Iraqi Trade Unions Fight for Unity and Organization


LAST month, trade unionists from Britain extended the hand of solidarity to their fellow workers in Iraq. Six representatives from the occupied country's largest trade union force, the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions (IFTU), visited Britain as guests of UNISON.

Since its formation in the wake of the Ba'athist regime's collapse, the IFTU has been fighting on meagre resources to unite Iraq's workers and get rid of the legacy of the country's collaborationist 'yellow unions.'

For the IFTU, the offer of training and assistance from abroad is vital. After years of Saddam's dictatorship, a large part of the battle is simply to teach Iraqis what trade unionism is.

During their time in Britain, the delegates - two women and four men - received training on negotiation and campaigning skills and met officers and lay representatives from several unions, as well as leading trade union figures including STUC general secretary Bill Speirs and TUC international department head Owen Tudor.

Speaking to the Star, the Iraqi trade unionists were able to offer an insight into recent developments in the country.

Two of the visitors, Alia Hussein and Naafa Najib, are members of the Agricultural Workers Union (AWU).

Hussein is on the union's Baghdad regional executive committee and works as an administrator in a publicly owned company under the Ministry of Agriculture's jurisdiction. She has special responsibility for women's issues.

'I organise seminars on all types of women's issues, as well as human rights, public health, health and safety and computer training,' she says.

'I was organising a computer training course just before I left Baghdad to come to Britain.'

As with several of the IFTU-affiliated unions, the AWU held its first ever conference in the summer.

One of its key demands was for the repeal of the Saddam-era labour laws that were brought in in 1987. These effectively banned trade union organisation in public-sector companies, reclassifying the workers as state officials and making strikes illegal.

They have not yet been repealed, but workers have organised regardless.

'We also called for the voice of women to be increased in society and politics and particularly in the interim national assembly,' adds Hussein.

Under the strategy that was agreed by the United Nations, the interim national assembly was selected from a cross-section of political and social forces.

The plan is to replace it with a more representative assembly following elections, which are currently scheduled for January 2005 – although the effects of recent brutal US actions have raised a question mark over the likelihood of this.

The IFTU is currently planning a march and demonstration to demand that trade unions are represented politically in the new assembly.

Hussein recalls the successful struggle to regain equal rights for women when this principle was ditched last year. 'When the governing council abolished the 1959 Personal Status Law (Family Law) which gave men and women equal legal status and introduced law 137, on December 29, we protested against it.

'Under law 137, women would have to get permission from a family member before being able to marry, their husbands could forbid them from working and divorce them by saying 'I divorce you' three times. They would not have to pay alimony.'

'Many women from non-governmental organisations, trade unions and women's organisations held a conference in June in Baghdad's Al Waziria district. Over 300 women, representing thousands of others, took part.

'We demanded the repeal of the law 137. One month later, the law was repealed.'

Hassan Shabar, who is the culture and media officer for the Transport and Communication Workers Union (TCWU), explains that his union is only now – well over a year after its formation – beginning to get an idea of the number of members that it has.

'Until recently, we hadn't developed a proper membership registration and subscription system,' he says.

'We recently produced a membership application form, which new members have to sign when they join the union. 'This allows us to develop accurate membership records. I am involved in setting up this system and compiling membership lists. I had to stop when we reached 10,000 to prepare for my journey to London.'

Shabar gives a rousing account of the reopening of the IFTU offices, which were locked up by US soldiers in December 2003, when several of the federation's leading officials were arrested by the Coalition Provisional Authority.

'The executive committee met and decided to break the locks the Americans had put on the building and to reoccupy it,' he says.

He recalls the march by 300 trade unionists to retake their building, wielding banners saying: 'Long live the union of the workers – death to colonialism!'

'This is a famous slogan of the workers' movement from the 1930s and '40s,' explains Shabar.

'We have kept the American locks as souvenirs,' he adds.

Muhsin Jasim is the Baghdad regional secretary of the Public and Social Service Workers Union (PSSWU) and divides his time between trade union duties and youth work.

'I was a technician and boiler maintenance worker for the Ministry of Industry until I was dismissed for political reasons in 1982,' says Jasim.

He estimates that his union has between 100-120,000 members in Baghdad and around 300-400,000 across the country as whole.

The union's bid to sign up new members is constantly hampered by suspicion because of the past activities of Saddam's trade unions, which were used as an organ of state control.

However, Jasim reports recent successes in Baghdad hotels which have helped to counter these fears.

'The union called a two-day strike against the dismissal of 24 hotel workers at the Baghdad Hotel - one of the big hotels in the 'green zone' where the Americans stay.

'At the time that the hotel workers were dismissed, there was no union committee at the hotel, but, as a result of the strike, we formed a union committee. The strike didn't only educate our members, it educated the hotel manager too.'

'The strike was very difficult for the management, because many Americans stay at the hotel. They were very angry and disturbed that the hotel wasn't cleaned for two days. They tried to bribe us by inviting us to eat dinner with them, but we refused.

'In all, 180 workers at the hotel took part in the strike – the entire workforce. Workers in other big hotels witnessed the strike and formed union committees as well.'

Railway Workers Union member Arkan Jewad Kadhum gives an insight into the situation faced by Iraqis working on the country's under-resourced rail network, which is regularly attacked amid claims that it is being used to transport US military supplies. But Kadhum strongly denies this.

'Saddam used to move his weapons and army by road, which is why he built so many motorways,' he says.

'The Americans don't use railways to supply their troops any more than Saddam did. 'The Iraqi railways are now mainly freight trains for industrial and consumer customers. There is a passenger train service between Baghdad and Basra which has been suspended due to the security situation.'

The union's 10,000 members are particularly vulnerable to attack as they cross Iraq on slow-moving and unprotected trains.

'Four of our members were murdered just before I came to London – two train drivers, one controller (guard) and a security guard,' says Kadhum.

'All of them were from Baghdad. They were working a freight train carrying timber from Mosul to Baghdad.

'I heard that their train was stopped and that they were shot in the back of the head, execution-style.

'As soon as the news of the attack on the railworkers reached the depot in Baghdad, the train drivers and mechanics went on strike, as we have before, to demand that the railway company provides proper security for our members.'

Like much of the industry in Iraq, the railways are state-run. But, as with all such firms, rail workers are haunted by the prospect of privatisation.

'Our union's great concern is privatisation,' says Kadhum. 'A US army officer visited our workplace recently and told us that, if we refused to work properly and continued to make trouble, he would bring Indian railway workers to run the trains. We have demonstrated against these threats.'

TCWU member Hassan Shabar explains that the telecoms sector is currently in grave danger of being palmed off to privateers.

'Our sector has been chosen as the first one for the government to try to privatise state industries,' he says.

'The Communication Ministry announced in September that it planned to dismiss 1,000 out of 3,000 workers employed by the telephone maintenance company.'

The ministry claimed that the workers were only temporary and of no further use. But all the workers had been employed for at least 10 years, says Shabar.

'The TCWU executive committee met and decided to try to negotiate with the ministry, but the ministry refused.

So we organised a public protest in front of the ministry buildings in the middle of October and started a media campaign using the IFTU newspaper and a local Baghdad newspaper Al Jareeda.

'The ministry did not dare to risk a public confrontation on the issue and reinstated all of the workers,' he says proudly.

With Washington attempting to enforce its doctrine of privatisation and neoliberalism in Iraq, there are sure to be many more battles ahead.

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