David Bacon Stories & Photographs


By David Bacon
The Progressive, October 2005

BASRA, IRAQ (9/12/05) -- The morning of April 9, 2003, started like any other at Basra's huge, dilapidated oil refinery. Workers knew the US/British invasion of their country might begin anytime. Still, no one expected American tanks when they suddenly pulled up at the gate. After thirty years of Saddam Hussein, the vast majority of the refinery's laborers had had their fill of war and repression. While there was always a small core of Baathist loyalists among them, most were prepared to welcome almost any change that removed the old regime, even foreign troops.

"We were coming out early, at the end of our shift, and there was the American army," recalls Faraj Arbat, one of the plant's firemen. "We were ready to say hello." Instead of greeting the workers as their liberators, however, the soldiers trained guns on them. The head of the fire department made the mistake of questioning the troops, and was ordered to lie facedown on the ground. "Abdulritha was absolutely shocked," Arbat recalls. "He was going home - why should he lie down? But he did as he was ordered. Then an American put his foot on his back. So we started fighting with the soldiers with our fists, because we didn't understand. The tank turret started to turn toward us, and at that point we all sat down."

Someone easily could have died that day. As it was, the memory of the foot on Abdulritha's back left a bitter taste.

The Rebirth of the Oil Workers Union

The refinery's workers were used to conflict, having labored through two decades of shelling and fires, including the "shock and awe" bombing prior to the US invasion. Some fled the arriving troops, but most stayed and tried to bring the plant back into operation. "Slowly we got production restored, by our own efforts," Arbat remembers. "Electricity workers, at their own expense, brought power back to the refinery. We found where the water pipes had been blown up, and went out with armed guards to repair them. Meanwhile, the Americans and British began coming with tanker trucks, loading up on the gas and oil we were producing."

For two months, no one got paid. Finally, Arbat and a small group began to organize a union. "At first the word frightened people, because under Saddam, unions had become instruments of oppression," he explains. Nevertheless, a few dozen of the refinery's 3000 employees came together and chose Arbat (whom they affectionately call Abu, or Uncle, Rebab) and Ibrahim Radiy to lead them.

Lead they did.

To force authorities to pay the workers, the small group took a crane out to the gate, and lowered it across the road. Behind it, two dozen tanker trucks pulled up with a heavily armed British military escort. "At first there were only 100 of us, but workers began coming out. Some took their shirts off and told the troops, 'Shoot us.' Others lay down on the ground." Ten of them even went under the tankers, brandishing cigarette lighters. They announced that if the soldiers fired, they would set the tankers alight.

The soldiers, mostly sons of workers themselves, did not fire. Instead, negotiations began between the general director and the occupation authorities in Basra. By the end of the day, the workers had their pay. Within a week, everyone at the refinery joined, and. the oil union in Basra had been reborn.

Reborn is the proper word, because the union for oil workers is one of Iraq's oldest institutions. Originally organized when Iraq was a British colony in the early 1920s, the oil union has always been the heart of the country's labor movement. "Our two biggest strikes, in 1946 and 1952, were organized by oil workers," says Faleh Abood Umara, general secretary of the newly reorganized General Union of Oil Employees. Today it is again the country's largest, most powerful labor organization, with 23,000 members in southern Iraq. Together with two other labor federations, and a handful of independent professional associations, the labor movement is now the biggest institution in Iraqi civil society.

Unions occupy a critical, but perilous, position. They confront the occupation's economic plan directly, and are its most vocal opponents. The neoliberal program for transforming the economy was announced by Paul Bremer, appointed by President Bush to head the Coalition Provisional Authority in mid-2003. Its basic elements include the privatization of state-owned industry (including transportation, ports, communications, and most manufacturing), enforcing a low standard of living and high unemployment, and ending state subsidies on food and public services.

In September, 2003, Bremer issued two orders, 29 and 30, to put those principles into practice. They lowered the base industrial wage from $60 to $40/month, cut payments for food and housing, allowed private ownership by foreigners of state enterprises (except oil), and permitted the total repatriation of profits outside the country. [see The Progressive, 12/03] When power was handed over to a supposedly independent government in June, 2004, the transitional law enacted at the time froze the Bremer orders into place, until a new constitution could be written and a new government elected. That has yet to happen.

Bremer appointed Bush fundraiser Tom Foley to head the occupation's privatization agency. Foley published lists throughout late 2003 of factories to be put on the auction block. When the deteriorating security situation and the dubious legality of sales by an occupation government discouraged would-be corporate buyers, those plans were temporarily shelved. But Iraq's Industry Minister revived them this spring, listing again a number of enterprises the government intends to sell off.

Privatization is not popular - nationalist sentiment views the public sector, especially oil, as a guarantee of sovereignty and a key to future economic development. Iraq's new unions are its most vocal critics. To keep their critique from gaining a political base, Bremer kept in force Law 150, issued by Saddam Hussein in 1987. Hussein, and then Bremer, decreed that Iraqi workers in the state-owned sector had no right to organize unions. As a result, Iraqi labor has had to operate in illegal conditions.

That hasn't kept unions from organizing to successfully challenge the occupation, however. In fact, the first big fight over the US and British economic program came within a few months of the confrontation at the Basra refinery gate.

Workers Drive KBR out of the South

KBR, subsidiary of the oil services giant Halliburton, was one of the corporate camp followers arriving in the wake of the troops. KBR was given a no-bid contract to put out war-caused oil fires in the huge Rumeila fields, but once its foot was in the door, it's presence spread rapidly. Within weeks, it had taken over the financial functions of Basra's civil administration. Workers, in order to get paid, had to take their time sheets to local KBR offices for approval. Those who had fled the advancing troops had to get company permission to return to their jobs.

Then KBR claimed the work of reconstructing wells, pipelines and other oil facilities, and hired a Kuwaiti contractor, Al Khoorafi, to bring in a foreign workforce. Meanwhile, the company used its presence in the oil fields to try to hire drilling rig workers away from the Iraqi Drilling Company, a national enterprise. Despite promises of higher wages, few took the bait. In fact, Iraqi oil workers were outraged. With unemployment hovering at 70%, they saw a clear threat to their jobs. But according to Hassan Juma'a Awad, now president of the General Union of Oil Employees, workers had other concerns as well.

"We organized the union for two reasons," Juma'a explains. "First, we had to deal with the administration put in place by the occupying forces. Second, we're afraid that the purpose of the occupation is to take control of the oil industry. It is our duty as Iraqi workers to protect the oil installations, since they are the property of the Iraqi people. We're sure that US and international companies are here to put their hands on the oil."

By August, 2003, oil workers had organized unions in ten state-owned companies in southern Iraq, and formed the GUOE. They gave KBR an August 20 deadline to leave the oil sector. When the company refused to talk with them, they shut down oil production for export. "For 2 days we didn't move," says Farouk Sadiq, a union leader and teacher at Basra's Oil Institute. "We refused to pump a single drop until they left. We said we wanted them to leave by peaceful means - otherwise we had another language to speak with them. Other workers in Basra refused to work too, and the American authority saw we could affect what really matters to them. It was independence day for oil labor."

KBR did leave the oil districts, and closed their civil administration offices in Basra.

In December, the union challenged Bremer's wage orders, threatening to strike again if wages were lowered. This time, the oil minister caved in without a work stoppage. Eventually, the bottom two wage grades were abolished in the oil industry, bringing the base wage up to about $85/month.

The GUOE then helped workers organize a union in the power generation plants. Hashimia Mohsen al Hussein was elected president, the first woman to head a national labor organization in Iraq. Following the oil workers' example, they also successfully threatened work stoppages to convince authorities to raise wages, but had a harder time preserving their jobs. Last June the electrical union organized large demonstrations to protest government decisions to hire private contractors to do reconstruction work, replacing the industry's own employees. The problem persists. "We will confront them if they don't stop," Mohsen warns. "Many Basra workers have already agreed to join us in a general strike."

Unions spread from oil rigs and power stations to Iraq's deepwater ports. At Um Qasr, Seattle-based Stevedoring Services of America was given a contract to take over terminals before the invasion even began. Cooperation between oil workers and longshoremen first forced the port operator to deal with a new dock union. Then, in mid-2004, SSA agreed to leave entirely, and turned the port back to the Iraqi Port Authority.

In nearby Zubair, the Danish shipping giant Maersk also took control of the docks when the occupation began, as a reward to Denmark for sending troops. Maersk removed the port's skilled employees, and replaced them with its own workforce. When the new dock union challenged its right to run the port this spring, the company was unable to produce any contract with the Iraqi government. The union appealed for help, and on March 2, 600 longshoremen, oil workers and supporters descended on Zubair. They blocked its access road for three days, and in the end, Maersk, like SSA, agreed to go.

On the ground in southern Iraq, a new labor movement is being born. Some unions, like the oil workers, are independent. Others, like those for power and longshore workers, are affiliated to the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions. They all cooperate in confronting the occupation's economic policies for keeping wages low, subcontracting jobs, and privatizing major industrial enterprises.

In May, the GUOE organized a conference at the cultural center of the oil industry in downtown Basra, under a banner calling on Iraqis "To revive the public sector and build an Iraq free of privatization." Bringing together union leaders from rigs and refineries, economists from Basra University, representatives of the IFTU, and political parties from the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq to Iraq's Communists, the conference sought to forge a common consensus to resist oil privatization. "The public sector economy of Iraq is one of the symbols of the achievement of Iraqis since the revolution of July 4th, 1958," the conference statement declared.

According to oil industry analyst Greg Muttitt, who attended the conference representing the British organization Platform, it is unlikely that oil reserves themselves would be sold, or that a foreign company or government would be given a concession like the one the British held for over three decades. Outside of the US, no other country permits those forms of ownership. "More likely, Iraq's debt will be used to force the government to sign production-sharing agreements with the multi-nationals," Muttitt says. Such agreements would allow a foreign company to extract the oil, sell it to pay itself for the costs of extraction (by its own calculation), and split the remainder of the income with the government.

Iraq's government would be locked into long-term, disadvantageous agreements, in which it would lose control over most decisions regarding oil exploitation, pricing, income and jobs. Oil workers would likely suffer massive layoffs, and lose their leverage over production. Juma'a Awad stresses that without the oil income, Iraq will be unable to rebuild from the war. "Oil is the first step in jump-starting the economy," he says. "We don't want to pay the cost of globalization."

While rank-and-file workers are unfamiliar with the details of production-sharing agreements, they are suspicious of privatization, despite the carrot of modernization used by its defenders to make it attractive. In the Basra refinery, senior fireman Abdul Faisal Jaleel criticizes Saddam Hussein's long failure to invest in modern technology, or even spare parts, and says workers paid the price. "We've been like the camel that carries gold, but is given thorns to eat." Nevertheless, he says, foreign ownership is not the answer. "We reject foreign investment. We want to keep our own oil revenues and use them to develop our country with our own hands."

Unions are suspicious of Iraq's elite political class, returning from exile, enamored with the ideology of the market economy. But they recognize that the government only nominally holds the power to make these economic decisions, and that the real push to privatize comes from Washington and London. This is just one reason why all Iraqi unions call for an end to the occupation, and the cancellation of its foreign debt.

They don't agree on timing or method. The GUOE calls for immediate withdrawal of foreign troops. The IFTU says an elected Iraqi government should use UN resolution 1545 to ask them to leave. The Federation of Workers' Councils and Unions of Iraq (FWCUI), Iraq's other main labor federation (outside of Kurdistan), calls for UN troops to intervene to supply security. But Abood Umara voices their common perception that "the economic plan of the occupation would bring Iraq back to the early 1950s," before oil was nationalized, and Iraq was ruled by the British behind the facade of a native monarchy.

Unions Under Attack

The occupation, however, is not the unions' only enemy.

On February 18, Ali Hassan Abd (Abu Fahad), a leader of the Baghdad oil workers union, was walking home, through the neighborhood beneath the cracking towers and gas flares of the huge al-Daura refinery. He was holding the hands of his young children when gunmen ran up and shot him.

Abu Fahad was 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 (IFTU). Afterward, 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 GUOE's Abood Umara refers to them all as "our leaders" despite the fact that the GUOE is not affiliated with the IFTU. Like the rest of Iraq's unions, the GUOE condemns terrorism and assassination, and Abood adds that a bomb was found in the car of a GUOE member earlier this year, fortunately before it was detonated. Hassan Juma'a Awad has also received death threats, and 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 murder of Saleh in particular to remnants of Saddam's secret police, the old Mukhabharat. "They seem to be able to operate freely," he says.

Last fall, armed insurgents attacked freight trains, killing four workers in November, and beating and kidnapping others a month later. Service was suspended between Basra and Baghdad after workers threatened to strike over lack of security.
They 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 all] civil society organizations, including trade unions," Saleh explained at a meeting of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions in Japan in December, just before his murder. "Extremists who target trade unionists, both teachers and engineers, kill 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. US soldiers threw Baghdad's Transport and Communication Workers out of their office in the city's central bus station in December 2003, and then arrested members of the IFTU executive board. Qasim Hadi, general secretary of the Union of the Unemployed (part of the Federation of Workers' Councils), was arrested several times by occupation troops, for leading demonstrations of unemployed workers demanding unemployment benefits and jobs. Last fall, when textile workers in Kut struck over pay, the city governor called out the Iraqi National Guard, who fired on them, wounding four.

In the broader context of anti-union violence, IFTU leaders are probably singled out as a response to the union's position on the January elections, another issue 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, 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 Iraqi National Accord of outgoing Prime Minister Issad al Allawi, and a party of Arab nationalists.

The FWCUI condemned the balloting. "Its purpose" explains president Falah Alwan, "was to impose the American project on Iraq, and give legitimacy to the government imposed by the occupying coalition." The FWCIU is allied with the small Workers Communist Party of Iraq. The oil union, which took no position on the election, is independent both of other union federations, and of political parties.

This past February, as IFTU leaders were being killed, Baghdad's hotel workers 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. Despite the U.S.-imposed ban, the IFTU has managed to force de facto recognition and bargaining in some workplaces, and now claims 200,000 members. Metalworkers at Baghdad's Al Nassr molding and car parts factory won a minimum wage of 150,000 ID per month. The Rail Workers Union forced a wage increase at Railways of the Iraqi Republic from 75,000 to 125,000 ID per month, and equal pay for men and women.

Since the spring, the Iraqi government and occupation troops have increased repressive actions against unions. A US military helicopter indiscriminately shot at workers without any justification, gathered in Alawi Al-Hilla district in Baghdad on August 15, where the Transport and Communication Workers' Union has its head office. Twenty-six were wounded.

The new Iraqi government is also attempting to take control of the assets accumulated by Iraq's government-controlled unions under the old Saddam Hussein regime. Although they had no right to organize public sector workers, they administered large benefit funds. Now a new decree adopted by the Iraqi Council of Ministers says that the government would be "taking control of all monies belonging to the trade unions to prevent them from dispensing any such monies." This decree not only deprives Iraqi unions of control over those old assets, but could also prevent them from collecting dues and spending them in the future.

Iraqis Get Support from US Unions

While Iraq's new unions see different methods and timing for getting rid of the occupation, all agree it should go as soon as possible. They also uphold a vision of an alternative future that has inspired progressive Iraqis for decades. Labor's veterans remember the heady days of the 1958 revolution, when organizing unions, breaking up the big estates, and building public housing for the urban poor were not just dreams, but government policy. Oil was eventually nationalized, and before Saddam Hussein's war with Iran, the revenue was used to build universities, hospitals and big government-owned factories.

In the US, where people know little of Iraqi history, that vision is unknown. Yet millions of Iraqis have a long record of supporting radical progressive ideas, and have paid for those ideals with death and prison. Unionists, women's rights advocates, teachers and journalists, and members of progressive political parties would like Iraq to become a peaceful country, with a government committed to social justice, using its oil wealth to give common people a decent chance at life.

Whether they have a real opportunity to develop a progressive, democratic future depends on more than their efforts alone. Creating the political space needed by Iraqi civil society also depends on the actions of an anti-war constituency in the US, Britain, and other countries contributing troops to the occupation. Six Iraqi trade unionists, from the GUOE, IFTU and FWCUI, toured 25 US cities for two weeks in June, to help their union counterparts here understand the cost of the war in a new way.

At the end of the U.S. tour, the three unions agreed on a statement, made together with US Labor Against the War, which organized the visit. This is 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, the World Bank, foreign powers, and any force that takes away the right of the Iraqi people to determine their own economic future."

USLAW, which brings together anti-war unions in the US labor movement, has campaigned for Congressional action to end the ban on Iraqi unions, and raised money to help them survive. "International cooperation," says coordinator Gene Bruskin, "can provide significant political muscle to change US policy, both on war and privatization, and help those forces in Iraq which want a progressive and democratic future."

In July, in response to another campaign organized by USLAW, resolutions calling for an end to the occupation poured into the AFL-CIO convention from unions across the country. As a result, the labor federation passed a resolution calling for the rapid withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. The resolution marks a watershed moment in modern U.S. labor history. In the many meetings and discussions that paved its way, union members grasped the purpose of the occupation in a new way-as the imposition, at gunpoint, of Bush administration free market policies. Calling for bringing U.S. soldiers home puts US workers on the side of Iraqis as they resist the transformation of their country for the benefit of a wealthy global elite.

Although bombs continue to go off in Baghdad and Basra, while the occupation troops assault whole cities from Tal Afar to Fallujah and Najaf, Iraqi workers are still confident in their ability to reclaim their own country. Out at the Basra oil refinery, they remember other struggles against foreign occupiers. Tefiq Jassim, another fireman, recalls his own grandfathers, "who stood up to the British guns and planes with picks and shovels. The day will come again when our people will drive out the British and US armies," he predicted.


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