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[casi] In Iraq, Labor Protest Is a Crime

--------- Begin forwarded message ----------
Subject: In Iraq, Labor Protest Is a Crime
Date: Mon, 25 Aug 2003 03:20:05 -0400
Message-ID: <>

By David Bacon

Submitted to portside
August 24, 2003

Iraq's legal code may be in disarray. The streets of
Baghdad may be filled with thieves and hijackers who
seem to have little fear of being arrested. But US
occupation authorities seem to have no trouble
identifying one crime, at least. For the four million
people out of work in Iraq, protest is against the law.

On July 29, US occupation forces in Iraq arrested a
leader of Iraq's new emerging labor movement, Kacem
Madi, along with 20 other members of the Union of the
Unemployed. The unionists had been conducting a sit-in
to protest the treatment of unemployed Iraqi workers by
the US occupation authority, and the fact that contracts
for work rebuilding the country have been given
overwhelmingly to US corporations.

Their protest started when hundreds of unemployed
workers gathered in front of an old bank building on Abu
Nawas Street.. From there they marched to the office of
the ruling occupation council. According to Zehira
Houfani, a member of the Iraq Solidarity Project in
Canada, who witnessed the protest, workers in similar
demonstrations in the past had normally dispersed at
that point. Each time, however, Madi told Houfani, "the
representatives of the occupation forces meet and
discuss with us, promise to solve the problem, but each
time their promises are not fulfilled and we are forced
to take to the streets again."

On this occasion they decided to step up the pressure on
US authorities. In the time-honored tradition of workers
from Mexico to the Philippines, they set up a planton,
or a tent encampment, outside the council gates. US
soldiers on guard ordered them to disperse, but the
workers refused. Night fell. Then, at one in the morning
the soldiers returned, arrested 21 protesters, and took
them inside the compound, where they were held until the
following morning.

One arrested union member, 58-year old Ali Djaafri, told
Houfani that the experience was "very humiliating. At no
other time during the occupation," he said, "has my
resentment towards the US soldiers been that strong."

The unemployment rate is over 50% in cities like
Baghdad. Madi estimates that four million Iraqi workers
have no jobs. Thousands of public-sector workers
employed by the former government lost their jobs after
the war. Many provided services from healthcare to
education, and those services have yet to be restored.
There is no money to pay those workers, nor an Iraqi
government to employ them. Even the records of their
employment went up in flames in the looting which
followed the occupation of Baghdad.

Thousands more worked in former government-owned
enterprises. Many of those have been closed down, and
occupation authorities have announced their intention to
privatize huge sections of the former economy.

That all adds up to thousands of working families facing
an extreme economic crisis. The new union for unemployed
workers has become the fastest-growing, largest labor
organization in the country as a result.

At the same time, the issue of the foreign contracts has
become a hot controversy among Iraqi workers because the
US corporations bring workers into the country to work
under those contracts. A Kuwaiti firm subcontracting to
the US construction giant Kellogg, Brown and Root, for
instance, was recently found to be bringing Asian
workers into the port of Basra to perform repair and
reconstruction work. Meanwhile, Iraqi workers with long
years of experience sit idle.

Kacem Madi and other unemployed leaders led the sit-in
protest over this discrimination, and announced that
they would continue their demonstrations until they
either received jobs or some kind of unemployment
payment. But occupation authorities, instead of trying
to address the problem, arrested them. International
labor organizations, including the International
Confederation of Free Trade Unions (of which the AFL-CIO
is a member) have sharply criticized the desperate
situation of Iraqi workers. "Ensuring respect for
workers' rights, including freedom of association, must
be central to building a democratic Iraq and to ensuring
sustainable economic and social development," the ICFTU
said in a statement made May 30. "Democracy must have
roots. It requires free elections, but also mass based,
democratic trade unions that help secure it and protect
it as well as being schools of democracy."

Arab trade unionists are even more critical of the
occupation's effect on workers. According to Hacene
Djemam, General Secretary of the International
Confederation of Arab Trade Unions, "war makes
privatization easy: first you destroy the society and
then you let the corporations rebuild it." He emphasized
that Iraqi workers must be able to form unions of their
own choosing.

Unfortunately, the corporations who have been granted
contracts for work in Iraq by the Bush administration
have long records of fighting unions and violating labor
rights. In May, Amy Newell, national coordinator of US
Labor Against the War, and former executive secretary of
the Monterey/Santa Cruz Central Labor Council, went to
Geneva to present a report to international labor
bodies, highlighting the record of 18 of those

USLAW is a network of unions and other labor
organizations opposed to U.S. policy in Iraq. The
organization charges that the U.S. government pays for a
bloated military budget with severe cuts in domestic
social programs. It grew out of the many demonstrations
prior to the March 20 invasion, by which time unions
representing almost one-third of all organized workers
in the U.S. were on record against the war. At that time
even the AFL-CIO itself publicly opposed the Bush
administration's Iraq policy.

Companies highlighted in the report made in Geneva

- Stevedoring Services of America. SSA was a leader in
last year's efforts by Pacific Coast shippers to lock
out west coast longshore workers, and worked with the
Bush administration to threaten the International
Longshore and Warehouse Union with breaking up its
coastwise agreement and bringing troops onto the docks.
ILWU spokesperson Steve Stallone called SSA
"ideologically anti-union and anti-ILWU."

- MCI Worldcom. Worldcom has a long record of opposing
worker efforts to organize. It declared bankruptcy in
2002 after fraudulently claiming $11 billion in
earnings. As a result, the retirement savings of
thousands of workers were completely wiped out, along
with $2.6 billion in public pension funds. The Iraq
contract was awarded after the company was fined $500
million by the Securities and Exchange Commission for
its illegal fraud.

- Eight of the eighteen companies with the major
contracts are completely non-union. Almost all have
records of fighting any union organizing effort.

The USLAW report also discusses the track record of
social responsibility of the corporations involved. It
found a long history of corporate corruption and bribery
(Halliburton Corp., which still pays $1 million a year
to former director Vice President Dick Cheney),
organizing mercenary armies (Dyncorp/Computer Sciences
Corp.), and years of cooperation with repressive
governments, from Hussein's regime itself (Halliburton
again, and San Francisco's Bechtel Corp.) to the former
apartheid regime in South Africa (Fluor Corp.)

"Prior to its suppression by the Hussein regime, Iraq
enjoyed a robust and broadly representative labor
movement," the report concludes. [The pre-Hussein
government was overthrown in a 1956 cold-war coup
organized by the Central Intelligence Agency - ed] "Its
legacy provides the seedbed for reestablishing an
independent labor movement with internationally
recognized workers' rights to organize, bargain and
strike. However, the occupying powers have invited into
Iraq private corporations with an established record of
labor, environmental and human rights violations. These
corporations were chosen by the Bush administration,
which itself is considered by many as the most anti-
worker, union-hostile administration in modern U.S.
history. This does not bode well for respect of workers
rights in Iraq."

If the arrest of Madi and the unemployed workers last
month in Baghdad is any indication, that concern is well

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