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A David and Goliath Story

Iraqi Labor vs. Big Oil

by KATHLYN STONE

According to British media, the US and UK governments are on track to achieve a March victory in Iraq. This victory will not be publicized nor will it mean an end to the occupation.

Written by Bush and Blair’s big oil business partners who serve as the leaders’ advisors on foreign policy, the new Iraq hydrocarbon law opens the door for international investors, led by BP, Exxon and Shell, to siphon off 75 percent of Iraq oil wealth for 30 years. This economic model is called a Production Sharing Agreement." But is a 75/25 split, with bloated oil companies taking 75 percent of the country’s wealth and leaving just 25 percent for the devastated Iraqis, a sharing agreement or an a! rmed ro bbery?

The law is cur rently under consideration in the Iraq Parliament, with deputy prime minister Salih, chair of the oil committee, carrying the legislation.

Iraq’s unions, if not its occupied government, are standing firm against the oil law. With the oil sector representing 95 percent of the country’s revenues, and with only 17 of Iraq’s 80 known oil fields under production, much is at stake.

The General Union of Oil Employees in Basra has taken a strong stand against the proposed law. GUOE’s courageous members booted KBR, the Halliburton subsidiary, out of refinery workplaces shortly after the invasion despite Cheney’s award of a ‘no bid’ contract. Members also went on a two-day strike last August, winning their demands for higher pay. From what one can glean from foreign press and unfiltered words from Iraq, so does every other union in Iraq. In his February 6 speech at a conference held a t Basra University to debate the oil law, GUOE president Hassan Jumaa Awad al Assadi minced no words. "Among the objectives America wishes to achieve from the military occupation of Iraq, all the causes of which we do not want to return to, but simply to emphasize one central objective of the American political leaders who crossed oceans and wasted billions of dollars, that is Iraqi oil. Indeed we in the Federation of Oil Unions consider this the most important reason for this foul war."

Assadi, who was jailed three times for opposing the former Baath regime, called on Iraq’s Parliament to "bear the Iraqis in mind, to protect the national wealth, and to look at the neighboring countries. Have they introduced such laws even when their relations with foreign companies are closer than in Iraq? If those calling for production-sharing agreements insist on acting against the will of Iraqis, we say to them that histor! y will not forgive those who play recklessly with the wealth and destiny of a people and that the curse of heaven and the fury of Iraqis will not leave them."

The oil workers must be braced for a response. After GUOE’s first anti-privatization conference last summer, the U.S. and Iraqi governments responded by freezing the union’s bank accounts.

Union members have been arrested and fired from their jobs. At least two union leaders, Hadi Saleh, of the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unionists (IFTU) and Ali Hassan Abd of the GUOW, were assassinated since the invasion.

Saddam Hussein’s 1987 Law 150, banning unions and union organizing remains in effect. In 2004 U.S. administrator Paul Bremer declared them illegal.

The Iraq Freedom Congress, a non-violent anti-occupation movement of u! nion wo rkers, intellectuals, community leaders, womens’ and childrens’ rights activists, political parties, and individual citizens, has been working for two years to unify Iraqi unions and all citizens and create a democratic, secular, progressive government. It opposes the armed resistance and believes the coalition forces have orchestrated the sectarian violence. Some IFC leaders are also union heads who were jailed for union organizing during the Saddam Hussein regime. In September 2006, its Baghdad office was raided by U.S. troops.

Iraq unions and Iraq Freedom Congress are finding support for their resistance from other unionists, humanists, the international solidarity movement and every day citizens who know the occupation of Iraq is all about controlling the w! orld’s oil. In Japan, South Korea, Switzerland, Portugal, It aly, the UK, the United States and other countries, citizens are joining in solidarity with Iraqi workers. They are sending money to strengthen Iraqi unions, support conferences, support travel for union and IFC leaders, aid in rebuilding the civil society, and new communication channels like SANA TV that will bring unfiltered messages of unity to the Iraqi people.

The UK group War On Want is in a battle against poverty and works for international workers’ rights. It supports ! the Gen eral Union of Oil Employees based in Basra in its campaign against the privatization of Iraqi oil.

"Oil is the most important natural resource in Iraq, bringing in huge amounts of revenue," ac cording to War On Want. "Yet while the Iraqi people struggle to rebuild their nation amidst constant violence, Iraqi oil is being sold off behind closed doors to foreign multinationals.

"The overwhelming majority of Iraqis are opposed to the privatisation of their oil, yet the government has denied that privatisation is actually taking place. What’s more, the contracts being signed exempt companies from new laws which could affect their profits, so they can continue to subject their workers to inhumane working conditions which place their health and safety at risk…. War on Want supports the oil workers union in their fight against privatisation and their campaign for international solidarity for the plight of the oil workers."

The venerable War Resistors League expressed its solidarity with Iraq’s unions in 2004 with this statement: "Union organizing efforts have begun in the Southern Oil Company and amon g employees in various Iraqi electrical facilities. Workers have won wage increases and better working conditions. We respectfully urge the expansion of nonviolence in the crucial context of labor organizing."

US Labor Against the War, a network of more than 140 unions, labor councils, state federations, and other labor organizations with millions of members, hosted six leaders of the Iraqi trade union movement on a 20-city U.S. solidarity tour in summer 2005. USLAW has established an Iraqi Labor Solidarity Fund to help the workers "defend themselves against the invasion of U.S. and other multinational corporations like Bechtel, Halliburton, and Stevedoring Services! of Ame rica the same anti-union companies we face at home." USLAW states: "The U.S. and the government it created can not claim to be for democracy while attempting to strangle Iraq’s labor movement." USLAW has asked labor and social justice activists across the United States to protest the interference with unions that are fighting to defend the interests of Iraq’s society.

Remember the tale of David and Goliath? People from many nations are telling their leaders they will not stand by and let an entire country be sacrificed to corruption and aggression. We can hope and work for an outcome in Iraq that favors union workers who struggle valiantly, like David, and hope that they are successful in felling the Giant oil industry, huge in stature like Goliath, but blinded by greed. We know how the story ends.

KATHLYN STONE is a Twin Cities, Minnesota-based writer covering science, health policy, the economy and international relations. She has been writing about Iraq labor unions since 2005.