News & Views for Anarchists & Activists:
Action & Activism
International Labor Leaders Predict More Iraq Labor Strikes
by Kathlyn Stone
29 August 2006
A 48-hour strike led by oil and gas workers in Basra, Iraq,
last week signals a growing impatience with the U.S.
occupation of Iraq, said a spokesperson for the Iraq Freedom
Congress. The strike shut down the country's main refined
The workers presented four demands to the Ministry of Oil:
higher pay, wages must be paid when due, workers must be
paid for overtime work and ambulances must be provided to
transport injured workers. About 350 oil workers and 200 gas
workers walked off the job the morning of Aug. 22.
"Their basic demands for higher pay were met," said the
IFC's Housan Mahmoud. "If the government doesn't deliver on
the rest of the demands, the strikes will resume."
Mahmoud is a women's and labor rights activist and chair of
Iraq Freedom Congress Abroad, based in London.
The IFC is a movement led by unions and human rights
activists that is rapidly gaining in popularity among the
general population. It is modeled after the African National
Congress, which came into power following worldwide pressure
to end the white minority rule of South Africa. The IFC is
calling for a democratic, secular alternative to both the
U.S. occupation and political Islam in Iraq. The IFC is also
a major supporter of the strike.
"The government and its administration have turned a blind
eye to the demands raised by workers for months. Therefore
the workers were forced to resort to a strike to impose
their demands on the government and South Oil Company,"
according to Amjad Aljawhary, North American representative
of the Federation of Worker Councils and Unions in Iraq
(FWCUI). Union spokespeople said the strike "completely
paralysed pumping oil from all Iraqi ports in Basra."
The lack of electricity, running water and severe fuel
shortages and widespread corruption have had an enormous
impact on people's daily lives. Growing violence claimed the
lives of more than 1,000 Iraqis in July, according to
. The IFC said the people have a
right through demonstrations and strikes to demand changes
that will solve the mounting problems.
"The strike is a very important development. It could
encourage others to start demanding a day of reckoning,"
said U.S. Labor Against the War Co-Convenor Bob Muehlenkamp.
USLAW representatives have been communicating with the Iraq
Freedom Congress and union leaders in Iraq for more than two
years. USLAW organized a tour of some 20 U.S. cities by
Iraqi labor leaders in 2005 to increase direct dialogue with
U.S. unions and the general public. "They've been asking
when the United States will leave and trying to figure out
how long to put it [the strike] off," said Muehlenkamp.
"Our job over here is to make sure the U.S. government stays
out of this," said Muehlenkamp. The brevity of the strike
"leaves open the possibility that the U.S. government may
have been involved in a strike-breaking activity," he said.
Underlying the struggles is the U.S. plan to transform the
Iraqi economy from publicly-owned to privately held. This
holds true for the publicly-owned oil industry that
represents 70 percent of the Iraqi economy. The march toward
privatization and neglect of Iraq's infrastructure
contributes to massive unemployment, increased insecurity
and violence, and a devastating impact on the average Iraqi
An American who is working to establish an Iraq Freedom
Congress chapter in the United States said the corporate
media in the United States is intentionally keeping
Americans in the dark about the existence of the Iraq
Freedom Congress and the strong labor movement in Iraq, both
now and historically. The struggle in Iraq is presented by
the media as an "either-or choice between the occupation and
the resistance," said Martin Schreader. "If a third option,
the IFC, was known by those outside of Iraq to be a real
force, many of those who oppose the occupation, but do not
want to see the 'resistance' come to power, would begin to
think they finally have a side in the conflict."
Schreader, who is on the U.S.-IFC streering committee,
thinks the IFC offers a rallying point for international
opposition to the war in Iraq. Greater awareness of the
democratic and secular movement that opposes violence
against civilians "would greatly erode the tenuous
acceptance of the occupation by large sections of the
population. It would embolden those who abstractly call for
an immediate end to the occupation by giving them a rallying
point. Finally, it would strip the Right of its chief
talking point against withdrawal: if the United States
leaves, the 'resistance' takes over," Schreader said.
"People don't realize that Iraq has a long history of
organized labor," Mahmoud said. Iraq's labor movement began
in the 1920s and '30s with the formation of the oil workers
and railway workers unions. Unions played an important role
in the Revolution of 1958 which set up the first popular
Iraqi government, according to USLAW.
While the Saddam Hussein government crushed the Iraq trade
union movement in the 1970s -- by murdering and imprisoning
unionists, forcing union members underground or to flee the
country, and by taking away pensions -- labor leaders say
workers have not fared any better under the U.S. occupation.
Most of the evidence points to worse working conditions
under the U.S.-backed government. Unemployment is about 70
percent nationally, and attacks against union leaders have
continued under U.S. occupation. Hadi Saleh, a leader of the
Iraqi Federation of Trade Unionists (IFTU), was assassinated
in January of this year, and Ali Hassan Abd, a member of the
General Union of Oil and Gas Workers (GUOW) was assassinated
Members of the Federation of Workers Councils and Unions of
Iraq have been arrested and fired from their jobs, along
with members and leaders of the Union of the Unemployed,
according to the unions. In 2005, U.S. occupation forces
arrested then later released eight members of the IFTU's
governing board, without providing any explanation for their
"For any workers, much less oil workers in Iraq, this takes
tremendous vision and courage," Muehlenkamp said.
Kathlyn Stone is a Twin Cities, Minnesota-based writer
covering science, health policy, the economy and
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