David Bacon Stories & Photographs


By David Bacon
ILWU Dispatcher

UM QASR and ZUBAIR, IRAQ (6/29/05) - Early in the morning on March 2, 2005, 600 longshoremen, oil workers, and other labor activists took the long road through the desert to Zubair, one of Iraq's two deepwater ports on the Shatt al Arab. Some came south from Basra, the cosmopolitan capital of southern Iraq. Others came north from the country's other deepwater port, Um Qasr.

At the gate into Zubair port they set up their line. Trucks began arriving, bringing cargo to the ships at the dock. Workers stopped them. Meanwhile, inside the port, longshore union leader Fadr Khalil Abood had a message for the Maersk Shipping Company. Maersk had been operating the terminals since the beginning of the occupation in April, 2003. "We told them they had to leave, and that we wouldn't allow any traffic into or out of the port until they agreed," Khalil says.

It took three days for the company to get the point. In the end, however, the Iraqi Port Authority was reinstated as the public agency operating one of the government's most important public assets. The port's historic longshore workforce, most excluded from their jobs since Maersk took over, went back to work.

In the dockside control room, engineers Yusef Abdul Samat, Murat Nasser, and Luay Abdul Hussein looked over the electrical panels which monitor and control port operations. Gaping holes had been left when Maersk personnel pried switches loose, and took them away. "This is a serious problem for us," explained Murat, "since we have no money to buy replacements. Still, we'll figure something out. The main thing is we got control of the port back." When Maersk came in to operate the Zubair docks, the three engineers had been told to leave the property. They were only able to return to their jobs once the company was gone.

Maersk was given control of Zubair by the invading troops, a political plum to reward Denmark for participating in the invading coalition forces. The company, however, was never able to produce a contract with the Iraqi government, allowing it to run the terminals. That enabled the port workers union to unite even officials of Iraq's transport ministry with the workers' movement to regain control of their jobs. As the workers blocked the gates for three days, no armed forces were dispatched to dislodge them.

Further south in Um Qasr, Stevedoring Services of America was given a no-bid contract by the US military, even before the invasion began, to operate half the terminals. After over a year of bitter fights in the port, SSA too withdrew, in late 2004. "We are very proud that we have been able to regain our ports for the Iraqi people," says Natham Radi, head of the Um Qasr branch of the union.

Southern Iraq has been the scene of the intense labor activity, since the beginning of the occupation, driven in large part by low wages. Following the arrival of US troops, Iraqi public sector workers began receiving emergency salaries dictated by the Coalition Provisional Authority - roughly from $60 to $120 monthly.

Like other workers, Iraqi longshoremen in Um Qasr began organizing a union to respond. Within a few months, they were ready to elect officers and establish their structure. On the day they were set to vote, however, Port Director Abdel Razzaq told them the election was cancelled because Law 150, a 1987 prohibition on unions in the public sector, was still being enforced. In November, 2003, he fired three port workers for trying to organize.

Meanwhile, the CPA's Order 30 on Reform of Salaries and Employment Conditions of State Employees in September, 2003, lowered the base to $40, and eliminated housing and food subsidies. The following January dockers struck briefly over the wage scale, blocking anyone from entering the main gate. Razzaq's office was occupied, and the demonstration only ended when he was rescued by occupation troops. Razzak had been installed when the occupation started by Stevedoring Services of America, which made most of the important decisions regarding the port. Razzak was finally fired as a result of the protests.

In February, 2004, the new Port Authority Director, Mahmood Saleh, met with a delegation of the International Confederation of Trade Unions and representatives of the IFTU Basra region. He agreed that trade unions should be free to organize in the docks, but the union was still not given recognition. Nevertheless, six workers' committees began to operate openly in Um Qasr and Zubair, in defiance of the 87 law. Under their pressure, the base wages for dockers was raised to 75,000 ID per month ($50), rising to 100,000 ($66) after a year.

Privatizing Umm Qasr began an effort to transform Iraq's economy -- from one based on nationalization and production for domestic welfare, to one based on ownership by transnational corporations, sending their profits out of the country. The port was built following the revolution of 1958, when nationalist governments spent Iraq's oil income on a big program of industrialization. Eventually, a thousand longshore workers labored on Umm Qasr's docks.

Even in the years when Iraq had a progressive government, however, they still had no guarantees for their rights and jobs. At first, subcontracting companies were allowed to hire dockers in a daily shapeup. Finally, workers rebelled. After winning recognition for their union, they demanded and won a hiring system under their control, and a daily guaranteed wage, whether or not there was a boat at the dock to load or unload.

Those achievements were reversed under Saddam Hussein's dictatorship. Law 150 banned unions in the public sector, for workers like longshoremen. At the same time, a decade-long war with Iran, then the first Gulf War followed by twelve years of sanctions, and finally a new invasion and occupation all took their toll. Um Qasr and Zubair lay in a shambles, although the basic infrastructure was still in place.

That's when private companies entered the picture, starting with SSA. The company, which has a history of tight political connections with the White House, received a $4.8 million no-bid contract to operate the port of Umm Qasr on March 24. According to the USAID website, the contract reached as high as $14.3 million by its completion. It covered the assessment of the port's needs, assistance in making it operational, but then also the ongoing management of dockside operations.

The process by which SSA became an Iraqi port operator says a lot about the company's relationship with the Bush White House. SSA Marine is a $1 billion-a-year, family-owned business, with over 10,000 employees worldwide. Between 1990 and 2002, its government contracts were worth $86,117,000.

The shipping industry as a whole has been a heavy political contributor, giving 68% of its $4.3 million in campaign contributions to Republicans in the 2000 election cycle alone (according to the Center for the Study of Responsive Politics.) SSA, however, only contributed $24,825 (77 percent to Republicans) between 1999 and 2002, and President Bush received a mere $1,000.

But these (relatively) small expenditures don't give an accurate picture of the real relations between SSA and the White House. Those were revealed in 2002, during the negotiations between the Pacific Maritime Association and the ILWU. SSA was widely viewed as the most confrontational employer in the Association. The Bush administration intervened directly on the side of SSA and the PMA, issuing a Taft-Hartley injunction against the union, and threatening reprisals against the ILWU if the union exercised its labor rights.

SSA started rubbing shoulders with the Bush national security apparatus in other areas as well. In May, 2003, the company was a founding member of the Marine Terminal Discussion Agreement, a forum in which shippers talk with US government authorities about security issues. The group was ostensibly created to make shipping containers more secure from tampering by terrorists or narcotics smugglers, but the initiative gave SSA an even closer relationship with the government in an area with a great impact on the jobs of longshore workers.

The battles over the longshore contract finally ended with a new agreement in December, 2002. By then the administration was already ramping up its preparations for the invasion of Iraq, as the Downing Street memos now clearly show. The relationship established between SSA and the administration during the longshore labor war was undoubtedly a key element in winning the company the contract to reopen the port of Umm Qasr, once troops seized it just a few months later.

Once the invasion was underway, San Francisco's Bechtel Corp. began dredging the Um Qasr harbor in May, 2003, under another no-bid contract. The decision to grant that contract basically excluded the Iraqis who historically did this work. Then, on July 16, SSA began accepting commercial cargo, including container, break-bulk, and rollon-rolloff shipments. Despite its dilapidated state, Umm Qasr is still a highly developed facility, with 23 berths for ships, four modern container cranes, and a grain and cement dock. (Oil exports are handled through another, unrelated facility.)

The possibilities for the profitable employment of these facilities weren't lost on other port operators, who would have liked the plum themselves. The British shipping giant, Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation, thought it was entitled to run Um Qasr, inasmuch as the British were given responsibility for occupying and administering the south of Iraq. The firm complained bitterly that only US companies were getting the profitable concessions created by the occupation. Alan Larson, US undersecretary of State, responded that giving SSA the port was "the responsible thing to do." Even other US firms complained that the company seemed to have the inside track, since it didn't have the normally required security clearance. Instead of rejecting SSA, however, USAID dropped the security requirement. Under the pressure of the favoritism accusations, however, Maersk was given Zubair.

US shippers complained of "gross profiteering" at the high tariffs charged for handling cargo Um Qasr. SSA denied that it profited from the tariffs themselves, and said they were set by USAID during the period when Iraq was ruled directly by the US occupation overseer Paul Bremer and the Coalition Provisional Authority. SSA, however, advised USAID on the rates required to make the port "self-sustaining." When USAID was slow in taking SSA's "advice" in July, 2003, the agency got a call from Congressman Norm Dicks (D-WA), telling them to pay more attention to the company's recommendations.

Bringing SSA into Um Qasr was part of a much bigger economic program. The free trade ideologues of the Bush administration see the occupation of Iraq as a beachhead into the Middle East and south Asia. A free-market Iraq, they hope, will set new ground rules for the rest of the area, much as the North American Free Trade Agreement first helped to transform Mexico's economy, and then became a prototype for the Free Trade Area of the Americas.

This massive introduction of free enterprise began even before the invasion, with the granting of the first contracts (again, only to non-Iraqi firms like KBR, a division of the oil service giant Halliburton) for servicing the military and building its bases. Those were followed by others for rebuilding the infrastructure of the country itself, destroyed by war and sanctions. But this transformation is not limited simply to reconstruction contracts. The pre-existing economy of Iraq is set to be transformed as well, as the state-run enterprises at its heart are to be sold off to private, foreign investors.

On September 19, 2003, the CPA published Order No. 39, which permits 100% foreign ownership of businesses, except for the oil industry, and allows repatriation of profits. Tom Foley, a Bush fundraiser who then directed private sector development for the CPA, announced a list of state enterprises to be sold off, including cement and fertilizer plants, phosphate and sulfur mines, pharmaceutical factories and the country's airline.

Order No. 37, also issued on September 19, suspended income and property taxes for the year, and imposes a flat tax on individuals and corporations in the future of 15%. Rightwing ideologues haven't been able to get the US Congress to pass a flat tax proposal despite years of advocacy, but Iraq became the free-marketeers' playground.

Meanwhile, conferences began to take place once or twice a week in Washington and London, in which Iraqi enterprises and contracts were put on display, and transnational corporations came to examine profit-making opportunities. Just one conference on December 10, 2003, held at Washington's National Press Club by Equity International, a business consulting service, featured the attendance of executives from Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, Rockwell Automation, Foster Wheeler, The Livingston Group, Nissan Motor Co, M/A-COM, Federal Security Systems, Danimex Communications, Global Transportation Systems, Applied Industrial Technologies, Comprehensive Health Services, Washington Group International, and International Truck and Engine Corporation, along diplomats from countries participating in the occupation coalition.

Equity International meetings to showcase Iraqi concessions began as early as May 5, and featured speakers included U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Lincoln Bloomfield; U.S. Treasury Under Secretary John Taylor; Congressman Curt Weldon, Vice Chairman, House Armed Services Committee; Congressman Christopher Shays, Chairman, House Subcommittee on National Security, Emerging Threats and International Relations; as well as executives from Kellogg Brown & Root, BearingPoint, Creative Associates and USProtect; and top officials from the Coalition Provisional
Authority, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. State Department, U.S. Treasury Department, U.S. Export-Import Bank, U.S. Commerce Department, U.S. Small Business Administration and the United Nations.

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. Meanwhile, 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. Law 150 affects workers employed in the enterprises set to be privatized, and that is why it hasn't been repealed as hundreds of other Saddam-era laws have been. If those workers have no legal union, no right to bargain, and no contracts, then privatization and the huge job losses that will come with it, will face much less organized resistance.

On June 5 CPA head Paul Bremer put another weapon into the anti-union arsenal. He issued a decree called Public Notice Number One, prohibiting "pronouncements and material that incite civil disorder, rioting or damage to property." The phrase can easily be interpreted to mean strikes or other organized labor protest. Those who violate the decree "will be subject to immediate detention by Coalition security forces and held as a security internee under the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949" (in other words, as a prisoner of war.) That order also was frozen in place by the transitional law under which Iraq functions today.

Unions therefore occupy a critical, but perilous, position. They confront the occupation's economic plan directly, and are its most vocal opponents.
It was therefore an important achievement for Iraq's port workers' union when, in mid-2004, SSA agreed to leave its concession in Um Qasr. "We're very opposed to privatization," says Radi, "and we don't want any private operators in the ports, which belong to the Iraqi people."


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photographs and stories by David Bacon © 1990-1999

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