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Making a Comeback

Iraq’s Labor Unions

by DAVID MACARAY

Given that unions in the United States and Europe continue to be co-opted, usurped, assaulted, demonized, marginalized, and traumatized—pick your poison—it seems both ironic and fantastic that organized labor could be on the ascendancy in a country as troubled and improbable as war-torn Iraq.  But fantastic or not, it’s true.  Day by day, member by member, Iraq’s labor unions continue to gain support.

Actually, a home-grown Iraqi labor movement isn’t as improbable as it seems.  In fact, when you examine its history, you discover the country has a genuine, if modest, labor lineage going back many decades.  Beginning shortly after the end of WWI hostilities, Iraqi workers—led by longshoremen, petroleum and railway employees, and in defiance of their British masters—joined together to establish a formidable organizing network. 

Jumping ahead to 1959, there were already an estimated 250,000 union members in Iraq.  Then, just as the movement seemed on the verge of taking off, the whole edifice came crashing down.  In 1963, a Baathist regime took over the country (with the CIA’s help) and all but decimated the unions.  By 1968, Iraq’s organized labor infrastructure had been demoralized, corrupted and reduced to a Baathist public relations tool.

When Saddam Hussein seized power, in 1979, it was more of the same. By insisting that all the jobs in the country belonged to the Iraqi state and that all the workers were, therefore, government employees (“civil servants”), Saddam expropriated the labor movement in both name and deed.  He went so far as to decree that the term “worker” no longer be used. 

With everyone in the country gainfully employed and under the paternal care of the state, Saddam officially declared that there was no longer a need for anything as anachronistic and unreliable as trade unions.  The Iraqi labor movement was effectively made invisible, driven underground.  According to Political Risk Services (a corporate consulting group), from the early 1970s to the overthrow of Saddam, there were zero strikes in the country.

Remarkably, the post-Saddam era changed everything.  Today there are three relatively large labor federations in the country, the largest of which is the General Federation of Iraqi Workers (GFIW), formed in 2005 and formerly known as the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions (IFTU).  There is a teachers’ union in Iraq, a journalists’ union, an engineers’ union, an oil and gas union, a carpenters’ union, a journeymen electricians’ union; there is an organization called the Syndicate Union of Kurdistan Workers.  The diversity and vitality are astonishing.

Obviously, while organized labor has definitely gained a foothold, it has a ways to go.  The fledgling Iraqi government, including the American occupational forces, still looks upon the GFIW and the other federations with a jaundiced eye.  Behind the scenes, American mega-corporations such as Bechtel and Halliburton have sought to undermine the Iraqi labor movement, having, predictably, carried with them across the Atlantic Ocean their vehemently anti-union policies. 

Workers’ collectives have always drawn opposition, and Iraq’s defiantly independent federations are no exception.  Threatened by their growing stature and unwillingness to go along with the program, even the insurgency took time away from its bloody engagement with the American invaders to mount attacks against the unions.  In 2005, insurgents murdered Hadi Saleh, a former federation leader. 

Approximately 70-percent of the Iraqi economy is state-owned.  And because it wasn’t until recently that it even became legal to unionize public sector workers, the overwhelming majority of the workforce still remains non-union (as it is in the U.S.).  It will be an uphill battle tapping into that sector.  Still, even with those obstacles facing them, Iraq’s unions are on the ascendancy.

The original IFTU, formed in May of 2003, was and remains affiliated with the Iraqi Communist Party (founded in 1934), and under its new name the GFIW is the only “officially recognized” labor group in the country.  The other two organizations are the Federation of Workers Councils and Unions in Iraq (FWCUI) and the Federation of Oil Unions in Iraq (FOUI)—more or less competitors of the GFIW.  All three federations have ties with the Iraqi Communist Party.

The tendency to view Iraq (or any Moslem country, for that matter) as a religious-cultural monolith is set on its head by the presence of an active communist party.  Yet, given communism’s ideological underpinnings (i.e., atheistic dialectical materialism), the notion of doctrinaire Iraqi Marxists capering in the desert with twitchy Islamic fundamentalists is stubbornly counterintuitive.

But counterintuitive or not, it’s true.  Secular Iraq has had a significant communist influence since the 1940s, manifested by peasant uprisings, organizing drives, and the progressive leadership of the ultra-nationalist but “benign autocrat,” Abdul Karim Qasim, who, in 1958, abolished the monarchy and became Iraq’s first prime minister.  One of Qasim’s first acts was repealing the official ban on the communist party.  Had Qasim not been overthrown by the Baathists, there’s no telling how strong labor could have become. 

What the presence of a vigorous labor movement in today’s Iraq most reveals—more than testimony to the human spirit, more than evidence of Iraq’s healthy secularism, more, even, than the dangers in making glib or sweeping generalizations—is the resilience and universality of worker solidarity. 

While an American tourist walking the streets of Baghdad (or Damascus or Cairo) might feel ill at ease—not only out of place, but confused and vaguely threatened by the strangeness of the sights, sounds and customs—a unionized Iraqi oil worker and an American Teamster or UAW member would instantly recognize a fraternal bond. 

These union members would recognize that they not only share a common destiny, but they speak a universal language.  And despite the fact that their life experiences are an ocean, an epoch, a civilization apart, that recognition, that natural affinity, has to be profoundly gratifying.

DAVID MACARAY, a Los Angeles playwright, is the author of “It’s Never Been Easy:  Essays on Modern Labor” (available at Amazon, Borders, Barnes & Noble, etc.) He can be reached at dmacaray@earthlink.net