The AFL-CIO, an American equivalent of the TUC, has launched an international campaign for a democratic labour law in Iraq.
At present, Saddam Hussein's labour law from 1987 is still on the books, making trade unions theoretically illegal in the public sector, i.e. in most of the Iraqi economy. In addition, Decree 8750, from August 2005, gives the Iraqi government arbitrary powers to seize union funds.
Successive Iraqi governments have promised that they will legislate for workers' right to organise, to have representation, to strike, etc., but have not yet done so.
The AFL-CIO may well do not much more than put a petition and briefings up on a website, but that it has done so gives useful leverage to rank-and-file activists campaigning for Iraqi workers' rights. For example, on 15 April, the local ALF-CIO council in Metropolitan Washington organised a demonstration at the Iraqi consulate there.
Above-ground trade unions emerged in Iraq in 2003, after the US-UK invasion and the fall of Saddam Hussein, and have lived in a legal grey area ever since.
The simmering civil war in 2006 set them back, but the beginnings of political consolidation in Iraq, from late 2007 or early 2008, set the scene for a race.
Will the trade unions be able to use the relative calm to build up their strength and secure some legal guarantees? Or will Iraq's dominant political parties - all right-wing, from a working-class point of view - be quicker to gain the strength and confidence to use the existing laws to snuff out worker organisation?
The race was made more urgent when, in late 2008, the USA signed a deal to withdraw its troops from Iraq's cities by June 2009 and from Iraq altogether by the end of 2011. US combat troops are due to be out of Iraq by the end of August 2010, and US commanders have recently said that they are on schedule for that deadline.
There has been much sparring between unions and the government. The latest case came after industrial action by oil refinery workers in March and at the end of the February, over wages and similar issues.
The (government-controlled) management retaliated by ordering the transfer of four leaders of the Iraqi Federation of Oil Unions from their bases to other workplaces.
The current flux in Iraq after the parliamentary election of 7 March has set the scene for increased bombings and killings of civilians by guerrilla groups, probably Sunni ultra-Islamists, but may also increase the opportunities for trade unions to win commitments from rival politicians anxious to gain credibility.
The results of the 7 March election are still uncertain. The official figures so far give:
- 91 seats for the coalition led by Iyad Allawi (ex-Ba'thist, former favourite of the CIA. US-appointed interim prime minister in 2004-5), which came out ahead in the Sunni Arab areas of Iraq;
- 89 for the coalition led by Nouri al-Maliki (prime minister since May 2006, and leader of a section of the Shia-Islamist Dawa party);
- 70 for an alliance of Moqtada al-Sadr's movement and the Supreme Islamic Council (other Shia-Islamist groups: this alliance also included a Dawa splinter led by Ibrahim al-Jaafari, prime minister from April 2005 to May 2006);
- 43 for the Kurdish alliance, and 32 for other groups.
However, one of Allawi's successful candidates has been disqualified on grounds of Ba'thist links, and it is not certain that he will be replaced. And the vote is being recounted in Baghdad.
Since 2005 Iraq's government has been dominated by a coalition between Shia-Islamist and Kurdish groups. That could change now. The US is reported to be pushing for an agreement between Allawi and Maliki to share the job of prime minister, two years each. The Sadrists are calling for a grand coalition of all four big blocs, and promoting Ibrahim al-Jaafari for prime minister.
Amidst the jockeying for power, it remains possible that all the precarious stabilisation since late 2007 could collapse, and Iraq could fall back into sectarian civil war.
The Iraqi labour movement urgently needs our help so that it wins as many guarantees and positions of strength it can in the current turmoil.
See http://bit.ly/iraqtu for a useful briefing (from 2008, but still relevant) by the AFL-CIO on Iraqi labour law and http://www.iraqitradeunions.org/cgi-bin/campaign1.cgi for the international campaign.