Iraqi trade unionist in London: Against the occupation and with the workers

Submitted by Anon on 20 February, 2005 - 3:52

Hassan Juma’a, President of the General Union of Oil Employees in Basra, spoke in London on 8 February and answered questions. The meeting was organised by Iraq Occupation Focus, and the interpreter was Sami Ramadani.

The Americans’ greed in occupying Iraq is very well known and very clear to all. In 1975 Henry Kissinger outlined US policy in the Middle East in a book. He stressed that the USA should control Middle East oil, and that, we believe, is the main reason why Iraq was invaded and occupied.

The former ruler of Iraq, Saddam Hussein, was working as though he was an official of the State Department. The State Department could have removed him with an order of dismissal. But the USA felt it could handle things differently. Preparations were made against Iraq because Iraq is rich in natural resources. Where has that left the workers?

Iraqi trade unions were established in the 1950s. Following the discovery of oil in the region, and the expansion of the sea ports, the unions became quite important. They demanded improvements in workers’ conditions. In 1952 the oil union staged the first strike against the oil company, demanding improvement in the wages of the workers. That was followed in 1956 by a similar strike led by the port workers’ union.

The 14 July revolution of 1958 transformed Iraq from a monarchy into a republic under the leadership of Abd al-Karim Qassem. Within a few days of that revolution those who controlled power in Iraq started to repress and oppress the trade union leaders.

But the biggest problems for the workers began in 1968, when the Ba’th party took control of Iraq through a military coup. Not until a month after that coup did Iraqis find out the real identity of the coup leaders. They hid their identity because they had captured power previously in 1963 and had written a black page for the Iraqi people.

Unions continued, but now under the umbrella of the Ba’thist ideology of unions serving the regime. The Ba’thists tried to make unions belong solely to the Ba’th party. Trade unions stopped demanding workers’ rights and became mouthpieces for the regime. In fact they became security organisations, taking to task workers who demanded their rights.

In 1987 the Revolutionary Command Council, headed by Saddam Hussein, decided to transform workers into “civil servants” [so that they could not join unions]. With that decree, the identity of the biggest social group in Iraq, the working class, was deformed.

Nobody raised their voice to ask how the workers’ identity could suddenly be changed into civil servants. Violations of workers’ rights escalated.

Many people who did not understand the real meaning of the decree applauded it. One justification for the decree, according to Saddam Hussein when he appeared on television, was that women in Iraq did not want to marry a worker.

The General Federation of Trade Unions used to get a lot of state funding through deductions from workers’ salaries. It owned a lot of property. The decree also enabled the regime to control all the money going into the workers’ social security scheme.

The situation of the workers in the state sector was extremely bad. As regards benefits accrued to the employees, a lot of distinctions were made between one group and another. For example, in the Southern Oil Company the general manager got a share of profits of one million dinars while the workers got five thousand.

Mo ving forward to April 2003, when the occupation forces entered Basra — some union activists decided to form an oil workers’ union to protect the national economy. We knew very well that the Americans and their allies had come for the oil. When the British forces entered Basra they protected the oil installations, leaving the universities, the hospitals and so on to be burned or looted.

We established a nine-member committee on 20 April to protect production and to liaise with the administration. That happened in conditions of extreme chaos across the country.

There are 10 oil companies in Basra. We established unions there and then we started our second fight against the Americans.

Paul Bremer’s decrees banned the formation of trade unions and associations in order to protect US interests. [They said that the 1987 decree remained in force.] We expected that the living standards of the workers would increase, but a table of wages was issued by Paul Bremer with 11 steps, where the oil workers’ wage was set at the equivalent of $35. That was strange for a country which has the second largest oil reserves in the world.

Meanwhile, workers brought from Asia by KBR [a subsidiary of the US corporation Hallliburton, granted contracts by the occupation authorities for reconstruction] were getting 20 times as much.

In the oil union we objected to the wages decision. The US administration refused to listen to us, so we staged a strike on 10 August 2003. We stopped oil exports for three days. It forced the Americans, the Oil Ministry, and the Finance Ministry to scrap the two lowest scales in the wages table.

We think it’s important KBR gets out, because we believe that US strategy is that military occupation should be followed by economic occupation. They plan to privatise the oil sector and all other economic sectors, and we think the US has the dominant position in privatising the oil industry.

Iyad Allawi has told the Oil Council, in the Ministry of Oil, that the decisions about privatising the oil industry should be kept secret and should not be revealed to the national assembly.

Most of the major pumping stations were controlled by the USA. KBR brought in an Indian company and a Kuwaiti company, which, when there was such high unemployment in Iraq, brought in 1,200 workers from Asia. We cannot deal with these companies because they are protected by US tanks and forces. We tried to enter negotiations with the Kuwaiti company, and succeeded in getting 1,000 Iraqi workers employed and having 1,000 of those brought in by the Kuwaiti company sent home.

Pressure on KBR forced it to withdraw from the pumping stations and to give the work to Iraqis.

Because we succeeded in imposing those restrictions on KBR, it started to become very obstructive about supplies of simple things like spectacles — instead of making them available within a day or two, they delayed them for months.

The USA was planning that no Iraqi oil should be exported until four years after the occupation. They were surprised to find Iraqi workers were able to restore production after two months — for humanitarian reasons, because the money was needed. That forced the USA to revise its policy on the question of oil exports and rebuilding of the oil installations.

I attended four meetings with the head of the Southern Oil Company, but in those meetings I found nothing that served Iraqis. They were focused on obstructing the production process. Our problems in the oil sector are still there, and transgressions of workers’ rights are continuing.

The Oil Ministry was supposed to activate two companies within the oil sector — the oil digging company and the oil transport company. Those two sectors are vital, and to freeze their activities means to destroy the oil sector.

We are opposed to privatisation. The reason is very clear. The servants of the old regime took with them vast amounts of money, and if the oil installations are put up for sale, we are convinced that these agents of Saddam’s regime will try to purchase them.

We hope that all the parties which took part in the elections will campaign against privatisation. All that is left for Iraq in terms of natural resources is the oil. The entire infrastructure of Iraq has been destroyed.

Please don’t take my remarks as being for or against the elections. Since the entry of the occupation forces in Iraq, Iraq has still been working with Saddam Hussein’s laws. We hope that the elected government, though not fully legitimate, will take us forward.

We don’t think this government will have a magic wand to stop all violence. But certainly there will be some change. We hope that the new government will provide security.

There is confusion between the resistance and those who carry out acts of violence, the suicide bombers, etc, who are hurting Iraqis more than the Americans.

We have heard bin Laden’s recent statement appointing Zarqawi prince of Iraq. Obviously those people have their agents and people working with them, and they don’t want to see a stable Iraq.

Under the US occupation, authority decrees that what is underground cannot be privatised. But oil companies could be brought in to extract the oil. Those concessions could be given to American companies.

Before the elections I met religious and other political parties. I felt that they were all opposed to privatisation. What they will do when they come to power, only God knows.

As far as the trade unions are concerned, God willing we can stop this project, even if we have to give our blood in the process.

[Have the unions tried to organise those foreign workers, brought in by contractors, who remain in Iraq?]

The Kuwaiti company, when it came into Iraq, changed its name to the “Iraqi National Company”. In reality the company was never registered as an Iraqi company.

The workers brought in by these companies are in very special conditions. Most of them are mechanics [engineers?]. Maybe the mechanics’ section of the union can handle their case. But it’s a very difficult situation because these workers are under very strict control.

It is a new situation for Iraq, because previously the law forbade oil companies to bring workers into the country other than high-level experts. All other work had to be handled by Iraqis.

In any case, the Kuwaiti company has withdrawn from Iraq, because one of their managers and their doctor were assassinated.

The Americans and the terrorists have done their best to keep foreigners out of Iraq, as part of sabotaging economic conditions in Iraq. The security situation means that there are no foreign workers now.

[What are the union’s relations with other unions?] There are three union federations in Iraq. The first is the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions, which gained recognition from the regime of Iyad Allawi. According to law, outside bodies should not recognise this body, because it has been imposed by the government. If a government gives legitimacy to one union, that union will not oppose the government or protect workers’ rights.

This federation was formed on the principle of coalition — [a committee with] five members from Allawi’s party, five Communist Party members, and five from the Arab Socialist Movement. The president of this federation is a deputy in Iyad Allawi’s party.

The second federation has people within it who claim to be independent, and a group that belongs to the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, and some from the Dawa party [an older Islamist party, which like SCIRI has participated in the Interim Government].

The third federation, led by Falih Alwan, belongs to the Worker-communist Party [the Federation of Workers’ Councils and Unions of Iraq].

The southern oil workers’ union decided to remain independent, though personally I know people from all these federations and work with them.

For 35 years we lived under one-party rule. Each one of us has his own convictions and ideology — Communist, or Dawa party member. We should leave those political identities out of union work. Unfortunately, it does not happen like that.

Coordination between the unions is ongoing, because we have a common purpose — how to gain rights for the workers, and how to plan to expel the occupation forces.

[Until recently the Southern Oil Company Union was affiliated to the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions. What are its relations now?]

We were never part of that federation, because we questioned its legitimacy. We think the information that we were part of it has come from someone called Abdullah Muhsin, in Britain, who has good relations with Members of Parliament and others here*.

I have been nominated by the Arab Labour Organisation to coordinate between the oil workers’ unions in Iraq and the oil workers’ unions in Iran. So how could we be affiliated to the IFTU, if the Arab Labour Organisation deals with us independently?

In fact, I have a document issued by the president of the IFTU to the Arab Labour Organisation declaring that the IFTU will dissolve itself after the election of a new government in Iraq.

[What about organising the unemployed? What about links with the oil workers in northern Iraq?] We don’t formally work with the unemployed in an organised way, but we do our best to find work for them. My frankness in answering such questions always gets me in trouble with some political forces back in Iraq. The unemployed workers’ union belongs to the Worker-communist Party, and I don’t want to tread on their toes.

We have links with oil workers in the north of Iraq. Our aim is to establish one oil workers’ union for the whole of Iraq. We are the biggest in terms of number of workers, geographical area, and volume of production. We have good links with the unions in Kirkuk and other centres.

[What about the old Ba’thist union federation, the GFTU?]

At the last meeting, held in Amman, of the Arab Labour Organisation, the three federations that I named were invited. I was also invited. I did not go, but the general secretary of the oil workers’ union went. He told me what happened at the meeting.

Three men and a woman came to the meeting from the old regime and said that they also represented workers in Iraq. The leader of the Arab labour movement, an Algerian, tried to expel them from the meeting. These are people who change their colour according to the circumstances. If the water is blue, they are blue; if the water is green, they turn green. God willing, they will not have their way.

[Have unions taken directly political action?]

The production area in the Najaf regime stopped work during the US attack on Najaf. As regards the union’s influence on general policy, it is represented on the Oil Council in the Ministry of Oil. The Oil Council has control over raising or lowering production. We have the power and the muscle that if we stop production for one day, the government will surely listen to us.

[Have the US/UK troops intervened in industrial disputes?]

The Kuwaiti company had an industrial dispute. The welders had not been paid their full wages, and they went on strike. An American manager came in and told them that if they did not end the strike, he would bring US forces in.

In another strike, against the same company, US tanks actually came in and stood between the strikers and the company management.

Those incidents were not reported in the media.

The unions must unite with and cooperate with all forces that want to end the occupation. The unions are like any Iraqi who wants to end the occupation. They must use all available means to do that. We do not want to be outside that arena of struggle.

Remember, in terms of industrial workers, we represent about 50% of those workers. In the southern oil sector, we have about 23,000 employees, not counting the port workers, the railway workers, etc. If we all unite, then we could produce some effective results.

At one time, under the old regime, oil production levels were extremely high, though there was not much gain for the people. Production reached 4,350,000 barrels a day, and the price was $36 a barrel. You could create quite an advanced society with those sums. Regrettably, the money was used to prop up the military-industrial complex.

Today, probably about 1.8 million barrels a day are being exported, and total production is about 2.5 million barrels.

Since we succeeded in eliminating the two bottom wage scales, the relative economic position of the workers has improved, although it is nowhere near where we are aiming for. Under the sanctions regime, at one point, a teacher’s salary was the equivalent of only five kilograms of flour, so the situation was desperate. There is a relative improvement now, which the union has fought for.

*The information about the Southern Oil Company Union’s affiliation to the IFTU came not from Abdullah Muhsin, who is the British representative of the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions, but from Ewa Jasiewicz, an activist who spent several months in Basra working with the SOCU and who, in fact, chaired meeting at which Hassan spoke.

See www.workersliberty.org/files/Occupied_Basra_19.pdf.

Ewa was reporting the SOCU as affiliated to the IFTU as recently as November 2004: see www.workersliberty.org/node/view/3417.

I spoke with Hassan Juma’a after the 8 February meeting, through a different interpreter, and he said yes, the SOCU had in the past “coordinated with” the IFTU “in the interests of unity”.

Martin Thomas

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