Workers’ councils during the failed 1979 revolution in Iran – from the perspective of a contemporary witness and activist of the council movement

(Based on excerpts from articles by the contemporary witness as well as a conversation with them in December 2022. The full article in Farsi with further details on the strike movements 2017, 2018 and 2019 can be read here:

Preliminary remark of the contemporary witness:

In the following, I share my experiences as an active contributor to the workers’ council movement in Iran in the late 1970s, particularly in western Tehran. That is why I am concentrating my remarks on Tehran, even though there have been crucial council movements in many other places all over Iran. I would also like to add that there have been several other forms of councils as well, such as student and neighborhood councils and committees, but I will focus on my own experience in the factories.

I would also like to make an important point concerning the speed of networking among us workers and the organization of joint protests. At that time, we didn’t have the internet or social media, so everything took much more time than it takes in the recent revolutionary movement in Iran. The use of social media is a great advantage for the current organization on the streets and in the factories.

The workers’ councils are the most advanced, resistant and vibrant form of workers’ organization in Iran, which emerged from the mass strikes of the workers in 1979. The council movement is not an arbitrary gathering of people, but a very conscious, purposeful and reflected process of organization. This is an essential point, which is often overlooked by external observers of the current revolution in Iran: if they perceive the central role of workers’ councils and strikes after all – such as the steel workers in Ahwaz or the sugar cane workers of Haft Tappeh – they tend to interpret these strikes as “spontaneous” or “sudden” uprisings.

But this is incorrect, because today’s workers’ protests and strikes reflect a historical continuity and development. Although the strike movement in Iran has a long history, it took on its most radical form at the end of the 1970s. At the same time, the workers’ council movement in Iran had to take shape in a social climate of oppression and streats to life, because under the reign of the Shah independent organisation of workers and trade unions were prohibited. The council movement thus arose in secret and had its origin in secret committees. Also, in the factory where I worked, there was a secret workers’ committee since 1977 in which I actively participated. In the mid-1979s, there were mass strikes demanding, among other things, the repayment of suspended wages, the payment of special interest rates, 40-hour/5 days (previously we had to work 48 hours/6 days), pension payments, social insurance and, in particular, the freedom to organise and assemble. In the same year, the movement of workers from the peripheries of Tehran (the slums with homeless workers) had begun. The violent clashes between officials of the Shah and the police with the workers changed the situation in Tehran, as the experience of protest and the power of the people grew with each confrontation. The struggles within the factories – along with the protests on the streets – were a crucial catalyst for revolutionary development, especially in Tehran.

In late 1978 and mid-1979, most of the factories in Tehran were controlled by workers. They prevented the owners and directors from entering the factories at all. Some factories, including our factory, had also taken control of the production. It is important to stress that there were not only women* with key functions in the councils in general, but there were also factories whose coucils consisted only of women*. In 1979, large-scale strikes with strike committees and strike funds began in most cities and factories. The strike funds consisted mostly of money from the workers themselves, their families and solidary supporters. In western Tehran, about 83 factories were on strike. It took about 2 weeks for us all to learn about each other and to hold joint plenary meetings every Thursday, to talk about our experience and to network. In these councils in the West, we regularly talked about our demands, such as wages, how to deal with redundant workers, illness, the rates of illiteracy, etc. We also learned about the existence of councils in other parts of Tehran and other cities in Iran.

In October 1979, oil workers in Tehran, Abadan and Tabriz fought against the curfews and the old labour laws of the Shah era, as well as for the release of political prisoners and the return of redundant workers. Many cities, especially Sanandaj and other cities in the Kurdish part of Iran1, supported these demands. Despite massive repression by the regime, we have been able to have further victories and a progress of our council movement every day, because with every setback and success we have been able to expand our organizational skills and grow closer together. The radios and newspapers were full of reports, for example that once again a factory owner had been chased out of his factory. That was incredibly encouraging.

With the occupation of the factory and the control of production by us workers, private and public property had actually been abolished, and everything belonged to us. It was a wonderful feeling! For example, we had a general assembly for one hour in the morning before work we discussed the division of labour between the various committees, which consisted of the Council, the Committee on Employment and Redundancies, the Committee on the Preservation of Special Profits and the Cooperative Rights of Redundant Employers, the Technical Committee, the Committee on Communications with their factories, the Committee on Purchasing and Sales, the Committee on Finance and the Committee on Combating Illiteracy. To combat illiteracy, we collaborated with a comrade, a leftist teacher who wanted to support the council movement. Overall, in the course of time, mostly radical left groups like “Peykar” (Organization of Struggle for the Emancipation of the Working Class) or “Sarbedaran” (Union of Iranian Communists) showed fundamental interest in the workers’ councils, while the Tudeh Party for example did not.

As far as I remember, there were about 150 workers’ councils in Tehran, but they mostly communicated with other Tehran factories on a local level. Unfortunately, communication between Tehran and other parts of Iran has been weak and irregular.

In addition, the so-called local committee was established parallelly with the councils. The members of the committee were stationed at night in southern Tehran, for example in Shahbaz Street, around Shoosh Square, in Tirdogholu and in Khorasan Square, in order to block and prevent attacks by the police. Workers from the textile industry such as Chit Ray, Chit Teheran, Chit Momtaz, Melli Shoes, Bella Shoes, and the Behshahr industrial group lived in this neighborhood, as well as many shoemakers and tailors. They were were organized in the local committee (Shoraye Mahalat) with other supporters. They joined forces to attack the police station in Khorasan Square or the military barracks in Jaleh Square, erected barricades and road blocks, and prevented the Shah’s units from occupying the area.

We can see that simultaneously to Ayatollah Khomeini’s successive seizure of power, there was an increasing conquest of factories, bringing many districts under the control of the councils. In my opinion, we can speak of two powers or two “governments” that shaped Iranian society during that time. This can be said at least up to the time when the US embassy was occupied by Ayatollah Khomeini’s supporters in November 1979.

Unfortunately, one result was that the reactionary and counterrevolutionary Islamic regime continued to expand its political power and, by occupying the US embassy, was able instrumentalize many leftist organizations, split or destroy them, and imprison and execute the members in the course of time. The workers’ councils were also eroded by the new regime and transformed into Islamic councils, with their own functionaries (especially Basij, the paramilitary organisation founded under Khomeini), who have tried to suppress and denounce independent organisations in the factories or resistance movements since then.

Weaknesses of the council movement from my perspective

The revolutionary councils of the workers and wage earners were able to bring the bourgeoisie to its knees. However, due to a lack of experience, they were unable to abolish them permanently.

Unfortunately, the council movement failed to form stable municipal, regional and national councils to exercise political, economic and social sovereignty and to network and strengthen itself nationwide. The success of the movement was made more difficult by the by various parties and groups such as the Tudeh Party or the People’s Fedajin Iran (Aksariat), which at first ignored the self-organization of the councils and finally sacrificed them to the Islamic committees without showing any solidarity, or they collaborated immediately with the new regime.

Despite everything

The workers in Iran are rising again and again, as you have seen in 2017, 2018, 2019 and now, in 2022, and it is still ongoing. They want to abolish capitalism and the Islamic Republic of Iran and build a socialist world with councils. And with every resistance, our experience and our power grow. We will rise again and again and again and take to the streets with strikes, protests and demonstrations until this system is destroyed.

[1] Additional comment from the point of view of Committee Mahabad International: The Kurdish regions in Iran have a long and fundamental history of workers’ struggle and resistance. One striking example for their selforganization is the Mahabad Republic (1946).