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Iraqi workers strike against U.S. oil grab

By Lee Sustar | June 22, 2007 | Pages 1 and 4

A STRIKE by Iraqi oil workers ended this month after the U.S.-backed government made concessions to workers--but not before it issued arrest warrants for union leaders and sent troops to threaten strikers.

Now, the struggle over Iraqi oil is set to escalate, as the commander of U.S. occupation forces demands that the Iraqi parliament pass an oil privatization law dictated by the U.S. government and Western oil corporations.

The proposed law loomed behind the strike, which began June 4 over the government's failure to honor pledges made to the 26,000-member Federation of Oil Unions of Iraq (FOUI), including a consultative role in the proposed oil law. The union also wanted to raise wages, and improve health care benefits and working conditions.

The strike affected pipelines delivering oil to Iraqi cities, including Baghdad, but not the oil exports that earn Iraq its badly needed oil revenues.

Nevertheless, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki took a hard line, vowing to use "an iron fist" to maintain oil production. Government arrest warrants on charges of "sabotaging the economy" named FOUI leader Hassan Juma'a Awad and other union officials.

"Workers on the pipelines carrying oil from the rigs in the south to Baghdad's big refinery stopped work," wrote labor journalist David Bacon. "It was a very limited job action, which still allowed the Iraqi economy to function...

"Some of the oil workers' demands reflect the desperate situation of workers under the occupation. They want their employer--the government's oil ministry--to pay for wage increases and promised vacations, and give permanent status to thousands of temporary employees. In a country where housing has been destroyed on a massive scale, and workers often live in dilapidated and primitive conditions, the union wants the government to turn over land for building homes.

"Every year, the oil institute has miraculously continued holding classes and training technicians, yet the ministry won't give work to graduates, despite the war-torn industry's desperate need for skilled labor. The union demands jobs and a future for these young people.

"But one demand overshadows even these basic needs--renegotiation of the oil law that would turn the industry itself over to foreign corporations."

The government threats were answered by statements of solidarity from the international oil workers' federation, the ICEM, as well as trade union federations from around the world, including the AFL-CIO. "Issuing a warrant for the arrest of the oil workers' leaders is an outrageous attack on trade union and democratic freedoms," said Sami Ramadani, an Iraqi based in Britain and founder of Naftana, a support committee for the FOUI.

The most influential Shiite Muslim religious leader in Iraq, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, stepped in to mediate the conflict and helped strike a deal June 11 that gave ground on some of the workers' economic issues.

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BUT THE question of who will control Iraq's enormous oil reserves--estimated at 115 billion barrels, the third largest in the world--remains unresolved. Two-thirds of those reserves are in southern Iraq, in fields worked by FOUI members.

The Iraqi government is apparently worried that if it opens discussion on the law--which still has not been formally introduced--to the FOUI, a nationalist backlash would ensue.

That's because the deal would put the oil under control of a Federal Oil and Gas Council, which would include outside consultants--namely, transnational oil corporations. The council would allow regionally based contracts with oil companies as well, in order to entice support from Iraqi Kurds and the Shiite rulers of southern Iraq.

"The law represents no less than institutionalized raping and pillaging of Iraq's oil wealth," journalist Pepe Escobar wrote earlier this year. "It represents the death knell of nationalized (from 1972 to 1975) Iraqi resources, now replaced by production sharing agreements (PSAs)--which translate into savage privatization and monster profit rates of up to 75 percent for (basically U.S.) Big Oil."

None of this appeared in mainstream coverage of the strike, noted Michael Schwartz, a left-wing expert on Iraq. "There is no mention of the real controversy that triggered the strike, or of successful earlier strikes by the oil workers that kept the Basra operation under Iraqi control, preventing it from being transferred to Bechtel," he wrote in a commentary distributed by e-mail.

Schwartz noted that the high quality of Iraqi crude allows production of a barrel of oil for less than $1.50, or even $1--around the lowest in the world. "It is not inconceivable that any major oil companies able to claim a large portion of the Iraqi oil spoils could double, triple or even quintuple their already gigantic global profits," Schwartz concluded.

Thus, the newly installed head of U.S. forces in Iraq, Adm. William Fallon, "told Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki that the Iraqi government should aim to complete a law on the division of oil proceeds by July," the New York Times reported June 12.

Fallon's attempt to fast-track the oil law amid the U.S. military's "surge" is likely to provoke more resistance in Iraqi oil fields and beyond.

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