Iraqi unions keep workers hopes alive

LONDON — In 1963, when Subhi Abdullah Mashadani was a railroad worker, he was arrested by Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party because of his political activism and imprisoned for eight years. He was one of the many progressive Iraqis forced to operate underground inside their country before the fall of the regime.

Last year Mashadani was elected as the first general secretary of the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions (IFTU). He recently attended two trade union meetings in Britain and gave the following interview.

The fledgling labor federation is fighting to defend its space in a country under occupation.

Mashadani describes the occupiers’ attitude toward the IFTU as “negative,” adding that then U.S. viceroy Paul Bremer had refused a request to unfreeze the federation’s assets so that it could carry out trade union work.

“We said: ‘It is not Bremer’s money, it is not CPA money — it is our money,’” he recounted. The federation never heard back from Bremer, said Mashadani.

“What we received after that meeting with them was their forces raiding the IFTU headquarters in Baghdad and arresting eight leaders.” The eight were eventually released.

“We continued to organize and we now have 12 strong national unions,” he said.

Lack of security and the — interlinked — occupation, which is designed to cement the U.S. presence in this highly strategic, mineral-rich region, have combined to hinder IFTU activities. “The [Iraqi] Governing Council issued a decree recognizing us as a legitimate body. Again Bremer did not agree or adhere to that,” he said. “But we weren’t deterred.”

Of the 12 unions in the IFTU, six have already held conferences and elected a host of regional committees. The other six are unable to hold theirs because of a 1987 law passed under Saddam Hussein banning trade union organization in state companies such as the oil sector and the railways. That law is still being enforced.

Despite this, explained Mashadani, “these unions managed to impose their legitimacy (in the workplace) because they were supported by the workers.”

He is hopeful that the current tortuous political process inside and outside Iraq will bring a positive result — but he has reservations and sets out IFTU demands. He said: “We call for Iraq to have real and full sovereignty. We call for the withdrawal of troops and at the same time a full and accountable elected government for the people. Crucially, the United Nations should now have an active role.”

Mashadani added: “We are campaigning for trade unions to be able to play a role in the institutions of civil society that would make a future government.” The IFTU has representatives involved in the process to establish a transitional government. Mashadani is confident that its role will be respected despite the heavy U.S. influence in Iraq.

The transitional administrative law governing the current period safeguarded the position of trade unions and the right to protest. However, doubts were raised when the UN resolution on the “handover” of sovereignty, which sought to legitimize continued occupation but also set out a framework to bring about nationwide elections, failed to mention the transitional law.

Mashadani points out that Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi has said “openly that his government should adhere to the transitional law. If the government or anybody restricts our work to organize and to have representation we shall campaign against it. We shall not be intimidated,” he added.

Despite being severely strapped for resources and restricted by the situation in Iraq, IFTU unions have netted some welcome management concessions for members. At several big firms, they have negotiated better deals – both increases to wages and bonuses. And, in the state oil, gas and railway sectors, members have defied the ban on organizing and emerged victorious.

Minimum wages for these workers have increased from 69,000 dinars ($48) to between 125,000 and 150,000 dinars ($105) a month.

Since the Iraqi Governing Council recognized the IFTU, it has been allowed to sit on government committees dealing with the new labor code, social provision and pensions.

“Although we sit on some committees, we do so because we want to keep an eye on the situation, to have a stronger say in the welfare of working people,” he said.

– Excerpted from Morning Star