Iraqi workers still denied basic rights

PHILADELPHIA – While Iraqi workers currently face daunting conditions such as spiraling inflation and 70 percent unemployment, they are refusing to let restrictive, anti-labor laws stop their organizing work.

This was the message of two trade unionists – Clarence Thomas, former secretary-treasurer of Local 10 of International Longshore Workers Union, and labor journalist David Bacon – during a recent visit here. Thomas and Bacon were reporting on their recent trip to Iraq where they met with Iraqi workers and union leaders. They have been touring the U.S. to report on their findings.

About 200 people crowded into the Quaker meeting house here to watch video clips and slides of their meetings with Iraqi oil workers, textile workers and other trade unionists, both men and women. The event was sponsored by the AFL-CIO Central Labor Council, and, in his opening remarks, Philadelphia CLC President Pat Eiding noted that the council had been among the first to pass a resolution against the war in January of 2003.

Thomas recounted the militant history of Iraqi trade unions going back to their origins under British colonial occupation and their subsequent restrictions under the Saddam Hussein regime. While they do not mourn the passing of that regime, workers in Iraq are actively organizing now for trade union rights in the future. They see this as an urgent task because, as Bacon pointed out, the Bush administration’s occupation authority is ironically continuing to enforce the 1987 labor laws of the old regime.

Thomas and Bacon stressed their intent to show the “humanity of the Iraqi people” in their day-to-day struggles, which we are not shown on major network or cable television.

The meeting had added significance because it brought together members of the East and West Coast longshore unions. At the beginning of his talk, Thomas, a third-generation longshoreman, reviewed the militant history of his own union, the ILWU, and its opposition to apartheid in the 1980s and to the coup in Chile in 1973.

After the presentation, Jim Savage, grievance chair of PACE Local 2-1, which represents the Marcus Hook oil refinery workers, speaking from the floor, extended his “personal sentiments” to the Iraqi oil workers and asked what could be done to support them.

Thomas and Bacon said the answer to that question is contained in the “Report on working conditions and labor rights” in Iraq available from U.S. Labor Against the War. Workers here should demand respect for trade union rights in Iraq, a halt to the privatization of Iraq’s state-owned assets, the return of U.S. troops to their homes, and a congressional investigation of the violation of labor rights and corporate profiteering in Iraq.

The next stop on their tour, which to date has taken them to 13 cities, is set for Seattle on Feb. 18.

The author can be reached at pww@pww.org.