David Bacon /The Nation & Sherwood Ross / Counter Currents – 2010-10-20 11:39:59
David Bacon /The Nation
(October 6, 2010) — The political deadlock in Baghdad, which has prevented the formation of an Iraqi government more than six months after the parliamentary elections in March, has not prevented the administration of Nuri Kamal al-Maliki from opening the southern oilfields to the world’s giant corporations.
Nor has it stopped the US Embassy and Commerce Department from reinvigorating the Bush-era program of selling the country’s public assets to corporate buyers. And because Iraqi unions have organized opposition to privatization since the start of the occupation, the Maliki administration is enforcing with a vengeance Saddam Hussein’s prohibition of public sector unions.
The United States may have withdrawn its combat brigades, but it is not leaving Iraq. And while Washington may have scaled back its dreams of nation-building, it has not given up on a key aspect of the economic agenda behind that project: encouraging corporate investment by sacrificing the rights of Iraqi workers.
Unions have been locked in conflict with the Iraqi government since the occupation began, but in the past year the battle has intensified. In March, after oil workers protested low pay and their union’s illegal status, leaders were transferred hundreds of miles from home. The Oil Ministry banned travel outside Iraq for Hassan Juma’a and Falih Abood, president and general secretary, respectively, of the Federation of Oil Employees of Iraq. They were hauled into court and threatened with arrest.
When the Bush administration pushed for passage of a hydrocarbon law that would facilitate foreign investment, the union organized widespread opposition, mounting what was in effect a political strike and shutting down pipelines in 2007. It called for keeping oil in public hands and protested poor housing and high unemployment.
Maliki called in the army and, with US military overflights, increased pressure on the workers. He finally agreed to the union’s principal demand: holding implementation of the oil law in abeyance.
Iraq’s unions were already the largest nonsectarian organizations in the country. After the confrontation they also became the leading voices advocating for economic improvement and continued national ownership of oil, electricity and industry.
Although the oil union doesn’t oppose all foreign investment, it has criticized the government for signing unfavorable contracts with oil corporations, in particular production-sharing agreements, in which foreign companies get a share of the oil they produce rather than receiving a fee for services.
PSAs are rare, even in conservative Arab countries, because they cede a great deal of control to foreign corporations. Oil ministry spokesman Assam Jihad told the Iraq Oil Report, which uses its wide network of correspondents to track conditions in the industry, that “unionists instigate the public against the plans of the Oil Ministry to develop [Iraq’s] oil riches using foreign development.”
The oil union is far from the only labor organization targeted by the government. This past July electricity and oil minister Hussein al-Shahristani expelled the Electrical Utility Workers Union from its offices in Basra. Despite billions spent on contracts to rebuild power plants (GE alone got $3 billion), Basra residents got power only a few hours a day during 120-degree heat this past summer. June demonstrations over blackouts, supported by the unionâ€”the first national union led by a woman, Hashmeya Muhsinâ€”were put down by police, who killed one protester and injured several others.
Shahristani then issued an order to shut the union down. A thousand Basra workers protested, shouting slogans asking Shahristani where the $13 billion appropriated for electricity reconstruction had gone. Within days, the union was expelled from its offices.
Also in June, longshoremen protesting the prohibition of unions in ports south of Basra were surrounded by troops, and the union’s leaders were transferred hundreds of miles from their homes. This union also has a history of opposing privatization, and in 2005 it forced shipping giants Maersk and Stevedoring Services of America to give up sweetheart concessions in Iraqi ports granted to them by occupation authorities.
In January the government threw the president of Basra’s Iraqi Teachers Union in jail. According to Nasser al-Hussain, an executive board member, the government seeks to establish control over an organization it views as far too independent. In recent union elections, Maliki’s party tried to run a slate of officers who would be more politically reliable. “Key forces within the government are using a law inherited from Saddam’s era to try to control and split trade unions,” Hussain says.
Unions began to reorganize as soon as Saddam Hussein’s regime fell, but they quickly found that Washington’s vision of democracy didn’t include their rights. After the 2003 invasion, occupation czar Paul Bremer decided to keep on the books Saddam’s Law 150, which bans public sector unions.
Each succeeding Iraqi administration continued the prohibition. Despite the ban, unions grew so quickly and enjoyed such widespread support that they were often able to force ministries to concede benefits. But government hostility is unabated; in August the parliamentary committee that was considering a new labor law, which would have given unions legal status and the right to bargain, discarded the project.*
Meanwhile, multinational corporations are racing into Basra’s oilfields. The Maliki government has signed contracts with eighteen companies, including ExxonMobil, Royal Dutch Shell, Italy’s Eni, Russia’s Gazprom and Lukoil, Malaysia’s Petronas and a partnership between BP and the Chinese National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC).
American corporations won only two of eighteen contracts; even so, the US military has protected all field operations. Gen. Ray Odierno, who just retired as head of US forces in Iraq, told reporters in July that the United States would continue to provide security, using troops and private contractors.
While suspicion of the Chinese and Russians may be endemic in Washington, US policy in Basra welcomes any oil giant. “That means CNPC and Lukoil,” says Kenneth Thomas, who heads the US Embassy’s Provincial Reconstruction Team. “I don’t have a prohibition.” Over the summer former US Ambassador Christopher Hill invited corporate executives and diplomats to the US base in Basra.
According to the Iraq Oil Report, he offered to facilitate visas for foreign workers and to help them open secure bank accounts, which would ease the transfer of billions of dollars in deposits.
In September the Commerce Department organized a trade mission for US companies, including GE, Boeing, American Cargo Transport and twelve other engineering and transport firms. The Iraqi government is offering them $80 billion in contracts for projects, including ports and power plants. At the same time, it prohibits unions in those industries.
When questioned by reporters about the union bans, an official at the US Embassy, the world’s largest, said mildly, “We’re looking into it. We hope that everybody resolves their differences in an amicable way.”
The Obama White House has not spoken out, and the latest State Department report on human rights plays down the oppression of Iraqi unionists, calling their situation a “limited exercise of labor rights.”
Juma’a, the oil union president, says, “The government doesn’t want workers to have rights, because it wants people to be weak and at the mercy of employers.” Muhsin, the electrical union leader, believes blackouts and repression are designed to create an atmosphere of desperation. “If people are desperate enough, the government believes they’ll accept anything to get electricity, including privatization,” she charges. “It knows we won’t accept that, so it wants to paralyze us so we can’t speak out.”
“We are in danger,” Muhsin warns. In response, US Labor Against the War has worked with US Representatives Sam Farr, Phil Hare and Jan Schakowsky to circulate a “Dear Colleague” letter urging the Obama administration** to protect the unions.
American labor leaders, like AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka, have urged the Iraqi government to change course and have lobbied Washington to do more. Prohibitions or not, though, Iraqi unions say they will not be driven underground again, as they were for decades under Saddam.
* Regarding the labor law, it was not the parliamentary committee that discarded the law. It was the Council of Ministers, which was to have referred the draft law to parliament for debate, but instead rejected it outright after sitting on it for months.
** The Farr, Hare, Shakowsky letter is directed at al-Maliki with copies to Obama and Clinton.
US Busting Labor Unions In Iraq
Sherwood Ross / Counter Currents
(October 18, 2010) — It is only in comic books and Hollywood movies that America’s superheroes exist to defend the underdog. In practice, the armies of America have fanned out around the globe to show they are the willing servants of the corporate overdog.
As Noam Chomsky writes in his book Imperial Ambitions(Metropolitan), “You can almost predict (US) policy by that simple principle: Does it help rich people or does it help the general population? And from that you can virtually deduce what’s going to happen.” There is no more disgraceful example than Iraq.
Instead of supporting Iraq’s pro-democracy labor unions, which would have put Washington on the side of the working-class, the US signaled its attitude toward Iraqi labor unions in 2003 “when coalition troops stormed the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions(IFTU) headquarters in Baghdad, ransacked their offices, arrested eight union workers, and shut down the office,” wrote Matthew Harwood in the April, 2005, issue of The Washington Monthly.
Harwood added that when historians re-examine what went wrong during the US occupation of Iraq, “somewhere on the list will be the administration’s indifference, indeed hostility, to Iraqi organized labor. The Iraqi people are paying a price for that attitude.”
This hostility continues to this very day. In an article titled, “Unionbusting, Iraq-Style,” published in the October 25th The Nation magazine, author David Bacon writes “because Iraqi unions have organized opposition to privatization since the start of the occupation, the (Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-) Maliki administration is enforcing with a vengeance Saddam Hussein’s prohibition of public sector unions.”
Last March, he writes, after oil workers protested low pay and their union’s “illegal” status, “leaders were transferred hundreds of miles from home.”
The unions’ “crime” in Iraq is to oppose production-sharing agreements with foreign oil companies, which would then get a share of what they produce rather than a fee for services. In the past, some oil outfits used this tack to swindle their government partners out of huge sums.
In Iran, BP’s predecessor in the Fifties wouldn’t even tell Tehran how much oil it was extracting! “Although the (Iraqi) oil union doesn’t oppose all foreign investment, it has criticized the (Maliki) government for signing unfavorable contracts with oil corporations, in particular production-sharing agreements…” writes Bacon.
“Unions began to reorganize as soon as Saddam Hussein’s regime fell, but they quickly found that Washington’s vision of democracy didn’t include their rights. After the 2003 invasion, occupation czar Paul Bremer decided to keep on the books Saddam’s Law 150, which bans public sector unions.,” Bacon pointed out. And while unions are suppressed, multinational oil firms are descending on Basra’s oilfields.
Bacon says the Maliki government has signed contracts with 18 companies including ExxonMobil, Royal Dutch Shell, Italy’s ENI, Russia’s Gazprom and Lukoil, Malaysia’s Petronas and a BP-Chinese National Petroleum Corp. partnership. Standing guard over the oilfields is the US Army and private contractors.
Author Bacon noted further that last month the US Commerce Department dispatched a trade mission to Iraq for US companies that included big defense contractors. Among them was Boeing, General Electric(GE), American Cargo Transport and 12 other engineering and transportation firms out to win a share of $80 billion for work on ports and power plants while at the same time, Bacon writes, “it prohibits unions in those industries.” GE, by the way, already has landed a $3 billion contract to rebuild power plants.
Typically, the government put down a demonstration of Basra workers asking where $13 billion allegedly spent for electricity reconstruction had gone. It was a good question since their homes are only getting a few hours of electricity daily.
In response, oil minister Hussein al-Shahristani kicked the Electrical Utility Workers Union out of its Basra offices. Hashmeya Muhsin, that union’s leader, charges, “If people are desperate enough, the government believes they’ll accept anything to get electricity, including privatization. It knows we won’t accept that, so it wants to paralyze us so we can’t speak out.”
Similarly, The Nation article quotes Hassan Juma, president of the Federation of Oil Employees of Iraq, as saying, “The government doesn’t want workers to have rights, because it wants people to be weak and at the mercy of employers.” Maybe that’s the real reason why the president of Basra’s Iraqi Teachers Union last January was tossed in Jail.
As bad off as Iraqi workers may be, Third Country Nationals(TCN) shipped into Iraq are often fare worse. Author Pratap Chatterjee in his book “Halliburton’s Army”(Nation) writes that workers “who dared to stage labor strikes and sickouts to protest their treatment at military camps faced immediate dismissal.”
Workers complain they are treated “like human cattle” by some of their bosses. Rory Mayberry, a former Halliburton/KBR contractor employed at the Balad, Iraq, Camp Anaconda dining facilities in 2004, said the US firm was supposed to feed 600 Turkish and Filipino workers meals.
Instead, the workers “were given leftover food in boxes and garbage bags after the troops ate.” As long as such practices by the US government and US corporations continue, look for the gap between rich and poor to widen globally, just as it has been widening in America. Look for continued injustice, continued unrest, continued repression, and continued war. You’d think by now the union-busters would catch on that there is a better way. But they are proving they only have eyes for the dollars.
Sherwood Ross, who formerly reported for the Chicago Daily News and wire services, today runs the Anti-War News Service from Coral Gables, Florida, USA. To reach him to comment on, or to contribute to, his work, email email@example.com
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