OAKLAND, CA (8/5/04) -- Once the
US occupation of Iraq began over a year ago, Iraqi workers lost no time
in reorganizing their country's labor movement. Labor activity spread
from Baghdad to the Kurdish north, with the center of the storm in the
south, in the oil and electrical installations around Basra, and the port
of Um Qasr.
Workers quickly discovered that
the occupation authorities had little respect for labor rights, however.
Once the Coalition Provisional Authority took power in Baghdad in March
of 20003, it began enforcing a 1987 law banning unions in public enterprises,
where most Iraqis are employed. To this CPA head Paul Bremer added
Public Order #1, banning pronouncements that "incite civil disorder, rioting
or damage to property." The phrase civil disorder can easily apply
to organizing strikes, and leaders of both the Iraqi Federation of Trade
Unions and Iraq's Union of the Unemployed have been detained a number of
Labor repression in Iraq, however,
has provoked US unions into speaking out against the war and occupation
in a way unseen since Ronald Reagan's wars in Central America. Bremer's
hostility towards labor made it onto the radar screen of US unions last
fall, when a delegation sent by US Labor Against the War to make contact
with the country's reborn workers' movement brought back accounts of the
suppression of labor rights. This spring USLAW, encompassing U.S.
unions and labor councils representing hundreds of thousands of members,
organized a fund-raising campaign for Iraq's new unions. This June
in Geneva, Neil Bisno, secretary-treasurer of SEIU Local 1199P, delivered
$5,000 checks to the IFTU and the Workers Councils and Unions of Iraq.
Last January AFL-CIO president
John Sweeney condemned enforcement of the 1987 law and called on the CPA
"to allow Iraqi workers to associate together and participate collectively
in rebuilding the economy." The AFL-CIO and other international labor
federations began working with the International Labor Organization to
redraft Iraq's labor code, which could lead to dropping the 1987 prohibition.
In the meantime, however, the
National Endowment for Democracy, with a history of cold war intelligence
activity, began offering funds for US government labor programs in Iraq.
Some USLAW activists fear that NED involvement will endanger more progressive
parts of the country's labor law, like guarantees of healthcare, housing
and education, as well as involve unions in administering the occupation.
This June, US labor opposition
to the occupation had grown so strong that two of the AFL-CIO's largest
unions, the Service Employees (SEIU) and the State County and Municipal
Employees (AFSCME) passed resolutions calling for withdrawal of US troops
and respect for the rights of Iraqi workers. The California Labor
Federation, with one-sixth of all US union members, followed suit.
As labor's campaign to unseat
Bush grows stronger, opposition to the Iraq war and support for that country's
new labor movement have become election issues for thousands of US workers.
Low wages have driven the upsurge
in Iraqi labor activity, including three general strikes in Basra alone.
Following the arrival of US troops, Iraqi public sector workers began receiving
emergency salaries dictated by the Coalition Provisional Authority - roughly
from $60 to $120 monthly. Then the CPA's Order 30 on Reform of Salaries
and Employment Conditions of State Employees last September lowered the
base to $40, and eliminated housing and food subsidies.
Iraqi longshoremen, working for
the port authority in Um Qasr, were given a further cut when the occupation
started, because their profit sharing arrangement, in which they'd received
2% of unloading fees, was terminated. When authorities decided in October
to pay them in Iraqi dinars instead of dollars -- another sizeable loss
-- workers began organizing a union.On
the day they were set to vote on the officers for their new union, Port
Director Abdel Razzaq told them the election was cancelled because of the
1987 prohibition. In November, he fired three port workers for trying
to organize.In January dockers
struck briefly over the low wage scale, blocking anyone from entering the
main gate. They grew more angry when managers decided to pay them
in old banknotes, worth only 75% of new ones. In the melee that ensued,
Razzaq's office was occupied, and the demonstration only ended when he
was rescued by occupation troops. Since then, workers charge that
a private militia protects him.
On hearing about the firing of
the Um Qasr longshoremen, San Francisco's International Longshore and Warehouse
Local 10 condemned the action. "You are not alone," President Henry Graham
told them. "If dockworkers in the rest of the world hear about your
situation, you can count on their support." West coast dock unions
stopped work on March 20, to coincide with worldwide demonstrations on
the anniversary of the Iraq invasion.
Iraqi workers and unions charge
that the US is keeping wages low to attract foreign investors, as Washington
plans the privatization of Iraq's economy. The Bush administration
sees the Iraq as a free-market beachhead into the Middle East and south
Asia. A year ago it put Tom Foley, a Bush fundraiser, in charge of
private sector development for the CPA. On September 19 the CPA published
Order 39, permitting 100% foreign ownership of businesses, except for the
oil industry, and allowing repatriation of profits. Foley then listed state
enterprises to be sold off, including cement and fertilizer plants, phosphate
and sulfur mines, pharmaceutical factories and the country's airline.
While sales were delayed until after the June handover, the goal remains
unchanged, and Iraq's new constitution forbids changing these measures.
The threat of privatization, and
the influx of US contractors, has caused more labor unrest. Workers
fear that new corporate owners will cut costs by laying off workers.
Companies with fat reconstruction contracts are already trying to perform
work previously done by Iraqis.
A recent study by the economics
faculty of Baghdad University says that unemployment has hovered at 70%
since the occupation began. Few Iraqis have been hired by companies
doing reconstruction, which have brought in thousands of foreign workers,
and for those jobs where they do get hired, they have to pay a fee which
is often the equivalent of a month's wages.
Iraq has no unemployment benefits
or any welfare system, so the loss of a stable job in a state enterprise
condemns a family to hunger and misery. One obvious advantage, therefore,
of having a union is gaining a voice in decisions about privatization and
Conflict over reconstruction work
boiled over last October in a two-day wildcat strike at the Bergeseeya
Oil Refinery near Basra. Kellogg, Brown & Root (KBR), a division
of Halliburton Corp., was given a no-bid reconstruction contract to repair
oil facilities. KBR brought in a Kuwaiti construction company, Al Khoorafi,
using Indian and Pakistani workers. To protect their jobs, Iraqi
workers threw them out and protested outside the company's offices.
At the Southern Oil Company, workers
then organized a union. Headed by Hassan Ju'ma, they banned foreign
workers following the Bergeseeya action. KBR tried to get them to
accept its foreign staff but local workers refused to budge. "Iraq will
be reconstructed by Iraqis, we don't need any foreign interference," Jum'a
Then, in December, Southern Oil
Company workers began challenging the wage schedules. They surveyed prices,
and proposed a monthly minimum of $85. Workers threatened to strike
and shut off oil production, and said they'd join the armed resistance
if occupation troops were called in. The Oil Minister immediately
flew to Basra, where he agreed to return to the pre-September scale.
In January, unrest spread to the
Najibeeya, Haartha and Az Zubeir electrical generating stations, where
workers mounted a wildcat strike, stormed the administration buildings,
declared the September wage schedule void, and vowed to shut off power
if salaries were not raised. Again the ministry agreed to return
to the old scale.Southern Oil
Company unionists finally forced the CPA to raise wages, with extra pay
for working in risky or isolated locations, often attacked by the armed
opposition. Following another walkout in February at the Basra Oil
Pipeline Company, the SOC wage schedule eventually spread to most worksites
in the oil sector. Workers then took the fight to power stations,
where they threatened to stop electrical generation, potentially halting
all other industries.Samir
Hanoon, vice president of the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions in Basra,
warned that if the ban on unions wasn't lifted, "we will take other actions
-- protests, demonstrations and total shut-downs. We realize that there
may be some sacrifices but we are ready to accept them. Our real problem
is with the CPA."
The installation of the interim
administration of Issad Allawi at the end of June did not improve either
salaries or respect for labor rights. Hanoon's warning seems as unheeded
by Baghdad's new authorities as it was by the CPA.
Ewa Jasciewicz, in Basra for Occupation Watch
earlier this year, contributed to this report.
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