Workers resist US ban on Iraqi unions

By Alan Maass (5 November 2003)

CHICAGO: "The thing that was really heartening was that under the most difficult conditions that you can imagine, workers were not waiting one minute before they started organising themselves", reported labour journalist David Bacon, who travelled to Iraq as part of a delegation from US Labor Against the War (USLAW) and activists from French trade unions.

What Bacon - along with Clarence Thomas, former secretary-treasurer of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 10 - saw in Iraq has gone unnoticed in a corporate media focused only on "soldiers and bombers", Bacon said.
"There are millions of working people in Iraq", Bacon said after an evening forum at the USLAW national conference in Chicago on October 18. "They are trying to survive this experience -- which means go to work, feed their families, find housing for themselves in the midst of really difficult circumstances."

More than half a year after Saddam Hussein's government collapsed and US officials promised that the economy would be "rebuilt", unemployment in Iraq is estimated at 70%. Just getting by from day to day is the overwhelming challenge for the majority of people.

"The 30% wage rise of US$18, plus the loans and land promised by [top US overseer Paul] Bremer three months ago, has yet to materialise", wrote Ewa Jasiewicz in the October 19 Occupation Watch (<http://www.occupationwatch.org>). Jasiewicz was also with the USLAW delegation. For those who are working, the average wage is $60 a month -- the "emergency" pay decreed by the US occupiers of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA).

That wage was exactly the same under Hussein -- but Iraqis also received food and housing subsidies that have disappeared under US rule. "So the income of Iraqi workers has gone down", Bacon pointed out, "and that's not even calculating for the exchange value, and therefore the price of anything that's been imported".
Unions still illegal The Iraqis who met with Bacon and Thomas said they fear the worst is yet to come if Washington gets away with its privatisation schemes for Iraq. Already, the CPA has legalised 100% foreign ownership of Iraqi enterprises and set the corporate tax rate for the "new Iraq" at just 15%.

When it comes to trade unions, however, the US occupation authorities have "found a law passed by Hussein that they like", Bacon said. Passed in 1987, it forbids workers in the state oil industry from organising a union. US officials continue to apply this law.

"To back it up, in June Bremer issued another regulation about `prohibited activity'. Item B under prohibited activities is encouraging anybody to organise any kind of strike or disruption in a factory or any kind of economically important enterprise. The punishment for this is being arrested by the occupation authority and treated as a prisoner of war", explained Bacon.

As Thomas put it, "The US administration is creating this fictionalised picture that goes like this: If we pull out, there's going to be Islamic fundamentalism, ethnic strife and all kinds of chaos. And what they really are afraid of is democracy. They don't want to see Iraqi workers organise and have power -- have union rights."

However, within days of the US invasion and the fall of the government, Iraqi workers in factories, on the docks and at oil industry facilities began to organise, "not just to get a wage raise, but also to fight for the control of their jobs and control of the institutions that they work for", said Thomas.

New unions

Thomas added that the new Iraqi labour movement has been shaped mainly by two groups. One is the Workers Democratic Trade Union Movement, an independent labour federation that was forced underground in the 1980s by the Baathist regime. Its older activists have taken advantage of the dismantling of the police state to reemerge, forming the core of the new Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions (IFTU), which was launched in May.

At the same time, younger activists -- including members of the Worker Communist Party -- have formed the Union of the Unemployed in Iraq (UUI). Both groups of activists are opposed to the US occupation, said Thomas.

The main difference, he says, is that unions associated with the UUI "are not at all hesitant to support labour action in the face of the various decrees that are in place that prohibit organising and strikes". The older unionists of the IFTU "don't think that it is prudent to organise job actions and demonstrations, because they think that these can be exploited" by elements of the old regime who are resisting the occupation.

In a recent report, Jasiewicz described the struggle of workers at a brick factory that is part of a major industrial complex 48km east of Baghdad.

After enduring terrible conditions and a wage of 3000 dinars a day (US$1.50) for a 14-hour shift, three quarters of the work force walked off the job in October. They marched on management's office and demanded a wage increase, a formal contract, on-site medical facilities and retirement payments.

"The owner had no idea that a union had been formed and told them, `Fine, strike. I will dismiss you, others will come to take your place'", Jasiewicz wrote. "The workers responded by going to their homes, bringing out their guns and spontaneously forming an armed picket line."

"Armed with machine guns, workers guarded the factory and defended their strike from scab labour. The owner, overpowered, ended up granting the workers a raise of 500 dinars ... and agreed to enter into negotiations regarding social and health benefits. The strike was regarded all around as a massive success."

Bacon says that anti-war groups can do a lot of good by focusing on struggles like these, so that "people in the US can look at Iraq and see people". Getting the truth out about labour struggles in Iraq, and the fact that US politicians have made it a crime to organise a union, can add to the growing questioning of the US occupation of Iraq.

[Alan Maass is editor of Socialist Worker, newspaper of the US International Socialist Organisation. From Green Left Weekly, November 5, 2003.]

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