‘Etelaf (Coalition) or Ekhtelaf (Contention)? Labor Insurgency and Class Politics after Iran’s Green Movement

By Zep Kalb
Submitted to Session P4724 (Labor, Capitalism and Mobilization after the Arab Spring, 2017 Annual Meeting
Pol Science
19th-21st Centuries; Democratization; Development; Iranian Studies; Modern; Political Economy;
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This paper looks at the shifting dynamics of class politics since the 2009 Iranian Green Movement, arguing that the failure of Reformist elite and their trade unions to co-opt workers has fuelled a dispersed labor insurgency.

Official and independent labor organizations entered the Green Movement, which mobilized against alleged electoral fraud of the incumbent Conservative president, weak and fragmented. Although trade unions largely supported the main Reformist candidates, several years of suppression and co-optation of the working class by the Conservative government left them unwilling and incapable of mobilizing their constituents – a weakness exacerbated by the Reformist elite’s disinterest in labor.

While the role of labor in the Arab Spring has been widely acknowledged, scholarship has also related the weakness of post-revolutionary elite coalitions in various Middle East states to their negligence of socio-economic issues. The disjuncture between the working class and the Green Movement has not yet been evaluated.

Relying on a combination of qualitative and quantitative research, including a comprehensive database of workers’ protests as reported by a variety of news sources, I argue that the weak articulation of a common Reformist – labor program fuelled ethnically-inspired workers’ unrest in the Arab south of the country, coalescing with the wider Arab Spring. In several cases, these ethnic solidarities forced off tangible concessions from state and employer.

Moreover, the paper shows that the 2013 election of a Reformist president promising a détente with the West, sanctions removal and economic reform has caused an explosion in class tensions, with the number of workers’ protests, and state retaliation, rising sharply. I argue that the continued dependence of labor unions on state elites and organizations has reproduced this countrywide, factory-level workers’ insurgency by limiting the capacity of protestors to articulate unified demands.