…Words for Mass Dissemination–the most powerful weapon in their fight against kidnapping, murder, suppression, and the US occupation of Iraq.

(Original posted and recommended on Daily Kos)

Six Iraqi trade unionists embarked on a historic two-week tour of the US yesterday as part of an outreach and solidarity effort organized by US Labor Against the War (USLAW), a broad coalition of American labor unions opposed to the war against and occupation of Iraq. The tour schedule includes public meetings (the first is tomorrow in Washington, DC) so that Americans can “meet and talk with representatives of Iraq’s labor movement who are fighting for a progressive, secular and democratic future,” USLAW says.

“Fighting” is the operative word here. Even with Saddam Hussein behind bars and almost all of his regime’s repressive laws eliminated, Iraqi unionists are still under siege–from a military/industrial occupation that wants to suppress them and a lethal insurgency that wants to kill them.

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The Iraqi labor leaders represent three key trade union organizations: the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions (IFTU), the Federation of Workers Councils and Unions in Iraq (FWCUI) and the General Union of Oil Employees (GUOE). “All three of the union federations we invited have been targets of the occupation,” USLAW reports:

All three federations continue to be subject to the 1987 Hussein decree banning unions in the public sector and public enterprises, notwithstanding the fact that the IGC (though not the Provisional Governing Authority) granted the IFTU official recognition and that the transitional law states that unions have the right to organize. All three organizations continue to call for enforcement of the ILO standards that would allow workers to freely choose which organization should represent them and have struggled to create a labor law that provides genuine trade union rights for workers in Iraq in a pluralistic labor movement.

USLAW’s backgrounder documents shocking details about the effects of war and occupation on Iraqi workers:

  • skyrocketing prices for food and fuel;
  • 50-70 percent unemployment;
  • wages driven down to as little as $35 a month;
  • shifts as long as 11-13 hours;
  • elimination or reduction of food rations;
  • electricity, healthcare, clean water and basic services in short supply;
  • “hazardous” security putting Iraqi lives at even greater risk;
  • an outbreak of labor strikes met with fierce resistance by occupation forces;
  • kidnapping and murder of labor officials by insurgents.

And it’s all linked, USLAW maintains, to BushCo’s privatization scheme to carve up Iraq and handfeed it in pieces to American business interests:

U.S. corporations like Halliburton and Bechtel received no-bid contracts worth billions of dollars for reconstruction and other activities in Iraq. This was the first step in the Bush administration’s plan to privatize and sell of [sic] key sectors of Iraq’s economy. USLAW has produced a report on 18 of these corporations which exposes their anti-union, environmentally irresponsible and socially immoral record.

USLAW’s 31-page report reads like a Who’s Who of corporate evil-doers (Halliburton, Bechtel, MCI and others of dubious distinction), and focuses on labor relations, government contracts, BushCo connections, political contributions, executive compensation, and “social responsibility” (or, more accurately, lack thereof):

The record…is marked by cost overruns, accounting irregularities, financial dereliction, fraud, bankruptcy, overcharging, price-gouging, profiteering, wage-cheating, deception, corruption, health and safety violations, worker and community exploitation, human and labor rights abuses, including use of slave and forced labor, union-busting and avoidance, ecological irresponsibility, environmental contamination and degradation, malpractice, criminal prosecutions, civil suits, privatization of public resources, collusion with autocrats and dictators, trading with regimes in violation of international sanctions, egregiously excessive executive compensation, and breach of fiduciary duty to shareholders and the public.

If photos of corporate criminals were posted on post office walls, most of the firms identified in this report would find their profile prominently displayed there.

In short, it’s Bush’s version of the Wild West, with outlaws running roughshod over the locals with the help of a corrupt sheriff.  

Naomi Klein’s outstanding September 2004 investigative piece, Baghdad Year Zero: Pillaging Iraq in pursuit of a neo-con utopia, reveals that BushCo eyed Iraq as a grand experiment in unfettered capitalism that would pave the way for other adventures in avarice:

A country of 25 million would not be rebuilt as it was before the war; it would be erased, disappeared. In its place would spring forth a gleaming showroom for laissez-faire economics, a utopia such as the world had never seen. Every policy that liberates multinational corporations to pursue their quest for profit would be put into place: a shrunken state, a flexible workforce, open borders, minimal taxes, no tariffs, no ownership restrictions. The people of Iraq would, of course, have to endure some short-term pain: assets, previously owned by the state, would have to be given up to create new opportunities for growth and investment. Jobs would have to be lost and, as foreign products flooded across the border, local businesses and family farms would, unfortunately, be unable to compete. But to the authors of this plan, these would be small prices to pay for the economic boom that would surely explode once the proper conditions were in place, a boom so powerful the country would practically rebuild itself.

The fact that the boom never came and Iraq continues to tremble under explosions of a very different sort should never be blamed on the absence of a plan. Rather, the blame rests with the plan itself, and the extraordinarily violent ideology upon which it is based.

Yet the US doggedly persists in its drive to transform the Iraqi economy “from publicly-owned to privately held,” according to USLAW’s backgrounder:

In 2003, the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) published Order #39, which permits 100 percent foreign ownership of all Iraqi businesses, except the oil industry. Most of Iraq’s basic industry is publicly owned, including oil, electricity, railroads and many of the basic manufacturing industries.

Last year, Thomas Foley, director for private sector development for the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), announced a list of the first Iraqi state enterprises to be sold off, including cement and fertilizer plants, phosphate and sulfur mines, pharmaceutical factories and the country’s airline.

To make the sell-off of Iraqi resources easier, the CPA issued Order No. 37, which suspends income and property taxes a year and imposes a flat tax of 15 percent on individuals and corporations in the future.

Conferences are taking place regularly in Washington and London in which Iraqi enterprises and contracts are put on display, and transnational corporations come to examine profit making opportunities.  One recent conference at Washington’s National Press Club sponsored by Equity International, a business consulting service, featured executives from Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, Rockwell Automation, Foster Wheeler, The Livingston Group, Nissan Motor Co, M/A-COM, Federal Security Systems, Danimex Communications, Global Transportation Systems, Applied Industrial Technologies, Comprehensive Health Services, Washington Group International, International Truck and Engine Corporation and diplomats from countries participating in the occupation coalition.

As history tells us, no capitalist quest of any discernable magnitude would be complete without a plan to subjugate “the people.” But in Iraq’s case, the formula for Empire was more a recipe for disaster. Matthew Harwood’s article for the Washington Monthly, Pinkertons at the CPA, explains:

“Iraqi labor officials [are] kidnapped and killed with impunity by the insurgents,” he writes, because “the IFTU supports a secular state, representative of Shi’a, Sunni, and Kurd. Its leaders have called for the insurgency to end. The union has endorsed U.N. Resolution 1546, which sets the time table for Iraq’s transition into a democracy.” Yet the Bush Administration, which (now) says “democracy” in Iraq has been its goal all along, has not only done nothing to protect pro-democracy unionists, it’s done everything it can to crush them:

[F]rom the time the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) took possession of Iraq, the Americans running the country not only declined to engage the labor movement in the process of building a nation, but also worked actively to undermine labor’s ability to play a constructive role…

CPA chief L. Paul Bremer repealed virtually the whole Iraqi legal structure with his so-called 100 Orders. He did not, however, repeal Saddam’s 1987 Labor Code, which forfeited the right of public sector workers to bargain collectively. That decision, though deeply foolish for purposes of nation-building, made perfect sense to the movement ideologues staffing the U.S. occupation. Much of the CPA’s effort in Baghdad was devoted to helping create a conservative’s ideal state… Legalizing labor unions would not have been helpful, to say the least, to these privatization plans. As Bjorn Brandtzaeg, a former CPA team leader for trade and industry, wrote in the Financial Times, “Instead of focusing on restarting the main industrial complexes as soon as possible after the end of hostilities, a team of ideologically motivated CPA officials with close ties to the US administration pursued a narrow privatization strategy. The result…[s]everal hundred thousand people remained out of work.”

Ironically, and perhaps predictably, this U.S.-engineered unemployment helped undermine the administration’s privatization plans. Iraqi workers feared privatization would worsen unemployment, seeing that overseas subcontractors were already importing cheap skilled foreign workers for jobs that Iraqis believed were rightfully theirs. Massive protests organized by Iraqi labor unions ensued. Bowing to labor’s demands, the Iraqi Governing Council (IGC) petitioned the CPA to forestall privatization until a democratically elected government of Iraqis had assumed power. The CPA reluctantly heeded their advice.

The clash over privatization didn’t exactly improve the U.S. attitude towards Iraq’s labor unions. In late 2003, the CPA refused to unfreeze union assets, which the IFTU argued were rightfully theirs…

The U.S. government further signaled its attitude towards Iraqi labor unions in early December 2003 when coalition troops stormed the IFTU headquarters in Baghdad, ransacked their offices, arrested eight union workers, and shut down the office. Within a day, the arrested were released uncharged from Al Muthan airbase, but IFTU headquarters remained shut for seven months. The jailed men accused the United States of relying on information provided by a member of Saddam’s old regime, Abdullah Murad Ghny, who owns a major private transport company whose workers had begun to organize. While in jail, Turkey Al Lehabey, the General Secretary of the Communication and Transport Workers Union, an IFTU affiliate, said a local American commander named Kelly had told the men, “Iraq has no sovereignty and no political parties or trade unions. We do not want you to organize in either the north or south transport stations.” He added, “You can organize only after June 2004; for now, you have an American governor.”

The raid had Muhsin and his followers equating American intimidation with Ba’athist repression. “They saw how Saddam Hussein brutalized the labor movement,” Muhsin told me, “and then, [when] they saw the American forces come under the slogan of liberation, [they felt that they were] being terrorized by the same forces and not given a reason why…”

Years from now, when historians try to figure out what precisely went wrong in the American occupation of Iraq…somewhere on the list will be the administration’s indifference, indeed hostility, to Iraqi organized labor. The Iraqi people are paying a price for that attitude.

Earlier this year, photojournalist David Bacon interviewed Iraqi IFTU official Ghasib Hassan, who, while welcoming the promise of democracy, is nonetheless clear-eyed about the reasons and consequences of BushCo’s war:

“We oppose the occupation absolutely. It’s led to the total destruction of the economic infrastructure of Iraq, with the aim of controlling its wealth and resources… The Iraqi people are calling today, not tomorrow, for the removal of the occupation…

“On a daily basis, at least 10-15 people die [as] a result of terrorism, but terrorism wasn’t present prior to the war. You can see that the US administration has imported terrorism into Iraq in order to fight it, but at the expense of the Iraqi people.

For over 80 years, Iraqi trade unionists have confronted challenges that, for most Americans, are unimaginable: organizing key industries in the 1920s and ’30s; participating in the 1958 revolution that gave Iraq its first popular government; oppressed, imprisoned, murdered, banned and driven underground since the 1970s by Saddam Hussein’s dictatorial regime; and today–right now–bringing their battle against BushCo’s occupation right to W’s doorstep.

“We call on your solidarity to end the brutal occupation of our country,” Hassan urged. “At the beginning of the 21st century, we thought we’d seen the end of colonies, but now we’re entering a new era of colonialization.  We are campaigning to end the occupation of Iraq, to build a democratic, federal Iraq which will guarantee the rights and jobs of its people.”

The road to independence is indeed a long, hard slog, but Iraq’s burgeoning labor movement is not without its victories, Hassan emphasised:

The IFTU supported the first struggle under the occupation, after the fall of Saddam Hussein, where 800 workers in a bicycle factory in Mamoudiya called for raises, and the management refused. The union for the printing and mechanical industry negotiated with the management, and gave them two weeks notice that if there were no raises, the workers would strike. After striking for five hours, the management agreed.

Iraqi workers need more happy endings. You can help. Here’s how:

  • PLEASE recommend this diary to put the Daily Kos community on notice about the visit and what they, as leading media activists, can do to publicize it. Post comments to share your ideas.
  • Visit USLAW’s website for more information and e-mail the link to anyone you feel may be interested. Also, be sure to check the tour’s calendar of events for updates.
  • Publicize the tour by contacting local and national media; ask them to tell the Iraqis’ story.
  • Request your elected officials to meet with the Iraqis and do whatever they can to help them.

Billions of words have been written and spoken by Americans about Iraq. Now we have the chance–indeed, the obligation–to hear what Iraqis have to say. Please do whatever you can to help them tell their story. Thank you.

If the workers took a notion they could stop all speeding trains;

Every ship upon the ocean they can tie with mighty chains.

Every wheel in the creation, every mine and every mill;

Fleets and armies of the nation, will at their command stand still.

–Joe Hill

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