Striking in occupied Iraq

February 21, 2011

Falah Alwan, president of the Federation of Workers Councils and Unions in Iraq, reports on the wave of accelerating workers' actions across Iraq.

THERE HAVE been many strikes and protests happening in the last few weeks. There have been strikes in the leather industry in Baghdad, in a textile factory in Kut, protests by workers in the Northern Oil Company in Kirkuk, electricity workers' protests in Basra, and preparations for another demonstration by politically dismissed workers.

The strikes in the [state-owned] leather industries were held on February 1. The workers called for safety benefits and remunerations. They wanted to expose the lies of the administration about the bankruptcy of their company. They have more than one contract with the Ministry of Defense, the Ministry of Trade and other ministries to provide them with leather goods. The third demand was against "self-financing", which is a kind of privatization.

The strike continued for two weeks, until February 14. The administration promised to answer the workers' demands, except the demand for safety.

In Kut, there was a strike in a textile factory. This factory employs more than 7,000 workers. They struck because of the intention of the administration to reduce their retirement benefit. They shut down all parts of the factory. Because of the situation in that factory, U.S. troops came directly to the factory and surrounded it. The administration has promised to answer the workers' demands, but there are no official or written documents, only a "promise."

Iraqi oilworkers at a refinery outside Baghdad
Iraqi oilworkers at a refinery outside Baghdad

Oil workers employed by the Northern Oil Company in Kirkuk have also been protesting. They have a particular system of contracts; they want to be full-time employees and have full contracts with the company. They have been working on the current system of temporary contacts for more than 10 years, but the administration has refused their demands.

They threatened to hold a strike and stop oil production. There was a lot of support for them from the oil unions in Basra and other provinces. Their committees, especially those which affiliate to the FWCUI, threatened to hold a support strike in Basra. They are preparing for a strike in the event that the Ministry of Oil refuses to answer the demands of the Northern Oil Company.

Two or three of the main workers' committees in the south, at the pipelines and refineries in Basra, met last on 11 February. I attended the meeting, and they said they are prepared to take strike action in solidarity with the Northern Oil Company workers. There has been no action yet, but I think the workers are very supportive.

There is also an issue around workers working for foreign companies earning more than workers working for Iraqi companies; the oil workers' committees in the south is calling for the lower-paid group of workers to be brought up to the same levels of pay and benefits. They are also prepared to strike over this issue.

The main committee organizing workers at the Northern Oil Company is affiliated to the GFIW. I have spoken with the president of this committee, and he is resolved to continue his struggle against the administration at the company and against the Ministry of Oil.

In Basra itself, electricity workers demonstrated for two days. Workers who work in high towers to connect electricity to other stations get extra benefits for this risky and dangerous work, but the Ministry of Electricity is refusing to pay this benefit. The workers held their first day of demonstrations inside the electricity station, and the second day was in front of the government buildings in Basra.

There are preparations underway for a big demonstration by the politically dismissed workers alongside industrial workers. It was planned for February 28, but because of the situation in Iraq and the series of strikes and demonstrations, we discussed and decided to hold it on February 25, when there is another big demonstration planned.

The Ministry of Industry plans to answer three or four of the politically dismissed workers. One was to delay the cut in salaries, and the second was to cancel the punitive measure of making the workers pay back what they were paid before the cut in salaries. These decrees were cancelled. Other ministries, such as the Ministry of Agriculture, have not done so, but the workers are planning to impose pressure to force them to do so.

Unemployed workers and students have also been demonstrating in Kut, Baghdad, Basra and Nasiriyah. There were mass demonstrations in Baghdad and in the south of Iraq to call for services and jobs. They are also calling for freedom of expression and for an end to the repression of demonstrations and other kinds of protest.

OVER THE last two weeks, we have been in contact with workers in Egypt, including the leaders of the new independent unions. Our attitude is that we want the workers in Iraq to follow the same model and hold vast demonstrations and protests. We are also in contact with workers' organization in Tunisia and Algeria.

The participation and influence of workers and their unions in the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt is very clear. They were the leaders of the demonstrations. In Iraq, we have had a series of workers' protests since 2005 and especially since the ending of most sectarian warfare in 2007-2008. A new layer of workers' leaders has emerged and has been leading demonstrations.

Now, because of the new wave of workers' struggle in the Middle East as a whole and especially in Egypt, more workers in Iraq are encouraged to take part in demonstrations and protests. We are building for new strategies for the workers' movement in Iraq, to be part of the changing political situation.

There are mass demands calling for change in Iraq; most demonstrators are calling for an end to the existing parliament and to elect a new one. It is a wave of change in Iraq, and I think the workers are ready to take part in this because we have experience of more than five years of protests, demonstrations and strikes. To build support, activists worldwide can make sure these reports are spread as widely as possible to inform people of the realities inside Iraq.

The governments want to show another image to confuse the masses from the reality of demonstrations and their demands. For example, the Iraqi authorities have been talking about the role of Baathists in the demonstrations in an attempt to frighten people and prevent them taking part.

They have been saying the demonstration on February 25 will be bloody and that the Baathists will be armed and that they will attack peaceful gatherings. We need to tell people that the workers themselves want to hold the demonstrations. It is the workers, the unemployed, students, young people, the freedom lovers who want to change things, not the Baathists and fascist parties in Iraq. We need to widely distribute the reports of the workers in Iraq.

We will take part in the demonstration on 25 February; it could be a very big step forward for workers' struggle and the independent workers' movement.

Further Reading

From the archives