The Bush administration has no love for unions anywhere, but in Iraq it has a special reason for hating them. They are the main opposition to the occupation's economic agenda, and the biggest obstacle to that agenda's centerpiece - the privatization of Iraq's oil. At the same time, unions have become the only force in Iraq trying to maintain at least a survival living standard for the millions of Iraqis who still have to go to work every day, in the middle of the war.
This week, Iraqi anger over starvation incomes and oil ripoffs boiled over. On Monday, June 4, the biggest and strongest of the Iraqi unions, the Iraqi Federation of Oil Unions, launched a limited strike to underline its call for keeping oil in public hands, and to force the government to live up to its economic promises. Workers on the pipelines carrying oil from the rigs in the south to Baghdad's big refinery stopped work. It was a very limited job action, which still allowed the Iraqi economy to function.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki responded by calling out the army and surrounding the strikers at Sheiba, near Basra. Then he issued arrest warrants for the union's leaders. On Wednesday, June 6, the union postponed the strike until June 11. Labor unrest could not only resume at that point, but could easily escalate into shutdowns on the rigs themselves, or even the cutoff of oil exports. That would shut down the income stream that keeps the Maliki regime in power in Baghdad.
Some of the oil workers' demands reflect the desperate situation of workers under the occupation. They want their employer - the government's oil ministry - to pay for wage increases and promised vacations, and give permanent status to thousands of temporary employees. In a country where housing has been destroyed on a massive scale, and workers often live in dilapidated and primitive conditions, the union wants the government to turn over land for building homes. Every year, the oil institute has miraculously continued holding classes and training technicians, yet the ministry won't give work to graduates, despite the war-torn industry's desperate need for skilled labor. The union demands jobs and a future for these young people.
But one demand overshadows even these basic needs - renegotiation of the oil law that would turn the industry itself over to foreign corporations. And it is this demand that has brought out even the US fighter jets, which have circled and buzzed over the strikers' demonstrations. In Iraq, the hostile maneuvering of military aircraft is not an idle threat to the people below. This standoff reflects a long history of actions in Iraq, by both the Iraqi government and the US occupation administration, to suppress union activity.
Iraq has a long labor history. Union activists, banned and jailed under the British and its puppet monarchy, organized a labor movement that was the admiration of the Arab world when Iraq became independent after 1958. Saddam Hussein later drove its leaders underground, killing and jailing the ones he could catch.
When Saddam fell, Iraqi unionists came out of prison, up from underground and back from exile, determined to rebuild its labor movement. Miraculously, in the midst of war and bombings, they did. The oil workers union in the south is now one of the largest organizations in Iraq, with thousands of members on the rigs, pipelines and refineries. The electrical workers union is the first national labor organization headed by a woman, Hashmeya Muhsin Hussein.
Together with other unions in railroads, hotels, ports, schools and factories, they've gone on strike, held elections, won wage increases and made democracy a living reality. Yet the Bush administration, and the Baghdad government it controls, has outlawed collective bargaining, impounded union funds and turned its back (or worse) on a wave of assassinations of Iraqi union leaders.
President Bush says he wants democracy, yet he will not accept the one political demand that unites Iraqis above all others. They want the country's oil (and its electrical power stations, ports and other key facilities) to remain in public hands.
The fact that Iraqi unions are the strongest voice demanding this makes them anathema. Selling the oil off to large corporations is far more important to the Bush administration than a paper commitment to the democratic process.
Iraq's oil was nationalized in the 1960s, like that of every other country in the Middle East. The Iraqi oil union became, and still is, the industry's most zealous guardian.
Holding a no-bid, sweetheart contract with occupation authorities, Halliburton Corporation came into Iraq in the wake of the troops in 2003. The company tried to seize control of the wells and rigs, withholding reconstruction aid to force workers to submit. The oil union struck for three days that August, stopping exports and cutting off government revenue. Halliburton left.
The oil and port unions then forced foreign corporations to give up similar sweetheart agreements in Iraq's deepwater shipping facilities. Muhsin's electrical union is still battling to stop subcontracting in the power stations - a prelude to corporate control.
The occupation has always had an economic agenda. Occupation czar Paul Bremer published lists in Baghdad newspapers of the public enterprises he intended to auction off. Arab labor leader Hacene Djemam bitterly observed, "War makes privatization easy: first you destroy society; then you let the corporations rebuild it."
The Bush administration won't leave Iraq in part because that economic agenda is still insecure. Under Washington's guidance, the Iraqi government wrote a new oil law in secret. The Iraq study commission, headed by oilman James Baker, called it the key to ending the occupation.
That law is touted in the US press as ensuring an equitable division of oil wealth. Iraqi unions say it will ensure that foreign corporations control future exploration and development, in one of the world's largest reserves.
Hassan Juma'a Awad, president of the IFOU, wrote a letter to the US Congress on May 13. "Everyone knows the oil law doesn't serve the Iraqi people," he warned. The union was banned from the secret negotiations. According to Juma'a, the result "serves Bush, his supporters and foreign companies at the expense of the Iraqi people." The union has threatened to strike if the law is implemented.
Like all Iraqi unionists, Juma'a says the occupation should end without demanding Iraq's oil as a price. "The USA claimed that it came here as a liberator, not to control our resources," he reminded Congress. Congressional opponents of the war can only win Iraqis' respect if they disavow the oil law.
Whatever government holds power in Baghdad at the occupation's end will need control of the oil wealth to rebuild the devastated country. That gives Iraq's working people a big reason to fight to ensure that happens.
David Bacon is a California photojournalist who documents labor, migration and globalization. His book Communities Without Borders was just published by Cornell University/ILR Press.