The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Iraq's workers under attack from all sides

Apr 4, 2005

On February 24, armed men gunned down a union activist in the Transportation and Communications Workers Union in a public square in Baghdad. This is just one of the attacks that have been made on the Iraqi workers' movement.

To mention just a few more of these attacks: Last November 3, four union railroad workers were killed and their bodies mutilated. Two more train engineers were kidnaped and five other workers beaten on December 25. The next day in Baghdad, the headquarters of the Transport and Communications Workers Union was attacked with mortars. On January 4, the head of the largest Iraqi union federation was tortured and killed in his home in Baghdad. The method of his execution – he was strangled to death with his eyes blindfolded and hands tied with metal wire – was the preferred method of the "experts" of the Saddam regime. On January 5, the bodies of 18 murdered workers were discovered in the northern city of Mosul. On January 27, the leader of the Mechanics, Metalworkers and Print Workers Union was beaten and briefly kidnaped. On February 11, a union federation leader in Mosul was abducted. On February 18, a leader of a Baghdad oil refinery union was murdered in front of his family.

Most of these attacks were probably carried out by Ba'athist insurgent forces, or Shiite or Kurdish militias. But some have been carried out by mercenary soldiers hired by KBR and other U.S. contractors working in Iraq, or by U.S. and British occupation troops. All of these forces have made their hostility toward the workers' organizing well known.

After the fall of Saddam Hussein, U.S. and British occupation forces left his regime's repressive anti-union laws in place. Under Saddam, no unions independent of government control were tolerated and workers employed in the large public sector could not legally form or join a union.

Despite the continued repression of unions under occupation forces, workers in many industries began to organize independently of the old government-controlled unions. Protests for higher pay took place. Within months, 12 new national unions were formed, along with trade union councils in 11 cities. In May of last year, a new national union federation was organized.

This growth in union activity was answered by the CPA (Coalition Provisional Authority). Among other things, after taking over as the head of the CPA, Paul Bremer froze virtually all unions' funds last May. On June 6, the Authority decreed that anyone who "incites civil disorder" would be detained as a prisoner of war under the Geneva Convention, and it was made clear this could apply to strikes.

On November 23, two union leaders were arrested and detained for 24 hours by occupation authorities. On December 6, ten armored personnel carriers surrounded the headquarters of one of the Iraqi union federations in Baghdad. U.S. troops stormed in, broke the windows, took records, detained eight activists overnight, and forced the unionists to abandon the building.

Despite this, by the end of last year, the new union federation claimed to have 200,000 members, more than 400 workers' committees and 3,500 activists. It claimed some victories in defending workers' rights and negotiating some pay increases.

Ba'athist, Shiite and Kurdish forces, plus the joint U.S.-British occupation force, may differ with each other over which group of religious or ethnic leaders should control Iraq. But they are all hostile to the working class. The Iraqi workers can't rest their hopes on any of them. They have to organize themselves independently to defend their own class interests against anyone and everyone who would oppress them.