Labor Advocate Online
The following is reprinted from Labor Party Press. Since it was not available in online form we have scanned this in from hard copy. We hope we have caught all of the many OCR errors that inevitably creep into scanning of text.
There’s Hope in Iraq
A growing labor movement unites Iraqis as Iraqis and puts workers at the forefront of secular society
The tragic truth about Iraq is that, in our resolution on the war a year ago, the Labor Party was right in every regard. If anything, we badly underestimated the extent of the damage the war would do, both to Iraqis and Americans.
But what perhaps we did not imagine were the responsibilities and the opportunities that the war and its devastation would thrust upon the working people of both nations and their organizations.
National Organizer Mark Dudzic deals with what now confronts America’s workers, and the Labor Party particularly, in his column on page 8.
Below we will try to give you a sense of the courage and determination, the successes and the desperate needs, of the working-class movement that has emerged in Iraq. In doing so, we are indebted to the work of David Bacon, who, almost alone among American journalists, has been reporting conditions in the Iraqi working class.
BLOCK THE MILITIAS
While American GIs and Moktada Al Sadr’s militia faced off in Nasiriyah, workers in two of the few still-functioning factories there had a tough decision to make. Al Salk’s militia wanted them to clear out of their workplaces so they could turn them into military strongpoints.
But the workers in the two factories refused to budge, despite threats to their lives. They figured that the factories would be either destroyed or looted if they did. Instead of evacuating, they stayed inside their plants to defend them.
That’s hopeful. “The civilians will make sure to block the armed militias from turning the peaceful residential areas into centers for attacking the U.S., British, and other forces, and also to prevent the occupying forces from remaining inside the cities and residential areas, the Federation of Workers’ Councils and Unions in Iraq (FWCUI) promised from Baghdad.
“We completely reject turning workers and civilians’ work and living places into reactionary war fronts between the two poles of terrorism in Iraq,” said the FWCUI.
Some may find calling the U.S. a “pole of terrorism” a bit harsh. The GIs, at least, are not personally in Iraq to inflict terror on innocent people (see sidebar page 5). But clearly, that’s the impact the occupation is having on many Iraqi workers. And those workers can give you some pretty good reasons why.
Take for instance that, from his headquarters in Saddam Hussein’s biggest Baghdad palace, Bush’s top man in Iraq, Paul Bremer, has continued to enforce the Iraqi dictator’s decree banning unions, backing it up when he has to with the new Iraqi military or GIs in humvees.
Add to that the Coalition Provisional Authority’s “Public Notice Number One” prohibiting “pronouncements and material that incite civil disorder, rioting, or damage to property” (organizing “illegal” unions? rallies? demonstrations? strikes?). The CPA threatens to treat anybody arrested under the order as a POW.
Realize, too, that Bremer has actually lowered Saddam’s minimum wage and has cut off the benefits—housing, food, profit-sharing—that made Saddam’s already low wage rate livable. And with $87 billion to spend on reconstruction and many Iraqis forced out of work, Bremer is providing nothing in the way of unemployment benefits.
Finally, be as are that the Bush administration’s handpicked Interim Governing Council recently issued a decree that—after nearly half a century—reimposed Islamic Sharia law on women, leaving them pretty much without legal standing in Iraq and legalizing “honor killings.” They’re already happening.
The good news is that there is breath, life, and a great deal of energy in the Iraqi popular movement—uniting Arab and Kurd, Sunni and Shiite as fellow members of the massive Iraqi working-class majority
‘I don't agree with anyone who says this is an Islamic country, said Khayal Ibrahirn of the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq (OWFI) in an interview broadcast on WBAI in New York City “The Iraqi people are a secular people. A good percent of women go to the university”
“This occupation brought all the forces of political Islam back,” she told New York radio listeners. “They opened the door for all the kinds of political Islam, from Saudi Arabia, from Pakistan, from Iran—they are sending money.”
Added Samir Noory who was interviewed with her, “We believe there is a strong [popular] movement,” “the women’s movement, the labor movement, the radical leftist and communist movements, the democratic movements.
“They can establish a secular country in Iraq. The majority of people in Iraq, they want a secular country They don’t want a religious or ethnic state. They do not want that.”
UNION OF UNEMPLOYED
Some 85 other organizations had joined the OWFI in its demonstration against the reimposition of Sharia law—most without veils, and some without even head scarves. And they succeeded—the Governing Council backed off.
Among those supporting organizations was the Union of Unemployed in Iraq (UUI). With some factories demolished and others without electricity or raw materials, more than half the population is out of work. So in less than a year, the UUI has signed up something like 300,000 members.
That’s a good number even for an international union in the United States. But Iraq only has 25 million people. In the U.S. the comparable number would be nearly 3.5 million.
UUI’s demands are simple—work or unemployment benefits. And as representatives of a big part of the Iraqi working class, they want a place at the table in deciding how the 300,000 reconstruction jobs that standards.
They took those demands to Saddam’s old palace to meet with the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA). “We went in with our [membership] records in our hands,” recalled UUI activist Issam Shukri, also on WBAI, “and they said, ‘Who are you? Who do you represent? You are nobody. We are the power here.”
Thrown out on the street, UUI conducted a series of demonstrations in front of the palace, then a 41-day sit-in. Brerner sent out security guards to tip over their water cans the first night, then GIs, who arrested 50-odd of the demonstrators. But the demonstration held firm.
Indeed, it made unemployment and poverty a rallying cry. “The whole atmosphere changed in Baghdad. The media were talking about unemployment, everyone was shouting unemployment— ‘What’s the problem? Why isn’t the U.S. tackling this problem.”
“They jumped from talking about things that are totally alienated to Iraqis, like the politics of Shiite and Sunni and Muslims and Kurds, which doesn’t really touch people’s lives and they don’t care about.”
Still, the 300,000 jobs promised by the U.S. have not materialized, nor have any unemployment benefits. And in the chaos that seems only to increase in Iraq, families are in great desperation—without food, electricity, cooking oil, even water.
“Every day the economic policies of the occupying authorities create more hunger among Iraq’s working people, transforming them into a pool of low-wage, semi-employed labor, desperate for jobs at almost any price,” explains American labor journalist David Bacon. It will make it easier on the new corporate owners when their workplaces are privatized, Bacon says.
Even while maintaining Saddam’s decree against unionization, the CPA has published an order permitting total foreign ownership of all Iraqi businesses (once owned by the state). Iraqis fear massive layoffs.
“If I put on the hat of privatization, I’ll have to fire half the refinery’s workers,” worried the manager of Baghdad’s Al Daiira nil where a union has formed and held at least three work stoppages for a living wage. “In America, when a company lays people off, there’s unemployment insurance, and they won’t die of hunger,” he told Bacon. ‘If I dismiss my employees now, I’m killing them and their families.”
But what’s happening among workers at Al Daura and other functioning Iraqi enterprises is the other side of the coin of Iraq’s popular movement—the emergence of militant unions.
Militant unionism is not new to Iraqi workers. In the three decades before the Gulf War, Iraq had become the most industrialized country in the Middle East, and its level of wealth and education was comparable to Brazil or Korea today.
Iraqis had thrown out their British-backed king in a revolution in 1958, and until a CIA-backed coup put the fascist Baathist Party of Saddam Hussein into power, a strong labor movement made great headway That movement itself stood on the shoulders of union activists who had begun organizing the British-owned railroad and longshore industries in the 1920s.
Now two union federations have emerged from the underground and begun to organize. And they have to run hard to keep up with the organizing that is happening spontaneously in refineries, in factories, on the docks and wherever there are workers actually working.
Bush promised a free trade union movement to Iraqis in his State of the Union message. He has promised a lot in his presidency, very little of which has materialized. Iraqi workers know better than to wait. There’s much too much at stake—their jobs, the ownership of their industries, their country’s natural resources.
Much of the activity is in the south, where Iraq’s major oil fields and its ports are found. In the port city of Basra, when Hailiburton subsidiary Kellogg Brown & Root (KBR) took control of the Bergeseeya oil refinery, its Kuwaiti subcontractor brought in foreigners to do the work (see sidebar).
But not for long. Organized as the Southern Oil Company union, the oil workers dragged them out and held a two-day wildcat at the refinery demanding that Iraqis be hired in their place.
Other oil and pipeline workers took the cue and held wildcats, too, demanding to ioin the union, Now 10,000 strong, the union controls all Southern Oil facilities. It has forced the company to pay three times the minimum wage set by Bremer. And the contractor has even been forced to renovate the workers’ hospital.
In Baghdad, David Bacon reports meeting a veteran longshoreman, long retired, who said, “I’m going back to Basra to help organize unions again.” Basra longshoremen have been struggling to organize for months. They’d held at least one wildcat over wages, sitting in at the company office until occupation troops were called in.
As a result of all the ferment, the labor movement in Basra has been able to organize Iraq’s first central labor body.
But a great deal of the labor activity— whether spontaneous or organized--gets little press coverage in U.S. papers that are full of the war. Hundreds of teachers demonstrate for six months’ back wages in Mosul. Shoe workers march on the CPA’s grand palace. Security guards knock on its gates demanding their own hack pay.
One dramatic event was the conference of mostly female bank cashiers held in a Baghdad hotel in early March. Seventeen of their co-workers had been arrested without warrant and charged by the Iraqi Finance Ministry with embezzling $22 million when Saddam's old currency was exchanged for the new.
Under the auspices of the women’s organization and on~ of the labor federations, the women said their compatriots were being scapegoated for higher-ups. They demanded they be released and planned a nationwide general strike if they were not. After high-leve1 meetings, the CPA took the threat seriously and let them go.
What are the lessons of all this for American labor? One is an old lesson—the power of the people. “I believe in the people as an alternative [to the occupying forces and political Islam,” UUI spokesperson Issam Shukd told listeners of WBAI in New York. “I believe that this third power, which is huge, by the millions, could alter this scenario on the war of terrorisms ... rather than the ‘war on terrorism.”
Another lesson is right on time and comes from Clarence Thomas, a member of Longshore Local 10 (an LP endorser), who traveled to Iraq with an international labor delegation to see for himself what was going on.
“I can see here that capital has international unity and mobility,” said Thomas on his return. “It’s obvious that workers have to have the same thing if we’re all to survive.”
The third lesson is somewhat saddening. The government-funded National Endowment of Democracy, long thought to have CIA ties, and headed by a close friend of the neoconservatives, has put up $15 million for the Iraqi labor movement. With what ties attached?
But U.S. Labor Against the War (USLAW), whose antiwar circular won endorsements representing 30 million workers world wide, even before the war began, has been able to raise only $4,000.
Perhaps it’s time for labor to put its money where it’s month is. Check www.uslaboragainstwar.org for the Iraq Labor Solidarity Fund Appeal.