Workers struggles in occupied Iraq in 2004

George Bush's claim that the war in Iraq was won last May now seems very premature. Saddam may have been caught but US troops are increasingly confined to their bases or to mounting large patrols out of them, at constant risk of ambush. But what is life like for the Iraqi workers caught under the occupation and all too often in the cross-fire?

A United Nations/World Bank report issued in October estimated that in a country of 26 million people, 50 percent of Iraq's workforce were unemployed or underemployed. The economy has been destroyed not only by three wars but also by over a decade of sanctions. The occupation forces have brought back many of the Ba'athist death squads who kept workers down under Saddam. But despite all this Iraqi workers are organizing to improve their lot under the new regime.

Trade Union delegations from across the globe have been visiting Iraq to observe events. One such British trade unionist, Alex Gordon (of the NURMT) reported: "In the Baghdad Bicycle Factory, for example, they held a one-day strike on 27th September and raised their wages from 17,000 to 60,000 Iraqi Dinar a month" (about £30). He went on to describe how in the Railway Works several weeks ago members of the US civil administration turned up to meet with the management and representatives of the former Ba'athist 'yellow' unions.

In response 600 railworkers at the depot held a mass meeting and elected three representatives to inform the US occupation authorities that the railworkers wouldn't tolerate being represented by former Ba'athists and to demand recognition for their own democratic union. The US troops pulled guns on the workers who stood their ground with the result that their union is now the only de-facto recognised organisation at the workplace. Getting legal recognition out of the US-appointed Iraqi Governing Council however, is another matter.

David Bacon, who travelled to Iraq as part of a delegation from U.S. Labor Against the War (USLAW) reports that the Occupation authorities have kept Saddam's anti-union legislation on the books. What's more "in June, Bremer issued another regulation about 'prohibited activity.' Item B under prohibited activities is encouraging anybody to organise any kind of strike or disruption in a factory or any kind of economically important enterprise. And the punishment for this is being arrested by the occupation authority and being treated as a prisoner of war."

Ewa Jasiewicz, of the International Occupation Watch Center in Baghdad described the struggle of workers at a brick factor near Baghdad In October 3Ú4 of the workforce who are paid $1.50 for a 14 hour day marched on the management's office and demanded a wage increase, a formal contract, on-site medical facilities and retirement payments.

"The owner had no idea that a union had been formed and told them, 'Fine, strike go, I will dismiss you, others will come to take your place,'' 'The workers responded by going to their homes, bringing out their guns and spontaneously forming an armed picket line.

"Manned with machine guns and Kalishnikovs, workers guarded the factory and defended their strike from demolition by scab labor. The owner, overpowered, ended up granting the workers a raise of 500 dinars - 25 cents- and agreed to enter negotiations regarding social and health benefits. The strike was regarded all around as a massive success".

She also "visited a worker unaffiliated to the trade union but working for the Southern Oil Company in his company supplied home. His wages have improved but still amount to just $10 per day. He can't and never will be able to afford to move out of his 2-room caravan, unless he gets a raise. He tells us that the management, the same dictatorial and murderous Ba'athists responsible for the ordering of hundreds of oil workers dead, are still running the show. 'We threw them out, every single one, but the Ministry of Oil / CPA ordered many of them back in'.

As might be imagined the US/UK occupying force is not too happy that Iraqi workers are organizing themselves rather then obeying the puppet Iraqi Governing Council. U.S. Labor Against War circulated an appeal in mid-December from Iraq which described how "The American occupation forces, using a force of about ten armored cars and tens of soldiers, attacked the temporary headquarters of Iraqi Federation of Workers Trade Unions (TFTU) in Baghdad) at 10.30 am, Saturday 6/12/2003, and arrested 8 of its leaders and cadres, who were handcuffed and taken away to an unknown destination.

The attackers ransacked and destroyed IFTU's possessions, tearing down banners and posters condemning acts of terror, tarnishing the name of WTU and that of the General Union of Transport Workers (on the building's main front) with black paint and smashing window glass, without giving any reason or explanation." Those arrested were released the following day, this is part of a series of arrests by the occupation armies of trade union leaders and protesters.

Iraq is to be made safe for capitalism one way or the other. For over 20 years the job of caretaker was given to Saddam Hussein until in the 1990's he got too big for his boots. Now the occupation forces are searching for another suitable strong man they can leave in charge when they depart for other wars.

From Workers Solidarity No79 published in Jan 2004 as 'The Fight for a Free Iraq'

See www.occupationwatch.org for many of the articles from which these quotes are taken.

WORDS: Andrew Flood (Follow Andrew on Twitter )

  


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