Voices of Iraqi Workers

Against the Current, No. 129, July/August 2007

Traven Leyshon

TWO LEADERS OF  Iraq’s reborn labor movement have toured 12 U.S. cities in June. Hashmeya Muhsin Hussein, President of the Electrical Utility Workers Union, is the first woman to lead an Iraqi union. Faleh Abood Umara is General Secretary of the Iraqi Federation of Oil Unions (IFOU).

They have been speaking to union members and the general American public about the impact of the U.S. occupation on the labor movement and the lives of working people in Iraq. In particular, they’ve explained why their labor movement is opposed to the hydrocarbon law proposed by the Bush administration and Democratic Party leaders, and also explored the consequences of continuing occupation, what might occur when it ends, and Iraq’s prospects for a democratic, non-sectarian future.

The speaking tour was organized by U.S. Labor Against the War (USLAW) and cosponsored by United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ) and the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC).

USLAW Co-Convenor Nancy Wohlforth explained: “The labor movement and other civil society organizations in Iraq are that country’s best hope for creating a stable, peaceful, non-sectarian future for Iraqis, yet the voices of Iraqi working people are almost never heard in the U.S. This tour will help break that silence and allow the American people to hear directly from Iraqis what life is like for working people there, what Iraqis think about the occupation, and what it will take to stabilize and rebuild that shattered nation.”

“Operation Iraqi Freedom” was initially touted, of course, as a battle to get rid of Saddam Hussrin’s weapons of mass destruction (all eliminated in the 1990s) and to rupture the (mythical) links between his regime and al-Qaeda terrorism. Iraqi union organizers discovered soon after the fall of Saddam Hussein that the “freedom and democracy” promoted by President Bush were yet a third fraud: The occupation authorities and the Iraqi government have continued to enforce a law, passed under Saddam’s regime, which outlaws trade unions in the Iraqi public sector where most Iraqis work.

Internationally recognized labor rights do not exist in Iraq. Nevertheless, the unions are organizing despite the laws and other obstacles including harassment, kidnapping, torture, and death squads. Hashmeya, who is also a leader in the Iraqi Women’s Association, has received death threats against herself and her son as a result of her activism.

Despite the threats, several hundred thousand workers have joined unions. The workers’ movement is organizing: to end unemployment, to thwart U.S. plans to privatize Iraqi businesses, to fight for equal treatment for women, and for the rights of all Iraqi workers. Iraqi unions unite in their ranks workers of all ethnic and religious groups.

The General Federation of Iraqi Workers, probably the largest federation, has built 12 national unions. Another current, the Federation of Workers Councils and Unions of Iraq (FWCUI) has organized militant worker protests in hotels, the textile industry, among street vendors, printers and other industries.

The latter federation works closely with the Union of the Unemployed and the Organization for Women’s Freedom in Iraq. The FWCUI has established its presence as a radical current in the workers’ movement, and is part of a small but potentially important coalition, the Iraqi Freedom Congress, which is trying to unite Iraq’s democratic, non-sectarian forces.

“We’ve come for the Oil”

The strategically important Federation of Oil Unions represents 26,000 workers in Basra, Amara and Nassirriyah, and includes 10 trade union councils in Iraqi oil companies. It has been organizing, sometimes striking, on issues ranging from economic issues such as land allocation, unpaid wages, holidays, health and safety, halting outsourcing to foreign workers, and full-time status for temporary workers, to wider political issues, particularly protection of Iraq’s oil wealth from foreign companies and a say in the future of the oil industry. It has also hosted several successful conferences against privatization.

This February, the Iraqi cabinet approved a controversial hydrocarbon (oil) law which, if approved by parliament, would grant foreign companies the dominant role in developing and controlling Iraq’s oil reserves for a generation. The U.S. government and the International Monetary Fund are pressing the Iraqi government to adopt this law.

Presented as a measure to assure that oil revenues are equitably shared, the proposed law has only one sentence in 30 pages that addresses equitable distribution. This clause would only apply after the oil cartel takes its cut. Should this law be adopted as proposed, it would constitute “mission accomplished” for U.S. and British oil interests.

A key feature of the law is the revival of an exploitive type of contract widely used prior to the rise of Arab nationalism in the 1960s, known as a “production-sharing agreement.” Such arrangements, used nowhere else in the Middle East, would generate unprecedented deals for the multinational oil companies, opening Iraq’s massive undeveloped oil reserves to control by foreign corporations for contracts lasting up to 30 years. Only one-third of the known oil fields would remain under the control of the Iraqi National Oil Company. Iraq’s reserves are thought to be the most valuable and profitable in the world to whoever controls them.

The only royalty required under the law is a 12.5% payment to the government. Anything above the 12.5% royalty must be negotiated as a form of “production-sharing.” These terms make a mockery of any real Iraqi sovereignty. Even before the invasion, the principal vehicle for planning post-war Iraq was the State Department’s Future of Iraq project. Its “Oil and Energy” working group included the current Iraqi Oil Minister, Ibrahim Bahr al-Uloum.

Within months of his appointment by CPA Administrator Paul Bremer, Bahr al-Uloum announced that he was preparing plans for the privatization of Iraq’s oil sector. Meanwhile, the USAID commissioned U.S. privatization specialist BearingPoint to re-write Iraqi economic laws, and in particular to write the new oil law and lobby for its passage. The Bush administration, major oil companies and the International Monetary Fund reviewed the new law governing Iraq’s crucial oil sector before it was even seen by the Iraqi parliament.

The IMF has informed the Iraqi government it must pass the law as a condition of debt relief and future financial aid. The law has, however, run into opposition from all sides and on a number of different issues— including on how the revenue will be redistributed throughout the country and whether the federal or regional government has control over certain fields. The Kurds, who operate an oil-rich, semi-autonomous region, want strong regional control and rights to sign their own oil deals.

The unions oppose the law, wanting oil-producing regions to receive more revenue to compensate for the environmental effects of the oil industry, and ensure that the nationalized Iraq National Oil Co. is autonomous from the U.S. dominated Oil Ministry
Most importantly, in the words of IFOU President Hassan Jumaa, “We strongly reject the privatization of our oil wealth, as well as production-sharing agreements, and there is no room for discussing this matter. This is the demand of the Iraqi street, and the privatization of oil is a red line that may not be crossed.”

According to Greg Priddy, energy analyst for the business risk consulting firm Eurasia Group, “the demands that the union is making are pretty clearly incompatible with the framework of the hydrocarbons law that is currently being debated.” This is a deeply felt issue for Iraqis: Oil contributes 70% of Iraq’s GDP, and when a recent poll asked Iraqis what they thought were the reasons why the United States invaded: 76% gave “to control Iraqi oil” as their first choice.

This May, the IFOU announced it would strike because its demands — improved working and living conditions, and an active role in writing the oil law — were not being met. The oil workers are joined in their condemnation of the pending law by all of Iraq’s trade unions. Following its protests and strike preparations, the IFOU began a limited strike action at the pipeline company in Basra on June 4.

After Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki called out the army and issued arrest warrants for the union’s leaders, the union postponed the strike call and subsequently returned to the bargaining table. Maliki, who has previously.claimed to accept the union’s demands, knows that he would not survive in power without U.S. support — support that is contingent on the parliament passing the oil law.

A joint December statement by Iraqi union leaders promised resistance: “We shall mobilize our workers and their families, and seek the assistance of civil society institutions in Iraq, and the Parliament that was elected by the people, to stand by us and assist us in obtaining the support and solidarity of the Arab and International Labor Unions.” IFOU President Hassan Jumaa Awad noted that arrest warrants were not withdrawn when the union returned to bargaining. He said that strike action will resume if their demands remain unfulfilled and called on “all unions in the world to support our demands and to put pressure on governments and the oil companies not to enter the Iraqi oil fields.”

Building Solidarity

The Bush administration and Democratic Party leaders are united in pushing to open up Iraq’s oil reserves to foreign companies. The May supplemental appropriation bill Congress passed funding the war makes adoption of the oil law a condition of continued reconstruction aid — a blatant attack on Iraq’s sovereignty, and implicitly a commitment to keeping U.S. troops in Iraq for many years to protect U.S. corporate oilfields.

At a USLAW protest against the oil law, Clarence Thomas, a long-time African-American leader of Local 10 of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, spoke about his respect for the oil workers he met on a labor delegation to Iraq. Denouncing the oil law, he told protestors, “this is an example of corpocracy, an alliance of banks, corporations and government promoting the interests of American oil companies.”

Raed Jarrar, Iraqi consultant to the AFSC who is working on the trade union tour commented, “The best oil law is the law that the Iraqis will choose after the last U.S. soldier leaves.”

For the workers’ movement, U.S.-style “democracy” has meant: raiding union offices, firing on workers demonstrations, freezing union bank accounts, oil workers struggling against privatization orchestrated by Washington and the occupying troops, and other “security forces” posing a daily physical threat.

Moreover, as FWCUI president Falah Alwan explained, “The occupation troops, their allies and the influential militias have driven the society into a burning sectarian war.”

Both the labor and antiwar movements need to give political and material support to Iraqi unionists. Most immediately, this includes exposing Congress’ cynical complicity in seeking to blackmail the Iraqi parliament. Our tasks ought to combine focusing on practical solidarity while educating around the role of the Iraqi workers’ movement as a hopeful active democratic, anti-imperialist and anti-sectarian agency in Iraq.

Iraqi labor activists are profoundly aware of the multiple dangers they face from the occupation, as well as reactionary forces within Iraq (often aided by conservative Middle Eastern governments).

According to Falah, “Our victory and (indeed) precondition for survival is that the international workers’ movement stands immediately by us … as a basic part of an international movement … The failure of the U.S. and the current political forces in imposing a functional political model in the last four years in Iraq … have opened a window of opportunity for the leftist and libertarian forces to enter the arena swiftly and to become THE alternative.”

The Iraqi labor movement is swimming against the stream, but it still has the potential, together with civil society allies like the women’s organizations, to unite the population behind it through its struggle against privatization, for jobs and social guarantees, and for democracy and self-determination, for finding a way out of the horror.

ATC 129, July-August 2007