Falah Alwan, president of the Federation of Workers’ Councils and Unions of Iraq, spoke to Solidarity when he visited Britain in February. The interpreter was Houzan Mahmoud.
In the last two months there has been a huge wave of strikes: textile workers in Kut, power workers in Nasiriyah, aluminium products workers in Nasiriyah, chemical workers in Baghdad, leather workers in Baghdad, and agricultural workers.
There were different reasons for different strikes. Many were a response to high fuel price rises. That led to a wave of strikes to raise wages.
Others were in response to the threat of privatisation, especially with the aluminium products workers and the power workers. The workers became suspicious that the bosses were preparing privatisation and workers would be losing their jobs.
Some of these strikes were spontaneous — the textile workers, and a strike at the Pepsi factory in Baghdad. In the other cases the Federation of Workers’ Councils and Unions had a great role in the strikes.
We organised those strikes and led them so as not to be narrow — we wanted to widen this wave of strikes and try to unify the workers’ demands.
Our aspiration was to make it into an Iraq-wide workers’ struggle. The obstacles were the lack of communications and the problem of security. In some places the Islamists are powerful, and it is hard to organise there. You risk being killed, in some areas of Mosul, or Ramadi, or Basra.
It is possible to organise in the workplaces, but it is very difficult to organise on the streets because of the security situation. When the workers go on strike, they do not organise picket lines on the street. They go to the management offices in the factory, or they go home.
The agricultural workers who struck work in 300 state farms. They used to receive bonuses as a share of each year’s profits. Now, after the fall of the old regime, the bonuses have been abolished. They are paid only 80,000 dinars a month, the equivalent of $60. That is why they struck.
It’s hard to organise in all those state farms, but we managed to get to some of them in three areas.
Mostly the workers were partially successful. The chemical workers won almost all their demands. The power workers and the leather workers won about half of what they demanded. The agricultural workers won some of their demands.
The textile workers in Kut were attacked and four workers were injured. The government responded on the basis of the Ba’th regime’s labour laws which said that workers were “civil servants” and had no right to strike. The textile workers suffered a defeat.
One of the reasons for the strikes is that it is winter and the workers need oil to heat their houses. The high fuel prices also make transportation very expensive, and increase the price of food transported from one place to another.
With the leather workers the strike was to do with corruption in the administration of the factory. The workers used to get seasonal bonuses, but the management took them away.
The wave of strikes was mostly defensive. There is a huge level of unemployment, and workers face the threat of being sacked from their jobs if they raise wider demands, political demands. The workers have not really yet got to a stage where they can expand their demands and widen their horizons for a real working-class struggle in Iraq.
The issues of wages, unemployment, and the occupation all affect the workers. A section of workers has been driven into the reactionary camp of political Islam. And political Islam has been dividing the workers on the basis of religious sects and ethnic groupings. That affects the working class. There isn’t really a sectarian division inside the workplaces. For example in the textile factory where I work there are Shia and Sunni, and there is no problem. Some Shia activists want to bring religious issues into the factories, but the workers don’t like it.
The Federation of Workers’ Councils and Unions has branches in different cities — Baghdad, Basra, Nasiriyah, Kirkuk, and Mosul. In those cities we have committees in the workplaces. In some cities we are the major union federation. In Basra we have committees among the oil workers, in the power station, among the building workers, and in the transport sector. In Nasiriyah it’s mainly the aluminium products workers.
In each workplace, the workers who are members of the Federation get together and elect their own committee. It’s down to the workers themselves. The size of the committees varies, but it is usually about three to five per cent of the workers. For example, in one factory with 230 workers, 105 are members of the Federation, and the committee has seven people.
You can’t really say that we organise secretly, but sometimes we have to use different ways of organising to fool the management. Many of the workplaces are still state-owned, and we use different names to organise the workers — “workers’ committee”, “workers’ gathering”, etc.
In Basra, for example, there is a branch of the Federation, with people elected to lead the branch. They supervise the work of the committees in the different workplaces, but those committees are elected by the workers in the workplace.
When the Federation had its conference in Basra, the workers in each workplace gathered to choose their representatives to go to the conference, and then those representatives elected the local leadership.
As for the workers who are members of the Federation but not members of the committees — the leadership of the branch will go to the workplaces to meet with the workers, not during working hours, because that is not allowed, but after working hours or during the lunch break. We don’t have a bureaucratic structure. If any member of the Federation has a criticism or a complaint he can go directly to the Executive Committee to make his complaint or publish it in our newspaper.
Working hours vary. In some places they have been finishing work early so that workers can go home early, because of the security situation. Whether their pay gets cut because of that depends on the local management. There is no labour law to cover that.
There are problems caused by the old laws which prevent our union expanding. And some workers will not get unionised because they still think of unions as part of the state apparatus. Their trust needs to be gained.
We have national Iraqi-wide unions in the Federation, for example for chemical workers, or for leather workers. The Executive and the main office is in Baghdad.
In some workplaces there are other unions organising, but we have our own committees. We have no problem about working with other unions as long as they don’t create problems with the members, but, for example, we have problems with the IFTU [Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions] in the workplaces. The IFTU representatives bring official orders into the workplace and say that the Federation of Workers’ Councils is not allowed, it is illegal, it has no right to organise. Sometimes they threaten our members that they will be sacked from their jobs.
The GFTU [the old Ba’thist union] has split now. In the south SCIRI [the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq] threw out the old Ba’thists and now they have an organisation called GFITU. At first they wanted to call it “Islamic union” or something like that.
Somebody got the GFITU leader drunk once when he was going to a meeting, so the workers don’t trust him as an Islamic trade union leader. The rump GFTU is now dominated by the Sunni tribes and old Ba’thists. But both GFTU and GFITU have no real existence. They are just names. They have no organisation in the workplaces.
The teachers’ union is independent. It does not belong to any federation. Every federation wants to bring them in, but they have not joined any. It’s not very clear what the dominant or most influential political force is there.
Both the GFTU and the GFITU claim that the Southern Oil Company Union of Hassan Juma’a belongs to them, but I don’t think so. The Federation has a committee among the oil workers in Basra as well as in Kirkuk, but there is no conflict with Hassan Juma’a. He does his work and we do our work. Our relation with them is positive.
As for the Kurdish union organisations, there are two of them, tied to PUK and KDP, so there is nothing we can share with them.
The major federation which is calling for strikes and mobilising workers is ours.
We don’t have a student organisation. I don’t think there are really any student unions in Iraq. They claim that there is a Communist Party-led student union, but when they started the Islamists threatened any female and male students sitting together or going to any places together.
As regards the unemployed, one of our projects was to carry out a survey, at least in Baghdad, to find the real percentage of unemployed. But the Ministry of Labour rejected that project. They said that we are not an official union, so we don’t have permission to do that.
We have also campaigned for training for the unemployed, but the Ministry of Labour refused that too.
We used to organise protests outside the Ministry of Labour to demand unemployment benefit. Now, because of the security situation, it is very hard to organise street protests, but we have not stopped campaigning in terms of making complaints to the ministries and to the international organisations.
The new draft labour law has been presented by ILO [International Labour Office], and I have been appointed to attend discussions on it in Amman. It does include freedom of organisation, but about strikes and so on it is not very clear. The Federation has its own amendments to this draft, about a 35 hour week, two days’ holiday per week for the workers, unemployment benefit, and provision for women who work in the home. But the Ministry of Labour is not taking these into account.
I think that maybe this law will be implemented after the privatisations go through.
The political demands we want to organise the workers around are an immediate end to the occupation, a secular state, freedom and equality, and so on. [But immediately would the workers’ organisations be strong enough to defeat the Islamist militias?] No. The Islamic militias are well armed and it is not possible for the workers to confront them at the moment. If the workers refuse to join these militias, it will weaken them. But for the moment the situation is difficult.
Not many of the Federation’s members are women workers, only about 10%. The security situation and the rise of political Islam make things difficult. There are many women workers in sectors like hospitals and banks, but it is very difficult to organise there.
Iraqi trade unionists murdered
Despite the rise in strike, Iraqi trade unionists live in severe danger from both the US/UK occupation, which keeps Saddam's labour laws on the books, and the Islamist and neo-Ba'thist "resistance" gangs, which have killed and kidnapped trade unionists.
A member of the IFTU’s Oil and Gas Union, Ali Hassan Abd, was assassinated on Friday 18 February in Baghdad. Moaid Hamed, General Secretary of the Mosul branch of the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions (IFTU), was kidnapped on 11 February. In January IFTU Hadi Saleh was killed. The International Confederation of Free Trade Unions reports that it "fears that the climate will worsen — according to the Federation of Workers’ Councils and Unions in Iraq (FWCUI), an extremist group has been planning to abduct several labour activists in Basra".
No quick relief is in sight. On Friday 25 February, General Richard Myers, chair of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that he expected the war with “resistance” militias in Iraq to continue for “anywhere from seven to 12 years”. “This is not the kind of business that can be done in one year [or] two years”.
400 hundred hotel workers are on strike at one of Baghdad’s top hotels, the Palestine Hotel, demanding a wage rise. They are organised in the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions.
According to the IFTU,180 workers at the nearby Sheraton 'Baghdad Hotel' also staged a strike recently in which they won a wage increase and better working conditions.