Faced with daily reports of car bombs and kidnappings, it’s difficult to feel optimistic about Iraq. But last week in the south of the country I heard a very different story. A story of the movement that has formed to rebuild the country’s economy and national pride, to create an Iraq with neither the tyranny of Saddam nor the pillage of military occupation.
Last week Basra saw its first conference on the threat of privatisation, bringing together oil workers, academics and international civil-society groups. The event debated an issue about which Iraqis are passionate: the ownership and control of Iraq’s oil reserves.
The conference was organised by the General Union of Oil Employees (GUOE), which was established in June 2004 and now has 23,000 members. Focused as much on the broader Iraqi public interest as on members’ concerns, its first aim was to organise workers to repair oil facilities and bring them back into production during the chaos of the early months of occupation.
This effort by the workers required both courage – often in conflict either with coalition troops or remnants of the Ba’athist regime – and considerable ingenuity, putting back together a working oil industry with minimal resources.
In maintenance too, the Iraqi workers have outmatched their private-company counterparts. Walking round the Basra refinery, I pointed to the creaking and rusty equipment and asked the manager whether there were a lot of accidents, arising from failures of equipment under high pressure.
The refinery manager said that accidents were rare, because however old the equipment it is constantly checked. “For an Iraqi refinery operator, the refinery is part of him,” he said.
Contrast this with the disastrous safety record of British and American refineries. There, the frequent accidents are caused largely by lack of maintenance and inspection – which are in turn caused by the drastic downsizing of the workforce.
The occupation forces and their allies in the Iraqi government see things differently. Plans are now afoot for sweeping changes to Iraq’s oil sector, to give western oil majors access to its reserves for the first time since 1972.
But they will face a challenge. While the workforce has shown itself to be quite capable of running the industry, it has been equally effective at shutting down that industry when threatened by the authorities.
In August 2003 oil workers’ unions organised a strike that stopped all production in southern Iraq for two days. The resulting bargaining power has been impressive, with the unions – which later merged to become the GUOE – successfully pushing for foreign workers to be replaced by Iraqis; the role of US companies in the reconstruction to be reduced; and wages to be raised to liveable levels.
And the GUOE is uncompromising in its views on oil privatisation. As one oil worker told me, he and his colleagues have rebuilt their industry after its destruction in three wars, and in the face of extreme adversity. As a result they have a deep sense of ownership, which they will not willingly relinquish.
Greg Muttitt is a researcher at Platform, an organisation that campaigns for social and environmental justice.