"Decree 875" threatens to abolish union rights

Submitted by AWL on 21 September, 2005 - 11:00

In August, the Iraqi government issued a decree saying that it would seize all trade union funds in Iraq and lay down its own guidelines on "how trade unions should function, operate, and organise".

Iraqi trade unions and international trade-union bodies have protested, but so far there has been no climbdown by the Iraqi government, and no comment by the US and British governments whose troops occupy Iraq.

Decree 875, issued on behalf of the Council of Ministers of Iraq, declared that "a government committee... must take control of all moneys belonging to the trade unions and prevent them from dispensing any such moneys".

Neither the decree, nor any other government announcement, stated any reason for cancelling the de facto freedom that trade unions have had in Iraq since the fall of Saddam.

Saddam's 1987 law banning trade unions in the public sector (i.e. most of the economy) theoretically remains on the books. Until now the occupation forces and successive Iraqi governments have promised that it will soon be replaced by a democratic labour law. But the parties running the current government - Shia Islamists sympathetic to Iran (where there are no free trade unions) and Kurdish warlord parties - have no sympathy with the principle of free trade unionism. And if the Americans and the British might subscribe to that principle in general, they show no signs of wanting to argue with their fragile Iraqi allies about it.

The Iraqi government, as far as we know, has not yet actually seized any union funds, or shut down any union offices. The reason is the government's general inability to carry through any of its decrees anywhere much outside the Green Zone in Baghdad, rather than any rethink.

According to an Iraqi informant of the US commentator Juan Cole: "The situation has deteriorated in Baghdad dramatically... Five neighborhoods in Baghdad are controlled by insurgents... My guys there report that cars have come into these neighborhoods and blocked off the streets. Masked gunmen with AKs and other weapons are roaming these areas, announcing that people should stay home...

"The government will respond feebly. It will go into a contested neighborhood, and then just like Fallujah, Ramadi, Tel Afar, the insurgents will flee to take over another area on another day. Bit by bit they are taking over the main parts of Baghdad.

"The only place we are sure they cannot control is Sadr City..." - the huge working-class district of Baghdad, where the Mahdi Army of Moqtada al-Sadr, vehemently anti-American and outside the government's control, rules. The Sunni-sectarian insurgents cannot take over there because the Mahdi Army is Shia ultra-Islamist rather than Sunni ultra-Islamist.

If the Sunni insurgents triumph, then things will be even worse for Iraq's workers. Trade unions will be crushed along with all other elements of "godless" democracy. Along the way there will be full-strength civil war, huge communal bloodshed, and, probably, the break-up of Iraq into sectarian mini-states.

On 14 September, al Qaeda in Iraq stated publicly that it was "declaring all-out war on the Rafidha (a pejorative term for Shia), wherever they are in Iraq."

The Association of Muslim Scholars, the nearest thing the Sunni "resistance" has to a "moderate" political wing, took the declaration as authentic, complaining that: "It harms the image of jihad, obstructs the success of the resistance in Iraq, and leads to more innocent Iraqi bloodshed."

But al Qaeda seems to be increasing its clout, to the point there could be rumours (false rumours, but rumours) that it had convinced all the other Sunni "resistance" groups to unite behind it. Even those Sunni "resistance" groups which disavow al Qaeda's macabre manifesto for indiscriminate slaughter of Iraq's majority are certainly fighting for Sunni supremacy in the country.

Under the transitional government, the US neo-conservatives' ridiculous plan to convert Iraq "from above" into a contracted-out, flat-tax, free-marketised model US ally is steadily dropping the country into hell. The recent revelation in the Independent that $1 billion was embezzled from the Iraqi army budget by a "Defence Minister" who seems to have got the job just because he had good CIA connections, and who now lives in Jordan while the demoralised Iraqi army has little equipment that works, is only part of it.

Many other billions have disappeared since 2003 with little to show for them. According to Reuters, "This summer has been the worst [for electricity supplies] since the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime in April 2003". It is not a matter of disappointingly slow progress. Basic social provision like water and electricity, let alone security or the availability of jobs, is getting worse, not better.

If the government, or a successor, somehow turns things round, it has now established a legal basis for suppressing trade unions, as well as (in articles 2 and 39 of the new constitution) the basis for imposing Islamic law, at least in family matters.

The constitution is due to go to a referendum on 15 October. Almost all Sunnis - including the Iraq Islamic Party, Iraqi offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, the main Sunni party to have cooperated with the Americans so far and taken part in the constitution's drafting commission - reject it. So does al-Sadr. The government did not even dare put the text to a vote in the elected assembly, instead just having it formally "read" there.

According to the UN-approved rule, the constitution will be thrown out if rejected by two-thirds majorities in three of Iraq's provinces. Since the various Sunni forces and al-Sadr control more than three provinces, the US commentator Juan Cole suggests that the only way that the constitution can possibly get through is by the government interpreting that rule as requiring rejection by two-thirds of potential voters, not of actual voters.

Passing the constitution that way will only further inflame rebellion. Already, many of the clauses of the constitution read as mockingly surreal. "The home... cannot be entered or searched or violated except by judicial decision"; "there is no crime and punishment except by the text of law"; "an Iraqi shall not be handed over to foreign bodies and authorities"; "work is a right for all Iraqis in a way that guarantees them a good life".

If the constitution falls, the UN-approved rules say that new elections should be held in December, and the new Assembly should make another attempt. But those new elections will have all the drawbacks of the 30 January elections (violent sabotage and boycott by the Sunni "resistance", communal headcount voting among the Shias and Kurds). And the "positives" of the 30 January election - that people at last had a chance to vote, and could hope that an elected government would stabilise Iraq - will be lost because few will have any faith in the now-ruling parties, and there will be little visible alternative other than the even-worse Sunni-supremacists. There seems little chance of new elections producing even the short-lived dip in bloodshed and chaos which the 30 January poll produced.

The Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions, probably the largest of the various trade-union groups in Iraq, and one that before Decree 875 had some sort of recognition by the government of its right to existence, has reacted by protesting against the decree but also (according to Eric Lee of Labourstart) by hastily arranging a merger with two other outfits, the GFTU (remnants of the old Ba'thist state-run "trade-union" machine) and the GFITU (a splinter from the GFTU controlled by SCIRI, one of the Shia-Islamist government parties).

Its calculation seems to be that the merger will get recognition from the International Confederation of Arab Trade Unions (based in Damascus, capital of Syria, where the unions are government-controlled) and thus from the world trade union bodies, and so will be better-placed to put pressure for repeal of Decree 875.

At the very least, this is a damaging about-turn from what the IFTU has said up to now. "The IFTU refuses to join with those who collaborated with Saddam's bloody regime and oppressed workers for so long... we are firmly opposed to a merger with the GFTU". (www.iraqitradeunions.org/archives/000072.html).

Since the GFTU and GFITU are merely teams of people calling themselves union officials - there is no evidence of them ever organising strikes or protests, negotiating improvements for workers, or calling workers' conferences - the discrediting and anti-democratic aspects of the merger must outweigh any "tactical" advantages.

Now more than ever, the future of Iraq depends on the ability of the new Iraqi workers' movement to come forward as a strong and independent force for democracy, for secularism, and for basic economic reconstruction in the interests of the workers and unemployed.

Those in the West who put their faith in Bush and Blair somehow coming good on their promises of democracy in Iraq, or who (explicitly or implicitly) back the ferociously anti-worker and anti-democratic "resistance", are betraying the Iraqi workers. Urgent and practical support for all the strands of the Iraqi workers' movement, in a way that can encourage and better enable them to take an independent stand, is what we need.

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