the official plakards (placards), which proclaimed that "Every Day Is Workers' Day." The meeting ended with speeches by a Palestinian Liberation Organization delegate, by Ayatollah Beheshti, the IRP leader, and by Abul-Hosayn Banisadr, then one of Khomeini's closest advisers.

Meanwhile, a coalition of leftist groups headed by the Fedayin and the Maoist Paykar marched to Ferdowsi Square from Workers' House near the Parliament building in downtown Tehran. Workers' House was a social center that had been taken over by the Paykar during the revolution. According to a paper sympathetic to this rally, the procession had half a million participants.

The Tudeh marched in midtown from Army Square to Shimran Gate, where they heard a speech by a tobacco worker and a message from the Communist-dominated trade unions in France. This rally was cosponsored by twenty-three syndicates, some of which were new, whereas others were government syndicates taken over by the Tudeh. After the Shimran Gate meeting, some of the Tudeh demonstrators went to the IRP rally in the nearby Imam Hosayn Square. Some of their banners were in Azerbayjani Turkish as well as in Persian. Eric Rouleau of Le Monde wrote that nearly half the trade unions in Tehran supported the Tudeh rally. Another foreign observer, although critical of the Tudeh for preferring traditional unions to grass-roots factory councils, admitted that the Tudeh probably had more support among factory workers than the other leftist organizations.

The Mojahedin held their own rally in the Agricultural College in Karaj, where the group had formed in secret in the mid-1960s. The rally was addressed by labor organizers who had participated in the May 1971 bloody confrontation at the Chit-e Jahan mill. The Mojahedin now dominated the workers' council at that mill. In addition to political demands, the Karaj rally called for decent wages, a proper labor law, and equal pay for men and women for equal work.

The Iranian press, closely scrutinized by the authorities, did not dare to compare the sizes of the four rallies, but Eric Rouleau reported that they were of equal size and each had "several hundred thousand" participants. The New York Times, however, estimated that the IRP drew 30,000 while the Tudeh and the other leftist rallies within Tehran together had approximately 100,000 participants. What is certain is that they were the largest May Day parades ever held in Tehran.

The four rallies addressed common themes: the importance of May Day and the need for a more progressive labor law that would guarantee Workers' Day, independent unions, the right to strike, the eight-hour day, the forty-hour week, and equal pay for equal work (even the clerical IRP demanded that women should get the same pay as men). All four paid allegiance to the Islamic Republic headed by Imam Khomeini, called for more nationalization of large enterprises, and advocated militant vigilance against the imperial powers, especially the United States. IRP posters even included clenched fists and red flowers, which in the past had been associated with the Tudeh party. Some banners were in Turkish, reflecting the Azerbayjani background of many workers in Tehran.

Despite the similarities, however, there were important differences, some subtle, others not so subtle. The Mojahedin, as well as the IRP, used religious imagery and the terms mostazafin and kargar. The IRP's main slogans were "Workers, Toilers, Islam Is for You"; "Workers, Today Is Your Day"; "Communists Are Imperialist Agents"; "Fraternity, Equality, and Imam Ali's Authority"; and "Our Party Is That of Allah, Our Leader Is Ruhollah [Khomeini]." Its posters depicted minarets as well as industrial machinery and red flowers (these flowers tended to be roses rather than the carnations preferred by the secular organizations). The Mojahedin's main theme for the day was that true Islam would bring about "a classless society" (nezam-e tawhidi).

On the other hand, the Tudeh and other secular leftists used only nonreligious symbols and language. They welcomed unveiled women, demanded "land for the tiller," talked more in terms of class and capitalism, and described the occasion as a festival (cayd) and celebration (jashn) rather than as a solemn ceremony (marasm). Their banners appealed to "the workers of the world," not just to "workers." Their posters featured broken chains, the color red (flags, stars, and carnations), and unveiled female workers as well as brawny male proletarians with felt caps. The Fedayin posters showed the planetary system, to represent science as well as universal humanity, and the rising sun, as a symbol of a new age, a symbol appropriated from the nineteenth-century labor movement in Europe. The Tudeh revived its 1940s slogan "Bread for All, Education for All, and Health Care for All." Workers' House emphasized the rights of those without work, demanding unemployment benefits as well as programs to create jobs. The secular left papers published poems full of Marxist imagery: Lenin, red flags, October revolutions, the dawn of a new industrial age, and "International Workers' Solidarity."

May Day rallies were also held in almost every large town, including Abadan, Isfahan, Tabriz, Ahwaz, Qazvin, Shiraz, Yazd, Arak, Sanandaj, Hamadan, and Ardabel. Hojjat al-Islam Rafsanjani addressed the Abadan rally, which was packed with oil workers. No lives were lost in these rallies although in a number of places religious vigilantes known as hezbollahis attacked the leftists, a sign of things to come. Even more ominous, at the end of the day, Forqan (truth) -- an underground group composed of Shariati's militant admirers -- assassinated Ayatollah Motahhari, one of Khomeini's closest advisers. This was to have significant repercussions for future May Days.

May Day in 1980

May Day, 1980, was in many ways a repeat performance of the previous year -- with the important difference that it came in the midst of the American-hostage crisis. As the day approached, the government declared it a public holiday, increased the minimum wage and the housing allowance for workers, and rescheduled the forthcoming parliamentary elections so as not to disrupt the occasion. Newspapers associated with the regime published special Workers' Day articles. One such article claimed that the first May Day parade had been held in San Francisco, "anti-imperialism" should be the occasion's main theme, and the Islamic Revolution had shown the whole world that imperialism could be defeated by the "workers, peasants, office employees, and bazaar merchants." Khomeini made another resounding speech honoring "Workers' Day." He described workers as the "beacon of humanity," praised them as the "most valuable class in society," congratulated them for producing so many revolutionary martyrs, and exhorted them to stand firm against all forms of imperialism.

At midmorning, the IRP convened a huge crowd outside the former U.S. Embassy, now referred to as the "American spy den." The crowd converged from the industrial suburbs of the capital: from Railway, Shush, and Khurasan Squares in the south; from Imam Hosayn Square in the northeast; from Liberation and Revolution Squares in the west; from Imamzadeh Bridge in the northwest; and from Workers' House in downtown Tehran (Workers' House had been taken over by the IRP and its Islamic councils during the previous year).

The IRP slogans and banners affirmed allegiance to the Islamic Republic and Imam Khomeini. They condemned China and the Soviet Union as well as Britain and the United States for their "imperialistic policies." They also demanded the nationalization of foreign trade and the passage of a labor law, exhorted workers to higher productivity, and denounced strikes as "antirevolutionary sabotage." An IRP leader addressing the crowd warned that America was plotting to overthrow the Islamic Republic with the help of royalist officers and "pseudoleftist" university intellectuals: "Those who incite workers to strike are American leftists." He declared that May 1 should be observed not just as Workers' Day but also as Teachers' Day in honor of Ayatollah Motahhari. The rally ended by affirming support for the struggles of the world's oppressed against their imperialist oppressors. Jomhuriye Islami, the IRP organ, carried the headline "Iranian Workers Chant `Oppressed of the World Unite against the Oppressors!'"

Later the same day, the Tudeh organized its own march from Army Square (now renamed Imam Khomeini Square) to the American Embassy. The rally was cosponsored by sixty-two syndicates and workers' councils. In addition to reaffirming their support for the Islamic Republic and Imam Khomeini, their slogans repeated the previous year's demands for social reforms, including land reform, equal pay for equal work, and a new labor law.

They also introduced such chants as "Liberals Are American Collaborators," "Worker Participation in Factory Management," and "Abu Zarr, the Enemy of Capitalism" (Abu Zarr was one of Prophet Mohammad's companions who had denounced the opulence of the early caliphs). Even though religious themes had seeped in, the Tudeh again had unveiled women in its procession. It is significant that Mardom, the Tudeh newspaper, in its special Labor Day issue, stressed that May Day celebrated the rights of women, as well as men, to organize effective trade unions. It also reprinted pictures of unveiled women demonstrators from previous May Days, especially from 1979, 1953, and 1946. Such photographs would not have gone unnoticed by the clerics.

In addition to these rallies outside the American Embassy, other groups had their own May Day meetings. The Fedayin gathered in the vast Liberation Square, where organized hezbollahis -- brought in by trucks, probably by the authorities -- threw stones at them. Paykar met near Tehran University. The Mojahedin convened south of Railroad Square, where they were attacked by hezbollahis on motorbikes. Rajavi, the Mojahedin leader, had to cancel his appearance because of a death threat. Even the middle-class National Front held a small May Day meeting on Workers' Avenue in eastern Tehran.

May Day in 1981-91

Since 1980 the Islamic Republic has done its best to tame May Day by monopolizing, containing, sanitizing, and minimizing it. May Days are still being observed in the early 1990s, but their form and content have dramatically changed.

The Islamic Republic has monopolized the holiday by systematically eliminating all political opponents. In 1980 it banned Paykar, and in 1981 it outlawed the Mojahedin, the National Front, and many Marxist groups, including the Minority Fedayin (this faction, unlike the Majority Fedayin, had openly criticized the regime). In 1982 the authorities carried out mass arrests of both the Tudeh and the Majority Fedayin -- two organizations that hoped to function as the regime's loyal oppositions. In fact, their May Day rallies of that year, although larger than their previous ones, had scrupulously avoided any direct criticism of the regime. It is no accident that the authorities chose May 1, 1983, on which to broadcast the Tudeh leader's previously made videotape in which he "confessed" to "spying for the Soviet Union," "conspiring against Imam Khomeini," and being "insincere in his support for the Islamic Republic." Finally, in 1987, when the IRP dissolved itself (mainly because of differences between conservatives and radical populists), Workers' House and its Islamic councils took over the task of holding annual May Day meetings. In some years, they have been helped by armed volunteers -- especially by the Revolutionary Guards.

The regime has contained May Day by moving the event from the streets into confined spaces -- first into public squares and university campuses; then into sports stadiums, as in the days of the shah; and finally, after Khomeini's death, into his large, covered mausoleum. The earlier events were processions and happy celebrations in which workers actively participated in flexing their political muscle. The later ones were solemn and tightly controlled shows in which the workers were bused in by the Revolutionary Guards to passively listen to government officials. The former reflected the influence of society over the state; the latter reflected the power of the state over society.

The regime has sanitized May Day in a number of ways. It has increasingly labeled it Workers' and Teachers' Day, giving added prominence to Motahhari's martyrdom. It has eliminated the more radical demands: the right to strike, equal pay for equal work, and the nationalization of foreign trade and large enterprises. By the late 1980s the predominant theme was the need to mobilize the population against "American imperialism and Iraqi fascism," although the importance of raising literacy and "spirituality" among the working class was also acknowledged. The only radical demand left was the need for a new labor law. In addition, some government spokesmen have claimed that the Marxists have intentionally ignored the importance of religion to nineteenth-century American labor organizers. Government newspapers have given a religious coloring to the early May Days in America by translating the Knights of Labor as the Pasdaran-e Kar (Guardians of Labor).

The regime has also done its best to minimize the importance of May Day. The official calendar ignores the day even though it enumerates over thirty public holidays, including Ramazan, Moharram, the Iranian New Year, the birthdays of the Prophet Mohammad and Imam Sadeq, and the anniversaries of the Islamic Republic, the Islamic Revolution, and the 1963 June Uprising. Some prominent clerics have suggested that Workers' Day should be moved to coincide with the birthday of the Hidden Imam (Mahdi). By the late 1980s May Day meetings were being held in the late afternoon so that factories would not lose working hours. Government papers have drastically cut their coverage. In the early 1980s they had allocated most of their front pages for the occasion and issued special supplements. By the late 1980s they were printing no more than brief inside stories and, in some years, allocating more space to Motahhari than to Workers' Day. Also, the regime has tended to organize May Days only in the capital.

The decline in the importance of May Day can be clearly traced in official pronouncements. Khomeini made his last May Day speech in 1982. In it, he hailed workers and peasants as the "country's two strong arms"; described the Prophet Mohammad and Imams Ali, Sadeq, and Baqer as hardworking "manual laborers"; and noted that the Prophet had respected physical work so much that he had kissed the calloused hands of poor toilers. He repeated an old hadith in which the Prophet had declared, "The sweat of a laborer is as valuable [in the eyes of God] as the blood of the martyr." He also drew sharp distinctions between manual laborers, who enjoyed "physical" and "spiritual" happiness because of their hard work and frugality, and "capitalists," who lived in moral and corporal "sin" because of sloth, boredom, gluttony, and oversleeping. "One day in the life of a worker is more valuable than the whole life of a capitalist." This was probably the most populist of all his speeches. By the mid-1980s, however, Khomeini was leaving May Day speeches to his president and prime minister, and by the late 1980s the president and prime minister were delegating them to the labor minister and the chairman of Workers' House.

The metamorphoses of the event can be seen best in 1990. The May Day meeting was held inside Khomeini's mausoleum in the afternoon. The participants, mostly male workers, were bused in from their factories. The audience did not participate but sat listening to a series of official speeches. They cheered at the appropriate places, especially when one of the speakers declared, "God is a worker." The speakers sprinkled their talks with the fatalistic term inshallah (God willing). At the end of the meeting, the audience endorsed by public acclamation resolutions that reaffirmed support for the Islamic Republic, promised an increase in productivity, and asserted the need for work projects, unemployment benefits, literacy programs, and, most significant of all, the passage of the long-awaited labor law. The fact that the Islamic Republic, even after eleven years, still had no labor law indicated the nature of the regime's populism: a great deal of radical rhetoric but little concrete action in terms of improving workers' living conditions. Even radical symbols had been drained of their potency: instead of the simple but vibrant red carnation, the official newspapers carried pictures of vased and elaborate bouquets -- the type found in funeral parlors and bourgeois homes. That evening a Workers' Theater Group performed a play entitled Every Day Is Like Every Other Day. May Day had been tamed. But the fact that it has survived, even in this tamed form, reflects the symbolic strength of the leftist tradition in modern Iran.

Excerpted from Khomeinism: essays on the Islamic Republic, first published in 1993. Reprinted with permission of the author.

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4 Comments

Too bad you stop at 1991. What has happened since, and what have the Green leaders done for workers? They were part of the governments that played down the importance of May Day.

The Greens, by not openly supporting the workers unions (illegal, but still there) show that they are toeing the governments line of not letting workers gain any power. They can't unionize. They don't have the right to collective bargaining. They can be fired on the spot.

Have the Green's leaders made any pronouncements about this downtrodden group of essential citizens? Not so far. They are just as afraid of workers power as the current government. I don't say the regime, because the Green, or at least their leaders, are part of the regime.

Hopefully you can have a more current report.

Not Pink / April 29, 2010 6:19 PM

I just wanted to say that the articles on TB are waaay tooooo loooooong and hard to read. They're just like pages from a history book. Who has time to read this long block of text? Why not make it shorter, more to the point and fun to read, this way you'll have more readers who would go beyond the headline. Just sayin!

Anonymous / April 29, 2010 8:01 PM

The genesis of Solidarity in Poland, lay in the crucial question - Do workers in a socialist workers paradise have the right to strike? The answer to this question led to the unravelling of the Soviet bloc. The point implicit in the question whether Iranian workers have the right to mark May Day is the same. They have very little in the way of rights, as little as the rest of society. Thankfully dumbing-down hasn't hit TB yet.

pirooz / April 30, 2010 2:59 AM

The audience did not participate but sat listening to a series of official speeches. They cheered at the appropriate places, especially when one of the speakers declared, "God is a worker."

Ey kash man ham yek kargar boodam!

Sorry, couldn't resist ;-)

Arshama / April 30, 2010 7:36 AM