Post-Election, Embattled Iraqi Labor Movement Still Struggles for Rights

Michelle Chen

The elections in Iraq in March brought unexpected twists in the country’s chaotic political narrative, reflecting growing complexity in the electorate as well as the balkanized nature of Iraq’s religious and ethnic landscape. Since no party won a decisive majority, it may be months before the new government takes shape, as members of Parliament hammer out tenuous coalitions.

While myriad civil society movements had a stake in the election, notably absent from mainstream electoral battles was organized labor. Given the prominence of unions in U.S. and European politics, activists might be wondering who’s standing up for workers in Iraq’s parliament.

The few labor-oriented voices from Iraq that have reached U.S. shores suggest that, while marginalized from official politics, labor groups have gelled into a democratic counterpoint both to Iraq’s political establishment and to tumultuous sectarian forces.

Amjad Ali, a Toronto-based activist working the transnational advocacy group Iraq Freedom Congress, said a labor agenda will likely be hobbled no matter who controls parliament, simply due to the country’s economic and geopolitical challenges:

Do we really believe that such government will be in favor of the labor movement when we have not had clean water, electricity, safety, security civil services and so on for more than seven years but oil has been flowing non stop since day one of the occupation?

So if oil flows easier than clean water through Iraq’s cities, could a labor movement ascend in a political landscape awash in violence and the threat of corporate imperialism?

Against all odds, an international movement is underway to enact a new, fair and just labour law,” articulated by advocates like Hashmeya Mjusshin al-Saadawi, president of the Iraq Electricity Workers and Employees Union and a rare women’s voice in labor.

This month, an international coalition, including the U.S. Labor Against the War and AFL-CIO’s Solidarity Center, stepped up the international campaign for a just Iraqi labor law. Activists are targeting regressive policies under both Sadaam Hussein and the U.S. occupation that severely restrict workers’ power to organize. The campaign demands a repeal of restrictions on public-sector union activity and affirmation of labor’s fundamental rights as provided for in the Iraqi constitution and the core conventions of the International Labour Organisation.”

This week, protesters rallied at the Iraqi Consulate in Washington, DC to demand an end to direct political interference by authorities into workers’ organizing campaigns,” stressing that freedom of association is integral to the democratic transition.

Michael Eisenscher, national coordinator for U.S. Labor Against the War, told In These Times, Despite these difficult conditions, the Iraqi unions continue to organize outside the law, much as unions in this country did prior to adoption of the Wagner Act in 1936.”

One of the key labor issues ties deeply into Iraq’s future economic development: the hotly debated oil law that would govern investments in Iraq’s oil fields has stoked fears of setting off a multinational feeding frenzy. The legislation, as originally proposed, would allow foreign companies to establish critical contracts for oil development. It’s remained in limbo due in large part due to disputes over the handing of foreign investment and distribution of revenues, particularly in the autonomous Kurdish region.

But the worker-activists who have long been at the heart of the embattled oil industry have challenged the whole premise of the legislation. At the height of the oil law controversy in 2008, Iraqi trade unionists lashed out at both officials and foreign investors accusing them of inviting rampant exploitation of Iraq’s oil fields:

We demand that all oil companies be prevented from entering into any long-term agreement concerning oil while Iraq remains occupied. We demand that the Iraqi government tear up the current draft of the oil law, and begin to develop a legitimate oil policy based on full and genuine consultation with the Iraqi people. Only after all occupation forces are gone should a long term plan for the development of our oil resources be adopted.

Oil workers in Basra have led protests for years against not only oil trade policies on the national level, but also bread-and-butter grievances related to exploitative working conditions.

In a recent interview with Socialist Worker, sociologist and Iraq commentator Michael Schwartz noted that Iraqi labor feared not only corporate predation on the country’s vast oil wealth, but also the importation of foreign workers who might undermine the local workforce:

[A]t every level, the Iraqi national oil companies, the oil workers and the local leaders all want this oil development to be something that really enriches them. They want to keep the money and the power and the technical expertise inside Iraq.

Of course, Iraq’s state-owned oil companies are no friends of the people, but they are friends to themselves, and they don’t want foreign oil companies to control this new apparatus — they want to control it. And if they win this struggle, it will mean that Iraqis will be employed from the bottom to the top, that localities will be able to claim a share of the revenues, and the profits might well be reinvested in Iraq.

All this will be far less likely if the companies owned by foreign governments, notably China, emerge with operational control — but not impossible. And it will be almost certainly impossible if the international oil companies, like Shell and Exxon, obtain operational control….

The oil workers are very sensitive to this, and they’re fighting it. There’s already sabotage in the first of the contracts implemented because local leaders and unions don’t feel that local suppliers and local workers have gotten a fair share. So that contract is stalled because the local resistance is stopping it.

This same dynamic is going to multiply across all these contracts. And now, the new parliament was elected on a platform that these contracts have to be abrogated and re-written to give full guarantees for Iraqi control of the oil. So I think that is where the struggle is, because the economy of Iraq depends on what happens to the economy of oil.

Last month, workers’ pushed back against oppression on all fronts with a single direction action: hundreds struck at a major refinery site near Basra, to demand fairer working conditions and more equitable wages. Their demands reflected underlying frustration with central government policies and labor’s systematic disenfranchisement.

Fearing a potential crack down by security forces, union leader Hassan Jumaa described the bleak challenges activists faced under the current regime. To deploy security forces and to issue warrants of arrests against the protestors,” he told Iraq Oil Report, is normal in the new democracy and in the state of Maliki. This is the new democracy.” 

It’s impossible to predict whether Iraq’s new democracy” will take a different direction in the new Parliament. But there are signs that the pro-labor activism is gathering momentum. Last September, representatives of Iraqi trade unions met with delegates of international financial institutions to discuss possible reform of Iraq’s social welfare policies.

In an interview published in an Iran-based outlet, Salam Ali of the Central Committee of the Iraqi Communist Party, called that the robust voter turnout, in spite of election day violence, clear evidence of the determination of the people to consolidate democratic practice through the ballot box, and to continue the fight for a fully independent and sovereign, unified, democratic and federal Iraq.”

A true pluralistic democracy may be far off on Iraq’s fractious horizon, but in the meantime, Iraqi labor leaders are pushing Parliament to finally codify basic labor protections and organizing rights. Having survived dictatorship, war and occupation, Iraq’s labor movement isn’t done struggling, but it’s about ready to turn a corner.

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Michelle Chen is a contributing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a contributing editor at Dissent and a co-producer of the Belabored” podcast. She studies history at the CUNY Graduate Center. She tweets at @meeshellchen.

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