Steps Ahead on May Day
by HAMID FAROKHNIA in Tehran
02 May 2010 02:24
Signs of promise as Green-labor unity builds.
[ analysis ] Thousands of security and special antiriot policemen were deployed throughout Tehran from morning into late evening in anticipation of May Day protests and gatherings. In a major departure from past practice, the Green Movement last week sent strong overtures to the labor movement by calling on Green supporters to commemorate May 1, International Workers' Day. Some pro-Green websites and blogs urged their supporters to congregate in the late afternoon near the Labor Ministry on Azadi Avenue, one of the spots across which a crowd of 2 million marched during last year's historic June 25 protests. Thousands then had spontaneously chanted, "Ministry of Labor, and no work for labor."
The special police units with their familiar riot gear and deafening motorcycle formations were out in full force from around 11 a.m., joined in some areas by Ministry of Intelligence agents. At noon, near the intersection of Valiasr and Enghelab, pedestrians' bags were searched, presumably for offending leaflets. The heavy-handed tactics were clearly intended to intimidate the workers and their supporters. In fact, the effect of the overwhelming police presence was nothing but ironic. By early afternoon, millions of Tehranis had learned firsthand that it was International Workers Day and that protests might break out against government policies.
At the appointed time -- between 4 and 6 p.m. -- a crowd estimated at 4,000 congregated around the Labor Ministry building. They strode down the sidewalks, sat on the steps of storefronts, stood nearby, or drove their cars back and forth. Although a few diehard Greens were disappointed at the modest turnout, it wasn't bad at all, considering that the event was not publicized in a big way and Green leaders had not officially endorsed it.
Elsewhere in Tehran, in front of the parliament building, a planned noon ceremony organized by the quasi-governmental Workers House was marred when workers shouted out slogans demanding higher pay and better working conditions. Minor skirmishes with the police led to injuries among a dozen of the workers.
At Tehran University, where President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad turned up for a surprise visit, a spontaneous student rally broke out, featuring chants of "Students, workers, unity, unity."
In the industrial city of Qazvin, where factory closures are taking a heavy toll on workers, the pro-Green Jaras website reported that a few thousand gathered at a local stadium around 9 in the morning to voice their grievances. Police presence was heavy throughout the city.
On the eve of May Day, Minster of Labor Abdolreza Sheikholeslami had attended a meeting in the city of Mashhad to make a speech in which he utterly avoided addressing the labor situation. After the speech, workers protested. One, quoted on the website Kalame, said, "We were expecting to hear better words from the minister on improving the workers' conditions, but in his speech he did not even say one single word about the workers." In support of striking workers, students at nearby Ferdowsi University reportedly refrained from attending classes for two hours and initiated a hunger strike.
Protests and gatherings by workers and their supporters were also reported by an Iran Human Rights website in Shiraz, Isfahan, Ahvaz, Dastgerd, Sanandaj, and even the holy city of Qom. (None of the reports from outside Tehran have been independently verified by Tehran Bureau.)
Despite the absence of large rallies and marches, this can be seen as a successful day for labor and Green activists alike. As far as the labor movement is concerned, thanks to the regime's draconian measures, millions of Iranians are now aware of International Workers' Day and the grievances of workers around the country. The very fact that the Green Movement has expressed support for the workers' cause goes a long way in cementing ties between these two key constituencies. No major political transformation is possible in Iran without Green-labor unity. And obviously, the overwhelming, menacing police presence belies the propaganda that declares the regime a friend to the working class.
A final word, concerning the pessimistic tone of some recent reports. The present political dynamic in Iran does not follow an insurrectionary model or other familiar forms of violent political struggle. We should not be expecting sudden, abrupt shifts and ruptures. Instead, the ongoing progress toward a true democracy involves slow, incremental change with lots of back and forth between the two sides. The aim is to capture state power not through the repeated application of a particular strategem -- large street gatherings and protests -- but through a combination of flexible maneuvers, tactics, and countertactics. Whichever side in this very serious game is more patient and more adaptable will win. What the movement needs right now, if it is to succeed, is not admonishment for having failed so far to knock out the Islamic Republic Goliath, but encouragement in its pursuit of a process that the Romans referred to as festina lente, "make haste slowly."
Hamid Farokhnia, a staff writer at Iran Labor Report, covers the capital for Tehran Bureau.
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