Labor Unions, An Untapped Force for Change
By Jonathan Reingold
Upside Down World news
Hassan J'uma is an impressive
negotiator. As head of the 10,000 member Southern Oil Company Union in Iraq,
last December he successfully challenged the hiring and wage policies of Al
Khorafi, the Kuwaiti subcontractor for San Francisco based construction giant
Bechtel and Halliburton subsidiary Kellogg Brown & Root. The Southern
Oil Company Union first flexed its muscles against Al Khorafi in October,
when workers from the union's Bergeseeva oil refinery in Basra launched a
two-day wildcat strike. They literally dragged out the majority Pakistani
and Indian workforce Al Khorafi had imported, demanding the company hire Iraqi
workers to replace them.
Union members protested
at Al Khorafi's headquarters, and tribal leaders topped off the strike by
threatening to bomb the company's offices. Hassan J'uma's strong-arm tactics
paid off, and his union now controls access to all the Southern Oil Company's
locations, barring all foreign workers and Kellogg Brown & Root representatives.
Al Khorafi, which is the largest subcontractor in Iraq, is now doing its best
to placate the powerful union. The company is paying wages of $125 per month—more
than three times the state-enterprise minimum wage level set by Paul Bremer,
administrator of the Coalition Provisional Authority. Al Khorafi even donated
wheelchairs, blankets, computers and desks to the union and renovated a private
hospital for Khorafi employees, according to Occupation Watch, an NGO that
is in close contact with the union.
In the struggle to transform
Iraq into a viable democracy, the Bush administration may be overlooking a
powerful force for change: a long history of labor unionism in Iraq, on which
workers are already beginning to build. Right now they face daunting obstacles,
thanks to a 1987 Saddam-era law that bans unions and collective bargaining
in the public sector (with the exception of state-sanctioned Baathist unions,
whose leaders joined in Saddam's mass killing and torture campaigns). Since
approximately 70 percent of Iraq's economy is state-owned, most workers currently
cannot unionize legally. Ending the ban on unions makes will not solve many
of Iraq's problems, but it may be a simple policy change that could go a long
way to avert disaster.
A Secular Tradition in
At the end of World War
I, Iraqi workers wasted no time in forming oil, railway and dockworker unions
in the fragmented country that Churchill had carved out of the desert, connecting
the oil fields of three Ottoman provinces–Mosul, Baghdad, and Basra.
Their hold on the terrain already tenuous, the British occupiers responded
with force. Repeated strikes were quashed, often violently. Following six
years of occupation, the British, armed with a mandate to rule from the League
of Nations, installed a monarchy led by the Hashemite King Faisal I. He and
his successors maintained the ban on union organizing until a nationalist
led coup in 1958, in which army General Qasim assumed power.
Although a nationalist
general, Qasim drew much of his strength from the Communist party in Iraq,
which had been growing in fits and starts ever since a wave of peasant uprisings
started in the late 1940's. By the mid-1950's large numbers of soldiers and
officers began to join the very same mass movements that they were called
on to suppress, and the Communist party responded by organizing a national
committee for a soldier and officer's union.
Under Qasim's watch,
unions along with civic groups swelled in rank and number. By 1959, 250,000
workers had joined unions in Iraq; peasants had formed 3,000 village associations
for 200,000 peasants; the Iraqi Women's League boasted 20,000 members and
the Democratic Youth Federation 84,000 youngsters.
Qasim's "progressive" autocracy was fleeting, however, and in February
of 1963, the Baath party, in alliance with a sect of the nationalist armed
forces, and with the help of the CIA, overthrew Qasim. In the wake of its
victory, the Baath regime quickly launched a campaign to wipe out all Communist
elements including union organizers, by jailing or executing leaders. Fortunately,
the new regime didn't last the year, and in November, a coalition of pan-Arab
nationalist and Nasserite army officers gained a precarious hold on Iraq for
the next five years. Unions reemerged and enjoyed relative freedom, mounting
wide spread workers' strikes against the government. Ironically, the strikes
contributed to the destabilization of the more tolerant government, opening
a window for Baathist officers to stage a second coup in 1968. This time,
it proved more enduring.
The new Baathist rule
spelled the end of democratic trade union elections for the next thirty-five
years. Four days after the Baathist coup, the new regime arrested the existing
trade union leaders and supplanted them with loyal Baathist union leaders.
"The first elections to the official union, the General Federation of
Trade Unions, that the Baathist regime was forced to hold took place without
secret ballot and in an atmosphere of intimidation and reprisal," according
a history of the Baathist unions published by the Workers Democratic Trade
Union Movement in Iraq this fall.
1984, Except it's 1987
When Saddam Hussein seized
control in 1979, he built upon the Baathist tradition of usurping the unions
as an instrument of state power. As part of his brutal purge of all leaders
and activists refusing to pledge total allegiance to the Baath party, he eradicated
all non-Baathist unions. In 1987, the Baathist unions fully backed Saddam's
Orwellian decree: "From now on, the title 'worker' is abolished and all
workers shall become official employees by the State...As everybody is now
a government employee, there is no more need for trade unions." Interestingly,
Saddam did tolerate private sector unions, albeit with certain laws circumscribing
their powers. The exception appears irrelevant, because, since the 1970's
through the fall of Saddam, no strikes are known to have occurred in Iraq,
according to Political Risk Services, a well-respected corporate consultancy
But Iraqi unionizers
are a stubborn lot. Determined to keep the idea of independent unions in Iraq
alive, Iraqi union organizers went underground and formed the Workers' Democratic
Trade Union Movement, in 1980. During the next two decades this clandestine
group reached out in search of solidarity with unions abroad, particularly
in the UK. It successfully established contacts and received support from
major British labor unions. Today, Bob Crowe, general secretary of the Rail,
Maritime and Transport union in the UK is a vocal defender of Iraqi labor
unions as are major unions in South Africa and Italy.
Post-Saddam, The Reawakening
Immediately after the
fall of Saddam's regime, when British troops once again found themselves in
Basra, Iraqi unions reemerged. In May, they mounted a strike, calling for
the right to organize and protesting the appointment of a Baath Party member
In June, 400 Iraqi union
organizers met in Baghdad, founded the Workers Democratic Trade Union Federation
and formulated plans to reestablish unions in a dozen industries. Since then,
a host of unions have materialized, including the Oil and Gas Union, the Transport
and Communication Union, and the Construction and Carpentry Union to name
While the Coalition Provisional
Authority is not heeding Iraqi union calls for legalization and bargaining
rights, the international labor movement is taking a keen interest. In mid-December,
the International Labor Organization and the International Confederation of
Free Trade Unions invited the Iraqi Federation of Workers' Trade Unions to
a conference in Jordan, "to discuss ways and means to help and support
Iraqi trade unionists build new, transparent and democratic unions."
Presidents of the Iraqi Teacher and Journalist Unions, as well as a representative
from the Syndicate Union of Kurdistan Workers were also in attendance.
This fall, in Basra alone, workers mounted three strikes against occupation
authorities, demanding fuel, livable wages and clean water, according to Gene
Bruskin of U.S. Labor Against the War (USLAW). "The right to organize
is fundamental to democracy," says Bruskin, a claim Bush would be hard
pressed to refute. USLAW has made multiple visits to reconstruction worksites
in Iraq in the last few months to observe labor conditions and educate Iraqis
on the anti-labor stance of their employers.
A Common Cause
Now, the U.S. and Britain
risk repeating history in Iraq when in fact they could be enlisting allies
in their cause. Iraqi unions today are not calling for the hasty retreat of
U.S. troops; they want to see all Baathist elements crushed as much as the
Americans do. Iraqi unions even joined in the celebration of Saddam's capture.
"On 14 December 2003, the Iraqi Federation of Workers' Trade Unions congratulated
the people of Iraq and the world on the capture of the bloody dictator and
the manner in which he was caught in his burrow near Tikrit," declared
the Baghdad based union's press release. With the exception of the remnants
of the Baathist unions themselves, the trade unions today in Iraq are strongly
anti-Baathist, and with good reason.
Unions in Iraq are a
force for uniting the country, and avoiding the fractious ethnic disputes
that could lead to civil war. While little demographic information is available,
the disparate locations of union headquarters alone suggest that membership
and leadership cut across ethnic lines. Also, a recent major conference of
labor unions and councils in Iraq was held in Baghdad on December 8, 2003,
in which representatives from as far south as Basra to the northern city of
Sulaimaniya participated and hammered out a draft new Iraqi Labor Code along
with the outlines for labor legislation.
Another reason unions
are a force for change in Iraq is that democratic unions sow the seeds for
other important elements in civil society, such as civic groups, women's groups,
and a reliance on an electoral system. Legalizing unions now in Iraq will
help unleash not only the power of workers, but also other marginalized groups,
while providing the tools for democratic government. Unions also have the
potential to smooth tensions in the reconstruction of Iraq. For example, unionized
workers could improve relations between the local population and foreign companies.
Unions could also provide a check on corporate excesses and promote transparency
and accountability in both foreign and Iraqi companies.
An untapped yet far from
unskilled labor force awaits organization. Reconstruction, after all, is not
new to Iraqis, who rebuilt their country after the Iran-Iraq war, the Persian
Gulf War, and maintained the infrastructure through nearly 13 years of economic
sanctions. The combination of Saddam's ruthless tactics and the international
community's response, conditioned Iraqis to work very efficiently and cheaply.
The workforce draws on a highly educated population (Iraq boasts more PhDs
per capita than the U.S.), and has no lack of engineers and well-trained laborers.
Yet, 50% of the Iraqi
population is unemployed, according to a joint United Nations/World Bank report
released in October. Instead of making a point of hiring Iraqis, the Coalition
Provisional Authority and U.S. firms that have won lucrative reconstruction
contracts are shipping in foreign laborers, at a much higher cost, citing
security threats. In addition to the security threat, the fact that companies
can fly employees in for a limited amount of time is appealing because imported
workers' expectations are different than those of local workers. Imported
workers expect short assignments, and are much less likely to organize.
Of course, companies
and the CPA prefer to emphasize the security threat. "We don't want to
overlook Iraqis, but we want to protect ourselves...From a force protection
standpoint, Iraqis are more vulnerable to a bad guy influence" Colonel
Damon Walsh, head of the CPA's procurement office told the Financial Times
in October. A Pakistani manager of a catering company for troops in Iraq put
it even more bluntly, "Iraqis are a security threat...We cannot depend
on them." At his firm, Iraqis are only hired to do the cleaning. For
now, the high cost of foreign labor, due to transportation and housing expenses
appears to make little difference to contractors in post-war Iraq. It should
make a big difference to American taxpayers who are footing the bill.
What is enabling foreign
firms in Iraq to employ so many non-Iraqis is Coalition Provisional Authority
Order #39, the foreign investment law that chief administrator Paul Bremer
signed in September. Order #39 permits 100 percent foreign ownership of businesses
in every sector, except oil and mineral extraction, banks, and insurance companies.
The fallout is that everything from public services to factories and telecommunications
could be controlled, managed and employed by foreigners, a process which has
already begun. The order also stipulates "national treatment" for
foreign firms, which means Iraq can neither favor local investors or companies
over foreign competitors, nor require foreign companies to hire local contractors.
The law is designed to encourage foreign investment in Iraq, which lacks the
local capital to finance major reconstruction projects. But from the union
perspective in Iraq, workers believe they don't need foreign companies to
rebuild Iraq. Iraqis can do the job just fine own their own, thank you very
In reality, foreign companies
are needed to provide the technology, materials and capital to rebuild Iraq
now. The fact remains that Iraqis don't have the basic tools to do the job,
which include everything from work boots to cement. Part of the shock for
unions too, and the source of much frustration among ordinary Iraqis, is the
lurch from a Saddam controlled economy to a free market economy. Try finding
a job for life with Bechtel in Iraq and you will be laughed at as you are
shown the door. The result is that engineers, if they are lucky enough to
find a job, are mopping floors, and understandably, they are not happy.
To make matters worse,
as Occupation Watch points out, Iraqis are finding it hard to cope with the
steeply falling value of the US dollar. While the Coalition Provisional Authority
paid an ex-Army Iraqi $60 per month, which equaled 120,000 Iraqi dinars two
months ago, now he earns only 60,000. Compounding the problem, food costs
and other basic items in Iraq are rising, in part thanks to huge Kuwaiti purchases
of dinars when the currency was worth over 2,000 per US dollar.
Legalize While There is Still Time
Any cursory analysis
of Iraqi labor unions and the reconstruction process would tell you the two
are irreconcilable because of their competing interests. Unions favor job
security and livable wages while most companies in the rebuilding are operating
on short-term contracts. It is not a question of merely job creation. Jobs
are actually being created at a fairly brisk pace, but they are short term,
and it is very doubtful job creation will be fast enough to satisfy demand
in the near future. Moreover, the currency shortage will only continue to
exacerbate the wage demands of workers and stall local business growth.
Of course, currently,
the most important industry of all in Iraq and the one where unions have already
demonstrated their strength is oil. According to a report in the Wall Street
Journal on January 7, senior advisers in the CPA are leaning toward the creation
of a new state-oil company for Iraq, in no small part to dispel notions that
the U.S. occupied Iraq to control access to its oil. If the oil industry remains
state-owned in Iraq, Iraqi oil unions are liable to pressure the government
for not only the right to exist, but for better wages, benefits and long-term
job security. Most likely, labor relations in the oil sector will serve as
a model for other industries in Iraq, whether they provide a positive example
It is in the best interests
of the Bush administration and the Iraqi people to legalize public sector
unions in Iraq, not because it will magically solve the jobless problem or
even fully appease disgruntled workers, but for another reason. Unions are
spreading in Iraq despite their continued prohibition, but just like the growing
unemployed in Iraq, they will turn violent when ignored. Worker demonstrations
in Iraq during the last century have demonstrated they have the potential
to promote great stability in the country or great instability.
Legalizing unions is
the first step to channeling their power as a force for good in Iraq. By permitting
unions to grow in a legal, democratic fashion, that is one Iraqi institution
that will serve as a unifying force in the decisive months and years ahead.
Jonathan Reingold is a senior at Bard College in New York. He has written
for the Financial Times and is a former research assistant at the World Policy
Institute. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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