Bucking the trend, Mahshahr petrochemical workers have shown that it is possible to win a major labor battle even in these times of lockouts, plant closures, and mass layoffs. Other unionists and labor activists are taking note.
On January 9, several thousand contracting workers at Bandar Imam Petrochemical Complex and other nearby facilities in the sprawling Mahshahr economic zone, close to the Persian Gulf, forced the state-appointed management team to grant them a number of key concessions. While the actual concessions — limited pay increases — seem modest by most standards, it is the symbolic significance of the victory which is of importance.
First, the victory came as a result of mass action involving several thousand industrial workers. The fact that the regime tolerated such large-scale collective effort by workers is in and of itself of major significance. It shows that in a few strategic sectors like oil and gas, petrochemicals, and even munitions, it might be possible to organize on an ad hoc basis as long as it is done peacefully and within the confines of the legal system. What’s more, this victory has been closely watched by many other workers across the country for possible lessons in their own fights.
Second, the victory came about because of the main demand of the workers’ leaders/representatives: namely, an end to the abhorrent temporary contracts. This is without any question the chief demand of the great majority of Iranian workers at present. In recent years, with the retirement, financial buy-out, and even dismissal of older workers, up to 80% of Iran’s labor force has been hired on the basis of temporary contracts. Several factors, including an ongoing economic crisis, widespread plant closures, the presence of the 2-million-strong Afghan migrant labor force, and a fanatically anti-worker labor ministry has accelerated this appalling trend.
Temporary workers have zero legal rights. They can be dismissed at a moment’s notice, do not have guaranteed health insurance, and in general do not enjoy any of the prerogatives of the Labor Law which came in the aftermath of the 1979 revolution. And although the management at Mahshahr may or may not grant the workers this chief demand, it was without doubt the audacity of the workers to highlight this question which unified them and made the victory possible.
Third, the workers’ leaders were in regular communication with their fellow- workers throughout the 10-month ordeal, constantly discussing the day-to-day developments in a democratic way.
Several were targets of harassment and detention. The success of the strikes is in no small part a tribute to their shrewd tactics as well as loyalty to ALL workers. For example, they worked hard to win an across-the-board increase for all the work force rather than just a few select groups.
Chronology of the Mahshahr Victory
The first strike hit the Mahshahr special economic zone on March 21 and went on for 11 continuous days. Earlier, i.e. back in 2004, the government had passed a bill pledging to eliminate the middle contracting firms and moving the workers to direct contract status. The bill remained on paper for 7 years and gathered dust until workers went on strike again demanding the government to live up to its promise.
Management at various state-owned petrochemical units acceded in general principle to this key working-class demand but asked for three months of extra time before it could be implemented in full. The strikers decided to go along with this pledge.
Subsequently, this past July, the management once again asked for an additional two extra months promising to pay for overtime for the following two months, of which one month was paid in advance.
On September 25, with the management not delivering on its promise (to eliminate all the contracting firms), a strong majority of 4,300 workers from various contracting branches at Bandar (port) Imam walked out again. This last strike lasted nearly two weeks. Reports of slowdowns also poured in. The deadline given for resolving the dispute was set by workers for November 6. During these strikes, three labor leaders, Mansour Abbasi, Mohammad-Bagher Bagheri, and Jasem Badrdani were arrested and subsequently released. Several other workers were also arrested.
On November 8, Amirkabir Petrochmeical contracting workers went on strike. Amirkabir management brought in workers from Basparan contracting company (part of Bandar Imam petrochemical complex) to break the strike. Following some skirmishes, the striking workers were successful in preventing the strike breakers from replacing them.
The workers, subsequently, collectively made a decision to return to work temporarily pending the result of management’s deliberations with state and non-state authorities.
In the last round of actions, the contracting workers stationed at Bandar Imam Petrochemical Complex and other petrochemical factories in Mahshahr gave the deadline of January 10 to go on a widespread strike if their earlier demands were unmet.
In the “third labor communiqué” distributed widely at Bandar Imam and Mahshahr petrochemical complex economic zone, the workers said in part: “We have engaged in talks (with the management) several times for our civic and legitimate demands, to no avail. Now, sisters and brothers, think of the larger picture. Try to come up with a serious plan of action for gaining your rights. Sisters and brothers, we will gather by the petrochemical headquarters and make our demands known to the world on January 10, 2012.”
Following the wide circulation of the statement, worker representatives were finally notified of an upcoming meeting with the management before the 10th. However, the workers upped the ante. First, they declared that they would not be attending useless meetings, and also put forth three additional demands. Otherwise, they announced, the strike would move forward as planned. These demands were: 1. pay raises between 100 to 130 dollars; 2. pay increases to be done from March 2010; 3. in the event of an agreement, workers would go by an additional four months’ time before doing away with the intermediary contracting firms. Workers declared that the agreement should be in writing and posted on public buildings.
On January 8, a meeting of the workers’ representatives at the Petrochemical contracting firms in the economic zone was held with the chief head of the petrochemical complex and the Mahshahr head of the employment office. In that meeting, the workers were offered wage increases based on their current payment scale. They were also offered work hazard benefits as wells as access to the large hospital at the petrochemical complex. Some travel benefits were also offered.
The workers’ representatives called for the pay raises to be uniformly applied across the board. The demand was rejected. After some tough negotiation, workers subsequently agreed to this but they won on the demand that the increase be exempted from tax.
The final decision was deferred to January 9 which is when the demands were finally accepted by both sides. The announcement was posted and the December payments were immediately paid.
In another victory, according to the reports by Kermanshah Electrical and Metal Workers Trade Association, 50 workers from the Arvand Petrochemcial — a sub-unit of the Mahshahr complex — who had been expelled because of their strike activities were allowed back to their jobs.
This article was first published on the Web site of Iran Labor Report on 24 January 2012; it is reproduced here for non-profit educational purposes.