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Lessons from Mineworkers’ Strike in Bafgh

By Alireza Navaie (IASWI-Paris), Ayob Rahmani (IASWI-London)

 Translated by Hoshang Tarehgol
 
Strike by miners of Bafgh Iron Ore Central Corporation on May 2014 was one of the largest and longest strikes in recent years. At the height of this strike five thousand workers continued to strike for thirty nine days. Workers returned to work only after they forced the government to rescind its original plan for total privatization of the mine, and officially announce a “temporary cancellation” of plans to sell Bafgh Mine stocks. Thus it could be said that workers have achieved a partial victory, partial since workers’ central demand for a definitive cancellation of privatization plans for this mine has not been achieved yet, but at the same time the state has not been able to carry out its plan either and because of workers courageous strike was forced to temporarily cancel privatization plans. Such a statue quo is fragile and precarious. In what follows we will look at the reason for this thirty nine days long strike, workers’ demands, reaction of central and local government officials to the strike, and the strike achievements and its lessons.
 
The reason for strike. 
 
On 29 of April 2014 an announcement appeared on the web site of Privatization Corporation, stating that 28.5% of Bafgh Iron Ore Central Corporation, including ten millions and six hundred and ninety six shares with the total value of sixteen billion and seven hundred thirty eight million Rials (approximately sixty four million dollars) will be rewarded through “Farabourse Corp.” to the private sector. Two years ago 71.5% of Bafgh Iron Ore Central Corporation was awarded to the Retirement Fund of Khuzestan Steel Corp. On 9 May 2014 in reaction to this announcement and in opposition to selling of stocks and complete privatization of their company miners stopped working and went on strike. Keeping in mind the experiences of fellow workers in others sectors who had gone through privatization, miners were fully aware that selling of their company’s stock to the private sector will result in “structural adjustment” (a euphemism for layoffs), reduction of wages, job insecurity, work speed-up, and unsafe work conditions, hence they vehemently opposed selling of the stocks.
 
The strike was continued the next day. On the second day of strike 10 April, 2014, the first deputy to President quoted from Yazd province’s Lieutenant Governor, Es-haagh Jahangiry, that plans for selling of stocks were canceled. After this news was announced workers ended their strike and went back to work. But issues of privatization and selling of company’s stocks remained a concern and topic of discussions for many workers.
 
On 17 May 2014 about two thousand and five hundred workers resumed their strike and were demanding transparency and clarifications about issues of stock offering from the government. Future developments proved workers’ doubts about promises of government were correct. On 1 June 2014, fourteenth day of the strike, a web site belonging to Khuzestan Steel Corp. announced that Bafgh Iron Ore Central Corporation stocks were auctioned on 19 May 2014 and Khuzestan Steel had won the auction and purchased the stocks. After this announcement the strike was joined by more workers and developed new depths and scales turning into a unified strike by all workers, which at its height included five thousands workers.
 
Keeping in mind the central economic role Bafgh Iron Ore Central Corporation occupies in economics of that region, workers’ strike heavily influenced the entire social life of the Bafgh region. Bafgh city with a population of forty one thousands (according to 2012 census) is one of the most underdeveloped areas in Iran. About a thousand of city’s population works in the mine, and there are also three thousand retired miners. City’s population is predominantly working class and working conditions of mine and all related matters greatly affects their circumstances. In addition environmental damages due to unsustainable extraction and utilization of mines have greatly damaged the quality of life for miners, their families and all residents of that area. Violation of environmental protection standards have led to immense pollution of air and water in that region and is greatly threatening the health of its inhabitants. According to a striking worker, the level of environmental pollution in their air is so high that some doctors have stopped taking donations of blood for medical purposes from city’s residents.
 
Because of mines occupying such a central economic role in livelihood of the region and as a source of high profits, city and regional officials took great interest in miners’ strike and were responsive to it.
 
Reaction of the local officials  
 
It should be obvious that both city and state officials, as government functionaries were generally opposed to workers’ strike protesting state’s economic policies. But once the local officials had to face striking miners and could not prevent the strike, in coordination with central government, they attempted to end the strike as soon as possible and send workers back to mines. At the same time they also tried to use the strike as a point of leverage to allocate more shares of profits to themselves, in competition against “non-indigenous” capitalist firms. Because of such competing interests amongst the local and national firms, besides the central demand of miners for cancellation of selling Bafgh Iron Ore Central Corporation stocks, local officials also raised demands about selling of stocks to local cooperatives, creation of auxiliary industries, and allocation of some profits for development of the region, thus attempting to derail miners’ strike.
 
Undoubtedly if the striking miners’ demands were focused on these other projects the end result would have been a defeat of the strike, since there are no local cooperatives to speak of and selling of stocks to local concerns is also the same process of privatization only under a different title. If such scenarios were followed in a matter of time most of the shares would have ended up, concentrated in the hands of a few individual capitalists, or big private firms.
 
In the same manner the demands for creation of metallurgic industries in the region didn’t have anything to do with interests of the interests of the miners either. Investment projects of the government and capitalist don’t have anything to do with workers. In other words, the main problem for workers is not lack of investments in the region, but how the already existing investments, the current extraction of profits are severely exploiting workers, with zero regards for workers’ rights, and welfare of workers’ families. The growing environmental crisis and unsustainable utilization of natural resources need to be added to the list of current problems in that region. Thus what needs to change are not investment policies but a substantial changes in the working and living conditions.
 
But the idea of allocating a certain percentage of mines profits towards improvement in health, education and other social services of the region (and not this general notion of “regional development” which is very vague and misleading) is a matter that should be paid attention to by miners. What need to be emphasized by workers and clarified in this regard is how workers’ representatives themselves have to decide as to the specifics of such allocations and monitor the entire process from beginning to the end, otherwise all such efforts will only result in local officials controlling more financial resources. These local officials are not accountable to the people or workers but are appointed by, work for and are accountable to the central government.
 
Despite all efforts of city and province officials to quickly end the strike, and derailing miners’ demands and using the strike as an instrument to promote their own interests, the miners maintained their central demand for e revocation of selling of Bafgh Iron Ore Central Corporation stocks, and went on with their strike for thirty nine days.
 
How the strike ended, it achievements and lessons.  
 
After thirty nine days of strike, the state finally caved in to miners’ demands. In the end Mohamad Mirmohammadi the governor himself, and not his assistance, showed up in front of striking miners, and showed them a letter signed by both Yazd province Lieutenant governor Es-haagh Jahangiry and Ali Taiebnia, Minister of Economics and Finance, stating a “temporary halt” to auctioning of 28.5% of Bafgh Iron Ore Central Corporation stocks. The letter also stated that the final decision will be made by Yazd Governor himself. Once these promises were made by the state, the miners decided to go back to work and end their strike.
 
Such a reaction from the state undeniably meant a partial victory for strikers. In some reports and analysis this retreat by the government is considered as a definite and total victory. But such an interpretation is overtly optimistic and incorrect. If Bafgh workers have such a take and interpretation form their strike, believe they’ve reached final victory, and remain stand inactive, such conclusions could seriously damage them and generally lead to a defeat of their struggle against privatization of their mine.
 
As it was also stated in the joint letter of Yazd’s Lieutenant Governor and Minister of Economics and Finance, the state has only put a temporarily halt to the selling of stocks (Miners have given the government two months to permanently revoke auctioning of the stocks). Furthermore that state has not even agreed to come into negotiations or an agreement with workers’ representatives on this matter, but has stated that the final decision will be decided by Yazd Governor, in other words the state will decide ultimate resolution. All this indicates that the state is just buying time to once again organize another auction in the future. It could be presumed that since the since the last day of the strike, or even before announcing their retreat, central government in coordination with local officials have been planning on organizing another auction, through other means, and probably have contingency plans and designs as how to confront workers’ responses. Under such circumstances there’s nothing more harmful for Bafgh workers than to consider their work done and optimistically consider hitherto achievements of the strike as a total and definitive victory, and inactively waiting for the decision of central government and local officials.
 
The thirty nine days long strike undoubtedly has increased solidarity amongst all workers, and they are more aware of the central importance of collective action and coordination, and have learned how they are able to push back the management and the state through their collective struggle. Now it is necessary for them to evaluate their courageous strike, its achievements, and decide on how to respond to future policies of the state, which in all likelihoods will be in opposition to workers’ demands. They need to discuss these issues and be prepared to respond. Currently in a post-strike situation, workers have much more opportunities and chances, compared to pre-strike period, to organize assemblies, meetings and consultations, and decide their future path through collective intellect and wisdom. In this regard clarification and transparency of demands is very crucial and significant. Permanent revocation of privatization under any form or disguise (be it through an outside firm, or selling it to the local population) must still be the central demand and emphasized. In addition and concurrent with this central demand, other demands that were raised during the strike should also be clearly and specifically be included in the list of demands such as: classification of hazardous jobs, increased work safety, cancellation of all temporary work contracts, guarantees for job security, management’s abidance to standards regarding environmental protection. These are some of the demands that need to be clearly and transparently raised and struggled to be achieved.
 

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