David Bacon Stories & Photographs


by David Bacon
The Progressive, ILWU Dispatcher 12/03
Project Censored Award, 2004
Max Steinbock Award, 2004

Most Iraqi workers hoped the fall of Saddam Hussein would liberate them, enabling them to recover their lost rights. Chief among them was the right to an independent union. In 1987, the regime of Saddam Hussein reclassified most Iraqi workers--those who labored in the huge state enterprises that are the heart of the country's economy--as civil servants. As such, they were prohibited from forming unions and bargaining.

The occupation, however, didn't lift this decree. It is still in force, as privatization looms like a sword of Damocles over those workers and the factories on which they depend for survival. And while keeping in place the ban on unions, the occupation authorities have kept wages low and unemployment high.

For Iraqi workers, the signal could not be clearer: The overthrow of Saddam did not bring liberation.

Iraq has a long history of labor and radical activity, born in the fight against Britain's six-year occupation at the end of World War I. Starting with oil, railroad, and dock workers, unions mounted strike after strike, which the British suppressed at gunpoint, often killing strikers. The monarchy the British installed, lasting until 1958, continued to make union organizing illegal. After the 1958 revolution, unions and radical political parties were able to come above ground for the first time. But in 1963, the CIA helped mount a coup against the Kassem government, and the Ba'ath Party took over. In 1977, Saddam Hussein purged the unions and made radical parties illegal again. Many labor activists were executed, and others fled into exile.

Following the fall of the Saddam regime in April, organizers of the independent unions resurfaced. In Basra, they mounted a strike two days after the arrival of British troops, demanding the right to organize and protesting the appointment of a Ba'ath Party member as the new mayor. In June, 400 union activists met in Baghdad, forming the Workers Democratic Trade Union Federation. The group laid plans to reorganize unions in twelve of the country's main industries.

After that meeting, organizers fanned out to workplaces, including the Al Daura oil refinery, located just outside Baghdad. There they encouraged workers in each of the nine departments to elect union committees and to choose leaders for the entire installation. While the plant manager seemed willing to talk with the union, he was not able to sign any kind of contract with the federation. The refinery and all other state enterprises are still covered by the law issued by Saddam in 1987.

Since the arrival of troops in April, unions and workers have been demanding that the occupation authorities repudiate this law, as they have with many others issued under the Saddam regime. The occupation authorities in this case, however, have been silent. In the absence of a new order repealing the old decree, it remains in force, prohibiting any form of collective bargaining for most Iraqi workers. In particular, it affects those workers who are employed in enterprises set to be privatized. If those workers have no legal union, no right to bargain, and no contracts, the privatization of the plants--and the huge job losses that will come with it--will be much more difficult to oppose.

"At the beginning, we thought our situation might get better after we got rid of Saddam. But it hasn't," says Jassim Mashkoul, director of communications of the trade union federation.

The new Iraqi state is a case study in the free market unleashed. The Bush Administration foresees two ways the Iraqi economy will be transformed, and it is taking measures to ensure that workers don't disrupt either one. First, it will privatize the old state enterprises that have employed most workers. Second, it will create favorable conditions for an army of (mostly U.S.) corporations to set up shop and repatriate their profits outside the country.

On September 19, the Coalition Provisional Authority published Order No. 39, which permits 100 percent foreign ownership of businesses, except for the oil industry, and allows repatriation of profits. Order No. 37, published the same day, suspends income and property taxes for the year, and limits taxes on individuals and corporations in the future to 15 percent.

In an October 8 phone press conference, Thomas Foley, director of private sector development for the Coalition Provisional Authority, announced that he would soon propose to the Iraqi Governing Council a list of the first state enterprises to be sold off. While promising to exclude the oil wells, electrical generation stations, and banks (at least at first), he mentioned cement and fertilizer plants, phosphate and sulfur mines, pharmaceutical factories, and the country's airline. Some 138 of 600 state-owned enterprises have already been offered for sale, according to some reports.

Dathar Al-Kashab, who was appointed to manage the Al Daura refinery two months ago, having been an engineer there since 1966, predicts that privatization would have an enormous effect. "A worker starting here today has a job for life under the old system. There is no law that permits me to lay him off. But if I put on the hat of privatization, I'll have to fire 1,500 [of the refinery's 3,000] workers," he says. "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 state-owned Mamoun Factory of Vegetable Oils, production is low, and many of the plant's injection molding machines, which make plastic bottles for the oil, are disabled. Replacement parts were unavailable during twelve years of sanctions, and the plant was inspected twenty times as a possible site for chemical weapons production. Today, the plant's 771 workers worry that despite the lack of repairs, the factory's huge assets make it a prime candidate for sale to a private owner. Iraqi newspapers are already carrying stories on possible buyers.

"There's no private person in Iraq with enough money to buy this place," says manager Amir Faraj Bhajet. "It would have to be a foreign owner. They would like the assets, but would they want the workers?"

Despite the hostility of the Coalition Provisional Authority, the fall of the Saddam regime has led to an explosion of workplace organizing activity. Low wages are one motivation. The Iraqi government employs 70 percent of the workforce. The authority has set an emergency pay scale. Though The New York Times says wages are going up, that's not what I found. Most workers get about $60 a month, a small group gets $120, and a tiny minority (mostly administrators and managers) $180. This is the same wage scale that prevailed under the last few years of the Saddam Hussein regime.

"The current emergency wage is totally incapable of supporting us," says one worker at the Al Daura oil refinery, complaining anonymously for fear that he would lose his job.

In the last month, the refinery has seen three work stoppages. Workers congregated in front of the management office to demand a pay hike.

At the General State Leather Industry Factory, the largest shoe factory in the Middle East, one worker explains how she is supporting six people in her family on $120 a month. "The price of food and clothing is going up rapidly, and the salary is very low. We work hard, and I've been here ten years. I have to have a raise," she pleads. On the day I visit the leather factory, workers there organize a march to the labor ministry, complaining about their manager and the wages.

These are not the only such demonstrations. Similar protests have been going on at workplaces throughout the country.

The $87 billion that Congress just passed is not going to be used to increase wages or implement a huge jobs program. About 70 percent of the workforce--seven to eight million people--are unemployed. Nuri Jafer, assistant to the Iraqi minister of labor, describes in glowing terms his idea for a new system of unemployment benefits. He says he hopes to pay a survival income "without removing the motivation from people to go out and find jobs." Leaving aside his rote repetition of the free-marketeers' horror that poor people might lose their desire to work, Nuri's explanation had one other major problem. "Unfortunately," he concedes, "we have yet to find any country willing to help us fund it."

Working conditions are exhausting and dangerous. At the Al Daura refinery, Detrala Beshab, president of the refinery's new union, notes that while the workday is officially seven hours, the day shift is actually eleven hours long, and the night shift thirteen hours. Since workers are paid by the month, there is no overtime pay. "When we talked to the manager, he told us he had to talk to the oil ministry, which had to talk to the finance ministry, which had to get permission from the coalition forces," he says. "The coalition forces control the finances--and our wages."

The workers' situation is so desperate that the refinery gives them motor oil every month to make up for their low income. On the highway outside the plant, the sons of refinery workers have set up little roadside stands selling it to passing cars.

In Saddam's time, no one could afford to retire. "The pension wasn't enough to pay a taxi to collect the check," Beshab says with a laugh. But the refinery and every other state enterprise did pay other important benefits. There was a system of bonuses and profit-sharing, which often was as much as the salary itself, and a food subsidy, as well. All those benefits disappeared when the occupation authorities took over. Essentially, workers have suffered a drastic cut in income since April as a result of decisions by the Coalition Provisional Authority. And a jump in the exchange rate has made imports more expensive--in effect, another cut in salary.

No one in the refinery, except the fire department, has boots or gloves. Safety glasses are unknown. "Lots of us have breathing problems, and there are accidents in which people get burned," explains union member Rajid Hassan. If workers get hurt or sick, they have to pay for their own medical care, and they lose pay for the time they're off the job.

At the shoe and vegetable oil factories, another new labor group called the Workers' Unions and Councils began organizing workers this summer. With its encouragement, shoe factory workers formed a union and demanded legal recognition. Like workers at the refinery, they complained about long hours without overtime pay, no vacations, and the disappearance of their extra pay when the occupation started. "Life has gotten much worse," one worker says. "Everything is controlled by the coalition. We don't control anything."

About fifty people set off from the plant to the labor ministry on October 11 to demand legal status, while other workers who stayed behind explained their demands. They spoke openly, but nevertheless feared to give their names, saying they might be subject to retaliation. One of their leaders declared that although he'd organized the march, the factory's managers had forbidden him to participate in it.

"We're demanding the right to form a union," he explains, "which must have full authority to represent workers here." Workers don't see the plant management as the real boss. "The administration just represents the ministry," he says. "We must change this law that says we don't have to right to a union. If the law doesn't change, we'll change it anyway, like it or not."

The factory's technical manager confirmed that it had sent a letter to the ministry of mineral industries and resources, asking if the company could negotiate with the new union. No, came the reply.

Even without legal status, however, unions are finding ways to operate and win some demands. In the vegetable oil factory, the union was successfully able to force managers to rehire some workers who had been fired under Saddam for belonging to the Al Daiwa Party. That party, banned under Saddam, now is a member of the Iraqi Governing Council.

The new union's demands include reclassifying the workers so they can receive higher salaries, lifting the punishment of other banned former employees, and reinstating profit-sharing. The union hopes to sign up members in other state-owned factories. "A major reason for our existence is to eliminate the laws issued by the Ba'ath regime," says its general secretary, Majeed Sahib Kareem.

"For us, war and occupation are a reality," declares Abdullah Muhsin, the federation's international representative. "We stood against the war before it started, but we couldn't stop it. Now our concern is to help our country and protect our members."

The federation wants Saddam's government-affliated union structure to be dissolved. And it is demanding that the benefit funds and buildings be turned over to the new unions. The occupation authorities have turned a deaf ear to these appeals.

Another leader of the federation, Muhsen Mull Ali, spent two long stints in prison for organizing unions in Basra. "They will reimpose capitalism on us, so our responsibility is to oppose privatization as much as possible, and fight for the welfare of our workers," he says.

That fight is particularly difficult in the midst of a war against occupation. If the armed conflict intensifies, the political space may close.

Keeping open the space for unions to organize and for workers to gain some control over the economic decisions that will affect their lives is not a concern of Iraqis alone. Union leaders from Britain, France, and the International Labor Organization have visited Iraq to press for workers' rights.

Arab trade unionists are among the most adamant. "War makes privatization easy: First you destroy the society, and then you let the corporations rebuild it," says Hacene Djemam, general secretary of the International Confederation of Arab Trade Unions.

Meanwhile, labor peace activists in the United States have begun to reach out to the new Iraqi unions. U.S. Labor Against the War, which brought together unions and labor councils that opposed the Bush intervention before it took place, is speaking up again. It has announced it will mount a national campaign to oppose privatization, get the 1987 law lifted, and expose the violations of labor rights in Iraq. "We need Congressional hearings into the union-busting actions by the U.S. occupation authorities in Iraq," says Clarence Thomas, of the San Francisco Longshore local. "If unions here knew what's being done in our name over there, they'd be outraged."

A delegation from U.S. Labor Against the War visited Iraq in October to investigate conditions. The group had a formal meeting with Nuri of the Iraqi labor ministry. He was asked three times whether the 1987 law would be repealed. Each time he made a long speech but in the end failed to answer the question. Sitting on a couch next to him in his ornate office was Leslie Findley, a British representative of the Coalition Provisional Authority, who is assigned to oversee the ministry. She was asked the same question and also refused to answer. Then she complained about the number of foreign union delegations visiting the ministry. "I'm going to tell the minister that these are taking too much of his time, and recommend that he concentrate instead on doing his job."

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photographs and stories by David Bacon © 1990-1999

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