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In Iraq, Labor Protest is a Crime

by DAVID BACON

Iraq’s legal code may be in disarray. The streets of Baghdad may be filled with thieves and hijackers who seem to have little fear of being arrested. But US occupation authorities seem to have no trouble identifying one crime, at least. For the four million people out of work in Iraq, protest is against the law.

On July 29, US occupation forces in Iraq arrested a leader of Iraq’s new emerging labor movement, Kacem Madi, along with 20 other members of the Union of the Unemployed. The unionists had been conducting a sit-in to protest the treatment of unemployed Iraqi workers by the US occupation authority, and the fact that contracts for work rebuilding the country have been given overwhelmingly to US corporations.

Their protest started when hundreds of unemployed workers gathered in front of an old bank building on Abu Nawas Street.. From there they marched to the office of the ruling occupation council. According to Zehira Houfani, a member of the Iraq Solidarity Project in Canada, who witnessed the protest, workers in similar demonstrations in the past had normally dispersed at that point. Each time, however, Madi told Houfani, “the representatives of the occupation forces meet and discuss with us, promise to solve the problem, but each time their promises are not fulfilled and we are forced to take to the streets again.”

On this occasion they decided to step up the pressure on US authorities. In the time-honored tradition of workers from Mexico to the Philippines, they set up a planton, or a tent encampment, outside the council gates. US soldiers on guard ordered them to disperse, but the workers refused. Night fell. Then, at one in the morning the soldiers returned, arrested 21 protesters, and took them inside the compound, where they were held until the following morning.

One arrested union member, 58-year old Ali Djaafri, told Houfani that the experience was “very humiliating. At no other time during the occupation,” he said, “has my resentment towards the US soldiers been that strong.”

The unemployment rate is over 50% in cities like Baghdad. Madi estimates that four million Iraqi workers have no jobs. Thousands of public-sector workers employed by the former government lost their jobs after the war. Many provided services from healthcare to education, and those services have yet to be restored. There is no money to pay those workers, nor an Iraqi government to employ them. Even the records of their employment went up in flames in the looting which followed the occupation of Baghdad.

Thousands more worked in former government-owned enterprises. Many of those have been closed down, and occupation authorities have announced their intention to privatize huge sections of the former economy.

That all adds up to thousands of working families facing an extreme economic crisis. The new union for unemployed workers has become the fastest-growing, largest labor organization in the country as a result.

At the same time, the issue of the foreign contracts has become a hot controversy among Iraqi workers because the US corporations bring workers into the country to work under those contracts. A Kuwaiti firm subcontracting to the US construction giant Kellogg, Brown and Root, for instance, was recently found to be bringing Asian workers into the port of Basra to perform repair and reconstruction work. Meanwhile, Iraqi workers with long years of experience sit idle.

Kacem Madi and other unemployed leaders led the sit-in protest over this discrimination, and announced that they would continue their demonstrations until they either received jobs or some kind of unemployment payment. But occupation authorities, instead of trying to address the problem, arrested them. International labor organizations, including the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (of which the AFL-CIO is a member) have sharply criticized the desperate situation of Iraqi workers. “Ensuring respect for workers’ rights, including freedom of association, must be central to building a democratic Iraq and to ensuring sustainable economic and social development,” the ICFTU said in a statement made May 30. “Democracy must have roots. It requires free elections, but also mass based, democratic trade unions that help secure it and protect it as well as being schools of democracy.”

Arab trade unionists are even more critical of the occupation’s effect on workers. According to Hacene Djemam, General Secretary of the International Confederation of Arab Trade Unions, “war makes privatization easy: first you destroy the society and then you let the corporations rebuild it.” He emphasized that Iraqi workers must be able to form unions of their own choosing.

Unfortunately, the corporations who have been granted contracts for work in Iraq by the Bush administration have long records of fighting unions and violating labor rights. In May, Amy Newell, national coordinator of US Labor Against the War, and former executive secretary of the Monterey/Santa Cruz Central Labor Council, went to Geneva to present a report to international labor bodies, highlighting the record of 18 of those corporations.

USLAW is a network of unions and other labor organizations opposed to U.S. policy in Iraq. The organization charges that the U.S. government pays for a bloated military budget with severe cuts in domestic social programs. It grew out of the many demonstrations prior to the March 20 invasion, by which time unions representing almost one-third of all organized workers in the U.S. were on record against the war. At that time even the AFL-CIO itself publicly opposed the Bush administration’s Iraq policy.

Companies highlighted in the report made in Geneva include:

* Stevedoring Services of America. SSA was a leader in last year’s efforts by Pacific Coast shippers to lock out west coast longshore workers, and worked with the Bush administration to threaten the International Longshore and Warehouse Union with breaking up its coastwise agreement and bringing troops onto the docks. ILWU spokesperson Steve Stallone called SSA “ideologically anti-union and anti-ILWU.”

* MCI Worldcom. Worldcom has a long record of opposing worker efforts to organize. It declared bankruptcy in 2002 after fraudulently claiming $11 billion in earnings. As a result, the retirement savings of thousands of workers were completely wiped out, along with $2.6 billion in public pension funds. The Iraq contract was awarded after the company was fined $500 million by the Securities and Exchange Commission for its illegal fraud.

* Eight of the eighteen companies with the major contracts are completely non-union. Almost all have records of fighting any union organizing effort.

The USLAW report also discusses the track record of social responsibility of the corporations involved. It found a long history of corporate corruption and bribery (Halliburton Corp., which still pays $1 million a year to former director Vice President Dick Cheney), organizing mercenary armies (Dyncorp/Computer Sciences Corp.), and years of cooperation with repressive governments, from Hussein’s regime itself (Halliburton again, and San Francisco’s Bechtel Corp.) to the former apartheid regime in South Africa (Fluor Corp.)

“Prior to its suppression by the Hussein regime, Iraq enjoyed a robust and broadly representative labor movement,” the report concludes. [The pre-Hussein government was overthrown in a 1956 cold-war coup organized by the Central Intelligence Agency. ed] “Its legacy provides the seedbed for reestablishing an independent labor movement with internationally recognized workers’ rights to organize, bargain and strike. However, the occupying powers have invited into Iraq private corporations with an established record of labor, environmental and human rights violations. These corporations were chosen by the Bush administration, which itself is considered by many as the most anti- worker, union-hostile administration in modern U.S. history. This does not bode well for respect of workers rights in Iraq.”

If the arrest of Madi and the unemployed workers last month in Baghdad is any indication, that concern is well deserved.

DAVID BACON is a reporter and photographer specializing in labor issues. He can be reached at: dbacon@igc.org

 

 

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