David Bacon Stories & Photographs


By David Bacon
Pacific News Service

SAN FRANCISCO, CA (12/12/03) -- US occupation forces in Iraq escalated their efforts to paralyze Iraq’s new labor unions with a series of arrests in December. On Saturday, December 10, a convoy of ten humvees and personnel carriers descended on the old headquarters building of the Transport and Communications Workers union, in Baghdad’s central bus station, which has been used since June as the office of the Iraqi Workers Federation of Trade Unions. Twenty soldiers jumped out, stormed into the building, put handcuffs on eight members of the Federation’s executive board, and took them into detention.

“They gave no reason at all, despite being asked over and over,” says Federation spokesperson Abdullah Muhsin. Soldiers painted out the name of the federation on the front of the building with black paint. Because the new Iraqi unions lack basic resources like office furniture and machines, there was little to confiscate in the building. “But we did have a few files, and they took those,” Muhsin adds. Ironically, the office had posters on the walls condemning terrorism, which soldiers tore down in the raid.

Although the eight were released the following day, there was no explanation from the Coalition Provisional Authority for the detentions.

The bus station raid followed the detention of two other trade union leaders on November 23 -- Qasim Hadi, general secretary of the Union of the Unemployed, and Adil Salih, another leader of the organization. Hadi has been arrested twice before by occupation troops, for leading demonstrations of unemployed workers demanding unemployment benefits and jobs. In the latest raid, CPA troops said they’d found two guns in the union’s office, which was only permitted to have one. Hadi explained that the organization has been the subject of threats and fatwahs by Iraqi religious parties, and needs weapons for self-defense since US troops are unable or unwilling to provide security.

The two were released after being detained for a day.

Both union groups have been organizing Iraqi workers for months. The Iraqi Workers Federation of Trade Unions held a convention in Baghdad last June, at which it established unions in twelve industries. The Unemployed Union belongs to the Workers Unions and Councils group, which has also been organizing since last summer.

The wave of union organizing going on in Iraq is a product of the desperate conditions of the country’s workers. As many as seven million people, according to the Union of the Unemployed, or seventy percent of the workforce, have no jobs, go hungry, and are even homeless. Although Congress appropriated $87 billion for reconstruction, Dr. Nuri Jafer, the deputy minister of Labor and Social Affairs admits he can find “no country willing to fund our plans” for a minimal system of unemployment benefits. Reconstruction is invisible in Baghdad. Work may be proceeding on pipelines and ports for oil exports, but huge piles of war rubble lie untouched in city streets.

US funding in Iraq pays for an overwhelming military presence, and the transformation of the Iraqi economy. Both are intended to make the country attractive to foreign investors. In an October 8 phone press conference, Thomas Foley, director for private sector development for the Coalition Provisional Authority, announced a list of the first Iraqi state enterprises to be sold off, including cement and fertilizer plants, phosphate and sulfur mines, pharmaceutical factories and the country’s airline. On September 19, the CPA published Order No. 39, which permits 100% foreign ownership of businesses, except for the oil industry, and allows the transfer of profits outside the country.

Iraqi workers view the prospect of the privatization of their workplaces with dread, fearing the sell off will bring massive layoffs. The manager of the Al Daura oil refinery, Dathar Al-Kashab, predicted that with privatization “I’ll have to fire 1500 [of the refinery’s 3000] workers. In America when a company lays people off, there’s unemployment insurance, and they won’t die from hunger. If I dismiss employees now, I’m killing them and their families."

At the refinery, as in most factories, those with jobs work 11 and 13 hour shifts for a salary of $60 a month. They have no safety shoes, goggles, masks or other protective gear. The Iraqi Workers Federation of Trade Unions helped the refinery’s workers organize a union and elect its leaders, and have done the same in other industries. In Basra workers have formed a central labor council, and have mounted protest demonstrations. The Workers Unions and Councils group has helped workers elect committees in the State Leather Industry plant, the largest shoe factory in the Middle East, and the Mamoun Vegetable Oil enterprise, among others.

Whenever these new unions try to talk with the plant managers, however, they’re told that a law decreed by Saddam Hussein in 1987 forbids workers in state-owned enterprises (where the majority of Iraqis work) from forming unions. The CPA is still enforcing this law. Another order issued by the CPA on June 6 threatens that anyone who “incites civil disorder” will be detained as a prisoner of war under the Geneva Convention. The recent arrests are the latest incidents in this effort by the occupation authorities to suppress unions.

In mid-January, workers in Basra at the Southern Oil Company, one of the two main state-owned oil companies in the country, won Iraqi labor’s first big victory, when they defeated an attempt to lower wages from $60 to $40 a month. The union there, without bargaining rights or even the legal right to exist, then proposed a new bottom wage double the old $60 rate, and after threatening to shut down oil production, the occupation authority finally agreed to implement it,.

The anti-union campaign lays bare the economic purpose of the occupation – the privatization of the enterprises that employ most workers. While suppressing unions, international conferences take place in Washington and London every week, at which these assets are put on sale. At one recent conference, ExxonMobil, Delta Airlines and the American Hospital Group all expressed interest. Since new foreign owners can be expected to cut labor costs by laying off workers, resistance at the worksite has been made illegal by laws banning unions and the arrest of their leaders.

In an additional step to make investment attractive, the CPA is holding down the wages of Iraqi workers. The $60 a month received by most employees outside the oil industry was the same salary paid under Saddam Hussein, but the bonuses, profit-sharing payments, and subsidies for food and housing were ended when the occupation began, resulting in a drastic cut in income. “The coalition forces control the finances, and our wages," says Detrala Beshab, president of Al Daura’s new union

Iraq’s new labor movement is determined to stop the sell off of worksites, the loss of jobs, and the prohibition of unions and strikes. Jassim Mashkoul, the IFTU’s director for internal communications, laments that “at the beginning, we thought our situation might get better, since we got rid of Saddam Hussein. But it hasn’t improved." According to another federation leader, Muhsen Mull Ali, who spent two long stints in prison for organizing unions, "our responsibility is to oppose privatization as much as possible, and fight for the welfare of our workers."

But to the Bush administration and the occupation authority, this activity is a crime.


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