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 Kurdish unions…
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 workers.
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 siuation 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
IRAQ’S CIVIL RESISTANCE
The Secular Left Opposition Stands Up
by Bill Weinberg, WW4 Report
World War 4 Report, January 2008
VOICES OF IRAQI OIL WORKERS
Oil & Utility Union Leaders on the Struggle Against Privatization
from Building Bridges, WBAI Radio
World War 4 Report, July 2007
From our Daily Report:
Iraq: Basra oil pipeline workers score labor victory
World War 4 Report, May 9, 2009
Reprinted and transcribed by World War 4 Report, November 1, 2009
Reprinting permissible with attribution