Iraqi Labor Leaders Speak
- News & Views for Anarchists & Activists:
IRAQI LABOR LEADERS SPEAK
Their Fight for Workers and Against Occupation
from Building Bridges, WBAI Radio
On October 5, "Building Bridges: Your Community & Labor Report," hosted
by Mimi Rosenberg and Ken Nash on New York's non-commercial WBAI Radio,
ran an interview with four Iraqi labor leaders who were on the East
Coast on a tour sponsored by US Labor Against the War: Hassan Jumaa,
president of the Iraqi Federation of Oil Unions; Rasim Awadi, president
of the General Federation of Iraqi Workers; Sardar Mohammed, president
of the Iraqi Kurdish Workers Syndicates & Unions; and Falah Alwan,
president of the Federation of Workers Councils & Unions in Iraq. They
spoke about the struggle for workers rights under occupation and the
prospects for rebuilding Iraq's industrial sector—and expressed
sometimes divergent views on how and when the US should withdraw.
Mimi Rosenberg: Now, a Building Bridges exclusive. Iraq labor federation
leaders share their views and stories on the conditions workers face on
the ground, their struggles against privatization, and their
perspectives on the United States occupation of their country. Why don't
we begin with our first guest, who we welcome to New York...
Rasim Awadi: Yes, I am the head of the General Federation of Iraqi
Workers, which groups workers from all the provinces. In 1987, Saddam
shut down all labor unions in the public sector. Right after the
occupation, a lot of the factories were shut down, and remain closed to
this day, not operating. So we have a limited number of members in our
union. We had a conference right after [the invasion] in 2003, with a
representative from the Ministry of Labor, and we held elections in all
our locals. There were other unions that were formed after 2003, among
them the labor union in Kurdistan, which we have a great relationship with.
There are only six labor unions operating in Iraq, because of the fact
that the law still forbids union organization in the public sector. Our
activity is still being hampered, our union workers are oppressed by the
actual regime. Since all the funds that belonged to the previous trade
unions were frozen by the [Saddam] government, our financial situation
is dire, and we operate on a shoestring budget.
Falah Alwan: The situation of the workers' movement in Iraq is a part of
the situation of the whole society. Our society is a society under
occupation—despite the lies of the security argument and other pretexts.
We are suffering from a devastation of the fundamental structure of
society—industry, the health sector, the education sector. The
authorities cannot impose their law because of the hegemony of the
militias in many provinces.
After the fall of Saddam, the workers organizations tried to rebuild—or
rather, to build, because before that we had no real unions. The union
federation in the Saddam era was a part of the state, it imposed the
policies of the regime on the workers. But after [the invasion], we
created our organizing committees in many sectors. Our federation held
its first congress in December 2003. But the workers are still not one
of the main powers in society—despite the fact that there are about 5
million workers in Iraq. If we count them with their families, there are
20 million. So they are the majority of the society. But they have no
significant political role in events. Society is polarized according to
religion, according to tribe, according to language—but not polarized
according to class.
Ken Nash: Maybe now we should hear from the representative of the
Sardar Mohammed: In Kurdistan, we began labor union organizing after
1991 [when Kurdistan became autonomous], holding elections in our
workplaces—including the public sector. The democratic political system
in Kurdistan allowed us to overcome that hurdle. We have nine branches
of our union across Kurdistan. However, that law [barring unionization
of the public sector] is still in effect, and could be enforced in any
part of Iraq. That law was never abolished.
We enjoy more freedom than in the rest of Iraq; we can organize, we can
publish, we educate the workers in a democratic way. And we are trying
to create a national federation with the other unions in Iraq, in order
to push for a better law for the Iraqi workers. This is our struggle, we
have to fight for our rights.
Ken Nash: Let's hear from our friend from the oil workers union. I think
our listeners would like to hear about the struggle against the oil
privatization in Iraq.
Hassan Jumaa: I am the head of the labor union in the oil sector in
Iraq. I want to emphasize the fact that we do not enjoy any protected
rights under the existing laws in Iraq. We share the same problems and
the same suffering as other workers in Iraq. We don't have social
security, we don't have health plans, any benefits.
But we are one of the strongest unions, because we are in a sector that
makes up 80% of Iraq's economy. We know well the reason for the invasion
and occupation of Iraq—its resources, and specifically the oil. And we
struggle along side our fellow workers in other sectors of the economy
in order to protect Iraq's resources. All the sectors are in solidarity
on this point; they all understand that the oil resources and revenues
belong to all Iraqis, from the north to the south. We are all concerned
about the dangers that the oil sector faces. We all know and understand
that our salvation comes from these oil resources. Oil revenues could be
used to rebuild Iraq. Therefore all the Iraqi trade unions have their
reservations about the new Iraqi oil law and the current licensing of
oil contracts to foreign entities. And we discuss with workers in other
sectors the future and outcome of these privatizations and what they
will mean for the Iraqi worker.
Mimi Rosenberg: Do the workers in Iraq see themselves as a collective
force to assume power in society?
Hassan Jumaa: We hope that we can achieve that point. The working class
in Iraq is a very powerful one, if given the chance it could be in the
leadership position. But we're not there yet.
Rasim Awadi: The workers nearly took power in 1959. One day after the
May Day celebrations in 1959, the head of the CIA said that Iraq was now
the most dangerous country in the world, because the workers were
calling for power. But now the workers are more loyal to the political
parties than to the unions. Some 75% of the workers belong to one of the
religious political parties.
In the 1960s, even the nationalist parties, under the pressure of the
working class in Iraq, adopted many reforms that were favorable to the
workers. The workers were calling for power, so even the nationalist
parties adopted the slogans of the workers at that time, and pretended
to be socialists. But today the political powers in Iraq work to limit
our activities, to prevent us from taking a leadership role.
Mimi Rosenberg: What are the effects of the occupation on being able to
advance the interests of the workers in your respective unions?
Hassan Jumaa: The occupation destroyed the entire industrial
infrastructure in Iraq. Nearly all the factories are not functioning.
There is 50% unemployment. The only sector that is still viable is the
oil sector, and there is still some leather and textile production.
Even in the port of Basra, the occupation gave concessions to foreign
companies to operate the port authority, which caused the Iraqi workers
there to start demonstrating and demanding their jobs back. All the arms
factories, which constituted a major industry in Iraq, were closed by
the occupation. They could have been converted to help rebuild the
country. This decision cost the Iraqis billions of dollars. Those who
govern Iraq are not Iraqis, but the Americans.
Mimi Rosenberg: What is the message of the Iraqi labor movement to
President Obama and the Americans?
Hassan Jumaa: We ask President Obama and the American people to push for
the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq. And we ask the American
people for help in rebuilding Iraq's infrastructure and economy. Because
all the companies that Bush brought to Iraq only looted the country. The
love for the American people in Iraq is down to zero. We value the
solidarity of working-class people in the US. But we believe that the
troop withdrawal is not true, it's a fallacy. We want Iraq to be
governed by Iraqis, by workers and people who stand in solidarity with
Mimi Rosenberg: We are often told that there is still an issue of
security, so we can't take all the troops out without jeopardizing the
security of the people of Iraq. What is your response to this?
Hassan Jumaa: In our view, Iraqis after the withdrawal of American
troops will be able to govern themselves.
Rasim Awadi: If there was an immediate and unplanned withdrawal of
American troops from Iraq, there could be a shift in power that might
put us in jeopardy. The US violated the Geneva Conventions and all the
international treaties that put the responsibility on the occupier to
protect the civilian population. Instead, the US promoted the coming [to
power] of those militias and the factional fighting on our territory.
Mimi Rosenberg: There seems to be a different of opinion here. So I ask
our friend from the oil workers, what do you think needs to be done to
address this chaotic situation created by the US invasion?
Hassan Jumaa: After the Americans leave, Iraqis will be free to choose
who will lead them. The US is responsible for the sectarianism that
exists today. Because when the US invaded and dismantled the old regime,
the new regime that the US created was based on sectarianism.
I want to give an example about the responsibility of the US forces.
After the bombing of the holy shrine [at Samarra's Golden Mosque in
February 2006] that caused the sectarian war, the US forces disappeared
from the streets for more than a week, in a very bad situation of
conflict between the people. And we know that in governorates like
Nassiriya, where there are no occupying US forces, there is no conflict.
The security situation is better there than in other provinces of Iraq.
That means the security in Iraq is not provided by the US military.
So I believe another force, like the UN, can provide security for the
Iraqi people. A withdrawal of US forces will create a better situation
for our society.
Mimi Rosenberg: Well, I thank you, and I want to say that there are many
people in this country that really do support the self-determination of
our sisters and brothers in Iraq, and we will try make sure that your
message is heard more here.
Iraqi Federation of Oil Unions
General Federation of Iraqi Workers
Federation of Workers' Councils and Unions in Iraq
Building Bridges: Your Community & Labor Report
US Labor Against the War
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