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An Iranian Civil Rights Movement?


15 Feb 2010 20:205 Comments
matct.jpg[ analysis ] For most observers of the Green Movement, the most salient question is how the current political movement in Iran mirrors the Islamic Revolution. But another parallel comes as a close second: Is the Green Movement pushing forward a civil rights agenda, comparable to the American Civil Rights Movement of the late 1950s and 1960s? Such is the comparison drawn by prominent Iranian scholar Hamid Dabashi, as well as many others.

Those like Dabashi who draw analogies between the Green and Civil Rights movements highlight the relatively non-violent character of the demonstrators, the movement's democratic aspirations and, most important for the comparison, the reformist character of the moment itself. While civil rights does make for an interesting and potentially salutary juxtaposition, the comparison is most appropriate in ways that those making the comparison have largely failed to note.

Dabashi's account, and others like it, understate what was actually most essential to the Civil Rights Movement, and thus neglect a provocative angle for comparing the Green Movement to the struggle for civil rights in America. Any attempt to understand connections between the two is undermined when the history of civil rights itself is only half remembered.

When speaking or thinking of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the culmination of organizing efforts for the civil rights movement, many recall only the time and place, at the expense of the march's second half: "for Jobs and Freedom." Popular imagination is dominated by the famous confrontations dramatized by the media then and since: the wooden clubs, police dogs, and fire hoses. Heroic though the struggle was in many ways, the urge to romanticize often risks overlooking the movement's politics.

The Civil Rights Movement had more than a moral critique and visceral reaction to the iniquities of American Democracy. Tactical non-violence encompassed more than a response to egregious legal practices and police brutality, though these were essential issues. Getting to the core political vision, the cruelty inflicted by poverty, systemic underemployment, access to only second-rate institutions--and the fact that all these social problems were naturalized by anti-black racism--made up the intricate web of everyday violence that was at the heart of the Civil Rights Movements' critique of American society. The "Jobs and Freedom" slogan expressed its more radical potential, which lied within its concern for further reaching, systemic programs. Dr. Martin Luther King's last campaign, the union organizing drive in Memphis, Tennessee for city sanitation workers, sought to push the "Jobs and Freedom" agenda. Unfortunately, this vision has been lost.

Aside from comparisons to the Civil Rights Movement, one finds in the discourse on Iran a great deal of squabbling about the class character of the Green Movement protesters and what that means for its future. Early on, Ahmadinejad sympathizers heaped scorn on the Green Movement, claiming that protesters were all from the affluent neighborhoods of northern Tehran. This account is parochial at best; while nobody has contested that people from northern Tehran participated in various demonstrations, the Green Movement has an amorphous and complex makeup that belies easy classification along the lines of this or that political allegiance, especially given the suffocating repression of the Iranian state. Calling the demonstrations "middle class," as though this alone amounts to a "political analysis," circumvents any consideration of the potential for working class and labor issues to be taken up by the movement over time.

The amorphous character of the Green Movement has been lauded as post-modern, technologically savvy, and therefore excitingly new. Yet this may also be its biggest obstacle--and simple applause skirts the difficult political issues and various fetters on working towards lasting reform, if reform indeed becomes the core aspiration of the Green Movement. Ahmadinejad sympathizers completely neglect his more than egregious record on working class issues; however, at the same time, the Green Movement has yet to produce a coherent political platform offering a systemic critique of the Islamic Republic of Iran, akin to the Civil Rights movement's "Jobs and Freedom" agenda. But when one looks to the conditions in Iran, the potential for labor issues to be taken up systematically is there--even if it remains, at the time of this writing, only a potential.

Dating back to June 18th, workers at Iran Khodro went out on strike over the government's crass response to the election. Iran Khodro, the largest auto manufacture in the Middle East, has been the site of many labor-related deputes in the last couple of years. As the fastest growing company in Iran, Iran Khodro represents an attempt for Iran to leave behind oil dependency and become a regional economic player. However, precisely because this industry is so important to the Iranian government, the state bars these workers even from the Islamic Labor Councils that the state sponsors. For the auto workers who daily face the Harassat, an Islamic police force run by company management, the varieties of state repression have become overlapping layers that leave little breathing room.

The autoworkers are not alone. Teachers and nurses were reported to be some of the first workers to take to the streets. The symbolic leaders of the Iranian trade union movement, the Tehran and Suburbs Bus Workers Syndicate, sent out a statement of support in mid-July to "those who are giving their all to build free and independent civil institutions."

Clearly, there is no dearth of "Jobs and Freedom" issues to be taken up by a working class movement. More recent developments in Iran only demonstrate this fact further. On December 21, more than 500 workers from the formerly state-run Iran Telecommunications Industries in the city of Shiraz demanded unpaid back wages as they protested a pro-Ahmadinejad rally. The issue of wages arrears is actually endemic in the IRI. The day before the protest in Shiraz, workers in the Persian Gulf port city of Bandar Abbas performed a work stoppage, again demanding back wages from their employer, the Peyvand Darya Shipping Company. Similar instances have been recently reported within the Iranian textile industries. Workers at the Farnakh & Mahnakh Company in Qazvin province blocked a road in hopes of pressuring the textile manufacturer to dole out the cash for two months' unpaid work. More recently, on January 17, hundreds of workers at the Sasan Company, the leading Iranian soft drink manufacturer, staged a sit-in on the factory grounds over wage arrears. And yet again, at a company called Wagon Pars in Arak, a large manufacturer of rolling stock and rail cars, workers are demanding as much as eight months' back wages. The list of workers' grievances is long, and lengthens daily.

The emotional toll caused by wages arrears exceeds the price of labor: it makes life into a struggle for survival, even among the employed. A recent report, from a strike of city municipal workers in Andimeshk, describes a placard that reads "Thirteen Months of Hunger! Enough Promises!" One city municipal worker, Nourali Asadi, whose health insurance expired while his wife was sick in the hospital, attempted to self-immolate himself in front of the governor's office. Luckily the man survived. Workers face an unbearably atomized and desperate situation--nothing else better underscores the need for organizations, independent of the state, that can advocate for them.

Another vital concern for workers revolves around increasing flexible employment practices in their workplace. A group calling themselves the Ad Hoc Council of Isfahan Steel Workers, who work at a large manufacturing plant in the center of Iran, circulated a list of positions over the internet. The first reads, "The Council believes that all workers should be seen on equal footing and that blatant or subtle discrimination among workers... [is rooted in] artificial divisions created not by the workers themselves, but by the country's decisions-makers." This is not an uncommon view. Many blame the state for the erosion of full-time work. At Iran Khodro, for example, some workers are subjected to a practice called "white contracts," by which the employee must, in order to work, sign-on to a blank contract in which the hours and pay-rate are adjudicated at the managers whim. In the current economic crisis, unemployment looms as much in Iran as anywhere else; those who work at Iran Khodro have no choice but to give up even the slimmest hope of job security.

The Islamic Republic of Iran has reached a complex socioeconomic impasse in which wages arrears and flexible employment strategies are just the tip of the iceberg. Going back to the 2005 election, it had been widely known, and tacitly accepted, that state and public ownership has been producing considerable social grievances about nepotism and fraudulent conduct throughout the economy. The nefarious business practices of former Iranian President Rafsanjani (1989-1997), have unfortunately given Ahmadinejad ample opportunities to promote his demagogy and to cover over his mafia-like power struggles with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. As this economic cloak-and-dagger drama climaxes, the poor are sure to be left out. Meanwhile, trade unionists in Iran who hope to organize workers independent of the state face difficult political questions for which there are few precedents and no easy solutions. What political position, for example, should the independent unions take on the question of state control of industry--traditionally part of a pro-union political platform--when state control has clearly fueled authoritarian rule in the case of the IRI?

The most immediate issues for workers are the right to organize and form independent organizations outside the control of the state. Currently, the IRI exercises more than considerable constraints against such organizing efforts by using a dubious political body called the Workers House. The Workers House, which claims to represent Iranian workers even though there is not even a pretense of representative democracy involved, administers what are called Islamic Labor Councils in many work places throughout the country. Though existing labor laws in Iran outline how workers can disaffiliate from their government-imposed Islamic Labor Council and set up a more traditional union, workers who have tried to walk this path court considerable danger. Without fail, workers trying to set up independent unions are not only charged with organizing illegal gatherings, but also providing information to the "enemy" and "jeopardizing national security." The IRI suppresses workers with abominable cruelty, from physical intimidation to a death sentence--as in the case of Farzad Kamangar, a Kurdish trade unionists and school teacher currently on death row.

Iran is hardly immune to the pressures of the global economic crisis. From high-inflation, rising unemployment, and the effects of an upcoming controversial subsidies bill, it is hard to imagine that the Green Movement's political demands, to the extent those demands are clear, will be tenable unless it interlocks the question of freedom with the question of jobs. The most interesting connection between the Green and Civil Rights Movements are that, in both, the link between human rights, economic reforms, and systematic changes are indissoluble at either end--even if the political actors in such movements have not always recognized this fact. In the case of the Civil Rights Movement, the vision for systematic change eventually collapsed. The memory of the Civil Rights Movement should not serve as a justification for what is already transpiring, but, instead, challenge us to understand what potential exists, by working through the confusion of the present.

Copyright © 2010 Tehran Bureau

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Thank you! It will be interesting to see what becomes the call for the bus drivers' protest, which was retracted rather slowly. They, after all, are in a position to know exactly what goes on in the streets.

SG / February 16, 2010 5:12 PM

Dear Mr. Morrison,

I hope your article will trigger a constructive dialogue with Dr. Dabbashi on the perceptive insights you have provided above.

Just one point: some observers have seen stronger parallels between the Green Movement and the reformist Constitutional Revolution of 1905 than the anti-imperialist Islamic Revolution of 1979, because of the earlier revolution's emphasis on subjecting the head of state to the rule of law.

Ali from Tehran / February 16, 2010 5:18 PM

I may be wrong but I sense that even with healthy oil revenues ,workers of all kinds are the Achilles heel of the regime. As the unproductive but highly wasteful defence and security sector mushrooms in addition to an unknown level of embezzlement the essential,productive part of the labour force is being starved slowly,quietly.

pirooz / February 17, 2010 11:44 AM

I do not agree with a lot that has been said. The Iranians, like myself began as conscientious objectors to this illegal regime from 12th Feb 1979.

I had relatives employed in the oil and petrochemicals, and they, like me, objected to the new directives being sent out by the mullahs.

Every place, every important meeting had an IRGC or mullah sniffing around. But the non-violent movement in Iran was born to stop them from the progress of Iran. Iranians defeated their wishes from the 12th February 1979.

But the problem was that the world refused to note the mullahs being defeated. The world focused on the warmongering of Khomeini and let the war with Iraq start. That killed Iranians. It was then very difficult to stop that. But we managed at the end. But a lot of Iranians became Basij and that sustained the mullahs.

Oh they managed to change the flag, the anthem, and many names. They even wanted to bulldoze Persepolis. But the ancient ruins remain, and more have been found as new roads had to be built. The people of Iran do not use Islamic names to name their children anymore. The backlash has been a blessing in disguise. A new Iran has been born in stealth out of this tragedy.

Ali Mostofi / February 19, 2010 5:16 PM

I enjoyed this article on many fronts. Mainly because it debunks the dominant story of the civil rights movement as being led by a kind preacher from the south. The untold heros of the black freedom movement (no one in the movement ever referred to it as a civil rights movement, this was only done after the fact and by political figures and parties) that do not appear on any stamp or have days and avenues named after them.
Hamid Dabashi in all his non-existent postmodern mumbo jumbo has only recently begun to acknowledge the fascism of this regime; over coming his Tudeh membership I am sure. The Iranian diaspora is lagging behind Iranians inside the country, their patience and tolerance is not infinite and they no longer care about being branded as anti-Islamic. They have come to realize, and rightly so, that it is the institution of religion coupled with totalitarianism that is ruining and governing their lives and until all those who purport to care about human rights acknowledge this, nothing will change.

samira / February 22, 2010 2:06 AM