By Colin Foster
The TUC congress on 13–16 September passed a motion from the lecturers’ union NATFHE committing it to “maintain and strengthen contact with Iraqi trade unionists, in particular the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions (IFTU) [and] initiate, together with affiliated trade unions, a solidarity committee to liaise with, and give practical support to, the trade union movement in Iraq”.
It is a welcome move. Independent rank and file activity and organisation to support the new Iraqi movement will still be necessary — initiatives, for example, like the network of rank-and-file activists in the public service Unison launched recently in order to exchange information, liaise on union resolutions and fringe meetings, and so on.
An official TUC commitment to solidarity will help with getting Trades Councils and union committees to sponsor activity. It may also help the Iraqi unions get much-needed material aid at top-official level. But TUC campaigns, these days especially, are notoriously sluggish and bureaucratic.
“It’s About Time” — that’s a major TUC campaign for shorter working hours. Did you know about it? Even if you’re a keen trade union activist, probably not. “Justice for Colombia” — the official TUC-sponsored campaign for Colombia, with an office and three full-time workers? You’re less likely to have heard of it than of the unofficial Colombia Solidarity Campaign, run by a couple of activists on a shoestring.
An official TUC campaign is welcome, but we can’t rely on it to get the message out to the trade union branches, let alone to the workplaces.
An additional problem looks likely. The Communist Party of Britain and the Morning Star, after showing no interest in Iraqi trade unions for the last year and a half, have suddenly appeared at the centre of the Iraq trade-union solidarity stage.
Although the CPB today is a tiny relic of the old Stalinist Communist Party of Great Britain, which had 60,000 members at its peak, it still has a lot of connections among ageing trade union officials who may have been in the CPGB’s orbit in their youth. Many trade union organisations still support the CPB paper, the Morning Star. The CPB may well have enough influence, at the level of top trade-union officials, to get control of an official TUC solidarity campaign.
Mary Davis, editor of the CPB’s magazine, appeared at the TUC as the speaker moving the NATFHE motion, as a platform speaker at the Iraqi trade unions’ fringe meeting, and as the person “in charge” at that meeting who told leftists that they should not give out leaflets there.
Although the CPB has long lost the fervent Stalinist political drive it once had, it shows no sign of modifying its ideas of how to run campaigns from the old Stalinist model. If the CPB runs the campaign it will be tiny, and no-one out of favour with the CPB will get a look in.
The resolution at the TUC was explicit that its support for the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions (led mainly by the Communist Party of Iraq) is “in particular”, not exclusive, but if the CPB runs the campaign then the most active of the other Iraqi trade union organisations — the Federation of Workers’ Councils and Unions of Iraq, and the Union of the Unemployed of Iraq, both aligned with the Worker-communist Party of Iraq, will not get a look in.
To have CPB members involved in a broad campaign is fine. To have a campaign shaped, moulded, and controlled by the CPB is not.
The IFTU has supported the US-appointed Interim Governing Council and Interim Government —while insisting that it retains its independence — and the Communist Party of Iraq has participated in those US-appointed administrations. The IFTU put itself on record, with the letter to the Guardian, as supporting Tony Blair’s rumoured plan to invite ex-Ba’thist Iraqi prime minister Iyad Allawi to the Labour Party conference, a plan that even Blair soon thought better of.
If you see Iraq as “another Vietnam”, and the anti-US Islamist “resistance” there as “a national liberation movement”, these facts damn the IFTU.
In fact it is not. The anti-US Islamist militias are not a national liberation movement, but communalist and fascistic. The IFTU’s endorsement for the Allawi “lesser evil”, though wrong, is no more a good reason for not supporting it than the main British unions’ support for the Blair “lesser evil” (for fear of Michael Howard) is a reason for not supporting them.
How can a campaign run by the CPB deal with this political problem? The CPB’s general slant on Iraq has been (implicitly and mealy-mouthedly, of course) to support the Islamist “resistance”. Neither the CPB nor the Morning Star website carries any mention at all of the Iraqi trade unions. The CPB’s main profile on Iraq has been through its member Andrew Murray, who is chair of the Stop The War Coalition. Stop The War’s conference earlier this year voted down, by large majorities, two motions to support “democratic and secular” forces in Iraq, saying that it would be wrong to give them any preference over the Islamists.
Yet a CPB-run campaign will be excluding solidarity with the unions in Iraq who oppose Allawi — the Federation of Workers’ Councils and Unions, and the Union of the Unemployed —and insisting on solidarity only with those which back Allawi. It cannot possibly argue the issues on a principled basis of working-class solidarity.
Solidarity and Workers’ Liberty have been arguing, and seeking collaboration, for a democratic, open, pluralist, rank-and-file oriented trade-union campaign in solidarity with the new Iraqi labour movement for well over a year now.
In the Observer of 8 June 2003, Labour MPs Harry Barnes and Tony Lloyd, and GMB general secretary Kevin Curran, announced plans for a solidarity campaign, giving Abdullah Muhsin (British representative of the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions) as the contact person.
We approached them by all available channels, but got no reply, and in fact nothing further was heard of this initiative. Maybe the initiators concluded that most activists showing interest in a campaign were leftists, so the choice was between having an active campaign with leftists involved or no campaign at all, they would prefer no campaign at all.
Two get-togethers of trade-union activists interested in Iraq solidarity — one on 30 March and another on 5 August — agreed on plans to start a campaign, but in both cases key people then pulled back, for reasons which are still not clear. Apart from the Iraq Workers’ Solidarity Group, launched as an interim network on 6 April, while we waited to see if key trade-union activists would be willing to go for something more organised, and local solidarity committees in Edinburgh and Norwich, all Iraq labour solidarity work has been done through individual efforts and private connections.
This, unfortunately, has limited the scope of the activity. The Barnes initiative of June 2003 seems to have mutated into a group called “Labour Friends of Iraq”. It appeared briefly on the web (the website is now down, but with a promise it will soon be back up again), and has called an invitation-only fringe meeting at Labour Party conference, but has no open public presence. Its tilt, unlike that of the CPB in the trade unions, seems to be towards appealing to the pro-war and pro-occupation elements in the labour movement.
That the TUC has agreed on an open, public campaign is a step forward. In so far as ordinary trade unionists can affect the shape of it at all — the “owner” of the TUC mandate is the top trade union officials in the General Council — we should argue for the campaign to be democratic, pluralist, based on working-class principle, and sufficiently flexible to allow for vigorous and varied local activity.
Initiatives to link together interested activists in each union, like the Unison one, will be important. The Iraqi Workers’ Solidarity Group has relaunched itself as an information centre, so that it can complement the work of other initiatives without cutting across or competing.
And Solidarity and Workers’ Liberty will continue to argue the basic politics: support for a working-class “Third Camp” in Iraq, against both the US/UK occupation and the Islamist militias.
To contact the Iraq workers’ solidarity network in Unison: Ed Whitby, firstname.lastname@example.org. Labour Friends of Iraq: www.labourfriendsofiraq.org.uk. Iraqi Workers’ Solidarity Group: www.iraqworkerssolidarity.org.