Labor Activism in the interwar years

Credit: Kaveh Ehsani, Leiden University
From “The social history of labor in the Iranian oil industry : the built environment and the making of the industrial working class (1908-1941)”

The consolidation of the oil complex brought with it new forms of labor activism among the industrial working class. The new collective political agency of the industrial workers was a direct result of the formation of a large class of wageworkers in the oil industry, and their geographic concentration in the centers of oil production of Khuzestan. The turning point for this new trend in labor activism came with the 1929 oil workers strike in Abadan, which had been organized by Yousef Eftekhari (chapter 6)[38]. By this date the urban built environment of oil had become the staging ground for new forms of collective labor agency that were to affect other industrial centers across the country.
On Mayday 1929, some 9,000 oil workers, out of a total Iranian workforce of 15,000, went on strike at the Abadan oil refinery[39]. Their collective action caught APOC by surprise, and effectively brought production to standstill. Even though the strike was suppressed after three days through the “strong action by the military governor of Abadan backed by troops from the [Masjid Suleiman] garrison”[40], nevertheless the ensuing crisis had deep repercussions for industrial and labor relations. The strikers were demanding a wage increase of 15 percent; the shortening the working day from ten to seven hours in the summer and eight hours in the winter; the right to establish an independent trade union, and the recognition of Mayday as an official holiday[41]. Eftekhari states that the strike’s top demand was to force the government to refuse to renew the Oil Concession with APOC, because of the Company’s abusive records. In particular, strikers demanded an end to the practice of “blacklisting” of the workers who had been targeted for being subversive, disruptive, or unproductive. What especially outraged the strikers was the Company’s callous treatment of workers who had been injured and disabled during work, or the families of those who had died as a result of work injuries: “The Company used the blacklist to permanently lay off workers who had been injured at work and were now unable to work and did not have any insurance. We demanded an end to these permanent layoffs, as well as an end to the chronic abuse of workers. They routinely abused and tormented workers…Workers had no place to live, and had to sleep next to the river. The Company refused to provide them with shelter. Their wives went hungry, and
often had to walk around half naked and dressed in rags. Abadan was a bizarre place the like of which I had not seen anywhere. Even the truly backward Tajikistan wasn’t as bad as this place.”[42]
APOC reports also mentioned the workers’ demand for “complete equality [between] Indians [and] Persians”[43], and described the strike as a “Bolshevik plot”[44]. APOC field managers believed the workers’ demands were “formulated to cloak real Bolshevik activity and not likely to materialize”.[45] Fearing the worse, the British Consul of Mohammerah/Khoramshahr even requested the warship “Cyclamen to move down the Shatt al-Arab to a point within easy reach of Abadan”[46]. There were indeed some Marxist organizers involved in the strike such as Yousef Eftekhari who played an important role in helping workers coalesce and articulate their grievances. But the personal account of his organizing work in Abadan makes clear that workers’ grievances were real and not ideologically motivated, to the point that they were quite ready and willing to confront the powerful Oil Company to demand improvements in their appalling living and working conditions.
The repression of the 1929 strike was harsh and immediate. More than a hundred activists were deported from the province and the army imposed martial law[47]. But the ensuing calm was temporary and soon after labor discontent broke out in the oilfields of Masjid Suleiman, before spreading to other industries. On 28th May 1929, some 300 railway workers of the American Ulen Company based near Ahwaz demanded higher wages[48]. Once more and now on the advise of APOC, the Ulen Company approached the Governor General of Ahwaz to arrest the “ringleaders”[49]. The labor protests of 1929 were crushed through the collaboration of the Iranian army, APOC, and the implicit threat of the British Royal Navy. Their reaction revealed the paranoia among Oil Company and government officials of communist

influence among industrial workers of the country’s largest and most strategic industries. The workers’ demands for more decent pay and better treatment were ignored until after the suppression of what was considered their most subversive demand: autonomous representation through their own union.

Throughout the interwar period, Iranian industrial workers attempted on numerous occasions to establish collective representation, but were repeatedly put down. The overall pattern that developed was to ignore workers’ outburst and demands for self-representations, regardless of the circumstances[50]. The police would then arrest and imprison the leaders, but later on the government or employers would make some concessions in the form of pay increases, or occasionally pass legislation and government acts aimed at reducing the risks of recurring future crises. This pattern of employer and government response to workers’ demands for selfrepresentation had three key motives: To placate protestors and defuse the situation; to clarify that no autonomous workers’ self-representation would be tolerated and any and all demands had to be channeled only through the bureaucracy; and third, to better regulate and control the labor market, including using workers’ demands to pressure employers into various concessions that suited state policies.
The authoritarian modernization of Reza Shah’s reign defined the formative interwar period. Building the institutions of a modern nation state coincided with building a modern economy, based on industrial manufacturing and its requisite infrastructure. Thus, while the state engaged in using its newly constituted army to repress local autonomies and coercively forge a national identity, its policies also created a class of wage workers who had no option but to sell their labor in the new factories.

At the end of WWI urban Iranian workers in manufacturing had been mostly engaged in small craft workshops, but by 1941 Iran had a fairly substantial wage labor force employed in large factories. How did the Iranian workers experience this proletarianization? What were the state policies that contributed to the formation of a labor market? Were workers simply the object of an authoritarian, but ultimately progressive process of modernization? Or did they exercise an influence in shaping labor and industrial relations during this formative period? Traditional labor historiography tends to privilege the spectacular moments of labor protest and open labor activism, such as the 1929 oil workers strike in Abadan as answers to these questions. However, by such standards the urban industrial workers do not figure very prominently as active historical agents during the interwar years. There are a few scattered moments of open labor protest here and there, like the brief events of 1929 in Abadan and Ahwaz but, by and large, these strikes and open protests seem to have been rare and isolated events.
The moments of open labor protests are important indicators of industrial workers discovering a collective voice, but they do not tell the whole story. The repression of such protests and the workers’ failure to consolidate trade unions and other forms of collective self-representation does not imply they remained passive objects of a history that bypassed them. Instead, I will make the following four points: First, the interwar industrialization programs in Iran also involved the oftencoercive process of making a working class. The violent and protracted process though which peasants, craftsmen, and pastoralists became industrial wage workers is integral to the forms of labor agency that emerged during this period. To understand the new patterns of the social and political agency of labor we ought to look at the country and the city as a unified but uneven space, that was being transformed to suit the exigencies of initial capital accumulation and nation-state formation, as we have done in previous chapters.
Second, the apparently scattered moments of open labor protests across the country during the inter war years were not as isolated and unrelated as it may appear. As we have seen, these were turbulent times during which large populations moved to flee war, epidemics, and poverty, in search of livelihood, survival, and security. Experiences travelled with people across space, and inspired new actions. Migrating workers, political activists, labor organizers, extended families, and foreign workers with their transnational connections, were among the conduits through which repertoires of experience travelled across space and time and inspired novel practices and formed new collectivities.
Third, workers’ actions at their place of work, and their collective influence on shaping events were not limited to the rare moments of open militancy under authoritarian regimes of the factories and the police state, which Reza Shah’s
autocracy had become by the 1930s. Non-confrontational forms of resistance, attrition, desertions, moral appeals, indirect and direct negotiations, and other tactics to improve the collective social life of labor were more common and effective that is currently understood. For example, as we saw in chapter 5, labor flight was a common response of casual as well as skilled workers to the harsh and coerced conditions of work and life under APOC during WWI and its aftermath. So were sabotage and armed attacks on facilities. Insurgencies also remained part of the repertoire of workers’ resistance to proletarianization or Company encroachments on collective territories. These insurgencies lasted while the casual workers kept a foot in adjacent tribal social structures, and the military structures of the Ilat and Ashayer still had the ability to mobilize enough force to confront the military, and resist state and Company policies.
As the oil complex consolidated other forms of workplace and urban based collective solidarities and actions came to be added to the repertoires of subaltern resistance. During the 1920s in Abadan, where most of the estimated urban population of 60 thousand were recent migrants, workers and their families were constantly engaged together with other social groups in urban collective struggles over housing, access to land, food supplies, and sanitary conditions (chapter 6). These urban movements were not directly related to work conditions, but to the reproduction of the laborers and other people drawn into the circuit of oil capitalism. That is why understanding the changing daily life of workers, and how they fit into the wider web of social relationships that accompanied the mechanisms of capital accumulation and nation state formation is integral to developing a more comprehensive social history of this period.
Fourth, state policymakers and administrators, as well as employers were more apprehensive of, and responsive to, workers’ demands that it is generally believed. Acknowledging workers’ unions and self-representation may not have been acceptable to the authorities, or to the Oil Company who treated any such attempt as a Bolshevik plot. However, it is also surprising to discover in archival sources how much workers grievances and demands actually affected legislation, social policies, management strategies, and economic considerations by state administrators as well as employers (chapter 6).


Notes & References:

38. This section is partly based on Atabaki and Ehsani, “Shifting Governmentality in the Shadow of Labor Activism: Revisiting the Roots and Impact of the 1929 Abadan Oil Workers’ Strike.”

39. For recent studies of the workers’ strike in the oil industry in 1929 see: Kaveh Bayat, “With or Without Workers in Reza Shah’s Iran”, in Touraj Atabaki, The State and the Subaltern. Modernization, Society and the State in Turkey and Iran (London & New York: IB Tauris, 2007) pp. 111-122; Stephanie Cronin, “Popular Politics and the Birth of Iranian Working Class: The 1929 Abadan Oil Refinery Strike,” Middle Eastern Studies 5 (2010): 699–732.

40. “Abadan to Tehran, Telegram” 12 May, 1929, BP 59010

41. Ardashes Avanesian, Safehati Chand az Jonbesh-e Kargari-ye Iran dar Dowran-e Avaal-e Reza Shah (Leipzig: Tudeh Publications, 1979), 75–83; L.P. Elwell-Sutton, Persian Oil: A Study in Power Politics (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1955), 68–69. For a detailed study of labor activities aiming to reduce the working day in Iran, see Touraj Atabaki, “The Comintern, the Soviet Union and Labor Militancy in Interwar Iran,” in Iranian-Russian Encounters. Empires and Revolutions since 1800, ed. Stephanie Cronin (London, 2012).

42. Eftekhari, Khaterat-e Dowran-e Separi Shodeh, 42.

43. “Abadan to London, Telegram”, 6 May 1929, BP 59010. APOC reports also mention slightly different details about workers’ demands, including a demand for “six hours working days, minimum wage laborer rials

45. per month, representation labor on the management”.

44. “Abadan to London, Telegram”, 4 May 1929, BP 59010. 45 Ibid.

46. “Secret Report”, 8 May 1929, BP 59010. Efekhari, Khatirat Dowran Separi-Shodeh, 39.

47. “Secret Report”, 17 May 1929, BP 59010.

48. “Secret Report”, 2 June 1929, BP 59010. Ulen Company was a railway construction company functioning in the vicinity of Ahwaz.

49. Ibid.

50. For example Abadan in 1922 and 1929; Isfahan in 1931, etc.



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