This year, they may have to: At last year's May Day rally in Tehran, these Iranian workers wore mock shrouds to show their willingness to give their lives for the cause of workers' rights in Iran. The government plans a crackdown on Tuesday's marchers.
April 29, 2007 -- HAVING set the Islamic Republic on a collision course with the United Nations on the nuclear issue, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad appears equally determined to confront his country's increasingly restive labor movement.
The showdown, which began last year, could reach a peak this week with government plans to crush May Day demonstrations by illegal trade unions.
In recent days, thousands of Islamic Revolutionary Guards have taken position around Tehran, ready to intervene if the International Labor Day demonstrations "get out of hand."
The Islamic Republic has always associated May 1 with leftist ideologies that it claims are "brewed by Jews," and tried to promote an alternative "Islamic Labor Day" on May 2.
This year, a number of illegal unions have announced May 1 demonstrations in Tehran and 20 provincial capitals. The new Workers' Organizations and Activists Coordination Council (WOACC), a grouping of over 80 illegal unions claiming a total membership of over a million in 22 cities, is leading the move.
Equally of concern to the authorities is a decision by the illegal Iranian Teachers' Association (ITA) to organize a mass May Day rally in front of the Ministry of Education headquarters in Tehran. This will be the first of a series of weekly demonstration by ITA, with the second set for May 17, in front of the Islamic Consultative Majlis (Parliament) building in Tehran.
Claiming to speak on behalf of Iran's estimated 450,000 teachers, ITA has shown its strength by organizing a series of strikes that shut down thousands of schools across the country since September.
WOACC, the workers/activists coun cil, emerged in the wake of strikes by Tehran transport workers that brought the capital to a standstill last year.
The authorities managed to end that strike with a mixture of mass arrests and wage concessions. But the example set in Tehran spread to other cities and industries.
Since then, the government has had to cope with strikes by textile workers in Sari; gas workers in Bid Boland; oil-refinery workers in Abadan; copper miners in Sarcheshmeh; autoworkers in Tehran, and machine-tool workers in Albroz and Arak.
Work has also stopped on some projects linked to Iran's first (and so far only) nuclear power plant, under construction by a Russian company at Hellieh, on the Persian Gulf, because of action by illegal unions. Last month, strikes halted work on a $1 billion offshore oil project, led by the French energy giant Total, in Iranian waters in the Persian Gulf.
THE rising labor movement started with local grievances linked to wages and working conditions. In recent months, however, it has developed a broader consciousness by highlighting issues that concern most workers.
One issue that has brought the hitherto scattered unions together is their opposition to President Ahmadinejad's proposed new Islamic Labor Code. This is designed to replace the existing code, written with the help of the International Labor Organization (ILO) in the 1960s and amended in 1991.
Ahmadinejad claims that the existing Labor Code is "a Jewish-Crusader" document imposed by the ILO, itself "a tool of the American Great Satan." The text he proposes would cancel virtually all the rights that working people have won throughout the world over centuries of social struggle and political reform.
It abolishes the legal minimum wage in favor of rates fixed through agreement by employers and employees.
It also allows for the generalization of verbal employment contracts, gives employers the right to hire and fire as they please - and makes legal holidays, sick leave and pension schemes conditional to agreements on a case-by-case basis.
It also imposes a ban on independent trade unions. Instead, it proposes the creation of Islamic Guidance Councils to promote "Islamic values and sensibilities" among workers.
In a detailed critique of the proposed text, WOACC shows that the new code violates the Islamic Republic's Constitution and Article 23 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as well as accords that Iran has signed with the ILO over decades.
"The proposed text is a charter for slavery disguised as an Islamic code," a WOACC spokesman in Tehran said over the telephone last week.
That view is shared by some members of the Majlis, who criticize Ahmadinejad's refusal to submit his text to normal parliamentary procedures. Instead, the Ministry of Labor is trying to railroad the draft law through a Majlis committee controlled by pro-Ahmadinejad members.
Ahmadinejad's confrontational style in dealing with the labor movement has also been criticized by some top mullahs within the regime.
Islamic Chief Justice Ayatollah Mahmoud Shahroudi has warned that the government's repressive approach could destabilize the regime. Former President Hashemi-Rafsanjani, a mullah-cum-businessman who heads the powerful Expediency Council, has called for "sensitivity" in dealing with what may be the most serious challenge to regime in years.
WHY is Ahmadinejad determined to defy a grass- root workers' movement by imposing an unpopular law?
Part of the answer may lie in the massive privatization scheme that he plans to unveil this year. According to government sources, this would put 44 state-owned conglomerates on sale at a total price of $18 billion. These businesses employ an estimated 3.5 million people across the country. A majority of likely buyers will be mullahs and their associates, operating through supposedly religious and charitable foundations, along with officers of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
Although potential gold mines, most of the businesses concerned have been losing money for years, because of inefficient management and corruption. They also suffer from the fact that they have had to employ far too many people - often because of nepotism and favor-distribution to benefit powerful figures of the regime.
Under the existing Labor Code, it would be difficult for the new owners to downsize the labor force or close loss-making units. Ahmadinejad's new code would give future owners carte blanche to reorganize the businesses. By unofficial estimates, a million people could lose their jobs under privatization.
"Ahmadinejad is laying the banquet table for a big feast of plunder," said WOACC's spokesman. "The mullahs and Revolutionary Guardsmen who will buy the state-owned businesses, always with money borrowed from state-owned banks, plan to fire as many workers and strip as many assets as possible, taking their loot to Malaysia, Dubai and Austria."
THE situation is further complicated by United Nations- imposed sanc tions, which are starting to bite. Dozens of small businesses have already closed down or reduced their activities for want of credit, imported parts and/or raw material, as well as fears of losing foreign markets. The thousands of workers who have lost their jobs as a result plan to be in the vanguard of the May 1 demonstrations.
Iranian-born journalist Amir Taheri is based in Europe.