Labor Pains in Iraq

April 1st, 2005 - by admin

Matt Harwood / AlterNet – 2005-04-01 23:29:27

(March 31, 2005) — Before the fall of Saddam Hussein, Abdullah Muhsin had not stepped foot on Iraqi soil for a quarter of a century. A student union activist, he fled Iraq in 1978 after Hussein waged a campaign of terror against all civil society organizations independent of Baath control, which included trade unions, student groups and women’s organizations. After spending a few years in Italy, Muhsin made his home in England, where he’s been ever since.

From exile, Muhsin took part in the Workers Democratic Trade Union Movement (WDTUM), an underground organization that resisted Hussein’s Baath Party until its collapse. The WDTUM — a collection of trade unionists, intellectuals, liberals, communists, and civil society activists — collected information of Hussein’s crimes against humanity and trafficked it to trade union centers around the world.

Muhsin is now the international representative of the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions. Not quite two years old, the IFTU’s 200,000-strong membership is drawn from a wide range of ethnic and religious communities and are organized through out Iraq’s core industries. Although the IFTU opposed the war and the U.S. occupation, it now supports the political process that has kept coalition forces in Iraq on the premise that it meets the UN-determined timetable for Iraq’s transition to democracy.

The organization’s close association with the Iyad Allawi-led interim government — its president is a leader in Allawi’s party — had led both some anti-war groups in the West and other Iraqi labor organizations to question its legitimacy. Nevertheless, its links to Allawi have not prevented the US occupation forces from waging a campaign of harassment and intimidation against the organization.

The greater irony is that IFTU’s support of the January elections has now made its members a favored target for insurgents, who recently killed its international secretary, Hadi Saleh.

Muhsin spoke to AlterNet from his office in London about IFTU’s position on the occupation, the insurgency, and the future of Iraqi labor.

Harwood: Many Americans opposed the invasion of Iraq and continue to call for an immediate withdrawal of US forces. What is your organization’s position on these issues?

We opposed the war ourselves from the beginning. While we opposed Saddam Hussein, we also opposed the war because the war would lead to occupation, lead to social disorder and chaos, and the further suffering of the Iraqi people who already suffered terribly under Saddam Hussein. However, we were extremely jubilant when Saddam Hussein fell.

So, for us, as Iraqis, what are the priorities? Our priority is to keep Iraq together, and make sure that extremism does not take hold in Iraq — especially after the borders were left open and the police and the army were dismantled, which were disastrous policies in our view. We need to move forward, keep Iraq together, and to build a lasting democracy.

Our brothers and sisters in the peace movement should understand this and support us now. There’s no point in saying that Mr. Bush and Mr. Blair were wrong about the war. And because the war was illegal, therefore now we have to turn Iraq into anarchy and chaos in order to prove Bush and Blair wrong at the cost of Iraqi people and destroy Iraq as a country. The peace movement should help us and other genuine democratic Iraqis who want to build a genuine democracy in Iraq.

Building a democratic Iraq, of course, will benefit the Middle East. Where do you find a genuine democracy [in this region]? If Iraq succeeds in building a democracy, it will have an impact on regional countries, and I think that will be a positive thing.

Harwood: In many ways, the IFTU stands for all the values — democracy, secularism, and tolerance — that President Bush claims to support. Yet your organization has been repeatedly harassed by US forces. Why is that?

To be frank with you, we don’t understand it ourselves. Our purpose in organizing is first to defend Iraqi working peoples’ right to organize freely, to join unions, to form political parties. Second, to build a genuine and free trade union movement that can participate in building democracy in Iraq.

The American forces attacked our offices in Baghdad on Dec. 6, 2003. They ransacked the place, threw black paint on the name of our federation and even tore down posters in Arabic that condemned terrorism and called for building a genuine democracy in Iraq.

So we were left with absolutely no resources to work with, including the offices they raided. So it was very hard for us. But it was also viewed very badly by the people. They saw how Saddam Hussein brutalized the labor movement. Then they saw the American forces come under the slogan of liberation and terrorize [the movement] and not give a reason why.

They arrested eight of our leaders, including the current president of the Transport and Communication Workers Union, and took them to an undisclosed location. They put them in December in freezing conditions in a tent, left them overnight without food or anything, even as they were under continuous interrogation.

To this date, we still don’t know why they were arrested. But the international labor movement launched a campaign for their release. Our members were released after that, but the offices of the federation remained closed until June 28, 2004, when the transfer of sovereignty took place to the Iraqi interim government. That’s when the Transport and Communication Workers Union were able to reopen their offices.

Harwood: But other than the attack, have there been other ways in which the US occupation undermined the trade unions?

The Saddam anti-union law of 1987, that disgraceful law which banned Iraqi working people to join and form unions. [Neither the CPA nor the Iraqi Interim Government repealed the law, although they had the authority to do so].

According to the law, people in the public sector do not have the right to organize or form a union. And therefore we have been organizing in defiance of the law because we have the support of the international community and International Labor Organization.

In a sense, they recognized it was an anti-union law and should be abolished. We have the support of the international labor movement – the support of the ICFTU (International Confederation of Free Trade Unions), the AFL-CIO, and the TUC (Trade Union Congress). We know we have their support and therefore we are organizing. But also [if we are to] organize and build the union from below, we need to change the law in order to have a structure within to operate.

They [unions in the public sector] don’t have a bank account. The unions operating now are spending from their own pockets because they cannot even collect dues from their members because where will you put this money and who would be accountable for the money.

Harwood: In September of 2003, the CPA’s head, Paul Bremer, enacted Order 39 that allows for the privatization of state-owned industries and 100 percent foreign ownership of Iraqi businesses, among other things? What’s the IFTU position on Bremer’s order?

Let me be frank with you, Mr. [Paul] Bremer may have neo-liberal policies for Iraq in line with Bush and the Republican Party, but most of the wealth of Iraq, such as the oil, is publicly owned and is still in the hands of Iraqi authorities. Despite the laws and [guidelines that] Bremer has issued, all these assets are publicly owned.

The IFTU accepts and welcomes foreign investment. We think it is fundamental to rebuilding the Iraqi economy. The Iraqi economy was abused by Saddam Hussein, and was totally impoverished by his wars and the economic sanctions.

We cannot rebuild the economy with slogans. We need the technology from western democracies and advanced capitalist countries. So we welcome foreign investment to bring in jobs, skills, technology needed to help make Iraqi economy vibrant and part of the international economy. So we don’t see the market as something bad.

What’s important to us is how to [utilize] some of the operations of the market for the benefit of working people. While you have a free market economy, one should recognize that social provisions are necessary. So while we think foreign investment is something good, privatization is something else.

We do not support privatization, specifically in areas such as education, health, and oil. Oil represents 97 percent of the Iraqi economy. In order to rebuild Iraq and feed the country, you need that income and it should remain publicly owned.

Harwood: What about the assets left over from the old Saddam era union the General Federation of Trade Unions (GFTU) which are currently frozen?

Under Saddam Hussein there were six unions though officially we said they weren’t unions. Nevertheless, they had some type of structure. These unions each had their own accounts, assets, buildings and so forth.

The Federation, the GFTU had its own assets and buildings. The assets of the GFTU have been transferred to the IFTU, but there is really no money. Before the collapse of the regime, the GFTU left the fund empty because they knew the regime would collapse and they have no [status after Saddam] because they were part of the state. So they disappeared and took all the hard currency with them.

All that was left were buildings, but they were either destroyed or neglected during the sanctions.

Other unions also have assets and money that remain frozen. But this won’t be resolved until we have a labor code and a transitional government and an independent judiciary. This has to be resolved democratically and by the law.

We do not want to use the role of Saddam Hussein and take a building and say this is ours. Let the law decide who these assets belong to. We think it belongs to the true representatives of the Iraqi working people. Those unions that have democratically reconstructed themselves openly and have genuine democratically elected representatives. We think the money and the assets should go to these unions.

Harwood: Despite the IFTU’s problems with the occupation, your union has been accused of supporting many U.S. policies such as the continued presence of coalition soldiers, the Allawi government, and the January 30th election?

We do not support the occupation forces. We did not ask for the war and we did not ask for the occupation. We want to see Iraq sovereign and we want foreign troops out. But we want all this to happen as part of the political process.

Now there is a UN mandate, 1546, that clearly states that Iraq by the end of 2005 should have a legitimate, open government with a permanent constitution and a democratic mandate.

That’s what we want to see in Iraq. Then the Iraqi government will decide whether foreign troops should remain or go. What we want as a labor movement is a sovereign Iraq governed by [a politically] accountable government, with a permanent constitution. That’s what we want, that’s what we are campaigning for, and that’s what we will achieve.

We support the political process as envisioned by 1546. So in a sense the interim assembly and government accomplished its goal by holding elections Jan. 30, 2005. We supported that political process, not one person like Allawi, even though he was crucial as the head of the interim government. We do respect and support him, but more importantly, we support the political process, and Mr. Allawi was part of that process.

And the political process is bearing fruit now. All those pessimists who said Iraq will be in chaos and anarchy were surprised themselves by the outcome of the election. It was truly a historical event.

Nobody expected that outcome, where 8.5 million people defied all those extremists waving their purple fingers, and said: No more, to dictatorships. No more, to tyranny. No more, to terrorism. Yes, for peace and democracy. Yes, for the rule of the law.

Harwood: This perception that the IFTU is too supportive of the occupation and the interim government has lead parts of the anti-war movement in Europe to be quite critical of your organization. Many have called you “quislings”and “collaborators.” How do you respond to that?

It is sad for the peace movement … Well, we don’t call them the peace movement. We call them the hard left. And there is a difference between the genuine left — those who support the democrats, socialists and trade unionists in Iraq in their most difficult time — and those hard left extremists, who are still stuck in the past. They think that they are for the absolute truth and that everyone else is wrong.

We are the same people who fought against Saddam Hussein. We are the same people who Saddam Hussein tortured and murdered by the thousand upon thousands. What about the mass graves? These are the people who paid under the atrocities of Saddam Hussein. So, to be called a “quisling” and “collaborator” today is really an insult to those decent Iraqis who fought all their lives with little or nothing, not only to build a democratic Iraq and end the occupation, but also to keep Iraq together.

[Do] you see the forces today that wage terror against Iraqis? Just stop for a minute and see who they are and what they want. To compare those waging terror against Iraqis to the French Resistance is an insult to the French national resistance that opposed fascism and Hitler. To compare them to the Vietnamese is also an insult to the notion of national liberation.

These are extremists who are indiscriminately killing innocent children and innocent people. How do you explain that bomb in Hilla? How do you explain that suicide bomber blowing himself up in a marketplace and in the process massacring 150 people? To call these people “the resistance” is beyond belief. What kind of regime do they want to build after the occupation forces leave? The closest one is the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. Is this what Iraqis want? To get rid of Saddam Hussein in order to have another, more brutal regime than they had before?

Harwood: So you don’t agree with the view that many of these violent acts are a legitimate form of resistance against a foreign occupation?

It’s not, I tell you. It’s not legitimate resistance.

We are the resistance. We are resisting the occupation. We want Iraq to be sovereign. We want a democratic Iraq. And we will not give up on this right because this is what we’ve been struggling for all our lives.

How do you explain the killing of ordinary railway workers traveling between Mosul and Baghdad — carrying consumer goods for Iraqis, not armaments or supplies for the occupation. They were tortured, shot and then their bodies burned. Another time, a railway worker was beheaded and his head placed in his stomach and displayed prominently for other people to see. Why? This is resistance? Resistance to what? Resistance to trade unionism?

Harwood: Trade unions have become a target of insurgent attacks. Why is that?

Because of our support for the political process. On Jan. 4, a very dear friend of mine, Hadi Saleh, the international secretary of the IFTU, was tortured in his home. He was blindfolded, beaten and strangled with an electric cord. Evidence of torture was all on his body and face when he was found the following morning. He was unrecognizable.

This is a man who fought all his life for the right of working people to have a genuine free trade union movement. A man who was imprisoned by Saddam Hussein in 1969 for seven years, and who spent five years of his life on death row for his belief in trade unions. A man who spoke out against the occupation of Iraq and the war at every international meeting that he attended. A man who escaped Saddam Hussein in 1974 to be killed by the same forces, the remnants of Saddam’s Mukhabarat. This is irony.

But the attacks have not stopped.

Just four days ago, another member of the Transport and Communication Worker’s Union was assassinated. A week ago, Ali Hassan Abd, a key unionist in the oil and gas union in Baghdad was murdered in front of his kids and his wife. Why? For what? This was a unionist who along with other workers helped protect the Al-Dora refinery from being attacked and looted. He protected the public wealth of Iraq. Yet he was killed and killed in the most barbaric way.

Harwood: What immediate changes need to be made to help strengthen the labor movement in Iraq?

What we want from the incoming government is to make sure that we have a labor code and a permanent secular constitution. As it is now in Article 13 according to the Transitional Administrative Law (TAL), which is truly a radical document within the wider Middle East. It does recognize the right of people to join and form a union, the right to strike, the right to representation. With the incoming assembly, we want to make sure these rights are guaranteed and encompassed in the new constitution.

We want to see above all else, Iraq secure and democratic. Because if you don’t have a democratic and secure Iraq, unions can’t function. So in a sense we want to see a secular and democratic Iraq , a secular and democratic constitution. A constitution guided by the rule of the law. We want the good things that people in the West take for granted.

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