Successive Waves of Industrialization and Labor Activism

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 history of industrialization in the interwar era can be roughly divided into two periods: 1919-1931 and 1931-1941. In the first period, the government facilitated and encouraged private investments by introducing a series of new legislation. The administrative and centralized registration of properties and contracts, the establishment of a National Bank (Bank-e Melli) that took over the currency mint and monetary policy from the British owned Imperial Bank, and the improving security of roads and transport routes, were important features of these policies[51]. However, the onset of the Great Depression in 1929 initiated a far more interventionist economic policy by the state. Financial and monetary constraints on the budget overlapped with the enormous government burden of investment in the trans-Iranian railroad and other major infrastructure projects. The collapse of oil royalties, and the protracted dispute over the new Concession (1930-1933) further strained the treasury revenues. Nor was Reza Shah willing to curtail the army’s significant budget. In response to these economic pressures which significantly affected the private sector the state imposed a monopoly on foreign trade, and began to directly invest in manufacturing and industrial ventures in order to maintain the pace of industrialization[52]. This phase of dirigiste state capitalism lasted from 1931 to 1941, and further intensified the processes of urbanization and centralization that were already in evidence in the previous decade. Escaping poverty and acute shortages, and faced with the disruption of the coercive policies discussed before, people flocked to cities in search of jobs and wages in new government owned industries.

This geographic shift to the cities changed the nature of industrial labor. In the early 1920s, there were only few industrial plants that employed more than a hundred workers, apart from the oil industry in the south. These larger factories were located mainly in the northern provinces, and included the Arsenal in Tehran, a sugar refinery in Kahrizak, two textile mills in Tabriz, and a match factory in Khoy. The change over the following two decades was drastic, with over 346 manufacturing plants established by the eve of the country’s military occupation in 1941[53]. During the same period the annual rate of state budget allocation to industrial investment had grown on
average 25 per cent[54]. The largest industrial employers among these were the longexisting cotton and wool spinning, and textile-mills that altogether employed approximately 26 thousand workers.

Table 10 Growth of the Labor Force in Selected Industrial Sectors


From a national perspective, the 1929 Abadan strike of 1929 was one of the first expressions of collective demand for self-representation by a new industrial class that had been gradually formed in larger cities since the end of the WWI. Following the defeat of oilworkers’ strike at the Abadan refinery, the covert activities of the labor activists continued with more energy. In May 1931 the workers of the Vatan state-owned textile factory in Isfahan began a strike calling for improvements in working and living conditions[55]. “The strike was almost total, and even 8 year old children participated. A few workers of the weaving department, who wanted to continue to work, were induced to strike as well.” Marching towards the city centre, the workers articulated their demands that included a change from piecework to a monthly salary; an eight-hour working day with a living wage and overtime; adequate leisure time for half a day per week with pay.
Following a police attack on the marchers and the arrest of a number of strike leaders workers returned to work the following day. However, they stopped work after eight hours as planned. More police harassment could not induce the strikers to rescind their demands. Finally, following some intense negotiations between the representatives of the government, the director of the factory, and the representatives of the workers, the government backed off and reached an agreement with the strikers, accepting most of their demands, including the reduction of the working day from twelve to nine hours, and extending the lunch break from half an hour to one hour. Throughout the 1930s the Isfahan textile workers’ achievement in rectifying the working day regulations remained a benchmark not only for Iranian workers who wished to fix their working days, but also for the government in introducing new legislation regulating employers’ and employees’ associations.
The Isfahan textile strike was the last in the chain of labor strikes in interwar Iran. The gradual decline of labor activism in the 1930s was not simply due to the repressive political measures adopted by the new regime. The state-sponsored industrialization policies that were implemented in the wake of the Great Depression of 1929 had increased labor demand and had led to a relative shortage of skilled and semi-skilled workers. In the 1930s the Iranian Parliament passed a series of laws to improve working conditions in factories, workshops, and offices. These legislations included the Factory Act of 1936, which comprised the organization of miscellaneous training projects and the improvement of working conditions, housing, health and nutrition; the 1937 Act regarding the employment of prisoners in industrial and agricultural sectors; and the 1939 Act regarding the working conditions of medical personnel in government service. Important as these legislations were, they do not tell the whole story of whether or not working and living conditions for the industrial wageworkers improved as a result. However, they do indicate that an industrial wage working class had been formed in larger cities, and despite their heterogeneous ethnic and geographic background these workers were gradually forging solidarities and gaining a collective voice by posing demands for improved living and working conditions. In this context the 1929 Abadan oil workers’ strike was the watershed for new forms of collective class agency that gained greater political relevance during the post WW2 period of oil nationalization struggles.


Notes & References:

51. Massoud Karshenas, Oil, State and Industrialization in Iran (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990); Bharier, Economic Development in Iran 1900-1970.

52. Massoud Karshenas, Oil, State and Industrialization in Iran, 64–87.

53. Ministry of Labor, Amar-e Sanaye‘e Iran (Industrial Statistic of Iran) (Tehran: Entesharat Vezarat Kar, 1948).

54. Manuchehr Zia’i, Majmueh Qavanin Vezarat-e Kar (Budgetary Amendments Collection) (Tehran: Vezarat Barnameh va Budgeh, 1976)

55. Afacan, “Revisiting Labour Activism in Iran: Some Notes on the Vatan Factory Strike in 1931.


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