Iraqi trade unionists tour U.S.

SEATTLE, WASHINGTON – Two leaders of the General Union of Oil Employees (GUOE) in southern Iraq spoke here on June 23 at a public meeting, as part of a cross-country tour organized by U.S. Labor Against the War (USLAW).

Speaking at the Labor Temple in downtown Seattle, the trade unionists inspired the audience with their determination to end the occupation of their country, and with their warm solidarity with working people in the United States. Members of the King County Labor Council introduced the Iraqis, and the Seattle Labor Chorus provided the meeting’s bookends, closing off with ‘Solidarity Forever’ and ‘The Internationale.’

The speeches — which were frequently interrupted by applause and received warm standing ovations — illustrated that, two years after the ‘end’ of the Iraq war, the conditions of life and work for ordinary Iraqis have gone from bad to worse.

“Our Iraq is a very cruel and unjust country today,” said Hassan Juma’a Awad. He is the Chief Executive of the GUOE. “Many workers are not receiving their pay. There are no labour laws to protect us. Most people in charge in Iraq today are determined to create obstacles to the creation of such laws.”

“The first stage of the occupation of our country was to seize the oil fields,” he explained. “Now, the second stage is underway, and this is the privatization of the oil and manufacturing industries of our country. We are against this because it is against the interests of the Iraqi people.”

“The Iraqi workers are today among the lowest paid in the world. Yet, we sit on top of an enormous sea of oil.”

Faleh Abbood Umara then spoke. He is the General Secretary of the union, which counts 23,000 members in and around the cities of Basra, Nasiriyah and Amara. “The occupation forces have totally failed to bring progress to our country. We have no reliable water or electricity services. Roads and infrastructure have not been repaired, and we have no peace, nor security.”

“We want the occupiers out of our country. We can build a new country. We have the means to do that. But we need your solidarity in order to do this.”

Hassan Juma’a told the meeting earlier, “Labor rights in Iraq today are an international issue because the problems we face are the same problems that many other workers face. We are fighting for an independent and democratic Iraq, but we can only achieve this through the removal of the occupation force, and for that, we need your support and solidarity.”

The oil workers union leaders were part of a six member delegation from Iraq’s labour movement, visiting 25 U.S. cities between June 10 and June 26. The Iraqi delegation was somewhat divided politically, with representatives of the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions (IFTU), for instance, arguing against an immediate withdrawal. Hassan Juma certainly did not equivocate on this issue, urging those at the Seattle meeting to work towards an immediate withdrawal. Nevertheless, the wording of a joint statement with USLAW released on June 26 did appear to leave out the question of a timetable for getting U.S. troops out:

All of us, both Iraqi and American, were deeply heartened at the solidarity expressed throughout the tour. We have seen with our eyes and felt with our hearts that the people of the United States do not want the war and occupation of Iraq to continue…

The principal obstacle to peace, stability, and the reconstruction of Iraq is the occupation. The occupation is the problem, not the solution. Iraqi sovereignty and independence must be restored. The occupation must end in all its forms, including military bases and economic domination. (Full statement at USLAW website)

Indeed, recent polls indicate a substantial majority of Americans believe the war was a mistake, with upwards of thirty percent in favour of immediate withdrawal of all troops, and a majority supporting more limited troop withdrawals. While last week Vice-President Dick Cheney again claimed that the Iraq insurgency was in its “last throes,” the U.S. continues to take casualties almost daily, for a total of over 1730 killed. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, more recently, conceded that the insurgency could last as long as another 12 years.

All of this, combined with intensified counter-recruitment efforts by anti-war activists, is creating a deeper crisis for the U.S. in Iraq. And this crisis for the U.S. war machine is an opportunity for the anti-war movement to once again mobilize a strong showing of public opinion against the occupation.

Major demonstrations are planned in Washington, D.C. for the weekend of September 24. Meanwhile, USLAW activists will be among those pushing for a stand against occupation to be taken at the upcoming July convention of the AFL-CIO.

*Files from Roger Annis of Socialist Voice.

Derrick O’Keefe is the co-chair of the StopWar coalition in Vancouver and a founding editor of Seven Oaks.

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