Week In Review

A Weekly Column by Bill Onasch
September 14, 2008

A Different Surge In Iraq
“The good news is there is an Iraqi labor movement.” So proclaims the
website of the First International Labor Conference In Iraq. There’s plenty of recent evidence of this assertion.

In early August the Iraqi Ministry of Industry, following directives from the IMF, decreed wage cuts of up to thirty percent, and reduction or elimination of most non-wage benefits, for most employees of state industries–the big majority of the working class. The already hard pressed workers did not accept this without a fight. There were big demonstrations and calls for strikes and workplace occupations.

Pro-government forces responded with acts of intimidation, including violent attacks and attempted kidnapings aimed at union leaders. But the workers didn’t shrink from the fight and sent out a call for international solidarity.

US Labor Against the War organized an emergency response. Within 48 hours 275 American trade unionists sent e-letters to the Iraqi Ambassador in Washington DC and the Iraq representative to the UN in New York. Similar efforts were mounted in other countries around the world.

This combination of continuing strikes and demonstrations in Iraq with international support forced the occupation-installed government to back down, reversing the wage and benefit cuts. The unions are now pressing for negotiations and demanding that the Iraqi parliament replace the anti-union laws of the Saddam era–enforced by the occupiers and the present Baghdad regime–with legislation complying with standards set by the UN’s International Labor Organization.

The conference scheduled for February 13-14 in the city of Erbil is the most hopeful development in Iraq. The organizers say,

“The occupation is determined to impose its economic and political will on Iraqis. The occupiers came with designs on our national riches - our oil - and schemes to privatize our industries, utilities, ports and public services and to put Iraq's national resources under the control of foreign corporations and international financial institutions...

“Iraq's labor movement is a force for unifying our nation. A strong labor movement is also essential to the future of any democracy in Iraq. Labor unions transcend the sectarian conflict unleashed by the U.S.-led occupation....

“Iraq's labor unions are the glue that binds Iraqi people in the north, center and south. In some areas, the glue is strong, but in other areas of the country unions are isolated. Our goal with the conference is to strengthen the ties between all worker organizations and focus on our common priorities. Those who feel isolated need to know that they have support from the international labor movement.”

The costs of putting on such a conference are great–they need to raise at least 150,000 U.S. dollars. Iraqi unions are dirt poor. They require international help–and those of us in the USA and Britain should feel a special duty to assist.

For more information about how you and your union, or antiwar group, can help click here.

Comes Around In Postville
It may be of little comfort to the hundreds of families whose lives have been shattered by their greed but what had been going around at Postville started coming around to Agriprocessors owners Aaron and Solomon Rubashkin.

Along with three other management officials, the Rubashkins each face 9,311 individual counts of violating Iowa’s child labor laws. This covers a period just from September, 2007 until the big ICE raid at the plant this past May. Each count carries a fine ranging from 75 to 625 dollars and possible jail time of thirty days.

The thirty-two minors involved were undocumented immigrants from Mexico or Guatemala. Seven of them were under the age of sixteen. Aside from handling dangerous equipment, such as circular saws, grinders and power shears, the complaint also says that children were exposed to hazardous chemicals such as chlorine solutions and dry ice.

According to the state attorney general’s affidavit,

“All of the named individual defendants possessed shared knowledge that Agriprocessors employed undocumented aliens. It was likewise shared knowledge among the defendants that many of those workers were minors.”

Bad as that news was the nation’s biggest kosher meat packer got a potentially fatal threat from the Orthodox Union, the major kosher certifying organization in the United States. Rabbi Menachem Genack, who is in charge of kosher supervision for the Orthodox Union said,

“Because of the new charges in the state of Iowa, we believe it is in the best interest of the kosher consuming public to have new management with a new C.E.O., that will give people a new sense of confidence that all laws and regulations are being completely complied with.”

The rabbi gave the Rubashkins “several weeks” to comply. Loss of kosher certification would almost certainly put the company out of business.

Blood For Oil–Here At Home
When the price of oil dropped to ten dollars a barrel in the mid-Eighties, oil drilling in the USA went in to a long, steep decline. Most experienced workers found other trades. There was a big spike in oil prices two years ago and today, of course, light crude is in the 150 dollar range. Now drilling in once unprofitable sites is at a white hot pace and politicians are urged to shut up and allow drilling everywhere.

In addition to the ecological disasters unfolding, this explosive growth in drilling is taking a toll in human carnage on the job and working conditions are pushing many workers in to drug use and criminal behavior off the job.

The fatality rate for oil and gas workers in the U.S. between 2002 and 2007 was more than 29 deaths per 100,000 workers, or about seven times the average for all occupations, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

There are several factors at work:

* Inexperienced and ill-trained workers are being pressed in to highly dangerous jobs.

* Much of the equipment is used, old and unreliable.

* Hours of work are brutal–often 84 hours a week, two weeks on, two weeks off, not counting long commutes to remote sites.

* An alarming number of workers have become addicted to meth just to stay awake and active on the job.

* OSHA has done little to deal with these problems, even when they lead to death on the job.

One company alone, Texas-based Patterson-UTI, had thirteen workers killed on the job in a 3½ year period. OSHA fines initially totaled 432,000 dollars for violations in these 13 deaths but were negotiated down to 115,000–less than ten grand per fatality.

While much of the refinery and pipeline ends of the oil/gas industry are unionized most of these recent start-up drilling ventures are not. Without a union, and without an effective OSHA, these workers don’t stand a chance. Another hidden cost in the price of America’s fuel.

In Brief...

¶ If you missed it on our Daily Labor News Digest, check out Registered Nurse Unions - What's The Real Issue? by Marilyn Albert and Ed Bruno of CNA/NNOC.

¶ The working class lost two exceptional leaders this past week. I posted remembrances on my blog of Celia Hart and Peter Camejo.

That’s all for this week

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