Solidarity with Iraqi trade unions

September 18, 2009

WASHINGTON--On September 8, more than 60 people gathered in an area church to hear union activists from Iraq describe conditions for working people--as well as the struggles of Iraq's still illegal union movement.

The event was hosted by Ron Pinchback, general manager of WPFW, the local Pacifica station, and featured representatives from five unions. Following the discussion, there were presentations by local activists from Empower D.C., One D.C., the American Federation of Government Employees Local 71 and Iraq Veterans Against the War, who discussed the connections between their struggles and the struggles in Iraq.

Rasim Awadi, of the General Federation of Iraqi Workers (GFIW), opened the panel discussion with an explanation of the horrible conditions for Iraqi workers. The GFIW is the result of a merger of a union associated with Baathists and one associated with the Iraqi Communist Party (ICP).

Despite the ICP's earlier support for the U.S. occupation, Awadi made it clear that the Iraqi people "have not benefited from U.S. intervention." He detailed the continuing lack of electricity and water in Baghdad, which has had a devastating effect on agriculture and the health of Iraqis.

Furthermore, he said the Ministry of Oil and the Ministry of Industry have continued to violate workers' rights. All of this, he said, is a result of the war imposed on Iraq. "We wish for the working class in Iraq to stand united against this oppression, " Awadi concluded.

The panelists further explained how the U.S. occupation is continuing to lead to a deterioration of the status of women. Awadi said that the occupation has led to the politicization of religion by those who ignore the rights that Islam actually gives women. Women's unemployment is way up, both because unemployment as a whole is high and because women are afraid of what will happen to them as they commute to work.

Falah Alwan, of the Federation of Workers Councils and Unions in Iraq (FWCUI), a group associated with the Workers Communist Party of Iraq, a non-Stalinist revolutionary party, added that many Iraqi women are now the victims of human trafficking. They are often girls under the age of 16 who are sold off to neighboring countries in the Gulf for prostitution.

Despite these conditions, Iraqi trade unions have continued their struggle and made some gains. Hassan Awad of the Iraqi Federation of Oil Unions (IFOU), which has won some impressive gains through strikes and workplace action, pointed out that the one piece of Saddam Hussein's legislation that the U.S. kept on the books was the one banning strikes and labor unions in the public sector.

Since most of industry remains in the public sector this means a virtual ban on Iraqi workers' right to organize. Yet organize they do. Awad pointed out that even the Minster of Oil admitted that the proposed oil law, which would give U.S. companies access to Iraq's natural resources, is only being blocked because of the efforts of the IFOU and other unions.

The law, Awad claims, which is supported by both the Bush and Obama administrations, reveals the true intentions of the U.S. occupiers. "The US did not come to save the Iraqi people from Saddam Hussein, but to control these natural resources," he said.

Two representatives from Kurdish unions were also present. They each represented a union tied with the PUK and the KDP, the two ruling parties of Kurdistan. In contrast to the other panelists, they said very little, except that conditions in Kurdistan were good and that unions enjoyed all freedoms, including freedom of speech.

The panelists were optimistic for the ability of the Iraqi working class to make an impact on the direction of Iraq. But they were not so optimistic that the new U.S. administration would bring about improvements. Awadi said, "The politics of the Obama adminstration are not clear" and "Obama has no plan for Iraq."

Awad was even more biting in his criticism. "It is a lie that the U.S. will withdraw in 2011." There is already an expansion of U.S. and British bases in Iraq, and so much personnel and equipment cannot be withdrawn so quickly, he added.

Alwan added, "The future of the Iraqi working class is not tied to the will of U.S. leaders. This is the CNN worldview--the choices are only Bush or bin Laden, and they ignore the working class. The picture in the media is not reality. Iraqi society is very diverse. We have socialists, religious people and secular people, but this diversity is not shown. The future if Iraqi workers is based on the decisions of their leaders and how they relate to the rank and file."

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