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Putting Out The Fire? Iraqi Labor Unions Throttled, During and After Occupation


In the wake of last year's long overdue U.S. troop withdrawal, mainstream media coverage of Iraq has dwindled to near zero — except when there's another suicide bombing (which usually merits just a paragraph or two in world news round-ups).

The fate of costly U.S.-funded projects and institutions is little known or largely forgotten, $800 billion later. Among the many problematic U.S. efforts to remake the country was the Coalition Provisional Authority's selective promotion of non-governmental organizations, a category that normally includes trade unions.

"Democracies don't work unless the political structure rests on a solid civil society," CPA administrator Paul Bremer told his Baghdad staff in May 2003. "They protect the individual from the state's raw power."

Insuring that Iraqis had the right to unionize more freely than during the Saddam Hussein era was, however, not a priority of the Bush or Obama Administrations.

As British investigative journalist Greg Muttitt reports in Fuel on the Fire: Oil and Politics in Occupied Iraq (Verso, 2012), the CPA never rescinded Saddam's 1987 law prohibiting unions and collective bargaining in the public sector — a ban which applied to the entire oil industry and more than 80% of the nation's economy. This decision was not unrelated to U.S. policy-makers' fear that a resurgent Iraqi union movement would oppose their plans for privatization of state-owned enterprises and resulting foreign control of Iraq's oil resources.

Under the U.S.-backed governments that took over from the CPA, union treasuries and offices have been seized, Iraqi troops have been deployed against strikers, and key union leaders have been prosecuted on trumped-up charges. The oil ministry of current Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has ordered local oilfield managers to stop dealing, informally, with worker representatives about union issues. Travel abroad to build trade union solidarity has been restricted and union activists have suffered discriminatory pay cuts and job transfers.

A Non-Sectarian Union

As Muttitt recounts in his book, courageous veterans of pre-2003 resistance to Saddam Hussein set about rebuilding an Iraq Federation of Oil Workers Unions in Basra immediately after the U.S. invasion. In a city that became well known later for sectarian strife, their new organization was committed to trade union independence. Although several of its founders were associated with the Iraqi Communist Party, "the new union attracted communists, democrats, Islamists, and others. The only political rule was that party and religious affiliations must be left at the door when doing union work."

Within two years, under effective grassroots leaders like Hassan Juma and Faleh Abood Umara, the oil workers union grew to 23,000 members, half the industry workforce in southern Iraq. Its first major victory, in a back pay dispute, occurred via a direct action stand-off with British troops, during the first weeks of the occupation when oil workers, like many other Iraqis, were struggling to restore basic services and feed their families while not receiving any salaries.

As Muttitt explained to U.S. labor audiences during a book tour earlier this summer, the precarious legal status of the oil workers led them to seek solidarity ties with unions in Britain and North America. In 2005, the group hosted an anti-privatization conference that was attended by foreign guests, including Muttitt and American labor journalist David Bacon, who was representing U.S. Labor Against the War (USLAW).

USLAW Assistance

Later in 2005 and, again in 2007, USLAW hosted tours by Hassan Juma, Faleh Abood Umara, and other Iraqi trade union leaders, aimed at getting the AFL-CIO to oppose the occupation and defend workers' rights in Iraq more vigorously. The contacts and connections made, in the U.S. and elsewhere, led to widespread international labor condemnation of the Maliki government's crackdown on electrical workers' unions two years ago. In response to popular protests over power generation problems, security forces raided union offices, confiscated union records and equipment, and threatened to prosecute union activists under anti-terrorism statutes. Among those ousted from their offices was past U.S. visitor Hashmeya Muhsin, president of the Basra-based Electrical Utility Workers Union and a rare female national labor leader.

The AFL-CIO wrote to Maliki criticizing his continuing enforcement of "anti-union labor laws which originated in a far less democratic and less hopeful era of Iraqi history."  The International Federation of Chemical, Energy, Mine and General Workers Unions, based in Geneva, issued a statement saying it was "appalled that seven years after the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime, workers in Iraq are still without legislative protection."

The Oil Workers in particular have paid a high price for their resistance to the idea that multinational companies should control their country's oil sector. AsBacon reported in The Nation two years ago, labor pressure played a role in thwarting the kind of oil industry overhaul originally sought by the U.S. and its ally Maliki. As one Iraqi official quoted by Bacon complained: "unionists instigate the public against the plans of the Oil Ministry to develop [Iraq's] oil riches using foreign development."

As described in Fuel on the Fire, the Maliki government and more than a dozen multinational companies have nevertheless reached 20-year agreements that, according to foreign and domestic critics, grant these firms an unfair share of the oil they produce rather than just a fee for their services. According to Muttitt, "the contracts that ultimately were signed gave away less to foreign investors than would have been the case without the oil law campaign" waged by "a grassroots movement led by trade unions, oil experts, and subsequently political parties and religious groups."  Says the author: "This was an impressive and quite surprising achievement given that the world's sole superpower made it a top priority."

The continuing crackdown on unions that Muttitt detailed on his recent tour is clearly designed to eliminate future domestic opposition. As USLAW reports, "a new draft labor law submitted to the Iraqi parliament perpetuates the disenfranchisement of public workers and, like Saddam Hussein's law, will serve as instrument to control and discipline, rather than liberate workers."

At Bay Area meetings arranged by USLAW in July, Muttitt applauded the group's latest solidarity appeal on behalf of oil workers disciplined after a protest against management corruption and labor rights violations in the southern Iraq province of Maysan. "I'm making a plea not to forget Iraq," Muttitt said. "Even though U.S. troops have been withdrawn, what's happening there today is a direct legacy of the occupation."  (For more information on Muttitt's book and his further touring, see <www.fuelonthefire.com>.)

Steve Early was among those U.S. trade unionists hosting Faleh Abood Umara and Hashmeya Muhsin Hussein when they participated in a USLAW-sponsored solidarity tour in 2007. He can be reached at [email protected]. An earlier version of this article appeared in Labor Notes. 

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