In a Service Employees union hall in Boston, a hospital worker raises her hand. “If Saddam Hussein was such a bad guy,” she asks, “why is the US enforcing his law banning unions in Iraq?” Since January, workers like this orderly have been listening to the answers to their questions given by Iraqi workers themselves, courtesy of US Labor Against the War, a network that now includes dozens of union locals and labor councils nationally. USLAW’s campaign for labor rights in Iraq is also bringing reports, videos and testimony of American unionists who have traveled to Iraq into union halls in California, Washington, Michigan, Ohio, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Washington, DC, and beyond. As a result, hundreds of union members have suddenly been able to see Iraq not just as a scene of violent conflict but as a complex nation of 24 million people, with trade unions, political parties and civil organizations trying desperately to win back control of their country.
USLAW’s campaign is aimed at unmasking the occupation’s economic agenda, the hallmarks of which are privatizing Iraq’s state-owned factories and workplaces (still the employer of most Iraqi workers); enforcing salaries that begin at $40 a month to attract investment from foreign corporations; and imposing a 1987 decree banning unions in state-owned plants, while prohibiting advocacy leading to “civil disorder.” In December coalition troops even arrested leaders of the Iraqi Federation of Workers’ Trade Unions and the Union of the Unemployed and threw the IFTU out of its offices.
The IFTU’s veteran organizers, however, who survived Saddam Hussein’s regime underground or in exile, have reorganized since its fall. Basra has seen three general strikes since the occupation began. In January new unions in the southern oil fields and refineries defeated the Coalition Provisional Authority’s attempts to lower wages and forced Halliburton to abandon plans for replacing them with foreign workers for reconstruction work. “Iraq will be reconstructed by Iraqis,” says Hassan Juma‚ a head of the union at the Southern Oil Company.
The IFTU and another new union, the Federation of Workers’ Councils and Unions, are challenging the occupation’s economic program and have appealed for support from US labor. Felah Alwan, secretary of the Workers’ Councils and Unions, says, “The first thing we need is that you say that we exist!” A unionist from a brickyard near Baghdad, where armed workers stopped the recruitment of strikebreakers, asked visiting US unionists to “explain to the whole world what happens here.”
In the meetings organized by USLAW, support for Iraqi workers is pouring forth. The campaign highlights connections between the war abroad and Bush’s war on labor at home, through common policies such as a ban on union organizing (enforced within the Department of Homeland Security) and privatization. “If this is what the occupation means, I can understand why Iraqi unions don’t want it,” one worker at the Boston meeting remarked.
In the United States, labor opposition to the occupation is moving well beyond the core of solidarity activists. Labor councils that rarely speak out on foreign policy hosted a February road tour by the USLAW delegation. In January AFL-CIO president John Sweeney condemned enforcement of the 1987 law and called on the CPA’s Paul Bremer and the Iraqi Governing Council “to allow Iraqi workers to associate together and participate collectively in rebuilding the economy.” The AFL-CIO has been very quiet on the war since last year’s invasion, and Sweeney’s statement was a welcome change. Some members of Congress have started collecting signatures on a letter demanding that Defense Secretary Rumsfeld explain why unions are banned in Baghdad.
Iraq’s new unions want to rewrite the country’s labor laws to guarantee their right to organize, bargain and strike while preserving historic protections for national healthcare, housing and education. Their proposals challenge the CPA’s free-market reforms, like its decrees this past September privatizing state enterprises, allowing foreign ownership and unlimited repatriation of profits, imposing a 15 percent flat tax and abolishing housing and food subsidies for workers. Bremer’s “new constitution” forbids any replacement caretaker government from changing these measures.
Just as Iraqi unionists seek US labor support, the Administration wants American unions to assist in imposing this neoliberal model on Iraq. In an Orwellian moment, Bush announced in his State of the Union address that the occupation would lead to “free labor unions” in the Middle East. Soon after, the National Endowment for Democracy announced that it intends to supply funds for programs in Iraq to build such unions. The NED has a long, unsavory cold war history, abetting coups in Chile and Brazil, war in Central America and attacks on militant unions around the world. Funding US labor solidarity work with NED dollars would involve the AFL-CIO in helping to administer the very occupation that Iraqi workers and unions oppose. To build real labor solidarity, US unions must be willing to challenge the Bush/Bremer program, which means finding other resources to do this vital work.
Some voices in labor and the Democratic Party counsel that unions will lose in November if they campaign on the war. But they won’t be able to duck this fight. National security has been the justification for every Bush antilabor attack, and it is the bedrock of his campaign. Fortunately, if the response from Washington to Boston is any indication, unions increasingly see their own interest in opposing Bush both at home and in Iraq.