Wouldn’t it be a profound retort to empire if Iraqis led a global movement for worker’s rights? Next Friday in fact, June 11, a coalition of labor groups will stand behind an Iraqi appeal for the right to self-organize.
“Workers are in urgent need to build strong and broad-based organizations which are not based on language or religion,” says Aso Jabbar, international spokesperson for the Union of Unemployed Iraqis, one of several worker-based groups organized in the aftermath of the recent US invasion.
This June marks the second year in a row that international labor groups are gathering in support of Jabbar and other Iraqi labor organizers as the United Nations convenes its annual meeting of the International Labor Organization (ILO).
Next Friday, Iraqi labor representatives plan to deliver formal complaints to the ILO, protesting the labor policies of provisional authorities in Iraq.
In effect, Iraqi labor organizers accuse US-backed authorities of setting up the national equivalent of a company union, ignoring the rights of workers to organize their own shops and elect their own leaders.
According to materials posted at reputable labor sources, such as Eric Lee’s LaborStart, Iraqi labor organizers waded right into the chaos of war and began organizing unions as early as March 2003. At a decisive March 16 conference (in 2003), a dissident labor movement, WDTUM, that had been opposing Saddam Hussein’s labor practices since 1980, was folded into an exploratory organization called the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions (IFTU) with newly elected officers.
>From May to December, 2003, numerous independent unions were organized under the IFTU umbrella. The organizing campaign was formally announced on May 10, 2003. One of the independent unions that emerged was UUI.
“UUI is a strong organisation of unemployed people that raises the banner of jobs or unemployed insurance to confront the massive unemployment,” says Jabbar.
“It was the first union to organize demonstrations to end the occupation in Iraq. As a result UUI organized more than 13 demonstrations and a sit-in strike for more than 48 days in Baghdad and other cities in Iraq, and held more than 13 sessions of negotiation with the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) for the demands of unemployed people in Iraq. Tens of thousands of people joined UUI and internationally it became a well-known union.”
The 2003 organizing drive culminated on Dec. 8 with an Iraqi Labor Congress held in Baghdad. At the Baghdad congress (did we hear about this on Fox News?) the exploratory umbrella group was formalized into an organization called the FWCUI or Federation of Workers Councils and Unions in Iraq.
“They elected the leading committee and Falah Alwan as general secretary of FWCUI,” says Jabbar. “Alwan published the first independent workers newspaper named ‘Workers Council,’ depending only on the energy and donation of workers themselves. In a short time this paper became a well known source of news about workers’ struggle and strikes.” UUI is one of the member unions of FWCUI.
But this worker-organized movement was shoved aside by provisional authorities who announced their own top-down leadership, drawing on labor leaders who had served under the old state-run system.
On March 15, 2004, an international delegation of labor representatives joined Jabbar in delivering a memorandum to the ILO office in Geneva.
Says the memo in part, “the reconstruction of Iraq and the introduction of democratic self-rule will only succeed if the Iraqi people themselves exercise their sovereignty to develop the reconstruction process as they see fit.this is especially true with regard to Iraq’s workers, most of whom are currently unemployed and who fear that their economic well-being has been taken out of their control and in fact depends on the occupying forces.”
The memo goes on to argue that the ILO should enforce the right of Iraqi workers to organize themselves, elect their own leaders, and in effect, begin to connect the dry bones of Iraq’s democracy.
Meanwhile, Jabbar argues that the structure of the emerging Iraqi government, “based on ethnic and religious considerations is an obstacle in the face of building strong and wide-boarded labour unions which would not recognise people according to their ethnicities or religious identities.”
“I will summarise the practical meaning of democracy of Bush in Iraq,” says Jabbar.
“It is occupation of Iraq, establishment of a puppet government with the ethnic and reactionary Islamic groups, unconditional support of US government to Israeli aggression in middle east, 13 years of economic embargo and killing as a result of sanction more than 1.5 million people in Iraq. The double standard of US democracy has removed any illusion about that calling for democracy in Iraq; it’s only war propaganda, and has nothing to do with real democracy and freedom for Iraqi people. Even today we must determine and redefine democracy because of the abuse of this word. For us freedom is the main object and not a democracy.”
There you have it. Bush’s campaign for democracy in Iraq has ruined the very term democracy as a tool of progress. Next Friday in Geneva, the movement continues. Can the ILO enforce the rights of Iraqi workers against the forces of OIL? Can workers of the world…
[note: Jabbar quotes taken from materials emailed to the author, available to editors on request]