Iraqi Union Leaders Speak About Occupation


(Chicago) – Falah Awan and Amjad Ali Aljawhry spoke about the effects of military occupation on Iraqi society and the country’s labor union movement.

Awan is president of the Federation of Workers Councils and Unions of Iraq (FWCUI) and Aljawhry is representative of the FWCUI and the Union of the Unemployed in Iraq (UUI) for North America. Both workers’ organizations want independent, democratic unions free of government control.

As leaders of Iraq’s work force they expressed their organizations are free of religious, political, gender, and ethnic discrimination. They see these principles as the building blocks for a secular, multi-ethnic labor movement in Iraq. Both speakers stressed for the removal of U.S. and British occupation forces.

After 27 months of occupation, “…our federation stands for immediate withdrawal of troops immediately,” Aljawhry said. “Since day one of occupation Iraqi people have not seen one single moment of peace.”

Some concrete examples he gave are the desperate living conditions of the people and the deepened, ethnic divisions. The death and devastation caused by rocket-propelled grenades, suicide bombers and car bombs leave thousands of civilians and troops dead in the streets. With regards to the democracy and security the Bush Administration declared publicly, “…we never seen anything promised,” he added.

Awan shared similar sentiments when he explained “…the occupying troops have installed a government based on ethnic and religious divisions that…put the society on the verge of civil war.”

Since the first day of occupation, the Iraq labor movement began building a new tradition of labor leadership that has its own alternatives to the situation, Awan said. While Iraq’s labor organizations wait to participate in writing their country’s constitution, the current labor code is from the times of Saddam’s reign, who outlawed unions in the 1970s. Awan believes the current government is an application of U.S. policy planned previously, which represents unions of right-wing regime policy. When it comes to creating Iraq’s stability, Awan believes it is not the task of one political party or another but the workers’ responsibility to restore civil society. Aljawhry provided examples of the country’s infrastructure in need of renovation that affect Iraqis. The water purification system is inadequate, so people buy their drinking water. The sewer system needs radical change. When the temperature soars to 50 degrees Celsius, people suffer from dehydration because the electricity runs four hours per day. Even though garbage should be transported to remote areas, they dump it in downtown locations.

The millions of dollars allocated for reconstruction projects had to be set aside for security reasons. Despite U.S. promises to raise security within Iraq, theft and corruption are rampant — especially with the influx of foreign fighters in the country.

“I’m not saying it was good under Saddam Hussein when corruption was high,” Aljawhry said, “but the U.S. occupation set corruption free.” As a result, poor and unsafe living conditions are the consequences. More than half of the country’s population – Iraqi women and children – cannot leave their homes without a male, family member escorting them. “This is the democracy we’ve been promised,” he added.

During Hussein’s reign, labor organizers either rallied workers underground or they fled the country in exile. In 1995, the Ba’ath party blacklisted Aljawhry from employment because of his political views and his mobilization of sewing workers. The situation forced his family and him to flee to Turkey, and then he immigrated to Canada where he has been active in the Iraq labor movement.

Before the first Gulf War, Awan organized workers in factories and in construction trades. When he refused to sign the Saddam loyalty pledge, the Ba’athists barred him from practicing his trade as an engineer. While he worked with the UUI he co-founded the FWCUI in December 2003 – after the fall of Saddam’s regime. He believes the Iraq labor movement is an international labor movement that protects the rights of union workers globally.

As Iraq’s labor organizations work for a progressive society, “…we call upon freedom lovers to present their alternatives in front of the dark scenarios…a labor movement needs the entire labor movement of the world to stand by it,” Awan said.

He is a tall man with an aquiline nose, who spoke with a calm but firm voice. “I think that empowering the civil front of Iraq will become a historic opportunity…not just for Iraqis but for workers all over the world,” he said. Awan captured the American audience through his Arabic translator, Aljawhry, who leaned over to reach the top of the microphone.

Their hope is that the millions of people across the world who demonstrated against the war in Iraq will stand now because their workers’ rights are at stake also.

With regards to U.S. policy abroad, the Iraq labor movement’s position is that Iraq is not only a local matter but an international issue. Their belief is that the victory of Iraqi workers will be a victory for the workers’ movement worldwide.

Part Two of this article will cover the question and answer session between Iraq’s labor leaders and several audience members. Special coverage is brought to you by journalist Sonia Nettnin.

Leave a comment