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Reasons to Revolt: Iranian Oil Workers in the 1970s

  • Peyman Jafari (a1)


Oil workers played a pivotal role during the Iranian Revolution of 1978–1979. Involving tens of thousands of workers, oil strikes paralyzed the state and paved the way for the Shah's downfall. Various accounts of these strikes, however, ignore the subjectivity and agency of the oil workers by focusing exclusively on the role of political agitation. Addressing this deficit, this article explores the oil workers' experiences in and out of the workplace in the 1970s in order to contextualize their participation in the revolution. After analyzing the oil strikes and their goals, the article makes two arguments: First, oil workers were conscious of the considerable power they had to disrupt the economic and political routine of the country. Second, the demands of the oil strikes reflected grievances that, while reflecting sentiments in the wider society, were embedded in their own specific conditions and experiences.



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1. Steven Strasser, Loren Jenkins, and Jeffrey Antevil, “Iran: At the Brink?” Newsweek, November 13, 1978.

2. Foucault, Michel, “The Revolt in Iran Spreads on Cassette Tapes,” in Foucault and the Iranian Revolution: Gender and the Seductions of Islamism, ed. Afary, Janet, Anderson, Kevin, and Foucault, Michel (Chicago, 2005), 216–20.

3. Foucault, “The Mythical Leader of the Iranian Revolt,” in Foucault and the Iranian Revolution, 220–23.

4. Taeb, Saeed, Az e'tesab-e karkonan-e san'at-e naft ta piruziye enqelab-e Eslami [From the Oil Workers' Strike until the Victory of the Islamic Revolution] (Tehran, 1382/2003).

5. Ashraf, Ahmad, “Kalbodshekafi-ye enqelab: naqsh-e kargaran-e san'ati dar enqelab- Iran [Anatomy of the Revolution: The Role of Industrial Workers in the Iranian Revolution],” Goftogu 55 (2010): 55123 .

6. Turner, Terisa, “Iranian Oil Workers in the 1978–79 Revolution,” in Oil and Class Struggle, ed. Nore, Petter and Turner, Terisa (London, 1980).

7. van der Linden, Marcel, Workers of the World : Essays toward a Global Labor History (Leiden and Boston, MA, 2008), 187.

8. The interconnection of these issues is discussed in Thompson, Paul and Smith, Chris, Working Life: Renewing Labour Process Analysis, Critical Perspectives on Work and Employment (Basingstoke, 2010).

9. Kurzman, Charles, The Unthinkable Revolution in Iran (Cambridge, MA, 2004).

10. “Kargaran-e ba'zi qesmatha-ye sherkat-e naft hanuz be ‘etesab edameh midahand [Workers in Some Sections of the Oil Company Continue Their Strikes],” Ettela'at October 4, 1978.

11. Movahed, H., Do sal-e akhar: reform ta enqelab [The Last Two Years: From Reform to Revolution] (Tehran, 1984), 185.

12. SAVAK, “Report on workers’ strikes,” September 26, 1978, document 3562-, Archives of the Iranian Institute for Contemporary Historical Studies (hereafter cited as IICHS Archives), Tehran.

13. SAVAK, “Report on workers' strikes,” September 26, 1978, document 2-3562-, IICHS Archives, Tehran.

14. Ashraf, Ahmad, “Kalbod Shekafi-ye enqelab,” Goftogu 55 (2010). According to another report by leftist activists, 140 people were arrested, but this number appears to be a gross exaggeration: Razmandegan-e azadiye tabaqeh-ye kargar [Fighters for the Liberation of the Working Class], “Gozareshi az ‘etesabat-e qahremanane kargaran-e san'at-e naft-e jonub [A Report of the Heroic Strikes of the Southern Oil Industry],” document 14274, Archives of the Centre of the Documents of the Islamic Revolution (hereafter cited as CDIR Archives), Tehran.

15. Nicholas Gage, New York Times, November 14, 1978.

16. Communiqué of the United Syndicate of the Workers of the Iranian Oil Industry, December 23, 1978, document 33408001, CDIR Archives, Tehran.

17. Quoted in Moaddel, Mansoor, “Class Struggle in Post-Revolutionary Iran,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 23 (1991): 323.

18. “Kargaran-e sherkat-e naft dar Ahwaz emruz kar nakardand [Oil Workers in Ahwaz Didn't Work Today],” Ettela'at September 23, 1978, 31.

19. “E'teraz-e kargaran-e sherkat-e naft [Protest of Oil Company Workers],” Ettela'at September 24, 1978.

20. “Moj-e ‘etesab dar chand shahr [Wave of Strikes in a Number of Cities],” Ettela'at October 5, 1979.

21. “‘Etesab-e karkonan-e san'at-e naft dar khuzestan gostaresh yaft [The Strike of Oil Workers in Khuzestan Grows],” Ettela'at October 24, 1978.

22. “‘Etesab dar sanaye’ naft gostaresh yaft [The Strikes in the Oil Industry Grow],” Ettela'at October 30, 1978.

23. See Touraj Atabaki's introduction to this special section for the organizational history of the Iranian oil industry.

24. The construction of the Isfahan Refinery was completed in 1979.

25. Of this total number, 8,093 were blue-collar workers, and 2,158 were white-collar workers. Iran, Markaz-e Amar-e, Salnameh-ye amari-ye keshvar sal-e 2536 shahanshahi [Statistical Yearbook of Iran 1977] (Tehran, 1977), 445.

26. Prime Minister's Office, “Report about fuel shortage,” December 16, 1978, document 16-299-7, IICHS Archives, Tehran.

27. Ibid.

28. Calculated from the figures in Nomani, Farhad and Behdad, Sohrab, Class and Labor in Iran : Did the Revolution Matter? 1st ed. (Syracuse, NY, 2006), 89.

29. Perrone, Luca, Wright, Erik Olin, and Griffin, Larry J., “Positional Power, Strikes and Wages,” American Sociological Review 49 (1984): 413–14.

30. Sharifi, Nuraldin, “Jaygah-e bakhsh-e naft dar ta'min-e nahadeh baray-e bakhsh-ha-ye towlidi va ta'ghirat-e an dar keshvar: yek tahlil-e dadeh-setandeh [The Importance of the Oil Sector as Provider of Input for Manufacturing Sectors and Its Changes in Iran: An Input-Output Analysis],” Majaleh tahqiqat-e eqtesadi 46 (2011): 47.

31. “Qahti-ye naft, benzin va gazo'il [Shortage of Petroleum, Gasoline and Diesel],” Ettela'at January 6, 1979.

32. Shora-ye aliye barnameh rizi-ye ostan-e khuzestan,” Gozaresh-E Ejtema'i-Eqtesadi-Ye Khuzestan [Social-Economic Report of Khuzestan], 1 (1982), 238.

33. Melamid, Alexander, “Satellization in Iranian Crude-Oil Production,” Geographical Review 63 (1973): 28.

34. ‘Abdol'ali Lahsa'izadeh,Jame'eh Shenasi-Ye Abadan (Tehran, 2006), 283–97.

35. Wright, Erik Olin, Class, Crisis, and the State (London, 1978).

36. Grades A-D, which later became 4–17 are reserved for the top management.

37. Audio file 1. Interview by the author, January 12, 2013, Abadan (The names of the interviewees are not provided for privacy reasons. Audio files are numbered and are available).

38. Audio file 2. Interview by the author, January 25, 2013, Abadan.

39. Ehsani, Kaveh, “Social Engineering and the Contradictions of Modernization in Khuzestan's Company Towns: A Look at Abadan and Masjed-Soleyman,” International Review of Social History 48 (2003).

40. Audio file 1. Interview by the author, January 12, 2013, Abadan.

41. “Abadan,” Nabard-e Khalq: organ-e sazman-e cherikha-ye fada'i-ye khalq-e Iran [Nabard: Organ of the Organization of the People's Fada'i Geurrillas of Iran], 7 (May–June 1976).

42. Abadan Refinery graduated oil workers’ letter to the Shah, document 1284, Archives of the Majles (parliament), Tehran.

43. For the genealogy of the characterization of nonmanual workers that was prevalent in the 1960s and 1970s, see Burris, Val, “The Discovery of the New Middle-Class,” Theory and Society 15 (1986).

44. For two classic accounts of this process from different perspectives, see Lockwood, David, The Blackcoated Worker : A Study in Class Consciousness (London, 1958). Braverman, Harry, Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century (New York, 1975).

45. Calculated from the figures in various issues of Statistical Yearbook of Iran.

46. National Iranian Oil Company, San'at Naft-E Iran Dar Sal-E 1976 [the Iranian Oil Industry in 1976] (1976).

47. Audio file 3. Interview by the author, December 31, 2012, Tehran.

48. Audio file 4. Interviewed by the author, January 18, 2013, Abadan.

49. Bayat, Asef, Workers and Revolution in Iran : A Third World Experience of Workers' Control (London, 1987), 30.

50. National Iranian Oil Company, San'at Naft-E Iran Dar Sal-E 1976 [the Iranian Oil Industry in 1976], 52.

51. Abadan (1975).

52. Audio file 1. Interview by the author, January 12, 2013, Abadan.

53. National Iranian Oil Company, San'at naft-e Iran dar sal-e 1355 [the Iranian Oil Industry in 1976], 50.

54. Abadan.

55. National Iranian Oil Company, San'at Naft-E Iran Dar Sal-E 1976 [the Iranian Oil Industry in 1976], 48.

56. Workers of the Consumptive Cooperative Organization of the Oil Industry to Chair of the Parliament's Complaints Commission Sharif-Emami, September 28, 1977, documents 1286 and 1287, Archives of the Majles, Tehran.

57. “E'tesab kargaran palayeshgah-e shahre rey va palayeshgah-e Abadan [the Strike of Workers of Rey and Abadan Refineries],” Nabard-e khalq: organ-e sazman-e cherikha-ye fada'i-ye khalq-e Iran [Nabard: organ of the Organization of the People's Fada'i Geurrillas of Iran] 1 (January–February 1974): 17–19.

58. “E'tesab-e kargaran-e sherkat-e naft [The Strike of Oil Company Workers],” Jangal: nashriyeh-ye Mojahedin-e Khalq-e Iran [Jangal: journal of the People's Mojahedin of Iran] (July–August 1974): 50–51.

59. Ibid., 52.

60. NIOC to the Chair of the Senate's Complaints Commission, April 18, 1976, document 1309, Archives of the Majles, Tehran.

61. Hakimian, Hassan, “Industrialization and the Standard of Living of the Working Class in Iran, 1960–79,” Development and Change 19 (1988): 16.

62. Halliday, Fred, Iran : Dictatorship and Development, A Pelican Original (Harmondsworth: 1979), 190.

63. Charles Kurzman is critical about the “relative deprivation” argument as a causal factor in the Iranian Revolution, pointing out that compared to Indonesia, Iraq, Nigeria and Venezuela, Iran was not “the best economic performer in the group, so it is difficult to attribute the revolution to economic success.” This objection is flawed, as Kurzman treats this economic cause as a sufficient factor, reasoning that since economic growth was higher in other countries that didn't experience a revolution, it wasn't a causal factor. Kurzman, Charles, The Unthinkable Revolution in Iran (Cambridge, MA, 2004).

64. Graduated workers of Abadan Refinery to the Senate, March 27, 1968, document 1284, Archives of the Majles, Tehran.

65. Hakimian, “Industrialization and the Standard of Living of the Working Class in Iran, 1960–79,” 8.

66. Scoville, James G., “The Labor Market in Prerevolutionary Iran,” Economic Development & Cultural Change 34 (1985): 152. Due to the lack of specific data for wage increases among oil workers, the data for large manufacturing plants are used as a proxy.

67. Quoted in Ladjevardi, Habib, Labor Unions and Autocracy in Iran (Syracuse, NY, 1985), 241.

68. Scoville, “The Labor Market in Prerevolutionary Iran,” 152.

69. The World Bank, “World Development Indicators Online.”

70. Ibid.

71. Ibid.

72. Oil workers from Masjed-e Soleiman to the Senate, April 7, 1968, document 1282, Archives of the Majles, Tehran.

73. Milton R. Benjamin and Barry Came, “The Shah's Growing Pains,” Newsweek, March 1, 1976. Elkan, Walter, “Employment, Education, Training and Skilled Labor in Iran,” Middle East Journal 31 (1977).

74. International Labor Office, Employment and Income Policy for Iran (Geneva, 1973), 7374 .

75. Cook-Johnson, Gail, High-Level Manpower in Iran : From Hidden Conflict to Crisis (New York, 1980), 61.

76. Ibid., 63.

77. Atabaki, Touraj and Zürcher, Erik Jan, Men of Order : Authoritarian Modernization under Ataturk and Reza Shah (London, 2004).

78. Kargar-e Irani dar Iran-e emmruz [the Iranian Worker in Today's Iran] (Tehran, 1977), 124–25.

79. Halliday, Fred, “Iran: Trade Unions and the Working Class Opposition,” Middle East Research and Information Project (MERIP) (1978): 11.

80. The Abadan Institute of Technology and its Islamic Association, and the official syndicate were SAVAK's favorite targets.

81. Hosseiniyeh is a place for religious and social gatherings during the month of Muharram for mourning rituals and processions to commemorate the martyrdom of the third Shi'i Imam, Hussein Ibn Ali (January 626–October 680).

82. A long list of the most frequently used English words by Abadanis is provided in Falahiyeh, Ahmad Ka'bi, Vajgan-e engelisi dar guyesh-e mardom-e Abadan [English Words in the Dialect of the People of Abadan] (Tehran, 2010).

83. Barnameh va Bujeh, Sazman-e, Sarshomari-ye ‘Omumi-ye nofus va maskan-e aban mah 1355: Ostan-e Khuzestan, shahrestan-e Abadan [General Account of the Population and Housing in October/November 1976: Khuzestan Province, City of Abadan] (Tehran, 1979).

84. Audio file 1. Interview by the author, January 12, 2013, Abadan. Halliday, Iran : Dictatorship and Development, 185.

85. Audio file 5. Interview with the author, January 16, 2013, Abadan.

86. Talashonline, “Goftogu Ba Heshmat Re'isi [Interview with Heshmat Re'isi],” Talash, 22 (2005), (Accessed December 22, 2012).

87. SAVAK report on the meeting of Rastakhiz party branch of the oil company, document 00074253, CDIR Archives, Tehran.

88. Shariati's ideas were inspired by Third Worldism, Marxism, and political Islam.

89. Ashraf, “Kalbodshekafi-ye enqelab.”

90. Perrone, Wright, and Griffin, “Positional Power, Strikes and Wages,” 414.

91. Open Letter of the Common Union of the Workers of the Oil Industry to Mr. Abdollah Entezam, document 00462003, CDIR Archives, Tehran.

92. Tarrow, Sidney G., Power in Movement : Social Movements, Collective Action and Politics: Cambridge Studies in Comparative Politics (Cambridge, England and New York, 1994).

93. McAdam, Doug, McCarthy, John D., and Zald, Mayer N., Comparative Perspectives on Social Movements: Political Opportunities, Mobilizing Structures, and Cultural Framings (New York, 1996).

94. Johnston, Hank and Noakes, John A., Frames of Protest : Social Movements and the Framing Perspective (Lanham, 2005).

95. Biggs, Michael, Positive Feedback in Collective Mobilization : The American Strike Wave of 1886 (Oxford, 2001).

96. Lavalette, Michael, Barker, Colin, and Johnson, Alan, Leadership and Social Movements (Manchester, 2001).

97. The figures for 1955–1965 are from the National Iranian Oil Company, Majmu'eh-ye sokhanrani dar bareh-ye fa'aliyatha-ye san'at-e naft-e Iran [Collection of Lectures on the Activities of the Iranian Oil Industry]. The figures for 1971–1976 are from various issues of the Iranian Statistical Yearbook. The oil production figures for 1955–1964 are from Ferrier, Ronald W., “The Iranian Oil Industry,” in The Cambridge History of Iran. Vol. 7 from Nadir Shah to the Islamic Republic, ed. Avery, Peter, Hambly, Gavin, and Melville, C. P. (Cambridge, 2008), 689. The figures for 1965–1976 are from BP Historical Data.

In writing this article, I have greatly benefitted from my conversations with Kaveh Ehsani and other colleagues at the International Institute of Social History. I am thankful for their time and patience.

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International Labor and Working-Class History
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