The political deadlock in Baghdad, which has prevented the formation of an Iraqi government more than six months after the parliamentary elections in March, has not prevented the administration of Nuri Kamal al-Maliki from opening the southern oilfields to the world’s giant corporations. Nor has it stopped the US Embassy and Commerce Department from reinvigorating the Bush-era program of selling the country’s public assets to corporate buyers. And because Iraqi unions have organized opposition to privatization since the start of the occupation, the Maliki administration is enforcing with a vengeance Saddam Hussein’s prohibition of public sector unions.
The United States may have withdrawn its combat brigades, but it is not leaving Iraq. And while Washington may have scaled back its dreams of nation-building, it has not given up on a key aspect of the economic agenda behind that project: encouraging corporate investment by sacrificing the rights of Iraqi workers.
Unions have been locked in conflict with the Iraqi government since the occupation began, but in the past year the battle has intensified. In March, after oil workers protested low pay and their union’s illegal status, leaders were transferred hundreds of miles from home. The Oil Ministry banned travel outside Iraq for Hassan Juma’a and Falih Abood, president and general secretary, respectively, of the Federation of Oil Employees of Iraq. They were hauled into court and threatened with arrest.
When the Bush administration pushed for passage of a hydrocarbon law that would facilitate foreign investment, the union organized widespread opposition, mounting what was in effect a political strike and shutting down pipelines in 2007. It called for keeping oil in public hands and protested poor housing and high unemployment. Maliki called in the army and, with US military overflights, increased pressure on the workers. He finally agreed to the union’s principal demand: holding implementation of the oil law in abeyance.
Iraq’s unions were already the largest nonsectarian organizations in the country. After the confrontation they also became the leading voices advocating for economic improvement and continued national ownership of oil, electricity and industry. Although the oil union doesn’t oppose all foreign investment, it has criticized the government for signing unfavorable contracts with oil corporations, in particular production-sharing agreements, in which foreign companies get a share of the oil they produce rather than receiving a fee for services. PSAs are rare, even in conservative Arab countries, because they cede a great deal of control to foreign corporations. Oil ministry spokesman Assam Jihad told the Iraq Oil Report, which uses its wide network of correspondents to track conditions in the industry, that "unionists instigate the public against the plans of the Oil Ministry to develop [Iraq’s] oil riches using foreign development."
The oil union is far from the only labor organization targeted by the government. This past July electricity and oil minister Hussein al-Shahristani expelled the Electrical Utility Workers Union from its offices in Basra. Despite billions spent on contracts to rebuild power plants (GE alone got $3 billion), Basra residents got power only a few hours a day during 120-degree heat this past summer. June demonstrations over blackouts, supported by the union—the first national union led by a woman, Hashmeya Muhsin—were put down by police, who killed one protester and injured several others. Shahristani then issued an order to shut the union down. A thousand Basra workers protested, shouting slogans asking Shahristani where the $13 billion appropriated for electricity reconstruction had gone. Within days, the union was expelled from its offices.