What Iraqi Unionists are Trying to Teach America and Why We Can’t Hear Them

A comprehensive, nation-by-nation survey of worker’s rights got a 170-word write up last week in the “World in Brief” section of the Washington Post. So we can’t say that workers of the world were completely ignored.

Neither can we say that the Post was unselective in its choice of detail. Of 129 labor activists killed around the world in 2003, 90 were killed in Columbia alone, suggesting that the vortex of narco-politics is a meatgrinder for workers’ rights, too.

Nor was the Post standing alone last week in its preoccupation with other issues. Like wallpaper, the press lavished coverage upon a week-long funeral for that former President who was so sincere about freedom for the people that he broke the legs of public-sector unionism.

But last week, if you were eager to hear American journalists reporting from Geneva, where trade unions of the world were holding their most important annual gathering, in conjunction with the United Nations’ International Labor Organization (ILO), then you were taught another sad but predictable lesson about things a corporate press does not do.

On June 10, the Associated Press did write a 400-word summary of a 112-page global study on child labor that was released from the Geneva conference. “Sadly, many countries don’t see domestic child labor as a problem,” said author of the ILO study, June Kane. Of the ten million children affected, the AP spoke to none.

As for activities of the Iraqi unionists at Geneva, the only accounts I found were written by the embattled unionists themselves. Abdullah Muhsin, the London-based voice for the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions (IFTU) reports a very interesting conversation between his delegation and Korean unionists.

“The meeting focused on the presence of Korean troops in Iraq and the proposal for an additional 600 soldiers to go to Iraq to help with humanitarian needs for construction, and for medical aid,” reports Muhsin.

“The meeting also discussed the 30 June transfer of power to the Iraqis, the role of the UN and the proposed draft UN resolution on Iraq.”

“Both sides agreed,” reports Mushin, “that the occupation of Iraq must now end, that the UN must take a leading role in the [future] of Iraq and that real power and sovereignty must be handed to the transitional Iraqi government established on 30 June 2004.”

Muhsin’s report evades details of any conclusions that might have been reached during that conversation regarding the 600 additional Korean soldiers. Should they stay home? Should they come to Iraq only under UN supervision? An independent reporter might have pressed those questions.

Muhsin drops quite a few names and gives an impression of widely nurtured contacts. The IFTU is emerging from war as a leading voice of labor in Iraq. In the opinion of Owen Tudor, a leading organizer of Trade Union Councils (TUC) in Europe, the IFTU is one of the labor groups in Iraq that enjoys “genuine links with workers in workplaces,” and is, “more or less representative of ordinary workers.”

However, feisty opposition unionists in Iraq continue to question the credentials of Muhsin and IFTU. A Monday afternoon email (June 14) from Iraqi unionist Aso Jabbar relays an uncompromising statement by Falah Alwan, President of the Federation of Workers Councils and Unions in Iraq (FWCUI).

In the words of Alwan, “fascist traditions” are being continued in Iraq, because the provisional government is trying to designate one official union (Muhsin’s IFTU), and because unions are also being discouraged (in fine Reagan fashion) from organizing public service employees.

It is not yet clear how the “months old” unions of public sector employees will fare under the emerging Iraqi state. As Tudor explains in his brief review of history, public service unions had once thrived in Iraq before they were banned by Saddam Hussein in 1987 (the decade that began with Reagan’s 1981 order to fire the striking air-traffic controllers).

As for IFTU’s status as the only union to be recognized by the emerging Iraqi state, Alwan’s opposition union, FWCUI, claims more than 300 endorsers to its complaint, filed with the ILO, that the emerging government’s arrangement with IFTU violates workers’ basic rights to organize their own unions. So there is widespread agreement that the IFTU’s relationship to the developing Iraqi state is not healthy for workers of the world.

**On June 16, Jabbar provided via email a “final report” prepared by the Geneva delegation of the Campaign Against the Occupation and For Labour Rights in Iraq.

According to the 4-page report, a coalition of labor delegates did on June 11 present a formal complaint to the ILO Committee on Freedom of Association. A follow-up hearing is scheduled for November. While trying not to take sides regarding which union would be best for the Iraqi workers to choose, the labor coalition did lodge a complaint against the Iraqi governing council’s “Decree No. 16” that names the IFTU as the only state-approved union.

“It is up to the Iraqi workers themselves to decide freely and without any external interference the paths and means it will deem necessary for defending the workers’ interests in Iraq,” says the labor coalition’s final report. “We intend, moreover, to state most strongly that not one step can be made towards democracy if the workers’ right to freedom to organize is not completely respected.”**

In a Friday column for the Nation, labor reporter David Bacon, who also serves as an editor at the USLAW website, makes it clear that anti-war unionists in the USA are not choosing favorites. Bacon treats IFTU as a legitimate union, even if USLAW agrees that the Iraqi state has no legitimate right to name IFTU as the sole representative of Iraqi workers. USLAW’s fund drive promises to support both FWCUI and IFTU.

In the “Arab world,” it is widespread practice to name a single, state-designated union. If IFTU’s offical status violates workers’ rights to organize their own unions, so does every other state-approved union in the “Arab world.” In Februrary, a coalition of Arab NGO’s, headed by Hasan Barghouthi, announced an initiative to support more independence and democracy among trade unions in Arab nations. Barghouthi’s organizational website at dwrc.org is still under construction.

While the rest of the world may agree that IFTU should not serve as the exclusive, state-approved union for Iraqi workers, it is the IFTU which arrives in Geneva as the only “official delegation” listed by the ILO for the workers of Iraq.

Yet, in the subtle world of Iraq’s emerging politics, it is not quite true to say that IFTU is Iraq’s official delegation to ILO. The people mentioned by Muhsin as IFTU delegates are NOT listed by the ILO as belonging to IFTU. Instead, Muhsin and his colleagues are officially listed as “advisers” to the General Union of Trade Unions (GUTU?).

The name change from IFTU to GUTU, and the designation of Muhsin and company as “advisers” may have only minor implications. But during these intense days of “reconstruction” such small details suggest that the legacy of another tradition continues. Under the regime of Saddam Hussein, the state-approved union was known as the General Federation of Trade Unions or GFTU, not far in spelling from GUTU. As recently as February, Tudor reports that the GFTU was still active in Iraq and that the IFTU was under pressure from other unionists in the “Arab world” to merge with GFTU into a single organization that could serve as the state’s exclusive, official union.

As I have complained above, lack of independent reporting on these interesting poltics leave details unexplained. Who for instance is Rassim Hussein Al-Awadi, the figure listed by the ILO as the actual “delegate” of the GUTU? And why does his name not appear among the usual list of worker-elected IFTU officers? Is this the same Baath Party Regional command chairman, Brig. Gen. Husayn al-Awadi, who was arrested by coalition forces in June of 2003, listed as number 53 of the 55 most-wanted members of the former regime?

If your neck is beginning to tighten at the sight of so many acronyms and layers of identity, welcome to the re-organization of civil society in occupied Iraq. We have not yet addressed the Kurdish labor groups, nor the teachers union, but we can save those for another day. (The acronym GUTU, by the way, is homonymous with the name of ancient mountain people from whom present-day Kurds are said to be descended.)

In the meantime, opposition unionists in Iraq continue to provide hot copy for readers interested in the vigorous exercise of democratic debate. The statement released Monday afternoon via email from Alwan’s FWCUI says, “The essential issue of the labour movement in Iraq does not lie in finding trade unions, forming branches, or completing its staff. Currently the race in Iraq is about which one of the parties or organisations can fill the power vacuum.”

“The workers are deprived from forming their own independent organisations, and kept away from doing their daily living business to form a government that excludes labour–‘the majority’–from any role in the Iraqi political future.”

If exclusion of workers from meaningful power has a remedy, it must include a radical shift of emphasis among journalists and citizens of America. The same reporters who quiz experts about the possibility of democracy in Iraq, might ask themselves what they mean by democracy-_whether it includes workers’ rights to self organize. And if workers’ rights are essential to democracy, then don’t these rights deserve more coverage from the so-called democratic press?

David Bacon, for example, gives credit to, “new unions in the southern oil fields and refineries [who] defeated the Coalition Provisional Authority’s attempts to lower wages and forced Halliburton to abandon plans for replacing them with foreign workers for reconstruction work.”

Yet if Iraq’s provisional government continues to develop along lines already drawn, argues Alwan, the emerging Iraqi state, “will deprive the workers from the opportunity of forming their own unions which as a result will repeat the same old methods and conclude in the loss of the workers endeavours to get rid of the state controlled unions, and that means what is happening in Iraq is nothing but formal democracy.”

The formal democracy that America is bringing to Iraq is not real democracy says Alwan. But have we grown so accustomed to formal democracy in post-Reagan America, that we forget how to support a struggle for real democracy in Iraq? What are the chances that news outlets owned by corporations can support independent reporting about workers’ rights?

GREG MOSES writes for the Texas Civil Rights Review. He can be reached at: gmosesx@prodigy.net

Greg Moses writes about peace and Texas, but not always at the same time. He is author of Revolution of Conscience: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Philosophy of Nonviolence. As editor of the Texas Civil Rights Review he has written about racism faced by Black agriculturalists in Texas. Moses is a member of the Texas Civil Rights Collaborative. He can be reached at gmosesx@gmail.com