Iraq labor unions tour US, air dissension

A recent story in the Indypendent, the weekly print edition of the NYC Independent Media Center, helps make sense of the conflict between the new labor organizations in post-Saddam Iraq. Via New York’s Independent Press Association:

Iraqi labor tour in U.S. stirs controversy
By Bennett Baumer, The Indypendent, 19 July 2005. English Language.

Representatives from three Iraqi labor groups conducted a U.S. tour in June discussing the occupation, insurgency and the state of workers’ rights and organizing in Iraq. Sponsored by U.S. Labor Against the War, the tour has sparked debate throughout the left internationally on how to resist the occupation. The three Iraqi unions all oppose the American-led military occupation — but differ on how to end it.

When U.S. forces invaded Iraq, bringing down Saddam Hussein’s government, Iraqi unionists devised a plan to fan out throughout the country and organize workers. The Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions (IFTU) formed out of these initial efforts. The IFTU is the largest of its kind and represents workers in sectors including construction, oil, longshore, transportation and mechanics. In December 2003, U.S. troops raided the IFTU’s offices and arrested eight union leaders, eventually releasing them without charge.

“We [IFTU] consider the U.S. and British troops occupiers,” said Adnon Al Saffar in Arabic. Saffar, executive officer of the Union of Mechanics, Printing and Metal Workers, gave a talk at Cornell University in New York City on June 17. “Our demands are the withdrawal of foreign forces in Iraq.”

During the early days of the occupation, American officials swept away many Hussein-era laws barring privatization and preventing the flight of capital, but they kept in place labor codes that outlawed strikes and independent labor organizing.

However, many leftists are critical of the IFTU. It is closely aligned with the Iraqi Communist Party, which served as part of the U.S.-installed Iraqi Governing Council; its successor, the interim regime of Prime Minister Iyad Allawi; and the current government. Allawi in particular drew the enmity of many Iraqis because he endorsed the devastating U.S. attacks on Fallujah, Najaf and Baghdad. As a result, many international leftists and Iraqis see the IFTU as collaborators. This accusation was probably a factor in the Jan. 4 assassination of the federation leader Hadi Saleh, which the union blames on the insurgency.

Little is known about the insurgency, but it is believed to include members of the former ruling Baathist party. Upon coming to power in the 1960s, the Baathists assassinated many communists based on information supplied by the CIA. Another trade union leader, Ali Hassan Abd of the General Union of Oil and Gas Workers, was assassinated on February 18. The Oil and Gas Workers also say insurgents were behind the killing.

The Federation of Workers Councils and Unions in Iraq (FWCUI), aligned with the Workers Communist Party of Iraq, doesn’t hesitate in labeling its unionist rivals as collaborators. “Today the ICP and the IFTU again are acting as tools to subject the interests of the working class to the interests of the USA, the puppet government, political Islam, ultra-nationalists and employers,” wrote Aso Jabar, international officer of the Workers Councils, in his union newsletter. Jabar’s union also opposes the insurgency.

The Federation of Workers Councils came from organizing unemployed Iraqis. In militant protest, they pressured the U.S. occupation authority and successive Iraqi governments for benefits. There is also tension between the two federations as to who will inherit the resources, such as office space and computers, of the former official Baathist union.

“I think the workers councils are worried [old resources] will all be given to the IFTU,” said David Bacon, a labor journalist who visited Iraq in May. However, Bacon added “without any question,” the IFTU is a much larger union.

The third union on the tour is the Oil and Gas Workers, which represents workers in southern Iraq. Oil workers threatened to strike in January 2004 and won wage increases. They have also closed a refinery operated by Halliburton because the company was importing lower-paid foreign workers. All three labor unions oppose the privatization of Iraq’s oil sector and economy. Al Saffar said Iraqi unions would draw a “red line in front of privatization and we will prevent this from happening no matter what sacrifices we take.”

The Oil and Gas Workers call for a withdrawal of American troops and for U.N. peacekeepers to secure the country, a scenario few consider possible. While each union backs the right to resist, none back the armed resistance, which they term reactionary.

“The workers should fight for both ending the occupation and curbing the influence of the local reactionary groups including those within the Iraqi armed resistance,” said Jala Mohamad of the Federation of Workers Councils. “If this force is the armed resistance without progressive forces, the future will be bleak and gloomy. Iraq will end in civil war and in the hands of various reactionary militias. This fact is denied by the Western left.”

Readers in New York are urged to pick up the current issue of the Indypendent to check out the letters-page firestorm in response to this article. US Labor Against the War informs us that a June 26 joint statement against the occupation by the three labor factions did result from the tour.

See also WW4 REPORT #98

See our last post on the Iraq quagmire.

  1. Another victory for US Labor Against the War
    AFL-CIO Convention Calls for Troop Withdrawal from Iraq
    By David Bacon
    t r u t h o u t | Perspective

    Wednesday 27 July 2005

    Chicago – On the second day of its convention in Chicago, the AFL-CIO took a historic step, calling for the rapid withdrawal of US troops from Iraq and an end to the country’s occupation. Public attention has focused largely on the split in US labor and the decision by two of the federation’s largest unions to leave. Yet the impact of this call will reverberate for years, with a profound effect on the future of US workers and their unions.

    Brooks Sunkett, vice-president of the Communications Workers of America (CWA), started a train of passionate speeches on the convention floor, saying that the government had lied to him when it sent him to war in Vietnam three decades ago. “We have to stop it from lying to a new generation now,” he implored. Henry Nicholas, a hospital union leader in the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, told delegates that his son, who has served four tours of duty in Iraq, is now threatened with yet another.

    Speaker after speaker rose to condemn the war and occupation, and to demand the return of the troops. No one dared defend a policy that has caused revulsion throughout US unions.

    Watching from the visitors’ gallery was a handful of Iraqi union leaders. One of them had traveled to the US two months ago, with five other union activists, to plead the case of Iraqi workers. For 16 days they traveled to more than 50 cities, often speaking before hundreds of angry workers, demanding an end to the occupation. The Iraqis urged their US union counterparts to take action.

    The resolution at the convention was the answer to this call. It was the culmination, as well, of an upsurge that has swept through US unions since before the war started two years ago. From the point when it became clear that the Bush administration intended to invade Iraq, union activists began organizing a national network to oppose it, US Labor Against the War. What started as a collection of small groups, in a handful of unions, has today to become a coalition of unions representing over a million members.

    The network organized the tour of the Iraqi unionists, to provide them a chance to speak directly to US workers. “We believed strongly that if unions in our country could hear their Iraqi brothers and sisters asking for the withdrawal of US troops, they would respond in a spirit of solidarity and human sympathy,” said Gene Bruskin, one of USLAW’s national coordinators. “We were right.”

    Resolutions calling for troop withdrawal poured in from unions, labor councils, and state labor federations across the country. But as the convention began, AFL-CIO national staff tried to substitute another resolution that called for ending the occupation “as soon as possible.” This was the same position as that put forward by the Bush administration.

    Delegates at the convention who belong to the USLAW network then called for using instead the phrase “rapid withdrawal” of the troops. At a strategy-planning session attended by over 150 delegates, US and Iraqi unionists joined together to plan a fight on the convention floor to win that language. Before it could take place, however, CWA Vice-president Larry Cohen went to the AFL-CIO executive council, the federation’s ruling body, and asked them to accept the change.

    Knowing that a fight was in store, and suddenly unsure of their ability to win it, the council agreed.

    The resolution was put on the floor of the convention Tuesday afternoon, two days before the scheduled debate on Iraq. When the proposal for rapid withdrawal was introduced by Fred Mason, head of the AFL-CIO in Maryland, it was obvious what he meant by the words. His call to “get out now” became a chorus thundering from speaker after speaker. The new language was adopted with the votes of an overwhelming majority.