Trade unionists or Islamists?

Submitted by AWL on 9 March, 2005 - 9:27

In October 2004 Subhi al Mashadani, general secretary of the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions (IFTU) was shouted down at the European Social Forum. The meeting was abandoned.

After the ESF Sami Ramadani, an Iraqi leftist living in Britain, wrote a partial defence of the shouting-down. It was originally a letter to Alex Gordon, of the railworkers’ union RMT. The article was printed, abridged, in Socialist Worker on 30 October, and another article by Ramadani on similar lines was in the Guardian on 27 October. Martin Thomas critically examines the arguments.

Ramadani says the shouting-down was “wrong and undemocratic”, but he does not disagree that al Mashadani should not have been heard. (He would have preferred to walk out). He compares the ESF’s invitation to al Mashadani to a rally in Britain during World War Two inviting a “prominent supporter of the Vichy regime” (the puppet government set up in France by the Nazis).

Most of Ramadani’s article is an attack on the politics of the Iraqi Communist Party, the leading political force in the IFTU. There is truth in his criticisms there.

But why doesn’t elementary labour movement solidarity override that? Why isn’t support for the IFTU as a trade-union organisation, for its right to organise, to get its views heard, and to fight for workers’ interests against employers and government, paramount?

Such support and solidarity would not exclude criticism of the IFTU’s political leadership, any more than support for the TGWU or Unison in their basic trade union functions excludes criticism of Tony Woodley or Dave Prentis.

The ESF platforms were full of trade union leaders with bad politics, starting with British trade union leaders like Dave Prentis of Unison. No-one yelled them down or walked out of their sessions.

Let’s separate out the issues here and discuss them one by one.

1. Is the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions a real trade-union federation?

Ramadani does not say flatly that the IFTU is not a real union movement. The Stop The War Coalition, to which Ramadani is close, admits the contrary in its officers’ statement of 8 October denouncing the IFTU — “the IFTU is one of a number of trade unions and workers’ organisations in Iraq”.

Owen Tudor, the TUC’s international officer, wrote a report from a visit to Iraq in February 2004 with a delegation of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions. “In several workplaces visited (admittedly selected by the confederations we met) we came across lively, muscular (even argumentative) trade union grassroots”.

“It was clear to the delegation that the... IFTU had genuine links with workers in workplaces, and [was] more or less representative of ordinary workers. There are some doubts about the extent of political domination of the IFTU by the Communist Party...”

Activists closer to the trade-union rank and file have also visited Iraq. In October 2003, Alex Gordon of the RMT, Guy Smallman of the NUJ, Dave Barnes of TSSA, and Brian Joyce of the FBU went as a delegation sponsored by the Stop The War Coalition.

Unlike Tudor, they met only IFTU unionists. Speaking to Solidarity (3/12/03), Alex Gordon was cautious. “I don’t claim to be any kind of expert on Iraq. I don’t speak Arabic or Kurdish... We were dependent on translations, but I am pretty clear that our translator was extremely precise”.

They too found real life in IFTU unions at workplace level. At the Al-Dawra oil refinery in Baghdad, for example: “we asked [the trade union committee] what tactics they were using to advance their members’ interests, and they had no united view. There was a hubbub of voices. Some were calling for strike action. Others were saying no. If they went on strike, they would be damaging the Iraqi people, because the only hope they have of any sovereign, independent Iraqi republic is to maintain the oil industry and get it back on its feet...

“The day before we’d been there, there had been a demonstration in the plant by workers, under the leadership of the trade union committee, against the extremely low wages being paid to administrative workers. They marched round the plant and to the manager’s office, demanding an increase in pay....”

The same month, a delegation visited from US Labor Against The War. They too visited Al-Dawra. Journalist and activist David Bacon wrote up their report.

“Following the fall of the Saddam regime in April, organisers of the old [CP-led, before 1977] unions resurfaced. In Basra, they mounted a strike two days after the arrival of British troops, demanding the right to organise and protesting the appointment of a Ba’th party member as the new mayor.

“Subsequently, 400 union activists met in Baghdad in June, forming the... Federation... Organisers fanned out to workplaces, including the Al-Dawra refinery. There they encouraged workers in each of the nine departments to elect union committees...”

Another activist, Ewa Jasiewicz, spent three months in Basra between November 2003 and January 2004 working first with the local IFTU and then with the Southern Oil Company Union, a union then affiliated to the IFTU though under non-CP leadership.

Her report describes the IFTU as “the biggest and most authoritative network of trade unions in Iraq”. Its local leaders had been elected “in May [2003] at a conference attended by approximately 120 worker activists”.

She recounted how the Southern Oil Company Union, which affiliated to the IFTU after some debate, had organised successful struggles to oust Ba’thist managers, to keep out American contractors, and to raise wages.

She also reported on clashes between the IFTU and the occupation. “In Baghdad on December 10, 2003, US troops raided and trashed the Federation’s headquarters and arrested ten leaders... In Basra, during September’s fuel price hike demonstrations, troops seized [local IFTU leader] Samir Hanoon...”

The verdict is clear: the IFTU is a genuine union movement, and maybe the strongest in Iraq today. All these reports were made after the crucial political decision for which Ramadani indicts the Communist Party of Iraq, joining the US-appointed Interim Governing Council in July 2003.

To accept these reports is not to claim that the IFTU is perfect in its politics or in its internal democracy, or that it is the only trade-union organisation in Iraq. There are unions affiliated to no federation, and in northern Iraq there are unions linked to the dominant Kurdish parties, the PUK and the KDP.

There is also the Federation of Workers’ Councils and Unions of Iraq led by the Worker-communist Party of Iraq, which Ramadani does not support either. The WCPI is much more revolutionary than the Communist Party of Iraq — and more vehement in its hostility to the Islamist/Ba’thist “resistance” which Ramadani supports.

2. Why is trade-union organisation specially important?

Iraq had a lively labour movement between 1958 and 1963, which was crushed by the Ba’thists. From the late 1970s it became a totalitarian state, preventing any autonomous working-class organisation or self-expression.

We opposed the US/UK invasion of Iraq in 2003 because of who was doing it, in pursuit of what interests, and with what probable costs. Iraq’s slide since then into embittered chaos and Islamist backlash, as the US occupiers try to enforce mass privatisation and keep reconstruction contracts in the hands of US corporations, is evidence that our opposition was right. We oppose the occupation.

But we never opposed or regretted the overthrow of the Ba’thist dictatorship. The positive side-effect is that an Iraqi labour movement has been able to begin to re-emerge.

Without that labour movement surviving and growing, freedom, democracy, women’s rights, and livable conditions for the working people of Iraq, will all be impossible. No other force can create a free Iraq.

But if the new Iraqi labour movement does survive and thrive, then it can open new perspectives for the whole region. The Arab Middle East is a region where huge natural wealth is kept in the hands of despots and dictators, while the working people suffer under police regimes which deprive them of autonomy and voice. Free labour movements are the essential first steps to change that.

If somehow the Islamist or Ba’thist militias can force the US/UK occupation troops to withdraw (and it is hard to see how they can do that, rather than just stalling the USA’s version of reconstruction); if they can do that without tipping Iraq into a civil war which will rip it apart, making different regions of it prey to neighbouring states (and that is hard to see, too) — then, even in that most favourable case, the “anti-imperialist triumph” will be a disaster, because, like totalitarian triumphs elsewhere, it will crush the labour movement.

It makes all the difference how the occupation is ended — by a democratic mobilisation of the peoples of Iraq, within which the new labour movement survives and grows, or by way of “reactionary anti-imperialism”.

The view which sees defeating the USA as all-important — and more important, if it comes to it, than the survival of the Iraqi labour movement — is US-centric and false.

Solidarity of one group of organised workers with another is the first principle of working-class politics.

Trade unions are fundamental because they are locked into the basic class conflict between workers and bosses. So long as they are genuine workers’ unions, they cannot avoid responding to working-class mobilisation.

They may respond sluggishly, even treacherously. Trade unions have an inbuilt conservative bias. It is impossible to win socialism through trade-union action alone. We need a working-class socialist party, operating on a much higher political and intellectual voltage than unions, to work in and with the unions.

But without the bedrock organised force of trade unions, without the everyday trade-union “resistance against the encroachments of capital”, the working class will, as Marx put it, “be degraded to one level mass of broken wretches past salvation”.

Bourgeois reformists, nationalists, or Islamists may propose or carry out some measures to improve conditions for a working class reduced to such wretchedness. But any such measures will be secondary — and cannot be central for socialists who believe that the emancipation of the working class is the task of the workers themselves.

3. The nature of the “resistance” militias

Historically, trade unions were part of many anti-colonial struggles. They represented the workers of the oppressed nation, more radical in their opposition to colonialism than the upper classes who could win favours from the colonial administration. There was no conflict between socialists solidarising generally with nationalist movements against imperialism and more specifically with workers’ movements.

In principle one could imagine a genuine popular national liberation movement coming into conflict with a small, unrepresentative trade-union organisation based on some specially privileged group of workers, and socialists wanting to support the national movement.

Iraq is different. While the Islamist and neo-Ba’thist militias draw on Iraqi nationalist resentment to build their support, none of them is a genuine national liberation movement.

They are all sectional, Sunni or Shia. The triumph of any one of them would come only after a civil war between them, and by various of them against the Kurds. At present, since late 2004, the active military “resistance” is overwhelmingly Sunni — Sunni-supremacist — and many of its actions are straight-forward sectarian attacks on Shia as Shia.

Remember what happened in neighbouring Iran after the 1979 Islamic revolution there. Working-class and left organisations were crushed even more brutally than they had been under the Shah. The common view on the left that the Khomeiny movement could be supported as a democratic movement, and its religious coloration was secondary, proved utterly false. There is every reason to suppose that the outcome of an Islamist victory in Iraq — where the Islamists are already militarised, in a way that they were not in Iran until after the Shah’s overthrow — would be even worse.

Before the Shia Mahdi Army agreed a truce with the Americans, Sami Ramadani hailed it, claiming that it was “broadening out” to embrace secular forces (Guardian, 24-08-04). This is wishful thinking. The Mahdi Army’s leader, Muqtada al-Sadr, is an explicit supporter of the Iranian model of rule by the clergy (meaning, in Iraq, himself). Where the Mahdi Army has had local control, it has enforced dress codes, closed shops selling alcohol, banned western films, and terrorised prostitutes.

It targets women and religious minorities first. To doubt that trade unions would become its targets once it gained power would be to close our eyes to the whole history of Islamist politics.

The trade unionists, socialists, and communists in Iraq — whether IFTU or FWCUI, Communist Party of Iraq or Worker-communist Party of Iraq or other groups — have not closed their eyes. Neither should we.

4. Is the “World War Two” analogy valid?

Ramadani equates the IFTU with those who served the Nazis’ puppet government in France in 1940-4, the Vichy regime; implicitly, he equates the “resistance” with the French Resistance.

The equation is valid only in a very narrow nationalist view of the world, where “national” default is the mortal and irredeemable sin, and class default only venial.

In Nazi-Vichy France, a labour movement with a long and rich history, which had organised a general strike only four years previously, was smashed and replaced by state-run labour fronts. In Iraq, the destruction of the Saddam regime by the US/UK invasion opened the way for a labour movement to re-emerge where previously it had flowered only in a tiny timespan between 1958 and 1963.

In that respect the US/UK occupation is more like the US/UK occupation of Western Germany, or the US occupation of Japan, after 1945. In Germany unions re-emerged where they had been crushed since 1933. In Japan, where there had never been a large trade union movement before, union membership rose from 5000 in October 1945 to five million in December 1946 and 6.7 million in 1949 — before the US occupation authorities and the Japanese government confronted and broke the more militant unions. A large trade union movement survived.

Socialists opposed the US/UK occupations of Germany and Japan. But they would not have supported “resistance” militias of the Nazis or the supporters of Japan’s old order — even though the fire-bombings of Dresden, Hamburg, and Tokyo, and the atom-bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, were atrocities worse than anything the US has yet done in Iraq, and opinion surveys in Germany in the later 1940s found over 40% still liking the Nazi regime.

And the fact that the political leaders of the reborn trade union movement of West Germany (the Social Democrats) worked closely with the Americans did not stop Marxists supporting that movement as a union movement.

5. The Iraqi Communist Party

Ramadani claims that the CP is “such a small organisation”, kept visible only by patronage from the USA and Allawi. This would imply that the IFTU too is largely a fake outfit. Solidarity has no brief for the Iraqi CP, but the Financial Times (12/08/04), in an article puzzling over the fact that the CP “just does not seem very communist” quotes “diplomats” (i.e. not just the occupation authorities) as “count[ing] it among Iraq’s top political forces”.

The CP is wretchedly reformist. But to call a trade-union organisation led by the CP “Vichyist” (or, as George Galloway would have it, “Quisling”) is a different matter. The Vichyists and the Quislings were not just weak-kneed. They were fascists, or near-fascists.

Ramadani thinks the CP was good in the late 1950s and 60s — “a proud organisation” — but what it did then was give servile support to the military (popular, and liberal, but military) regime of Qassem. Back in May 1942, during World War Two, it supported the British Army which kept forces in Iraq. “Our party considers the British Army, that is now fighting Nazism, as a liberation Army... We stand on the British side and so we must help the British Army in every possible way”.

The CP’s political philosophy today is much the same as forty or sixty years ago. It supports what it sees as the (capitalist) lesser evil — in this case, the Interim Government of Allawi, which gives it some de facto room to operate and may possibly continue to give it that room, as against militias who would crush “communists” and trade unionists without delay.

The CP and the IFTU are not wrong at all to “work with” the Interim Government and the occupation in the sense of seeking to maximise their legal possibilities.

When Solidarity wrote to “Riverbend”, a young Iraqi woman who maintains a weblog about events in Iraq, asking for information about the IFTU, she was critical of their lack of work with the unemployed. “Organisations like the IFTU take a lot of pride in the fact that wages have been raised or doubled while ignoring the fact that there are millions currently out of work”. But as to not boycotting the occupation authorities, she shrugged. “Are they working with the British occupation forces? I don’t doubt it — any union/party/organisation wanting to get any work done inside of the country currently has to work with either the Americans or the Brits. That’s just the way things are working”.

In fact, even Ramadani’s favoured Mahdi Army negotiates with the Interim Government.

That the Iraqi CP joined the Interim Government is something different. To shun immediate confrontation, or cries of “troops out now”, or immediate attempts to bring down the government, when the labour movement is not strong enough to replace it, is entirely principled and compatible with working-class political independence. But to join the government means losing that independence.

The Iraqi CP’s support for Qassem in 1958-63 meant renouncing political independence. So did, for example, the Vietnamese CP’s policies at the end of World War Two, when Japanese power collapsed, and the CP was able to seize power in Vietnam. It then sought an accommodation with the French troops there — limiting its demand to “independence within the French Union” — and positively welcomed in the British troops which reinstated French rule in the south.

The Vietnamese CP did much worse than the Iraqi CP has done — it massacred the Vietnamese Trotskyists who demanded full independence, and actively helped the French troops suppress more militant Vietnamese nationalists.

Yet Ramadani would not excommunicate the Vietnamese CP as “Quislings”.

His attitude is different on Iraq, not because he has suddenly become more strident and uncompromising about working-class political independence, but for another reason: “Yankophobia”. For him, any sort or degree of collaboration with the Americans is a mortal sin, whereas the “ordinary” sins of labour movement leaders selling out strikes (as they do), collaborating with bourgeois governments (as they do), and so forth, are merely venial.

Socialist politics cannot be worked out backwards from hostility to the USA. They have to be worked out positively, from the needs and the logic of the development of the working class.

To call a large part of the Iraqi labour movement fascist, and to hail the “class-Vichyists”, the clerical-fascists and Ba’thists, as a liberation movement, is to get everything upside down. And to end up on the wrong side of the class line.

• This is an edited and extended version of an article first published in Solidarity 3-61 (4 November 2004).