Iraqi Labor’s Resistance
n February 18 Ali Hassan
Abd (Abu Fahad), a leader of the al-Daura oil refinery’s union,
was walking home from work in Basra, Iraq with his young children
when gunmen ran up and shot him.
Abu Fahad had been one of 400 activists who emerged from the underground
or returned from exile in May 2003 and formed the Iraqi Federation
of Trade Unions (IFTU). After returning, he went back to the refinery
and urged his fellow workers to elect department and plant-wide
committees. That, in turn, became the nucleus of the Oil and Gas
Workers Union, one of the 12 industry unions that make up the IFTU.
On February 24, armed men gunned down Ahmed Adris Abbas in Baghdad’s
Martyrs’ Square. Adris Abbas was an activist in the Transport
and Communications Union, an IFTU affiliate. The two murders followed
the torture and assassination of Hadi Saleh, IFTU’s international
secretary, in Baghdad on January 4. Moaid Hamed, general secretary
of the IFTU’s Mosul branch, was kidnaped in mid-February, as
was Talib Khadim Al Tayee, president of the metal and print workers
union. Both were later released.
The targeting of trade unionists is a particularly alarming feature
of life in occupied Iraq. Despite these assassinations and the deterioration
in security, the effort by Iraqi unions to win legal status and
recognition has grown stronger over the past year. From the increasing
power of the oil workers in the south to the campaigns in factories
in Baghdad and the north, Iraqi workers continue to organize unions
and strikes in the face of attacks from the insurgency, on the one
hand, and from occupation forces, on the other.
At the same time, the political jockeying produced first by the
January elections and then by the referendum on the proposed constitution
have had an impact on unions. As new coalitions are being formed,
some unions hope to parlay political connections into government
recognition. The debate over federalism—the relative power
Iraq’s central government should have in relation to that of
the Shiite region in the south and the Kurdish region in the north—has
reverberated through Iraq’s labor movement, leading to new
Iraq is growing more dangerous for activists. Even the southern
region around Basra, which was relatively free from bombing attacks
for the first two years of the occupation, has seen rising violence.
Hassan Juma’a, head of the General Union of Oil Employees at
Iraq’s huge oil installations in the south, predicts that “an
attack on myself will take place, but I’m not afraid. I expect
the terrorists will strike everywhere.” Juma’a, like most
Iraqi unionists, attributes the January murder of Hadi Saleh and
other leaders to remnants of Saddam’s secret police, the old
Mukhabharat. “They seem to be able to operate freely,”
The Federation of Workers Councils and Unions of Iraq (FWCUI) reports
that it recently discovered a plot to bribe relatives of its leaders
in Basra and to eventually kidnap and kill them. IFTU leaders are
being singled out in the broader context of anti-union violence,
in part as a probable response to the union’s position on the
January elections and subsequent political process, one of the issues
on which Iraqi unions disagree. “The IFTU supports democratic
principles,” explains Ghasib Hassan, head of IFTU’s Railway
and Aviation Union, “and one of those principles is elections.
So we supported them. The IFTU wants to see a democratically elected
and accountable government, mandated by the people, so we can raise
our legitimate questions and concerns…. This election was also
a way of facing head-on those extremists and anti-democratic forces
who don’t want to see Iraq a democratic and secure state.”
Iraq’s other unions are more dubious about the current political
process. The FWCUI condemned participation in last January’s
elections. “We called on workers to boycott these elections
because people were divided according to their ethnicity, language,
and religion,” explains Falah Alwan, the federation’s
president. “Its purpose was to impose the American project
on Iraq and give legitimacy to the government imposed by the Americans
and the occupying coalition. The same parties we saw in the old
governing council will remain in power and the political balance
will remain the same.” The union was similarly critical of
the constitutional referendum, calling it “another episode
of the U.S. scenario in Iraq.”
The IFTU, like other Iraqi labor federations, has close relations
with a set of political parties—the Iraqi Communist Party (with
two ministers in the current government), the party of former Prime
Minister Issad al Allawi, and a party of Arab nationalists. IFTU
activists say they opposed the occupation before the war, but were
forced to deal with it once it began. They call for using UN Resolution
1545 as the basis for insisting that the United States leave once
an elected government holds office.
The FWCUI is affiliated with the Workers’ Communist Party of
Iraq, which has taken a much more distant attitude toward the occupation
authorities. Alwan says UN forces should replace U.S. troops. “We
call for a congress of liberation, including all the powers in Iraq,
to end the occupation and rebuild civil society,” he explains.
The General Union of Oil Employees wants the troops to leave right
away. After surveying its members, “Almost everyone [told us]
they want the occupation to end immediately and the immediate withdrawal
of all occupying forces from Iraq,” says Juma’a. In August
he emphasized that the GUOE “demands the immediate departure
of the occupation forces from the country, because we are capable
of administering the state as Iraqis, whatever the consequences….
The current divisions are caused by the occupation.”
Following a June tour of the United States organized by U.S. Labor
Against the War (USLAW), the three unions agreed on a statement.
It was the first time Iraq’s major unions have developed a
common position on the two key issues that confront them—the
occupation and privatization. “The occupation must end in all
its forms, including military bases and economic domination,”
the statement said. “The war was fought for oil and regional
domination, in violation of international law, justified by lies
and deception, without consultation with the Iraqi people. The occupation
has been a catastrophe for both our peoples.”
There are many reasons why workers and unions hate the occupation.
Iraqi unemployment, according to the economics faculty of Baghdad
University, has been at 70 percent since the occupation started.
Among U.S. occupation czar Paul Bremer’s free market oriented
orders was number 30, issued in September 2003 and still in force.
It lowered the base wage in public enterprises (where most permanently-employed
Iraqis work) to $35 a month and ended subsidies for food and housing.
Most of all, workers hate Law 150, issued by Saddam Hussein in 1987,
which prohibited unions and collective bargaining in the public
sector. Bremer chose to continue enforcing this measure and bound
the transitional governments that followed him to do the same. Bremer
then backed up the edict by issuing Public Order 1, banning even
advocacy leading to civil disorder. He arrested IFTU leaders, expelling
them from their Baghdad offices. He also put down some of the first
street protests in Baghdad, organized by the Union of Unemployed
of Iraq (part of the FWCUI), and has arrested the union’s head,
Qasim Hadi, many times.
Iraqi unions see these moves as a way to soften up workers to ensure
they don’t resist the privatization of the country’s economy.
Privatization defies the tradition of social solidarity in Iraq,
which favors using oil revenues to industrialize the country, creating
a public sector that can put people to work and ensure a self-sustaining
national economy. Hassan Juma’a says workers at the Southern
Oil Company began organizing their union as the troops were entering
Basra because of “our fear that the purpose of the occupation
was the oil, that they’ve come to take control of the oil industry.
Without organizing ourselves, we would be unable to protect our
industry.” In May the GUOE organized a conference in Basra
opposing privatization of the oil industry. The union seeks to initiate
a political front in the south to stop the occupation from placing
transnational corporations in control of oil resources.
The IFTU also opposes privatization. “Iraqi publicly-owned
enterprises should stay publicly owned,” says Ghasib Hassan.
“We will never accept the privatization of oil. It is the only
source of wealth we can use to rebuild our country.” Alwan
and the FCWUI have organized worker committees in a number of Baghdad
factories and opposition to privatization has been a major motivation
Despite facing a hostile occupation with a vested interest in their
suppression and an armed insurgency targeting unions and civil society,
Iraq’s labor movement has made remarkable progress in organizing
workers and challenging free-market policies. This past February,
Baghdad’s hotel workers belonging to the federation struck
first the Sheraton and then the Palestine Hotel next door. Both
are luxurious establishments behind high walls, housing U.S. journalists
and administrators. The IFTU managed to force de facto recognition
and bargaining in some workplaces and now claims 12 national unions
and 200,000 members. Metalworkers at Baghdad’s Al Nassr molding
and car parts factory won a minimum wage of 150,000 Iraqi dinars
(about $100) per month. The Rail Workers Union forced a wage increase
at Railways of the Iraqi Republic from 75,000 to 125,000 Iraqi dinars
per month and equal pay for men and women.
May 2004 Basra’s power station workers, a hotbed of union activity,
elected the first woman union president in Iraq’s history.
Hashimia Muhsin Hussein says the Electricity and Energy Workers’
Union “will continue to struggle for workers rights’ to
union representation, social justice and a stable, pluralistic,
and democratic Iraq.” In May 2005 she threatened to call a
strike in the country’s power plants if the government didn’t
stop replacing longtime workers in the state-owned industry with
Basra is the scene of Iraqi workers’ biggest victory so far.
At the Southern Oil Company, the union first took on KBR, a division
of Halliburton, which was given a no-bid reconstruction contract
to repair oil facilities. In the first months of the occupation,
KBR tried to bring in a Kuwaiti contractor, Al Khoraafi, along with
workers from outside the country. The newly-reformed oil workers
union struck for three days in August 2003 and forced KBR to renounce
its plans to take over reconstruction work and replace Iraqi workers.
Then the union directly challenged the Bremer wage order. “We
managed to get the minimum salary up to 150,000 Iraqi dinars, or
about $100,” Hassan Juma’a recalls.
Similar fights broke out in the electrical stations around Basra.
Juma’a and the Basra head of the IFTU, Abu Lina, went to the
deepwater port of Um Qasr to help dockworkers get organized and
push for better wages. In April the port workers union, supported
by the oil workers and others, blockaded the port of Zubair and
forced out the Danish shipping giant Maersk, which had taken over
the terminals at the start of the occupation. In mid-2004 the U.S.
multinational Stevedoring Services of America was also forced out
of the port of Um Qasr.
While the oil workers and the two Iraqi labor federations are organizationally
independent from each other, in the past they have cooperated on
the ground in Basra and the south. According to Juma’a, “We’re
still looking to see which unions, at the end of the day, are the
legitimate ones representing the interests of the workers.”
That cooperation, however, is becoming much more strained. The IFTU,
which has been accused in the past of trying to claim status as
Iraq’s sole officially-recognized labor federation, entered
into a controversial pact with its former Ba’athist adversaries
in September. The IFTU’s new partners are the General Workers’
Federation of Iraq and the General Workers’ Federation of the
Republic of Iraq, both remnants of the state-sponsored General Federation
of Trade Unions under Saddam Hussein. This agreement, brokered by
the International Confederation of Arab Trade Unions, gave the new
General Federation of Iraqi Workers the right to represent the country’s
labor movement internationally (specifically, at the ICATU) “until
circumstances allow the holding of general union elections.”
The agreement calls for rejection of the occupation as its first
point. It is possible, some observers believe, that the IFTU is
preparing for the end of the occupation and seeks to break a “nationalist”
element away from the insurgency. Some also speculate that the agreement
is evidence of a decline in the influence of the Iraqi Communist
Party (historically subjected to bloody repression by the Ba’athists)
in the union federation.
In a second controversial move, the IFTU in August made a scathing
condemnation of Juma’a and the leadership of the General Union
of Oil Employees, saying, “It doesn’t represent the union
work of the petrol sector.” The oil workers shut down oil exports
for a day to demand that a greater share of the oil revenue be spent
on rebuilding the south. The rift reflects the sharp debate over
the country’s newly-approved draft constitution and structure.
The IFTU’s political allies accuse the Supreme Council for
the Islamic Revolution in Iraq of supporting secession under the
guise of a federalist structure in which Iraq’s central government
would have little power. They accuse the oil workers of entering
an alliance with the governor of Basra towards that end.
this claim, however, the GUOE moved to establish an Iraq-wide union
for workers in the oil industry. On October 10 it announced, “With
God’s blessing the formation of the Federation of Oil Unions
in Iraq, with its centre in Basra, composed of unions representing
the oil sector in Basra, Meisan, and DhiQar.” Iraq’s other
primary oil fields are located in the north around Kirkuk where workers
also organized an independent union in the wake of the fall of the
Saddam Hussein regime. Production from the northern fields, which
are older and smaller, has been constricted by insurgents’ attacks
on oil pipelines. The GUOE and the Kirkuk union have had informal
contacts and the announcement from Basra emphasized that the new federation’s
doors “are open to all workers in the oil sector throughout Iraq
from the north to the south.” The new federation views itself
as “part of the movement of Iraqi labour unions.”
As a result of almost three years of union activity, a high percentage
of factories in Iraq have workerbased organizing committees and
fledgling unions. To consolidate this progress, however, Iraqi unions
need political unity; without it, it will be difficult to confront
the occupation and defeat its privatization program, which is supported,
not just by the U.S. and Britain, but by the many returned exiles
who now control Iraqi ministries.
advantage of this situation, in August the interim Iraqi government
issued Decree 875, revoking the limited rights unions won under
the Transitional Law of June 2004. That law supposedly granted workers
the right to organize without state interference. The new decree,
says the government will “take control of all monies belonging
to the trade unions and prevent them from dispensing any such monies.”
According to the FWCUI, the decree signals “a continuation
of the intervention of the authorities in the unions’ business.”
Making the occupation’s stance towards unions even clearer,
a U.S. military helicopter fired on the headquarters of the IFTU-affiliated
Transport and Communications Workers Union in Baghdad’s Al-Hilla
district on August 15. Twenty-six workers and unionists were wounded
and taken to the hospital. Despite their advances, Iraq’s unions
face greater dangers than at any time since the fall of Saddam Hussein.
Bacon is a freelance writer and photographer.