Oil & Utility Union Leaders on the Struggle Against Privatization

from Building Bridges, WBAI Radio

On June 18, “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 two labor leaders from Iraq’s energy sector: Hashmeya Muhsin Hussein, president of the Electrical Utility Workers Union, and Faleh Abood Umara, general secretary of the Federation of Oil Unions. They spoke about the reconstruction of Iraq’s oil industry and why the labor movement is opposed to the proposed hydrocarbon law favored by the Bush administration, the Democratic Congress and oil companies, which would put foreign oil interests in effective control of two thirds of Iraq’s undeveloped reserves. They also discussed why they support an immediate end to the occupation, and the prospects for a stable, democratic, non-sectarian future for Iraq.

Mimi Rosenberg: I just would like to say to begin with that we are very honored by your presence. We have a tremendous sense of solidarity and concern for people who are in struggle against acts of tremendous aggression and oppression that emanate from this country. It would be helpful, since we have very little consciousness about the nature of labor organizing [in Iraq], to speak somewhat about the origin and membership in your respective unions.

Faleh Abood Umara: To begin with, we want to thank you for this quite warm welcome in this beautiful city. The history of the Iraqi labor unions is a long one; it goes back to the early twentieth century. And I am honored to be one of the [re-]founders of the oil union after the occupation. This union was established in the 1930’s, and it was the workers union that led very successful strikes against the oil companies back then. One of the most well-known strikes back then is a strike that took place in the city of Gawurpaghi in Kirkuk. In 1946, they led another major strike, and in 1952, they led another strike in the city of Basra. This shows the history of the oil workers’ union is a militant history, from its inception in the 1930’s. Through all that period the Iraqi oil union was struggling for the rights of workers and also for preserving Iraq’s natural resources. And it was struggling in very difficult circumstances up until Saddam Hussein was at the helm. After that, the trade union leaders and members were subjected to the most abject sorts of oppression and destruction. And together with the rest of the trade unions in Iraq, the oil trade union was dismantled in 1987.

When the occupation forces went into Iraq, just two weeks after the occupation, the workers and labor activists initiated the process of founding the union again. And they had democratic elections for the first time, and we gained a lot of successes in preserving the oil resources and preserving the workers’ rights. One of the major gains to the workers was the rectification of wages, and also they managed to allocate lots of land for the workers in the oil sector.

Hashmeya Muhsin Hussein
: I will add to what my colleague Faleh has said. After the occupation began on April 9, 2003, workers got the initiative to start to form their unions in various sectors of the Iraqi economy, private sectors and the public sector-mechanic workers and the ports… For example, in the Basra Federation of Labor Unions, now they have about 93 union committees. The number of union leaders is 768; from them 64 members are females. These committees is spread over the transportation union, service union, the agricultural unions, workers’ unions, and the train system unions, and various other sectors.

The electrical workers union was formed in September 2003. And the first conference was held on May 13, 2004. The union has faced so many challenges under the occupation, and the first major obstacle and challenge was the new system that Paul Bremer put together, the wage system. It was so oppressive and unjust that the monthly wage for workers in the 11th degree under this system, it was $50 per month. This by no means allowed the workers buying power to cover their expenses. And they fought for opposing these changes in these laws, and the only unions that managed to make some gains in these demands were the electrical workers union and the oil unions.

Also, the union has fought fraud and corruption in the managerial system that has spread rapidly after the occupation. And they managed also to control corruption through limiting the number of outside contracts. Any new development that is going to be put through has to first be done within the capacity of the company or the [local] technicians that are available to the company, unless they are not able to do it; then it is open for outside contract.

As for the general electrical distribution in Iraq, they had a sit-in on May 12 demanding that electricity be available regularly around the clock for people, because people are suffering so much from electrical interruptions. And it’s possible that in the next couple of days there will be a big strike in the electrical sector regarding this particular issue of continuous availability of electrical supply for the public.

Ken Nash: The oil workers recently suspended a strike against the government oil company, during which time the government issued warrants for the arrest of the oil union leadership, and the oil workers were surrounded by the military. Why did the strike happen, and what’s going on right now?

FAU: This background to the strike was the of the meeting between the Iraqi oil union and the prime minister. But because of the refusal of one of the managers—in particular, the manager of the company responsible for the oil pipelines in Iraq—this forced the workers to go to strike. He refused to apply the agreements that the union leader made with the prime minister in their earliest meeting. And the strike started by stopping one of the major oil pipelines that supply oil from Basra to the rest of Iraq. The Iraqi government issued a warrant to arrest four oil union leaders, and Faleh was one of them.

But we had taken precautions in advance, and prepared for another union leadership; in the case of them being arrested, this union leadership in the shadow would come and take over. And there was a very brave position from the leader of the Iraqi army in Basra. He refused to enact the orders of the arrest, and he said that he would not arrest a person who loves Iraq. But the military still surrounded the area; the union leadership asked their families to leave so they won’t be in the way of harm. The workers themselves took a brave position and refused to leave and said we’re going to stand with you here, and whatever happens, will happen to all of us. They entered into negotiations with the government, the strike was successful, and the workers managed to have some gains.

MR: We haven’t elaborated on the demands. It would be helpful to know what they were.

FAU: The most important demand is to reconstitute the Iraqi national oil company. The other major one is to have some changes in the proposed hydrocarbon law, the oil law draft. The other demand that we also think is very important is to activate the gasoline production project, which they already have a contract with Japan for, with a production capacity of one million liters a day. Some of these demands were answered, they were enacted; others, the prime minister agreed to have a joint committee between the minister of state and the trade union to further discuss it and act upon the recommendations.

KN: Can you expand on the hydrocarbon law? I don’t think everybody is familiar with that.

FAU: The drafted hydrocarbon law in Iraq has so much injustice against Iraqi people’s rights on oil. It was written in American hands, not for the sake of Iraqi interests. And we have documented information that this draft was put together by [US Secretary of State Condoleezza] Rice and the IMF and the World Bank and presented to the Iraqi government.

We consider that the most dangerous section in this draft law is the production sharing agreements, which allow for the foreign companies to enter Iraqi oil sites, with a share in the production that goes up to 50%. This is something that we can’t agree on and we can’t accept. And the Iraqi national oil company would have no say in establishing production levels. We insisted to parliament and the prime minister that the Iraqi national oil company should be the only owner and supervisor of the Iraqi oil fields and oil production, and we are only going to have contracts with these foreign companies for the sake of developing the oil sector. As a union, and a national company, we need to develop these oil fields and we need to have new technology, but not on the basis of production-sharing. We don’t need anybody to share in our oil production. It’s fine for these companies to come and work based on contracts, and when they finish their contract we give them their money based on [the terms of] the contracts, but not on the basis of production-sharing.

There’s now about 18 American companies ready to enter the Iraqi oil market. This is why the US is trying to push this law down the throat of the Iraqi government and the Iraqi parliament. It is possible that the American media is suppressing this piece of information from the American public. What is known is that the last oil exploration in the US, in Texas, was in January 2004—that means that average oil production in the US has been on the decline. In the year 2014, [US domestic] oil production will go down to zero, and by that time also the US will need to import 28 million barrels a day. This must be the major reason for the US to pressure for this law to go through as fast as possible.

MR: What we haven’t discussed—and to humanize our guests, and the Iraqi people—is the nature of life, and the nature of being a labor leader in Iraq at this time. And I was hoping that you could tell us more about that.

HMH: The suffering of the Iraqi union members and leaders is more or less the same as the suffering of the Iraqi people. And they suffer for years; they are still suffering, endlessly, from the occupation. One of the aspects of the occupation is the deterioration of the security situation in Iraq. Because of that, many of the labor union leaders and members were targeted by these acts of terrorism, and explosions, and the state of war that’s going on in Iraq. We have many union leaders who have been assassinated. [National labor leader] Hadi Saleh was hanged two years ago, and just two months ago the vice president of the trade union federation in Mosul was assassinated. Also, the head of the mechanic trade unions in Baghdad was assassinated. And in the time of Paul Bremer, the American forces attacked and targeted the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions [offices] in Baghdad.

One of the major issues that we suffer from in the labor movement is that the laws that were enacted in the time of Saddam against the unions are still in effect. Until this moment, the parliament has not enacted any labor law. We have been demanding the canceling and annulling of the law that was enacted by Saddam in 1987, but this has not happened yet. This resolution that was enacted by Saddam is still in effect. But even though we were demanding the cancellation of Saddam’s Law 150, they didn’t cancel it; to the contrary, they enacted another, an even worse law than the 150. And by that law government expropriated all the assets of the unions in Iraq. And in spite of all demands and sit-ins and mobilization against this new law, Number 8750, the government continues to enforce it.

MR: There’s so much more to explore. But I would absolutely be remiss if I did not look at your positions on the US occupation and the question of the removal of US troops.

HMH: We believe that all the problems that the Iraqi people are suffering from—from unemployment to insecurity, to deterioration of the economic situation, to all the social problems expanding—is because of the occupation, the root cause is the primarily the occupation. The problem is that the UN issued Resolution 1438 which gave some sort of legitimacy for the occupation, based on the UN charter and international law, that the protection of occupied countries is the responsibility of the occupier. But what happened in Iraq is the opposite: instead of protection, we have lack of protection and deterioration of the situation; that’s why our main aim of this visit is to meet with the American people and ask them to pressure the government to withdraw from Iraq and end the occupation.

FAU: My sister Hashmeya has already said most of what I want to say. I want to add that as Iraqis we don’t want to see our country under occupation. We want to end the occupation, and we are here to reach out to the American people to stand up with us in solidarity to stop this bloodshed that is happening for the Iraqi people and the American people. And that we work together for peace.

MR: But the Democrats’ position is: Certainly we should end the occupation, but if we move too quickly there will be a bloodbath.

FAU: The occupation is the main reason for violence. We are a people who have a history that goes back 7,000 years, and we have been living together with all our differences, our beliefs, our religions, our walks of life, and we didn’t fight. And even if we had fought each other, we are still brothers and we can resolve our issues together. And I don’t really count on the Democratic Party a lot because Bill Clinton was also Democratic and he bombed Iraq with cluster bombs. But still, I will hope they will help us in ending the occupation.

HMH: The question is—we are now under the occupation, but is the occupation now stopping the bloodbath in Iraq? It is not doing that.

KN: Do most of the people in Iraq believe as you do, that the occupation should be ended immediately?

FAU: I wish that you could believe me that not just most of the Iraqis, but all the Iraqis, don’t want the occupation.

HMH: Myself, Hashmeya, as a union leader—all my union, all the workers, want the occupation to end immediately.

MR: We have some very backward notions here, or maybe we’re just kept ignorant, about the role of women in Iraq, and the nature of oppression of women in Iraq. You are a prominent trade union leader, who has led major demonstrations against private contractors. Can you just explain a little bit more about women in Iraq?

HMH: In the era of Saddam Hussein, woman was more or less in the shadow. And she went through immense suffering because woman lost her brothers or her husband in the wars that Saddam started. And she took upon herself many responsibilities of supporting her family and raising her kids. Then came the years of sanctions, and this put even more suffering and more hardship on her. After the fall of Saddam, we were hoping that women’s situation would be better. Unfortunately, came the Law 137, that canceled the progressive women’s law that was enacted in 1959, Number 188. This new law referred issues of women and issues of family to [the authorities of] each person’s respective sect or religion. Women all over Iraq reacted against this law, and the Iraqi women’s associations played a major role in the mobilization against the law. And this law was canceled after these wide mobilizations. We consider that a victory for the will of Iraqi women. Also, Iraqi women managed to have a reasonable percentage of Iraqi women elected—I think around 25% are elected members of parliament are women. We demanded that the percentage be upped to 40% in the coming elections. We think that the woman is becoming more aware of her role in the society.

MR: Special thanks to our trade union leaders from Iraq.

KN: Our guests have been addressing audiences around the United States on a solidarity tour sponsored by US Labor Against the War.

Transcription: Melissa Jameson


The podcast of this program is online at A-Infos Radio Project


2007 Iraq Labor Solidarity Tour
US Labor Against the War, June 4-29

Action alert on Decree 8750
US Labor Against the War, June 27, 2006

“A People’s History of Iraq” by Bob Feldman
Toward Freedom, July 27, 2005 (background on labor struggles of the 1930s)

Energy Statistics > Oil imports > Net by country

See also:

by David Bacon, WW4 REPORT, September 2005

by Benjamin Dangl, WW4 REPORT, October 2005

From our weblog:

Iraq: southern oil strike is on
WW4 REPORT, June 7, 2007


Reprinted and transcribed by WORLD WAR 4 REPORT, July 1, 2007
Reprinting permissible with attribution