From the Ashes Of The Old

by Joel Wendland

May 10, 2004   


While startling revelations about atrocities committed by US occupation forces in Iraq have demolished the credibility of the Bush administration's handling of the transition to sovereignty and threaten to throw the country back into chaos, the Iraqi democratic and working-class movements continue to search for a peaceful and unifying end to war and occupation. An important but under-reported element of this struggle is Iraq's growing trade union movement. Early signs show an Iraqi labor movement emerging from dictatorship, war, and imperialism with much momentum. This key element of Iraqi society will decisively set the course for a democratic, independent and economically stable Iraq.

In a (http://www.tuc.org.uk/international/tuc-7859-f0.cfm) document released on April 4, 2004 by the British Trade Union Congress (TUC), representatives of the TUC, the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU), the International Confederation of Arab Trade Unions (ICATU), the AFL-CIO, and other labor organizations reported on their fact-finding mission to Iraq in February of 2004. This delegation, as the report says, "came across lively, muscular (even argumentative) trade union grassroots," even though many of the workplaces they visited had only been organized for a few months after the overthrow of the Hussein regime.

When the Ba'ath Party came to power in 1968, it launched a campaign against existing trade union leaders and activists that refused to align themselves with the new government. At that time, the General Federation of Trade Unions (GFTU) held elections that "took place without secret ballot and in an atmosphere of intimidation and reprisal," says a brief (http://www.iraqitradeunions.org/archives/cat_history.html) history of Iraq's trade union movement written by the underground Workers Democratic Trade Union Movement (WDTUM) last November.

When Saddam Hussein took power 11 years later, he "ordered a series of purges within the ruling party to obliterate all potential rivals or critics." He installed his henchman in leadership positions, including former military commander Ahmed Muhsin Al-Dulaimy whose career was made in the fascist "National Guards" and other paramilitary groups with personal loyalty to Hussein rather than as a union organizer or activist.

Unions became a tool for the repression of worker rights and for domestic "security." Suspected subversives were subjected to spying, interrogation, harassment, detention, torture, poisoning, beatings, and killings. According to the WDTUM document, evidence unearthed after the collapse of the regime shows "the horrors of physical liquidation, mass and summary executions of thousands of political prisoners and detainees, with lists including the names of scores of workers."

During the 1980s, GFTU supported the war against Iran and turned itself into an apparatus for quashing dissent among workers, handing wages over to the government for military expenses, and forcibly mobilizing workers to enter military service. Some 60% of workers were conscripted for service at some point during the war. One million Iraqis are believed to have been killed.

The WDTUM was formed in 1980 as an oppositional underground union movement. It received widespread international support most vocally from the British TUC.

Since the Hussein government's collapse, according to the recent TUC report, "workers have thrown out managers ... and union leaders strongly aligned with the Ba'ath Party, and created more active trade union organisations, often breathing new life into formal legal provisions such as on industrial democracy." According to union spokesperson Abdullah Muhsin, dock workers in Umm Qasr, upon hearing of a visit from a delegation from the ICFTU in late 2003, gathered at the Port Administration offices to express their desire for a union. Professional unions demonstrated similar militancy as well.

The TUC delegation's report highlighted the successes of the new union movement. "Unions are dealing with problems of vandalism (...), unemployment (at over 50%...) and inadequate management -- failure to pay wages on time and so on." In general, union members are seeing their wages growing faster than inflation.

The Iraqi Federation of Workers Trade Unions (IFTU) emerged out of the WDTUM in late 2003. It is the largest group of unions with the largest active membership in the country. Through its strong ties to the International Confederation of Arab Trade Unions, the powerful Kurdish trade union movement, the World Federation of Trade Unions, and through the association of its members with the Iraqi Communist Party and Arab nationalist and Kurdish democratic parties on the Iraq Governing Council, it has received the recognition of the IGC, though significantly not the CPA.

The IFTU's recent organizing successes are highlighted by the numerous organizing committees it has established in different parts of the country. According to Abdullah Muhsin, the Basra federation of the IFTU has organized "10 trade unions in the Basra region including those for Mechanics, Construction, Transport, Oil, Railways, Dockers and Public Services, for workers in restaurants, hotels, hairdressers, public health and municipalities, water and cleaners," representing tens of thousands of regional workers.

Reflecting persistent, if irrelevant, anti-communism, the TUC delegation's report expressed some concerns about the IFTU. "There are some doubts," the report reads, "about the extent of political domination of the IFTU by the Communist Party (although it is quite likely that the leadership is in fact pluralist or just run by people who happen to be associated with the Communist Party)."

Of greater concern to the delegation was the continued role of the former Ba'athist officials in the competing parallel union, the GFTU, the union structure of the Hussein era.

There are important indications that the GFTU's pro-Hussein leadership has been removed or has left. The report notes that "ICATU has held a formal position for some months that, on the basis that there should be only one trade union movement per country, the IFTU and GFTU should merge." But labor leaders with democratic outlooks in the IFTU remain skeptical of the GFTU because of its past ties to the Hussein regime. However, the report also states that "there is some evidence that the GFTU is reforming itself from within to displace those elements ... and some sections of the IFTU leadership are reported to be willing to merge on that basis." Labor leaders in both unions "talk about elections being held in workplaces after the Iraqis regain control of the country on 1 July, to settle who should lead the trade union movement." Apparently where Ba'athists have been replaced, there are growing links and alliances between the IFTU and the GFTU, but controversy continues over whether reformed GFTU elements or IFTU organizations should gain control over GFTU assets.

Still, "it was clear to the delegation that the Kurdish unions, the professional associations and the IFTU and GFTU had genuine links with workers in workplaces, and were more or less representative of ordinary workers."

The workers and union leaders whom the delegation met indicated the need for "practical solidarity." Training, practical resources, material support, and information technology were high on their list. Workers also expressed a desire to restore a positive image of unions "tarnished by compulsory membership and slavish adherence to the government" under the Hussein regime. The delegation also spoke with union activists who were optimistic about greater leadership and participation by women workers in the movement.

While the Transitional Administrative Law, imposed by the CPA and adopted by the IGC, confirms "the right to join trade unions and the right to strike and demonstrate, along with more general rights to freedom of assembly, of expression and protection from discrimination on the basis of race, gender, religion etc.," there are concerns over more permanent legal structures being written by the CPA that will have a strong influence on the post-June 30th transition process.

The CPA has refused to consult with Iraqi labor leaders about the new labor law it will try to impose on the transitional government. It intends to borrow provisions from the Hussein labor code of 1987 and has even appointed administrators to local and regional departments that have expressed interest in imposing and enforcing the 1987 code. This 1987 law prohibits unionization in the public sector and pillaged workers' pensions to enrich the regime. Because most of Iraq's economy is nationalized (in the public sector), the CPA's use of this labor code signals its intention to prevent any further organizing efforts in Iraq's most important economic sectors. The TUC report calls the CPA's method "unhelpful."

The occupying authority's antagonism to the IFTU and its organizing objectives was fully expressed in a US military raid on the union's headquarters in Baghdad last December, which according to (http://www.pww.org/article/articleview/4516/1/193/) one news account, "involv[ed] 10 armored vehicles and dozens of soldiers." "The U.S. troops ransacked and destroyed the IFTU's possessions, removing documents including minutes of union meetings. They tore down union banners and posters that condemned acts of terror. They smashed windows on the front of the building and smeared black paint over the name of the IFTU." An IFTU spokesperson, Abdullah Muhsin called the raid "an attack on Iraq's working people."

Meanwhile, the IFTU continues to work closely with the International Labor Organization and other labor-related organizations to develop a code that adopts the major pro-labor provisions encoded in Iraq's Labor Law No. 151 of 1970. This law, which guaranteed such rights as the 8-hour day, pensions, and the right of public sector workers to organize, appeals more to the interests of rank and file workers. (The TUC report suggests that these laws are too "too biased towards unions to succeed.") The TUC urges the widest possible participation by unions in the formalization of any new labor law in Iraq.

The unity and growth of Iraq's labor movement is key to not only rebuilding the union movement itself, but also to rebuilding the country -- devastated by 13 years of war, sanctions, and dictatorship -- its infrastructure and the economy. Iraqi union leaders see their work as essential to not only rebuilding Iraq, but also building a free, secular, and democratic society. These efforts ought to be strongly supported by unions and their members in the U.S.

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Joel Wendland is managing editor of Political Affairs, a monthly magazine of ideology, politics, and culture, and a member of UAW Local 1981 (national writers union) who has written for numerous publications. He also writes and maintains ClassWarNotes.

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Published May 10, 2004
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