The Guardian December 3, 2003


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.

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