Oil workers move to reclaim power for the people in Iraq
Iraqi oil worker. | David Bacon

As millions of people marched against the invasion of Iraq in the early 2000s, many carried signs pointing an accusing finger at Dick Cheney and Halliburton – “No Blood for Oil!”  But seeing that oil was a motivating factor for the war did not necessarily mean that people understood much about Iraq as a country, the role oil plays in its national life, or about the workers who pump it from the ground and refine it.

In 2013 I went to Baghdad with a longshore union leader, Clarence Thomas, to learn how the occupation was affecting Iraq’s workers and unions.  I documented factory life, and took photographs and talked with workers in the Daura oil refinery.  There I began to see oil’s central role in Iraq’s life.  I realized that further documentation meant going to southern Iraq, where most of the industry is located.

A year after returning from Baghdad I met oil workers in London, and Hassan Juma’a, president of their newly-reorganized union, asked me to come to Basra.  With the help of Ewa Jasciewicz, in 2015 I arrived with several British activists, there to attend a conference organized by the union to oppose handing over the country’s oil industry to the giant oil monopolies.

In Basra, workers told me that in the occupation’s first year, Halliburton, the company formerly headed by U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney, had been given a contract to take over all the financial operations of the civil administration in the south, including paying the wages of oil workers.  If you worked on a rig or in the refinery, you had to hand in your timesheet at the Halliburton office to get paid.

Yet people in the U.S. and Europe were generally unaware of this corruption and knew almost nothing about the workers who make the oil industry function.  I went to Basra determined to take photographs and record interviews that would pierce this invisibility.  I wanted to give unions and workers in the U.S. a sense of who their brothers and sisters were, and how they were affected by the occupation.

Originally organized under the British in the early 1920s, the oil union was always the heart of the country’s labor movement.  Iraq’s two biggest strikes, in 1946 and 1952, were organized by oil workers and helped build the movement for Iraq’s social revolution in 1958.  The reorganization of the oil union in Iraq is a heroic story, one that we told in The Progressive in an article I wrote after my return:  https://progressive.org/magazine/iraqi-unions-defy-privatization/

In that article, I recounted what the refinery workers told me they did to get rid of Halliburton and its subsidiary KBR.  At the Basra refinery, a small group took a crane out to the gate and lowered it across the road.   Behind it, dozens of tanker trucks began stacking up, unable to leave with their loads of oil and gasoline.  Sonn a heavily armed military escort pulled up to get Halliburton’s oil moving again.

“At first there were only 100 of us, but workers began coming out,” I was told by Faraj Arbat, one of the plant’s firemen.  “Some took their shirts off and told the troops, ‘Shoot us.’  Others lay down on the ground.”  Ten of them even went under the tankers, brandishing cigarette lighters.  They announced that if the soldiers fired, they would set the tankers alight.

The soldiers did not fire.  Instead, by the end of the day, the workers had been paid the wages Halliburton had been withholding.  Within a week, everyone at the refinery had joined, and. the oil union in Basra had been reborn.  Finally, oil workers took action to stop Halliburton and its subsidiary KBR from raking off profits from their wages.  They stopped work.  Three days of paralysis in the oil fields was enough to force Halliburton out of Basra – one of the first big victories of Iraqi unions.

I came back with stories like these, and photographs showing what life in the oil fields was like for the people working there.  US Labor Against the War then managed to get visas for a handful of Iraqi union leaders to come to the U.S. and tell their stories in person.  Two spoke to audiences on the east coast, and another pair went to the midwest.  Oil union leaders Hassan Juma’a and Falih Abood traveled the west coast from southern California to Washington.

In Los Angeles, the U.S. oil workers union gave the Iraqis laptop computers.  An exhibition of photographs in the oil workers’ and later the longshoremen’s halls showed California workers how their counterparts in Iraq were treated, often by the same oil monopolies.  Iraqis explained that they saw the country’s oil as the people’s property – the only resource that could pay the enormous cost of rebuilding their country after decades of war.

A worker in the Basra oil refinery. | David Bacon

In city after city, audiences rose to their feet applauding when Hassan Juma’a and Falih Abood walked in to speak.  The relationships they built then with U.S. unions have endured through the years since.

Another Iraqi union leader from Basra, Hashmeya Muhsin, the head of the electrical workers union and first woman to lead a national union in Iraq, came to the U.S. in the years afterwards.  By the time she arrived, some union women here already knew her from the photograph I took of Hashmeya at a union meeting in Basra.  I hope the photograph helped inspire the invitation to come and speak.

These photographs were documentation with a purpose.  Photographers often speak about “putting the human face” on a particular social problem or movement.  These images certainly introduced the human faces of Iraqi oil workers to workers here.  They also helped to bring them to the United States where they could speak for themselves, finding common ground with the workers of the country occupying theirs. So if they helped to encourage peace and solidarity, the photographs served a good purpose.

In the years since they were taken, I’ve written many other articles about Iraq and its workers.  The latest, about the political alliance formed by Iraqi unions and left activists in the 2018 election, can be found here:


David Bacon
David Bacon

David Bacon is a California writer and documentary photographer. A former union organizer, today he documents labor, the global economy, war and migration, and the struggle for human rights.