On 18 August the Guardian published a letter from Abdullah Muhsin, British representative of the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions, welcoming Tony Blair's reported plan to invite Iyad Allawi, prime minister of Iraq's US-appointed "interim government", to Britain's Labour Party conference at the end of September.
[This is a longer version of this article than appears in the printed edition on of Solidarity].
As we understand it, the Guardian had cut the letter, possibly changing its tone and balance. Regardless, the letter won't have helped the IFTU at all with trade-union, Labour, and anti-war activists in Britain. Allawi is a former top Ba'thist who then became an exile politician sponsored by the CIA. So discredited is he that within a few days Blair had decided not to invite him, reckoning that the kickback would be too great even in the sedate and well-controlled milieu of the New Labour conference.
If the IFTU's welcome for Blair's invitation became known in Iraq, it can't have done the IFTU much good there, either.
Houzan Mahmoud, speaking for the Worker-communist Party of Iraq and the Federation of Workers' Councils and Unions of Iraq, has charged that the episode is fresh proof that the IFTU is just a US stooge outfit, "a tool in the hands of the imposed interim government to violate the rights of workers in Iraq".
Many British leftists are likely to seize on it to prove that supporting the Iraqi trade unions is just a way of being faint-hearted about the struggle against imperialism. If the trade unions support Allawi, then can anti-imperialists have any option but to support Sadr?
Actually the fact that a genuine trade-union movement in Iraq can feel so fearful of Sadr that it backs Allawi proves the opposite: that it is ridiculous for socialists to give any backing to Sadr.
The IFTU is not a US stooge outfit. The IFTU's offices in Baghdad were raided and shut down by US troops, and its leaders jailed for a while, in December 2003. The IFTU was able to reoccupy those offices only recently. The US occupation authorities have refused the IFTU's persistent demands to be granted possession of the offices and assets belonging to the old state-run General Federation of Trade Unions of Iraq. The IFTU's leading political force, the Communist Party of Iraq, opposed the 2003 US-UK war, and opposes the occupation.
A number of British and US trade unionists and activists have visited Iraq and met with the IFTU at workplace level. All of them - Alex Gordon of the RMT, Guy Smallman of the NUJ, Brian Joyce of the FBU, Dave Barnes of TSSA, and journalists David Bacon and Ewa Jasiewicz - reported that the IFTU unions were genuine trade unions. They have also reported that in some workplaces it took a struggle against both the occupation authorities and management for the IFTU union to get itself recognised rather than the rump GFTU.
That the IFTU secured a statement (on 28 January 2004) from Adnan Pachachi of the Interim Governing Council recognising the IFTU as "the official and legitimate representative of the labour movement in Iraq", and that the Interim Government of Allawi has confirmed that statement, does not prove that it is a stooge outfit.
It is right and reasonable for the Federation of Workers' Councils and Unions of Iraq to agitate for the right of Iraqi workers to decide which are legitimate unions and which are not, and for its own organisation to be officially recognised as well as the IFTU. But official recognition does not prove a union movement to be rotten.
In apartheid South Africa, new trade unions grew up in the 1970s which sought and got official recognition by the apartheid regime. The South African Communist Party denounced them as scab outfits and insisted that the only real South African trade-union movement was its own organisation, the South African Congress of Trade Unions, which "boycotted apartheid". The SACP was wrong.
That an organisation is a genuine trade-union movement does not guarantee that it has revolutionary politics. Far from it. The general bias of trade unions - because of the inevitably diffuse character of their membership, and the tendency of their full-time officials to drift into the role of brokers between the workers and the bosses - is to be cautious and conservative. That is one reason why the working class needs a Marxist party organisation as well as trade-union organisations.
Here in Britain our trade union leaders - including some of the most left-wing of them, the so-called "awkward squad" - have just done a deal with Tony Blair to drop demands such as the repeal of the Tory anti-union laws and close ranks behind him for the period up to the next general election, in return for the most minimal concessions.
That is bad. But it does not prove that the TGWU, Unison, or the CWU are simply sham outfits set up by MI5 to fool the workers.
The IFTU leadership's support for Allawi certainly shows that the Iraqi Communist Party and the IFTU leadership are not revolutionary socialists.
But that is not news. The Iraqi Communist Party had taken a seat in the "Interim Governing Council" set up by US administrator Paul Bremer. It supported the leftish military ruler, General Qassem, in Iraq's great period of political ferment (and CP strength) in 1958-63. Even after having thousands of its members killed or jailed in the Ba'thist coups of 1963 and 1968, it tried to do a deal with the Ba'thists, and in fact succeeded in getting some seats in the Ba'thist government in the 1970s.
The most obvious model for the Iraqi CP to aspire to today is the success - in its own terms - of the South African Communist Party. The SACP enjoys strong influence both in South Africa's ANC government - which is dedicated to IMF policies of privatisation and marketisation - and in the country's powerful trade-union federation, COSATU, which generally supports the ANC but sometimes organises protests against particular ANC government policies.
Why do our British union leaders back Blair? Because they see him as a lesser evil than the Tories, and do not have the political fortitude to make a stand for an independent working-class alternative. Why does the IFTU back Allawi? Probably because they see him as a lesser evil than Sadr, and do not have the political fortitude to make a stand for an independent working-class alternative.
The interesting question is, why would the IFTU see Allawi as a lesser evil? The ANC is, after all, still popular in South Africa. Allawi is even less popular in Iraq than Blair in Britain.
Allawi has spoken of imposing a "state of emergency". It is unlikely that the emergency restrictions would hit only at Islamic fundamentalist militias. With Allawi in power, the IFTU cannot be sure of continuing the precarious de facto toleration for trade-union organisation which has existed since April 2003.
But they can have some hopes of continuing it or even consolidating it. With Sadr in power, the IFTU could have no such hopes at all. Iran, Saudi Arabia, and other countries with Islamic-fundamentalist regimes leave no room for doubt: trade unions would be fiercely suppressed.
If your general politics tell you to choose the "lesser evil" among the immediately-available alternatives, then to choose Allawi over Sadr is rational. The problem lies with the general "lesser-evil" politics, not with the assessment.
The IFTU is wrong to endorse Allawi - even with criticisms, reservations, and misgivings, as it does. Those on the British left who back Sadr - with criticisms, reservations, and misgivings - are even more wrong.
It is possible that the US government will decide to back the IFTU - by, for example, getting funds to it through indirect channels, via the National Endowment for Democracy and the AFL-CIO - because it judges that the IFTU will provide a safe, controllable trade union movement.
Such a decision would probably go together with repression against more militant sections of the Iraqi trade union movement, and socialists will have a duty of solidarity to those militants. But that possibility does not mean that we should refuse solidarity to the IFTU as a trade union organisation.
In the first place, history shows us the CIA has sponsored trade-union organisations which it considered "safe" but which nevertheless remained real trade-union organisations. We have other enemies besides the CIA, and the CIA's plans do not always work out in the way the CIA wants.
In France in 1947, for example, the CIA assisted the formation of a new trade union confederation, Force Ouvriere, as a breakaway from the main confederation, the CGT, which was controlled by the Stalinist Communist Party.
FO was and still is a genuine trade union movement. At the time of its formation, many left-wingers, anarchists and some Trotskyists, chose to go with it for the good reason that it offered more democratic space than the CGT.
One of the great working-class tragedies of the 20th century was the refusal of the German Communist and Social-Democratic Parties to unite to stop Hitler coming to power.
To justify their refusal of a united front, the CP made many charges against the Social Democrats which were true. The Social Democrats had been implicated in the murder of revolutionaries by right-wing gangs working with the police. One of the Social Democrats' main power bases was their control of the police force in Prussia. The Social Democrats had served in or supported almost all the governments which carried through the terms of the Treaty of Versailles at the expense of German workers.
All true: but none of that changed the fact that the trade unions were trade unions, and the Social Democratic Party organised a large section of the working class. None of that changed the importance of fighting for a united front.
The Iraqi working class today faces danger of severe repression - maybe not on the Nazi (or Ba'thist) level, but severe - from two poles, both from Islamic-fundamentalist militias like Sadr's and from the US-sponsored Allawi regime with its threats of a state of emergency. A working-class united front against both poles is the only adequate policy - and will remain the only adequate policy whatever the errors of this or that leadership or faction.
There is another section of the Iraqi labour movement - represented by the Union of the Unemployed of Iraq, the Federation of Workers' Councils and Unions of Iraq, the Organisation for Women's Freedom in Iraq, and the Worker-communist Party of Iraq - which has an attitude to Allawi different from the IFTU's.
Their policy is to try to build a "third pole" against both the Islamic-fundamentalist militias and Allawi and the US/UK occupation.
The IFTU seems to be stronger than the UUI and its allies, but, as the IFTU itself honestly declares, "UUI cannot be summarily dismissed"*.
The IFTU's support for Allawi should not diminish our solidarity with the IFTU, because that solidarity should be working-class solidarity with all genuine workers' organisations, as workers' organisations, rather than acting as a voice-relay into the British labour movement for the particular politics of the IFTU's current leadership.
The principle is the same as the one which in Britain leads us to encourage workers to join unions like the TGWU and the GMB, to support those unions' organising efforts and their rights to organise, and to back them in any disputes that they have with employers like British Airways - without in any way approving of the politics of GMB leader Kevin Curran or TGWU leader Tony Woodley.
But the same principle means that we owe the same solidarity to all genuine workers' organisations in Iraq - not just to the IFTU, even if it is at present the biggest movement.
We disagree with the Union of the Unemployed of Iraq and its allies about their dismissal of the IFTU as a stooge outfit, and their appeal to the international movement to refuse support to the IFTU. But that should not hold us back from solidarity with the UUI any more than our disagreement with the IFTU with Allawi should hold us back from solidarity with the IFTU.
Iyad Allawi was a leading Ba'thist from his involvement as a student in the first Ba'thist coup in 1963 through to 1975. From 1990, he became the leader of the Iraqi National Accord, an Iraqi exile group, mostly of ex-Ba'thists (and opposed to Ahmed Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress) which was supported by Saudi Arabia and the CIA and was central to two failed anti-Saddam coup attempts in the 1990s.
According to Seymour Hersh in the New Yorker of 28 June: "Allawi moved to London in 1971, ostensibly to continue his medical education; there he was in charge of the European operations of the Baath Party organization and the local activities of the Mukhabarat, its intelligence agency, until 1975. 'If you’re asking me if Allawi has blood on his hands from his days in London, the answer is yes, he does,' Vincent Cannistraro, the former CIA officer, said. 'He was a paid Mukhabarat agent for the Iraqis, and he was involved in dirty stuff'...
"At some point, for reasons that are not clear, Allawi fell from favour, and the Baathists organized a series of attempts on his life".
The IFTU letter to the Guardian, 18 August
"The invitation to the interim Iraqi prime minister Ayad Allawi to address the Labour party conference is a opportunity for those who honourably opposed the war to extend support to Iraqi democrats who are trying, in the most difficult circumstances, to construct a vibrant civil society.
Allawi is criticised for having been a Ba'athist but many decent people joined the Ba'ath party - and he was nearly assassinated by Saddam's agents in Britain. The Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions strongly supports the current process to prepare the ground for democratic elections. His presence at Labour's conference is an excellent opportunity for a real dialogue with him".
Houzan Mahmoud of the Organisation for Women's Freedom in Iraq, the Union of the Unemployed of Iraq, and the Federation of Workers' Councils and Unions of Iraq, on the IFTU
"IFTU has been acting against the interest of the working class and is a tool in the hands of the imposed interim government to violate the rights of workers in Iraq.
IFTU is this era's version of state-made, anti-labour Ba'thist unions. They should be denied any kind of support. Workers in Europe should refuse to ally with them, for their opposition to worker rights in complicity with the interim government.
IFTU enjoys the backing of the US/UK governments, as well the recognition and support of Allawi's interim government. Any support or recognition offered to them will be a direct support for the government of Allawi and against the interests of the workers and people of Iraq".