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Iraqi Labor’s Resistance
O n February 18 Ali Hassan Abd (Abu Fahad), a leader of the al-Daura oil refinery’s union, was walking home from work in Basra, Iraq with his young children when gunmen ran up and shot him.
Abu Fahad had been one of 400 activists who emerged from the underground or returned from exile in May 2003 and formed the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions (IFTU). After returning, he went back to the refinery and urged his fellow workers to elect department and plant-wide committees. That, in turn, became the nucleus of the Oil and Gas Workers Union, one of the 12 industry unions that make up the IFTU.
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, an IFTU affiliate. The two murders followed the torture and assassination of Hadi Saleh, IFTU’s international secretary, in Baghdad on January 4. Moaid Hamed, general secretary of the IFTU’s Mosul branch, was kidnaped 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. Despite these assassinations and the deterioration in security, 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 from 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 on unions. As new coalitions are being formed, some unions hope to parlay political connections into government recognition. 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—has reverberated through Iraq’s labor movement, leading to new divisions.
Iraq is growing more dangerous for activists. Even the southern region around Basra, which was relatively free from bombing attacks for the first two years of the occupation, has seen 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. IFTU leaders are being singled out in the broader context of anti-union violence, in part as 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 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 U.S. scenario in Iraq.”
The IFTU, like other Iraqi labor federations, has close relations
with a set of political parties—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 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.”
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 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 a 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 that followed him to do the same. Bremer then 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 has 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. 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 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 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.
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, Baghdad’s hotel workers belonging to the federation struck first the Sheraton and then the Palestine Hotel next door. Both are luxurious establishments behind high 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.
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, 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 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.
Similar fights broke out in the electrical stations around Basra. 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 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 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 towards that end.
As a result of almost three years of union activity, a high percentage of factories in Iraq have workerbased organizing committees and fledgling unions. 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 U.S. and Britain, but by the many returned exiles who now control Iraqi ministries.
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, 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 the unions’ business.”
Making the occupation’s stance towards unions even clearer, a U.S. 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.
David Bacon is a freelance writer and photographer.
Z Magazine Archive
AnnouncementsLABOR - May 1 is May Day. Workers of the world will celebrate the 124th anniversary of International Worker’s Day. Born out of a call for an 8-hour workday in the United States, this day is an opportunity for all workers to show their solidarity with one another, as well as to renew the call for labor rights.
FARM CONFERENCE - The Farm Conference on Community and Sustainability will be held May 24-26 in Summertown, TN, in partnership with the Fellowship of Intentional Communities. Tour green homes, see sustainable food production, learn about solar installations, alternative education, midwifery, and more.
Contact: Douglas@thefarmcommunity.com; http://www.thefarmcommunity.com/.
PALESTINE - The Conference of the Palestinian Shatat in North American will be held June 3-5 in Vancouver. The conference will examine the future of the Palestinian liberation movement.
Contact: email@example.com; http://www.palestinianconference.org/.
LABOR - The Pacific Northwest Labor History Association’s 45th annual conference will be held May 3-5, in Portland, OR. This year’s theme is Labor Under Attack: Learning from the Past and Preparing for the Future. A call for presentations, workshops and papers is currently underway.
Contact: PNLHA, 27920 68th Ave. East, Graham, WA 98338; 206-406-2604; PNLHA1@aol.com; http://www3.telus.net.
MARIJUANA - On the first Saturday of May marijuana legalization activists will hold informational and educational events, rallies and marches in over 300 cities around the world.
ECONOMICS - The Union For Radical Political Economics will hold its 39th annual conference May 9-11 in New York City.
RECLAIM THE DREAM - The 2013 Poor People’s Campaign & March from Baltimore to Washington D.C. will be May 11. Communities, schools and unions interested in participating are encouraged to contact the Baltimore People’s Assembly.
Contact: 410-500-2168; 410-218-4835; BaltimorePeoplesAssembly@gmail.com; Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Baltimore and the Baltimore Peoples Power Assembly, 2011 N. Charles St., Baltimore, MD 21218.
MOTHER’S DAY - The 17th Annual Mother’s Day Walk For Peace will be May 12th, in Dorchester, MA. The walk began in 1996 for families who had lost children to violence. The day has become a way for thousands of people to financially support the work of the Louis Brown Peace Institute.
Contact: http://www.ldbpeaceinstitute.org/; http://mothersdaywalk4peace.org/.
NATO 5 - An International Week of Solidarity with the NATO 5 has been called for May 16-21. Supports call on supporters to raise awareness of the NATO 5 and support funds for the defendants on the one-year anniversary of their preemptive arrests.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; https://nato5support.wordpress.com.
MOUNTAINTOP - The 2013 Mountain Justice Summer Activist Training Camp will be held May 19-27 in Damascus, VA. It will be a week of workshops, field trips to view Mountain Top Removal coal mines, direct actions, and service project.
FEMINIST SCI-FI - The feminist science fiction convention WisCon 37 is scheduled for May 24-27 in Madison, WI.
Contact: WisCon, ? SF3, PO Box 1624, Madison, WI 53701; email@example.com; http://www.wiscon.info/.
ANARCHY FEST - A month-long Festival of Anarchy is scheduled for May in Montreal. The festival includes The Montreal Anarchist Bookfair (May 19-20).
Contact: http://www.anarchistbookfair.ca/; http://www.radicalmontreal.com/.
LABOR - The International Labor Rights Forum will present: Down the Supply Chain, Driving Corporate Accountability, on May 22 in Washington, DC. The Labor Rights Awards Ceremony and Reception will honor pioneers in supply chain worker organizing, working solidarity and international labor rights policy.
MULTICULTURE - The 26th annual National Conference on Race & Ethnicity in American Higher Education (NCORE) will take place May 28-June 1, in New Orleans.
Contact: SWCHRS, 3200 Marshall Avenue, Suite 290, Norman, OK 73072; 405-325-3694; firstname.lastname@example.org; www.ncore.ou.edu.
MEDIA - The 2013 Alliance for Community Media Annual Conference will be held May 29-31, in San Francisco, CA. Participants will include educators, community leaders, media professionals, journalists, nonprofit leaders, policymakers and students.
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BRADLEY MANNING - On June 1, a rally will be held at Fort Meade in support of Bradley Manning.
BIKES - Bikes Not Bombs is holding its 24th annual Bike-A-Thon and Green Roots Festival in Boston, MA on June 3, with several bike rides scheduled, music, exhibitors and more.
Contact: Bikes Not Bombs, 284 Amory St., Jamaica Plain, MA 02130; 617-522-0222; firstname.lastname@example.org; www.bikesnotbombs.org.
LEFT FORUM - The 2013 Left Forum will be held June 7-9, at Pace University in New York City.
Contact: 365 Fifth Avenue, CUNY Graduated Center, ? Sociology Dept., New York, NY 10016; http://www.leftforum.org/.
VEGAN FEST - Mad City Vegan Fest will be held in Madison, WI, June 8. The annual event features food, speakers, and exhibitors.
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ADC CONFERENCE - The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) holds its annual conference June 13-16, in Washington, DC, with panel discussions and workshops on civil rights, media and other topics.
Contact: 1990 M Street, Suite 610, Washington, DC, 20036; 202-244-2990; firstname.lastname@example.org http://convention.adc.org/.
CUBA/SOCIALISM - A Cuban-North American Dialog on Socialist Renewal and Global Capitalist Crisis will be held in Havana, Cuba, June 16-30. There will be a 5 day Seminar at University of Havana, plus visits to a cooperative, urban garden, community development project, social research centers, and educational & medical institutions.
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NETROOTS - The 8th Annual Netroots Nation conference will take place June 20-23 in San Jose, CA. The event features panels, trainings, networking, screenings, and keynotes.
Contact: 164 Robles Way, #276, Vallejo, CA 94591; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.netrootsnation.org/.
MEDIA - The 15th annual Allied Media Conference will be held June 20-23, in Detroit.
Contact: 4126 Third Street, Detroit, MI 48201; http://alliedmedia.org/.
GRASSROOTS - The United We Stand Festival will be hosted by Free & Equal, June 22 in Little Rock, Arkansas. The festival aims to reform the electoral process throughout the U.S.
SOCIALISM - The Socialism 2013 Conference is scheduled for June 27-30 in Chicago, featuring talks and panel discussions.
Contact: email@example.com; http://www.socialismconference.org.
LITERACY - The National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE) will hold its conference July 12-13 in Los Angeles under the heading, Intersections: Teaching and Learning Across Media.
Contact: 10 Laurel Hill Drive, Cherry Hill, NJ 08003; http://namle.net/conference/.
IWW - The North American Work People’s College will take place July 12-16 at Mesaba Co-op Park in northern Minnesota. The event will bring together Wobblies from branches across the continent to learn new skills and build One Big Union.
PEACESTOCK - On July 13th, the 11th Annual Peacestock: A Gathering for Peace, will take place at Windbeam Farm in Hager City, WI. The event is a mixture of music, speakers and community for peace. Sponsored by Veterans for Peace.
Contact: Bill Habedank, 1913 Grandview Ave., Red Wing, MN 55066; 651-388-7733; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.peacestockvfp.org.
CHILDREN’S DEFENSE - July 15-19, join clergy, seminarians, Christian educators, young adult leaders and other faith-based advocates for children at CDF Haley Farm in Clinton, Tennessee, for five days of spiritual renewal, networking, movement building workshops, and continuing education about the urgent needs of children at the 19th annual Proctor Institute for Child Advocacy Ministry.
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ACTIVIST CAMP - Youth Empowered Action (YEA) Camp will have sessions in July and August in Ben Lomond, CA; Portland, OR; Charlton, MA. YEA Camp is designed for activists 12-17 years old who want to make a difference in the world.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; http://yeacamp.org/.
LA RAZA - The annual National Council of La Raza (NCLR) Conference is scheduled for July 18-19 in New Orleans, with workshops, presentations and panel discussions.
Contact: NCLR Headquarters Office, Raul Yzaguirre Building, 1126 16th Street, NW, Washington, DC 20036; 202-785-1670; www.nclr.org.
LABOR - The Eastern Conference For Workplace Democracy: Growing Our Cooperatives, Growing Our Communities, will be held at Drexel University in Philadelphia, PA, July 26-28.
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WOMEN/LYNNE STEWART- Radical Women is asking for support letters and cards to be sent to Lynne Stewart. Stewart is a civil rights attorney and political prisoner who is currently in jail. She has breast cancer and authorities have denied her request for transfer from her Texas prison to the New York City hospital where she received medical attention during a prior bout of breast cancer. Send messages and cards to: Lynne Stewart 53504-054, Federal Medical Center Carswell, P.O. Box 27137, Fort Worth, TX 76127.
Contact: 747 Polk Street, San Francisco, CA 94109; 415-864-1278; RadicalWomenUS@gmail.com; http://lynnestewart.org/; http://www.radicalwomen.org/.
HAITI/WOMEN - Haiti’s government is considering a legal reform measure that would prohibit and punish all sexual assault, including marital rape. MADRE and the International Campaign to Stop Rape & Gender Violence in Conflict are launching a petition to raise international support for this push to address violence against women in Haiti.
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SYRIA/MIDDLE EAST - The Middle East Children’s Alliance (MECA) is currently seeking funds to assist more than 200,000 refugees fleeing violence in Syria.
FOLK FESTIVAL - The Falcon Ridge Folk Festival will be held August 2-4, in the Berkshires, NY.
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WAR RESISTERS - The War Resisters League will hold its 90th anniversary conference, Revolutionary Nonviolence: Building Bridges Across Generations and Communities, August 1-4, at Georgetown University. The event will focus on the U.S.’ long history of antimilitarism.
Contact: 339 Lafayette Street, New York, NY 10012; 212-228-0450; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.warresisters.org.
POPULAR ECONOMICS - The Center for Popular Economics is holding its 2013 Summer Institute August 4-9 at Hampshire College in Amherst, MA. No background in economics is needed for this intensive training. This year’s theme is, The Care Economy: Building a Just Economy with a Heart.
Contact: Center for Popular Economics, PO Box 785 Amherst, MA 01004; 413-545-0743; email@example.com; www.populareconomics.org.
VETERANS - Veterans for Peace is holding the 28th annual convention August 6-11 in Madison, WI. This year’s theme is, Power To The Peaceful.
DEMOCRACY - The Democracy Convention will take place August 7-11 in Madison, WI. The convention brings together nine conferences including topics such as media, education, defense, race, environment and others.
MEN - The 38th National Conference on Men & Masculinity: Forging Justice: Creating Safe, Equal and Accountable Communities, presented in partnership with HAVEN, will be held in Detroit, MI, August 8-10.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.nomas.org/.
OCCUPY - An Occupy National Gathering will be held in Kalamazoo, MI, August 21-25.
Contact: email@example.com; http://occupynationalgathering.net/.
COMMUNITIES - The Communities Conference is a networking and learning opportunity for co-operative or communal lifestyles, with workshops, events and entertainment; scheduled for August 30-September 2 at the Twin Oaks Community in Louisa, Virginia.
LABOR DAY - The 29th annual Bread and Roses Festival, a celebration of the ethnic diversity and labor history of Lawrence, MA, will be held September 2, in honor of the 1912 Bread and Roses Strike. There will be music, dance, poetry, drama, ethnic food, historical demonstrations, walking & trolley tours.
Contact: PO Box 1137, Lawrence, MA 01842; 978-794-1655; http://www.breadandrosesheritage.org/.
OCCUPY WALL STREET - September 17 is the two-year anniversary of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Events are planned in New York City and worldwide.
TEACHERS - The 13th Annual Conference, “Teaching for Social Justice: The Politics of Pedagogy,” will be held October 12 in San Francisco, CA. The free event features workshops, resources, and free childcare.
Contact: 415-676-7844; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.t4sj.org/.
HAITI - International Action, which brings clean water and chlorinators to Haiti, seeks office space capable of housing up to six people and their office equipment.
Contact: Zach Bremer, Zbrehmer@haitiwater.org; 202-488-0735; http://www.haitiwater.org/.
MEDIA - The Union for Democratic Communications and Project Censored are sponsoring a joint conference on media democracy, media activism and social justice to be held November 1-3 at the University of San Francisco. Proposals for presentations, workshops and panels from activists and critical scholars are invited.