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Steps Ahead on May Day

by HAMID FAROKHNIA in Tehran

02 May 2010 02:244 Comments

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.

Copyright © 2010 Tehran Bureau

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4 Comments

Have you listened to Mousavi's May Day message? Where can I get some of the stuff he is using.

Was he caught off guard on a subway platform to deliver an impromptu message? Did he think about it more than 5 minutes?

He says that workers are upset about not being able to form unions, under the same breath that contains a call to return to the constitution. Unions are banned in the constitution. Collective bargaining is banned in the constitution. Have you read it Mr. Mousavi?

If I am not wrong, it was during the Reformist rule that they agreed only to give workers the right to strike, but with no union protection. So, one strike and you are out! Shoot me. Like Khomeini sent 12 year old kids into mine filed. Go strike, but don't expect any support.

Mr. Mousave says that the worker's share "all the people" problems, which are a small set of issues, limited but solveable with a return to the constitution.

Sir, if the constitution was worth the paper it is written on, why are we in this mess? It has loopholes, it has caveats, it denies people's right to representation. So, this indicates that Mr. Mousavi believes Velayet'e fagih is wonderful. Lets return to it.

BUT, excuse me Sir, we have it already. We have it in the person of Khamenei. If you didn't know, he is the valie'-faghih. He ordered the elections you rant about as good as gold. Happy with the constitution? Take another pill.

What we have is based on the constitution. The constitution is what has allowed for mafia's to be created within the government. Financial and military mafias. Logic says that the constitution has allowed it to happen. Lets fix it, like they fix cats: take out the velayate' faghih, and while you are at it, any reference to religion.

When the valiye' faghih can order a halt to corruption probes of the first VP, what the hell is the constitution that allows it that for? Fix it.

If the valie is acting outside the rules, which part of the constitution can stop him? He's got all the bullets: sepah, basij, the judiciary, the executive, and by the sign of the latest decree, the legislative. So, how, Dear Mr. Mousavi, the constitution is going to save the workers and the teachers? No union, no strike, no collective bargaining, no protection of strikers from scofflaws. The whole regime is made of scofflaws.

Wonderful to see Mr. Mousavi not fall of his chair. It was also telling to see him in profile for half the speech talking into a void in front of him, a void full of missing teachers and missing workers.

This is not steps, unless steps are toward the same abyss created 30 years ago though this joke of a constitution we are supposed to return to.

Right to unionize, bargain collectively, strike without fear of being fired, and sympathetic strikes, i.e. no crossing of strike lines by other unions or scofflaws. Oh, I forgot- no velayate faghih, or religion. Then maybe we can see his arthritic attempt toward a first step get going.

Anonymous / May 2, 2010 6:24 AM

There are deep deep divisions within the Guard Corps.
From an insider in Golestan, Iran.

Sun Ordibehesht 12, 1389

Karim Kamali / May 2, 2010 4:17 PM

"Lets fix it, like they fix cats: take out the velayate' faghih, and while you are at it, any reference to religion."

One of the best quotes i've heard in a while, mostly because without the actual support of Khamenei, who has correctly been likened to the "balls" behind the government's actions. Take the balls out and the rest becomes pretty useless, left to spew out the same ol' toxic material over and over again.

Anonymous / May 2, 2010 10:10 PM

Hamid, thanks for the update and your analysis.

I agree that this was an important 1st step in uniting green movement's demands for freedom with labor's demands.

Fot the unity to materialize everyone on both sides, especially the greens, must continue to cultivate this relationship at the grass roots level.

Have you thanked a laborer today?

Bahman / May 4, 2010 2:16 AM