Iraqi Labor Leader: We Will Defend Our Oil
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LONDON -- As U.S. and British forces entered Baghdad on April 9, 2003, and the Saddam Hussein regime crumbled, those who had been driven underground by Hussein's rule began to breathe again. From Syria, Britain, Scandinavia and elsewhere, exiled trade union radicals began to make the long journey home.
The first post-Saddam days saw a ferment of labor organizing. A general strike broke out in Basra, after the British troops tried to install a notorious ex-Baath Party leader as mayor. Within a month, the city already had a labor council bringing together many new unions.
Among those who had resisted Hussein's brutal dictatorship within Iraq was an oilfield technician, Hassan Juma'a Awad. A veteran of the Shiite uprising in southern Iraq of 1991, Juma'a had begun to speak openly about the bad conditions in the fields and refinery of the Southern Oil Company, where he'd worked for three decades. Following Hussein's downfall he quickly became the most important labor leader in southern Iraq, and today is the biggest single obstacle to the Bush administration's main goal for the occupation -- the privatization of the country's oil.
Oil is Iraq's lifeblood, and the southern fields produce 80 percent of it. That puts the hands of this workforce on the spigot controlling the country's wealth. Like the oil workers in Iran who brought down the Shah in 1978, Iraq's oil workers know their power, and have already used it to deal important defeats to the occupation regime.
"Without organizing ourselves, we would have been unable to protect our industry, which we had been looking after for generations," Juma'a Awad says. "It was our duty as Iraqi workers to protect the oil installations since they are the property of the Iraqi people, and we are sure that the U.S. and the international companies have come here to put their hands on the country's oil reserves."
In fact, within just a few short months of Hussein's fall, Southern Oil Company workers found themselves up against the best-connected U.S. corporation in Iraq -- Halliburton -- whose former CEO, Dick Cheney, is now U.S. vice president. As the occupation began its grinding course, KBR, the Halliburton construction subsidiary, showed up at the SOC facilities. Its no-bid contract with the U.S. Defense Department gave it a mandate to begin reconstruction and get the oil flowing again to tankers off the coast in the Persian Gulf. KBR hired a Kuwaiti subcontractor, Al Khoorafy, which stood ready to bring in hundreds of foreign employees to do the work.
Faced with replacement of their jobs, in a city where unemployment soared to 70 percent, Juma'a Awad and his coworkers stood firm. They told KBR that if they brought in a single person, they would stop the oil installations completely. "Iraq will be reconstructed by Iraqis, we don't need any foreign interference," Jum'a said. At first KBR tried to cut a deal to split the jobs with Iraqis. But the oil workers refused to accept any outside help. Eventually, KBR brought in the reconstruction supplies on trucks, unloaded them, and left.
The next challenge came in September 2003. The occupation administration issued Order 30, lowering the base wages for Iraq's public sector workforce, including oil workers, from $60 to $35 per month. It also cut subsidies for food and housing.
"We asked ourselves, how can it be that the workers in our industry would get $35 a month?" Juma'a Awad recalls. "The American administration wasn't willing to cooperate with us, so we had a short strike. We managed to get the minimum salary up to 150,000 Iraqi dinars, or about $100. This was the beginning of our struggle to improve the income of oil workers."
The union effectively doubled the wages of many. Today, a laborer with 20 years experience earns about 420,000 Iraqi dinars, or about $300, a month. A chicken in the market costs about 1,500 dinars, or $1.
The strike had other repercussions. In Basra's power generation plants, workers threatened similar action and won increases as well. Not surprisingly, they asked Juma'a Awad to negotiate for them.
"Now we have workers' councils in 23 areas of southern Iraq, and represent over 23,000 workers," Juma'a Awad says. "The occupying forces tried their best to stop us, because they saw this as a danger. They were aware that organized workers would have power."
Juma'a Awad says the occupying forces told the unions they had no legal right to represent oil workers. "We were elected by the workers. That's the only kind of legitimacy we need," he says.
Like all Iraqi unions, the General Union of Oil Workers opposes the occupation. "We want the occupation to end immediately, and the immediate withdrawal of all occupying forces," he explains.
While there might be security problems if the troops depart suddenly, Juma'a Awad says he's not worried. "We are able to look after ourselves and our own security."
But privatization, he believes, is the largest threat. "This coming fight is more important even than the struggle against the occupation, since the U.S. is seeking to privatize all sectors of the Iraqi economy," he says. In that fight, Juma'a Awad sees the current government, created as a result of the January elections, as an uncertain ally.
"The next government should not only ensure the security of the Iraqi people, but also stop the privatization of industry. We oppose that very strongly, especially in oil. It is our industry. We don't want a new colonization under the guise of privatization, with international companies taking control."
PNS Associate Editor David Bacon is a freelance writer and photographer who writes regularly on labor and immigration issues. His latest book is The Children of NAFTA (University of California Press, 2004).