By ERNIE GOTTA

Thousands of Iranian temporary and contract oil and petrochemical workers have been on strike since June 20 demanding improvements to wages and conditions. The strike now includes some 100,000 workers in 105 oil facilities in 19 cities.

The Iranian economy, despite finding ways around U.S. sanctions, is in crisis. The oil sector has largely shifted away from permanent workers in favor of contract workers as a way to drive down wages and benefits and to boost profits. These workers are largely hired and managed through subcontractors with no affiliation to the state oil ministry, a move that deepens the ongoing privatization of Iranian oil.

There are now over 160,000 contract oil and petrochemical workers in Iran. Privatization and now the creation of a precarious layer of labor in oil serves to destabilize a historically militant sector of the Iranian working class. Contract workers are taking home 25 to 40 million Rials ($100-160) a month, while a report from the Central Bank of Iran says that it costs nearly 110 million Rials ($440) a month to live in Tehran. By comparison, permanent workers take home over 120 million Rials.

The strikes are becoming more widespread as permanent workers are threatening to join in solidarity if the demands are not met by August. Demands include higher wages, a sliding scale of wages to offset inflation, an end to unjust firings, and health and safety regulations.

The Council for Organizing Protests by Oil Contract Workers states, “…we want to address the Iranian people. Our thanks to fellow workers, our comrades at Haft Tappeh Sugarcane plant, as well as teachers’ unions, associations of retired employees, and student organizations that have been supporting us with their statements. Have no doubt that this solidarity gives us, the oil workers, the strength we need. The demand for wage increases is not just a demand put forward by oil workers: we know that all workers—teachers, retirees, and other wage-earners—have the same demand. Therefore, we expect the support and encouragement of fellow workers.”

The regime is keenly aware of the historical importance of this sector. Oil workers demanded the nationalization of oil in the 1950s, led strikes against the Shah, and were ultimately a key element that helped make the revolution in 1979 that brought the Islamic Republic to power.

New President Ebrahim Raisi, a conservative politician who, according to rumors, may eventually be chosen to take over for the aging Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, will face the dual challenge of pressure from world imperialist powers as well as from an Iranian working class that refuses to be silent in the face of austerity and repression. There is no doubt that the Iranian capitalists will try to maintain their power while walking a tightrope between these contending forces.

Iran will likely lean on alliances with China and Russia as a bulwark against U.S. imperialism, which recently launched air strikes on Iranian assets in Iraq and Syria. New sanctions are also being doled out to Russia, China, and Iran by the United States. Russia, however, has continued to purchase and barter for oil despite the sanctions. Putin has also recently signed a 20-year extension on a treaty with Iran, ensuring cooperation in everything from economic matters to security and the military.

Iranian alliances with imperialist powers like Russia and China will make little difference in the material conditions of the Iranian working class. Striking Iranian contract workers are highlighting the reality of being driven deeper into poverty by austerity. The Iranian capitalists are trying to squeeze out any possible profits from an increasingly unstable world market.

The U.S. attacks on Syria and Iraq in relation to Iran are a reminder that Joe Biden’s election did not indicate a departure from Trump’s foreign policy. Biden stands firmly in the pro-war tradition of all of his predecessors. The possibility of a U.S. war on Iran shouldn’t be ruled out. Additionally, U.S. sanctions will only weaken the ability of the Iranian oil and petrochemical workers to wage their struggle.

International solidarity is essential. The labor and antiwar movements in the United States must extend their support to the Iranian working class by building an opposition to U.S. foreign policy. Otherwise, the Iranian regime will continue to use sanctions as a battering ram against the workers’ demands.

Photo from Zamaneh Media.