In early June, as US soldiers in Baghdad fired on crowds of demobilized Iraqi soldiers demanding back pay denied by the US occupation forces, two trade unionists from California were in Europe to support an international solidarity campaign that could create a new relationship between Americans and Iraqis and open a new front in the antiwar movement.
Making the trip were Alan Benjamin, representing the San Francisco Labor Council, and Amy Newell, the national organizer for US Labor Against the War (USLAW), a coalition of labor organizations that opposed the war. In Geneva they presented a new USLAW report on US corporations in Iraq to a meeting of the International Liaison Committee of Workers and Peoples (ILC), a Paris-based coalition of trade unionists from more than sixty countries.
The conference was timed to coincide with the annual meeting of the International Labor Organization. It was attended by many worker representatives to the ILO, including Hacene Djeman, the general secretary of the International Confederation of Arab Trade Unions, and worker representatives from Algeria, Sudan and other Arab countries. Subhi Toma, a former Iraqi labor leader living in exile in France, was also there. The conference agreed to launch a Campaign for Labor Rights in Iraq, focusing on restoring basic labor rights, particularly the right to have genuinely independent unions and to work under safe conditions.
USLAW’s report “is our contribution to getting that campaign off the ground,” said Newell. “Its also a way of keeping the momentum going on the international solidarity that developed to try to prevent this war. We need to keep building to stop the next war.” The ILC is translating it into Arabic and four other languages, and said the thirty-five-page report “will be brought to the attention of the Iraqi workers, who need to know the record of these corporations.”
“The Corporate Invasion of Iraq” is available at USLAW’s website, www.uslaboragainstwar.org. It details the labor, human rights, environmental and political records of eighteen US companies working under contract in Iraq. They range from the giant Bechtel Group, which has the master contract with the US Agency for International Development to rebuild Iraq’s infrastructure, to minority-owned Creative Associates, a small Washington, DC, firm that has an AID contract to restore Iraq’s primary and secondary educational system.
Gene Bruskin, USLAW’s co-convener, based in Washington, said the report is “important to the understanding of US workers and the labor movement about what this war was all about, as opposed to what we were told.” US and Iraqi workers, he added, “now have a direct link because our companies are over there, and these are people many of us have first-hand experience with.” Plus, “we have a President talking about a Middle East free-trade zone, and we know from direct experience that means jobs going abroad.”
While the Bush Administration claims the war was fought to bring democracy to Iraq, the USLAW report says, “We can be sure that its definition of ‘democracy’ does not include workers’ rights and strong independent unions. Bush and his cohorts have waged a relentless assault against organized labor and working families in the US. We would expect nothing different in their treatment of unions and workers in Iraq.”