Martin Thomas spoke to Falah Alwan ( FWCUI), Toma Hamid (WCPI in Australia), and Mansour Razaghi (Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union in Australia who has been in close touch with the Iraqi unions) about recent protests in Iraq.
FA: On Friday 4 March there was a very rough curfew imposed by the authorities to stop people from attending the demonstration in Tahrir Square, Baghdad. But despite that around 15,000 attended. It lasted until 5.30pm and after that they started shooting the demonstrators. One of our comrades was injured by a bullet, and another one was injured in Samara, and a number of unemployed were attacked by Maliki supporters and arrested. The main demands were for an end to corruption and real freedoms and real democracy, and to provide jobs, services and electricity. Also demands for the sacking of the governor of Baghdad and other officials in the Maliki government.
There was another demonstration on 8 March, International Women’s Day. [There have been others since this interview].
There has also been a series of strikes. The first one was a one-day sit-in of chemical industries in Basra. The main demands were for payment of security benefits and a call for the freedom to organise. This is an advanced step for workers. The administration of the chemical plant, as usual, called army and police to surround the enterprise to prevent workers from going to the city to demonstrate.
There was a strike in textiles in Baghdad, for the same demands. The unions there say overtly that without calling for a general strike they cannot call for freedom to organise. They want a statement from our federation. Unfortunately their strike lasted only five days after the administration promised to pay security benefits.
The leaders of the workers called for a general meeting of the workers’ leaders to start a new step of workers’ struggle and for their right to organise in the public sector.
The third strike was for two days in Ur enterprises in Nasiriyah. This enterprise includes the three main factories: aluminium, cable and textiles. Again, the strike was for safety benefits and to call for an end to the “self-financing” system of the enterprise — a form of privatisation.
There was a demonstration of university cleaners in Babylon for higher wages.
There was a new model of mass struggle in Samara after the 25 February protest. The FWCUI and others created a model of masses’ councils. They divided the city into 15 quarters to be represented by delegates. These councils pressure the government and the authorities, the occupation.
This is the first time workers in the public sector have called for higher wages and the right to organise.
TH: A lot of new “committees of mass protest” are established — mainly in Baghdad — but they are trying to establish branches in other areas and suburbs, universities, factories etc. In Baghdad they are publishing a paper called “Uprising Diary”. It is not clear who started this [or what its links are to the strike and workers’ movement].
Their demands are very radical. Some of the demands say: “security and safety; abolish anti-terrorism law (which is used to arbitrarily arrest and detain people); immediate closure of all secret prisons; immediate release of all political prisoners; set a minimum wage of 500,000 dinars (US$400) a month; pensions for all; unemployment benefit; improve the rations distributed every month as part of oil-for-food; subsidised fuel prices; electricity for the entire country; increase all public sector wages in line with inflation; house homeless children; respect civil rights ; end corruption; give politically-dismissed workers their full rights; abolish the law of self-finance; respect civil and individual freedoms in university and colleges; immediate recognition of freedom of strike, organisation and association; abolition of the death penalty and all forms of torture.
MR: Those demands are really good but in my own experience those demands are not well-rooted inside the workers’ movement. It seems that these demands are coming from an intellectual elite outside the workers’ movement.
FA: There are dozens of committees in the demonstrations, because it is a big movement. There is not just one committee.
We have discussed [how to overcome repression]. We talked about continuing the workers’ struggles inside the factories and organising workers’ activities inside their neighbourhoods and in other cities. We need to have strategies for people’s neighbourhoods, factories and universities, to continue the struggle there.
In Iraq the armed forces are more like a militia imposed by the government, in co-ordination with the occupation. It is not an institution, so the Iraqi army is ready to attack the people.
TH: The army is split along sectarian lines and other loyalties.
In Anbar, for example, they are more pro-Awakening Councils, and in Baghdad some are in favour of Maliki and other sections are under the influence of Moqtadr al-Sadr.