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Delegation of U.S. unionists report back
Rise of Iraqs new labor movement

By Alan Maass | October 31, 2003 | Page 6

"THE THING that was really heartening to me was that under the most difficult
conditions you can imagine, workers were not waiting one minute before they
started organizing themselves." That was the report of labor journalist David
Bacon, who traveled to Iraq as part of a delegation from U.S. Labor Against
the War (USLAW) and activists from French unions.

What Bacon--along with Clarence Thomas, the former secretary-treasurer of
International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 10--saw in Iraq has gone
unnoticed in a corporate media focused only on "soldiers and bombers," Bacon

"We have to remember that there are millions of working people in Iraq," Bacon
said after an evening forum at the USLAW national conference in Chicago last
weekend, where he and Thomas reported on their trip. "They are trying, first
of all, to survive this experience--which means go to work, feed their
families, find housing for themselves in the midst of really difficult

More than half a year after Saddam Husseins government collapsed and U.S.
officials promised that the economy would be "rebuilt," unemployment in Iraq
is estimated at 70 percent. So just getting by from day to day is the
overwhelming challenge for literally a majority of people in the country.

"The 30 percent wage rise of $18, plus the loans and land promised by [top
U.S. overseer Paul] Bremer three months ago, have yet to materialize," wrote
Ewa Jasiewicz, of the International Occupation Watch Center in Baghdad, who
traveled around Iraq with the USLAW delegation. For those who are working, the
average wage is $60 a month--the "emergency" pay decreed by the U.S. occupiers
of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA).

That wage was exactly the same under Saddam--but Iraqis also received food and
housing subsidies that have disappeared under American rule. "So the actual
income of Iraqi workers has gone down," Bacon said, "and thats not even
calculating for the exchange value, and therefore the price of anything thats
been imported."

But as desperate as conditions are now, the Iraqis who met with Bacon and
Thomas said they fear the worst is yet to come--if Washingtons free-market
maniacs get away with their privatization schemes for Iraq. Already, the CPA
has legalized 100 percent foreign ownership of Iraqi enterprises--and set the
corporate tax rate for the "new Iraq" at 15 percent.

When it comes to unions, though, the occupation authorities "found a law
passed by Saddam Hussein that they like," Bacon said, "a law passed in 1987
where anyone working for a state enterprise is considered a civil servant."
That means that workers in Iraqs oil industry, for example, are legally
forbidden from organizing a union--under a Saddam-era law that U.S. officials
refuse to reconsider.

"And to back it up," said Bacon, "in June, Bremer issued another regulation
about prohibited activity. Item B under prohibited activities is encouraging
anybody to organize any kind of strike or disruption in a factory or any kind
of economically important enterprise. And the punishment for this is being
arrested by the occupation authority and being treated as a prisoner of war."

As Clarence Thomas put it, "The Bush administration is creating this
fictionalized picture that goes like this: If we pull out, theres going to be
Islamic fundamentalism, ethnic strife and all kinds of chaos. And what they
really are afraid of is democracy. They dont want to see Iraqi workers
organize and have power--have union rights."

On this, though, Washingtons overseers havent gotten their way. Within days of
the U.S. invasion and the fall of the old government, Iraqi workers in
factories, on the docks and at oil industry facilities began organizing. "They
want to get organized not just to get a wage raise," says Bacon, "but also to
fight for the control of their jobs, and control of the institutions that they
work for."

Clarence Thomas says that the new Iraqi labor movement has been shaped mainly
by two groups. One is the Workers Democratic Trade Union Movement, an
independent labor federation that was forced underground in the 1980s when it
was targeted by Saddams Baathists. Its older activists took advantage of the
dismantling of the old police state to reemerge as a force, forming the core
of the new Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions, which was launched in May.

At the same time, younger activists--including members of the Worker Communist
Party--carried out their own initiatives, which led most notably to the
formation of the Union of the Unemployed in Iraq (UUI). Both groups of
activists are opposed to the U.S. occupation, says Thomas.

The main difference, he says, is that unions associated with the UUI "are not
at all hesitant to support labor action in the face of the various decrees
that are in place that prohibits labor organizing and strikes." The older
unionists, Thomas says, "dont think that it is prudent to organize job actions
and demonstrations, because they think that these can be exploited" by
elements of the old regime who are resisting the occupation.

Though almost entirely ignored by the international media, the desire to take
a stand for decent conditions and better wages at work has touched every part
of the country. In a recent report, Ewa Jasiewicz described the struggle of
workers at a brick factory that is part of a major industrial complex 30 miles
east of Baghdad.

After enduring terrible conditions--and a wage of 3,000 dinars a day, the
equivalent of $1.50, for a 14-hour shift--three quarters of the workforce
walked off the job in October. They marched on the managements office and
demanded a wage increase, a formal contract, on-site medical facilities and
retirement payments.

"The owner had no idea that a union had been formed and told them, Fine,
strike go, I will dismiss you, others will come to take your place," Jasiewicz
wrote. "The workers responded by going to their homes, bringing out their guns
and spontaneously forming an armed picket line.

"Manned with machine guns and Kalishnikovs, workers guarded the factory and
defended their strike from demolition by scab labor. The owner, overpowered,
ended up granting the workers a raise of 500 dinars--25 cents--and agreed to
enter into negotiations regarding social and health benefits. The strike was
regarded all around as a massive success."

David Bacon says that antiwar groups can do a lot of good by focusing on
struggles like these--at the very least, so that "people in the United States
can look at Iraq and see people," he says. Also, getting the truth out about
labor struggles in Iraq can add to the growing questioning of the U.S.
occupation--when, for example, U.S. unionists learn that the politicians in
Washington have made it a crime to organize a union in Iraq.

"It is inspiring," Bacon says of the stories of activism by ordinary Iraqis,
"because you understand what the difficulties are, and you understand that
people are doing brave things and taking risks."

Still, he continues, "there was something that was very familiar about it.
"The circumstances were different. The language was different. The kinds of
problems that people were organizing around were sometimes very familiar, but
sometimes they were very different, too. But the process of standing in a
factory and talking to workers about their problems and hearing what they have
to say--thats familiar to me. You could see the universality of efforts by
working people to get organized."
Rania Masri a écrit:

Dear all,

I read in an article today that "a law has been decreed that any action that
might threaten the economy could lead to the arrest of individuals and their
imprisonment as "prisoners of war."


Does anyone have more information on that law?


"Let's save pessimism for better times."
written on a wall on a street in a South American city, and mentioned by
Eduardo Galeano.
Rañia Masri
Director, Southern Peace Research and Education Center
Institute for Southern Studies[3]
Tel: (919) 419.8311. x27
Fax: (919) 419.8315
2009 Chapel Hill Rd.
Durham, North Carolina  27707

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