David Bacon

Key Democrats Could Deny Farm Workers Overtime Pay as Battle Goes Down to the Wire

As Assembly Bill 1066, which would grant overtime pay to California farm workers, heads for a vote in the Assembly, farm workers and faith and civil rights groups are fighting for the votes needed to pass it. In June similar legislation, Assembly Bill 2757, failed when 14 Democrats either voted no, or failed to vote at all — the functional equivalent of a no vote.

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Why Many Retired Farm Workers Have No Choice but to Go Back to Work

Editor's note: For this two-part series about farm workers facing retirement, David Bacon received a Journalists in Aging Fellowship, a program of New America Media and the Gerontological Society of America, sponsored by the Scan Foundation. Read Part 1.

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Immigration Laws Are Creating a Desperate Situation for Indigenous Farm Workers

Editor's note: For this two-part series about farm workers facing retirement, David Bacon received a Journalists in Aging Fellowship, a program of New America Media and the Gerontological Society of America, sponsored by the Scan Foundation. Read Part 2.

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Why Is Silicon Valley So Bent on Destroying Public Education?

Nearly every metropolitan area these days has its own wealthy promoters of education reform. Little Rock has the Waltons, Seattle has Bill and Melinda Gates, Newark has Mark Zuckerberg, and Buffalo has John Oishei, who made his millions selling windshield wipers.

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A Hard Life in the Fields Starting at Age 7

Ed. Note: Three bills now making their way through Sacramento promise to dramatically improve conditions for California farmworkers, including one on Gov. Jerry Brown's desk that requires overtime pay for shifts above eight hours. For Javier Mondar-Flores Lopez, an indigenous Mixtec farmworker in Southern California, the bills are welcome news. A recent high-school graduate, Lopez has worked in the fields since he was in elementary school. He lives in an apartment with his family in Santa Maria, California, but has become an activist and plans to go to Los Angeles. He told his story to NAM Associate Editor David Bacon.

SANTA MARIA, Calif. -- Growing up in a farmworking family -- well, it's everything I ever knew.  Whenever I got out of school, it was straight to the fields to get a little bit of money and help the family out. That's pretty much the only job I ever knew. In general we would work on the weekends and in the summers. When I was younger it would be right after school, and then during vacations.

My sister Teresa slept in the living room, and one night, when I was doing my homework at the table, I could hear her crying because she had so much pain in her hands. My mother and my other sister complained about how much their backs hurt.  My brother talked about his back pain as well. It's pretty sad. I always hear my family talk about how much they're in pain and how's it's impossible for me to help them. 

I always moved. In my high school years, I moved six times. In junior high I moved three times and in elementary school, I’m not sure. I went to six different elementary schools. For a while we went to Washington to work, but aside from that it’s always been in Santa Maria.

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We Made Them Rich and They Called Us Criminals

Vernon, California - The production lines at Overhill Farms move very quickly. Every day, for 18 years, Bohemia Agustiano stood in front of the "banda" for eight or nine hours, putting pieces of frozen chicken, rice and vegetables onto plates as they passed in a blur before her. Making the same motions over and over for such a long time, her feet in one place on the concrete floor, had its price. Pains began shooting through her hands and wrists, up her arms to her shoulders.

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Why Tens of Thousands of Migrant Workers Will Fill the Streets on May Day

In a little over a month, hundreds of thousands, perhaps even millions, of people will fill the streets in city after city, town after town, across the US. This year these May Day marches of immigrant workers will make an important demand on the Obama administration: End the draconian enforcement policies of the Bush administration. Establish a new immigration policy based on human rights and recognition of the crucial economic and social contributions of immigrants to US society.

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Black/Brown Coalition Fueled Big Union Win

When workers at Smithfield Foods' North Carolina packing house voted in the union on Dec. 11, 2008 the longest, most bitter anti-union campaign in modern labor history went down to defeat. Sixteen years ago workers there began organizing with the United Food and Commercial Workers. The successful union strategy relied on organizing resistance to immigration-related firings, and uniting a diverse workforce of African Americans, Puerto Ricans and immigrant Mexicans.

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There Needs to Be Change Immigrants and Labor Can Believe In

Since 2001 the Bush administration has deported more than a million people -- including 349,041 individuals in the fiscal year ending just prior to the election. It has resurrected the discredited community sweeps and factory raids of earlier eras, and started sending waves of migrants to privately run jails for crimes like inventing a Social Security number to get a job. Every day in Tucson 70 young people, including many teenagers, are brought before a federal judge in heavy chains and sentenced to prison because they walked across the border.

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Silence on Immigration

The first of the 388 workers arrested in the immigration raid on the Agriprocessors meatpacking plant in Postville, Iowa, were deported in mid-October, having spent five months in federal prison. Their crime? Giving a bad Social Security number to the company to get hired. Among them will be a young man who had his eyes covered with duct tape by a supervisor on the line, who then beat him with a meathook. The supervisor is still on the job.

The Postville raid was one of the many recent immigration operations leading to criminal charges and deportations for thousands of people. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff calls this "closing the back door. " Meanwhile, his department seeks to "open the front door" by establishing new guest-worker programs, called "close to slavery" by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Something is clearly wrong with the priorities of immigration enforcement. Hungry and desperate workers go to jail and get deported. The government protects employers and seeks to turn a family-based immigration system into a managed labor supply for business. Yet national political campaigns say less and less about it. Immigrant Latino and Asian communities feel increasingly afraid and frustrated. Politicians want their votes, but avoid talking about the rising wave of arrests, imprisonment, and deportations.

This month national demonstrations across the nation are protesting the silence, asking candidates to speak out. Immigrant communities expect a new deal from a new administration, especially from Democrats. They want a new U.S. president to take swift and decisive action to give human rights a priority over fear, and recognize immigrants as people, not just a source of cheap labor.

Agenda for the Next President

In its first 100 days, a new administration could take these simple steps to benefit immigrants and working families:

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Immigration and the Right to Stay Home

Editor's Note:This June in Juxtlahuaca, Mexico -- in the heart of Oaxaca's Mixteca region -- dozens of farmers left their fields, and women weavers their looms, to declare their right to stay home. David Bacon is the author of "The Children of NAFTA" (University of California Press, 2004). He sits on the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Committee of the Bay Area Immigrant Rights Coalition.

JUXTLAHUACA, OAXACA, MEXICO -- For almost half a century, migration has been the main fact of social life in hundreds of indigenous towns spread through the hills of Oaxaca, one of Mexico's poorest states. That's made the conditions and rights of migrants the central concern for communities like Santiago de Juxtlahuaca.

Today the right to travel to seek work is a matter of survival. But this June in Juxtlahuaca, in the heart of Oaxaca's Mixteca region, dozens of farmers left their fields, and women weavers their looms, to talk about another right, the right to stay home.

In the town's community center two hundred Mixtec, Zapotec and Triqui farmers, and a handful of their relatives working in the U.S., made impassioned speeches asserting this right at the triannual assembly of the Indigenous Front of Binational Organizations (FIOB). Hot debates ended in numerous votes. The voices of mothers and fathers arguing over the future of their children, echoed from the cinderblock walls of the cavernous hall.

In Spanish, Mixteco and Triqui, people repeated one phrase over and over: the derecho de no migrar - the right to not migrate. Asserting this right challenges not just inequality and exploitation facing migrants, but the very reasons why people have to migrate to begin with. Indigenous communities are pointing to the need for social change.

About 500,000 indigenous people from Oaxaca live in the US, 300,000 in California alone, according to Rufino Dominguez, one of FIOB's founders. These men and women come from communities whose economies are totally dependent on migration. The ability to send a son or daughter across the border to the north, to work and send back money, makes the difference between eating chicken or eating salt and tortillas. Migration means not having to manhandle a wooden plough behind an ox, cutting furrows in dry soil for a corn crop that can't be sold for what it cost to plant it. It means that dollars arrive in the mail when kids need shoes to go to school, or when a grandparent needs a doctor.

In Oaxaca the category of extreme poverty encompasses 75 percent of its 3.4 million residents, according to EDUCA, an education and development organization. For more than two decades, under pressure from the World Bank and U.S. loan conditions, the Mexican government has cut spending intended to raise rural incomes. Prices have risen dramatically since price controls and subsidies were eliminated for necessities like gasoline, electricity, bus fares, tortillas, and milk.

Raquel Cruz Manzano, principal of the Formal Primary School in San Pablo Macuiltianguis, a town in the indigenous Zapotec region, says only 900,000 Oaxacans receive organized healthcare, and the illiteracy rate is 21.8%. "The educational level in Oaxaca is 5.8 years," Cruz notes, "against a national average of 7.3 years. The average monthly wage for non-governmental employees is less than 2,000 pesos [about $200] per family [per month], the lowest in the nation. Around 75,000 children have to work in order to survive or to help their families."

"But there are no jobs here, and NAFTA [the North American Free Trade Agreement] made the price of corn so low that it's not economically possible to plant a crop anymore," Dominguez asserts. "We come to the U.S. to work because we can't get a price for our product at home. There's no alternative."

Without large scale political change most local communities won't have the resources for productive projects and economic development that could provide a decent living. Towns like Juxtlahuaca, don't even have waste water treatment. Rural communities rely on the same rivers for drinking water that are also used to carry away sewage. "A typical teacher earns about 2200 pesos every two weeks [about $220]," says Jaime Medina, a reporter for Oaxaca's daily Noticias. "From that they have to purchase chalk, pencils and other school supplies for the children,"

Because of its indigenous membership, FIOB campaigns for the rights of migrants in the U.S. who come from those communities. It calls for immigration amnesty and legalization for undocumented migrants. FIOB has also condemned the proposals for guest worker programs. Migrants need the right to work, but "these workers don't have labor rights or benefits," Dominguez charges. "It's like slavery."

At the same time, "we need development that makes migration a choice rather than a necessity -- the right to not migrate," explains Gaspar Rivera Salgado, a professor at UCLA. "Both rights are part of the same solution. We have to change the debate from one in which immigration is presented as a problem to a debate over rights. The real problem is exploitation." But the right to stay home, to not migrate, has to mean more than the right to be poor, the right to go hungry and homeless. Choosing whether to stay home or leave only has meaning if each choice can provide a meaningful future.

In Juxtlahuaca Gaspar Rivera Salgado was elected FIOB's new binational coordinator. His father and mother still live on a ranch half an hour up a dirt road from the main highway, in the tiny town of Santa Cruz Rancho Viejo. There his father Sidronio planted three hundred avocado trees a few years ago, in the hope that someday their fruit would take the place of the corn and beans that were once his staple crop. He's fortunate -- his relatives have water, and a pipe from their spring has kept most of his trees, and those hopes, alive. Fernando, Gaspar's brother, has started growing mushrooms in a FIOB-sponsored project, and even put up a greenhouse for tomatoes. Those projects, they hope, will produce enough money that Fernando won't have to go back to Seattle, where he worked for seven years.

This family perhaps has come close to achieving the derecho de no migrar. For the millions of farmers throughout the indigenous countryside, not migrating means doing something like it. But finding the necessary resources, even for a small number of families and communities, presents FIOB with its biggest challenge. This was the source of the debate at its Juxtlahuaca assembly.

Gaspar Rivera-Salgado says, "we will find the answer to migration in our communities of origin. To make the right to not migrate concrete, we need to organize the forces in our communities, and combine them with the resources and experiences we've accumulated in 16 years of cross-border organizing." Fernando, the greenhouse builder and mushroom farmer, agrees that FIOB has the ability to organize people. "But now we have to take the next step," he urges, "and make concrete changes in peoples' lives."

Organizing FIOB's support base in Oaxaca means more than just making speeches, however. As Fernando Rivera Salgado points out, communities want projects that help raise their income. Over the years FIOB has organized women weavers in Juxtlahuaca, helping them sell their textiles and garments through its chapters in California. It set up a union for rural taxis, both to help farming famiies get from Juxtlahuaca to the tiny towns in the surrounding hills, and to provide jobs for drivers. Artisan co-ops make traditional products, helped by a co-operative loan fund.

The government does have money for loans to start similar projects, but it usually goes to officials who often just pocket it, supporters of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, which has ruled Oaxaca since it was formed in the 1940s. One objective debated at the FIOB assembly was organizing community pressure to win some of these resources. But any government subsidy is viewed with suspicion by activists who know the strings tied to it.

Another concern is the effect of the funding on communities themselves. "Part of our political culture is the use of regalos, or government favors, to buy votes," Gaspar Rivera Salgado explains. "People want regalos, and think an organization is strong because of what it can give. But now people are demanding these results from FIOB, so do we help them or not? And if we do, how can we change the way people think? It's critical that our members see organization as the answer to problems, not a gift from the government or a political party. FIOB members need political education."

Political abstention isn't an option, however, warns Juan Romualdo Gutierrez Cortez. "We aren't the only organization in Oaxaca - there are 600 others. If we don't do it, they will." But for the 16 years of its existence, FIOB has been a crucial part of the political opposition to Oaxaca's PRI government. Gutierrez, a school teacher in Tecomaxtlahuaca, was FIOB's Oaxaca coordinator until he stepped down at the Juxtlahuaca assembly. He is also a leader of Oaxaca's teachers union, Section 22 of the National Education Workers Union, and of the Popular Association of the People of Oaxaca (APPO).

In June of 2006 a strike by Section 22 led to a months-long uprising, led by APPO, which sought to remove the state's governor, Ulises Ruiz, and make a basic change in development and economic policy. The uprising was crushed by Federal armed intervention, and dozens of activists were arrested. According to Leoncio Vasquez, an FIOB activist in Fresno, "the lack of human rights itself is a factor contributing to migration from Oaxaca and Mexico, since it closes off our ability to call for any change." This spring teachers again occupied the central plaza, or zocalo, of the state capital, protesting the same conditions that sparked the uprising two years ago.

Gutierrez himself was not jailed during the uprising, although the state issued an order for his detention. But he's been arrested before. In the late 1990s he was elected to the Oaxaca Chamber of Deputies, in an alliance between FIOB and Mexico's leftwing Democratic Revolutionary Party. Following his term in office, Gutierrez was imprisoned by Ruiz' predecessor, Jose Murat, until a binational campaign won his release. His crime, and that of many others filling Oaxaca's jails, was insisting on a new path of economic development that would raise rural living standards, and make migration just an option, rather than an indispensable means of survival.

Despite the fact that APPO wasn't successful in getting rid of Ruiz and the PRI, Gaspar Rivera-Salgado believes that "in Mexico we're very close to getting power in our communities on a local and state level." He points to Gutierrez' election as state deputy, and later as mayor of his hometown San Miguel Tlacotepec. Other municipal presidents, allied with FIOB, have also won office, and activists are beginning to plan a FIOB campaign to elect a Federal deputy.

FIOB delegates agreed that the organization would continue its alliance with the PRD. Nevertheless, that alliance is controversial, partly because of the party's internal disarray. "We know the PRD is caught up in an internal crisis, and there's no real alternative vision on the left," Rivera Salgado says. "But there are no other choices if we want to participate in electoral politics, so we're trying to put forward positive proposals. We're asking people in the PRD to stop fighting over positions, and instead use the resources of the party to organize the community. We can't change things by ourselves. First, we have to reorganize our own base. But then we have to find strategic allies.

"Migration is part of globalization," he emphasizes, "an aspect of state policies that expel people. Creating an alternative to that requires political power. There's no way to avoid that."

Meatpacking Laborers Victimized

This article is reprinted from the American Prospect.

In 1947, Woody Guthrie wrote a song about the crash of a plane carrying Mexican immigrant farm workers back to the border. In haunting lyrics he describes how it caught fire as it flew low over Los Gatos Canyon, near Coalinga at the edge of California's San Joaquin Valley. Observers below saw people and belongings flung out of the aircraft before it hit the ground, falling like leaves, he wrote.

No record was kept of the workers' identities. They were simply listed as "deportee," and that became the name of the song. Far from being recognized as workers or even human beings, Guthrie lamented, the dead were treated as criminals. "They chase us like outlaws, like rustlers, like thieves."

Some things haven't changed much. When agents of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) arrested over a thousand workers in six Swift and Company meatpacking plants last month, they too were called criminals. In Greeley, Colorado, agents dressed in SWAT uniforms even carried a hundred handcuffs with them into the plant.

The workers, they said, were identity thieves. Barbara Gonzalez, an ICE spokesperson, told reporters outside the slaughterhouse there that "we have been investigating a large identity theft scheme that has victimized many U.S. citizens and lawful residents." ICE head Julie Myers told other reporters in Washington, D.C. that "those who steal identities of U.S. citizens will not escape enforcement."

Not everyone fell into the ICE chorus.

In Grand Island, Nebraska, site of another Swift plant, police chief Steve Lamken refused to help agents drag workers from the slaughterhouse. "When this is all over, we're still here," he told the local paper, "and if I have a significant part of my population that's fearful and won't call us, then that's not good for our community." In Greeley, hundreds of people, accompanied by the local priest, lined the street as their family members were brought out, shouting that they'd been guilty of nothing more than hard work.

ICE rhetoric would have you believe these deportees had been planning to apply for credit cards and charge expensive stereos or trips to the spa. The reality is that these meatpacking laborers had done what millions of people in this country do every year. They gave a Social Security number to their employer that either didn't belong to them, or that didn't exist. And they did it for a simple reason: to get a job in one of the dirtiest, hardest, most dangerous workplaces in America. Mostly, these borrowed numbers probably belong to other immigrants who've managed to get green cards. But regardless of who they are, the real owners of the Social Security numbers will benefit, not suffer.

Swift paid thousands of extra dollars into their Social Security accounts. The undocumented immigrants using the numbers will never be able to collect a dime in retirement pay for all their years of work on the killing floor. If anyone was cheated here, they were. But when ICE agents are calling the victims criminals in order to make their immigration raid sound like an action on behalf of upright citizens.

ICE has not, of course, accused the immigrant workers of the real crime for which they were arrested. That's the crime of working.

Since passage of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, hiring an undocumented worker has been a violation of federal law. Don't expect Swift executives to go to jail, however, or even to pay a fine. The real targets of this law are workers themselves, who become violators the minute they take a job.

Arresting people for holding a job, however, sounds a little inconsistent with the traditional values of hard work supported so strongly by the Bush administration. It makes better PR to accuse workers of a crime that sends shivers down the spines of middle-class newspaper readers, already maxing out their credit cards in the holiday rush.

The real motivation for these immigration raids is more cynical. The Swift action follows months of ICE pressuring employers to fire workers whose Social Security numbers don't match the agency's database. These no-match actions have been concentrated in workplaces where immigrants are organizing unions or standing up for their rights.

At the Cintas laundry chain, over 400 workers were terminated in November alone, as a result of no-match letters. Cintas is the target of the national organizing drive by UNITE HERE, the hotel and garment workers union.

In November also, hundreds walked out of the huge Smithfield pork processing plant in Tarheel, North Carolina, after the company fired 60 workers for Social Security discrepancies. That non-union plant is not just the national organizing target for the United Food and Commercial Workers Union. Smithfield has also been found guilty repeatedly of firing its employees for union activity, and threatening to use their immigration status against them. When workers at Emeryville, California's Woodfin Suites tried to enforce the city's new living wage law, Measure C, they too were suddenly hit with a no-match check.

It's no accident that workers belong to unions in five of the six Swift meatpacking plants where this week's raids took place. ICE's pressure campaign recalls the history of immigration enforcement during previous periods when anti-immigration bills were debated the U.S. Congress, as they were this year.

Before 1986, the then-Immigration and Naturalization Service conducted months of high-profile workplace raids, called Operation Jobs. INS used the raids to produce public support for the employer sanctions provision later written into the 1986 immigration law.

In 1998, the INS mounted a huge enforcement action in Nebraska, also targeting meatpacking workers, called Operation Vanguard. Mark Reed, then INS District Director in Dallas, was open about its purpose -- to get industry and Congress to support new bracero-type contract labor programs. "That's where we're going," he said in an interview at the time. "We depend on foreign labor. If we don't have illegal immigration anymore, we'll have the political support for guest workers."

Today, ICE and the Bush administration also have an immigration program they want Congress to approve. Once again they want new guest-worker schemes, along with increased enforcement of employer sanctions.

This fall, appealing to right-wing Republicans, the administration proposed new regulations to require employers to fire workers listed in a no-match letter, who can't resolve the discrepancy in their Social Security numbers. Employers like Cintas and Smithfield now claim anti-union firings are simply an effort to comply with Bush's new regulation, although it hasn't yet been issued.

At Swift, the administration is sending a message to employers, and especially to unions: Support its program for immigration reform, or face a new wave of raids. "The significance is that we're serious about work site enforcement," threatened ICE chief Myers.

After six years in office, ICE's choice of this moment to begin their campaign is more than suspect. It is designed to force the new Democratic congressional majority to make a choice. The administration is confident that Democrats will endorse workplace raids in order to appear "tough on illegal immigration" in preparation for the 2008 presidential elections. In doing so, they will have to attack two of the major groups who produced the votes that changed Congress in November -- labor and Latinos.

Since 1999, however, the AFL-CIO has called for the repeal of employer sanctions, along with the legalization of the 12 million people living in the United States without documents. One reason is that sanctions are used to punish workers for speaking out for better wages and conditions. Unions serious about organizing immigrants (and that's a lot of unions nowadays) have seen sanctions used repeatedly to smash their campaigns.

But unions today also include many immigrant members. They want the organizations to which they pay their dues to stand up and fight when government agents bring handcuffs into the plant.

The United Food and Commercial Workers, which represents workers at Swift, did go into court on the day of the raid, asking for an injunction to stop the deportations and to guarantee workers their rights to habeas corpus and legal representation.

But labor will need to do more than that. Unions and immigrants both need a bill that would mandate what they've advocated since 1999 -- the repeal of employer sanctions. Workers without visas would still be subject to deportation, but enforcement wouldn't take place in the workplace, where sanctions deny basic labor rights to millions.

The administration and Republicans in Congress wouldn't like that, nor would conservative Democrats. Reps. Rahm Emmanuel and Silvestre Reyes, even want sanctions beefed up. But Democrats and labor must make a choice. They can defend the workers, unions and immigrant families who gave them victory in November (voting Democratic 7 out of 10.) Or Democrats can, as they have so often done, turn their back in another triangulation sacrificing their base. They can join the government's chorus calling these workers criminals. Or they can recognize them as the human beings they are.

This article is available on The American Prospect website. © 2007 by The American Prospect, Inc.

A Union of Labor

Once the U.S. occupation of Iraq began over a year ago, Iraqi workers lost no time in reorganizing their country�s labor movement. Labor activity spread from Baghdad to the Kurdish north, with the center of the storm in the south, in the oil and electrical installations around Basra, and the port of Um Qasr.

Workers quickly discovered that the occupation authorities had little respect for labor rights, however. Once the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) took power in Baghdad in March of 2003, it began enforcing a 1987 law banning unions in public enterprises, where most Iraqis are employed. On top of this, CPA head Paul Bremer added Public Order #1, banning pronouncements that �incite civil disorder, rioting, or damage to property.� The phrase civil disorder can easily apply to organizing strikes, and leaders of both the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions (IFTU) and Iraq�s Union of the Unemployed have been detained a number of times.

Labor repression in Iraq, however, has provoked U.S. unions into speaking out against the war and occupation in a way unseen since Ronald Reagan�s wars in Central America. Bremer�s hostility towards labor made it onto the radar screen of U.S. unions last fall, when a delegation sent by U.S. Labor Against the War (USLAW) to make contact with the country�s reborn workers� movement brought back accounts of the suppression of labor rights. This spring USLAW, encompassing U.S. unions and labor councils representing hundreds of thousands of members, organized a fund-raising campaign for Iraq�s new unions. This June in Geneva, Neil Bisno, secretary-treasurer of SEIU Local 1199P, delivered $5,000 checks to the IFTU and the Workers� Councils and Unions of Iraq. 

Last January AFL-CIO president John Sweeney condemned enforcement of the 1987 law and called on the CPA �to allow Iraqi workers to associate together and participate collectively in rebuilding the economy.� The AFL-CIO and other international labor federations began working with the International Labor Organization to redraft Iraq�s labor code, which could lead to dropping the 1987 prohibition. 

Labor Opposition to the Occupation

In the meantime, however, the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), with a history of cold war intelligence activity, began offering funds for U.S. government labor programs in Iraq. Some USLAW activists fear that NED involvement will endanger more progressive parts of the country�s labor law, such as guarantees of healthcare, housing, and education, as well as involve unions in administering the occupation.

This June, U.S. labor opposition to the occupation had grown so strong that two of the AFL-CIO�s largest unions, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the State County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) passed resolutions calling for withdrawal of U.S. troops and respect for the rights of Iraqi workers. The California Labor Federation, with one-sixth of all U.S. union members, followed suit.

As labor�s campaign to unseat Bush grows stronger, opposition to the Iraq war and support for that country�s new labor movement have become election issues for thousands of U.S. workers. 

Iraqi Labor Resurgent

Low wages have driven the upsurge in Iraqi labor activity, including three general strikes in Basra alone. Following the arrival of U.S. troops, Iraqi public sector workers began receiving emergency salaries dictated by the Coalition Provisional Authority – roughly from $60 to $120 monthly. Then the CPA�s Order #30 on Reform of Salaries and Employment Conditions of State Employees last September lowered the base to $40, and eliminated housing and food subsidies.

Wages for Iraqi longshoremen, working for the port authority in Um Qasr, were cut even further when the occupation started, because their profit sharing arrangement, in which they�d received 2 percent of unloading fees, was terminated. When authorities decided in October to pay them in Iraqi dinars instead of dollars – another sizeable loss – the workers began organizing a union.

On the day they were set to vote on the officers for their new union, Port Director Abdel Razzaq told them the election was cancelled because of the 1987 prohibition. In November, he fired three port workers for trying to organize.

In January dockers struck briefly over the low wage scale, blocking anyone from entering the main gate. They grew angrier when managers decided to pay them in old banknotes, worth only 75 percent of new ones. In the melee that ensued, Razzaq�s office was occupied, and the demonstration only ended when he was rescued by occupation troops. Since then, workers charge that a private militia protects him.

On hearing about the firing of the Um Qasr longshoremen, San Francisco�s International Longshore and Warehouse Local 10 condemned the action. �You are not alone,� President Henry Graham told them. �If dockworkers in the rest of the world hear about your situation, you can count on their support.� West coast dock unions stopped work on Mar. 20, to coincide with worldwide demonstrations on the anniversary of the Iraq invasion.

Iraqi workers and unions charge that the U.S. is keeping wages low to attract foreign investors, as Washington plans the privatization of Iraq�s economy. The Bush administration sees Iraq as a free-market beachhead into the Middle East and South Asia. A year ago it put Tom Foley, a Bush fundraiser, in charge of private sector development for the CPA. On Sept. 19, 2003 the CPA published Order #39, permitting 100 percent foreign ownership of businesses, except for the oil industry, and allowing repatriation of profits. Foley then listed state enterprises to be sold, including cement and fertilizer plants, phosphate and sulfur mines, pharmaceutical factories and the country�s airline. While sales were delayed until after the June handover, the goal remains unchanged, and Iraq�s new constitution forbids changing these measures.

The threat of privatization and the influx of U.S. contractors have caused more labor unrest. Workers fear that new corporate owners will cut costs by laying off workers. Companies with fat reconstruction contracts are already trying to perform work previously done by Iraqis. Iraq has no unemployment benefits or any welfare system, so the loss of a stable job in a state enterprise condemns a family to hunger and misery. One obvious advantage, therefore, of having a union is gaining a voice in decisions about privatization and contracting.

Contesting the Contractors

Conflict over reconstruction work boiled over last October in a two-day wildcat strike at the Bergeseeya Oil Refinery near Basra. Kellogg, Brown & Root (KBR), a division of Halliburton Corp., was given a no-bid reconstruction contract to repair oil facilities. KBR brought in a Kuwaiti construction company, Al Khoorafi, using Indian and Pakistani workers. To protect their jobs, Iraqi workers threw them out and protested outside the company�s offices.

At the Southern Oil Company, workers then organized a union. Headed by Hassan Ju� ma, they banned foreign workers following the Bergeseeya action. KBR tried to get them to accept its foreign staff but local workers refused to budge. �Iraq will be reconstructed by Iraqis, we don�t need any foreign interference,� Ju� ma said.

Then, in December, Southern Oil Company workers began challenging the wage schedules. They surveyed prices, and proposed a monthly minimum of $85. Workers threatened to strike and shut off oil production, and said they�d join the armed resistance if occupation troops were called in. The Oil Minister immediately flew to Basra, where he agreed to return to the pre-September scale.

In January, unrest spread to the Najibeeya, Haartha, and Az Zubeir electrical generating stations, where workers mounted a wildcat strike, stormed the administration buildings, declared the September wage schedule void, and vowed to shut off power if salaries were not raised. Again the ministry agreed to return to the old scale. 

Southern Oil Company unionists finally forced the CPA to raise wages, with extra pay for working in risky or isolated locations, often attacked by the armed opposition. Following another walkout in February at the Basra Oil Pipeline Company, the SOC wage schedule eventually spread to most worksites in the oil sector. Workers then took the fight to power stations, where they threatened to stop electrical generation, potentially halting all other industries.

Samir Hanoon, vice president of the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions in Basra, warned that if the ban on unions wasn�t lifted, �we will take other actions – protests, demonstrations and total shut-downs. We realize that there may be some sacrifices but we are ready to accept them. Our real problem is with the CPA.�

The installation of the interim administration of Issad Allawi at the end of June did not improve either salaries or respect for labor rights. Hanoon�s warning seems as unheeded by Baghdad�s new authorities as it was by the CPA.

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