Ruth Cashman reports on the first international labour conference ever held in Iraq, which she attended in Erbil on 13-14 March.
The conference, included hundreds of delegates from oil and gas, ports, electricity, construction, public sector, transport, communications, education, rail, health care, metal working, journalists, food workers and students. Delegations from the US, the UK, South Africa, Japan, Australia, and Iran were also there.
At this conference three powerful unions, the Federation of Oil Unions in Iraq , the Electricity Association and the General Federation of Workers Councils’ and Unions signed an agreement to create a new union confederation under the conference’s banner “A better world can be made by workers”.
For decades under Saddam Hussein’s regime, the Iraqi labour movement was attacked and workers were stripped of their rights; they were imprisoned, tortured and killed.
In 1987 the regime enacted Decree 150 banning freedom of association for public sector workers.
By the 1990s the only unions left were pro-regime labour federations, which were used as an instrument of the state to suppress workers’ struggle.
After the 2003 invasion occupying forces abolished all laws of the Ba’athist regime except those pertaining to workers’ rights.
What’s the situation now? The fall of Saddam Hussein enabled a tiny space for the labour movement to develop. While class organisation was illegal in that period, that did not mean that it entirely disappeared.
The remnants of political organisations retained memories of class struggle and this history gave inspiration and strength to a re-emerging Iraqi labour movement. At the conference, heroes of the strikes crushed at the beginning of the Ba’athist regime received standing ovations and brought tears to the eyes of some workers.
In recent times there have been struggles and victories: in August 2008 a wave of strikes and occupations forced the government to retreat on proposed pay cuts for Ministry of Industry workers.
However the Iraqi labour movement faces many challenges. Nazim al-Radi, president of the General Union of Iraqi Ports, explains:
“We have been struggling for our most basic needs on one hand, standing fearlessly against all forms of sectarianism and religious agendas that attempt to break workers’ unity – as well as confronting the occupation’s economic and political agenda on the other hand.”
Violence, particularly against women, is still common. People who can get home safely and have a job count themselves lucky, to a certain extent.
As well as larger questions of the occupation and the economy, the labour movemnt also faces internal problems of organisation. People talk of a “dictatorial mindset” filtering through all organisations: chairing, meeting conduct, arriving at decisions, are all having to be rediscovered.
All the unions are tied to external leftist or religious parties. The Iraqi Federation of Oil Unions is linked to Islamists; GFWCU and FWCU are linked to different factions in the Worker-communist Party of Iraq; GFIW (which came out of IFTU) is linked to the Communist Party. The Kurdish ruling parties, PUK and the KDP, also have their own unions.
The purpose of this conference was two-fold: to unite Iraqi unions around basic fights and create space for joint work; and to bring the attention of the international labour movements to Iraq and all the unions that represent Iraqi workers.
The conference overwhelmingly passed a number of resolutions on questions of workers’ rights, international solidarity and public resources. These included the call for immediate enactment of a basic workers’ rights, in compliance with the ILO standards the Iraqi government has signed up for. It also declared:
“All sources of energy are the property of the people of Iraq , and no one has the right to privatise or monopolise these resources under any pretext. These resources must be used for the benefit of Iraqis and distributed equally.”
More controversial matters were the question of a secular state in Iraq and the discussion of violence against women.
An amendment from the floor suggested the addition of “secular” to a motion “‘to promote and support the establishment of an independent state and the formation of a non-sectarian and non-ethnic government”.
The debate on this motion mainly centred around the definition of “secualar” as opposed to “anti-religious”. The amendment passed.
Following this, international delegates were removed from the voting and the vote was taken again. Again it passed.
Following this, a recount was demanded. For a third time the amendment passed, this time with a greatly improved majority!
At the reading of the final statement, Hassan Juma, President of the Iraqi Federation of Oil Unions, walked out on hearing the word “secular”, taking his delegation with him. In the hotel car park, the leaders of the major unions met: Hassan Juma threatened to pull his union out of the merger, because, he said, his members would be in danger if they returned to Basra having supported a secular state; and so “secular” was removed from the final statement.
A motion on women’s rights was accepted from the floor after Herman Kadhim, a women’s rights activist, reprimanded the organisers of the conference for neglecting this issue. A huge debate raged over whether women were being killed as women in Iraq. A number of men claimed this no longer happened. Some delegates walked out in disgust. Following the debate the motion fell.
Outside of the conference I spoke to a number of women about the issues facing them. People raised the lack of training at work which prevented them from progressing; they also spoke about forced prostitution, the disproportionate effect of sectarian violence on women, and honour killing.
Honour killing was legal under Saddam, but has continued with the perpetrators making deals with political parties to avoid prosecution, or forcing women to burn themselves.
The fact that women’s rights and secularism were debated at all is a massive achievement. It is a good thing that there was a serious fight on these issues, because it means these discussions are really being debated on the ground. And the discussion will be taken back to local communities and workplaces. The debate is alive in Iraq today.
The greatest success of this conference is that it happened. There is a vibrant and varied labour movement in Iraq. To a large extent whether it can survive the dual horrors of occupation and sectarianism and develop a stronger political agenda depends on our solidarity. If Iraqi trade unionists are prepared to risk death to organise, the least we can do is give our wholehearted support.