Free Iraqi trade unions arise
For the last 26 years, Abdullah Muhsen, a member of the Workers Democratic Trade Union Movement of Iraq, has been living in exile. With the fall of Saddam's regime and the collapse of the Ba'athist "yellow unions", he has been busy building solidarity for the new democratic trade union movement in Iraq. Last month, with the help of the Stop the War Coalition, a group of British trade unionists made the trip to Baghdad and joined Muhsen to see first hand the struggle facing the trade union movement there. Dave Barnes reported back from Iraq after taking part in a delegation in solidarity with the country's fledgling unions. He writes: The aim was to establish links with this fledgling movement to prepare for future solidarity — something that is essential if its early gains are to be built upon. Twelve meetings and trips were crammed into a two-and-a-half day stay with our host the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions (IFTU), with some of the visits helping to provide a glimpse of the trade union movement as it stands in Iraq today. A trip to a bicycle factory 30 km south of the city centre provided our first taste of life for workers after Saddam. It had formerly been managed by the Iraqi dictator's cousin. With the expulsion of the Ba'athist management came a change of union. The "yellow union" of Saddam's was replaced by a genuine democratic organisation, which now has 440 members on the site. The first dispute of the new era came on September 7, over the discrepancy between the wages of state-employed and privately employed workers at the plant. In the light of inflation, workers on state wages had received some increases, while workers on the private-rate salaries had been left behind. Worker Najim Abu Dahm explained to us how the newly elected trade union committee had negotiated with management and then called strike action to back up their claims. Workers in the factory unanimously supported the strike and seven other unions took part in solidarity visits. The union won a 350 percent wage increase — still pitifully low, but a great victory for workers and democracy. Railway workers However, a visit to a railway depot showed the other side of the invasion and occupation. "After April 9, we're starting from zero. Many railway workers have returned from exile to build the railway again. They are the real heroes", admitted the works manager. During the height of the US and British bombing, some train drivers stayed bravely in the sheds with their engines to fight fires. The 300 train drivers and 200 mechanics in the Baghdad central workshops have formed a new trade union committee and elected representatives for the first time in decades. At a recent mass meeting of 600 rail workers in Baghdad, the US occupation civil authority was confronted angrily by the newly elected rail union officials, who found the US administrators in discussions with representatives of Saddam's "yellow union". Despite being threatened with guns by the US military, the rail union representatives stood their ground and saw off the former Ba'athist goons. These new unions face enormous difficulties. They have scarcely any money or resources and the terrible condition of the rail system in Iraq and the continuing acts of sabotage against the rail network mean that train drivers leaving Baghdad for Basra on the daily service have no signalling system at all and rely on two-way radios to regulate traffic. Bombs and pistol attacks are a daily occurrence and the US occupation authorities are incapable of securing the line. US multinational Bechtel has been put in charge of managing the Iraqi railway sector and is in the process of privatising the industry through a series of subcontracts to British and US firms. Rail workers' union committee president Reesa Salman said: "The Iraqi railway has a wealth of technical talent and skilled labour that can rebuild our industry — these are the people you can see here today. We don't need to be controlled by a foreign company". But the reconstruction program of Paul Bremer's administration, far from assisting the rail industry, has hindered it. Contracts with China and Russia have been cancelled and no contracts have been signed to replace them. An example of the kind of contracts that are being offered is a bridge reconstruction, where an Iraqi contractor estimated the cost at US$300,000 and a US company quoted US$30 million. The US company won the contract. Oil workers We next arrived unannounced at the Al Dawrah oil refinery, accompanied by the IFTU general secretary. Security is high there, with refinery security overseen by US soldiers, who remained holed up in their bunker. Within 20 minutes of our arrival, all but one of the union's committee had assembled to greet us. They described how the old Saddam union was swept aside and their new democratic union was formed. A mass meeting of some 2000 workers, out of a workforce of 3150, approved the formation of the committee and elections followed for the formation of eight branches with 38 branch officials. The newly elected President of the union explained to us the issues that they face, the main one being the wage differences, with pay ranging from US$60-US$120 (A$83-$166) a month. The previous day, the union held a demonstration on the site to call for higher salaries for the office staff. The blue-collar workers joined the demonstration in solidarity. The result was a meeting with the Minister for Oil to resolve the dispute within 24 hours of the protest. We asked if they would consider industrial action to win higher wages. Although the workers answered that they would, there was a healthy debate between those who fear the cost to the Iraqi people of stopping production and those who see strike action as the way to win. The trade union committee phoned the Director's office to arrange a meeting with our delegation and, within 10 minutes, we were talking to the Director. We asked him whether the minister for Oil would be able to settle the dispute over wages or the union would have to take their dispute to Paul Bremer's provisional authority. While the Director was wary of predicting the Oil Ministry's response, he illustrated his view by saying: "I will give you an example. The Governing Council unanimously rejected the proposal for Turkish troops to enter Iraq. But Paul Bremer said yes to Turkish troops". At the end of the meeting, we had a chance to meet the refinery workers, including the plant's firefighters. These workers, unlike Iraq's civil service, are not connected to the police. Their equipment was even more inadequate. Many workers had suffered injuries and had had no compensation or support. There are no pensions, no safety precautions and crushingly low wages. Education Education is another victim of the occupation. A visit to Mustansiriya University — which has been a centre of learning since medieval times — showed that it is operational, but only just. We had a long conversation with the temporary Dean — the old Dean was a Ba' athist and a new one had not yet been appointed. The college resources are pitifully inadequate. There are few working computers, many of the classrooms have no furniture and there are few books. The college bus service, which was relied upon by poor students, has ceased to exist and many of the buses have been burned or stolen by looters. Student accommodation, which is needed by students living outside Baghdad, has been occupied by US soldiers. The Dean has written to the US administration about all these problems, but he has yet to receive any reply. Some female students approached us as we are leaving. They say that they don 't feel safe on the campus — it is too big and there are not enough guards. This visit was particularly poignant for Muhsen, our friend and guide. He was a student union activist on this campus 26 years ago when he was kidnapped and tortured by Ba'athists. We were warmly welcomed into the building, which was one of the sites where genuine trade unionists were tortured by the Ba'athists. It seems fitting that it is now used by the IFTU as a base to build new independent unions. Union funds frozen The conditions that these activists are working under are harsh - - the building is still damaged, there are very few facilities and the financial situation is bleak, with union funds frozen by Bremer. But the IFTU has the backing of organisations including the Iraqi Communist Party, the Arab Social Movement, Iraqi National Accord and democratic and independent individuals. We were told that it has excluded "Ba'ath Party senior officials and those tainted by violence, criminals, thieves and saboteurs". While the founding meeting of the free trade union federation was able to agree on its opposition to war and occupation, there were diverging views on the relationship that should be taken with the Governing Council. There was unity on demands for trade union rights, the right to assembly and the right to demonstrate, but differences on whether these should be demanded in a new constitution, which, some people argued, could be seen as legitimising the occupation. May Day There is still a mountain to climb and, while May Day is a traditional day for worldwide solidarity, next May will have a particular poignancy for Iraq 's trade unionists. Before Saddam, Iraq's labour movement had been able to assemble a million people on the streets of Baghdad for May Day. But May was distorted under the dictator, said IFTU member Rasim Alwadi. "We have started the process of building for May Day. Before, it was a nationalist day — now, after the fall of the regime, we have started to build this celebration. It is part of international Arab and Iraqi tradition".
* * *Acknowledgement to Morning Star, (11/11/03) Plea for assistance The Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions is appealing for: * Recognition and support from trade unions inother countries; * Development of links between their democratic trade unions and those of other countries; * Financial assistance; * Practical training in trade union skills both for negotiation and for the building of union structures.