David Bacon Stories & Photographs


The Vision and Dilemma of Iraqi Civil Society
By David Bacon
Z Magazine/Foreign Policy in Focus, 1/04

When they came for Hadi Saleh, they found him at home in Baghdad with his family. First, they bound his hands and feet with wire. Then they tortured him, cutting him with a knife. He finally died of strangulation, but apparently that wasn't enough. Before fleeing, his assailants pumped bullets into his dead body.

No group claimed credit for his assassination on January 4. Nobody knows for sure who carried it out. But for many Iraqis, the manner of his death was a signature.

In 1969, when he was only twenty, sentenced to death in a Baathist prison, such murderous tactics were already becoming well known. For the next thirty-plus years the Mukhabarat, Saddam Hussein's secret police, used them against his friends and coworkers. In early January in Baghdad, killers intent on sending the same bloody message finally visited these horrors on him.

Iraq has never been a very safe place for trade unionists, socialists or democratic-minded people. The year before Saleh was born, over 300 students and railway workers were machine-gunned in Baghdad for protesting the agreement by Iraq's puppet king to hand over airbases to the British, the country's former occupiers. The 1948 massacre was called Al-Wathbah (The Leap). It was a moment when millions of Iraqis became convinced that their country could be more than an impoverished, oil-cursed British protectorate.

Later Saleh must have remembered, though he would have been only ten at the time, the next defining moment in Iraq's popular history. In one of the few times when Iraqi progressives seemed to be on top, they finally threw out the king in 1958. For a few years, organizing unions, breaking up the big estates, and building public housing for the urban poor were not just dreams, but government policy. Oil was nationalized, and the revenue used to build universities, hospitals and big government-owned factories.

That vision of Iraq as a country with a future was strong enough to shape the generation of Saleh and his friends. It still does today. But for Americans, who know little of Iraqi history, that vision is unknown. The idea that millions of this country's people might have a long record of supporting radical progressive ideas, and that they might have paid for those ideas with death and prison, is inconceivable.

Iraqis like Hadi Saleh, trying to hold fast to the dream, and organize a civil society that could bring it into being, are simply invisible. So it's no accident that his death wasn't reported by the mainstream US media. It didn't fit the images of soldiers and warfare, of bearded terrorists and roadside bombs. This is the paradigm through which Americans are taught to understand the occupation of a country, whether they support or oppose it. The Hadi Salehs, in that frame of reference, shouldn't be there, so all too often, they simply aren't.
Yet Hadi Saleh did exist. He believed in a progressive and democratic country, in ways not so different from millions of blue-state Americans. He and other Iraqi unionists, women's rights advocates, and militants of leftwing political parties might not make it onto the evening news in New York or Los Angeles, but they inherit the vision of Iraq as a peaceful country, with a government committed to social justice, using its oil wealth to give common people a decent chance at life.

These are dangerous ideas today - they've always been so in Iraq. Thirty-five years ago, these notions got Hadi Saleh arrested, accused of being a trade unionist and a red. After narrowly escaping execution, and then spending five years locked away, he joined many of his compatriots who'd already fled into exile.

For thirty years Hadi Saleh lived abroad in Korea and Sweden. In Iraq he'd been a printer, a liberal occupation that has probably produced more of the world's leftists than any other. An exile's life, though, requires doing whatever work comes to hand, trying to keep faith with politics and memories. He became a dapper, well-dressed man, adapted to many cultures and languages. Exile made him a political organizer - always a wanderer, always dreaming of someday going home.

Given Saddam Hussein's brutal hold on power, that didn't seem likely for decades. In Iraq, the unions Saleh had helped to build were turned inside out by the Baathist state, their officials transformed into agents who spied on workers and turned militants over to the police. From outside Iraq, in 1984, Saleh and his fellow exiles organized a new labor group, the Workers Democratic Trade Union Movement, to keep alive the real traditions of Iraqi unionism. In Baghdad's factories, however, workers belonging to such a union, or to political parties from Communist to Islamist, were pulled off their machines, arrested, and shot.

Today, Iraqi unions are recovering from that history.

Saleh was one of the organizers helping that recovery to take root. When Saddam Hussein finally fell, he and his fellow exiles returned to Iraq. The old underground Workers Democratic Trade Union Movement became the reorganized Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions, and Saleh its international secretary. Even under a brutal US military occupation, they began to look for ways in which that old dream of a progressive Iraq could be turned into reality.

Remarkably, they've been very successful at organizing new unions. Iraqi workers want and need to be organized as never before. A study by the economics faculty of Baghdad University last fall puts unemployment at 70%. Wages were frozen by the occupation authorities at $60 a month, the level of the last years of Saddam Hussein, after the economy had been drained by two decades of war and repression. Then, in September 2003, the Coalition Provisional Authority's Order #30 on Reform of Salaries and Employment Conditions of State Employees lowered the base to $40, and eliminated housing and food subsidies.

CPA proconsul Paul Bremer also decided not to lift the laws Saddam Hussein had used to keep his tame unions in place, especially an outright ban on bargaining in the public sector, where most workers are employed. To this Bremer added Public Order #1, banning pronouncements that "incite civil disorder, rioting or damage to property." The phrase civil disorder can easily apply to organizing strikes, and leaders of both the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions and the newer Federation of Workers Councils and Unions of Iraq have been detained a number of times.

When the Bush administration installed the successor regime of Iyad Allawi last June, the transitional law forbade any change in the Bremer orders. One they sought particularly to protect was Order #39, also dating from September 2003, which permits 100% foreign ownership of businesses, except for the oil industry, and allows repatriation of profits. Bremer put Tom Foley, a Bush fundraiser, in charge of private sector development. Foley began drawing up lists of state enterprises to be sold off, including cement and fertilizer plants, phosphate and sulfur mines, pharmaceutical factories and the country's airline.

Treating Iraq as a neoconservative playground, combined with the violence and brutality of the occupation, created conditions for the growth of the armed resistance. Some taking up arms against the US military and its British and "coalition" allies are nationalists, enraged at foreign domination, or Islamists intent on building a theocratic state. But many are the displaced Baathists all-too familiar to Saleh and his coworkers from bitter decades of experience. None of these armed groups, however, support the growth of trade unions, women's' organizations, leftwing political parties, or other parts of civil society kept down during the Saddam Hussein years.

Organizing workers under these circumstances has been dangerous, but possible. The IFTU held its first national meeting in June 2003, attended by 400 delegates who set up national unions for 12 major industries. Organizers like Saleh fanned out from that meeting to workplaces around the country. At Baghdad's Al Daura oil refinery, for instance, workers were urged to elect department committees, and then an overall plant committee, as the base for the new oil union. The refinery manager then told them that he was forbidden from negotiating with them, since the refinery belongs to the Iraqi state. The union grew nonetheless. In other workplaces, workers didn't wait for the arrival of organizers, and began forming their own organizations, which became the base of other post-Saddam unions, like the Federation of Workers Councils.

Low wages have driven the upsurge in Iraqi labor activity, including three general strikes in Basra alone. Iraqi longshoremen, working for the port authority in Um Qasr, were given a cut in pay when the occupation started, and began organizing a union in response. On the day they were set to vote for the officers of their new union, Port Director Abdel Razzaq told them the election was cancelled because of the 1987 prohibition. He later fired three port workers for trying to organize. Razzaq was installed when the occupation started by the US company given a contract to operate the port, Stevedoring Services of America,

In January a year ago, dockers struck over the wages, blocking anyone from entering the main gate. Razzaq's office was occupied, and the demonstration only ended when he was rescued by occupation troops. He was finally fired as a result of the protests.

Last February, the new port director, Mahmood Saleh, met with a delegation of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions and representatives of the IFTU Basra region. He agreed that trade unions should be free to organize in the docks, but a year later, workers still don't have recognition for their union. Nevertheless, six workers' committees operate openly in Um Qasr and other ports, in defiance of the 1987 law. Under their pressure, wages for dockers now start at 75,000 ID per month, rising to 100,000 after a year.

Despite tens of billions of dollars appropriated by the US Congress for reconstruction following the war, most of Iraq still lies in ruins, and Iraqis see little to show for the money. Reconstruction of export facilities, however, like oil installations and docks, has been high on the occupation's list of priorities. It's also the source of intense conflict with Iraqi workers. Few Iraqis have been hired by companies doing reconstruction, which have brought in thousands of foreign workers. For those jobs where they do get hired, Iraqis have to pay a fee that is often the equivalent of a month's wages.

Iraq has no unemployment benefits or any welfare system, so the loss of a stable job condemns a family to hunger and misery. One obvious advantage, therefore, of having a union is gaining a voice in decisions about privatization and contracting.

Just months after the occupation started, conflict over reconstruction work boiled over in a two-day wildcat strike at the Bergeseeya Oil Refinery near Basra. KBR, a division of Halliburton Corp., was given a no-bid reconstruction contract to repair oil facilities. KBR brought in a Kuwaiti construction company, Al Khoorafi, using Indian and Pakistani workers. To protect their jobs, Iraqi workers threw them out and protested outside the company's offices.

At the South Oil Company, the local Oil and Gas Workers union, headed by Hassan Ju'ma, banned foreign workers following the Bergeseeya action. KBR tried to get them to accept its foreign staff but local workers refused to budge. "Iraq will be reconstructed by Iraqis, we don't need any foreign interference," Jum'a said.

A year ago South Oil Company workers began challenging the wage schedules. They surveyed prices, and proposed a monthly minimum of $85. Workers threatened to strike and shut off oil production, and the oil minister immediately flew to Basra, where he agreed to return to the pre-September scale. Unrest spread to the Najibeeya, Haartha and Az Zubeir electrical generating stations, where workers mounted a wildcat strike, stormed the administration buildings, declared the Bremer wage schedule void, and vowed to shut off power if salaries were not raised. Again the ministry agreed to return to the old scale.

South Oil Company unionists finally forced the CPA to raise wages, with extra pay for working in risky or isolated locations, often attacked by the armed opposition in their effort to cut off oil production and revenue. Following another walkout in February at the Basra Oil Pipeline Company, the new SOC wage schedule eventually spread to most worksites in the oil sector. Workers then took the fight to power stations, where they threatened to stop electrical generation, potentially halting all other industries. Samir Hanoon, vice president of the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions in Basra, warned that if the ban on unions wasn't lifted, "we will take other actions -- protests, demonstrations and total shut-downs. We realize that there may be some sacrifices but we are ready to accept them."

Nevertheless, Thaer Khatheeri, president of the Al Daura refinery union committee in Baghdad, says that oil workers still earn only 69,000 Iraqi dinars a month, while the union is demanding a minimum of 150,000.

Despite the difficult situation, the IFTU has managed to force defacto recognition and bargaining in some workplaces. Metalworkers at Baghdad's Al Nassr molding and car parts factory won a minimum wage of 150,000 ID per month, and the Ministry of Industry now recognizes the union at the factory, as well as a few other manufacturing plants. The Rail workers Union forced a wage increase for all workers at Railways of the Iraqi Republic from 75,000 to 125,000 ID per month, and equal pay for men and women, who make up 15% of the workforce.

And last May, Basra's power station workers elected the first woman union leader in Iraq's history. Hashimia Muhsin Hussein, president of the Electricity and Energy Workers' Union, says workers face huge problems, including managers who continue to enforce the 1987 law banning public sector workers from forming unions. "Our union is a part of the Basra and national IFTU," she declared, "which will continue to struggle for workers rights' to union representation, social justice and a stable, pluralistic and democratic Iraq."

Saleh's murder is the latest in a series of attacks on workers and unions, a response to their growth and increasing activity. Rail workers face armed attacks on trains, and passenger rail service was suspended for six months last year. After workers threatened to strike, the railroad agreed to provide transportation from their homes to their workplaces, because of the bad security situation. Last fall, armed insurgents attacked freight trains, killing four workers in November, and beating and kidnapping others a month later.

Workers say they're being blamed for helping the occupation by doing their jobs, although the trains don't carry military goods. "It's [a risk for] civil society organizations, including trade unions," Saleh explained at a meeting of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions in Japan in December. "Extremists who targeted those trade unionists, both teachers and engineers, killed them under the notion that they are collaborating with a state created by the Americans, so by definition those are collaborators and legitimate targets."

Attacks come from the government and US occupation troops as well. Baghdad's Transport and Communication workers were thrown out of their office in the city's central bus station in December 2003, by US soldiers, who then arrested members of the IFTU executive board. Rumors abound that the troops were doing the bidding of private bus companies at the station, who wanted the organization removed. Last July, however, the union retook their office in a march and demonstration of union drivers, who'd come into Baghdad from many Iraqi cities. Once they'd retaken the offices, workers announced they intended to organize not just drivers working for the government, but those at the private bus lines also.

Other unions are attacked as well. Qasim Hadi, general secretary of the Union of the Unemployed, has been arrested several times by occupation troops, for leading demonstrations of unemployed workers demanding unemployment benefits and jobs. Last fall, after textile workers in the city of Kut struck over pay, the manager and city governor called out the Iraqi National Guard, who fired on the workers. Four were wounded, and another 11 later arrested.

Attacking unions, and keeping wages low, are part of an overall strategy to keep labor weak - a magnet for foreign investors - as Washington plans the privatization of Iraq's economy. Workers fear that new corporate owners will then cut costs by laying them off.

While the pro-privatization Order #39 excludes oil, a symbol of Iraqi sovereignty, control of the industry and its exports has always been an important object of the occupation. According to the Oil and Gas Union, oil must remain a property in the hands of Iraqi people. "Multinational companies should not be allowed to reap easy profits at the cost of well-being of Iraqis," says Abdullah Muhsen, international representative of the IFTU. According to Muhsen, "the IFTU welcomes foreign investments that bring much-needed technology and jobs for Iraqis. But we oppose privatization." The IFTU and other unions and political parties kept privatization off the agenda of the former Governing Council, arguing that any sell off was a violation of international law since the country had no accountable government elected by its people.

The IFTU is a pluralistic federation, and its executive council includes Arab nationalists and socialists, Kurdish trade unions, and the Iraqi Communist Party, to which Saleh belonged. Last year Saleh told British unionists visiting Baghdad that "Saddam Hussein ... turned his 'yellow unions' into instruments of repression and violence against workers. After the fall of the regime, both nationalist and democratic political traditions within trade unionism tried to re-establish new trade unions based on democratic principles - not based on one political ideology."

In exile, the ICP condemned the war and US invasion, but when the occupation started, the ICP joined the Governing Council. Two of its members are currently ministers in the Allawi government.

"For us, war and occupation are a reality," Muhsin explains. "The WDTUM stood against the war before it started, but we couldn't stop it. We called for a coalition government, but no one listened. Now our concern is to help our country and protect our members."

The Federation of Workers Councils was organized with the assistance of another leftwing group, the Workers Communist Party of Iraq, with roots among exiles in Iran. The WCPI adopted a more distant attitude towards the CPA and Governing Council, while still seeking legal status and recognition for the unions it supports. Both the ICP and the WCPI call for the end of the occupation, and for the return of power to a new Iraqi government, as soon as possible. Neither communist party supports the armed resistance to the occupation, nor do any of the unions. During the battles in Najaf between the US and the militia of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr, workers themselves at one factory even refused to allow its use as a staging area for attacks on occupation troops.

The Governing Council, and later Allawi's administration, granted legal recognition to the IFTU and not the Federation of Workers Councils. In practice, however, the prohibition on unions in the public sector remains in effect.

Hadi Saleh's murderers had two objectives in making him a bloody example. For the Baathists among the insurgents, the growth of unions and organizations of civil society, from women's' groups to political parties, is a dangerous deviation. Their hopes of returning to power rest on a military defeat for the US, without a corresponding development of popular, progressive organizations that can govern a post-occupation Iraq.

Trying to stop those organizations from using the elections to organize a large support base is a second objective. Even progressive Iraqis disagree about the elections. Some organizations, like the WCPI, boycott the process as a charade organized by the occupation. Other parties, however, from the ICP to the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq of Shiite Ayatollah Ali al Sistani, see the elections as a possible vehicle for organizing and winning power. Kurdish parties, and the unions associated with them, are also participating in the elections. Left-wingers among these groups hope to popularize their political program among millions of Iraqis. In a post-occupation Iraq, a mass-based political party with a radical program could become part of the government, with the actual power to implement it.

The ICP has organized an electoral front, called the People's Unity (Ittihad Al-Shaab) Electoral List. Its program calls for preventing privatization, protecting political and religious freedom, and ensuring the rights of nationalities and women. Its first point calls for "establishing a federal democratic regime that guarantees rights for all Iraqis, ensures a life free of violence and terror, and enables them to end the occupation, achieve full independence, and rebuild the homeland on the basis of cooperation, democracy and social justice." The front also calls for a truth commission, like those of South Africa and Central America, to come to terms with the last 40 years of blood, repression and cold-war manipulation.

While some Iraqis and the Bush administration might each have their reasons for wanting elections, they have very different goals in mind. The big question dividing the Iraqi left is how to end the occupation - elections and participation in the government, or boycott and organizing from the outside. Despite this, their ideas of what Iraqi society should look like afterwards are remarkably similar, with roots in Iraq's own political history.

The day Iraqis threw out the king in 1958 is still honored in Baghdad as Iraqi National Day. The vision of that era - of a progressive, democratic state - is not so different from the ideas of Iraqi progressives today, regardless of their position on the elections. And the contrary intent of the US occupation was clear at the beginning, when Bremer declared that this day was just a Saddam-era holiday, and would no longer be celebrated. It was a symbolic trashing of everything that might truly constitute a vision of a democratic Iraq, in order to legitimize the Bush administration's ugly free-market caricature.

Iraqi civil society -unions, women's' and professional organizations, political parties, and other groups - are trying to survive and organize in a political space that is rapidly shrinking. The armed resistance doesn't want them around. And despite the elections, the US would rather have another dependable dictator than popular organizations resisting the neoconservative, free market plan. Saleh's assassination makes plain the extreme lack of security. The longer the occupation lasts, the more violence increases in Iraq, and the harder it is for workers to join a union, or any other organization, much less demonstrate and protest. But an occupation that ends in the creation of a new Baathist state, or a theocratic one that suppresses popular movements for social and economic justice, is hardly an answer for these new unions either.

Fortunately, organizations outside Iraq, especially in labor, understand this is a problem Iraqis can't solve by themselves. They need support in the US and Britain, to help get the troops out, and to keep open the political space they need to organize.

British unions have a long history of this support, going back to the Saddam Hussein era. Over 200,000 Iraqi exiles were concentrated in London and other cities during those decades. Once the regime fell, British unions have sent a number of groups to Iraq to offer help. One, sent by the leftwing Fire Brigades Union, even brought firefighting equipment to Basra.

After a debate last September, the British Trades Union Congress called for an end to the occupation and withdrawal of the troops. Mary Davies, speaking for university teachers, told delegates that "the only sure way of defeating occupation, defeating Baathism and the threat of fundamentalism, is by strengthening the forces of civil society so brutally crushed for 25 years under Saddam Hussein." Dennis Doody, a building trades union officer agreed. "As long as the US and UK forces are in Iraq there will always be instability and continuing resistance," he warned. "The occupation prevents the Iraqi people from developing their own society, free from Saddam and free from foreign occupation. It is for the people of Iraq to determine their own future, not the coalition of the criminals masquerading as liberators."

In the US, unions opposing the war formed their own organization within the labor movement, US Labor Against the War, before the occupation even started. Many national unions and state labor federations have now called for US withdrawal. Saleh's murder brought USLAW and the AFL-CIO itself together for the first time to condemn it. John Sweeney, AFL-CIO president, called Saleh "courageous," a departure from the cold war past in which left-wingers and Communists were reviled as enemies. A USLAW statement went further, combined condemnation with a call to end the occupation and withdraw US troops, a position the AFL-CIO has yet to take.

If US and British labor can join together to call for an end to the war, and find ways to help their fellow unionists in Iraq, perhaps people like Hadi Saleh can not only survive, but become powerful players in an Iraq with a real future.

Remembering his friend, Abdullah Muhsen described to British unionist Alex Gordon Hadi Saleh's vision of what that future might look like: "a democratic, peaceful and federal Iraq, which would unite all Iraqis, regardless of their background, ethnicity or religion. He championed workers' rights to organize and to strike to achieve decent jobs, pay and working conditions: the basic building blocks of strong, non-sectarian trade unionism. That remains the only way to defeat the IMF shock therapy and economic occupation, which has been imposed undemocratically on Iraqis by the occupying powers."


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