US Labor Against the War / David Bacon / SF Chronicle – 2005-06-16 07:46:30
Iraqi Labor Leaders To Brief Congress
US Labor Against the War
WASHINGTON, DC (June 10, 2005) — Six leaders of the Iraqi trade union movement, who will be touring the US June 10-25, will hold a congressional briefing from 10:30 to 11:30 a.m. Wednesday to talk about life and work in Iraq under the US occupation. Invited to speak to Congress by Rep. Sam Farr (D-CA), Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA), Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-CA), Rep. John Conyers (D-MI), Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) and Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr. (D-IL), the six labor leaders will talk about how support for Iraqi workers’ right to organize could ultimately shape the rebuilding of Iraq.
The group, representing the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions (IFTU), the Federation of Workers Councils and Unions in Iraq (FWCUI), and General Union of Oil Employees (GUOE), is the first delegation of Iraqi labor leaders to visit the United States, and one of the few groups of any sort not brought here by the US government.
Hosted by US Labor against the War (USLAW), the six labor leaders plan to visit more than 20 US cities — including Baltimore, New York City, Montpelier and Burlington, VT, Boston, Hartford, Stony Brook, NY, Philadelphia, St. Paul, MN, Chicago, Atlanta, Detroit, Madison, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Cleveland, Los Angeles, San Jose, Oakland, Berkeley, San Francisco, Martinez, CA, Portland, and Seattle.
During their stay in the US, the group will meet with US workers, union officials, antiwar and social justice activists, religious and community leaders and the media. They will discuss their continued fight to gain the right to form unions; ongoing efforts to thwart US government plans to privatize all Iraqi businesses and contract out Iraqi jobs; and how unemployment is skyrocketing, currently the nationwide rate is 50 percent.
US Labor against the War (USLAW) is a national coalition of 112 labor organizations representing more than four million union members.
• WHAT: Iraqi Labor Leaders Congressional Briefing
• WHEN: 10:30-11:30 a.m. Wednesday, June, 15, 2005
• WHERE :US. Capitol Building, Room HC7, Washington, DC.
For more information visit www.uslaboragainstwar.org
Iraqi Unions Claim Their Voice
David Bacon / San Francisco Chronicle
BAGHDAD (June 12, 2005) — For most Americans, the idea that Iraq has unions is a strange concept. We have become accustomed to seeing images of soldiers and bombs, while Iraq’s working families have little visibility and are given little consideration in U.S. policy debates.
Yet Iraq, a country of 24 million people, has a long history of civic and labor activism dating back to the 1920s, when the British dug the first oil wells, and oil workers organized their first unions. They weren’t legal then – – in fact, the British shot strikers in one of Iraq’s first labor confrontations. They’re not legal now, either.
Saddam Hussein, fearing a progressive movement to topple his dictatorship, banned unions for public workers in 1987. Iraq’s public sector includes all of its largest industries — oil, railroads, ports and big factories.
When the occupation began, however, U.S. authorities refused to repeal that law, despite promises of democracy. Instead, chief occupation administrator Paul Bremer issued Public Order 30 in September 2003 to privatize Iraq’s state-owned industries. Thomas Foley, a fund-raiser for President Bush, drew up lists of factories, airlines, railroads, mines and other enterprises to be sold to private investors, including foreign corporations. Despite last January’s elections, that program is still on the books.
Iraqi workers adamantly oppose privatization, since it would lead to massive job loss in a country already suffering 70 percent unemployment, according to economists at Baghdad University. To Iraqi unions, denying them legal status is a way to keep them weak in the face of the occupation’s economic program.
Yet Iraqi unions — despite lacking legal status and often being the targets of the occupation on the one hand and terrorists on the other — have begun winning better conditions for workers. Hundreds of thousands of workers have joined, according to Iraqi labor organizers, making unions the largest institution in Iraqi civil society.
Oil workers recently held a large congress in Basra to voice their opposition to privatizing oil, or selling it to transnational corporations at discounted prices. Oil income, they said, is needed to rebuild their country. Their union calls for keeping public assets in public hands. It also calls for an end to the occupation, and the withdrawal of U.S., British and other foreign troops. Today, Iraq has several union federations. They don’t always agree on everything, but on these two points, they see eye-to-eye.
Most Americans hope that the occupation will end too, replaced by a progressive government that will raise living standards and ensure a democratic and peaceful future. The war deprives working families in the United States of the money needed for education and public services, and it sends their children into harm’s way. Yet instead of bringing prosperity and peace to Iraqis, the war has brought the opposite. Working families in both countries want the same thing.
That makes it important to seek out the voices of Iraq’s unions, its women’s, professional and student organizations, and hear what they have to say. Their voice is missing in the debate over the future of their country.
• (1) Defiant: A worker at Iraq’s state leather industry factory denounces the ban on unions. Many workers view organizing as their right after years under dictatorship. As Ghasib Hassan, general secretary of the Union for Aviation and Railway Workers and member of the executive committee of the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions, explained: “The IFTU was established soon after the fall of Saddam Hussein by trade unionists who had been in exile or prison, who are very well known because of their struggle against the former regime. They paid heavily and suffered terribly. … We began going out to factories. We formed committees in workplaces, and people nominated and elected their representatives freely. We are building a trade union movement which is independent, democratic and pluralist. Workers should be freee to join the union of their own choice. We campaign for social, economic and political advances in the interest of working people. We want a federal, prosperous and democratic Iraq. Women should take their place in society, government and trade unions. Their wages should be equal to those of men. We’ve built 12 national unions, and women are leaders of some.”
• (2) Discontented: Unemployed police officers (left) demonstrate outside the office of a contractor who reneged on promises of work. Such activism is resurgent in Iraq, even though the U.S. occupation authority never rescinded the law banning unions. According to Hassan Juma’a Awad, president of the General Union of Oil Workers, “Without organizing ourselves, we would be unable to protect our industry, which we have been looking after for generations… The authorities kept saying that according to this law we had no legitimacy, no right to represent workers in the oil sector. As far as we’re concerned, we were elected by the workers. That’s the only kind of legitimacy we need. I was elected president of our union in a democratic and free election.”
• (3) Making do: The furnace tender (above) for the boilers of the power plant in al Daura oil refinery must use rags to turn the hot valves of machinery that was imported from Europe, much of it decades ago.
• (4) Determined: A woman operates a sewing machine at Iraq’s leather industry factory, where, according to Falah Alwan, president of the Federation of Workers Councils and Unions of Iraq, “the administration also threatened to arrest workers. …But they organized two strikes in January in spite of that.”
• (5) Key indicator: The gas flare at al Daura refinery (above) is visible throughout Baghdad, where residents monitor its flame as a sign that the refinery, key to Iraq’s economy, is working.
• (6) Vigilant: The guard at the gate of al Daura oil refinery prevents unauthorized entry. The plant’s manager armed 300 workers after the fall of Saddam Hussein; they now provide him, in effect, with a squad to enforce his decisions.
• (7) Free market: The son of a refinery worker at al Daura refinery sells motor oil to cars passing along the highway outside the refinery. His father receives the oil as compensation for his low pay./ Photographs and text by David Bacon
David Bacon, a reporter and photographer who specializes in labor issues, is author of The Children of NAFTA (University of California Press, 2004).