A Call for Solidarity: Working-Class Struggles in Iran and the United States
A Call for Solidarity: Working-Class Struggles in Iran and the United States
By Alborz Ghandehari
October 20, 2020
The 22 September marked the fortieth anniversary of the start of the Iran-Iraq War. When my mother tells me how a blast from a missile claimed her uncle’s life in Khuzestan, I know the war is still with her. She still remembers how her family’s home in Tehran became a refuge to dozens of our relatives who had fled aerial bombardment in the country’s southwest, how my grandmother suddenly became responsible to shelter and feed forty people, beleaguered loved ones uprooted and displaced as a result of a war that claimed five hundred thousand lives. This year, the United States came the closest it has ever been to launching an all-out war on Iran. As in most wars, primarily working-class people on both sides would pay the heaviest price, sent to the frontlines to fight each other.
But contrary to what proponents of a US invasion of Iran would have us believe, working-class Iranians and Americans are actually not each other’s enemy. In fact, they have more in common with each other than they do with their respective political leaders. Mass uprisings have erupted in both countries over the last year. Both US and Iranian government leaders hope to crush these rebellions. Iranians’ November 2019 uprising against the high cost of living was met with brutal and deadly repression. While US sanctions against Iran and the threat of war have brought devastating hardship and must be opposed, Iranians are angered that domestic oligarchs grow richer in spite of sanctions while the majority’s situation worsens. In the words of students at Amir Kabir University, they are fighting both US “imperial arrogance” and their own country’s “domestic despotism.” In the United States, on the other hand, interlocking struggles for economic and racial justice have laid bare the empty promises of US political leaders. Yet some of these leaders would have working-class people in the United States believe that what they need right now, at a time when millions are unemployed due to the covid-19 pandemic, is a costly war with Iran. I argue, however, that movements in both countries have everything to gain, not from war, but from each other’s solidarity. These two groups of people have yet to truly recognize their struggles as one. This is due most prominently to the rhetoric of nationalism and militarism that so often frustrates class solidarity. In order to peer beyond these obstacles, this essay shows that there are important commonalities between working-class people and movements in both countries, in spite of vastly different political systems. I also argue that there are concrete ways in which these movements can support one another.
On 19 May, six days before the murder of George Floyd led to an uprising in the United States against systemic racism and police violence, Asieh Panahi was killed in Kermanshah, Iran protecting her home from demolition. Officials pepper-sprayed the residents of Panahi’s poor neighborhood, with orders to demolish their informal housing units. After getting into the bucket of the bulldozer to defend her family’s home, the sixty-one-year-old Panahi was arrested. Shortly after, she died while in custody of the authorities from a stress-induced heart attack. Panahi and Floyd, as poor people marginalized by a system that shows callous disregard for their lives, had more in common with each other than with the officials who held power over them. Why should the families of Panahi and Floyd go to war with each other when the local authorities make war on them every day?
Black Lives Matter protests continued in the United States in September in anguish at a grand jury’s refusal to indict police officers for murdering medical worker Breonna Taylor. Police had raided her home on the mistaken idea that it was connected to drugs. This comes at a time when a minority of Americans trust the police. A few weeks before that ruling, Iranian police shot and killed Alireza Goodarzi and Alireza Jafarloo in Shahriar, a working-class district in Tehran, for failing to show a driver’s license as they drove away on a motorcycle. Goodarzi, a young electrician, had been working in Jafarloo’s home. At the funeral, mourners condemned the police and chanted anti-government slogans. Shahriar also suffered one of the largest death tolls during the deadly government crackdown on the nationwide uprising in November 2019 against the high cost of living.
Some will argue that we should not compare so-called liberal democracies in the West with repressive governments elsewhere in the world. But what did the United States’ status as a liberal democracy do for George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and working-class Black America? For that matter, what did Iran’s status as a revolutionary society for the mostazafin—the dispossessed—do for Asieh Panahi and the residents of her neighborhood as they confronted the bulldozers?
Iran and the United States have quite different positions in the global order. The United States is a global superpower. Iran is a regional powerhouse that the United States hopes to undermine to serve the interests of the US business class. And yet neither the US nor Iranian political systems have delivered on their promises to working-class and historically excluded communities in these societies. Can we find the space, then, to speak to each other? Is there not something to be gained by recognizing our commonalities, and even communicating, as the first step in the long fight for a more just and peaceful world order?
Rising Labor Militancy
In recent years, both countries have witnessed rising labor militancy. Both Iranian and US workers express frustration at the drastic chasm between rich and poor within their respective societies and across the world, which has grown severely over the last decades. At the moment, US billionaires have gotten 637 billion dollars richer during a pandemic that has claimed lives and devastated livelihoods, while domestic elites in Iran tied to government circles live in comfort as many Iranians see their pensions disappear and wages plummet. In the midst of these global conditions, workers in the United States have gone on strike more in the last few years than at any other time since the 1980s. Similarly in Iran, workers across several industries have gone on strike numerous times during the last few years, with the BBC counting seventeen workers’ actions a day from May 2017 to May 2018 alone.
This year, Amazon and Instacart workers in the United States walked off their jobs in May demanding personal protective equipment and hazard pay for working under dangerous conditions during the pandemic. Since September, both Chicago and Northern California healthcare workers have gone on strike, demanding higher wages and safe working conditions. Their struggles occur as US nurses die from COVID-19 due to inadequate personal protective equipment. In Iran, oil, gas, and petrochemical workers went on strike in August against months of unpaid wages. At least two oil workers have committed suicide. Thousands of Iranian teachers have also struck in recent years against low wages, the commodification of education, and the right to form independent unions. US teachers who have taken part in a strike wave since 2018 due to the systematic gutting of public education and wages well under the cost of living, share common struggles with these Iranian teachers such as the prominent unionist Jafar Ebrahimi. Ebrahimi has been arrested multiple times for organizing independent teachers’ unions, and for condemning the recent surge in for-profit education which will exacerbate education inequity for poor and working-class kids.
Sugarcane workers at the Haft Tappeh mill in Shush, Iran have also gone on strike multiple times over the last three years against the privatization of their company and unpaid wages. Due to these strikes, a state court was forced in September to annul the privatization plan, though the workers continue to organize for the radical demand of worker control of the factory under an independent workers’ council. In August, the International Union of Food and Agricultural Workers (IUF) threw its weight behind their most recent strike. Another affiliate of the IUF is the Farm Labor Organizing Committee in North Carolina. These mostly immigrant farmworkers have demanded union recognition while facing abuse and extremely low wages from their employer. The Haft Tappeh Sugarcane Workers Syndicate and the North Carolina Farm Labor Organizing Committee can grow stronger from amplifying one another’s struggles.
Some US and Iranian workers have already made such links. Erek Slater, for example, is a Chicago bus driver who was recently fired due to his opposition to transporting police to Black Lives Matter protests. He is now fighting to get his job back. Slater worked with Iranians in 2015 to start a dialogue with Iranian bus drivers on how transit workers in both countries can support one another. He has supported Iranian bus drivers since the mid-2000s when he raised awareness among his co-workers about the struggles of the Tehran Bus Workers Syndicate, a militant union in Iran whose members have faced arrest, imprisonment, and torture. Organizers are encouraging people around the world to support Slater’s reinstatement campaign. Connections like these allow workers to build strategies of support.
Linking Popular Struggles
In addition to labor struggles, other popular movements share important parallels as well. In recent months, thousands of Iranians have used twitter to come forward about rape and sexual assault. They share this struggle with the countless survivors of sexual violence in the United States in the #MeToo movement, which as Tarana Burke reminds us must center women on the margins of US society including Black, Indigenous, and working-class women. People in the United States and Iran are inspiring one another to come forward about sexual assault and violence, a major issue in both societies and across the globe.
Iranians have also amplified the Movement for Black Lives. The Iranian feminist group Bidarzani hailed the protests in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and shared analysis that situated the uprising as part of a centuries-long fight for Black freedom. The photojournalist Hossein Fatemi was tear gassed in Minneapolis covering the protests. A new Collective for Black Iranians has also emerged in the wake of the uprising. During the 2014 rebellion in Ferguson, the labor scholar Peyman Jafari wrote a call for solidarity with Black Lives Matter in Persian titled From Ferguson to Tehran, in which he also connected Iranian struggles with the movement.
Striking commonalities also appear in parallel struggles for environmental justice. In 2018, people in Isfahan and Khuzestan, Iran protested a water crisis partly related to climate change-induced droughts. In Chaharmahal and Bakhtiari province, people have organized for years against a water transfer project which would divert water to industrial factories, while exacerbating drought, water shortages, loss of farmers’ livelihoods, and poverty for the local population. These water protesters have much in common with the Indigenous water protectors of Standing Rock who have fought since 2016 to protect their land and water from pollution by the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). DAPL represents the latest attack on their community in a centuries-long struggle against colonization. The oil that runs through it will worsen climate change, a global crisis which requires us to coordinate environmental struggles across borders.
Towards a Socialist Strategy
International solidarity is a necessity. Our fates are interlinked in a global capitalist system. US and Iranian superrich sectors attained their wealth at the expense of the majority of people in both countries, despite the fact that Iranian and US capitalists often compete in the global order. It was with this understanding that Iranian students during the November 2019 revolt expressed common cause with simultaneous uprisings in France, Lebanon, Iraq, and Chile against “repression and plunder [of wealth]” worldwide. It was in this spirit that eighty workers’ organizations, across Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Americas, published a statement in August standing behind striking Iranian workers.
If we look at the conditions of people’s lives and their uprisings for justice, rather than relations between states, we find that working class people in Iran and the United States share common interests and global challenges, and indeed, common enemies.
Among the organizations who joined this expression of support was Brazil’s CSP-Conlutas, a labor federation that organizes two million workers from metal workers to teachers. It played a pivotal role in Brazil’s 2017 general strike against labor reforms and the cutting of pensions. Conlutas has supported Iranian workers before. It is led by Brazil’s United Socialist Workers’ Party (PSTU). Its members have blended different revolutionary traditions among socialist, Indigenous, and quilombo (Afro-Brazilian) movements, bringing them under one banner. Labor unions are not the only groups that get to vote in Conlutas’ affairs. Indigenous and Afro-Brazilian caucuses vote and hold decision-making power, as do women’s and LGBTQ caucuses. Conlutas joined eighty labor organizations in the broader International Labour Network for Solidarity and Struggles because many of its workers believe in building an international organization to fight for working-class interests worldwide. For them, the international must reflect the different faces and facets of the working class. Conlutas paves the way.
In the United States and Iran, the types of socialist movements that gave birth to the PSTU and by extension Conlutas are not as strong. Yet in both countries, long-discredited socialist ideas are making a resurgence. Iranian journalists close to the political establishment time and again express anxiety that leftist groups are gaining power in Iran’s student movement, while the most militant Iranian labor leaders express that independent labor councils are the only way out of their misery. In the United States, the Democratic party leadership and the structures of the US political system stood in the way of Bernie Sanders’ run for president. His campaign nevertheless demonstration growing enthusiasm for socialist ideas among millions of people across the country.
If we look at the conditions of people’s lives and their uprisings for justice, rather than relations between states, we find that working-class people in Iran and the United States share common interests and global challenges, and indeed, common enemies. International solidarity between them is not merely symbolic, but rather has a concrete impact. Over time we can build on acts of solidarity to coordinate our movements across borders.
The sociologist Asef Bayat argues that the Arab revolutions of 2011 were waged by an “active citizenry” who found creative ways—in online spaces and public squares—to make themselves heard among each other before Arab states realized the extent to which they had lost legitimacy in the eyes of their people. Intense hope powered those revolutions, and equally intense despair followed their defeats and the flare of civil war. Yet Bayat does not draw hopelessness from this lesson. He argues that upheavals will continue to occur across countries as mass discontent lingers. What matters is that people deepen their vision for change following failure. Bayat’s quotation of Rosa Luxembourg in this regard is apt: “Revolution is the only form of ‘war’ in which the ultimate victory can be prepared only by a series of defeats.” The next step, then, is to offer our communities concrete political alternatives to the current social order. The resurgence of socialist ideas in both Iran and the United States—while not something to be overstated or romanticized—does provide an alternative, a set of enduring values to build movements that espouse the strength and longevity needed to ultimately survive repression, and the leadership needed to weather what Luxembourg reminds us is a long and difficult road to freedom.
 When Trump brought the United States to the brink of war in January, a majority of Americans disapproved of his actions, having learned the lesson of the devastating 2003 US invasion of Iraq, which resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths, while the corporate executives of Exxon Mobil, Chevron, and other US multinationals profited handsomely. The United States is now pursuing sanctions against Iran with a similar goal in mind. While US officials state that the purpose of sanctions is to stop Iran’s nuclear program, the United States has not seriously pursued global nuclear disarmament through decreasing its own and its allies’ stockpiles. On the contrary, the purpose is to support the economic interests of its business class as was the case in Iraq. Those who support sanctions and war on Iran in the name of freedom, including some Iranian diasporic activists, support an agenda that will lead to more destruction, ill health, and exploitation for those people, not their freedom.
 David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).
 E. Hoominfar, “Environmental Social Movements: A Comparative Study Across Two Political Economies,” PhD thesis, Sociology Department, Utah State University, Logan, UT, USA, 2020. Available online: https://digitalcommons.usu.edu/etd/7752 (accessed on 2 October 2020).
 Asef Bayat, Revolution Without Revolutionaries: Making Sense of the Arab Spring (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2017), 224.
[v] Rosa Luxembourg, quoted in Bayat, Revolution Without Revolutionaries, 222