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Delegation of U.S. unionists report back
Rise of Iraq's new labor movement

By Alan Maass | October 31, 2003 | Page 6

"THE THING that was really heartening to me was that under the most difficult conditions you can imagine, workers were not waiting one minute before they started organizing themselves." That was the report of labor journalist David Bacon, who traveled to Iraq as part of a delegation from U.S. Labor Against the War (USLAW) and activists from French unions.

What Bacon--along with Clarence Thomas, the former secretary-treasurer of International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 10--saw in Iraq has gone unnoticed in a corporate media focused only on "soldiers and bombers," Bacon said.

"We have to remember that there are millions of working people in Iraq," Bacon said after an evening forum at the USLAW national conference in Chicago last weekend, where he and Thomas reported on their trip. "They are trying, first of all, to survive this experience--which means go to work, feed their families, find housing for themselves in the midst of really difficult circumstances."

More than half a year after Saddam Hussein's government collapsed and U.S. officials promised that the economy would be "rebuilt," unemployment in Iraq is estimated at 70 percent. So just getting by from day to day is the overwhelming challenge for literally a majority of people in the country.

"The 30 percent wage rise of $18, plus the loans and land promised by [top U.S. overseer Paul] Bremer three months ago, have yet to materialize," wrote Ewa Jasiewicz, of the International Occupation Watch Center in Baghdad, who traveled around Iraq with the USLAW delegation. For those who are working, the average wage is $60 a month--the "emergency" pay decreed by the U.S. occupiers of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA).

That wage was exactly the same under Saddam--but Iraqis also received food and housing subsidies that have disappeared under American rule. "So the actual income of Iraqi workers has gone down," Bacon said, "and that's not even calculating for the exchange value, and therefore the price of anything that's been imported."

But as desperate as conditions are now, the Iraqis who met with Bacon and Thomas said they fear the worst is yet to come--if Washington's free-market maniacs get away with their privatization schemes for Iraq. Already, the CPA has legalized 100 percent foreign ownership of Iraqi enterprises--and set the corporate tax rate for the "new Iraq" at 15 percent.

When it comes to unions, though, the occupation authorities "found a law passed by Saddam Hussein that they like," Bacon said, "a law passed in 1987 where anyone working for a state enterprise is considered a civil servant." That means that workers in Iraq's oil industry, for example, are legally forbidden from organizing a union--under a Saddam-era law that U.S. officials refuse to reconsider.

"And to back it up," said Bacon, "in June, Bremer issued another regulation about 'prohibited activity.' Item B under prohibited activities is encouraging anybody to organize any kind of strike or disruption in a factory or any kind of economically important enterprise. And the punishment for this is being arrested by the occupation authority and being treated as a prisoner of war."

As Clarence Thomas put it, "The Bush administration is creating this fictionalized picture that goes like this: If we pull out, there's going to be Islamic fundamentalism, ethnic strife and all kinds of chaos. And what they really are afraid of is democracy. They don't want to see Iraqi workers organize and have power--have union rights."

On this, though, Washington's overseers haven't gotten their way. Within days of the U.S. invasion and the fall of the old government, Iraqi workers in factories, on the docks and at oil industry facilities began organizing. "They want to get organized not just to get a wage raise," says Bacon, "but also to fight for the control of their jobs, and control of the institutions that they work for."

Clarence Thomas says that the new Iraqi labor movement has been shaped mainly by two groups. One is the Workers Democratic Trade Union Movement, an independent labor federation that was forced underground in the 1980s when it was targeted by Saddam's Baathists. Its older activists took advantage of the dismantling of the old police state to reemerge as a force, forming the core of the new Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions, which was launched in May.

At the same time, younger activists--including members of the Worker Communist Party--carried out their own initiatives, which led most notably to the formation of the Union of the Unemployed in Iraq (UUI). Both groups of activists are opposed to the U.S. occupation, says Thomas.

The main difference, he says, is that unions associated with the UUI "are not at all hesitant to support labor action in the face of the various decrees that are in place that prohibits labor organizing and strikes." The older unionists, Thomas says, "don't think that it is prudent to organize job actions and demonstrations, because they think that these can be exploited" by elements of the old regime who are resisting the occupation.

Though almost entirely ignored by the international media, the desire to take a stand for decent conditions and better wages at work has touched every part of the country. In a recent report, Ewa Jasiewicz described the struggle of workers at a brick factory that is part of a major industrial complex 30 miles east of Baghdad.

After enduring terrible conditions--and a wage of 3,000 dinars a day, the equivalent of $1.50, for a 14-hour shift--three quarters of the workforce walked off the job in October. They marched on the management's office and demanded a wage increase, a formal contract, on-site medical facilities and retirement payments.

"The owner had no idea that a union had been formed and told them, 'Fine, strike go, I will dismiss you, others will come to take your place,'" Jasiewicz wrote. "The workers responded by going to their homes, bringing out their guns and spontaneously forming an armed picket line.

"Manned with machine guns and Kalishnikovs, workers guarded the factory and defended their strike from demolition by scab labor. The owner, overpowered, ended up granting the workers a raise of 500 dinars--25 cents--and agreed to enter into negotiations regarding social and health benefits. The strike was regarded all around as a massive success."

David Bacon says that antiwar groups can do a lot of good by focusing on struggles like these--at the very least, so that "people in the United States can look at Iraq and see people," he says. Also, getting the truth out about labor struggles in Iraq can add to the growing questioning of the U.S. occupation--when, for example, U.S. unionists learn that the politicians in Washington have made it a crime to organize a union in Iraq.

"It is inspiring," Bacon says of the stories of activism by ordinary Iraqis, "because you understand what the difficulties are, and you understand that people are doing brave things and taking risks."

Still, he continues, "there was something that was very familiar about it. "The circumstances were different. The language was different. The kinds of problems that people were organizing around were sometimes very familiar, but sometimes they were very different, too. But the process of standing in a factory and talking to workers about their problems and hearing what they have to say--that's familiar to me. You could see the universality of efforts by working people to get organized."

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