There has been a long history of trade union struggle in Iraq against colonialism and for national independence. Often, it has been a struggle simply for survival.
When the monarchy was overthrown in the revolution of 1958, unions became legal in Iraq for the first time after working underground since the British occupation in the 1920s.
However, workers still had no guarantees for their rights and jobs.
In 1963, the CIA organized a coup that overthrew the government of Karim Kassem and installed the Ba’ath Party in power.
Saddam Hussein took control of the Ba’ath Party and government in 1968 and, in 1977, purged unions of his political opponents and drove radical political parties underground or into exile.
Progressive and patriotic leaders of the unions organized after 1958 were sacked, driven into exile and even executed.
Saddam transformed many trade union bodies into state-run Ba’athist “yellow” unions. These became agencies of violence – organs run by the secret police which carried out bloody repression.
The Workers Democratic Trade Union Movement
(WDTUM), which was established in 1980, played a significant role in opposing Saddam’s attacks on trade unions.
In 1987, Saddam tightened the noose on independent trade unions and rights to organize, and strikes were banned.
Following the fall of the dictatorship and the illegal U.S. occupation of the country in April, the WDTUM formed the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions (IFTU) in order to set about building independent and democratic workers’ organizations.
A grassroots democratic labor movement has to be built from the bottom up, despite desperate shortages of funds and equipment.
We have had great support from British labor organizations such as the National Union of Rail, Maritime & Transport Workers, Fire Brigades Union, Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association and the Scottish Trades Union Congress, and our representatives have met many other organizations.
Labour member of Parliament Harry Barnes has also played a crucial role, and we have enjoyed worldwide support from other countries, including South African and Italian unions.
There is no constitution yet, so it is unclear what trade union rights will exist and international solidarity was never more important than now. It is clear that attacks on trade unionists and their organizations have continued.
Many of Saddam’s anti-union laws are still being enforced by the U.S. occupation authority. Unemployment is still ballooning after U.S. occupation forces privatized the entire economy and are allowing foreign companies to take over entire industries and export profits.
If those workers have no legal union, no right to bargain and no contracts, then mass privatization and the accompanying huge job losses will face much less resistance.
Unrest is also increasing at Western companies bringing in cheap labor from south Asia since all Iraqis are seen as a security risk. This use of cheap labor is reminiscent of the British policy following their invasion of Iraq nearly 100 years ago.
A vivid example of the problems that we face was recently revealed to me by Baghdad rail union committee president Reesa Salman, who explained how jobs were under threat due to Western plans for mass rail privatization.
He said that passenger trains had a driver and an assistant as well as a guard and a ticket collector, but, now, Bechtel is in charge of the railway sector and it intends to subcontract work to British companies.
“The Iraqi railway has a wealth of technical talent and skilled labor that can rebuild our industry – these are the people who you can see here today. We don’t need to be controlled by a foreign company,” he said.
However, on June 5, Coalition Provisional Authority head Paul Bremer issued a decree, called Public Notice Number One, prohibiting “pronouncements and material that incite civil disorder, rioting or damage to property.”
The phrase can easily be interpreted to mean strikes or other organized protests. Those who violate the decree “will be subject to immediate detention by coalition security forces and held as a security internee under the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949” – in other words, as a prisoner of war.
On Dec. 6, U.S. occupation forces escalated their efforts to paralyze Iraq’s new trade union movement. U.S. soldiers raided the federation’s headquarters and arrested eight members of the ITFU leadership, including the general secretary of the transport and communications workers union.
The building was ransacked, lists of names were removed, banners were torn down or smeared with paint. and it remains sealed to this day.
Although the eight were released, there has been no explanation from the Coalition Provisional Authority for this vicious attack.
As you can see, our fledging movement is faced with a huge task and escalating hostility from U.S. forces.
However, workers are resisting. Our history shows us that the struggle against imperialism begins not with masked bandits, but with workers struggling for representation and democracy for our devastated country.
Abdullah Muhsin is the international representative of the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions. This article originally appeared in the Morning Star (U.K.). For more on IFTU see www.iraqitradeunions.org.