THE U.S. ARRESTS IRAQ'S UNION LEADERS
By David Bacon

        BAGHDAD, IRAQ  (12/10/03) -- US OCCUPATION forces in Iraq
escalated their efforts to paralyze Iraq's new labor unions with a
series of arrests this weekend.  On Saturday, a convoy of ten humvees
and personnel carriers descended on the old headquarters building of
the Transport and Communications Workers union, in Baghdad's central
bus station, which has been used since June as the office of the
Iraqi Workers Federation of Trade Unions.  Twenty soldiers jumped
out, stormed into the building, put handcuffs on eight members of the
Federation's executive board, and took them into detention.

        "They gave no reason at all, despite being asked over and
over," says federation spokesperson Abdullah Muhsin.  Soldiers
painted out the name of the federation on the front of the building
with black paint.  Because the new Iraqi unions lack basic resources
like office furniture and machines, there was little to confiscate in
the building.  "But we did have a few files, and they took those,"
Muhsin adds.  Ironically, the office had posters on the walls
condemning terrorism, which soldiers tore down in the raid.

        Although the eight were released the following day, there was
no explanation from the Coalition Provisional Authority for the
detentions.

        The bus station raid followed the detention of two other
trade union leaders on November 23 -- Qasim Hadi, general secretary
of the Union of the Unemployed, and Adil Salih, another leader of the
organization.  Hadi has been arrested twice before by occupation
troops, for leading demonstrations of unemployed workers demanding
unemployment benefits and jobs.  In the latest raid, CPA troops said
they'd found two guns in the union's office, which was only permitted
to have one.  Hadi explained that the organization has been the
subject of threats and fatwahs by Iraqi religious parties, and needs
weapons for self-defense, since US troops are unable or unwilling to
provide security.

        The two were released after being detained for a day.

        Both union groups have been organizing Iraqi workers for
months.  The Iraqi Workers Federation of Trade Unions held a
convention in Baghdad last June, at which it established unions in
twelve industries.  The Unemployed Union belongs to the Workers
Unions and Councils group, which has also been organizing since last
summer.

        The wave of union organizing going on in Iraq is a product of
the desperate conditions of the country's workers.  As many as seven
million people, according to the Union of the Unemployed, or seventy
percent of the workforce, have no jobs, go hungry, and are even
homeless. Although Congress appropriated $87 billion for
reconstruction, Dr. Nuri Jafer, the deputy minister of Labor and
Social Affairs admits he can find "no country willing to fund our
plans" for a minimal system of unemployment benefits.  Reconstruction
is invisible in Baghdad.  Work may be proceeding on pipelines and
ports for oil exports, but huge piles of war rubble lie untouched in
city streets.

        US funding in Iraq pays for an overwhelming military
presence, and the transformation of the Iraqi economy.  Both are
intended to make the country attractive to foreign investors. In an
October 8 phone press conference, Thomas Foley, director for private
sector development for the Coalition Provisional Authority, announced
a list of the first Iraqi state enterprises to be sold off, including
cement and fertilizer plants, phosphate and sulfur mines,
pharmaceutical factories and the country's airline.  On September 19,
the CPA published Order No. 39, which permits 100% foreign ownership
of businesses, except for the oil industry, and allows the transfer
of profits outside the country.

        Iraqi workers view the prospect of the privatization of their
workplaces with dread, fearing the sell off will bring massive
layoffs.  The manager of the Al Daura oil refinery, Dathar Al-Kashab,
predicted that with privatization "I'll have to fire 1500 [of the
refinery's 3000] workers.  In America when a company lays people off,
there's unemployment insurance, and they won't die from hunger.  If I
dismiss employees now, I'm killing them and their families."

        At the refinery, as in most factories, those with jobs work
11 and 13 hour shifts for a salary of $60 a month.  They have no
safety shoes, goggles, masks or other protective gear.  The Iraqi
Workers Federation of Trade Unions helped the refinery's workers
organize a union and elect its leaders, and have done the same in
other industries.  In Basra workers have formed a central labor
council, and have mounted protest demonstrations.  The Workers Unions
and Councils group has helped workers elect committees in the State
Leather Industry plant, the largest shoe factory in the Middle East,
and the Mamoun Vegetable Oil enterprise, among others.

        Whenever these new unions try to talk with the plant
managers, however, they're told that a law decreed by Saddam Hussein
in 1987 forbids workers in state-owned enterprises (where the
majority of Iraqis work) from forming unions. The CPA is still
enforcing this law.  Another order issued by the CPA on June 6
threatens that anyone who "incites civil disorder" will be detained
as a prisoner of war under the Geneva Convention.  The recent arrests
are the latest incidents in this effort by the occupation authorities
to suppress unions.

        The anti-union campaign lays bare the economic purpose of the
occupation -- the privatization of the enterprises that employ most
workers.  While suppressing unions, international conferences take
place in Washington and London every week, at which these assets are
put on sale.  At one recent conference, ExxonMobil, Delta Airlines
and the American Hospital Group all expressed interest.  Since new
foreign owners can be expected to cut labor costs by laying off
workers, resistance at the worksite has been made illegal by laws
banning unions and the arrest of their leaders.

        In an additional step to make investment attractive, the CPA
is holding down the wages of Iraqi workers.  The $60 a month received
by most employees was the same salary paid under Saddam Hussein, but
the bonuses, profit-sharing payments, and subsidies for food and
housing were ended when the occupation began, resulting in a drastic
cut in income.  "The coalition forces control the finances, and our
wages," says Detrala Beshab, president of Al Daura's new union

        Iraq's new labor movement is determined to stop the sell off
of worksites, the loss of jobs, and the prohibition of unions and
strikes. Jassim Mashkoul, the IFTU's director for internal
communications, laments that "at the beginning, we thought our
situation might get better, since we got rid of Saddam Hussein.  But
it hasn't improved."  According to another federation leader, Muhsen
Mull Ali, who spent two long stints in prison for organizing unions,
"our responsibility is to oppose privatization as much as possible,
and fight for the welfare of our workers."

        But to the Bush administration and the occupation authority,
this activity is a crime.



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