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U.S. Arrests Iraqi Union Leaders

There's another kind of battle being waged in Iraq -- the fight for worker's rights. Many Iraqi union organizers are finding that the U.S. authority isn't much kinder to them than was Saddam.
 
 
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U.S. occupation forces in Iraq escalated their efforts to paralyze Iraq's new labor unions with a series of arrests this weekend.

On Dec. 6, according to a union spokesperson interviewed by phone, a convoy of 10 Humvees and personnel carriers descended on the old headquarters building of the Transport and Communications Workers union, in Baghdad's central bus station, which has been used since June as the office of the Iraqi Workers Federation of Trade Unions (IFTU). Twenty soldiers jumped out, stormed into the building, put handcuffs on eight members of the Federation's executive board, and took them into detention.

"They gave no reason at all, despite being asked over and over," says IFTU spokesperson Abdullah Muhsin. Soldiers painted over the name of the federation on the front of the building with black paint, Muhsin says. The union had few resources, "but we did have a few files, and they took those," Muhsin adds. Ironically, the office had posters on the walls condemning terrorism, which soldiers tore down in the raid.

Although the eight were released the following day, there was no explanation from the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), the U.S. occupation government in Iraq, for the detentions.

The bus station raid followed the detention of two other trade union leaders on November 23 -- Qasim Hadi, general secretary of the Union of the Unemployed, and Adil Salih, another leader of the organization. Hadi had been arrested twice before by occupation troops, for leading demonstrations of unemployed workers demanding unemployment benefits and jobs. In the November raid, CPA troops said they found two guns in the union's office, which was only permitted to have one. Hadi explained at the time that the organization has been the subject of threats and fatwahs by Iraqi religious parties, and needed weapons for self-defense.

Hadi and Salih were released after being detained for a day.

Both the Union of the Unemployed and the IFTU have been organizing Iraqi workers for months. The IFTU held a convention in Baghdad in June, at which it established unions in 12 industries. The Unemployed Union belongs to the Workers Unions and Councils group, which also has been organizing since last summer.

As many as 7 million people, or 70 percent of the workforce, have no jobs, according to the Unemployed Union. Some go hungry and sometimes become homeless. Although Congress appropriated $87 billion for reconstruction, Dr. Nuri Jafer, the deputy minister of Labor and Social Affairs says he can find "no country willing to fund our plans" for a minimal system of unemployment benefits.

Work may be proceeding on pipelines and ports for oil exports, but huge piles of war rubble lie untouched in Baghdad streets. U.S. funding in Iraq pays for an overwhelming military presence and the transformation of the Iraqi economy. Both are intended to make the country attractive to foreign investors.

In an Oct. 8 phone press conference, Thomas Foley, director for private sector development for the CPA, announced a list of the first Iraqi state enterprises to be sold, including cement and fertilizer plants, phosphate and sulfur mines, pharmaceutical factories and the country's airline. On Sept. 19, the CPA published Order No. 39, which permits 100 percent foreign ownership of businesses -- except for the oil industry -- and allows the transfer of profits outside the country.

Iraqi workers fear privatization will bring massive layoffs. "I'll have to fire 1,500 (of the refinery's 3,000) workers," says Dathar Al-Kashab, manager of the Al Daura oil refinery. "In America, when a company lays people off, there's unemployment insurance and they won't die from hunger. If I dismiss employees now, I'm killing them and their families."

At the refinery, as in most factories, those with jobs work 11- and 13-hour shifts. Al Daura workers earn $60 a month. They have no safety shoes, goggles, masks or other protective gear. The IFTU helped the refinery's workers organize a union and elect its leaders. In Basra, workers have formed a central labor council and mounted demonstrations. The Workers Unions and Councils group has helped workers elect committees in the State Leather Industry plant, the largest shoe factory in the Middle East, and the Mamoun Vegetable Oil enterprise, among others.

When these new unions try to talk with the plant managers, however, they're told that a 1987 law forbids workers in state-owned enterprises (where the majority of Iraqis work) from forming unions. The CPA still enforces this Saddam-era law. Another order issued by the CPA on June 6 threatens that anyone who "incites civil disorder" will be detained as a prisoner of war under the Geneva Convention.

While unions are being suppressed, international conferences in Washington and London take place every week, at which Iraqi assets are put on sale to private buyers. At one recent conference, ExxonMobil, Delta Airlines and the American Hospital Group all expressed interest in various Iraqi enterprises.

Workers fear new foreign owners will cut labor costs through layoffs. Resistance at the work site has been made illegal by laws banning unions and by the arrest of their leaders.

Muhsen Mull Ali, an IFTU leader who spent two long stints in prison for organizing unions, both before and during Saddam's reign, says U.S. actions against unions won't deter him. "Our responsibility is to oppose privatization as much as possible, and fight for the welfare of our workers."

David Bacon ( dbacon@igc.org) is a photographer and writer specializing in labor issues. He visited Iraq in October.