they came for Hadi Saleh on January 4, they found him at home in
Baghdad with his family. First, they bound his hands and feet with
wire. Then they tortured him, cutting him with a knife. He finally
died of strangulation, but apparently that wasn’t enough. Before
fleeing, his assailants pumped bullets into his dead body. No group
claimed credit for his assassination. Nobody knows for sure who
carried it out. But for many Iraqis, the manner of his death was
like a signature.
1969, when he was only 20, sentenced to death in a Baathist prison,
such murderous tactics were already becoming well known. For the
next 30-plus years the Mukhabarat, Saddam Hussein’s secret
police, used them against Saleh’s friends and coworkers. In
early January 2005 in Baghdad, killers intent on sending the same
bloody message finally visited these horrors on him.
has never been a very safe place for trade unionists, socialists,
or democratic-minded people. The year before Saleh was born, over
300 students and railway workers were machine-gunned in Baghdad
for protesting the agreement by Iraq’s puppet king to hand
over airbases to the British, the country’s former occupiers.
The 1948 massacre—called Al-Wathbah (the leap)—was a moment
when millions of Iraqis became convinced that their country could
be more than an impoverished, oil-cursed British protectorate.
Saleh must have remembered, though he would have been only ten at
the time, the next defining moment in Iraq’s popular history.
In one of the few times when Iraqi progressives seemed to be on
top, they finally threw out the king in 1958. For a few years, organizing
unions, breaking up the big estates, and building public housing
for the urban poor were not just dreams, but government policy.
Oil was nationalized and the revenues used to build universities,
hospitals, and government-owned factories.
like Hadi Saleh, trying to hold fast to the dream and organize a
civil society that could bring it into being, are invisible. So
it’s no accident that his death wasn’t reported by the
mainstream U.S. media. It didn’t fit the images of soldiers
and warfare, of bearded terrorists and roadside bombs. This is the
paradigm through which U.S. citizens are taught to understand the
occupation of a country, whether they support or oppose it.
Saleh believed in a progressive and democratic country, in ways
not so different from millions of blue-state people in the U.S.
He and other Iraqi unionists, women’s rights advocates, and
militants of left-wing political parties might not make it onto
the evening news in New York or Los Angeles, but they inherit the
vision of Iraq as a peaceful country, with a government committed
to social justice, using its oil wealth to give common people a
decent chance at life.
years ago, these notions got Hadi Saleh arrested, accused of being
a trade unionist and a red. After narrowly escaping execution, and
then spending five years locked away, he joined many of his compatriots
30 years Hadi Saleh lived abroad in Korea and Sweden. In Iraq he’d
been a printer, a liberal occupation that has probably produced
more of the world’s leftists than any other. An exile’s
life, though, requires doing whatever work comes to hand, trying
to keep faith with politics and memories. He adapted to many cultures
and languages. Exile made him a political organizer—always
a wanderer, always dreaming of someday going home.
Saddam Hussein’s brutal hold on power, that didn’t seem
likely for decades. In Iraq, the unions Saleh had helped to build
were turned inside out by the Baathist state, their officials transformed
into agents who spied on workers and turned militants over to the
police. From outside Iraq, in 1984, Saleh and his fellow exiles
organized a new labor group, the Workers Democratic Trade Union
Movement, to keep alive the real traditions of Iraqi unionism. In
Baghdad’s factories, however, workers belonging to such a union,
or to political parties from Communist to Islamist, were pulled
off their machines, arrested, and shot.
Iraqi unions are recovering from that history. Saleh was one of
the organizers helping that recovery to take root. When Saddam Hussein
finally fell, he and his fellow exiles returned to Iraq. The old
underground Workers Democratic Trade Union Movement became the reorganized
Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions, and Saleh its international secretary.
Even under a brutal U.S. military occupation, they began to look
for ways in which that old dream of a progressive Iraq could be
turned into reality.
they’ve been very successful at organizing new unions. Iraqi
workers want and need to be organized as never before. A study by
the economics faculty of Baghdad University last fall puts unemployment
at 70 percent. Wages were frozen by the occupation authorities at
$60 a month, the level of the last years of Saddam Hussein, after
the economy had been drained by two decades of war and repression.
Then, in September 2003, the Coalition Provisional Authority’s
Order #30 on Reform of Salaries and Employment Conditions of State
Employees lowered the base to $40 and eliminated housing and food
proconsul Paul Bremer also decided not to lift the laws Saddam Hussein
had used to keep his tame unions in place, especially an outright
ban on bargaining in the public sector, where most workers are employed.
To this Bremer added Public Order #1, banning pronouncements that
“incite civil disorder, rioting or damage to property.”
The phrase civil disorder can easily apply to organizing strikes
and leaders of both the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions and the
newer Federation of Workers Councils and Unions of Iraq have been
detained a number of times.
the Bush administration installed the successor regime of Iyad Allawi
last June, the transitional law forbade any change in the Bremer
orders. One they sought particularly to protect was Order #39, also
dating from September 2003, which permits 100 percent foreign ownership
of businesses, except for the oil industry, and allows repatriation
of profits. Bremer put Tom Foley, a Bush fundraiser, in charge of
private sector development. Foley began drawing up lists of state
enterprises to be sold off, including cement and fertilizer plants,
phosphate and sulfur mines, pharmaceutical factories and the country’s
Iraq as a neoconservative playground, combined with the violence
and brutality of the occupation, created conditions for the growth
of the armed resistance. Some taking up arms against the U.S. military
and its British and “coalition” allies are nationalists,
enraged at foreign domination, or Islamists intent on building a
theocratic state. None of these armed groups support the growth
of trade unions, women’s organizations, left-wing political
parties, or other parts of civil society kept down during the Saddam
workers under these circumstances has been dangerous, but possible.
The IFTU held its first national meeting in June 2003, attended
by 400 delegates who set up national unions for 12 major industries.
Organizers like Saleh fanned out from that meeting to workplaces
around the country. At Baghdad’s Al Daura oil refinery, for
instance, workers were urged to elect department committees and
then an overall plant committee, as the base for the new oil union.
The refinery manager then told them that he was forbidden from negotiating
with them since the refinery belongs to the Iraqi state. The union
grew nonetheless. In other workplaces, workers didn’t wait
for the arrival of organizers and began forming their own organizations,
which became the base of other post-Saddam unions, like the Federation
of Workers Councils.
wages have driven the upsurge in Iraqi labor activity, including
three general strikes in Basra alone. Iraqi longshore workers, working
for the port authority in Um Qasr, were given a cut in pay when
the occupation started, and began organizing a union in response.
On the day they were set to vote for the officers of their new union,
Port Director Abdel Razzaq told them the election was cancelled
because of the 1987 prohibition. He later fired three port workers
for trying to organize. Razzaq had been installed when the occupation
started by the U.S. company given a contract to operate the port,
Stevedoring Services of America.
January 2004 dockers struck over the wages, blocking anyone from
entering the main gate. Razzaq’s office was occupied and the
demonstration only ended when he was rescued by occupation troops.
He was finally fired as a result of the protests.
February the new port director, Mahmood Saleh, met with a delegation
of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions and representatives
of the IFTU Basra region. He agreed that trade unions should be
free to organize in the docks, but a year later workers still don’t
have recognition for their union. Nevertheless, six workers’
committees operate openly in Um Qasr and other ports, in defiance
of the 1987 law. Under their pressure, wages for dockers now start
at 75,000 Iraqi Dinars (ID) per month, rising to 100,000 after a
year (approximately $50 to $70 ).
tens of billions of dollars appropriated by the U.S. Congress for
reconstruction following the war, most of Iraq still lies in ruins
and Iraqis see little to show for the money. Reconstruction of export
facilities, however, like oil installations and docks, has been
high on the occupation’s list of priorities. It’s also
the source of intense conflict with Iraqi workers. Few Iraqis have
been hired by companies doing reconstruction, which has brought
in thousands of foreign workers. For those jobs where they do get
hired, Iraqis have to pay a fee that is often the equivalent of
a month’s wages. Iraq has no unemployment benefits or any welfare
system, so the loss of a stable job condemns a family to hunger
months after the occupation started, conflict over reconstruction
work boiled over in a two-day wildcat strike at the Bergeseeya Oil
Refinery near Basra. KBR, a division of Halliburton Corp., was given
a no-bid reconstruction contract to repair oil facilities. KBR brought
in a Kuwaiti construction company, Al Khoorafi, using Indian and
Pakistani workers. To protect their jobs, Iraqi workers threw them
out and protested outside the company’s offices.
the South Oil Company, the local Oil and Gas Workers union, headed
by Hassan Ju’ma, banned foreign workers following the Bergeseeya
action. KBR tried to get them to accept its foreign staff but local
workers refused to budge. “Iraq will be reconstructed by Iraqis,
we don’t need any foreign interference,” Ju’ma said.
A year ago South Oil Company workers began challenging the wage
schedules. They surveyed prices and proposed a monthly minimum of
$85. Workers threatened to strike and shut off oil production, and
the oil minister immediately flew to Basra, where he agreed to return
to the pre-September scale. Unrest spread to the Najibeeya, Haartha,
and Az Zubeir electrical generating stations where workers mounted
a wildcat strike, stormed the administration buildings, declared
the Bremer wage schedule void, and vowed to shut off power if salaries
were not raised. Again the ministry agreed to return to the old
Oil Company unionists finally forced the CPA to raise wages, with
extra pay for working in risky or isolated locations, often attacked
by the armed opposition in their effort to cut off oil production
and revenue. Following another walkout in February at the Basra
Oil Pipeline Company, the new SOC wage schedule eventually spread
to most worksites in the oil sector. Workers then took the fight
to power stations, where they threatened to stop electrical generation,
potentially halting all other industries. Samir Hanoon, vice president
of the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions in Basra, warned that if
the ban on unions wasn’t lifted, “We will take other actions—protests,
demonstrations and total shut-downs. We realize that there may be
some sacrifices but we are ready to accept them.”
Thaer Khatheeri, president of the Al Daura refinery union committee
in Baghdad, says that oil workers still earn only 69,000 ID a month,
while the union is demanding a minimum of 150,000.
the difficult situation, the IFTU has managed to force de facto
recognition and bargaining in some workplaces. Metalworkers at Baghdad’s
Al Nassr molding and car parts factory won a minimum wage of 150,000
ID per month and the Ministry of Industry now recognizes the union
at the factory, as well as a few other manufacturing plants. The
Rail Workers Union forced a wage increase for all workers at Railways
of the Iraqi Republic from 75,000 to 125,000 ID per month and equal
pay for men and women, who make up 15 percent of the workforce.
May, Basra’s power station workers elected the first woman
union leader in Iraq’s history. Hashimia Muhsin Hussein, president
of the Electricity and Energy Workers’ Union, says workers
face huge problems, including managers who continue to enforce the
1987 law banning public sector workers from forming unions. “Our
union is a part of the Basra and national IFTU,” she declared,
“which will continue to struggle for workers rights’ to
union representation, social justice and a stable, pluralistic and
murder is the latest in a series of attacks on workers and unions,
a response to their growth and increasing activity. Rail workers
face armed attacks on trains and passenger rail service was suspended
for six months last year. After workers threatened to strike, the
railroad agreed to provide transportation from their homes to their
workplaces because of the bad security situation. Last fall, armed
insurgents attacked freight trains, killing four workers in November
and beating and kidnapping others a month later.
say they’re being blamed for helping the occupation by doing
their jobs although the trains don’t carry military goods.
“It’s [a risk for] civil society organizations, including
trade unions,” Saleh explained at a meeting of the International
Confederation of Free Trade Unions in Japan in December. “Extremists
who targeted those trade unionists, both teachers and engineers,
killed them under the notion that they are collaborating with a
state created by the Americans, so by definition those are collaborators
and legitimate targets.”
come from the government and U.S. occupation troops as well. Baghdad’s
Transport and Communication workers were thrown out of their office
in the city’s central bus station in December 2003 by U.S.
soldiers who then arrested members of the IFTU executive board.
Rumors abound that the troops were doing the bidding of private
bus companies at the station who wanted the organization removed.
Last July, however, the union retook their office in a march and
demonstration of union drivers who’d come into Baghdad from
many Iraqi cities. Once they’d retaken the offices, workers
announced they intended to organize not just drivers working for
the government, but those at the private bus lines also.
unions have been attacked as well. Qasim Hadi, general secretary
of the Union of the Unemployed, has been arrested several times
by occupation troops for leading demonstrations of unemployed workers
demanding benefits and jobs. Last fall, after textile workers in
the city of Kut struck over pay, the manager and city governor called
out the Iraqi National Guard who fired on the workers. Four were
wounded, and another eleven later arrested.
the pro-privatization Order #39 excludes oil, a symbol of Iraqi
sovereignty, control of the industry and its exports has always
been an important object of the occupation. According to the
Oil and Gas Union, oil must remain a property in the hands of Iraqi
people. “Multinational companies should not be allowed to reap
easy profits at the cost of the well-being of Iraqis,” says
Abdullah Muhsen, international representative of the IFTU. According
to Muhsen, “the IFTU welcomes foreign investments that bring
much-needed technology and jobs for Iraqis. But we oppose privatization.”
The IFTU and other unions and political parties kept privatization
off the agenda of the former Governing Council, arguing that any
sell off was a violation of international law since the country
had no accountable government elected by its people.
IFTU is a pluralistic federation and its executive council includes
Arab nationalists and socialists, Kurdish trade unions, and the
Iraqi Communist Party (ICP), to which Saleh belonged. Last year
Saleh told British unionists visiting Baghdad that “Saddam
Hussein…turned his ‘yellow unions’ into instruments
of repression and violence against workers. After the fall of the
regime, both nationalist and democratic political traditions within
trade unionism tried to re-establish new trade unions based on democratic
principles—not based on one political ideology.”
exile, the ICP condemned the war and U.S. invasion, but when the
occupation started, the ICP joined the Governing Council. Two of
its members are currently ministers in the Allawi government.
us, war and occupation are a reality,” Muhsin explains. “The
WDTUM stood against the war before it started, but we couldn’t
stop it. We called for a coalition government, but no one listened.
Now our concern is to help our country and protect our members.”
Federation of Workers Councils was organized with the assistance
of the Workers Communist Party of Iraq, with roots among exiles
in Iran. The WCPI adopted a more distant attitude towards the CPA
and Governing Council, while still seeking legal status and recognition
for the unions it supports. Both the ICP and the WCPI call for the
end of the occupation and for the return of power to a new Iraqi
government as soon as possible. Neither communist party supports
the armed resistance to the occupation, nor do any of the unions.
During the battles in Najaf between the U.S. and the militia of
radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr, workers at one factory even
refused to allow its use as a staging area for attacks on occupation
Governing Council, and later Allawi’s administration, granted
legal recognition to the IFTU but not the Federation of Workers
Councils. In practice, however, the prohibition on unions in the
public sector remains in effect.
Saleh’s murderers had two objectives. For the Baathists among
the insurgents, the growth of unions and organizations of civil
society, from women’s groups to political parties, is a dangerous
deviation. Their hopes of returning to power rest on a military
defeat for the U.S., without a corresponding development of popular,
progressive organizations that can govern a post-occupation Iraq.
to stop those organizations from using the elections to organize
a large support base is a second objective. Even progressive Iraqis
disagree about the elections. Some organizations, like the WCPI,
boycott the process as a charade organized by the occupation. Other
parties, however, from the ICP to the Supreme Council of the Islamic
Revolution in Iraq of Shiite Ayatollah Ali al Sistani, see the elections
as a possible vehicle for organizing and winning power. Kurdish
parties, and the unions associated with them, are also participating
in the elections. Left-wingers among these groups hope to popularize
their political program among millions of Iraqis. In a post-occupation
Iraq, a mass-based political party with a radical program could
become part of the government, with the actual power to implement
ICP has organized an electoral front, called the People’s Unity
(Ittihad Al-Shaab) Electoral List. Its program calls for preventing
privatization, protecting political and religious freedom, and ensuring
the rights of nationalities and women. Its first point calls for
“establishing a federal democratic regime that guarantees rights
for all Iraqis, ensures a life free of violence and terror, and
enables them to end the occupation, achieve full independence, and
rebuild the homeland on the basis of cooperation, democracy and
social justice.” The front also calls for a truth commission,
like those of South Africa and Central America, to come to terms
with the last 40 years of blood, repression, and cold war manipulation.
some Iraqis and the Bush administration might each have their reasons
for wanting elections, they have very different goals in mind. The
big question dividing the Iraqi left is how to end the occupation—elections
and participation in the government or boycott and organizing from
the outside. Despite this, their ideas of what Iraqi society should
look like afterwards are remarkably similar, with roots in Iraq’s
own political history.
day Iraqis threw out the king in 1958 is still honored in Baghdad
as Iraqi National Day. The vision of that era—of a progressive,
democratic state—is not so different from the ideas of Iraqi
progressives today, regardless of their position on the elections.
The contrary intent of the U.S. occupation was clear at the beginning
when Bremer declared that this day was just a Saddam-era holiday
and would no longer be celebrated. It was a symbolic trashing of
everything that might truly constitute a vision of a democratic
Iraq, in order to legitimize the Bush administration’s ugly
civil society—unions, women’s and professional organizations,
political parties, and other groups—are trying to survive and
organize in a political space that is rapidly shrinking. The armed
resistance doesn’t want them around. Despite the elections,
the U.S. would rather have another dependable dictator than popular
organizations resisting the neoconservative, free market plan. Saleh’s
assassination makes plain the extreme lack of security. The longer
the occupation lasts, the more violence increases in Iraq, and the
harder it is for workers to join a union, or any other organization,
much less demonstrate and protest. But an occupation that ends in
the creation of a new Baathist state, or a theocratic one that suppresses
popular movements for social and economic justice, is hardly an
answer for these new unions either.
organizations outside Iraq, especially in labor, understand this
is a problem Iraqis can’t solve by themselves. They need support
in the U.S. and Britain, to help get the troops out, and to keep
open the political space they need to organize.
unions have a long history of this support, going back to the Saddam
Hussein era. Over 200,000 Iraqi exiles were concentrated in London
and other cities during those decades. Once the regime fell, British
unions sent a number of groups to Iraq to offer help. One, sent
by the left-wing Fire Brigades Union, even brought firefighting
equipment to Basra.
a debate last September, the British Trades Union Congress called
for an end to the occupation and withdrawal of the troops. Mary
Davies, speaking for university teachers, told delegates, “The
only sure way of defeating occupation, defeating Baathism and the
threat of fundamentalism, is by strengthening the forces of civil
society so brutally crushed for 25 years under Saddam Hussein.”
Dennis Doody, a building trades union officer agreed. “As long
as the U.S. and UK forces are in Iraq there will always be instability
and continuing resistance,” he warned. “The occupation
prevents the Iraqi people from developing their own society, free
from Saddam and free from foreign occupation. It is for the people
of Iraq to determine their own future, not the coalition of the
criminals masquerading as liberators.”
the U.S., unions opposing the war formed their own organization
within the labor movement, U.S. Labor Against the War, before the
occupation even started. Many national unions and state labor federations
have now called for U.S. withdrawal. Saleh’s murder brought
USLAW and the AFL-CIO together for the first time to condemn it.
John Sweeney, AFL-CIO president, called Saleh “courageous,”
a departure from the cold war past in which left-wingers and Communists
were reviled as enemies. A USLAW statement went further, combining
condemnation with a call to end the occupation and withdraw U.S.
troops, a position the AFL-CIO has yet to take.
U.S. and British labor can join together to call for an end to the
war and find ways to help their fellow unionists in Iraq, perhaps
people like Hadi Saleh can not only survive, but become powerful
players in Iraq.
his friend, Abdullah Muhsen described to British unionist Alex Gordon
Hadi Saleh’s vision of what that future might look like: “A
democratic, peaceful and federal Iraq, which would unite all Iraqis,
regardless of their background, ethnicity or religion. He championed
workers’ rights to organize and to strike to achieve decent
jobs, pay and working conditions: the basic building blocks of strong,
non-sectarian trade unionism. That remains the only way to defeat
the IMF shock therapy and economic occupation, which has been imposed
undemocratically on Iraqis by the occupying powers.”
David Bacon is
a freelance writer and photographer covering labor and activist issues.