David Bacon Stories & Photographs


By David Bacon


BASRA, IRAQ (11/4/05) - The cracking towers and gas flares of the al-Daura oil refinery rise above the neighborhood on Baghdad's outskirts that bears its name. On February 18, Ali Hassan Abd (Abu Fahad), a leader of the refinery's union, was walking home from work with his young children, when gunmen ran up and shot him. Abu Fahad had been one of 400 union activists who emerged from the underground or returned from exile in May 2003, and at a Baghdad conference formed the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions. Afterwards, he went back to the refinery and urged his fellow workers to elect department and plant-wide committees. That, in turn, became a nucleus of the Oil and Gas Workers Union, one of the twelve industry unions that make up the IFTU.

Less than a week after Fahad was killed, on February 24, armed men gunned down Ahmed Adris Abbas in Baghdad's Martyrs' Square. Adris Abbas was an activist in the Transport and Communications Union, another IFTU affiliate. The murder of the two followed the torture and assassination of Hadi Saleh, the IFTU's international secretary, in Baghdad on January 4. Moaid Hamed, general secretary of the IFTU's Mosul branch, was kidnapped in mid-February, as was Talib Khadim Al Tayee, president of the metal and print workers union. Both were later released.

The targeting of trade unionists is a particularly alarming feature of life in occupied Iraq. According to the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, "the torture and murder of labour leaders in Iraq has become a troubling trend in a country where trade unionists still operate under anti-union legislation which dates back to the Saddam era." Despite these assassinations and the deterioration in security, however, the effort by Iraqi unions to win legal status and recognition has grown stronger over the past year. From the increasing power of the oil workers in the south to the campaigns in factories in Baghdad and the north, Iraqi workers continue to organize unions and strikes in the face of attacks from the insurgency on the one hand, and by the occupation forces on the other.

At the same time, the political jockeying produced first by the January elections and then by the referendum on the proposed Constitution have had an impact in unions. As new political coalitions are being formed, some unions hope to parlay political connections into government recognition for their legitimacy. The debate over federalism - the relative power Iraq's central government should have in relation to that of the Shiite region in the south and the Kurdish region in the north - is reverberating through Iraq's labor movement, leading to a new source of division.

Iraq is growing more dangerous for labor and civil society activists. Even the southern region around Basra, which was relatively free from bombing attacks for the first two years of the occupation, is suffering from rising violence. Hassan Juma'a, head of the General Union of Oil Employees at Iraq's huge oil installations in the south, predicts that "an attack on myself will take place, but I'm not afraid. I expect the terrorists will strike everywhere." Juma'a, like most Iraqi unionists, attributes the January murder of Hadi Saleh and other leaders to remnants of Saddam's secret police, the old Mukhabharat. "They seem to be able to operate freely," he says.

The Federation of Workers Councils and Unions of Iraq (FWCUI) reports that it recently discovered a plot to bribe relatives of its leaders in Basra, and to eventually kidnap and kill them. Harry Barnes, a left-wing Labour Party Member of Parliament in the UK who maintains with close ties to Iraqi unions, charges that "the so-called resistance is deliberately targeting leaders of the Iraqi labor movement in order to prevent the growth of a new civil society in Iraq."

IFTU leaders are being singled out in the broader context of anti-union violence, in part a probable response to the union's position on the January elections and subsequent political process, one of the issues on which Iraqi unions disagree. "The IFTU supports democratic principles," explains Ghasib Hassan, head of the IFTU's Railway and Aviation Union, "and one of those principles is elections. So we supported them. The IFTU wants to see a democratically elected and accountable government, mandated by the people, so we can raise our legitimate questions and concerns ... This election was also a way of facing head-on those extremists and anti-democratic forces who don't want to see Iraq a democratic and secure state."

Iraq's other unions are more dubious about the current political process. The FWCUI condemned participation in last January's elections. "We called on workers to boycott these elections, because people were divided according to their ethnicity, language and religion," explains Falah Alwan, the federation's president. "Its purpose was to impose the American project on Iraq, and give legitimacy to the government imposed by the Americans and the occupying coalition. The same parties we saw in the old Governing Council will remain in power, and the political balance will remain the same." The union was similarly critical of the constitutional referendum, calling it "another episode of the US scenario in Iraq." The oil workers union took no official position on the January elections, but its leaders estimate that most members voted for the party slate headed by the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, which now governs the country.

Iraqi unions do agree, however, on other broad political issues, particularly the occupation itself, which they regard, as Ghasib Hassan puts it, as "brutal." The IFTU, like other Iraqi labor federations, has close relations with a set of political parties, in its case the Iraqi Communist Party (with two ministers in the current government), the party of former Prime Minister Issad al Allawi, and a party of Arab nationalists. IFTU activists say they opposed the occupation before the war, but were forced to deal with it once it began. They call for using UN Resolution 1545 as the basis for insisting that the United States leave once an elected government holds office.

"The war has resulted in extreme destruction in our country," Hassan says. "This is not liberation. It is occupation, and we oppose it absolutely. At the beginning of the 21st century, we thought we'd seen the end of colonies, but now we're entering a new era of colonialization."

The FWCUI is affiliated with the Workers' Communist Party of Iraq, which has taken a much more distant attitude toward the occupation authorities. Alwan says UN forces should replace U.S. troops. "We call for a congress of liberation, including all the powers in Iraq, to end the occupation and rebuild civil society," he explains. The General Union of Oil Employees wants the troops to leave right away. After surveying its members, "almost everyone [told us] they want the occupation to end immediately, and the immediate withdrawal of all occupying forces from Iraq," says Juma'a. In August he emphasized that the GUOE "demands the immediate departure of the occupation forces from the country, because we are capable of administering the state as Iraqis,
whatever the consequences ... The current divisions are caused by the occupation."

Following a June tour of the United States organized by U.S. Labor Against the War (USLAW), the three unions agreed on a statement. It was the first time Iraq's major unions have developed a common position on the two key issues that confront them - the occupation and privatization. "The occupation must end in all its forms, including military bases and economic domination," the statement said. "The war was fought for oil and regional domination, in violation of international law, justified by lies and deception, without consultation with the Iraqi people. The occupation has been a catastrophe for both our peoples."

The statement condemned the occupation's economic program. "The national wealth and resources of Iraq belong to the Iraqi people," it emphasized. "We are united in our opposition to the imposition of privatization of the Iraqi economy by the occupation, the IMF [International Monetary Fund], the World Bank, foreign powers and any force that takes away the right of the Iraqi people to determine their own economic future."

There are many reasons why workers and unions hate the occupation. Iraqi unemployment, according to the economics faculty of Baghdad University, has been at 70 percent since the occupation started. Among U.S. occupation czar Paul Bremer's extreme free-market-oriented orders was number 30, issued in September 2003 and still in force. It lowered the base wage in public enterprises (where most permanently-employed Iraqis work) to $35/month, and ended subsidies for food and housing. Most of all, workers hate Law 150, issued by Saddam Hussein in 1987, which prohibited unions and collective bargaining in the public sector. Bremer chose to continue enforcing this measure, and bound the transitional governments which followed him to do the same. Bremer backed up the edict by issuing Public Order 1, banning even advocacy leading to civil disorder. He arrested IFTU leaders, expelling them from their Baghdad offices. He also put down some of the first street protests in Baghdad, organized by the Union of Unemployed of Iraq (part of the FWCUI) and arrested the union's head, Qasim Hadi, many times.

Iraqi unions see these moves as a way to soften up workers to ensure they don't resist the privatization of the country's economy. Interviewed at the Al-Doura refinery in October 2003, manager Dathar Al-Kashab predicted that in the event of privatization, "I'd 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."

Privatization defies the tradition of social solidarity in Iraq, which favors using oil revenues to industrialize the country, creating a public sector that can put people to work and ensure a self-sustaining national economy. Hassan Juma'a says workers at the Southern Oil Company began organizing their union as the troops were entering Basra because of "our fear that the purpose of the occupation was the oil, that they've come to take control of the oil industry. Without organizing ourselves, we would be unable to protect our industry." In May, the GUOE organized a conference in Basra opposing the privatization of the oil industry. The union seeks to initiate a political front in the south to stop the occupation from placing transnational corporations in control of oil resources. The gathering featured presentations by academics at Basra University, speeches by GUOE members and leaders, and participation from the IFTU, the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq and the Iraqi Communist Party.

The IFTU also opposes privatization. "Iraqi publicly owned enterprises should stay publicly owned," says Ghasib Hassan. "We will never accept the privatization of oil. It is the only source of wealth we can use to rebuild our country." Alwan and the FCWUI have organized worker committees in a number of Baghdad factories, and opposition to privatization has been a major motivation there also. Interviewed in October 2003, at the Mamoun Vegetable Oil Factory, manager Amir Faraj Bhajet observed that "there's no private person in Iraq with enough money to buy this place. It would have to be a foreign owner. They would like the assets, but would they want the workers?"

Despite facing a hostile occupation with a vested interest in their suppression, and an armed insurgency targeting unions and civil society, Iraq's labor movement has made remarkable progress in organizing workers and challenging free-market policies. This past February, as IFTU leaders were being killed, Baghdad's hotel workers belonging to the federation struck first the Sheraton, and then the next-door Palestine Hotel. Both are luxurious establishments behind high blast walls, housing U.S. journalists and administrators. The IFTU managed to force de facto recognition and bargaining in some workplaces, and now claims 12 national unions, and 200,000 members. Metalworkers at Baghdad's Al Nassr molding and car parts factory won a minimum wage of 150,000 Iraqi dinars (about $100) per month. The Rail Workers Union forced a wage increase at Railways of the Iraqi Republic from 75,000 to 125,000 Iraqi dinars per month, and equal pay for men and women.

In May 2004, Basra's power station workers, a hotbed of union activity, elected the first woman union president in Iraq's history. Hashimia Muhsin Hussein says the Electricity and Energy Workers' Union "will continue to struggle for workers rights' to union representation, social justice and a stable, pluralistic and democratic Iraq." In May, 2005, she threatened to call a strike in the country's power plants if the government didn't stop replacing longtime workers in the state-owned industry with private contractors.

Basra is the scene of Iraqi workers' biggest victory so far. At the Southern Oil Company, the union first took on KBR, a division of Halliburton Corp., which was given a no-bid reconstruction contract to repair oil facilities. In the first months of the occupation, KBR tried to bring in a Kuwaiti contractor, Al Khoraafi, along with workers from outside the country. The newly-reformed oil workers union struck for three days in August, 2003, and forced KBR forced to renounce its plans to take over reconstruction work and replace Iraqi workers. Then the union directly challenged the Bremer wage order. "We managed to get the minimum salary up to 150,000 Iraqi dinars, or about $100," Hassan Juma'a recalls. "This is a beginning of the struggle to improve the income of the oil workers."

Similar fights broke out in the electrical stations around Basra, and Juma'a and the Basra head of the IFTU, Abu Lina, went to the deepwater port of Um Qasr to help dockworkers get organized and begin their own push for better wages. In April, the port workers union, supported by the oil workers and others, blockaded the port of Zubair, and forced out the Danish shipping giant Maersk, which had taken over the terminals at the start of the occupation. In mid-2004, the U.S. multinational Stevedoring Services of America was also forced out of the port of Um Qasr.

While the oil workers and the two Iraqi labor federations are organizationally independent from each other, in the past they have cooperated on the ground in Basra and the south. According to Juma'a, "we're still looking to see which unions, at the end of the day, are the legitimate ones representing the interests of the workers."

That cooperation, however, is becoming much more strained. The IFTU, which has been accused in the past of trying to claim status as Iraq's sole officially-recognized labor federation, entered into a controversial pact with its former Ba'athist adversaries in September. The IFTU's new partners are the General Workers' Federation of Iraq and the General Workers' Federation of the Republic of Iraq, both remnants of the state-sponsored General Federation of Trade Unions under Saddam Hussein. This agreement, brokered by the International Confederation of Arab Trade Unions, gave the new General Federation of Iraqi Workers the right to represent the country's labor movement internationally (specifically, at the ICATU) "until circumstances allow the holding of general union elections."

The agreement calls for rejection of the occupation as its first point. It is possible, some observers believe, that the IFTU is preparing for the end of the occupation, and seeks to break a "nationalist" element away from the insurgency. Some also speculate that the agreement is evidence of a decline in the influence of the Iraqi Communist Party (historically subjected to bloody repression by the Ba'athists) in the union federation.

In a second controversial move, the IFTU in August made a scathing condemnation of Juma'a and the leadership of the General Union of Oil Employees, saying "it doesn't represent the union work of the petrol sector." The oil workers shut down oil exports for a day in August, 2005, to demand that a greater share of the oil revenue be spent on rebuilding the south. The rift reflects the sharp debate over the country's newly-approved draft constitution and structure. The IFTU's political allies accuse the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq of supporting secession, under the guise of a federalist structure in which Iraq's central government would have little power. They accuse the oil workers of entering an alliance with the governor of Basra province towards that end.

Contradicting this claim, however, the GUOE moved in October to establish an Iraq-wide union for workers in the oil industry. On October 10 it announced "with God's blessing the formation of the Federation of Oil Unions in Iraq, with its centre in Basra, composed of unions representing the oil sector in Basra, Meisan, and DhiQar." Iraq's other primary oil fields are located in the north, around Kirkuk, where workers also organized an independent union in the wake of the fall of the Saddam Hussein regime. Production from the northern fields, which are older and smaller, has been constricted by attacks by insurgents on oil pipelines. The GUOE and the Kirkuk union have had informal contacts, and the announcement from Basra emphasized that the new federation's doors "are open to all workers in the oil sector throughout Iraq from the
north to the south.." The new federation views itself as "part of the movement of Iraqi labour unions.".

As a result of almost three years of union activity, a high percentage of factories in Iraq have worker-based organizing committees and fledgling unions (probably a greater percentage than factories in the United States). To consolidate this progress, however, Iraqi unions need political unity. Without it, it will be difficult to confront the occupation and defeat its privatization program, which is supported, not just by the US and Britain, but by the many returned exiles who now control Iraqi ministries. That unity is clearly in jeopardy.

Taking advantage of this situation, in August the interim Iraqi government issued Decree 875, revoking the limited rights unions won under the Transitional Law of June, 2004. That law supposedly granted workers the right to organize without state interference. The new decree, however, says the government will "take control of all monies belonging to the trade unions and prevent them from dispensing any such monies." According to the FWCUI, the decree signals "a continuation of the intervention of the authorities in thee unions' business." The IFTU reacted more strongly, accusing the government of "unjust attacks and clear open interference" intended "to prevent working people from organizing free and democratic unions. Saddam Hussein's anti-union Law 150 is still being applied."

Making the occupation's stance towards unions even clearer, a US military helicopter fired on the headquarters of the IFTU-affiliated Transport and Communications Workers Union in Baghdad's Al-Hilla district on August 15. Twenty-six workers and unionists were wounded and taken to the hospital. Despite their advances, Iraq's unions face greater dangers than at any time since the fall of Saddam Hussein.


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