Workers' Councils in Iranian Factories

by Chris Goodey
published in MER88

During July and August 1979 I visited a number of Iranian factories. There I held discussions and interviews with militants and activists of different political hues, and with ordinary working people, about the workers’ councils that have appeared in Iranian factories since the February 1979 revolution. My distinct impression is that large numbers of Iranian industrial workers have been through an extraordinary experience, which no outsider, even the most sympathetic, can record or convey. As far as I can gather, there has been little effort to institutionalize this experience, to generalize from it, or to coordinate activities among the councils of different factories. There seem to have been as many different instances of “workers’ control” as there are factories in Iran. This article cannot substitute for a proper record of these events, now perhaps irretrievably lost, but I hope it can convey a sense of the variety of these experiences, which may be regained at some uncertain point by a successful renewal of the struggle.

Under the autocratic regime of the Shah, trade unions, whether industrial or political, were banned and did not exist even underground. The only official organizations were the “syndicates” linked to the Shah’s anointed political party. These operated on a factory by factory basis, not industry-wide or regionally. In some workplaces there were unofficially recognized “leaders” who represented the workers’ case if negotiations were needed on internal factory matters. In others there were underground strike committees, especially during the last two years of the Shah’s reign. None had links with other factories.

But industrial workers did have some weight under the Shah. Because of his quixotic scheme to make Iran a superpower, a large number of modern industrial projects were established. These were primarily the assembly portions of an industrial process, such as assembling automobiles from components shipped by Chrysler and General Motors from Europe. This left the country and its people vulnerable to the dynamics of the global market, but it did create a layer of highly skilled industrial workers, many of whom had served apprenticeships in European industrial countries.

Before and during the February revolution, when many factory owners and directors -- especially those connected to multinationals -- fled the country, workers were forced to take over in order to carry on production and preserve their jobs. In other cases, councils that had been formed during the anti-Shah struggle insisted on taking over or, at the least, sharing power with the owners or, in the case of state enterprises, with the management appointed by the new regime.

The Case of Chit-e Jahan

The Chit-e Jahan textile factory lies just outside the industrial town of Karaj, near Tehran. It achieved some notoriety under the Shah for the number of political activists among its workers and its tradition of strike activity. Peraps most famous was a 1970 incident in which workers demonstrated at the factory and began marching on Tehran before the police gunned several down on the road.

The owner of Chit-e Jahan did not flee the country after the revolution, but the workers elected a seven-man committee in February to represent them. A majority of the committee were sympathizers with the Mojahedin, and included two brothers who had been imprisoned until February and returned to the factory after an absence of several years.

After the election of this committee, the owner accused it of wanting to “expropriate property by armed struggle,” and applied to the new Ministry of Labor to support him against the committee. After first supporting the owner, the Ministry backed down and did not attempt to interfere in subsequent events. The elected committee or workers’ council now occupies the former office of the factory’s SAVAK agent, where workers had been interrogated for “breaches of discipline.” The council’s first act was to raid the SAVAK files, in order to discover and remove those people who had been government agents. The council also reached some agreement with the qualified technical management on the shop floor, and therefore had no difficulties with carrying on production.

This in itself was unusual, because in Iran it has been almost a rule that the sharpest antagonism is on the shop floor. Qualified engineers, apart from simply being more visible to manual workers than anyone else, are worlds apart from the workers both culturally (level of education and everyday habits) and financially (enormous salary differentials). In other factories where workers took over after the flight of the employers, these were the first people to go. Unfortunately it also meant that expertise vital to continuing production was missing. Cases were widespread where production ground to a halt for this reason, and as a result the work force could not be paid. When the councils appealed to the new regime for financial help, this gave the regime perfect justification for sending iri its own nominee to take control. Chit-e Jahan is also unusual in the degree of council control tolerated by the regime. Elsewhere, even where production continued, the regime interfered with orders and sales but workers were still not paid.

The council claims to have increased production by half, and my impression was that this was not an exaggeration. The minimum wage was doubled, while the top salaries were reduced to one third their former level. The council also set up a library, supplying mostly Mojahedin literature, as well as other radical Islamic writings. It also began to give each worker a liter of milk per day.

The council also runs the factory. General assemblies are held once a month, and their purpose is not to delegate decisions but to provide a lecture forum for council members. No constitution or system of recall has so far been worked out, and the original election of the council seems to have had an element of acclamation about it -- undoubtedly genuine but no guarantee of democracy in the future. This is a case of almost complete autarchy, though for want of any power invested in the general assembly of workers, it is not self-management. It is dominated by the left, and gives as stark a contrast as one can find to the situation under the old regime.

The Assembly Plants

The opposite extreme among the factories I visited was represented by Iran National, formerly associated with Chrysler (UK), which produces cars for the home market from kits produced in Coventry. It was the Shah’s showpiece factory, in which he had a direct stake and his own personal inspector on the staff. Here the workers used to have “special treatment” of two kinds: they were favored above others with housing and health care, and also had a special SAVAK “interrogation” room on the premises.

The head of the workers’ council here was a member of the factory administration during the Shah’s time. Its election took place by a single-slate method -- this among a work force numbering 12,000 workers. Although its head claims that it is an instrument of “participation” with the regime’s appointed directors, it meets only “as occasion demands.” Finally, it continues to receive the kits from Britain even though it has now been nationalized. According to Middle East Economic Digest (January 4, 1980), Talbot (formerly Chrysler-UK) expected its agreement to supply car kits to the Iran National Industrial Manufacturing Company to be renewed. MEED estimates the contract to have been worth over $2 billion to Chrysler over the past ten years, and the company has had no payment problems from the Iranian government. The main impediment to the relationship, in fact, has come from interruptions cased by strikes in Talbot’s engine works, causing Iranian officials to initiate discussion with other European automakers for alternative supplies.

As to the politics of the council, the spokesman restricted himself to informing me that 100 percent of the council were 100 percent religious, 100 percent behind Imam Khomeini, and not political at all. In complete contrast to the council at Chit-e Jahan, then, this one showed both a direct line of continuity with the old regime and an organic link with the new one, as well as a notable lack of problems with supplies and the market. Some explanation lies in the importance of such a large factory to any regime, and in the special treatment which its workers are used to expecting. For this very reason, the Iran National example is as isolated as the examples of complete autarchy or self-management. Its importance is that this kind of rubber-stamp council is what the regime envisages for the future of all the nationalized sector.

Dual Power

Of the other factories I was able to visit, all of which lie somewhere within these boundaries marked by Chit-e Jahan and Iran National, the most interesting examples were at General Motors and at the Caterpillar factory, which makes parts for construction and agricultural machinery. At General Motors the council was, as at Iran National, a fully “Islamic” and non-socialist one, and answers to my questions about the mode of election of the councils did not satisfy me that they were really representative of the workers as a whole. Nevertheless here there was unquestionably a kind of “dual power” situation between the council and the remaining top management, including the three directors sent in by the regime when the factory was nationalized.

The council has 21 elected members, composed of 15 manual workers and six office staff. It meets in full every two weeks, but has subcommittees to deal with production control, finance, buying and selling, education, discipline, arbitration and sports. It also has a technical/research committee which is looking into ways of developing the factory’s self-sufficiency, now that supplies are no longer arriving from General Motors. The committee’s main aim is to divert production away from private cars, or at least into a single model, and into public service vehicles such as buses. The full council countersigns all documents and inspects the books. Only one of its members works fulltime for the council, and the rest are not paid for extra hours spent working for it. Top management salaries are now 40 percent of what they were.

At General Motors, then, there is a degree of co-management which, at the moment, really does create an even balance of forces within the factory; this is obviously not a situation that can last. The council’s identification of itself with the Khomeini regime is clearly based on a belief that the regime identifies itself with them -- something that has yet to be borne out in practice, although plenty of words have been spun. The most striking thing about the attitudes of the leaders of this council -- and about those of many other supporters of the Islamic Republican party and concept who actually worked on the shop floor -- was the fervent sincerity and vigor of their anti-imperialist feelings. If the regime, by choice or obligation, compromises openly on the anti-imperialist stance, disillusion may well spread from the left to the potential electoral base of the Islamic Republican Party.

The Caterpillar factory provided an example of yet a different kind. A modern, well-kept place (though its modernity did not extend to even the most rudimentary kinds of protection in the welding or paint-spray shops), its Iranian owner had leased it from the American parent multinational. He fled the country in February, and when I visited the factory in July the government had nationalized it and appointed its own director, who had not arrived yet. Meanwhile it was being run by a council consisting of more or less an even proportion of leftists and non-left Islamic sympathizers. Here I was able not only to speak to the workers’ council in its entirety, but also to go around the factory and ask the workers about their attitudes to the council and the political situation.

The council was composed of ten manual workers and two office staff. Its political complexion was fairly evenly divided between secular and religious elements -- the former including several Tudeh sympathizers, and the latter a mixture of progressive and IRP adherents. A zealot who, when the council was first set up, objected to the presence of leftists on it, had been allowed to set up an “Islamic society” in the factory for the purposes of “education,” and was clearly having an influence on some of the Islamic members of the council. (He took part at one stage in the interview, although not himself a member of the council.) The women workers had been offered a place on the council, but rejected this as tokenism and instead insisted on forming a separate women’s council which among other things would send an observer to the men’s council, although this process was not complete when I undertook the interview.

The council held weekly meetings, and all the members still worked at their normal jobs. In August they were in the process of drawing up a constitution, and were preparing for new elections to the council. Meetings took place in the office of the one remaining director, who was ejected for the purpose whenever necessary. The operation of the factory was under the full control of the council, from signing checks and controlling accounts, to determining wage levels. The salaries of managerial staff had been reduced and a minimum wage established. Both my interview with the council and an unchaperoned walkabout on the factory floor revealed that workers felt a lack of communication: They were not sure what the council was doing, and little was reported back to them. But such things are relative. The council itself volunteered its intention to do more in this respect, and it was clear that the council and the self-management of the factory were supported with enthusiasm and pride by the workers, whatever their political coloring.

Workers’ Councils and the New Regime

The new regime’s view of the workers’ councils is mixed, no doubt a reflection of the mixed and nearly incoherent character of the regime itself. It continues its anti-left propaganda, and sends its Imam committees into some factories to ensure discipline in an authoritarian manner that recalls SAVAK. But this does not add up to a stable, functioning set of labor institutions and relations. There remains a void.

Several strands of Islamic Republican thinking on the workers’ councils are discernible. One is to adopt the “three thirds” approach of the Shah’s syndicates, with controlling organs consisting of one third from the work force, one third from management, and one third from the Ministry of Labor. The council at Iran National is clearly close to this model already. The Islamic Republican Party, for its part, advocates a vague policy of co-management. Yet another approach comes from the ideological heirs of Ayatollah Taleqani. This “progressive” and “participationist” wing of the Islamic movement sees capitalism as being in the long-term incompatible with Islam, and supports the “three thirds” approach only as part of a transition toward an Islamic classless society. Its practical reference is to the “participationism” of Qaddafi’s Libya.

Khomeini himself has supported the idea of councils in the most general possible way (allegedly reluctantly and under pressure from Taleqani) although it is not clear what he means by the word. It is obvious from Khomeini’s speeches that he confuses the industrial workers with the almost as numerous artisan working class; he makes constant appeals to employers to “be kind” to the workers, not to treat them “roughly.” Of all the ideas being canvassed within the regime, not one has an air of seriousness. If this situation continues, it is likely that the problem of running the factories will be solved by the growth of a sector of state employees involved with the nationalized enterprises. The attitude of the left parties toward the councils is on the whole favorable. Only the Tudeh Party has achieved the historic distinction of being decidedly unenthusiastic about the whole idea of workers’ councils, even in the teeth of the workers’ overwhelming enthusiasm. Its aim is to set up a broad, politically based general union such as the French CGT; the problem is that the Party sees workers’ councils, even those coopted or cooptable by the regime, as incompatible rivals to this aim. Or perhaps it is motivated by shame at the fact that during the Mossadeq era, when it dragged its feet a little, it was advocating exactly the same “three thirds” policy that the Shah introduced in the form of “syndicates.” Nevertheless, the vehemence of the Tudeh Party on this subject is puzzling. It seemed to me (something less than a belief but more than a suspicion) that it was stronger than any other left party among industrial workers and also that those of its sympathizers who are or were members of councils are as fervently for the councils as everyone else.

All the left parties without exception speak about the “low level of consciousness” of the Iranian working class, even now since February, when the leading participation of the industrial working class exploded these “theories.” On the other hand, the parties’ approval of workers’ councils depends entirely upon the workers’ own enthusiasm, and is a conditional approval. Both the Fedayi and those Maoist groups which have some presence among industrial workers regard the demand for self-management as an “economic” demand which is all right for starters, but must lead, under their guidance, toward “political” demands which for now amount to little more than “down with imperialism, up with socialism.”

Only the Mojahedin has some general ideas about working people taking part in the direct management of society under socialism, and about councils of workers’ management being an essential weapon during a revolutionary period. It is no coincidence that it has also been the Mojahedin who have shown the most realism about the general political situation. They are seriously trying to anchor the socialist element of the revolution by building bridges toward the most progressive wing of the politicized clergy, particularly the smaller “progressive Islamic” parties and the former supporters of Ayatollah Taleqani. They are the only group to have tried to organize the workers’ councils above the factory level, by convening small conferences of councils. Unfortunately they have also so far restricted these convocations to councils dominated by their own militants. It is also the case that the Mojahedin’s combination of socialism and Islam is, to be more precise, a “fusion” of populist Islam with centralized, Soviet-type socialism, and their concept of self-management is severely weakened by this.

Of course, the story of the workers’ councils is not the whole story of the Iranian revolution. The industrial working class is small, and must be distinguished from the artisan working class, which in turn stands alongside and overlaps with the sector of petty traders and their dependents. If we add to these the peasantry in the central Persian-speaking areas, and the sector of indigenous big capital which has no cultural or financial links with the West and has therefore not been threatened with nationalization, then we have a catalogue of the forces which have so far supported the post-revolutionary regime. Within these forces, the industrial working class is a small minority. The big capital sector seems to be the first to be on the road to disillusion, but is luckily probably incapable of ruling alone now that so much of manufacturing industry has been hived off to the state or to limbo. The petty traders and their dependents remain the core of the support for Khomeini. The industrial working class’s support is considerably more fragmented, shrewd and distanced; it is based on its own class role in the “Islamic” revolution, on the knowledge of what life was like under the Shah, and on the expectation that, as one English-trained welder with obvious left-wing sympathies said to me, “Thigs will settle down in a year or two.” If they don’t then the experience of the workers’ councils will not have to serve an indefinite term as a folk memory while other more circumspect slogans are raised, but will be on the current agenda in even bolder type.

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