In The News
Union voices from Iraq share vision here
By Dominique Paul Noth
Editor, Milwaukee Labor Press
He was detained and roughed up by Saddam Hussein’s regime for supporting co-workers. She still faces assassination threats from insurgents against herself and her small son.
Both are leaders of trades unions. Their militancy against all sides – occupation forces, foreign contractors, government corruption and incompetence, insurgents who view anyone who works as an enemy of their push toward chaos – makes US labor leaders look like, well, puppies.
On June 21 they brought their straight talk, courage, humor and defiance -- as well as their belief in their own citizenry -- to Milwaukee.
As part of nationwide tour, with personable simultaneous translation provided by Jamal Amro of the Islamic Society of Milwaukee, the visitors addressed a packed Yatchak Hall on June 21.
Full coverage of the event will appear in the July Labor Press. What follows is background on the issues and the speakers.
Two years ago, before the majority of Americans agreed that the US had botched the job and stuck our soldiers in the middle of a civil war, another group of Iraqi union leaders toured the US. They received curiosity and some understanding but they faced frequent hostility or uncertainty from audiences and the media – and even a handful of (shamefully) union members outside their Milwaukee meeting calling them “monkeys” and “terrorists.”
Times have changed but clarity is evasive. More Americans are even more confused about just who the Iraqis are but eager to understand the faces and forces at work, beyond the simplicities of jingo talk shows and political speeches.
Nor can Americans ignore that the money and blood our country has paid still pales in comparison to the blood and social disruption in Iraq, where tens of thousands have died, millions have fled the country, no neighborhood or marketplace is free from random suicide attacks and one in eight children do not survive past age 5, the worst such loss of innocence in the world.
This tour is intended to surmount the language and cultural barriers, to specify the role that Iraqi unions, ignored and dismissed by our government, can play in the shape of the future.
The visitors included the first woman to head a national union in Iraq. Hashmeya Muhsin Hussein is president of the Electrical Utility Workers Union-GFIW. While working for the Southern Company she became active in the labor movement and rose in the leadership of the Basra-based union. She was recently elected president of the country’s national electrical union. For those activities she has become the target of death threats.
Leading the tour was Faleh Abood Umara, general secretary for the Iraqi Federation of Oil Workers’ Unions. A 28 year veteran of the oil workers and a founding member of the current union, he led the workers who kept refineries going without pay in the early days of the occupation and then led strikes against occupation authorities and contractors outsourcing to foreign workers. He has been a key negotiator for the union and his fight against foreign privatization of the national petroleum treasure has led his federation to oppose the hydrocarbon law being pushed by the Bush administration.
The visitors spoke candidly -- and unbendingly -- about the consequences of occupying forces staying or going. They want them to go. They explained how the unions can both oppose the occupation and the violent insurgency, why they believe in democratic principles but criticized the long series of national elections.
“The labor movement and other civil society organizations in Iraq are that country’s best hope for creating a stable, peaceful, non-sectarian future for Iraqis,” said Nancy Wohlforth, a member of the General Executive Council of the AFL-CIO who helped arrange the tour. “Yet the voices of Iraqi working people are almost never heard in the US. This tour will help break that silence.”
Indeed, the visit has forced Americans to deal with some troublesome questions. The original occupation authority under Paul Bremer made decisions of horrendous consequence, most Americans now agree, including disbanding the Iraqi military and stripping all Baath Party members from government. Less noticed: It retained Saddam’s laws against unionizing public workers, which affected civil service and the nationalized electrical and oil industries.
Saddam hated independent unions. It was union power and strikes back in the 1940s and 1950s that helped the Iraqi economy fund universities and hospitals and further promote people power. When Saddam gained power, he moved ruthlessly to outlaw unions, restrict them or convert them into puppets of his own agenda.
It is no secret that the current US president shares that distaste for union power. Observers can no longer separate the consequences in Iraq today from that hostility to unions, as mystifying as it appears in retrospect.
The Bush administration bypassed the most capable secular force in Iraq, the one concerned about jobs and not religious divisions, an experienced workforce willing to defy Saddam. Stubbornly even as chaos gathered, the Bush neocons resisted.
Today, union workers are increasing despite the incredible odds.
It is a world of paradox. Union workers have literally stood in front of coalition tanks to keep their jobs while also being murdered by insurgent elements.
Only now has the US conceded that rampant unemployment — 65% in various regions — is a major factor in the growing resistance. Only now, more slowly, is there realization that by emphasizing sectarian difference in elections – Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds – the US policy inflamed those differences.
To the extremists targeting trade unionists for death, the oil workers, engineers, teachers and similar union groups “are collaborating” by simply working. Yet simultaneously, occupation forces have arrested union leaders or tried to ignore them because they decry privatization, fight the preference for foreign workers and denounce elections that “give legitimacy to the government imposed by the occupying coalition,” as one union leader put it two years ago.
International labor groups have allied themselves with the struggles of the Iraqi unions, even while recognizing that all these unions don’t agree on every issue, no more than Americans do.
The US tour was organized by USLAW (US Labor Against the War), which has moved over four years from a minority to a majority voice within the US union movement. Other sponsors are United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ), and the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC).
Both the Wisconsin AFL-CIO and the Milwaukee County Labor Council joined other unions in contributing to the Milwaukee visit. Others can help with checks to the USLAW Iraq Labor Solidarity Tour, 1718 M Street, NW, #153, Washington, DC, 20036, or contact Sue Ruggles, AFT Local 212, 414-297-6276 (office), 414-688-3772 (cell), or email@example.com
The Iraqis will also visit Washington, DC, Los Angeles, San Jose, San Francisco, Boston, New York City, Philadelphia, Chicago and Atlanta.