Eyewitness: Iraq's new trade unions

Submitted by AWL on 26 July, 2004 - 12:38

Ewa Jasiewicz spent eight months in Iraq, mainly in Baghdad and Basra, working for Occupation Watch. She worked with the trade union movement in Basra, especially the Southern Oil Company Union. From Basra she used to post regular reports at the anarchist website infoshop, and via other web resources (for example, Voices in the Wilderness), about workers' struggles in Iraq. Clive Bradley talked to her.
Ewa went to Iraq from Palestine, because while many activists from around the world were working to help the Palestinians, few were supporting Iraqis. It's an impressive degree of commitment, balanced with a concern genuinely to listen to Iraqi workers and respond to their needs. She lived for a while with the family of the leader of the Southern Oil Company (SOC) union, Hassan Jum'a, and then with the union's vice president.

I know from my own experience trying to do research on the workers' movement in Egypt - when I was a student - that winning the trust of such militants is not easy. I never managed it. That she was invited to stay in their homes tells you a great deal about how much trust Ewa was able to earn.

The SOC union, while affiliated to the Communist Party-led Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions (IFTU), is an independent workplace based organisation, which recently won a battle over pay).

Under the dictatorship, independent trade union organisation was illegal and difficult. The regime had its own "yellow union" federation, which still notionally exists; but anything outside it was ruthlessly repressed. In 1987, the Ba'ath passed a law which transformed all workers into civil servants and outlawed all trade union activity. "Some activists survived that," Ewa explains, "and managed to continue organising at a very low level. It was mainly activists watching each other's backs. It wasn't possible to do much. But a lot of these activists are now involved in the trade unions. There's a lot of workers in the SOC who were against the Ba'ath, or were affiliated to the Da'wa Party [the oldest of the Islamist parties in Iraq, which dates back to the 1950s]; they formed the base of the SOC union."

"Hassan Jum'a was elected at a meeting attended by around 150 people," she tells me. "I've seen the film of him, coming up to the stand, and all he said was 'I'm Hassan Jum'a; I'm running for the head of the Southern Oil Company union.' And he got elected. He's actively anti-Ba'athist, and people respect him."

Jum'a has "good links" with some of the religious parties. "On a number of occasions I've seen people from different religious parties in his office. I'd call it an Islamic union, because Hassan is not a Communist Party member. Most of the other unions are headed by CP members, and he's got a very strong religious influence, and religious people in his union are very active. So it's a mixture. Really it just came from the grass roots."

The SOC union, then, doesn't fit easily into preconceived patterns. It is, clearly, a genuine working class body. "I didn't see much evidence of the religious groups trying to recruit; they are organising the unions on a trade-union basis."

I ask how the unions are organised. "They have regular meetings, and they have a lot of events - like cultural events, which often have a religious flavour to them; Koran readings awards, etc. But they always have a big celebration whenever they've reconstructed a particular worksite - bring all the workers together, etc. They are very proud of their worker identity. And they're very active in autonomous reconstruction." ("Reconstruction" is where the workers, through their own initiative, get factories which have ground to a halt, working again - sometimes creatively improvising with broken machinery.)

Threat from Ba'athist managers remains

"Most workers are part of the union," Ewa goes on. "The union leaderships, and many workers, said they were prepared to go on strike in support of higher wages; union reps had told workers to start saving money in preparation for strike action. And they talk quite freely. When I first got there I was really suspicious of everybody, as I'm sure they were of me. I felt like the SOC union was all Da'wa controlled. But that's not really the case. I wanted to see workers alone, without union officials around - and they saw that as suspicious. But then I did get to meet workers pretty much alone. I talked to them about the Ba'athists, and they were able to say that Ba'athists are still in power, still in the management."

I comment that it must be strange, after all the years of dictatorship, to be able to talk freely. But Ewa tells me it still isn't always so free. "I went to this caravan park where SOC workers lived - state housing, provided by the company. I was speaking to this guy who'd been working in the oil industry for over 30 years and was still living in this shitty little caravan.

"He was saying that they'd thrown all the Ba'athist managers out, but then the oil industry, supported by the occupation, brought them back. Some were permanently excluded - and if they came back they'd probably get killed. Some people that they brought back did get killed."But then this guy came round, and the whole atmosphere changed. He was from the accounts department, which is notoriously where the Ba'ath often recruited (and money would get stolen and that kind of thing). And the whole tone changed, and everyone started saying that everything was really great now - that you can buy satellite dishes now - which is shit - they cost about $100, and most families couldn't possibly afford it.

"I'd never been in a situation like that, where people had to police themselves. And then the guy I'd been talking to - I felt a lot of kinship with him, because it seemed like he'd been active against the Ba'ath - he was led away. Later I was told we couldn't go back there."

The successful struggle at the beginning of this year was over a government-imposed wage table which in practice was a blow to workers' living standards. The SOC union worked out its own wage table. "They worked out the average size of a family, the prices of essential goods, water, rents - which have shot up a lot; fixed government rents have all gone out the window. Also subsidies that workers survived on have been cut by the occupation. For instance you used to be paid more if you were working in a remote location like the desert. Some workers were given public housing, family bonus payments - that's all axed. So the wage table took into consideration all those losses."

Is this wage table to be used in national pay negotiations? "Not nationally. But I was told that it had been applied to the oil sector," Ewa remembers. "It will soon be applied to other sectors, because they can use it as a bargaining tool for their own struggles. That's what will be demanded by electricity sector workers, who were quite volatile when I was there and had had a wildcat one day strike in protest..."

The emerging trade unions tend to be divided along lines of political affiliation. The IFTU is almost completely dominated by the Communist Party. "The IFTU, the CP, and the CP-run Women's League all share a building, along with these homeless families who have to pay rent. The CP see themselves as the heir to the history of workers' struggles. When Adnan Pachachi declared the IFTU the official rep, that was exactly what they wanted to hear." On the other hand, there are the initiatives of the Worker-Communist Party - the Union of the Unemployed, the Workers' Councils and Unions in Iraq (WCUI) (and also the Organisation of Women's Freedom in Iraq, OWFI).

Ewa was impressed by the WCPI. "I attended a WCUI election at a textile factory," she recalls. "There's a Worker-Communist Party activist there who organised the election, and I asked people what they thought of him. And people said, 'well, we don't really like the WCPI, but we really like him.' He's democratic and energetic, with a lot of knowledge, and they really admire that. The WCPI were judged on their commitment to working class struggle."

Ewa is an anarchist, critical of all political parties. "They co-opt people's creativity," she thinks. But she reports a discussion with a member of the WCPI: "In the 1991 intifada, they set up these popular councils, in Suleimaniyah. And he told me that because they didn't have any central command, didn't have a leadership, who could say 'now we need to take up arms', they got picked off, they got massacred. And he said, 'that's why we can't have that problem again, which is why we need a party'."

Tensions between the WCPI and the CP run very high. The WCPI opposes the occupation as well as the "resistance"; the CP "don't call the occupation an occupation; they refer to it as the Coalition Provisional Authority." So far, there seems little basis for united front-type organisation. The WCPI go so far as to deny that the IFTU is a genuine working class organisation at all. On this, Ewa comments: "Yes and no. They tend to organise in quite an authoritarian way. But there are unions, like the SOC, which are real workers' organisations."

There are also workers' networks and initiatives outside either of these orbits. "Al Khorafi is a huge company, probably bigger than Halliburton, made up entirely of ex-pat American managers, New Zealanders, and so on. They say they're a Kuwaiti company, but I saw no Kuwaitis there. They bring in their own labour, because they're used to working with particular engineers. For them it was just easier and in some cases they were paying them more - there was an issue of trust. They denied that it happened, but everyone spoke about it. The [Iraqi] workers threatened to bomb the offices if they didn't reverse the ratio of Iraqi to for workers, and they did so."

That it was a victory for the workers seems clear. "Al Khorafi has given computers to the SOC union, etc, really trying to appease the union, because they know how powerful they are, and if they're going to survive in Basra, they're going to have show they're a caring company with the interests of the Iraqi people at heart... they're going to build a hospital, as well. They've even changed their name to al-Iraqi. But everyone still hates them."

Workers suspicious of Islamic influence

Another aspect of party domination of the unions concerns Ewa. "Any Islamic individuals who are doing good work are somehow second class, not quite conscious enough. There's a perception they just pray all day. I really want to stress the myth of 'Islamic' unions organising. There's a lot of Islamophobia, which sees these people as incapable of understanding working class struggle, the ideas of communism or internationalism, but they're just as conscious as any kind of Marxist or communist. Hassan Jum'a said to me 'when you go back give our regards to all the workers you meet, because we're all the same..., one struggle, all working class people around the world'."

This led us onto the whole question of Islamism. Everyone Ewa knew in the unions in Basra attended the demonstrations in January calling for direct elections, organised by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. "Everyone supports Sistani," she reports. Does this mean there is the possibility of an Islamist take-over in Iraq?

"I don't know how many people are part of these Islamist organisations. Obviously they have followers, but I never met anyone who really supported them. I met a lot of people who didn't like Muqtada al-Sadr [the radical Shia leader with a base in Baghdad and other cities] and criticised him - Sadr and SCIRI have got five thousand tops armed supporters."

I wasn't so sure about this. Weren't there battle-lines forming about the role of Islam in a future Iraq?

"People want an Iraqi government, across the board," Ewa tells me. "It doesn't have to be a religious government. Everyone I spoke to, even from Da'wa or SCIRI [the Iranian-backed Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution], said that everyone wants a government which represents Iraqi people, and we don't care if that's religious or not. There are going to be differences of opinion, but the experience of the regime, the wars, has given people a real instinct for community, a hunger for community, for social relationships, for control over their own industries."

"The religious parties are seen by a lot of people as illegitimate," she goes on. "Sistani doesn't support any of them. He's said secularism can be part of it, women can have a right to choose their husbands, whether to wear the veil."


I still wasn't convinced. Ewa seemed to me too sanguine about Sistani and his potential role. She was impressed by his threat to call an intifada if the occupation doesn't hand over power to an elected government. But here we had our sharpest disagreement. A united uprising against the occupation is the US's biggest fear, she thinks. The day before we met, the terrible explosions in Baghdad and Karbala had taken place. "The word on the street in Baghdad is that the Americans might be responsible," she tells me. I find it hard to see how this would be in US interests. The gameplan, I argue, is to stabilise the Middle East so that they can make profits, and immediately in Iraq they don't want the security situation to deteriorate further. "They'll never make any money if they're defeated and thrown out of the country," Ewa retorts. "They're willing to have two years of civil war if they are able to continue controlling the country... The whole country is unstable, it's on fire. They conduct bombing raids, the war is still continuing. It's not like the conditions have been created for investment. And the military bases are going ahead."We will agree to differ on this. For now, the priority is to focus on how we can work together to build support for the workers' movement.

What do workers need? "Computer training lessons, computers, internet navigation skills, so they can make their own links and don't have to rely on foreign activists. To get different unions connected to each other. Iraqi workers want to learn new skills. Iraq has a highly advanced pool of engineers, it's like a nation of engineers, and some of them are selling peanuts..."

There have been a number of union delegations, from Britain and the US - "fact finding missions". Does she think these serve a purpose? "They have to bring useful things with them. Go with the unions, buy a computer, install it, train people - see the process through. The US Labour Against the War delegation brought a translation into Arabic of their pamphlet about the union-busting of the US companies now getting contracts in Iraq. That was really useful."

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