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Iraqi Labor Unions, An Untapped Force for Change

By Jonathan Reingold

The Upside Down World news
3/17/04                                                                   

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 Iraq

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 firm.

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 as mayor.

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 a few.

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.

Not Wanted

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 much.

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 or not.

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 jr345@bard.edu.

Copyright © 2004, The Upside Down World news
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