Oil for Freedom

David Bacon/Random Lengths News

Hassan Juma'a Awad, head of the General Union of Oil Employees in Iraq

Random Lengths News | February 2, 2006
Following the fall of Saddam Hussein, oil workers in Basra reorganized one of Iraq's oldest unions, and faced the occupation's prohibition on collective bargaining in the public sector. Oil workers forced US contractor KBR to leave the oil districts, and defended Iraq's oil against the threat of privatization. They helped dockers organize in the ports, and together forced Stevedoring Services of America and the Maersk Corporation to give up their privatized concessions. Workers in power generation and other industries have organized as well. Since January 31,2006 the United Steel Workers Local 675in Carson has been hosting David Bacon’s photo-documentary of Iraqi workers on the rigs, in the refineries and the ports, their unions and leaders. The show will continue until February 28, then move to Harry Bridges Institute, in San Pedro where it will be on display from March 3 until March 31. The show will travel to other unions, labor studies centers, schools, and even plant gates, and will provide space for class visits and community discussions. –The Editor

Originally organized under the British in the early 1920s, the oil union has always been the heart of the country’s labor movement. “Iraq’s two biggest strikes, in 1946 and 1952, were organized by oil workers,” Faleh Abood Umara, general secretary of the newly reorganized General Union of Oil Employees, told officers and members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) during a visit to the west coast by himself and Hassan Juma’a Awad, the union’s president.

Today, it is again Iraq’s largest, most powerful labor organization, with 23,000 members in southern Iraq. Together with two other labor federations, and a handful of independent professional associations, the labor movement is now the biggest institution in Iraqi civil society.

From the very first day of the occupation, Iraqi labor has had to operate in illegal conditions, which has produced a militant and fighting movement, especially in oil. That spirit was evident on the morning of April 9, 2003, the day the US/British invasion started. Workers at Basra’s huge, dilapidated oil refinery knew it might come at any moment. Nevertheless, no one expected American tanks when they suddenly pulled up at the gate.

After thirty years of Saddam Hussein, the vast majority had had their fill of war and repression. They were prepared to welcome almost any change that removed the old regime, even foreign troops. “We were coming out early, at the end of our shift, and there was the American army,” recalls Faraj Arbat, one of the plant’s firemen. “We were ready to say hello.”

Instead of greeting the workers as their liberators, however, the soldiers trained guns on them. The head of the fire department made the mistake of questioning the troops, and was ordered to lie facedown on the ground. “Abdulritha was absolutely shocked,” Arbat recalls. “He was going home – why should he lie down? But he did as he was ordered. Then an American put his foot on his back. So we started fighting with the soldiers with our fists, because we didn’t understand. The tank turret started to turn toward us, and at that point we all sat down.” Someone easily could have died that day. As it was, the memory of the foot on Abdulritha’s back left a bitter taste.

The refinery’s workers had already labored through the shelling and fires of two decades of conflict, including the “shock and awe” bombing prior to the invasion. Some fled the arriving troops, but most stayed and tried to bring the plant back into operation. “Slowly we got production restored, by our own efforts,” Arbat remembers. “Electricity workers, at their own expense, brought power back to the refinery. We found where the water pipes had been blown up, and went out with armed guards to repair them. Meanwhile, the Americans and British began coming with tanker trucks, loading up on the gas and oil we were producing.”

For two months, no one got paid. Finally, Arbat and a small group began to organize a union. “At first the word frightened people, because under Saddam, unions had become instruments of oppression,” he explains. Nevertheless, a few dozen of the refinery’s 3000 employees came together and chose Arbat (whom they affectionately call Abu, or Uncle, Rebab) and Ibrahim Radiy to lead them.

Lead They Did

To force authorities to pay the workers, the small group took a crane out to the gate, and lowered it across the road. Behind it, two-dozen tanker trucks pulled up with a heavily armed military escort. “At first there were only 100 of us, but workers began coming out. Some took their shirts off and told the troops, ‘Shoot us.’ Others lay down on the ground.” Ten of them even went under the tankers, brandishing cigarette lighters. They announced that if the soldiers fired, they would set the tankers alight.

The soldiers, mostly sons of workers themselves, did not fire. Instead, negotiations began between the general director and the occupation authorities in Basra. By the end of the day, the workers had their pay. Within a week, everyone at the refinery had joined, and. the oil union in Basra had been reborn.

Like other unions in Iraq’s state-owned enterprises, the oil union has had to function as an illegal organization. That hasn’t kept unions from organizing to successfully challenge the occupation, however. In fact, the first big fight over the US and British economic program came within a few months of the confrontation at the Basra refinery gate. Kellogg, Brown and Root (KBR- the largest non-union construction company in the U.S.), subsidiary of the oil services giant Halliburton, was one of the corporate camp followers arriving in the wake of the troops. KBR was given a no-bid contract to put out war-caused oil fires in the huge Rumeila fields, but once its foot was in the door, it’s presence spread rapidly. Within weeks, it had taken over the financial functions of Basra’s civil administration. Workers, in order to get paid, had to take their time sheets to local KBR offices for approval. Those who had fled the advancing troops had to get company permission to return to their jobs.

Then KBR claimed the work of reconstructing wells, pipelines and other oil facilities, and hired a Kuwaiti contractor, Al Khoorafi, to bring in a foreign workforce. Meanwhile, the company used its presence in the oil fields to try to hire drilling rig workers away from the Iraqi Drilling Company, a national enterprise. Despite promises of higher wages, few took the bait. Nevertheless, Iraqi oil workers were outraged. With unemployment hovering at 70%, they saw a clear threat to their jobs. But according to Juma’a Awad, workers had other concerns as well.

“We organized the union for two reasons,” he explains. “First, we had to deal with the administration put in place by the occupying forces. Second, we’re afraid that the purpose of the occupation is to take control of the oil industry. It is our duty as Iraqi workers to protect the oil installations, since they are the property of the Iraqi people. We’re sure that US and international companies are here to put their hands on the oil.”

By August, 2003, oil workers had organized unions in ten state-owned companies in southern Iraq, and formed the GUOE. They gave KBR an August 20 deadline to leave the oil sector. When the company refused to talk with them, they shut down oil production for export. “For two days we didn’t move,” says Farouk Sadiq, a union leader and teacher at Basra’s Oil Institute. “We refused to pump a single drop until they left. We said we wanted them to leave by peaceful means – otherwise we had another language to speak with them. Other workers in Basra refused to work too, and the American authority saw we could affect what really matters to them. It was independence day for oil labor.”

KBR Did Leave The Oil Districts, And Closed Their Offices In Basra

In December, the union challenged Bremer’s wage orders, threatening to strike again if wages were lowered. This time, the oil minister caved in without a work stoppage. Eventually, the bottom two wage grades were abolished in the oil industry, bringing the base wage up to about $85/month.

The GUOE then helped workers organize in the power generation plants. Hashimia Mohsen al Hussein was elected president, the first woman to head a national union in Iraq. In January, 2004, unrest spread to the Najibeeya, Haartha and Al Zubeir electrical generating stations, where workers mounted a wildcat strike, stormed the administration buildings, declared the September wage schedule void, and vowed to shut off power if salaries were not raised. Again the ministry agreed to return to the old scale.

Last June the union organized large demonstrations to protest government decisions to hire private contractors to do reconstruction work, replacing the industry’s own employees. The problem persists. “We will confront them if they don’t stop,” Mohsen warns. “Many Basra workers have already agreed to join us in a general strike.”

On the ground in southern Iraq, a new labor movement is being born. Some unions, like the oil workers, are independent. Others, like those for power and longshore workers, are affiliated to the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions. They all cooperate in confronting the occupation’s economic policies for keeping wages low, subcontracting jobs, and privatizing major industrial enterprises.

In May, the GUOE organized a conference at the cultural center of the oil industry in downtown Basra, under a banner calling on Iraqis “To revive the public sector and build an Iraq free of privatization.” Bringing together union leaders from rigs and refineries, economists from Basra University, representatives of the IFTU, and political parties from the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq to Iraq’s Communists, the conference sought to forge a common consensus to resist oil privatization. “The public sector economy of Iraq is one of the symbols of the achievement of Iraqis since the revolution of July 4th, 1958,” the conference statement declared.

According to oil industry analyst Greg Muttitt, who attended the conference representing the British organization Platform, it is unlikely that oil reserves themselves would be sold, or that a foreign company or government would be given a concession like the one the British held for over three decades. Outside of the US, no other country permits those forms of ownership. “More likely, Iraq’s debt will be used to force the government to sign production-sharing agreements with the multi-nationals,” Muttitt says. Such agreements would allow a foreign company to extract the oil, sell it to pay itself for the costs of extraction (by its own calculation), and split the remainder of the income with the government.

Iraq’s government would be locked into long-term, disadvantageous agreements, in which it would lose control over most decisions regarding oil exploitation, pricing, income and jobs. Oil workers would likely suffer massive layoffs, and lose their leverage over production. Juma’a Awad stresses that without the oil income, Iraq will be unable to rebuild from the war. “Oil is the first step in jump-starting the economy,” he says. “We don’t want to pay the cost of globalization.”

While rank-and-file workers are unfamiliar with the details of production-sharing agreements, they are suspicious of privatization, despite the carrot of modernization used by its defenders to make it attractive. In the Basra refinery, senior fireman Abdul Faisal Jaleel criticizes Saddam Hussein’s long failure to invest in modern technology, or even spare parts, and says workers paid the price. “We’ve been like the camel that carries gold, but is given thorns to eat.” Nevertheless, he says, foreign ownership is not the answer. [pull quote] “We reject foreign investment. We want to keep our own oil revenues and use them to develop our country with our own hands.”

Unions are suspicious of Iraq’s elite political class, returning from exile, enamored with the ideology of the market economy. But they recognize that the government only nominally holds the power to make these economic decisions, and that the real push to privatize comes from Washington and London. This is just one reason why all Iraqi unions call for an end to the occupation, and the cancellation of its foreign debt. [pull quote]

They don’t agree on timing or method. The GUOE calls for immediate withdrawal of foreign troops. The IFTU says an elected Iraqi government should use UN resolution 1545 to ask them to leave. The Federation of Workers’ Councils and Unions of Iraq (FWCUI), Iraq’s other main labor federation (outside of Kurdistan), calls for UN troops to intervene to supply security. But Abood Umara voices their common perception that “the economic plan of the occupation would bring Iraq back to the early 1950s,” before oil was nationalized, and Iraq was ruled by the British behind the facade of a native monarchy.

The occupation, however, is not their only enemy. On February 18, Ali Hassan Abd (Abu, or Uncle, Fahad), a leader of the IFTU-affiliated union at Baghdad’s Al Daura oil refinery, was walking home from with his young children, when gunmen ran up and shot him. Less than a week later, armed men gunned down Ahmed Adris Abbas in Baghdad’s Martyrs’ Square. Adris Abbas was an activist in the Transport and Communications Union, another IFTU affiliate. The murder of the two followed the torture and assassination of Hadi Saleh, the IFTU’s international secretary, in Baghdad on January 4.

Abood Umara refers to them all as “our leaders” despite the fact that the GUOE is not part of the IFTU, and condemns terrorism and assassination. He adds that a bomb was found in the car of a GUOE member earlier this year, fortunately before it was detonated, and that Hassan Juma’a Awad has received death threats.

Last fall, armed insurgents attacked freight trains, killing four workers in November, and beating and kidnapping others a month later. Service was suspended between Basra and Baghdad after workers threatened to strike over lack of security. They say they’re being blamed for helping the occupation by doing their jobs, although the trains don’t carry military goods.

"It's [a risk for all] civil society organizations, including trade unions,” Saleh explained at a meeting of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions in Japan in December, just before his murder. “Extremists who target trade unionists, both teachers and engineers, kill them under the notion that they are collaborating with a state created by the Americans, so by definition those are collaborators and legitimate targets.”

Attacks come from the government and US occupation troops as well. Baghdad’s Transport and Communication workers were thrown out of their office in the city’s central bus station in December 2003, by US soldiers, who then arrested members of the IFTU executive board. Qasim Hadi, general secretary of the Union of the Unemployed (part of the FWCUI), was arrested several times by occupation troops, for leading demonstrations of unemployed workers demanding unemployment benefits and jobs. Last fall, when textile workers in Kut struck over pay, the city governor called out the Iraqi National Guard, who fired on them, wounding four.

In the broader context of anti-union violence, IFTU leaders are probably singled out as a response to the union’s position on the January elections, another issue on which Iraqi unions disagree. “The IFTU supports democratic principles,” explains Ghasib Hassan, head of the IFTU’s Railway and Aviation Union. “and one of those principles is elections. So we supported them..” The IFTU, like other Iraqi labor federations, has close relations with a set of political parties, in its case the Iraqi Communist Party (with two ministers in the current government), the Iraqi National Accord of outgoing Prime Minister Issad al Allawi, and a party of Arab nationalists.

The FWCUI condemned the balloting. “Its purpose” explains president Falah Alwan, “was to impose the American project on Iraq, and give legitimacy to the government imposed by the occupying coalition.” The FWCIU is allied with the small Workers Communist Party of Iraq. The oil union, which took no position on the election, is independent both of other union federations, and of political parties.

The Road Ahead

While Iraq’s new unions see different methods and timing for getting rid of the occupation, all agree it should go as soon as possible. But they are not only some of the occupation’s main critics on the ground – they also uphold a vision of an alternative future that has inspired progressive Iraqis for decades. Labor’s veterans remember the heady days of the 1958 revolution, when organizing unions, breaking up the big estates, and building public housing for the urban poor were not just dreams, but government policy. Oil was eventually nationalized, and before Saddam Hussein’s wars, the revenue was used to build universities, hospitals and big government-owned factories.

In the US, where people know little of Iraqi history, that vision is unknown. Yet millions of Iraqis have a long record of supporting radical progressive ideas, and paid for their ideals with death and prison. Unionists, women’s rights advocates, teachers and journalists, and members of progressive political parties see Iraq as a peaceful country, with a government committed to social justice, using its oil wealth to give common people a decent chance at life.

Whether they have a real opportunity to develop a progressive, democratic future depends on more than their efforts alone. Creating the political space needed by Iraqi civil society also depends on the actions of an anti-war constituency in the US. Six Iraqi trade unionists, from the GUOE, IFTU and FWCUI, toured 25 US cities for two weeks in June, to help their union counterparts understand the cost of the war in a new way. They all called on US labor to press the US government to end the occupation.

On the west coast, the two oil workers’ leaders were given an enthusiastic welcome by ILWU locals in Los Angeles, the Bay Area, Portland and Seattle, and at the international union office. (statement by Willie Adams here)

US Labor Against the War, which brings together anti-war forces in US unions and organized the Iraqis’ visit, is waging a fight within the AFL-CIO to win a call for the withdrawal of US troops. The ILWU was the first union in the AFL-CIO to adopt such a position, and was followed by other major AFL-CIO affiliates, including SEIU, CWA, AFSCME, Graphic Communications, Mailhandlers (part of the Laborers), and numerous state, district and local bodies. USLAW has campaigned for Congressional action to end the ban on Iraqi unions, and raised money to help them survive. “International cooperation,” says coordinator Gene Bruskin, “can provide significant political muscle to change US policy, both on war and privatization, and help those forces in Iraq which want a progressive and democratic future.”

Random Lengths News

Founded in 1979 as a counterbalance to the conservative, corporate- owned daily paper, Random Lengths News draws on the rich history of the Los Angeles Harbor Area. The name harkens back to a description of the lumber that used to...
More »
Contact for Reprint Rights
  • Market Served: Metropolitan Area
  • Address: 1300 S. Pacific Ave., San Pedro, CA 90731
  • Phone: (310) 519-1442