Hassan Awad and Faleh Umara in Los Angeles
Iraqi Oil Workers Meet with U.S. Oil Workers

by Kathleen O’Nan

L.A. USLAW hosted a visit by two Iraqi union leaders to the Los Angeles area June 16–19, 2005. Hassan Juma’a Awad and Faleh Abbood Umara are the president and general secretary, respectively, of the General Union of Oil Employees (GUOE) in Iraq.

A highlight of this visit by Iraqi oil workers was their meeting with American oil workers, the Los Angeles area oil refinery workers of Local 8-675 (formerly OCAW and PACE, now affiliated with the Steel Workers union). Initial discussions were held about the possibility of a delegation of U.S. oil workers going to Basra. Local 8-675, along with Local 63 of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), each donated a new laptop to the Iraqi oil workers union, which has been trying to serve its 23,000 members without a computer—relying on occasional visits to an internet café.

Besides meeting with fellow oil workers, Awad and Umara were featured at several union events in the Los Angeles area, including ones sponsored by the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor (AFL-CIO), the UCLA Labor Center, USW 8-675, ILWU Local 63 and by United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA).

The oil workers’ visit to Los Angeles was part of a national tour by Iraqi trade unionists organized by U.S. Labor Against the War (USLAW). For more information about the national tour, please click here.

The Los Angeles supporters of USLAW did an outstanding job of organizing numerous events for the visiting Iraqi unionists, ranging from public meetings at Los Angeles Valley College, at the UCLA Downtown Labor Center, and at Patriotic Hall, in addition to the union events mentioned above.

We were with Awad and Umara on a boat tour of the San Pedro and Los Angeles harbors, sponsored by the ILWU and the Harry Bridges Institute. (Harry Bridges was a founder and longtime leader of the ILWU.) On June 18, the main large-circulation newspaper of San Pedro and Long Beach, the Daily Breeze, ran an article on its front page (above the fold!) about the visiting Iraqis, including a large photo of Hassan and Faleh. (The photo didn’t make it to the online version of the article.)

The Daily Breeze article, by Muhammed El-Hasan, is reproduced below. (It was also picked up by the Paris-based web site BellaCiao.) For the original article, click here.

Iraqi labor leaders meet with San Pedro activists

Pair, who helped start a union of 23,000 oil industry workers in Basra, speak of challenges.

Hassan Juma’a Awad and Faleh Abbood Umara took a quiet boat tour Friday through the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, thousands of miles from the port city where they live and work in Basra, Iraq.

Less than two weeks after allied forces entered the southern port city of Basra in 2003, Awad, Umara, and other labor activists started the General Union of Oil Employees.

Such unions were outlawed under Saddam Hussein’s rule. And the union still may be illegal, the pair explained after the boat ride.

The two Iraqi men spoke through translators about the challenges today in their native land to about 60 labor leaders and activists opposed to the war at the Harry Bridges Institute & Community Labor Center in San Pedro.

A group called U.S. Labor Against the War is sponsoring the Iraqis’ nationwide speaking tour to talk about conditions in the Middle Eastern nation.

While happy that Hussein is out of power, the Iraqis said that their country’s people and labor rights still suffer.

“I ask you to help us pressure your administration to remove its forces in Iraq so we can rebuild our country,” said Umara, 48, general secretary of the oil union. “If they mention the security situation, I say that we are brothers in Iraq. And brothers can fight, but brothers can reconcile.”

About 35,000 Iraqis work in Basra’s oil industry, with about 23,000 part of the new union, said Awad, who serves as president.

From a labor perspective, Awad and Umara said they’re especially concerned that the laws forbidding unions in public sector industries haven’t been reversed.

They’re also worried that the Iraqi government and previous U.S. civil administration have pushed the country toward privatizing state-owned industries.

“My understanding is that unions don’t get their legitimacy from the government. Unions rely only on the workers,” Awad, 53, said with a defiant tone. “We decided to organize ourselves without relying on the laws.”

Awad added that newspapers financed by the Iraqi government regularly praise privatization as a positive step for the people, a notion Awad rejects.

A press officer at the U.S. State Department directed questions about labor laws to the Iraqi government and queries on privatization to the U.S. Agency for International Development.

An official at USAID couldn’t be reached Friday afternoon.

Awad and Umara both are members of the Shiite branch of Islam, which makes up a majority of the population in Iraq and Basra.

Umara said people face extreme dangers while traveling to work. He said it’s common for American troops to shoot at Iraqi cars for driving too close.

“It’s like the occupation forces are the people of the land and we’re the foreigners,” Umara said.

“If you complain, you may end up in Abu Ghraib (prison), and you don’t know what will happen to you there.”

Awad dismissed the idea of an impending civil war between Shiites and minority Sunnis.

“Who is talking about [civil] war?” Awad said. “I am 53 years old, and I didn’t hear about Sunni and Shiite (divisions) before the occupation forces entered. I am Shiite, but I’m married to a Sunni woman.”

Asked if things are better now than when Hussein was in power, Umara said, “Under any occupation, don’t expect things to get better.”

Umara said he would have preferred the Iraqi people [to have] removed Hussein, adding that “America could have removed Saddam without this destruction. This is all about the oil.”

Shannon Donato, president of the Harry Bridges Institute, said she was grateful to hear the “truth” about Iraq.

[She was grateful] “for them to come to this country and take the time and energy to deliver the truth to the workers of this country—and I hope the truth gets out,” Donato said.

The attendees placed donations in a plastic bowl that was passed around during the presentation. Donato said $545 was collected to help finance the Iraqis’ tour and labor efforts in their homeland.