Occupied Basra Electricity Workers Strike - Update
posted by Ewa Jasiewicz on Sunday January 18 2004 @ 02:01PM PST
Middle East Basra oil workers have joined Electricity workers in their threats to 'Shut Down Iraq' if their wages aren't corrected. Samir Hanoon, Vice President of the Basra Federation of Trade Unions explained: Negotiations with the GC and CPA are ongoing. We don not want to be in any hurry to take actions until the last result. In general, for the lives of people living in Basra, electricity is more important than food and water. After our discussions with unions in the oil section, we know we are capable of a total shut-down. Our problem is not with the General Directors and managers - its with Bremer and the occupation. But for us to go on total strike we must study the process well. The effect will be on Iraqi families. We also know that ex-regime people are still active and we know they'll use the strike to serve their own ends. They may sabotage it and the benefit will be to the Occupation Forces. We have to be careful in studying what will affect the existence of the occupation forces, not the things that will affect or harm the Iraqi people.' With the GC having already had a month to study the Southern Oil Company's home-made wagetable plus the weakening Dollar, it looks like further pressure tactics from workers could be on the cards.

Approximately one month ago, Oil workers throughout Iraq's Oil jugular vein governorate of Basra announced the formation of their own wagetable - challenging the CPA's Order 30 which set a 130 position, 10 step and 13 level wage table. The table sets the minimum wage for an Iraqi public sector worker at 69,000 ID - at the time of negotiations amounting to $40 - and less than half the monthly recommended wage for a sweatshop worker in a free trade zone in neighbouring Iran or Jordan, or a meal for six at corporate chow down HQ, the Cassa Sultan. Either way, workers have refused the table calling it unfair and exploitative. When SOC workers crafted their own wage table which set the minimum salary at approxmately 155,000 ID per month - cutting out at least three pittance-wage levels. The wagetable was also backed up with a the threat of an all-out strike if not accepted and worked upon jointly. That strike threat was re-enforced with a threat of workers joining the armed resistance if Occupation troops were called in to take over the pumps. SOC's wagetable - accepted by the company's management, administration and General Director - and it's 'take it or fight us' conditions prompted the Minister of Oil Himself to come down and engage with the Union. A return to the emergency CPA salary table - meaning $60, $120, $180, $220 monthly for most workers - was agreed until a new table could be forged.

Since then, two things have happened. The first: Electricity sector unions at Najibeeya, Haartha and Az Zubeir locations who supported the oil sector workers demands tacitly last month, took a wildcat strike last week, stormed their workplace adminsitration buildings, declared the CPA wagetable dismissed and vowed to go on 'total shut-down' if wages were not raised as soon as possible. A delegation met with the Minister of Energy to discuss the adpotion of a new table and a return to the old emergency wagescale was agreed as an interim solution.

The second: The value of the US Dollar against the Iraqi Dinar has been yo-yo-ing, plunging from 2100 ID in August to 1114 last week and 1650 to 1113 to 1250 and now 1420 in the past five days. Much has been written in the Iraqi press about this. Commentators compare the fall with the rumour driven orchestrated devalutaions of the Baath manipulating the Central Bank of Iraq during the 90s.

This means that the concession granted by the CPA to Iraqi public sector workers in struggle over the wagetable is fake. A return to dollarised wages will mean nothing if the fall continues to gather momentum. Any pay rises in dollars will also be meaningless. Private Sector workers, who are the most likely to be paid in dollars look set to be hit hard. Such as the 14,000 security guards employed to guard oil installations and new foreign corporate bounty hunters' offices in Basra by South African Security company Erinys. Either way you look at it, its a crafty shakedown on the part of the Occupation Administration.

Iraq, economically, has been levelled into a destroyed, depressed 'capitalists dream' state through Dictatorship debasement, three wars and 13 years of free-market priming sanctions. As a result, it has a stagnant, capital-weak economy and has to import almost everything. These imports are of course in dollars. Everything from oil to jeans is traded on the world market in dollars. This means that imports into Iraq are more expensive, and so prices of goods in shops go up as shopkeepers are forced to raise prices to make up on the extra they have to pay to get goods in, plus the fact that less people will be buying. The fall of the dollar, catalysed by spreading self-fulfilling rumours on the streets that the dinar will be devalued against the dollar, thus flooding the market with dollars, plus some budget puppetry at Bank of Iraq/Occupation Administration levels, serves the Occupation very nicely. It also means that new Iraqi businesses will have a harder time starting up and trading, with overheads - rents for buildings, telecommunications, equipment - rising, as well as the cost of importing goods and services, hampering their chances of winning a lane in the Great Reconstruction Contract Race.

Most Iraqi companies which do have enough capital to compete with the big boys and deal with players such as KBR and Bechtell, are notorious for their Neo-Baathi tactics of delayed and shoddy goods provison, looting and trashing of freshly built facilities such as schools and generally fulfilling already racism-fuelled ideas about Iraqi incompetence and Ali Babaa'ism. Why do they do it? To profit from and further the chaos of the occupation as it grapples for control - economic and social. The forgotten truth of the intensifying economic 'Great Game' - the pathological bomb and build industry which levels national landscapes - physically, economically and socially - is that working people do all the reconstruction work, they know what to do, know their workplaces and know the super-exploitation they are struggling under. The glossy brochure served exhibitons and trade fairs for international companies held in Kuwait and Jordan are the bomb and build industry congratualting itself, inflating itself and re-producing itself. Down on the ground, nothing but the skyline changes.

Iraqi workers do need new equipment, new chances and new skills, and Iraqi business do need to break out of the dictatorial bribes and intimidation cycle, but what Iraq and Iraqi people need right now is the means and no-strings-attached support to do it all themselves. 70% unemployment, and its the land of engineers. I've never met so many engineers and well-educated people in my life. And Where are they? Selling peanuts on Kharrada Dakhil or doing the housework. Iraq needs serious social restruction, a civil society, as well as a rise in wages, living standards and hopes for the future. Renewal, the mythologised meaning of 'Baath' which kept millions hypnotised into dictatorship acceptance, needs to be rooted in mutual aid, empowerment, confidence building and skills sharing, and ironically persistently cultivated free-association and co-operation, and just Giving - all the realities of social life existent in working class and struggling communities all over the world, and all the words that get scoffed at by the corporate chiefs I speak to who roll their eyes and declare to me, with the best of intentions but totally skewed convictions - 'I will rebuild this country'. The corporate chief uttering this particular company pep-talk will remain un-named but his declarations of 'putting Iraqis back to work' (One of his companies - a labour recruitment company - is in Capitalist accuracy slang referred to as 'a body shop'. He speaks determinedly about 'Getting the lights back on' and re-interates and re-interates 'I have a country to rebuild', missing the glaringly obvious point. He's not doing it. His two hands aren't doing it. He may be administering it, supervising it, controling it, profitting from it, and taking credit for it but its all done by Iraqi hands - just as the innovative SOC Workers proved when they kicked out KBR, took the materials they offered combined with spare parts from the local market and part rebuilt their own industry. From complete crude oil pumping stations, water pumps and pipelines, to combustion burners - all were autonomously reconstructed by SOC workers themselves following the Fall of the regime. Major business owners, bosses, never 'give work' they take it, order it around, profit from it, and maintain their place in the economic pecking-order by reproducing their own self-topped heirarchies. I get a deadpan gaze when I talk about nurturing and skills-exchange and wage justice as being the real tools of reconstruction in this country. Because thats not what reconstruction or 'helping Iraq people' really means.

Ordinary people are struggling now even more than before - 70% unemployment and with almost everything of any value - gold wedding jewelry, clothes, car parts, TVs - sold during the sanctions grind, ordinary Iraqi people are still struggling to make ends meet. The current dollar-play escalates the pressure on these people and expresses a strategy by the US-Iraqi GC acquiesced Occupation adminsitration akin to the Soviet population control techniques of manipulating inflation and poverty levels to make sure people kept down, stayed down. Welcome to the next phase of socio-economic experimentation on Iraq.

Photo: Iraqi workers stand before Lehees Crude Oil pumping station which they repaired themselves. Lehees was totally destroyed in this war. Pipelines, the main pump and sub-pump have all been reconstructed.