A Century of Workers' World in the Iranian Oil Industry

Since its discovery in 1908, the oil industry in Iran has been formed within the network of several intertwined formative relations that have undergone major changes over the course of the twentieth century. Labour relations in Iran, especially in this key industrial sector, have been crafted by a series of changing relations between the national state and a major colonial entity (Anglo-Persian Oil Company 1908-1935, Anglo-Iranian Oil Company 1935-1954), between the national state, National Iranian Oil Company, and a consortium of multinationals (1954-79), between the national state and the local and national labour force employed in the industry, and between the oil company and its employees. These relations have, therefore, affected both labour formation and labour relations in substantially diverse ways and levels, at different historical junctures. Evidently, workers' everyday life has immensely influenced their aspirations and activities, both collectively and individually.

The centurial social history of labour in the Iranian oil industry (1908-2008) has been the theme of a grand research project currently proceeding at the International Institute of Social History in Amsterdam. While the previous studies on the Persian/Iranian oil industry were chiefly crafted along the state or the oil company histories, the main objective of this project is to study the history of the Iranian oil industry from below. In doing so, the study will focus on the main aspects of labour composition (ethnicity, gender, and age), labour formation (recruitment, skills, training and education), labour relations (waging and labour discipline), labour migration, mobility and integration and the oil workers’ living conditions inside and outside of the company towns (including housing, nutrition, hygiene, health and leisure). Having assessed the material circumstances of daily existence of the oil workers at work, at home and at community, this project investigate the interaction between oil workers, the oil company and the state during hundred years following the oil discovery.


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This paper studies the labour policy adopted by the Anglo-Persian Oil Company and the British Government in the Persian oil industry during the First World War and after.

With the onset of the First World War, the British state crafted a new strategy of shifting its industry, military and navel units from consuming coal to oil energy. This transition effectively turned Persian oil into a strategic military as well as economic resource of fundamental importance to the British interests worldwide. With the rise in consumption of the oil, the expansion of the oil industry and consequently, the allocation and the maintenance of the labour force that was producing petroleum in its various forms became a priority for the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, especially as the British government had become its main shareholder since 1911. In this paper I examine the conceptualization, articulation, and implementation of the Oil Company’s shifting labour policy against the background of these greater global geopolitical shifts.

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The oil industry is Iran’s biggest state-owned company, the main source of state revenues and one of the countries biggest employers. It is no surprise then that state policies and politics and economy in general have always had a major impact on the workers of the oil industry and that in turn, oil workers have been central to important social, economic and political developments in Iran.

This paper explores how oil workers’ working and living conditions have changed in the context of major developments at a societal level, and how they have reacted and shaped these developments. Special attention is given to strategies of resistance and control in the state-labor relations in the oil industry.

These relationships are examined in three different contexts. In the period 1978-1980, high level of labor activism and organization challenged the managerial control of the state over the oil industry through strike committees, trade unions and workers’ councils.

In the second period, 1981 – 1989, the state consolidated its power, and the oil workers’ independence was heavily curtailed by a number of strategies: repression, social integration and ideological commitment. Also the destruction of parts of the oil industry, most importantly Abadan, and the dislocation of oil workers had a major impact.

In the third period, 1990 – 2008, the oil industry was rebuilt and expanded in a new context. Most importantly, the role of private and semi-private capital was increased in the oil industry through privatization and out-sourcing. Contract labor increased, the legal status of many workers changed, and the official workers’ organizations were marginalized.

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The 1951 Oil Nationalization is undoubtedly one of the keystones of the history of Iranian oil, if not the history of Iran. The historiography of modern Iran has emphasized three main events that bring forth the question of the agency of the people. These are the Constitutional Revolution of 1905-1907, the Nationalization of Oil of 1951 and the Revolution of 1979. Taken together with the national and international structural factors that ripened the conditions for these transformative moments, inter and intra-class relations are problematized in as much as they take part in these moments. The class and group interests of the people are taken as dormant factors, awakened in the making of these events.

Studying the archival materials of BP, the British National Archives, Washington National Archives and Records Administration, the Iranian National Archives and the narratives of individual workers, this paper scrutinizes the inter and intra class relations of the oil workers of Iran between these two important moments. The continuities and ruptures in these relations will be studied with respect to the changes in the living and working conditions of the oil workers. It is aimed to understand the mechanism of the power relations within the oil producing community and their link with the processes that build up to the making of these historical events. It is argued that the “war of position” in the everyday life of the workers in these much less studied years of “interlude” has been effective in the making of these main events of the modern history of Iran and that the power relations that this war of position has led to have been reflected in the making of these moments.

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This paper investigates the intertwined global, national, and local processes that led to the assemblage of the oil complex in Khuzestan during Reza Shah’s reign through the WW2. I will focus on analyzing the transformation of the built environment of the refinery city of Abadan, since the urban space of this city was a key locale where the social actors involved in materializing oil as a strategic global commodity were interacting in protracted and contested processes that allowed oil to flow. These actors ranged from local and national state agents, Oil Company experts and operatives, British government operators, oil workers and their extended geographic and kinship networks across various communities, and the diverse urban dwellers of Abadan whose lives were intertwined with the expanding oil industry. The Island of Abadan was sparsely inhabited in 1911, but it had grown into a booming city of more than quarter of a million by mid century, faced with tremendous challenges. All the social agents involved in the oil complex actively engaged in remaking the built environment of the city according to their interests and priorities. The jumbled and eventually cosmopolitan urban space that emerged encapsulated the motives and intent behind these conflicting interests. The paper will focus on the institutionalization of the practice of urban planning by the Oil Company in the company town enclaves, the expansion of the indigenous non-company town that grew as a counter space to the planned company areas, and on how the urban ensemble of Abadan linked to its wider rural region and the national space. Oil workers, whose labor made the flow of oil a reality, were shaped in the protracted struggles and accommodations that were framed by the physical space and the built environment of city.