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In Iraq, trade unions are helping to rebuild popular power

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26 June, 2018The Iraqi labour movement begun in the 1920s in the oil industry and amongst railroad workers. During his time at power, Saddam Hussein suppressed left-wing parties and only permitted weak unions controlled by the government. Under the recent US occupation, authorities kept unions and the left marginalised, while prioritising the privatisation of Iraqi industry.

In Iraq’s May national elections, of the 329 parliamentary deputies chosen, Sairoon (meaning ‘Forward’ or ‘the Alliance for Reforms’) scored the biggest win – 55 deputies and 1.3 million votes. Sairoon includes the followers of the powerful Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr, the Iraqi Communist Party (ICP) the Youth Movement for Change Party, the Party of Progress and Reform, the Iraqi Republican Group, and the State of Justice Party. In Baghdad, Sairoon won 23 per cent of the vote, almost twice that of any of its rivals.

The program of the Sairoon alliance calls for an end to the system that divided political positions and government support along sectarian lines, a system imposed by the United States after its occupation of Iraq in 2011. Basing a governmental structure on sectarian political parties led to a system of patronage and division of spoils, and consequently enormous corruption. As Al-Sadr told the Arab Weekly :

I’ll say this despite the amama [turban] on my head. We tried the Islamists and they failed miserably. [It’s] time to try independent technocrats.

Sairoon also called for independence from foreign domination by the US and Iran. In advance of the election, a senior Iranian politician, Ali Akbar Velayati, threatened reprisals if voters chose Sairoon : “We will not allow liberals and communists to govern in Iraq,” he said. Many secular politicians condemned the statement as interference in Iraq’s internal affairs.

In the Shiite holy city of Najaf, one of the country’s most conservative, voters elected ICP candidate Suhad al-Khateeb, a teacher, women’s rights activist and anti-poverty campaigner. After he victory she said :

We want social justice, citizenship, and are against sectarianism, and this is what Iraqis also want.

The coalition developed from a popular civic movement on the Iraqi streets, with roots in protests going back to 2010, and in the growth and popularity of the country’s unions.

In the summer of 2010, as temperatures soared past 120 degrees, Iraqis began to come out of their homes to protest the lack of electricity. Since the start of the occupation in 2003, US authorities, and later the Iraqi government, have been unable to provide power around the clock, especially during periods of high demand. As Arab Spring demonstrations took place throughout the Middle East, young Iraqis began organising rallies in Tahrir Square in Baghdad, mostly calling for jobs and better electrical service. They called their actions the ‘Iraqi Spring’.

Former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki called the youths “insurgents and terrorists.” Forty-five people died in the ensuing repression, including 29 people on 25 February 2011 alone (known as the ‘day of rage’). Hundreds were arrested.

In 2015, Iraqis began demonstrating every Friday, denouncing the corruption of sectarian political parties. According to the Iraqi Civil Society Solidarity Initiative website :

The demonstrators, mostly youth and civil society activists, challenge the political system as a whole, call for a secular state in opposition to a confessional state, against the division between Sunni and Shi’a populations, [and] for women’s rights and workers’ rights[…]. Iraqi women’s rights groups are actively working to make sure women can take part in the demonstrations without being harassed.

Young people held banners with fiery slogans : “The Parliament and the Islamic State are two sides of the same coin !” “Daesh was born out of your corruption !” “Humans do not survive with religion but bread and dignity !” “In the name of religion, they act like thieves !” And “No to sectarianism, no to nationalism, yes to humanity!”

Last year, on 11 February, thousands of people began a non-violent march from Tahrir Square to the heavily-fortified Green Zone with three demands : reform of the political system, combating corruption and provision of services. Government special forces fired on the protestors as they crossed the Jumhuriyah Bridge. Nine people were killed and 281 were wounded.

Role of the unions

The demand for non-sectarianism reflects a long tradition in Iraqi unions, which have never been organised along sectarian lines. The Iraqi labour movement begun in the 1920s in the oil industry and amongst railroad workers, and for decades the country was the most industrialised in the Middle East. Its unions, part of a strong left-wing political culture, helped overthrow the British-installed king and establish Karim Qasim’s nationalist and socialist government in the 1950s.

Prime Minister Qasim was overthrown and later executed following a coup by the Baathist Arab nationalist party in February 1963, and Saddam Hussein eventually took power 16 years later with the support of US intelligence agencies. He suppressed left-wing parties and only permitted weak unions controlled by the government. Under the recent US occupation, authorities kept unions and the left marginalised, while prioritising the privatisation of Iraqi industry.

Until 2015 Iraq still enforced a Saddam Hussein-era law, which prohibited public sector unions.

From the start of the occupation, workers had to organise despite the illegal status of their unions. A new 2015 labour law gave all workers the right to form unions, except for civil service employees, as well as security and police forces. Unions gained collective bargaining rights and the right to strike. Last year, however, the outgoing government of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi promulgated a further draft law on professional federations and unions. Labour opposed it, saying it failed to completely guarantee workers’ rights.

A year ago, 3,000 contingent (or contract) workers in the electrical generation and transmission industry formed a union, after the government failed to pay their wages for five months. They then joined with the union for the industry’s permanent workers to form the General Trade Union of Electricity Sector Employees of Iraq.

After the government electrical ministry fired 100 leaders from the union in March, thousands of workers organised sit-ins in power plants across Iraq. Their demands included reinstating the fired labourers, permanent jobs and inclusion in Iraq’s social security system, and a minimum monthly wage of US$300.

Under World Bank pressure, last year the Iraqi cabinet approved a draft social security law that would have increased worker contributions to social security funds while raising the retirement age from 63 to 65.

Adoption of this draft will lead to increased poverty among Iraqis, even though they are living in one of the world’s richest countries in oil,

charged Hashmeya Alsaadawe, president of the Basra Trade Union Federation and the electrical union. Alsaadawe is also the first woman to head a national union in Iraq.

On 18 May 2018, just after the election, the Iraqi government announced that it would not only include all 30,000 contingent contract workers in the electricity industry in the social security system but would guarantee the same rights to all 150,000 contract workers throughout the public sector.

Speaking at IndustriALL Global Union’s executive committee meeting in April, Alsaadawe said that the election results energised people :

Workers have high expectations. They have been very active in demonstrations and on social media demanding their rights.

In December, workers in the critical oil and gas industry finally formed a national network of eight previously competing unions. According to Hassan Juma’a, head of the Iraqi Federation of Oil Employees :

One of the most important priorities is the unity of the trade union movement in Iraq. We have started the first step in the most important sector, the oil and gas sector.

The network’s objectives include defending the rights of contract and migrant workers, who make up a significant part of the industry workforce. Its nationalist spirit is evident in its commitment to “protect national wealth for future generations against capitalist companies that do not respect the rights and opinions of citizens,” and “to urge foreign companies to take responsibility for maintaining the infrastructure of areas near oil fields exposed to toxic emissions.”

Dhiaa al-Asadi, the director of Muqtada al-Sadr’s political office, recently told the Al-Monitor news website that the Sairoon list is

a reform project that represents the hopes and expectations of deprived and less advantaged people. This project of Sairoon constitutes a paradigm shift and a departure from the established norms that have characterized the political process since 2003.

According to Wesam Chaseb of the AFL-CIO-linked Solidarity Center: 

Unions are the real face of Iraq. There is no discrimination amongst workers.

This combination of street protests, electoral activism and increasing union strength is now one of the most important features of Iraq’s political landscape, as Iraqis seek to rebuild their country after four decades of war, and a bitter decade of foreign occupation and domination.

This article was originally published in Equal Times