Pinkertons at the CPA: Iraq's Resurgent Labor Unions Could Have Helped Rebuild the Country's Civil Society. the Bush Administration, of Course, Tried to Crush Them

By Harwood, Matthew | The Washington Monthly, April 2005 | Go to article overview

Pinkertons at the CPA: Iraq's Resurgent Labor Unions Could Have Helped Rebuild the Country's Civil Society. the Bush Administration, of Course, Tried to Crush Them


Harwood, Matthew, The Washington Monthly


On Jan. 4, labor union leader Hadi Saleh returned to his Baghdad home after work. Five masked men laid in wait. After he entered, they jumped him, blind-folded him, and bound his hands and feet. The intruders beat and burnt Saleh on his torso and head and then choked him to death with an electrical cord. Before they left, the men strafed Saleh's body with bullets. His membership flies were ran-sacked. This wasn't everyday violence. Saleh was, at the time of his death, international secretary of the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions (IFTU) and a strong player in Iraq's born-again labor movement once crushed by Saddam Hussein. The labor leader's killers are widely suspected to be remnants of Hussein's secret police, the Mukhabarat. Saleh's slaying was the most high-profile attack on Iraqi labor officials, many of whom continue to be kidnapped and killed with impunity by the insurgents. In recent months, two more trade unionists have been murdered, one while he was walking home with his children.

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There is good reason for insurgents to take on the trade unionists. The IFTU supports a secular state, representative of Shi'a, Sunni, and Kurd. Its leaders have called for the insurgency to end. The union has endorsed U.N. Resolution 1546, which sets the time table for Iraq's transition into a democracy. The group was one of comparatively few in Iraq to back the American-appointed Prime Minister Iyad Allawi's interim government, the continued presence of coalition soldiers for security, and the Jan. 30 elections. Right before the elections, the IFTU's Foreign Representative Abdullah Muhsin emailed me a simple and direct view of their importance: "[T]he elections in Iraq are essential to avoid a brutal assault by reactionary forces." The Iraqi labor movement, in other words, had been a consistent enemy of the insurgency, and a strong proponent of a free, self-governing Iraq.

Saleh's murder is more than just a sign of the frailty of Iraq's move towards democracy. It's also an apt example of how Iraq's labor movement has fared under U.S. control. Americans have largely left the Iraqi unions to fend for themselves, and in some cases actively undercut them. As a result, Iraq has been significantly deprived of the movement perhaps most willing and best equipped to nurture along a nascent national democracy in a religiously and ethnically divided country: organized labor.

From Poland to Brazil to post-apartheid South Africa, organized labor has played a critical role in helping new democracies emerge and stabilize. America's own history of successful occupation teaches the same lesson. After the Japanese surrender in World War II, the country's newly-appointed premier knocked on the door of Gen. Douglas MacArthur and was greeted with a memorandum outlining the framework for Japan's democratization. First on the list was the "emancipation of the women of Japan through their enfranchisement." Second was "the encouragement of the unionization of Labor."

Had the American administrators in Iraq followed MacArthur's model and placed a similar emphasis on nurturing labor, that move alone would not have turned Iraq into a stable, civil society. But given the history of labor in emerging democracies and the dearth of other nation-building alternatives in Iraq, sheltering and encouraging a union movement ought to have been pretty close to first in the reconstruction playbook. Instead, it seems to have come somewhere near last.

Saddam's legal legacy

Iraq's contemporary labor movement was founded during the 1920s and played a crucial role in overthrowing the British-supported monarchy in 1958. The nation's unions had never coexisted very easily with the Ba'ath movement. While the Ba'ath Party preached a secular pan-Arabism organized on fascist lines, the Communist-inflected labor movement advocated a socialism inclusive of all ethnic and religious backgrounds. Whether someone was a Shiite, a Sunni, or a Kurd didn't matter according to the prevailing ideologies--what mattered was whether they were workers. …

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