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.”
Evidence of abuse, the report claims, recently surfaced in Basra when a Kuwaiti subcontractor for the Kellogg, Brown & Root subsidiary of Halliburton–Vice President Dick Cheney’s former company–decided to use Asian rather than Iraqi workers to perform repair and reconstruction work. That incident triggered a demonstration by 500 Iraqi workers, illustrating the “resurgent labor movement” in Iraq, the report says.
The report traces that movement to a 1927 strike by railway workers, and describes the important role played by Iraqi trade unions in the overthrow of the monarchy in 1958. But in 1987, Saddam Hussein outlawed independent unions, banned most strikes and kept unions out of state-owned enterprises, which are now being privatized by Bremer’s US administration in Iraq. “Meanwhile, we’re fighting privatization here like mad,” said Bruskin. “There’s a potential here to connect and build real solidarity in a way that people haven’t done before.”
More than half the companies profiled in the report are privately owned and don’t have to account to public shareholders or file financial reports with the Securities and Exchange Commission. The majority are non-union, and “several have well-established records of hostility toward unions and workers who seek to organize them.” (According to the report, only ten of Halliburton’s 530 facilities in the United States are unionized, while Bechtel, which has 40,000 employees, is “largely non-union.”) The report is filled with incidents of cost overruns, accounting irregularities, health and safety violations, environmental contamination and other problems at companies now raking in millions of dollars in contracts.
One of the most outrageous is the $30 million contract awarded by the US General Services Administration to MCI WorldCom to build a wireless network. The contract, USLAW argues, amounts to bailing out a corporate criminal: Last year the company filed the largest bankruptcy in US history after admitting to fraudulently misstating $11 billion in earnings. In May the SEC imposed a $500 million penalty on the company–which was then awarded its contract to build nineteen cell towers to be used by US reconstruction officials in Iraq.
This fall the ILC will send a fact-finding mission to Iraq to evaluate the condition of workers and the status of the labor movement. That decision was made after the ILO’s government and employer representatives voted down a proposal by its worker representatives to send an official ILO delegation to investigate labor conditions in Iraq.
The ILC delegation, which USLAW plans to join, will determine if the right to organize is being respected, what kinds of salaries are being paid by US employers, how much labor has been imported to replace Iraqis, and health and safety conditions. “Right now, Iraq sounds very chaotic, people don’t have jobs and there’s mass unemployment,” said USLAW’s Newell, who spent twenty-two years as an organizer with the United Electrical Workers Union. “We want to help Iraqi workers get out of this terrible situation that they’re in.”