History Repeats Itself: Iraq, Labor Rights and Democracy

By Gene Bruskin, Co-Convenor, U.S. Labor Against the War

Presented May 8, 2004, in Chicago

The Labor Movement In Iraq

The good news, which you won’t read it in the Chicago Tribune, is that there is an Iraqi labor movement.  These examples represent only a small part of the organizing activity among workers in Iraq in the year following the occupation. And these workers didn’t have to learn how to organize from the Bremer Provisional Authority or the Governing Council or the US Labor Movement. They didn’t file for elections with the NLRB. Unions in Iraq have a tradition going back to the 1920s.

Iraqi History

There are many lessons to be learned from Iraqi history. Under the British occupation in the 20s the oil and railroad workers formed the first Iraqi unions. The British entered Iraq after World War I having defeated the Turks to gain control when the spoils of the Ottoman Empire were divided up. Major General Stanley Maude declared victory saying: “Our armies do not come into your cities and lands as conquerors or enemies, but as liberators.” For decades under British control, until 1958, unions rose and fell, flourished and were repressed. During this time Britain tried out various forms of colonial control, echoed in the strategies and debates now taking place in the Bush administration and Congress, seeking methods to keep control while preaching democracy and sovereignty.

Britain’s initial attempt to take direct control of Iraq led to what is known and still widely celebrated by Iraqis as the Revolution of 1920, a mass uprising against British control.  The British put down the uprising by using bombs and poison gas, introducing Weapons of Mass Destruction into Iraq for the first time. The British found themselves facing increasing domestic criticism in Britain for their heavy handed and expensive colonial policies. This included a campaign to “Quit Mesopotamia,” as Iraq was referred to at that point.  Britain sought cheaper and more acceptable means of administering their newly acquired Middle Eastern territories. They smelled oil and weren’t about to leave. Churchill was put in charge of laying down new guidelines for indirect rule. This rule took various forms until the British were driven out for good in the Revolution of 1958. Workers and unions played an important role in this revolution through the leadership of the Iraqi Communist Party, the strongest popular force in Iraq from the 1930s to the 1970s until they were finally crushed by Saddam.

One of the tactics of British control was the distribution of land and power to tribal sheiks and landlords, creating a power base beholden to the British—these tribal relationships would later play an important role in Saddam’s power base and today, ironically, in the resistance to the US Occupation. Prior to this British policy, land was held in a form of tribal communal ownership. So the British led the movement in the 20th century to privatize Iraq by privatizing the tribal lands and of course their oil. Now the Bush administration, in a modern version of Britain’s earlier efforts, has built its occupation and control of Iraq around a strategy to privatize the largely publicly owned Iraqi economic infrastructure, selling it to the highest bidding multinational corporation and allowing designated Iraqis to buy into the program.

The Revolution of July 14, 1958 ushered in an independent Iraq. Iraqis supported a military coup led by junior officers against the British installed monarchy. The Communist Party was the only political force at this point with a base in mass organizations and trade unions and their support was critical to the success of the revolution. For the first time Iraqi trade unions were officially legalized and substantial organizing began in many sectors. This initiated a period of progressive legislation, a new constitution and the principle of development through industrialization. Oil provided the capital to create a modern Iraqi state. These policies coincided with growing Arab nationalism and were threatening to British and US interests concerned about keeping control of Arab oil. Allowing democracy to flourish in the Middle East was not on the short list or even the long list of US policymakers at that time, anymore than it is now. And Iraqis were well aware of this.

After all, it was only a few years before, in 1953, that the CIA overthrew the democratically elected and immensely popular government in neighboring Iran. This period of Iranian history is very instructive. President Mossadegh, elected by a huge majority in Iran, had nationalized the British controlled oil refineries. Kermit Roosevelt, Teddy’s grandson, engineered the 1953 coup with military assistance from none other than Norman Swartzkof Sr, father of the Gulf war general.  This ushered in the brutal dictatorship of the Shah whose hated pro-Western regime was overthrown in 1979 and was replaced by Islamic fundamentalists. Iran then inspired fundamentalist movements in the Islamic world, including the Taliban and Osama bin Laden. We now face a war on terror that is in many ways of our own making.  This history makes a pretty good argument that the US should keep its hands (and arms) to itself. It reflects the dangers of the shortsighted view of power politics that western governments have practiced in the Middle East and that we see unfolding before us today in Iraq.

In 1963 competing military officers, with the support of the emerging Baath party, of which Saddam Hussein was a rising star, overthrew the Revolution. This resulted in a brutal massacre of thousands of popular grassroots leaders, including trade unionists and many communists. The US made no objection to this massacre, however. It is widely believed, both inside and outside of Iraq, that the CIA also had a role in the coup. At the very least the CIA is thought to have supplied lists of communists for the Baathists to murder, which they did in house to house hunts. At the time the Communist party in Iraq was the most popular in the Middle East, advocating the social and economic needs of the average Iraqi.

In 1968, Saddam and the Baath Party staged another coup to eliminate all competitors in the government and the military and started down the road to more than thirty years of dictatorship. Trade unionists were among the major victims, but the movement survived and functioned until 1978 when another wave of executions and persecutions drove most activists into exile, prison or death. At this point Saddam and the Baath party had absolute power and no longer allowed any alternative parties or organizations to function.

Many of us are familiar with the fact that Saddam had friendly relations with the US and the West throughout the 80s when Europeans governments and the Reagan administration, including Rumsfeld himself, supplied him with WMDs. He used these weapons to fight a brutal war against Iran. His massacre of Iranians and the use of chemical weapons against them and the Kurds drew few protests from the US. — He was a bastard, but he was “our bastard.”

The Current Period

Looking back at Iraqi history, which Iraqi’s know well, it becomes very clear why there is widespread distrust of the US.  Iraqis see more than 80 years of occupation, foreign intervention, war, sanctions, coups, massacres and other manipulations led, tolerated or supported by a succession of British and US governments. If the Iraqis haven’t had much experience with democracy it’s not because they didn’t yearn for it and fight for it. It is in fact the western powers that have opposed democracy in Iraq since the end of the Ottoman Empire at the close of WWI, and supported pro-western surrogates, regardless of how brutal and dictatorial they were. 

Let’s be clear-President Bush doesn’t even support democracy in this country, certainly not in Florida, and certainly not for anyone who doesn’t agree with him. The Bush administration has labeled the National Education Association ”terrorists,” the FTAA demonstrators in Miami as terrorists and the pro-choice demonstrators in the April March for Women’s Lives as terrorist allies. Anyone who is not with him is against him. He will oppose a genuine democracy in Iraq. He is only interested in control.  He will oppose democracy at home—he is the enemy of working people everywhere and so is this war

The fundamental principle is this:  Iraq is not our country and we have to leave.  Recent events have made it clearer more than ever that the occupation is the problem, not the solution. Until we leave there will be no peace and there will certainly be no democracy. Which part of “get the hell out of our country” is it that President Bush and Congress don’t understand?  While you are at it, get the hell out of the White House—pay your own rent somewhere else.

In the wake of the Gulf war, in 1990 and 1991 for a brief month or two, many organizers emerged from underground before Saddam regained control. The Union of the Unemployed and the Federation of Workers Councils and Unions were conceived. Trade unionists who later formed the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions had been at work since the early 1980s, mostly underground, building support for Iraqi labor rights in the international labor movement.

There were occasional strikes and some underground papers in the 1990s, although very limited. Falah Alwan, the President of the Workers Councils who I met in Geneva this year in March, said he organized funds for unemployed and injured workers, but even that resulted in threats on his life.

Nonetheless, when the dust cleared after the US invasion, Falah and other veteran Iraqi organizers re-emerged.

We shouldn’t idealize the workers’ movement in Iraq, The situation remains difficult for organizing despite the courage of so many workers who have begun to organize. Iraqi trade unionists have made some things very clear to USLAW representatives:

Although there is an interim governing law, passed by the Governing Council, which provides for the right to organize and strike, Iraqis have seen the difference between laws on the books and the realities on the ground.

There is considerable maneuvering going on about what the shape of the new labor law will look like in the future and what role the international labor movement will play in the process. In the winter, the US hired a Minnesota union busting firm to write the labor law for Iraq, although they have allegedly been replaced. The US continues to have a role in the process, however.

USLAW began our relationship with the Iraqi workers and unions in Oct 2003 when we sent what may have been the first international labor delegation to Iraq. We issued a report after that trip, called Labor Rights and Working Conditions Under the Occupation which has since been updated. (It is available at the USLAW website at www.uslaboragainstwar.org.) We have stayed in contact with both federations through email and phone.

In March I traveled to Geneva to meet with a representative of the International Labor Organization, the UN tripartite body that deals with labor issues. Our delegation included representatives of the International Liaison Committee from Paris and the Arab Confederation of Trade Unions. Both Iraqi Federations were invited although only the Federation of Workers Councils was able to attend.  I was able to spend a couple days with Falah Alwan, the President of the Workers Councils.  It was a humbling experience.

We were there to follow up our visit to the ILO in June of 2003.  At that time Amy Newell delivered a copy of our report: The Corporate Invasion of Iraq (also available at the USLAW website) on behalf of USLAW.  The report details the sordid record of the US multinationals that Bush handpicked  to rebuild and run Iraq. The report was also translated into Arabic and has been circulated in Iraq and the Arab world. At that meeting we urged the ILO to carefully monitor the situation of labor rights in Iraq.  In March of this year our delegation asked the ILO for an update and presented documents detailing ongoing violations of labor rights. We also expressed concern that the Iraqi Governing Council had publicly recognized only one of the union federations, the IFTU, as the official representative of Iraqi workers. We made it clear that we don’t think that any government should have the right to pick and choose which unions should represent workers. We issued a declaration supporting labor rights in Iraq and it is circulating internationally and will be presented to the ILO Workers Committee in June of this year by an international delegation including USLAW.

The AFL-CIO and the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions have made strong statements in support of labor rights and the rights of workers in Iraq to choose their own unions. We are encouraging them to make their practice reflect these statements. Many affiliates of USLAW network are concerned that the AFL-CIO has agreed to take money from the Federal government-supported National Endowment for Democracy to do labor work in Iraq. The feeling is that any government that attempts to destroy labor rights at home, such as this administration, surely will not support labor rights in Iraq, and that taking these funds will create the appearance, if not the reality, of AFL-CIO collaboration with US foreign policy.

A critical issue in Iraq is privatization. The Bush administration made it clear from the outset that it wanted Iraq to be a model unregulated free trade zone in the Middle East. In September 2003 the Provisional Authority issued an order making all Iraqi industries subject to sale to foreign owners and allowing international investors low-tax and virtually unregulated freedom to buy Iraqi industries and to take the profits out of Iraq. The oil industry was not included on the list because of the sensitivity of the issue. Most Iraqi industries are in bad shape due to more than a decade of wars and sanctions, along with the corruption of Saddam’s regime. Workers and managers alike and representatives of both federations told our delegation in October that privatization would be a disaster, resulting in massive job loss and dislocation.

Nonetheless the privatization initiative is still in play, slowed primarily by the fact that few companies wish to invest in Iraq while the situation is so unstable, unless they have the type of guarantees that US contractors like Halliburton have gotten, virtually ensuring big profits. In April, US appointed Iraqi ministers have discussed ways to encourage foreign banks to locate in Iraq and, significantly, promoted the privatization of Iraqi water. Imagine selling the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers to Bechtel, one of the biggest for-profit water operators in the third world, and giving them permission to sell the water back to unemployed Iraqis. If the unions lead the fight against this, will the international labor movement support them against the wishes of the Bush administration? We in USLAW hope so and are organizing with that in mind.

We can’t underestimate the importance of the responsibility that we in the labor movement have in supporting the emergence of an independent and strong Iraqi labor movement.  The unions in Iraq have a window of opportunity right now. They know that it can close at any moment, as it has in the past. They are determined to build as strong a presence among workers in Iraq as possible.

For those of us in the peace movement who have opposed the war and the occupation, we must also be in solidarity with the most progressive, secular and humanist forces on the ground-the unions.  And this is a feminist force. Both unions have strong pro-women platforms. Both federations have emphasized to USLAW the historical fact that Iraq has been very much a secular country, in which the Sunni and Shiite religious leaders were just that, religious leaders and not political leaders. They accuse the US of fanning the flames of religious and ethnic sectarianism by making all appointments based on religious and ethnic identities and turning religious leaders like Ayatollah Sistani into powerful national political spokespeople. The recent example of a joint Sunni-Shiite resistance to the occupation shows that there is genuine potential for religious unity, but the labor movement reflects the strong secular tradition.

We in the labor movement can make a difference here-we can play an important role in assuring that whatever Iraqi political formation results from this process includes a labor movement with full rights, operating under internationally recognized ILO conventions, fighting to help Iraqi workers fend off multinational companies seeking low wage havens in the Middle East -- helping them make sure that Iraqis, not these multinationals, get to determine the shape of their national economy.

What do I mean specifically?


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