Several hundred people gathered at a public forum in Berkeley, California, June 19 to hear Iraqi union leaders talk about conditions in their country. Hassan Juma’a Awad Al Asade, President, and Faleh Abbood Umara, General Secretary, of the General Union of Oil Employees (GUOE) in Basra, talked about what the occupation has meant for Iraq’s working people and labor movement and how workers have successfully resisted privatization of Iraqi workplaces.
The two leaders were escorted into St. Joseph the Worker Church by the ILWU Honor Guard to a huge ovation from the activists, union members, and community leaders in attendance. Their talk in Berkeley was part of a national tour sponsored by U.S. Labor Against War.
Bay Area photojournalist and USLAW activist David Bacon presented a series of slides taken on a recent trip to Iraq and spoke about his meetings and interviews with Iraqi labor leaders. Bacon said that while the U.S. corporate media shows scenes of bombings, war, and destruction, "We don’t see the ordinary workers, people like us. This tour was organized to show the human face of Iraqi workers and the human cost of the war and occupation."
"We share the same problems," Bacon said. "The occupation of Iraq is destroying the country. And it is costing us here at home, where we see schools underfunded and ask ourselves where the $200 billion spent on war and occupation could go.
The GUOE’s Hassan Juma’a Awad, speaking through a translator, called for support from the U.S. labor movement in ending the occupation. "I say straight to President Bush: ‘Leave our country alone!’"
An opponent of Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist regime, a human rights activist and unionist, Awad was imprisoned by the Ba’athists three times for "subversive activities." He worked for 31 years as a technician in Iraq’s oil industry.
Awad said that Iraq’s infrastructure was in disrepair and Iraqis were calling on the international community to help rebuild the country. He pointed out that the main reason for the U.S. invasion and occupation was oil, and that Iraqi workers were fighting against privatization of the oil industry so the resource could be used for rebuilding rather than profiteering.
"Iraqi workers are challenging America," he said. "The proof is that only 11 days after the invasion in 2003 we began to re-organize our oil workers union."
The GUOE had been outlawed under Saddam Hussein’s rule, after a 1987 law banning unions in the public sector. An independent union representing 23,000 oil workers in Basra, Amara and Nassirriyah, the GUOE has actively opposed the policies of Halliburton’s subsidiaries working in the oil sector and successfully forced the Coalition Provisional Authority under US envoy Paul Bremer to dramatically increase wages for oil workers. Under U.S. occupation and the new government in Iraq, the Hussein-era laws forbidding unions in public sector industries still haven’t been reversed.
Awad explained that the oil workers organized their union because, "We knew employers wouldn’t be receptive to workers without it, and we could ensure oil production. Our infrastructure depends on it. We need to invest in it to improve our lives."
"When the British and the U.S. came they destroyed everything—schools, factories, workshops, universities, even the hospitals," Awad reminded the audience. "But they made sure they protected the oil facilities."
Awad said that after the invasion, "We started to witness the corporations invading the public sector, bringing in 1200 foreign workers even though unemployment was at a high level. We are resisting the privatization of nationalized industries. We don’t see any place where privatization was implemented and the people benefitted." He said that the entire public sector in Iraq was moving towards privatization, Iraqi workers do not enjoy full rights, and that "salaries and wages are a joke."
"How is it possible in a country as wealthy as Iraq to have a salary of $35 a month? The situation in Iraq is extremely difficult, but we are confident we will overcome," Awad said.
"You are being misled by your media, saying that Iraqis are terrorists," he noted. "But the media doesn’t tell you what we have to go through to rebuild our lives with very little resources. We will fight the second stage of the war-—the privatization of our industry. It’s much more complicated and we need your support and solidarity. We want the federation unions in the U.S. to take a strong stand against the war," he said to rousing applause.
The GOUE’s general secretary, Faleh Abbood Umara, described efforts of the union to negotiate with Halliburton subsidiary Kellogg Brown and Root (KBR) and the extreme dangers faced by union organizers and workers while traveling to work. Umara had also been detained by the Hussein regime in 1998 for activities on behalf of his co-workers at the Southern Oil Company in Basra, where he worked for 28 years.
A founding member of the oil workers union, he served on the negotiating team that successfully defended oil industry workers after the initial invasion and occupation.
Umara said that the workers negotiated with KBR for four days, then stopped oil exports, held a strike and forced the company to leave. "We feel very confident and very powerful."
But he also pointed out that some union leaders and oil workers have been killed as a result of the ongoing war, where it is common for American troops to shoot at Iraqi cars.
"We will not give up," he said. "We ask you to help us pressure your administration to remove its forces in Iraq so we can rebuild our country."
Other speakers at the event included Berkeley City Council member Kriss Worthington, who read a resolution adopted by the City Council in support of the Iraqi labor leaders and against the occupation; Jess Gannon, president of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee; and Oakland Green Party leader Aimee Allison, a conscientious objector during the Gulf War in 1991 who counsels young people being recruited for military service.
Walter Riley of the Vanguard Foundation read a strong statement against the war from Congressmember Barbara Lee and acknowledged the work of Bay Area Congressmembers Lee, Sam Farr, Nancy Pelosi, and Tom Lantos in helping to secure visas for the Iraqi union delegation.
Several Bay Area unions were acknowledged for their financial support for the tour, including ILWU locals 10 and 34, American Federation of Teachers Local 2121, and Service Employees International Union local 790.
The USLAW tour also featured members of the Iraqi Federation of Labor and Federation of Workers Councils and Unions of Iraq, who toured the east coast and midwest. Six Iraqi union leaders also visited the AFL-CIO headquarters in Washington, D.C., June 14. The AFL-CIO, affiliated unions and the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions are assisting Iraqi unions in building an effective union movement, according to an AFL-CIO statement.
All three Iraq labor organizations oppose the occupation of Iraq and call for removal of U.S. and British occupation forces. All are committed to a democratic, secular, multi-ethnic labor movement and society in Iraq.
Their tour came at a time when calls for ending the occupation and withdrawing troops has increased and support for Bush's war on Iraq has sunk to an all-time low. A bipartisan resolution was introduced in Congress calling for a timeline to withdraw U.S. troops, Congressmember John Conyers held a hearing on the "Downing Street Memo" that indicated the U.S. and Britain were determined to manipulate intelligence to justify an invasion, and calls for impeachment of Bush and Vice President Cheney have increased. Meanwhile the death toll of U.S. troops approached 1,700 and daily attacks and bombings further destabilized Iraq. The escalating violence and clear evidence that the Bush Administration failed to plan for the aftermath of the invasion has confirmed the warnings of the U.S. peace movement and unions who opposed the invasion.
See www.uslaboragainstwar.org for more information.
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