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Is Iraq's main union fighting occupation?

January 28, 2005 | Page 6

THE ASSASSINATION of Iraqi trade unionist Hadi Salih in early January has brought into the open a debate over the character of labor organizations in U.S.-occupied Iraq.

Particularly at issue is the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions, where Salih served as International Officer. The IFTU has a record of supporting both U.S. occupation authorities and the U.S.-backed interim government of Prime Minister Iyad Allawi. IFTU is closely connected to the Iraqi Communist Party (ICP), which has also supported the occupation and participated in the Allawi regime.

The question of how antiwar activists can relate to unions and workers' organization in Iraq has been especially pressing for U.S. Labor Against War (USLAW), an umbrella organization for antiwar labor groups around the U.S. After Salih's assassination, several leading members of USLAW issued a statement in the name of the group that not only condemned the murder, but praised the role of the IFTU--sparking a debate among members.

Here, MICHAEL LETWIN, co-convener of New York City Labor Against War and a member of the USLAW National Steering Committee, responds to the USLAW statement and sets the record straight about the IFTU.

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MY CRITICISM of USLAW's statement on Hadi Salih was not motivated by "ideological" prejudice; in fact, NYCLAW cosponsored (and I co-chaired) the main USLAW Iraq labor tour forum in New York City, at which 250 people donated $800, some of it for the IFTU.

I would certainly have not have objected to USLAW's statement on Hadi Salih had it simply condemned his assassination, pointed out that "[t]he ultimate source of violence in Iraq is the U.S. occupation," and demanded "Bring the troops home now."

What I did object to was the attempt to whitewash the IFTU's collaboration with the very war and occupation that USLAW was created to oppose. This was reflected in the statement's misleading assertions that "[t]he Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions calls for the end of the occupation and the U.S. war"; that "U.S. Labor Against the War shares [Salih's] vision of a peaceful and progressive Iraq"; that "Hadi Salih was killed because of his commitment and dedication to making Iraq a democratic and progressive country"; and that the Iraqi resistance assassinated Salih in order "to terrorize Iraq's labor movement, and other parts of its civil society, to keep them from seeking any peaceful means of gaining political power in the interest of its working people."

In reality, the IFTU reflects the views of the "[t]he Iraqi Communist Party (ICP) [which] totally supports the client regime of Iyad Allawi and has one senior and two junior ministers in his cabinet," wrote Ardeshir Mehrdad in Iran Bulletin Middle East Forum in November 2004. "The ICP equates the armed resistance with fundamentalist terrorism, and thereby approves the suppression of the resistance."

As Guardian columnist and antiwar activist Sami Ramadani points out, both the ICP and IFTU remained silent as the U.S. obliterated Falluja.

As reported to the USLAW conference in December, the IFTU blocked an "Out Now" resolution at the British Labour Party conference in October, where it "was not merely supportive of the continued military occupation of his country, but could also be read as supportive of the original invasion of Iraq," according to the Stop the War coalition, Britain's largest antiwar organization.

Earlier this month, reported the Switzerland-based Federation of Workers' Councils and Unions in Iraq, "In collaboration with the [Iraqi Petrochemical and Plastic Manufactures Company] administration, [the IFTU] threatened workers with sacking, jailing and killing to force them call off a strike organized early this month. They justified these oppressive actions by referring to resolutions passed by Allawi's government, which ban union activity and install IFTU as the only legal union."

As Mehrdad recently observed, "The giving over of some executive positions to the leaders of the Communist Party of Iraq, or the recognition of the trade union linked to this party [the IFTU] is a price the Pentagon and CIA are prepared to pay for their support in repressing the resistance...By signing into this policy, groups such as the [Iraqi Communist Party] show either ignorance or treachery."

Ewa Jasiewicz, who has lived in Iraq for much of the past two years--where she helped facilitate USLAW's 2003 delegation to Iraq--reports "that more and more people, both within and outside Iraq, are viewing the IFTU, as it stands now, as an obstacle to genuine worker empowerment and direct, participatory democracy in Iraq and will oppose it, angrily and uncompromisingly."

Thus, Jasiewicz questions whether Salih's assassination (which she too condemns), "is related to his activities as a union organizer." Rather, she believes that Salih may have been killed because "there is no neutrality or security for a trade union federation which is so enmeshed with a political party [the Iraqi Communist Party] which is collaborating heavily with the occupation in Iraq and remaining silent on the massacres being perpetrated daily against the civilian population there."

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