First visit of U.S. unionists to occupied Iraq

Stop violating labor rights

CHICAGO – Two U.S. trade unionists just back from Iraq say they hope their trip is the beginning of cooperation and solidarity between the U.S. labor movement and Iraq’s newly re-established unions. Clarence Thomas, executive board member of International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 10, in the Bay Area, and labor journalist David Bacon spent five days meeting with Iraqi workers in and around Baghdad, in the first visit by U.S. unionists to U.S.-occupied Iraq.

In an interview during a national assembly for peace convened here by U.S. Labor Against War, Oct. 24-25, the two told the World they were “inspired” by the courage and vitality of Iraqi workers who are boldly re-establishing unions and fighting for worker rights and against the U.S. privatization drive under very difficult conditions.

The unemployment rate in Iraq is around 70 percent, and there is no unemployment insurance. Those Iraqis who are working are worse off now than they were before, Thomas said. The occupation authority has frozen wages at $60 a month, less than workers earned previously, and workers no longer receive supplemental food and housing subsidies that had been distributed by the Saddam Hussein government.

Thomas and Bacon visited an oil refinery where workers are working 11- and 13-hour shifts. The workers used to receive profit-sharing from the state-owned enterprise, but that is no longer the case. “Things have gotten so bad, they are being given motor oil – they have children selling the motor oil on the street – to supplement their income,” Thomas said. Workers told the visitors they have no safety equipment, no gloves, and only one hard hat for the entire power plant. In the publicly owned oil industry, as in Iraq’s other public sector industries, jobs are guaranteed. But a refinery manager told the American visitors if the operation is privatized he would be forced to lay off half the workforce.

Union organizing and strikes are illegal in Iraq today, under a 1987 law issued by Saddam Hussein which the U.S. “Coalition Provisional Authority” – the occupation authority – refuses to revoke. “This is an example of what the Bush administration is planning for Iraq,” Thomas said. “They got rid of the regime, but they are still keeping its laws in place.” It shows that the U.S. authority is not interested in democracy for the Iraqi people, he said – instead they are primarily interested in “making Iraq conducive for privatization,” for the benefit of U.S. corporations. Bacon commented, “They don’t want unions in those factories when the privatization comes, because they don’t want people to resist.”

Nevertheless, workers have been organizing and exercising democracy, in spite of the attempt by the occupation authority to deny it to them, Thomas said. The U.S. unionists visited a leather factory, with many women workers, and heard how these workers had marched to the ministry to protest poor wages and working conditions. Like any trade union organization, “folks are attempting to be recognized by the authority and the authority doesn’t want to recognize them,” he commented. “They don’t agree with the occupation authority, but they understand the occupation authority has the power.”

Thomas said, “I was really inspired, because people are not taking this lying down, the people are not docile at all.”

Bacon pointed out that, when Congress passed Bush’s $87 billion appropriation for the occupation, “not one person got up and asked if any of this is going for an unemployment benefits system,” or asked what Iraqis’ wages are and if they need a raise. “Ordinary people in Iraq don’t exist for them – they are invisible.” In order to end the occupation, he said, “we have to make those people become visible, have a voice.”

In remarks to the U.S. Labor Against War assembly, Thomas and Bacon said Iraqi unionists are struggling to beat back a U.S. corporate takeover. The workers they met want the international community to intensify efforts to end the U.S. occupation, and also to press for implementation in Iraq of basic International Labor Organization conventions affirming workers’ right to organize and strike. They urged the U.S. labor movement to push for congressional hearings on the occupation authority’s denial of the rights of Iraq’s workers. The violation of labor rights in Iraq is connected to the violation of labor rights here, they said.

It’s important for other U.S. union leaders to go to Iraq, to “put a spotlight” on the occupation’s anti-worker, pro-corporate agenda, Thomas said.

The author can be reached at suewebb@pww.org