Iran: Teachers’ Anger Yields a Powerful Movement

Image credit: Convergences révolutionnaires

This article is translated from an article posted Feb. 17 on, the website of the Etincelle fraction of the New Anticapitalist Party (NPA), comrades of Speak Out Now.

The mobilization of teachers since mid-December 2021 undoubtedly marks a renewal of class struggle in Iran. Since 2018, many other strikes and struggles have dotted the social landscape – those of the sugar workers, oil rig workers, and retirees. But this conflict, originally a trade union fight, has taken on a national political dimension, pitting experienced, coordinated militant teams against a brutal dictatorship led by Iran’s conservative president Ebrahim Raissi, who is unable to overcome the economic slump.

Growing inequality and social protest

Jomhouri-e Eslami, a conservative daily newspaper with close ties to the government, hasn’t been shy to note this. In its January 15 edition, its headline screamed, “Heed the warning!” in a scathing article denouncing corruption and the dysfunctional management by the government of the unprecedented crisis in Iran. This paper, a pillar of the regime, goes so far as to set out the stakes of the situation: while the negotiations on the nuclear question resumed last month in Vienna, and the clashes in Yemen have revived, inflation has invited itself to sit at the table of Iranian families, with more violence than usual. The Statistical Centre of Iran reported that inflation rose to 32% in January, after falling from 59% in September to 22% in November, demonstrating the bitter failure of the ruling conservatives. The same institute showed that for the previous year (March 2020 to March 2021), growth had reached 3.6% allowing the creation of 200,000 jobs. But, as Djavad Salehi-Isfahani, professor of economics at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in the United States, notes, “this makes perfect sense, since the decline in real wages, which is detrimental to welfare, is favorable to employment and production.”

The real constraints of the U.S. blockade are not enough to explain the 25% drop in average living standards between 2007 and 2020. According to a report by the Ministry of Cooperation and Labor, this decline has affected the countryside (-39%) and medium-sized cities (-26%) more than the capital Tehran (-11%).

In a new and unprecedented development in the summer of 2021, the leading economic daily, Donyaye Eghtesad, published the first extracts from an official report on poverty in Iran – a taboo subject. The report completely fudges the issue by raising the poverty line artificially above international conventions. (The study, which estimates that 32% of Iranians are below the poverty line, shows Iranians below the Islamic poverty line, but 30% of whom own a private car, 48% own their own home and 37% own a washing machine. According to the economist Djavad Salehi-Isfahani, who has already been quoted, the poverty line according to international standards is $5.6 (in purchasing power parity) per day. According to him, 12% of the Iranian population is below the poverty line calculated in this way. The official overestimation aims to discredit in advance any structural intervention by the state in the fight against poverty, which is left entirely to charitable institutions…)

With the minimum monthly wage of around 86 euros ($97.00), activist associations estimate that barely 10% of a household’s expenses can be met. The government’s aid, via its charitable Islamic foundations, cannot compensate for this collapse in living standards. The debates on the upcoming budget in the Majlis (Parliament) recognize this despite the doctored figures of 32% poor. The reality is impossible to hide even with “statistics” directly inspired by the Supreme Leader and the anger is being revealed through strikes, rallies and demonstrations.

Moreover, in 2020, despite the COVID-19 pandemic and U.S.-led sanctions, the number of Iranian dollar millionaires increased 21.6% to 250,000, while it only increased 6.3% globally. The June 28, 2021 Forbes report containing this data was released just as unprecedented strikes by temporary and contract workers in the oil industry had gained momentum. This is messy. The blockade isn’t preventing some from making a quick fortune: Iranian capitalism operates with its natural cruelty and creates not only imbalances and inequalities but also a layer of profiteers who are visible to all.

A powerful protest movement

In this context of social polarization a movement of primary and secondary school teachers began in mid-December. Hundreds of thousands of teachers went on strike for three days, on December 10, 11 and 12, in more than 110 cities, taking advantage of the discussions on the national budget. With an announced 20% cut in social spending and an increase in the army’s budget, the original salary demands took on a political dimension. This movement in education had been preceded by a series of smaller-scale mobilizations at the national level but with deep roots locally, particularly in Kurdistan – mobilizations that were very harshly repressed. Between 2014 and 2019 four teachers who were union leaders were sentenced to death and three of these were executed: H. Rashedi, H. Shabaninejad and F. Kamangar. So the activist teams had to organize to face a whole series of significant obstacles – and did so successfully. The first was legal, through the Teachers’ Coordination Committee, a union that was tolerated even though it was independent of the regime, and the second was informal coordination committees that linked up with working-class neighborhoods through parents’ associations and union structures in other workplaces. The success of the three days in December was reinforced by national strike days on Dec. 23 and Jan. 13, and then on Jan. 30 and 31, with the movement gaining momentum. It is now reaching nearly 300 cities, with tens of thousands of strikers. The coordination committee has put forward seven demands:

  • Salary increase to the level of 80% of that of a university lecturer. After 30 years of career, a teacher earns the equivalent of 250 euros (the cheapest rents in Tehran are around 125 euros);
  • Increase and payment of retirement and work accident pensions;
  • Immediate payment of unpaid pensions for the year 2021 in one lump sum;
  • Free education;
  • Freedom for imprisoned union activists (there are several hundred since December);
  • An end to the recruitment of temporary workers and casual workers by private agencies
  • Joint management of pension funds, allocations on a national level.

Beyond these demands, the regime is most disturbed by the popularity of the movement among the workers and the population in general. Despite the arrests, the population marched alongside the teachers’ contingents, with other workers coming out spontaneously to support them, and trade union sections such as those of the oil workers giving the strike material support. The regime gave in partially by providing a raise for 725,000 teachers, but left out tens of thousands whom the state refuses to hire permanently. Discussions are taking place right now about the need for an unlimited strike and the direction of the movement, under difficult conditions that make decision-making slow, but where strike activists are aware of the level of confrontation needed to make the regime give in.

This struggle, with its particular forms, is part of an international reality of inflation rising violently in countries on the periphery of the Western imperialist powers – with Argentina at 50%, Turkey at more than 35%, or Brazil – and is perhaps a harbinger of important struggles in the period to come.