Another Brick in the Wall: Protesting Education in Iran

Zep Kalb.

Published on MERIP on November 2, 2017.

At ten o’clock in the morning, Thursday October 5, 2017, about 500 teachers gathered in front of the Budget and Planning Office in Tehran. [1] They were joined by thousands of colleagues protesting in front of education offices in a reported 21 cities across the country. Turning Global Teachers’ Day into a nationwide occasion to express their discontent, Iran’s teachers demanded higher wages and more government investment in education.[2]

The administration of President Hassan Rouhani, elected in 2013 and re-elected last summer, [3] has been rocked by repeated rounds of teachers’ demonstrations. Teachers in Iran have a long history of protest reaching back to at least 1961. Yet, in terms of geographical breadth, the current round of protests appears unprecedented in the Islamic Republic. The 2009 Green Movement, which constituted the largest popular demonstrations since the 1979 revolution, as well as an earlier wave of teachers’ demonstrations in the early 2000s, were largely restricted to Tehran and a handful of major cities. [4] Not so this time.
As researchers have explained, organization plays a central role in making labor protests larger and more targeted. [5] Founded in 1998, the Teachers’ Guild Association (Kanun-e Senfi-ye Mo’aleman, or Kanun) functions as Iran’s principle teachers’ union. [6] Alongside the Kanun, several non-union, political organizations also occasionally mobilize teachers, the most important of which is the pro-reformist Teachers’ Organization (Sazman-e Mo’aleman).

As is often the case with trade unionism in authoritarian and semi-authoritarian contexts, the Kanun has some limited ability to participate in national politics through lobbying and occasional demonstrations, but is not able, organizationally and politically, to defend teachers’ rights in the workplace. [7] Consequently, the Kanun’s membership base has remained narrow—not more than a few hundred participated in the most recent board election. [8]

Social media, and in particular the application Telegram, however, appears to provide key mobilization support. First released in 2013, Telegram rapidly become Iran’s most popular instant messaging service. Unlike pure messaging applications such as WhatsApp or Viber, Telegram provides enhanced possibilities for mass communication and networking and thus resembles Facebook in some ways, which was blocked by the Iranian government in the wake of the 2009 Green Movement protests. [9] Kanun’s Telegram account has around 20,000 followers, and multiple smaller spin-offs and subsidiary accounts exist. These Telegram accounts are used to circulate news about collective actions and demonstrations, reaching a far larger audience than before. Of the 140,000 signatures collected by a February 2017 petition calling for an increase in the education budget, up to 110,000 people signed online. [10]

The inclusiveness of the protests has also changed radically, and social media is certainly not the only reason for that. During protests in the early 2000s, female teachers—who constitute around 50 percent of all staff—eagerly participated in demonstrations over freedom of speech and against unfair imprisonment of their colleagues and union leaders, but shunned the more economically-focused protest actions. Many, if not most, of these women were second bread winners in the family and few of them participated in protests over pay. Instead, protests for higher salaries were mostly made up of men. Economics and household finance was regarded as male terrain, while issues over citizenship and freedom of speech were not so gender-specific.

In contrast, the past three years has witnessed a sharp increase in the number of women and retired teachers participating in the movement for better pay. Following several years of high inflation and rising living costs, a spate of corruption scandals at a major teacher-only pension fund, [11] and occasional government delays in disbursing wages, these two groups not only feel increasingly compelled to have their voices heard, but are also motivated to do so by primary bread winners.

Moreover, state-employed teachers on permanent contracts are not the only participants in recent protests. Instructors active in the weakly regulated private sector have also joined in, notably those teaching in preschools, and those on temporary state contracts.


Female teachers in the city of Qazvin during the April 16, 2015 demonstrations hold up a banner proclaiming: “Social provisions and reducing teachers’ living concerns are a necessity. There is no doubting that.” Source: ILNA

The dynamics of teachers’ protests are strongly influenced by Iran’s institutional and political configurations. Since the early 2000s, a recurring pattern is that the protests start by calling for higher wages, equal pay scales with other government employees, and the reduction of the salary gap with managers. Once protests reach levels of contentiousness that are found unacceptable by conservative, unelected state bodies, such as the judiciary or the police, a crackdown is launched. At this point, reformist political organizations, notably the Teachers’ Organization, tend to step in to mobilize for the release of arrested teachers and the right to peaceful protest. The relationship between the Kanun and the Teachers’ Organization has evolved surprisingly little—the Kanun has remained committed to the formal ban on trade unions’ “political interference,” leaving the reformist Teachers’ Organization in charge of mobilizing teachers when the going gets tough.

This pattern does not fully apply to the present period, at least so far. Over the course of 2015, protests framed in largely economic terms came under increasing state scrutiny, culminating in mid-2015 in the arrest of several of the Kanun’s leaders, notably Esmail Abdi and Mohammad Beheshti Langrudi. Yet this time, the Teachers’ Organization did not take to the streets to politicize the protests, leaving the Kanun on its own. On the one hand, the Teachers’ Organization appears reluctant to mobilize against the current reform-leaning, centrist government. On the other hand, several years of repression have severely affected the organization’s functioning. Notably, reformists were only able to get the head of the Teachers’ Organization, Alireza Hashemi Senjani, released from prison in mid-2016. Fearing further confrontation with the state, the Kanun decided to demobilize in the latter half of 2015, staying away from the streets until 2017. In the end, the buzz of the 2017 presidential elections loosened restrictions on public political actions and discussions, providing new mobilizing opportunities for the Kanun. This second wave of teachers’ protests is still ongoing.

The Politics Behind the Protests

The Ministry of Education is the common political target of teachers, unions, and elites of primary and secondary education. Up to 97 percent of its budget is spent on teachers’ salaries, giving the ministry an oversized role in handling the current protest movement, and thus in Iran’s competitive national political arena. [12]

Morteza Haji, who was education minister during the reformist government of Mohammad Khatami, famously described the ministry as “a giant organization…in which everyone believes he has the right to intervene.” He went on, “Demands from some to get their children into certain schools, pressures for bureaucratic restructuring, parliament members who want their friends as CEO or vice president of this or that organization and finally the collective demand for wage increases—these chores take all of our time [and] prevent us from thinking.” [13]

Since the turn of the millennium, the Ministry of Education has employed roughly stable numbers of civil employees, totaling one million or about half of the entire civil service. [14] Over the same period, pupils enrolled in nursery to secondary education have dropped from 17.3 million in 2000-01 to 13.4 million in the 2015-16 school year. [15] Several teachers told me that class sizes in Tehran have declined from often 50 pupils per teacher then to below 30 now—a clear improvement.

During the reformist Khatami administration (1997–2005), the teachers’ demonstrations, which took off in early 2002 and continued through to 2005, laid claim as the first sector-wide movement for higher pay. [16] In parliament and government, the movement was repeatedly framed as preoccupied with collective bargaining (senfi), and not politics (gheir-e siyasi) or factionalism (fara-jenahi). Observers hailed the protests as horizontal expressions of popular support for reform rather than anti-regime action, and thus emblematic of Iran’s incipient democracy. [17]

The Khatami government, not used to these new forms of labor action, took note. The budget allocated to the Ministry of Education grew, both in absolute and relative terms. In one scholar’s survey of several hundred male Tehran-based teachers in late 2004, 46 percent of respondents said that labor unions had a positive impact on realizing their economic demands, even if only 10 percent of teachers confided that they participated regularly in union-organized demonstrations. [18]

Yet, the Khatami government’s progress on pushing through a transformative legal framework for teachers’ remuneration was slow, if not a failure. When the 2004 parliamentary elections showed a clear victory for conservatives, the reformist government was left with little means at its disposal to appease protestors.

The 2005 presidential victory of the oppositional and conservative candidate Mahmoud Ahmadinejad confused and fragmented the teachers’ movement. While roughly clamping down on teachers’ protests in early 2006 and neutralizing the Kanun and the Teachers’ Organization, the Ahmadinejad government also increased the Ministry of Education’s budget significantly. In 2004-05, the ministry was allocated 7.8 percent of the total budget, rising to 8.7 percent the next year and to over 11 percent in 2006-07. [19] No less important, the Ahmadinejad administration was able to reform government employees’ economic rights and regulations in early 2007 by pushing through changes in the Management of Civil Service Law (the Qanun-e Modiriyat-e Khadamat-e Keshvari). Lobbied for by teachers since Khatami, these reforms satisfied the main demands of the movement, providing a framework for fair remuneration and generous welfare benefits. Notably, it enables teachers to claim benefits on the basis of their level of education, years of experience, and whether they work in remote, poorer regions of the country.

Yet, simultaneously, Ahmadinejad presided over casualization of state employment as well as the growth of the private education sector, the legal basis for which was laid already by the Third Development Plan (2000–2005). While figures for pre-tertiary education are difficult to come by, available data for higher education give a rough picture. Temporary contracts shot up from around 40 percent of all academic jobs in 2003-04 to over 60 percent in 2013-14. [20] While state ministries are increasingly making use of such insecure, short-term contracts, the private sector is also growing rapidly. In early 2014, around 45 percent of all primary and secondary schools in Tehran were private. [21] Teachers in the private sector do not qualify for many of the benefits contained in the 2007 law. Therefore, private sector growth combined with lousy implementation of welfare arrangements has made teaching in Iran not simply poorly paid, but also increasingly precarious. According to officials, salaries of teachers on permanent state contracts average $400-500 per month. [22] While this is low for many households aspiring to belong to Iran’s middle class, temps and private sector teachers can earn as little as $200, with limited chances of pay rises later in their career.

The simultaneous expansion of rights and precarity provides the context for the new teacher protests. The 2007 law is invoked by temporarily-employed teachers in their fight for higher wages, and by others who make a claim for wages in line with their working experience. [23] When officials emphasized that this law does not include nursery school teachers, these largely female, highly precarious, and poorly-paid workers started to rally in front of parliament, challenging and seeking to embarrass state and government officials.


Nursery school instructors stage a sit-in in front of parliament on May 17, 2015. Source: ILNA

Achievements and Challenges

Since the end of the Ahmadinejad presidency and the election of Hassan Rouhani in 2013, the Kanun has been able to re-organize itself and call for the implementation of Ahmadinejad-era legislation, as well as expanded government investment. So far, their success has remained limited. Inheriting high inflation and facing a collapse in oil prices in the context of international sanctions, the Rouhani government has done its best to curtail budgetary expenditures, frustrating demands for an increase in educational expenditures.

Following dozens of smaller independent actions by nursery school teachers and instructors active in the Literacy Movement Organization (Nahzat-e Savad Amuzi), parliament finally responded in mid-2015 by approving a law that would see these two groups formally employed by the state. While state-employed teachers and academics have long opposed temporary contracts, preschool and Literacy Movement instructors struggle for formal recognition by the Ministry of Education, and the concomitant welfare benefits and job security this would entail. Yet, even if progress has been made, the bill has still not been finalized, with officials citing the high costs of the plan. [24]

Similarly, the Kanun’s demand to significantly increase next year’s budget is unlikely to be met. After a conservative campaign against the former education minister, Rouhani had to compromise on his preferred candidate for the post in his current cabinet. [25] In the end, Rouhani settled on Mohammad Batiani, a move largely endorsed by more conservative elements in parliament. As a technocrat with a background in the fiscally-prudent Budget and Planning Organization, Batiani lacks ties to reformist teachers’ unions and organizations. He will try his best to keep the Ministry of Education apolitical. But, as teachers’ protests will be part of the ongoing battle over resources and accountability, whether that is possible at all remains to be seen.

 

Endnotes

[1] ILNA, October 5, 2017.
[2] Radio Farda, October 5, 2017.
[3] Naghmeh Sohrabi and Arang Keshavarzian, “Lessons Learned (and Ignored): Iran’s 2017 Election in Context,” Middle East Report Online (2017).
[4] This finding is based on my analysis of demonstration-related newspaper reports of the early 2000s.
[5] Joel Beinin, Workers and Thieves: Labor Movements and Popular Uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2015).
[6] The Kanun became officially licensed in late 2000.
[7] See, for example, Graeme Robertson, “Strikes and Labor Organization in Hybrid Regimes,” The American Political Science Review, 101/4 (2007): 781–798.
[8] This managerial board election was held on October 18, 2016. Esmail Abdi received the most votes, 179. Results available here.
[9] Narges Bajoghli, “Iranian Cyber-Struggles,” Middle East Report Online (2012).
[10] ILNA, February 27, 2017.
[11] The pension fund, called the Mo’aseseh-ye Sanduq-e Zakhireh-ye Farhangiyan, has over 800,000 members.
[12] Mehr News, May 31, 2016.
[13] Quoted in Shirzad Abdollahi, “Az ‘Eteraz-e Mo’aleman ta Estiza’-e Vazir-e Amuzesh va Parvaresh dar Dulat-e Nohom,” Goftogu, 49 (1386 [2007]).
[14] Statistical Centre of Iran.
[15] Ibid.
[16] Mohammad Maljoo, “Worker Protest in the Age of Ahmadinejad,” Middle East Report, 36 (2006).
[17] Ali Hajli, “ ’Eteraz-e Senfi-ye Mo’aleman va Jame’eh-ye Pasasiyasi,” Sharq, Ordibehesht 12, 1383 (May 1, 2004).
[18] Mohammad Maljoo, “Motalebat-e Eqtesadi-ye Tabaqeh-ye Motevaset dar Iran: Nemuneh Pajhuhi-ye Geruh-e Shoghli-ye Mo’aleman,” Goftogu, 46 (1385 [2006]).
[19] In absolute numbers: $5.6 billion in 2005-06, $7 billion in 2006-07, and $8.2 billion in 2007-08. These numbers are converted, approximate figures calculated from each year’s average exchange rate. Donya-ye Eqtesad, December 18, 2013.
[20] Data provided by the Institute for Research and Planning in Higher Education.
[21] Tehran Press, January 30, 2014.
[22] Fars News Agency, May 2, 2016.
[23] For more on welfare, politics, and demand-making, see Kevan Harris, A Social Revolution: Politics and the Welfare State in Iran (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2017).
[24] Tasnim News, October 3, 2017.
[25] Zep Kalb, “Education key battleground as Rouhani’s second term,” Al-Monitor, August 27, 2017.

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