Iraqi workers organise

Submitted by martin on 3 December, 2003 - 10:59

Alex Gordon, a member of the executive of the rail union RMT, spoke to Solidarity
(This is a longer version of the interview than printed in Solidarity 3/42)
I don't claim to be any kind of expert on Iraq. I don't speak Arabic or Kurdish. But five of us from various trade unions - the RMT, the Fire Brigades Union, the Transport Salaried Staffs Association, and National Union of Journalists - went to Baghad at the beginning of October for five days.

Our contacts were through an organisation called the Workers' Democratic Trade Union Movement of Iraq, which was set up at the end of the 1980s by members of the Iraqi Communist Party. They told us that independent trade unions had been set up in Iraq.
We were dependent on translations, but I am pretty clear that our translator was extremely precise. We weren't translated for after a long conversation by a glib phrase - "this is the gist of what he's just been saying to you". We were given sentence-by-sentence or phrase-by-phrase translations.
We initially met with a group of elected officials of the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions. They said they were set on a process of democratic renewal of trade unionism from the base in Iraq.
They wished to emphasise that their trade unionism was not dependent on any particular ideology or political party. There were members of different political parties involved.
We met representatives of some of those political parties. The Iraqi Communist Party was one. They are part of the US-appointed Iraqi Governing Council. There was also the Arab Socialist Movement.
They said that they had refused to join the Iraqi Governing Council. I'm not clear whether that was because they were not big enough to be asked or they took a principled decision not to join a puppet government.
They wanted to prioritise the involvement of the United Nations. They had an art exhibition in their party headquarters dedicated to Sergio Vieira de Mello, the UN ambassador who was blown up in August. They seemed to me to be the sort of organisation that would seek affiliation to the Socialist International, and be linked with the French and German Socialist Parties.
Most of the trade unionists we met, including the leading ones, were not members of those political parties.
They said they would facilitate as many workplace visits as we could fit in, and that is what they did.
We visited an engineering factory which is famous in the region for making bicycles but has been converted to manufacturing wheelchairs and hospital beds and other items for medical services because of the effects of the war.
At the factory, which employs about 450 people, we were introduced to the trade union committee. They welcomed us very warmly and took us straight to the managing director's office. He wasn't there, but we took over his office to hold our meeting.
The manager arrived after we'd been meeting for about 15 minutes, and was introduced to us as the British trade union delegation. We asked him a few questions. We were particularly interested in the ownership of the factory.
The factory was previously half owned by the state and half owned by a cousin of Saddam Hussein. The funds of Saddam Hussein's relative have now been frozen, so effectively it is entirely owned by the state. However, it receives no support from the state, so it is operating autonomously from the state and autonomously from its titular private owner.
The trade union committee were de facto a joint management committee. It is almost a situation of dual power in some of these workplaces, not because the Iraqi working class is so strong that it is running the country, but because the management of these workplaces is so weak.
There was a high proportion of women workers in the factory. The welders were men, but there were women working on assembly. There was a proportion of the workforce who were disabled - blind women - who, they told us, were deliberately kept in employment because of the lack of social welfare provision. They were putting reflectors on bicycle mudguards.
We were taken round the factory to see the different production processes. The workers were mostly very friendly.
We had one confrontation with a worker who I assume was an Islamist. He took umbrage at one of the NUJ members in our delegation, who was a woman. He said: "What are these people doing in our factory? You shouldn't be bringing them here. They were bombing us a few months ago". He was confronted by a number of the members of the trade union committee who told him: "No, these people are not soldiers. They are trade unionists, and they were against the war".
The workers knew about the trade union and popular opposition to the war in Britain, probably because the former regime publicised it for its own reasons, but nevertheless they knew about it.
We visited the Central Baghdad railway workshops, which are of great political and historical importance because the Iraqi labour movement of former years was built on the railways and docks.
We were greeted very, very warmly by the workers there. There was a high degree of politicisation, much more than we had seen at the engineering factory.
We went into the administration block with about twenty people from the trade union committee, but there were other workers crowding into the room and leaning in through the window to take part in the debate.
They were keen to tell us that Bechtel, the US multinational, has been given control of the rail sector by the US occupation authorities. Bechtel are looking to subcontract a lot of the work to British countries. I don't think the Iraqi workers knew the names of Amey and Balfour Beatty, but those are the companies that have been mentioned in the financial press here as bidding for the subcontracts.
The president of the trade union committee said to us that they had people with high skills who could rebuild their railways, and they didn't need foreign companies. There was a strong disagreement between the trade unionists there and one of the managers, who said that the destruction of the railway infrastructure was such that the only way they could hope to rebuild it was through foreign ownership.
There's a real political contestation going on about that question.
In the rail workshops three weeks earlier, so we were told, US occupation authorities had turned up, troops in tow, to hold a meeting in the manager's office , with representatives of the old Ba'thist yellow union, the GFTU.
The workers saw them go into the meeting room, held a mass meeting on the workshop floor of about 600 people, and elected three representatives whom they sent up to gatecrash the meeting with instructions to say that the workers would not under any circumstances be represented by Ba'thist stooges.
The Americans pulled guns on them and told them to get out. Their version is that they stood their ground and argued their case, and in the end the Americans sent the former Ba'thist trade union leaders packing. They recognised that they couldn't strike a bargain with them, because they had no authority.
The trade union committee whom we were speaking to had become the de facto recognised trade union committee for bargaining in that workplace. Not that they have an awful lot to bargain with: the destruction in that industry has been enormous.
But it is an industry with a highly politicised, highly organised workforce, with a great tradition; and it's also an industry which the Americans are determined to privatise.
We also visited a couple of fire stations. That was very different. The fire service was part of the police under the Ba'th regime. They don't have trade union representation.
When we went to one fire station, we were obstructed by someone who called himself a police colonel and said that we could not speak to the firefighters, but they were quite happy with their job and didn't want a union.
We went into the courtyard and spoke to the firefighters, who were extremely pleased to talk to us. We were there for over an hour, talking to them under the nose of their commanding officer.
They had an unending list of appalling grievances. They very much wanted to set up a firefighters' union. They get a nugatory death-in-service benefit, their casualty rate is very high, and they have no proper protective equipment. They wear boots without non-slip soles, they have cotton boiler suits to fight fires in.
They'd been in the front line during the bombing of Baghdad. Some of them were quite damaged. One of the guys whom we were introduced to had had a stroke. He still came to work every day, and they looked after him as best they could, but he couldn't talk. He could only stand there and look at us. There must be terrible psychological and physical damage to many of those people.
We visited the engineering and science campus of the university. We met the new temporary dean of the university, the former dean having departed suddenly on the fall of the regime, and representatives of the student union.
They were extremely bitter about the conditions for students. They said that the university had been reopened as a publicity stunt by the Americans to show that life was coming back to normal, but in reality many university buildings had been bombed, and all the university buses had been stolen or bombed so that students could not travel around the campus, which is extremely large.
There is an enormous level of insecurity in Baghdad, particularly for women.
The campus was being contested between Islamists and the secular students' union. The posters put up by the students' union about our visit had been ripped down, by Islamists so we were told. There was quite a tense atmosphere there.
We had a request from some women students to meet with us separately. They wanted to emphasise the terrible difficulties for women in Iraq. They said women can't move around Iraq without a male relative.
These women were not wearing headscarves, and that was, I think, a political statement. They emphasised that the situation is getting worse, not better.
The students' union told us that there is an accommodation crisis for students at Baghdad University because the US troops are occupying the student accommodation.
The students were highly politicised. They encapsulated the paradoxical but very realistic position of the majority of the Iraqis we met, saying that they hated Saddam; they were against the war; they were against the occupation; they wanted troops out as soon as possible; and the security situation was getting worse.
Those statements were echoed by almost everyone we met, apart from maybe the Arab Socialist Movement who wanted the United Nations to have a role.
Finally we visited the Al-Dawra oil refinery, which is the key economic installation in Baghdad - and the only one we found to be defended by American troops.
We met the new manager, formerly the assistant manager - this happens a lot in Iraq, that the former assistant manager is now the manager. He told us that after the fall of the regime on 9 April he had armed the workers at the oil refinery to defend it from looters.
The trade union committee had 38 people for a workforce of three and half to four thousand people. It is the biggest work site in Baghdad.
We asked them what tactics they were using to advance their members' interests, and they had no united view. There was a hubbub of voices. Some were calling for strike action. Others were saying no. If they went on strike, they would be damaging the Iraqi people, because the only hope they have of any sovereign, independent Iraqi republic is to maintain the oil industry and get it back on its feet.
This is a real dilemma, I think, not some fainthearts' argument.
They had a fairly collegiate approach with the new manager. When we walked into his office he was wearing a boiler suit and wiping oil off his hands, having just come from testing something. (He might have done this for effect, but I don't think so).
He said he didn't have a lot of control. He was a technician, and he was there to keep the extremely individual production process running which they had developed during the sanctions regime.
The day before we'd been there, there had been a demonstration in the plant by workers, under the leadership of the trade union committee, against the extremely low wages being paid to administrative workers. They marched round the plant and to the manager's office, demanding an increase in pay.
The manager opened the books and said to them he didn't have the money. He would facilitate a meeting with the Oil Minister.
So on the day we visited the refinery, we were there at nine o'clock in the morning, and at eleven o'clock the union committee had a meeting with the Oil Minister. That is indicative. The more trade unions grow and assert their members' interests in Iraq, the clearer it becomes that they are really asserting those interests not so much against the management as against the political powers occupying the country, whether that be the Oil Minister or the US officials who are really running the show.
The trade unionists we spoke to were very keen on getting direct links with trade unionists in other countries, particularly trade unionists in Britain, because a number of them speak English.
The problem at the moment is with communications, the lack of telephone landlines and the difficulty of sending emails (though it is possible).
They told us that they are building for a big May Day parade in Baghdad in May 2004, and they want delegations from Britain and other countries joining that demonstration to show that they have international links.
The Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions had met with representatives of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions Middle East desk in Beirut.
They mentioned specific projects which they want to develop. They have nothing. They want help buying some buses which can be used as mobile theatres or exhibition centres - there's a big working-class tradition of theatre in Iraq - to go round workplaces and educate people about trade union organisation.
It's been 35 years since there have been democratic elected trade unions in Iraq. Just look at health and safety, for example. The number of items known to be carcinogenic has increased enormously. Trade unionists need to learn how to use Internet services to access that information.
They need to know about trade union and labour legislation. That might be at one remove from the reality of the ground, but nevertheless gives some sort of framework for making demands.
I don't want to see a British trade union school set up to teach Iraqi workers how to be good trade unionists, but there are areas of education where British trade unions could be of significant assistance.
The Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions do have a representative in London now who can act as a contact point: Abdullah Muhsin, at
The only people I've heard in Britain saying that we should be supporting the armed resistance to the American occupation in Iraq, rather than the trade union movement there, are mad Maoists on email lists. In any case it is not a basis for building an anti-imperialist mass movement in Britain or anywhere else.
One of the reasons why we failed to stop the war was that we did not have a big enough movement in the trade unions and in the working class.
There was a big popular resistance to the war, but the way to stop it, when the government decides it is going to ignore the mass of the people, is to remind them who runs the country. We had a number of trade union general secretaries ready to attack the decision to go to war in political terms, but the organisational ability, the confidence, or even the will among workers to challenge imperialism was not there.
You can't build an anti-imperialist mass movement by cheerleading former Fedayeen or Al Qaeda terrorists who are blowing up not just American and British troops but also Iraqi civilians and humanitarian aid agencies.

There are moves afoot to build a new electoral coalition of the left - but around the man who made himself an unofficial ambassador or envoy for the Ba'thist regime, George Galloway. What discussions have there been about this in the RMT, and what's your view?

We supported George Galloway's campaign against being expelled from the Labour Party for speaking out against the war. Our general secretary and I and a number of other people have appeared on platforms round the country speaking out against the expulsion. We don't see why they should be expelling people for speaking out against the war and telling the truth about it - even if they don't always tell the truth about everything else.
We also supported George Galloway's libel appeal against the Christian Science Monitor and the Daily Telegraph.
But when it comes to this nebulous electoral front which has been suggested by George Galloway and other people, we haven't taken a decision to support that.
Personally, I would say that there are some real problems with that. I don't know what its policies are, and I've got concerns about the politics of some of the people involved.
George Monbiot, for example, was on the platform of the big meeting on 29 October, but three weeks after the outbreak of the war he wrote a piece for the Guardian saying that it was time to support the euro and a European army as the only way to block US military and economic hegemony.
My union is not in favour of the euro, the Growth and Stability Pact, or the Maastricht Treaty. We believe that it is one of the pressures that is leading to the privatisation of public services in Britain and throughout Europe. So we'd have a major difficulty on that.
We should not get involved in feelgood coalitions not based on any sound analysis.

It's all behind closed doors, but I think it's fairly certain this coalition will come out against the euro. But it won't have a clear working-class stance. The RMT has taken a decision to look for new political directions. It can either become a sort of funding agency for personalities who want to present themselves as friends of the trade unions, or it can become a force to rally the labour movement to restore working-class politics...

I understand the dichotomy. Yes, the problem that needs to be addressed is the lack of political representation for working-class people in Britain. The RMT can't address that on its own. It has to be done with a lot of other trade unions and other organisations in the working-class movement.
We're not yet at the stage where we have a real nucleus of working-class political representation. This Peace and Justice, or Peace and Unity, or whatever it is this week - it doesn't seem to me that that is what it is about.
Its most optimistic supporters would probably that it is some sort of bridge to take us through between now and the euro-elections, then after the euro-elections some new formation will have to emerge.

The question is, which direction does this bridge lead, and does it get to the other bank or drop us...

... In the shit? I can't answer that. The question that has to be answered is how do we get political representation for workers, and we will analyse any proposal from that point of view.

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