On U.S. tour, Iraqi unionists reject oil grab

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Labor leaders call for end to occupation

SAN FRANCISCO — To judge by most U.S. media, the daily slaughter of Iraqis and the ever-climbing death toll among U.S. occupation forces sum up reality in Iraq. We rarely hear that a powerful labor movement is defending workers’ rights, campaigning for an end to the U.S.-led occupation and for better daily living conditions for ordinary people, and upholding the Iraqi people’s right to keep control of their country’s great oil resources.

This month, people across the U.S. are getting a glimpse of that other reality, as they hear from two Iraqi trade union leaders, Faleh Abood Umara, general secretary of the Oil Workers Union, and Hashmeya Muhsin Hussein, president of the Electrical Utility Workers Union and the first woman to head a national union in Iraq.

The two, from the southern port city of Basra, are touring under the auspices of U.S. Labor Against War, the American Friends Service Committee and United for Peace and Justice, appealing for stepped-up solidarity to end the occupation and to keep Iraq’s oil fields from being privatized to benefit transnational oil corporations.

During their stay in the San Francisco Bay Area, the two received word of Iraqi oil workers’ victory in the strike they began June 4 for the right to participate in talks on the new oil law and for decent wages and working conditions.

“We know that most people here support us and oppose the occupation,” Hussein told audiences at union halls in San Jose and San Francisco. “Our hearts are with the American soldiers,” she said. “We don’t want them to be killed in our country; they should return home safely.” The two unionists point out that Iraqis of different ethnic backgrounds and religious persuasions have worked together for centuries, and say the war and occupation are to blame for the current sectarian strife. They emphasize that the Iraqi people have the ability to reconstruct and govern their country and to manage its industries including oil.

“The sectarian divisions and violence are completely new to Iraqis,” Hussein said. “Even during the first year and a half of occupation, there was no violence, which shows that it was planned for during that time.”

Umara added that sectarian violence is much more intense in areas controlled by U.S. and British occupation forces than in regions controlled by Iraqi police and military.

A special bone of contention is the draft oil law now before the Iraqi Parliament. Iraq’s oil, like that of all other Middle Eastern countries, was nationalized in the 1960s, and the country’s new constitution states that its oil and gas resources, among the world’s largest, belong to all the Iraqi people. But the proposed law, which the Bush administration is pressing the Parliament to pass, would open most of the oil to foreign control under so-called production sharing agreements that are unprecedented among major Middle East oil-producing countries.

Calling the law crucial to the U.S. drive for “economic occupation,” Umara said the oil workers, who up to now have been barred from talks about the measure, want the National Oil Company to have sole control of oil and gas. While the company would pay for outside services to develop the oil fields, Umara said, “We will produce and export our oil, and we will rebuild our country from the oil revenues.”

The oil workers, with support from all the other Iraqi unions, have shown they can back up their words with action, not only in this month’s strike but also through a three-day strike in 2003, which blocked Halliburton’s attempt to seize control of oil wells and rigs.

Tour preparations were complicated by a long struggle to obtain visas. Umara actually arrived several days late because of a last-minute hitch. Now the two are being received very warmly in the U.S.

In Washington, D.C., Hussein met with AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, whom she called “very supportive of Iraqi workers.”

The AFL-CIO and the British Trades Union Congress later wrote jointly urging the Iraqi government to stop using force to intimidate the striking oil workers.

The unionists also met with members of Congress including Reps. Lynn Woolsey and Dennis Kucinich. “They promised to redouble their efforts for the occupation forces to leave, and pledged to work for defeat of the proposed oil law,” Hussein said.

Coming stops include New York, Philadelphia, Chicago and the U.S. Social Forum in Atlanta. For details, visit www.uslaboragainstwar.org.

mbechtel @pww.org

Oil workers win their strike

This week Hassan Juma’a, president of the Iraqi Federation of Oil Unions (IFOU), sent word the oil workers had won the strike they started June 4. He said the federation and the government had agreed to form a special committee to address the workers’ demands. Besides wages, benefits and working conditions, these include a role for the oil workers in talks on the draft oil law now before Parliament.

Pipeline workers belonging to the 26,000-member IFOU had shut down some pipelines from wells in the south, charging that weeks of negotiations had yielded no progress.

Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki ordered the army to surround the strikers and issued warrants for their leaders’ arrest.

After the union put the strike “on hold,” warning it could resume June 11, al-Maliki sent a high-level delegation and agreed to negotiate on the issues.

“We couldn’t have done it without support of all the other unions, who protested at their workplaces and sent material support,” said IFOU General Secretary Faleh Abood Umara, now touring the U.S.

— Marilyn Bechtel