Solidarity in Wartime

By Bacon, David | The Nation, June 28, 2004 | Go to article overview

Solidarity in Wartime


Bacon, David, The Nation


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.

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