Gripping narrative of an Iraqi trade unionist

Hadi Never Died: Hadi Saleh and the Iraqi Trade Unions

Abdullah Muhsin and Alan Johnson

London, Trades Union Congress, 2006

Softcover, 80 pp., $18.60 plus shipping

Order from www.tuc.org.uk/publications

Although Iraq is foremost in our thoughts, the condition and struggles of Iraqi workers remain the least discussed aspects of life there. Few outside the Arab world know that the Iraqi working class has been one of the best-organized, most politically engaged working classes in that region. As “Hadi Never Died” by Abdullah Muhsin and Alan Johnson relates, Iraqi workers have been at the forefront of their country’s history from its independence struggle to the battle against the Saddam Hussein dictatorship and now the continued occupation of Iraq.

The book focuses on the life of Iraqi trade union and Communist Party leader Hadi Saleh. Saleh was born in the southern town of Nasiriyyah one year after a key moment in Iraqi history called Al-Wathbah, The Leap, an uprising of workers and their allies against British imperial control. In January 1948, thousands of students and railway workers marched in Baghdad. Though government police murdered hundreds, the uprising forced the prime minister into exile in England. Strikes in the port city of Basra just weeks later also nearly brought the British-backed monarchy to its knees. Within 10 years, another uprising of hundreds of thousands in Baghdad and other cities ended the monarchy and British control. The leading political forces in this movement were the Iraqi working class led by its unions and the Iraqi Communist Party.

Subsequent power struggles among military leaders ultimately led to the rise of the Ba’ath Party by the late 1960s. To consolidate power, Ba’ath Party leaders ordered the arrest of thousands of potential political opponents, including Saleh, a union printer and Communist Party activist, then only 20 years old. Along with many comrades and friends, Saleh was tortured at the Qassr al-Nihayah prison and sentenced to death. By the time Saddam Hussein seized power in the late 1970s, the trade unions had become a means for the government to spy on workers and to conscript them into military service.

Saleh escaped death in 1969, but was later forced into exile first in South Yemen and then Syria where he helped organize the Workers Democratic Trade Union Movement (WDTUM) in 1980. Taking the name Abu Farat, Saleh forged strong links to the international trade union movement, especially the British trade unions. Saleh was instrumental in convincing the Trades Union Congress to organize the Campaign Against the Repression of Democratic Rights in Iraq.

In 1984, the WDTUM helped organize a strike of 4,000 tobacco workers in Iraqi Kurdistan. In 1987, WDTUM in Kurdistan publicly demonstrated against a chemical attack ordered by the Saddam Hussein regime at Sheikh Wesana that killed many people. After the protest, government police summarily executed 23 people they claimed were protest leaders. WDTUM activists, at great personal risk, organized to bring down the Saddam Hussein regime throughout its 24-year history.

In 2003, WDTUM activists marched against the Bush administration’s planned invasion of Iraq, “conscious that the victims would be once again Iraqi workers and innocent civilians.” Within weeks after his return home in April 2003, Saleh and other WDTUM leaders prepared to launch a new democratic trade union movement. They appealed to Iraqi workers to “unite, and speak with one voice, so as to serve Iraqi working people.”

Again the Iraqi working class sought to organize workers both to improve their lives and to help lead the rebuilding of their country along democratic lines. On May 16, 2003, several hundred trade union leaders formed the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions (IFTU). Saleh, chosen as a member of the executive committee, was assigned as international secretary.

Harassed both by regime supporters and by occupation forces, the IFTU organized about 200,000 workers by 2004 in the worst of conditions. Amid economic collapse and a security and political vacuum, and under semi-legal status, the IFTU quickly became a leading force in Iraq. In December 2004, the IFTU presented broad demands it saw as key to reconstruction: an end to the occupation, building democracy, a halt to privatization, establishment of social welfare, women’s equality, scrapping anti-union laws, implementation of basic workers’ rights, and banning forced and child labor.

Less than four weeks later, on Jan. 4, 2005, Hadi Saleh was murdered in his home in Baghdad. His comrades believe that supporters of the Saddam Hussein regime murdered him out of revenge. Saleh was survived by his wife, two children and several grandchildren.

Saleh’s murder prompted an enormous outcry by trade union leaders around the world. AFL-CIO President John Sweeney praised Saleh for his dedication to the movement saying, “He will be sorely missed by all of us who have met him and by the workers for whom he valiantly fought.”

This book’s short but valuable contribution to the history of the Iraqi working class as embodied in the life of Hadi Saleh helps bring a new view of Iraq. Saleh represented well the still worthwhile slogan, “Workers of the world, unite.” The book is worth careful consideration by those in the world’s peace and labor movements who have expressed serious interest in Iraq’s destiny.