Iraqi Labor Unions Still Struggling with U.S. Occupation’s Yoke

In the wake of last year’s long overdue U.S. troop withdrawal, media coverage of Iraq has dwindled to near zero—except when there’s another suicide bombing (which usually merits just a paragraph in world news round-ups).

The fate of costly U.S.-funded projects and institutions is little known or largely forgotten, $800 billion later. Among the many problematic U.S. efforts to remake the country was the Coalition Provisional Authority’s assistance in quashing one type of non-governmental organization: trade unions.

“Democracies don’t work unless the political structure rests on a solid civil society,” CPA administrator Paul Bremer told his Baghdad staff in 2003. “They protect the individual from the state’s raw power.” Ensuring that Iraqis had the right to unionize more freely than during the Saddam Hussein era was, however, not a priority of the Bush or Obama administrations.

FuelFireCoverFuel on the Fire: Oil and Politics in Occupied Iraq, 432 pages, $28.95, New Press: 2012.

As British investigative journalist Greg Muttitt reports in Fuel on the Fire: Oil and Politics in Occupied Iraq, the CPA never rescinded Hussein’s 1987 law prohibiting unions and collective bargaining in the public sector—a ban which applied to the entire oil industry and more than 80 percent of the nation’s economy.

This decision was not unrelated to U.S. policymakers’ fear that a resurgent Iraqi union movement would oppose their plans for privatization of state-owned enterprises and resulting foreign control of Iraq’s oil resources.

Under the U.S.-backed governments that took over from the occupation authority, union treasuries and offices have been seized, Iraqi troops have been deployed against strikers, and key union leaders have been prosecuted on trumped-up charges.

The oil ministry of current Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has ordered local oilfield managers to stop dealing, informally, with worker representatives about union issues. Travel abroad to build trade union solidarity has been restricted and union activists have suffered discriminatory pay cuts and job transfers.

A Non-Sectarian Union

As Muttitt recounts in his book, courageous veterans of pre-2003 resistance to Saddam Hussein set about rebuilding an Iraq Federation of Oil Workers Unions in Basra immediately after the U.S. invasion.

In a city that became well known later for sectarian strife, their new organization was committed to trade union independence. Although several of its founders were associated with the Iraqi Communist Party, “the new union attracted communists, democrats, Islamists, and others. The only political rule was that party and religious affiliations must be left at the door when doing union work.”

Within two years, under grassroots leaders like Hassan Juma and Faleh Abood Umara, the oil workers union grew to 23,000 members, half the industry workforce in southern Iraq. Its first major victory, in a back pay dispute, occurred via a direct action stand-off with British troops during the first weeks of the occupation when oil workers, like many other Iraqis, were struggling to restore basic services and feed their families while not receiving any salaries.

As Muttitt explained to U.S. labor audiences during a speaking tour earlier this summer, the precarious legal status of the oil workers led them to seek solidarity ties with unions around the world. In 2005, they hosted an anti-privatization conference that was attended by foreign guests, including Muttitt and American labor journalist David Bacon, who was representing U.S. Labor Against the War.

Formed nine years ago, USLAW now links more than 200 national, regional, state, and local labor bodies in an ongoing campaign against “the war on workers and unions in both the U.S. and abroad.” In 2005 and 2007, USLAW hosted tours by Hassan Juma, Faleh Abood Umara, and other Iraqi trade union leaders, aimed at getting the AFL-CIO to oppose American military occupation and defend workers’ rights in Iraq more vigorously.

Cross-Border Solidarity

The connections made in the U.S. and elsewhere led to widespread international labor condemnation of the Maliki government’s crackdown on electrical worker unions two years ago. The Basra-based Electrical Utility Workers Union came under fire when it supported local residents protesting power blackouts that were a continuing problem in southern Iraq, despite the expenditure of $13 billion on power plant reconstruction by multinational firms like GE.

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The demonstrations were suppressed by Iraqi police who then raided and closed union offices, confiscated membership records and equipment, and threatened to prosecute union activists under anti-terrorism statutes. Among those locked out was past U.S. visitor Hashmeya Muhsin, president of the Electrical Utility Workers Union and a rare female national labor leader.

The AFL-CIO wrote to Maliki criticizing his continuing enforcement of “anti-union labor laws which originated in a far less democratic and less hopeful era of Iraqi history.” The international federation of energy workers, based in Switzerland, issued a statement saying it was “appalled that seven years after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime, workers in Iraq are still without legislative protection.”

The oil workers have paid a particularly high price for their defense of public ownership of their country’s energy sector.

As Bacon reported in The Nation, labor played a catalytic role in thwarting the kind of oil industry overhaul originally sought by the U.S. and its ally, Maliki. “When the Bush administration pushed for passage of a law that would facilitate foreign investment, the union organized widespread opposition, mounting what was in effect a political strike and shutting down pipelines in 2007.”

One Iraqi official quoted by Bacon complained that “unionists instigate the public against the plans of the Oil Ministry to develop [Iraq’s] oil riches using foreign development.”

As described in Fuel On The Fire, the Maliki government and more than a dozen multinational companies have nevertheless reached controversial 20-year agreements that, according to foreign and domestic critics, grant these firms an unfair share of the oil they produce rather than just a fee for their services.

U.S. troops may have left, Muttitt notes, “but foreign oil companies have arrived en masse with their own private armies,” enlarging the already sizeable presence of private contractors and mercenaries.

Nevertheless, Muttitt says, “the contracts that ultimately were signed gave away less to foreign investors than would have been the case without the anti-oil law campaign” waged by “a grassroots movement led by trade unions, oil experts, and subsequently political parties and religious groups.”

“This was an impressive and quite surprising achievement,” he concludes, “given that the world’s sole superpower made it a top priority to win passage of an oil law that would have provided foreign investors with windfall profits.”

Facing an Uphill Fight

The continuing crackdown on unions that Muttitt detailed on his recent tour is clearly designed to weaken working class organizing. As USLAW reports, “a new draft labor law submitted to the Iraqi parliament perpetuates the disenfranchisement of public workers and, like Saddam Hussein’s law, will serve as instrument to control and discipline, rather than liberate workers.”

At Bay Area meetings in July, Muttitt noted 29 oil workers were disciplined recently after a protest against management corruption and labor rights violations in the southern Iraq province of Maysan—a development that didn’t escape the attention of USLAW activists.

“I’m making a plea not to forget Iraq,” Muttitt said. “Even though U.S. troops have been withdrawn, what’s happening there today is a direct legacy of the occupation.”


For more information on Muttitt’s book and his further touring, see fuelonthefire.com

Steve Early was among those local trade unionists hosting Faleh Abood Umara and Hashmeya Muhsin Hussein when they visited New England as part of a USLAW-sponsored solidarity tour in 2007.

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Steve Early
Steve Early is a member of the Labor Notes Policy Committee. He can be reached at lsupport@aol.com