Interview with the leader of the Free Union of Iranian Workers: “Death to the tyrant, whether he is the supreme leader or the shah!”

The protests which started under the leadership of women after Mahsa Jina Amini was murdered by the “morality police” in Iran have quickly spread across the country. And they have evolved into a mass popular uprising, a revolutionary mobilization against the 43-year dictatorship and the regime of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Peoples, workers, women and youth of Iran have been protesting in the streets, workplaces, schools and universities for more than 40 days. We have talked with our friend, who is one of the leaders of the Free Union of Iranian Workers (FUIW), about the current situation and the popular uprising which we have been supporting and in solidarity as the Workers’ Democracy Party (IDP/Turkey) and our International Workers’ Unity-Fourth International (IWU-FI) since the beginning.

Below, we share with our followers the interview done by Görkem Duru, a member of Executive Committee of IWU-FI on October 24, 2022.

Görkem Duru: Hello. To begin with, thank you very much for this interview. As IDP and IWU-FI, we attach great importance to the popular uprising in Iran in terms of both the struggle of the peoples of the region and the struggle of the world classes. It is a very important opportunity for us to be able to discuss together the current mobilization in the country today and the conditions that have revealed it. And of course, we have witnessed significant experiences of strikes and struggles within the Iranian working class in the past years. Perhaps, these experiences paved the way for the process that has evolved into today’s revolutionary mobilization. You are an important labor leader who has taken a part in the working class struggles in recent years, and you have also built the Free Union of Iranian Workers, of which you are a member, during this process. If you wish, let’s start the conversation by getting to know you before we talk about current uprising.

Free Union of Iranian Workers: Hello. First of all, I am very pleased to be having this interview. Your interest in this critical uprising process that Iran is going through is also very important to us. It is also critical for the conditions that created the uprising to be heard, and for the growth of international solidarity with the mobilizations. But first, let me start by introducing myself.

I worked at Ahvaz Steel factory (a factory with 4000 employees) for 15 years. This factory was owned by the state, but was also managed by an intermediary firm. During this period, we organized protests and strikes in order to get our rights. In 2011, the factory was privatized. (In this period, under the name of “privatization”, the Iranian regime was transferring the companies it directly owned to the constructors who were the true extensions of the state and the revolutionary guards.) One year after the privatization, the new owner of the company was found guilty of corruption and executed by the regime. After that, the company was confiscated by the judiciary. For five years, the company was run under confiscation, while what we produced was given to the revolutionary guards at very cheap prices or, at times, for free. In 2016, we decided to go on strike because we could not get our wages for 7 months, and we organized three separate strikes during the year. These strikes were much more massive and effective than those we had before 2011. We also organized demonstrations in the city center to spread our struggle. As a result of our strikes in 2016, we were able to expel all government officials from the factory and this situation dealt a great blow to the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran. After our last strike which lasted for 17 days, the regime forces and the judiciary announced that they handed over the factory to the National Bank with 780 billion tomans in their accounts. The reason why I tell this part so long is that it was one of my first important experiences of organizing and struggle. Together with a few friends of mine, we were the organizers of this struggle. In this process, we built a group of workers called the Free Union of Iranian Workers. Until 2018, we organized 4 more strikes. During this period of struggle, I was arrested 4 times and subjected to torture and beating 7 times.

While we continued our struggle for our rights as Ahvaz Steel workers, Haft Tapeh workers were also on strike. We aimed to establish coordination in order to unite our struggles. Again in this period, there were worker demonstrations also in Arak province, and we tried to communicate and coordinate with the workers there. The regime of the Islamic Republic applied all kinds of pressure to prevent workers from different sectors and regions from uniting in contact. For example, when I was arrested, the accusation against me was to try to establish contact between workers in different cities of Iran. They also tortured me to confess that I was working with communist and socialist organizations abroad. These were the reasons why they tried to imprison me.

GD: Maybe at this point it would be good to open up a little more about how these actions are organized. After all, the Iranian regime does not allow any organization on legal grounds. But in the workers’ mobilizations of the past years, an important accumulation of organization was seen. This may also be a development that can transfer experience to the current situation.

FUIW: It is illegal for workers to join any organization in Iran and it is brutally punished by the regime. This is one of the main problems facing the Iranian working class. Any kind of organization, building unions, associations or similar bodies is absolutely unacceptable by the regime. But of course, this does not prevent the workers from coming together and organizing secretly, uniting around council-like bodies. For example, we also had a secret council in our factory. Of course, although we tried to keep these organizations secret at the beginning, when the moment of struggle came, we as the pioneer workers were exposed. This is an inevitable situation for us and workers who organized similar struggles and still continue to organize such in other factories. But under the regime of the Islamic Republic, we do not have another choice. For this reason, the leading workers need to build secret committees and councils in the factories and bring the workers together for the struggle for the rights of the Iranian working class. In addition to establishing secret groups in factories, workers also lead similar organizations in their neighborhoods. Of course, this also serves to enable pioneer workers from different factories to communicate with each other through local groups. This was the case with the mobilizations in 2018, 2019 and 2020, and there is a similar organization today. We built the Free Union of Iranian Workers during such a process. And there are many organizations like ours in Iran such as the unions of Haft Tapeh workers, the committees of bus drivers and the organizations of educational workers. But of course, since all of these organizations are illegal, they are subject to intense pressure, prosecution and arrest by the regime. In general, pioneers of these organizations are sentenced to 8 to 10 years in prison.

GD: First of all, we would like to thank you for your detailed report on the mobilizations and organizing attempts of the Iranian working class in recent years. In fact, the mass mobilizations and riots in 2018, 2019 and 2020 lie in the background of the popular uprising in Iran today. Of course, there are also differences between the struggles of the past years and the ongoing mobilization today. The protests that have begun after Mahsa Jina Amini was murdered by the morality police quickly turned into a popular uprising against the dictatorial regime. Youth, university and high school students accompanied the struggle which is led primarily by women. In the last two weeks, we have been witnessing that the working class has joined the struggle with strikes from different sectors such as oil, sugar, steel and education. In fact, when we look at the struggle experiences of the past years, we can say that the current popular uprising has surpassed them. How do you evaluate this process?

FUIW: First, I can say that the uprisings in the past years were the results of the struggle and organization initiatives led by the Iranian working class. In the 10-year period from 2009 to 2019, there has been no attempt that we can consider as a popular uprising or revolt in Iran. In that 10-year period, there was a very stagnant environment in terms of opposition to the regime. The reason for this 10-year stagnation was the crushing of all civil and political activists and formations against the regime after the defeat of the Green Movement that emerged in 2009. And during these 10 years, the working class was almost the only section that struggled for rights, spoke out and took action. The rise of the workers’ movement, on the other hand, helped to lift the veil of that retreat in society, to believe and trust in itself again, and to regain its ability to rebel against injustices and the oppression by the regime. For these reasons, the uprisings in 2019 were shaped by the dynamism of the workers’ movement. The struggles in 2020 were particularly suppressed by the Islamic Republic regime through a very violent massacre. In these massacres, more than 200 people lost their lives according to the Iranian regime while the Amnesty International explains the number as 1015 people. However, the number of casualties that we, who are active in Iran, were able to reach was around 4000 people. And more than 10 thousand people were arrested and imprisoned. Naturally, this massacre, violence and oppression caused the society to withdraw for a short time. But no matter how heavy is the oppression, the cruelty, inequality and poverty are at such high levels that people were waiting for an event or a spark to take to the streets and take action against this regime. And the murder of Mahsa Jina Amini was that spark.

About the differences with the recent examples of the ongoing popular uprisings: In the uprisings of 2019 and 2020, the society did not take a position against the regime as united as today. But today the society is standing up against the state by openly and very strongly saying “We don’t want the dictatorship”, “We don’t want the Islamic republic”. In fact, people today not only say reject the Islamic Republic, but they also reject Islam itself. This is one of the main differences between the uprisings of the past and the present. The regime used violence, beating, bullets, and killed also in previous uprisings, but the people did not have the organization to defend themselves against the regime back then. Now people have learned to defend themselves against the police and the state’s law enforcement officers, and they practice it. As you see in many videos, for example, while the police are trying to arrest a woman or a young person, the people there attack the police and prevent protesters from being detained.

Another difference between the current popular uprising and the one in the past is that Iranians living outside Iran like in Germany, Australia, USA and Canada, have taken to the massively in the countries they live in, taken action and written petitions to the regimes of the countries they live in to cut off the relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran. And these have increased the pressure up to that level.

As for the role of the working class in the ongoing mass uprising: For example, on October 10, oil industry workers working on temporary status in South Pars province of Iran went on a 3-day strike. But these strikes have a significant difference from the previous ones. Previous strikes were generally based on the economic rights and working conditions of the working class. However, today the workers are going on strike against the murder of Mahsa Jina Amini. We are witnessing such a thing almost for the first time. These are totally political strikes. For example, more than 100,000 oil workers are working on temporary status in the South Pars region, which went on strike for three days. The government was very afraid that this strike would spread to other regions, and after the first day of this strike, it raided the settlements where the workers lived at night. Although many workers were arrested that night, the strike continued on the second and third days, and the regime also continued to arrest workers. More than 250 temporary oil workers were arrested during the three-day strike. And as a result of this pressure by the regime, the workers had to end the strike. Again, during this process, there were other strikes in Haft Tapeh and many other factories and industries. Although economic demands are emphasized in these strikes, the reason why the workers prefer this is because they are suppressed much more violently by the regime in strikes with political demands. Therefore, we may have seen economic demands in a significant part of these strikes, but these were essentially anti-regime strikes with a political content.

Besides women and industrial workers, there are strikes by education workers and boycotts by the university, high school and secondary school students. Today in Iran it is said: “The heart of the protests is in universities and high schools.”

Although the workers organized many strikes on different days and in different sectors during the popular uprising that has started after the murder of Mahsa Jina Amini, these strikes could not be sustained for the reasons I mentioned above. It is not a question of whether workers want to strike or not. Moreover, one of the most frequently shouted slogans on the streets is “Workers to the strike!” In the current situation, the level of oppression and violence applied by the state is extremely high. On the other hand, almost 90 percent of the Iranian working class works as temporary workers and lives with the effort of earning a living. Altogether, calling an indefinite strike becomes hard. However, if the popular uprising reaches such a level and the working class is convinced that the regime can no longer stand, then the way will be opened for workers to unite and go on a political strike.

GD: At this point, I want to make a small contribution to what you have said. In fact, the frame you are drawing have many similarities with the revolutionary process in North African and the Middle Eastern that started in 2010 and affected the entire region. In countries such as Tunisia, Egypt and Syria, which were ruled by dictatorships for at least 30 years, the basic demands of the masses such as “job, bread, freedom” quickly turned into revolutionary mobilizations around the slogan “The people want the regime to be overthrown”. And when we look at the examples of Tunisia and Egypt, which overthrew the Ben Ali and Mubarak regimes, it became possible for the uprisings to overthrow the dictatorship when the working classes of both countries took the stage with strikes. This happened when the working class was convinced that the regime could no longer stand, just as you said. Because, another issue that we should always keep in mindis that the social organization and the organization of the working class in the countries which are ruled by dictatorships of 30-40 years including Iran, are almost atomized. Yet, another issue we encounter is whether an alternative to power can be created that can realize the demands that enable workers, women, youth and all the oppressed sections to mobilize in case they can break away from the regime. In cases where such an alternative is not revealed, the way is opened for the bourgeoisie of the country to absorb the demands of the masses with democratic reactionary tactics. When we look at Iran, there are factors such as shah supporters or the reformist wing in the Islamic Republic that can come into play for the continuation of capitalist exploitation and oppressive policies even if the current regime is destroyed. In this context, how do you evaluate the balance of forces in Iran today? How do you see the possibilities of breaking away from the regime and building an alternative that can embrace the demands of workers, women, youth and all the oppressed sections?

FUIW: Workers have been on the streets since the beginning of the protests. But they are not participating in the protests as a working class yet. I think this is because the uprising has not yet reached that political level. Rather, workers take to the streets as citizens. We are now in contact with people who are actively participating in the mobilizations in Iran. As they tell us, there are workers leading the protests in addition to women and youth in many regions now. But of course, we should not deduce from this leadership that there is a very strong level of organization. But a significant part of those who lead the organization of actions in the local areas are young pioneer workers. Again, unlike the previous uprisings, local committees have been established during the mobilizations today. Those who lead these committees are also young, pioneer workers.

The Iranian bourgeoisie, on the other hand, is in a rush. However, in the meantime, it is trying very hard to make the uprising serve its own interests. Since the beginning of the protests, the voice of the supporters of the shah regime was very weak and such a demand was not even voiced in many regions. The youth, women, workers and their local committees mobilized on the streets at the moment do not allow the representatives of the capitalist order to influence the protests. For example, one of the most popular slogans in mobilizations today is: “Death to the tyrant, whether he is the supreme leader or the shah!”

I don’t suggest that this widely used slogan covers the entire people of Iran, but the fact that it is at the center of the uprising shows what the Iranian people want. Neither a reactionary mullah regime nor the previous shah regime.

But the bourgeoisie is using all its means. Especially through the media organizations such as BBC Farsi, Radio Azad, Manoto and Iran International, which have very large financial resources and can reach a wide audience. They are making dirty propaganda claiming that the people of Iran want Reza Pahlavi, the son of the former shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, to come to power again as the shah.

On the other hand, there is an intense increase in interest in socialism among the Iranian people, especially among the youth. For example, “Death to the tyrant, whether he is the leader or the shah”, which is one of the most prominent slogans in the uprising, is a slogan originated from the socialist and communist movement of Iran, and is shouted not only in the streets but also in universities and high schools. Today, people are constantly talking about equality, justice and rights, and the bourgeoisie in Iran cannot meet these demands. Indeed, people are very inclined to the idea of socialism while shouting these demands, even if they cannot express it consciously. But unfortunately, we should not forget that the bourgeoisie has a great power in its hands. Representatives of the capitalist order will naturally make great efforts to prevent the establishment of a socialist regime which would be for the benefit of the working people in Iran.

GD: Actually, we have a similar understanding on many points. This is how we approach the issue. In the age we live in, the most basic democratic demands of the masses such as equality, justice, freedom and bread cannot be met permanently by the bourgeoisie. In other words, after the capitalist crisis that started in 2008, we have seen quite a few examples in many countries where the masses spontaneously revolted at different moments. In most of these examples, the masses opposed capitalist exploitation policies and oppressive regimes. However, on the other hand, based on these experiences, we can identify a shortcoming which we describe as a crisis of revolutionary leadership. The lack of a revolutionary alternative that would unite the demands of the struggling workers, youth, women and all the oppressed sections around an action program. If we connect it to Iran; a significant part of the Iranian socialist movement is unfortunately in exile. But how do you evaluate the Iranian socialist movement at the moment? What are its strengths and influence within Iran? Besides, you are a worker leader whohas been trained in struggles and strikes. You are part of the Free Union of Iranian Workers, which you founded during the Ahvaz Steel strike. So, are there other similar organizations in Iran at the moment?

FUIW: The regime of the Islamic Republic of Iran has been struggling with socialism in the country for 43 years. Tens of thousands of honorable Iranian socialists were executed by this regime. As you can guess, it is a crime to read a book about socialism in Iran. It is a crime to meet in public to talk about socialism. Therefore, Iranian society could not been very familiar with socialist ideas during these 43 years. The regime made a great effort to break the familiarity of the society with socialism. And of course, it constantly made the propaganda of its own ideology to the society through the Islamic government. This environment made things very difficult for the socialist and communist organizations in Iran. Young students are the most inclined ones to socialist ideas in Iran today. They discuss socialist ideas among themselves and communicate with each other through social media. However, no revolutionary party or group is allowed to be active in the country. And as you said, all revolutionary organizations are operating outside of Iran. Of course, there are some sections that many groups in exile have relations with. And these organizations, although in a secret way, try to continue their activities such as education and organization with the sections they are in contact with within the country. However, due to the current conditions, we cannot say that any of these organizations are very strong and effective in the country.

As for your second question: Yes, other workers’ organizations such as the Free Union of Iranian Workers continue to work. We try to stay in touch with them. We are also in contact with socialist groups.

GD: As you mentioned when characterizing the current popular uprising, Iranians living outside Iran are trying to offer their best support by organizing solidarity actions in the countries they are in. However, until now, a critical international campaign organized outside of the Iranians abroad has not taken place unfortunately. On the other hand, the mobilization of the working people of Iran against the 43-year dictatorship regime is of vital importance. And we, as the International Workers’ Unity-Fourth International, think that international solidarity with this popular uprising must be absolutely increased. We think that it is very important to embrace the demands of the Iranian people for the overthrow of the dictatorship regime, the end of violence, massacres and oppression by the law enforcement forces, and the release of the detainees, in a wide spectrum such as class organizations, trade unions, socialist parties, women’s and youth organizations in the international arena. Likewise, it is certain that, through organizing such an extensive campaign, the pressure to be created by demanding their countries’ regimes to end their economic, diplomatic and military relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran will certainly contribute to the mobilization of the working people of Iran. Of course, it is also very important that organizations in Iran make this call jointly for an inclusive organization of such an international campaign. In this context, what are your thoughts in terms of international support? What are your expectations from the international public, especially as organizations in Iran?

FUIW: As you said, we attach great importance to the international solidarity of class organizations, political groups and other mass organizations with the mobilization in Iran. This emphasis on unity and solidarity is one of the points that the Iranian people most need today. This solidarity is also necessary for the mobilized people in many parts of Iran. On the other hand, those who were arrested and imprisoned by the regime during the protests also need such solidarity. Because Mahsa Jina Amini also died after being tortured by the police while in custody, and today there is such a risk for anyone who are arrested in protests. I think that an international campaign for solidarity with the popular uprising has two important points. One is to embrace the struggle against the regime and the other is to pressurize for the release of the prisoners. Of course, one of the most important things is that class organizations, socialists and mass organizations in other countries put pressure on their own states to cut relations with the regime of the Islamic Republic of Iran. The overthrow of the regime of the Islamic Republic of Iran as a result of mobilizations will have a significant impact not only in nearby countries such as Turkey, Iraq and Syria, but also in the Middle East and North Africa region, and even on the international scale, on behalf of the working class. That’s why we all have to fight for this uprising to succeed. This is not just the uprising of the Iranian people, it is also an uprising for the peoples of the region. And in the context of international solidarity, we demand from institutions to offer all the support they can. At this point, I would like to thank both the Workers’ Democracy Party and the International Workers’ Unity-Fourth International for your interest in and solidarity with the popular uprising in Iran.

GD: We also thank you. The main perspective of both IDP and IWU-FI is building a revolutionary international. One of the ways to build this is to form alliances with revolutionaries in different countries around urgent demands. Of course, the other way is the effort of creating alternatives that can embrace and carry forward the demands of the masses within these mobilizations, and being in solidarity with such mobilizations of the peoples of the world, workers, women, youth and all the oppressed sections. And this is the most fundamental responsibility of us as revolutionary internationalists.

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