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Is the US Pulling the Plug on Iraqi Workers?

By: David Bacon, t r u t h o u t | Op-Ed, Friday 27 August 2010

Hashmeya Muhsin, head of the electrical workers union, talks with other union leaders at a meeting in Basra. (Photos by David Bacon)

Early in the morning of July 21, police stormed the offices of the Iraqi Electrical Utility Workers Union in Basra, the poverty-stricken capital of Iraq's oil-rich south. A shamefaced officer told Hashmeya Muhsin, the first woman to head a national union in Iraq, that they'd come to carry out the orders of Electricity Minister Hussain al-Shahristani to shut the union down. As more police arrived, they took the membership records, the files documenting often-atrocious working conditions, the leaflets for demonstrations protesting Basra's agonizing power outages, the computers and the phones. Finally, Muhsin and her coworkers were pushed out and the doors locked.

Shahristani's order prohibits all trade union activity in the plants operated by the ministry, closes union offices, and seizes control of union assets from bank accounts to furniture. The order says the ministry will determine what rights have been given to union officers, and take them all away. Anyone who protests, it says, will be arrested under Iraq's Anti-Terrorism Act of 2005.

So ended seven years in which workers in the region's power plants have fought for the right to organize a legal union, to bargain with the electrical ministry, and to stop the contracting-out and privatization schemes that have threatened their jobs.

The Iraqi government, while seemingly paralyzed on many fronts, has unleashed a wave of actions against the country's unions that are intended to take Iraq back to the era when Saddam Hussein prohibited them for most workers, and arrested activists who protested. In just the last few months, the Maliki government has issued arrest warrants for oil union leaders and transferred that union's officers to worksites hundreds of miles from home, prohibited union activity in the oil fields, ports and refineries, forbade unions from collecting dues or opening bank accounts, and even kept leaders from leaving the country to seek support while the government cracks down.

At the U.S. Embassy, the largest in the world, an official says mildly, "We're looking into it. We hope that everybody resolves their differences in an amicable way." Meanwhile, however, while the U.S. command withdraws combat troops from many areas, it is beefing up the military and private-security apparatus it maintains to protect the wave of foreign oil companies coming into Basra to exploit the wealth of Iraq's oil fields.

Is destroying Iraq's labor movement a way to ensure an environment in which giant oil corporations can operate freely, and the Iraqi government can institute further market-based reforms? That was a logical question during the Bush administration, when its neoconservative advisors openly predicted Iraq would become a beachhead for privatizing the public sector of countries throughout the Middle East. Their policy, however, has not ended with the change in administration. And today, Iraqi labor is paying for its devastating consequences.

Iraq's history highlights the bitterness unions might feel over this situation.

Iraq had labor unions before any other country in the Middle East. Workers organized themselves when the British drilled the first wells and built the first railroads after World War One. The British, however, banned unions, driving them underground. They installed a Saudi sheikh as king, but kept enough control to ensure that the oil wealth flowed into the bank accounts of British companies (BP's predecessors), while Iraqis remained desperately poor. The king, meanwhile, threw workers who tried to organize unions into prison.

A revolution in 1958 overthrew the king. Unions came aboveground so fast that Baghdad's May Day march in 1959 brought out half a million people, when the country's total population was only 10 million. That revolution didn't last long, however. By 1963, the Ba'ath Party had mounted a coup. To help it into power, the CIA gave it lists of thousands of Iraqi leftists and union activists, who were imprisoned and murdered. After a decade of more coups and counter-coups, Saddam Hussein seized control.

Despite years of repression, Iraq's nationalists were still strong and popular enough to force the nationalization of oil in 1972. To deal them a deathblow, in 1987 Saddam Hussein issued the infamous Public Law 150. Unions were banned in public enterprises, from oil and power plants to factories, schools and hospitals. Again, as they had under the king, union activists went to prison, went underground or left the country. And as they did, Donald Rumsfield, later George W. Bush's Defense Secretary and architect of the occupation, shook Saddam's hand in an infamous photograph, promising the dictator intelligence briefings and arms to fight his war with Iran.

It's a little hard to understand why Iraqi leftists and union activists were willing to see the 2003 U.S. invasion as a step towards democracy. But most saw the end of the Saddam Hussein regime as the precondition for any change.

U.S. troops moved into Basra from Kuwait on the morning of April 9, 2003, and American tanks pulled up to the gate of its huge, dilapidated oil refinery. After thirty years of Saddam Hussein, most workers there had had their fill of war and repression. They were prepared to welcome almost any change, even foreign troops. "We were ready to say hello," recalls Faraj Arbat, one of the plant's firemen.

The soldiers trained guns on them, and when the head of the fire department protested, he was ordered to lie facedown on the ground. "Abdulritha was absolutely shocked," Arbat recalls. "But he did as he was ordered. Then an American put his foot on his back. So we started fighting with the soldiers with our fists, because we didn't understand. The tank turret started to turn toward us, and at that point we all sat down." Someone easily could have died that day. As it was, the memory of the foot on Abdulritha's back left a bitter taste.

The refinery workers had already labored through the "shock and awe" bombing prior to the invasion. "Slowly we got production restored, by our own efforts," Arbat remembers. "Electricity workers, at their own expense, brought power back to the refinery. Meanwhile, the Americans and British began coming with tanker trucks, loading up on the gas and oil we were producing."

For two months, no one got paid. Finally, Arbat and a small group began to organize a union. "At first the word frightened people, because under Saddam, unions were banned," he explains. Nevertheless, a few dozen of the refinery's 3,000 employees came together and chose Arbat and Ibrahim Radiy to lead them.

To force authorities to pay everyone, the small group took a crane out to the gate, and lowered it across the road. Behind it, two dozen tanker trucks pulled up with a heavily armed military escort. "At first there were only 100 of us, but workers began coming out. Some took their shirts off and told the troops, 'Shoot us.' Others lay down on the ground." Ten of them even went under the tankers, brandishing cigarette lighters. They announced that if the soldiers fired, they would set the tankers alight.

The soldiers did not fire. Instead, by the end of the day the workers had their pay. Within a week, everyone at the refinery joined; and. the oil union in Basra was reborn.

The occupation's program for transforming the Iraqi economy was announced by Paul Bremer, appointed by President Bush to head the Coalition Provisional Authority in mid-2003. It included the privatization of state-owned industry, especially transportation, ports, communications and most manufacturing.

In September 2003, Bremer issued orders 29 and 30. They lowered base wages from $60 to $40/month, ended subsidies for food and housing, allowed private ownership by foreigners of state enterprises (except oil), and permitted the total repatriation of profits outside the country. Bremer kept in force Public Law 150. As a result, Iraq's new unions were illegal. When power was handed over to an "independent" government in June 2004, the transitional law froze the Bremer orders into place.

Nationalist sentiment in Iraq views the public sector, especially oil, as a guarantee of sovereignty and a key to future economic development. Iraq's unions quickly became privatization's most vocal critics...

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