Activists debate the Iraqi unions

Submitted by Anon on 23 November, 2004 - 6:55

About 50 people — many more than usual — were at the most recent monthly meeting of Iraq Occupation Focus to hear Sami Ramadani and Ewa Jasiewicz on “Trade unionism in occupied Iraq” (London, 9 November).

The first speech, Ewa’s, was informative and sober, but entirely detached from the debate which dominated the rest of the meeting. Ewa described the activity of the Southern Oil Company Union in Basra, an IFTU affiliate with which she worked for some months; expressed doubts about Communist Party control in most of the IFTU and the IFTU’s “ambiguous” stance on privatisation; and mentioned the Federation of Workers’ Councils and Unions of Iraq, which she saw as “more grass-roots” than the IFTU but “naive” in its implacable opposition to what it calls “Islamic terrorism”.

Sami Ramadani’s speech covered the same ground as the widely circulated letter he wrote to Alex Gordon, an RMT rail union activist who has done a lot of work in support of Iraq’s new trade unions, after Subhi al Mashadani, general secretary of the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions, was shouted down at the European Social Forum.

Ramadani agrees that al Mashadani should not have got a hearing at the ESF, though he would have preferred a walk-out to shouting him down. The Communist Party of Iraq, says Ramadani, is collaborating with the occupation, and the IFTU under CP leadership “diverts the Iraqi working class from the main contradiction”. The IFTU are “Quislings”.

The meeting became mostly a debate between Ramadani and myself. I argued that for supporting the Iraqi labour movement against the Islamist militias.

The CP’s “realpolitik” — trying to get the best deal by working with whatever power-that-be it thinks most amenable — is wretched. But a trade union with bad politics is a very different matter from a Quisling organisation. Quisling was a fascist!

We want a free Iraq with free trade unions and no occupation. For a labour movement to build itself up, using the de facto openings for free organisation that exist now, and then play a central role in ending the occupation, is a possible route to that. For the labour movement to be crushed as “Quislings” in the cause of anti-imperialism, and then to hope for the triumphant Islamists to allow free unions to emerge at a later stage, is not.

Not just the IFTU but all the main trade unions and communist groups in Iraq oppose the Islamist militias. Activists in Britain should not dismiss their views.

Several other speakers favoured Sami Ramadani’s view. Some said that “collusion” by the IFTU with the occupation was something qualitatively worse than “bad politics”. (So class collusion is venial, but national apostasy is a mortal sin?)

Others reckoned that really there is no labour movement in Iraq — only a shell, only union offices. (So what about the struggles and organisations which Ewa Jasiewicz had described? So, if the union movement is weak, and some of it is more hopeful sketch than reality, then it doesn’t matter if it is branded as fascist and crushed?)

Some believed that the Communist Party of Iraq became fascist when it joined the Ba’thist government in the mid-1970s. (The same as the Social-Democratic Party of Germany was deemed by the ultra-left Stalinists of 1928-33 to have become “social-fascist” when it collaborated with the ultra-right Freikorps in 1919?). Or that any labour movement that supports an occupation becomes fascist. (So when it accepted the Treaty of Versailles the Social-Democratic Party of Germany became... fascist? The All India Trade Union Congress, led by the Communist Party of India, became fascist when the CP line during World War Two was to support Britain?)

The clincher for many people seemed to be the argument that the imperialists say that the Iraqi militias are Islamist and terrorist, and would clash with each other in civil war if the occupation troops vanished tomorrow. “We must combat their propaganda”.

So when the rulers of the West were saying that the USSR was a tyranny, we should have insisted that it was a paradise? When the US said that victory for the NLF in Vietnam and the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia would lead to police states, we were duty bound to deny it? An “opposition to imperialism” which can sustain itself only by pretending that any force opposed to the USA must be benign is made of thin stuff!

Sami Ramadani concluded by saying flatly (as he did not in his letter to Alex Gordon) that the IFTU is “not a working-class organisation”. He “reserved judgement” on the Federation of Workers’ Councils and Unions, believing that their recent denunciation of Islamist attacks on women was “disgusting” at a time when Fallujah was under attack by US forces.

The debate must continue.

By Martin Thomas

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