Iran’s Emboldened Workers Press New President for More Concessions
Iran’s Emboldened Workers Press New President for More Concessions
By Zep Kalb
October 14, 2021
In the third week of September, teachers in dozens of towns and cities across Iran took to the streets, calling on the new president, Ebrahim Raisi, to fully implement existing labour laws. The authorities responded quickly and positively, promising to work on an implementation plan. But the teachers are not ready to back down. In an interview conducted for this article, a leader of the main teachers’ union said his organization will continue to use a “carrot and stick” approach to ensure that the Raisi administration makes good on its promises.
The latest nationwide demonstrations by teachers are part of a bigger protest wave that has gripped Iran over the past year. In the first few months of the year, pensioners mobilised in Tehran and other major cities. In July, residents of the southern province of Khuzestan protested water shortages. Between June and August, contract workers across Iran’s oil sector staged intermittent strikes and demonstrations. These protests are unlikely to let up. A wide range of social groups have been mobilising—organising locally, regionally, and nationally—to express socioeconomic grievances.
As these protests have continued, the Raisi administration has defied predictions that it would quickly impose order on Iran’s restless society. Raisi was elected president in June after extensive electoral manipulation and a record low turnout. But that Iran’s new leadership came to power with little regard for the electorate has not dissuaded protestors from making demands of state authorities. According to one protest tracker, September—Raisi’s first full month in office—saw one of the highest number of protest events in the past year.
Raisi has been forced to grapple with the promises made by his predecessor, Hassan Rouhani. Rouhani launched his first term with a vow to bring inflation under control and spend government resources prudently. He exited office last August having promised financial support to a wide range of groups and sectors. Rouhani’s commitment to inflation reduction was sincere and, initially, successful. After carefully and painstakingly negotiating sanctions relief and rebalancing the economy between 2013 and 2017, his successes were quickly undone by the twin shocks of the Trump administration’s reimposition of sanctions in May 2018 and the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in February 2020. Realising that fiscal prudence would not be enough to shore the Iranian economy, Rouhani decided to direct spending towards his core constituents, namely the urban middle classes.
As Djavad Salehi-Isfahani has shown, Tehran and urban areas were largely spared the rapidly rising poverty rates seen in Iran’s rural communities after 2018. To prevent further slides in the incomes of pensioners and public sector teachers—two important middle class segments generally aligned with reformist politics—the Rouhani administration consistently increased the budget share allocated to education and social security. As Kevan Harris observes in a recent report, education and social security together accounted for over 55 percent of the 2021-2022 budget, up from less than 45 percent just four years earlier. The more the Rouhani administration intervened to support the welfare of key constituencies, the more groups such as teachers and pensioners became emboldened, increasing their demands as the deteriorating economic situation eroded their incomes. Protest activity grew despite the growing risk of state repression.
Still, Rouhani’s constituents suffered despite his targeted interventions. Public sector teachers saw their real wages fall by over 40 percent between March 2018 and March 2021. Middle class workers employed in the public sector suffered significantly as government spending ran out of steam. Private sector wage workers, such as those in the construction sector, have fared comparatively better as their wages rise with inflation.
Faced with discontented workers and limited fiscal space, the Raisi administration has sought to blame their predicament on Rouhani’s recklessness, rather than the deteriorating economic situation. Hardline politicians argue that Rouhani deliberately loaded up on financial commitments in his final days in office in order to put a stick in the spokes of the Raisi government. Parliament member Ahmad Hossein Falahi recently complained that “unfortunately in the final days of the Rouhani administration a lot of things got done. This is because the managers of the previous government aimed to impose a number of policies on the incoming administration, despite the fact that the Plan and Budget Organization was supposed to safeguard this year’s budget.” Falahi added that this has created a dangerous “mentality” whereby social groups invoke Rouhani’s generosity to bargain with the Raisi government.
It is true that in his final months in office, Rouhani made a number of concessions to protesting workers that seemed extraordinarily generous given the state’s emptied coffers. For example, striking oil workers won significant concessions right before Rouhani left office. Contract workers did most of the protesting and the Rouhani administration responded by forcing employers to increases wages for contractors. But Rouhani went further and also increased the salaries of more than 100,000 workers directly employed by the oil ministry. Promises were also made to improve working conditions.
Teachers were another group benefiting from extraordinary generosity in the final months of the Rouhani administration. The 2021-2022 annual budget, approved in spring, doubled the money allocated to the education ministry’s payroll costs. Given current inflation rates, this budget increase raises the wages of public sector teachers by a massive 25 percent in real terms—the largest one-year pay increase teachers have received in at least two decades. After years of resistance, the government also suddenly agreed to several other long-standing demands about job benefits.
Still, despite the accusations now being made, it more likely that an exhausted Rouhani administration, realising it would soon leave office, relaxed its commitment to austerity, submitting more easily to bottom-up pressure for increased spending. The Raisi administration is now faced with the difficult task of managing the fiscal obligations it has inherited. The choice facing Iran’s new president is whether to prioritise the demands of constituencies that have shown a capacity for sustained protest, or whether to redirect spending in favour of workers in the judiciary, police, and military who are among his core constituents. With next year’s budget negotiations coming up soon, Iranian workers have the government on the back foot.