by Colin Foster
On 29 August, oil pipeline workers in Basra and in Nassiriyah, in southern Iraq, announced victory in their 48-hour strike of 22-23 August, which stopped oil supplies from the south to central Iraq.
The General Union of Oil Employees said that the strikers had won their demands:
1. Wages must be paid in due time.
2. Overtime work must be paid
3. Increase workers’ allowances
4. Ambulances at workplaces to transfer sick workers to hospital when needed.
Union leader Hassan Jumaa said that the oil ministry was discussing a pay rise and restoration of the profit-sharing bonuses previously paid to oil workers.
But he warned that the workers would strike again if remaining grievances about management practices are not resolved.
The Federation of Workers’ Councils and Unions was more upbeat, declaring that “a general strike by union workers could soon follow the Basra oil workers’ strike”, the FWCUI said. “Union leaders will meet next week to finalize demands and set a deadline for the authorities’ response. The demands currently under discussion include housing the workers, raising minimum salaries, expanding limits of promotion and salary, converting contracted workers into full-time workers, and curbing bureaucracy and corruption.
“A joint national protest is being planned by oil workers in Basra, cement workers in Sulaimaniyah, employees of the Baghdad Municipality, and workers in the Central Oil Fields in Baghdad and the vicinity, the Al Dora Refinery, Al Taji Gas, Oil Projects, Engineering Oil Industries and the Oil Institution”.
A two-hour meeting of leaders of the technicians’ unions of the oil sector at FWCUI offices on 29 August 2006, says the FWCUI, decided “to hold an inclusive gathering for the leading unionists with the workers on Monday 4 September in order to finalise the demands and decide a deadline for the authorities. Otherwise, a general strike will be held to join the previous oil strike of the south”.
The FWCUI also comments that “some political forces attempted to hijack and take advantage of the demands of the [Southern oil] workers for their own interests and objectives such as emphasising the division of the country based on the federalism in the south”.
Southern oil workers have previously struck to back demands for more oil revenues to go to the Basra provincial government rather than Baghdad, demands promoted by the Fadila party, an Islamist party which controls the Basra provincial government. But this time, it seems, such demands were sidelined in favour of a united workers’ stand to improve conditions for all workers.
At this time, the workers insist to have all of their demands met in full, otherwise the pipelines will not be opened and work will not continue.
The oil workers’ strike was a tremendously important step in the revival of the new Iraqi labour movement after a long period, since early 2005, when it has been very much on the defensive. The recent social protests in Iraqi Kurdistan point the same way.
There is still a long way to travel between the workers gaining the confidence for limited action to improve their immediate conditions - a vital first step - and the workers’ movement acquiring sufficient strength to pull Iraq out of its spiral into ever-hotter sectarian civil war.
Barham Salih is the official Iraqi government’s deputy prime minister in charge of the economy. If he will not claim the Iraqi economy is going well, who will? On 29 August he had some good news to announce - an alleged deal (no details yet) between the major Iraqi parties over the distribution of oil revenue.
Yet in announcing the deal, Salih commented, deadpan: “Iraq is a devastated economic wasteland”.
It is pretty much a devastated social and political wasteland too, three and a half years since the US/UK invasion — and getting worse.
On 1 September a Pentagon report to the US Congress said sectarian violence had worsened over the past three months
“Death squads and terrorists are locked in mutually reinforcing cycles of sectarian strife”... The Sunni-supremacist insurgency remains “potent and viable”.
The potency of the “resistance” is bad news. The Sunni-supremacist gangs which make up that “resistance” are no more a force for liberation in Iraq than the UDA and UVF in their heyday were in Northern Ireland. They are sectarian and religious-totalitarian forces whose victory would be death for the labour movement and for prospects of a free, democratic, secular Iraq. Even now, it is mainly in the areas where the “resistance” is somewhat weaker — Basra, Nasiriyah, Iraqi Kurdistan — that the workers are able to raise their heads.
According to the Pentagon, attacks rose 24 per cent to 792 per week, and Iraqi casualties 51 per cent to nearly 120 per day, over the three months.
Is the official Iraqi government is in any condition to deal with this? Another deadpan US report tells us why not.
US general William Caldwell has proudly announced the first of the 10 Iraqi divisions will be transferred from “coalition” (US) command to at least notional Iraqi government control at the start of September.
“This is a significant step in the Iraqi path to self-reliance and security”, Caldwell said. “What this means is that the Iraqi Minister of Defence is prepared to begin assuming direct operational control over Iraq’s armed forces.”
So the Iraqi armed forces were not even nominally under Iraqi government control before! Whether those armed forces - large parts of which are recycled Shia and Kurdish militias — will now do what Iraqi government ministers say, and whether they will have the logistic capability to do anything significant without heavy US cooperation, is yet to be seen.
The underlying story of the last few months is that USA has tacitly conceded defeat in its drive, over the last year or so, to make its military position in Iraq more manageable by “Iraqisation” — reducing troop numbers, and troop activity on the ground, and relying more on bombing from the air in support of Iraqi government forces cooperating with the USA.
US troop numbers are now rising rather than falling. In early August up to 7000 US troops went on to the streets of Baghdad in an effort described as “retaking the city” - without success.
Both the US/UK occupation, and the sectarian Islamist militias, are driving Iraq towards disaster. The Iraqi workers’ movement now tentatively re-raising its head is the only hope for a democratic, livable, free Iraq. Solidarity with it is our first duty.