Is the US Pulling the Plug on Iraqi Workers?
By David Bacon, t r u t h o u t | Op-Ed
August 27, 2010
Early in the morning of July 21, police stormed the
offices of the Iraqi Electrical Utility Workers Union
in Basra, the poverty-stricken capital of Iraq's oil-
rich south. A shamefaced officer told Hashmeya Muhsin,
the first woman to head a national union in Iraq, that
they'd come to carry out the orders of Electricity
Minister Hussain al-Shahristani to shut the union down.
As more police arrived, they took the membership
records, the files documenting often-atrocious working
conditions, the leaflets for demonstrations protesting
Basra's agonizing power outages, the computers and the
phones. Finally, Muhsin and her coworkers were pushed
out and the doors locked.
Shahristani's order prohibits all trade union activity
in the plants operated by the ministry, closes union
offices, and seizes control of union assets from bank
accounts to furniture. The order says the ministry will
determine what rights have been given to union
officers, and take them all away. Anyone who protests,
it says, will be arrested under Iraq's Anti-Terrorism
Act of 2005.
So ended seven years in which workers in the region's
power plants have fought for the right to organize a
legal union, to bargain with the electrical ministry,
and to stop the contracting-out and privatization
schemes that have threatened their jobs.
The Iraqi government, while seemingly paralyzed on many
fronts, has unleashed a wave of actions against the
country's unions that are intended to take Iraq back to
the era when Saddam Hussein prohibited them for most
workers, and arrested activists who protested. In just
the last few months, the Maliki government has issued
arrest warrants for oil union leaders and transferred
that union's officers to worksites hundreds of miles
from home, prohibited union activity in the oil fields,
ports and refineries, forbade unions from collecting
dues or opening bank accounts, and even kept leaders
from leaving the country to seek support while the
government cracks down.
At the U.S. Embassy, the largest in the world, an
official says mildly, "We're looking into it. We hope
that everybody resolves their differences in an
amicable way." Meanwhile, however, while the U.S.
command withdraws combat troops from many areas, it is
beefing up the military and private-security apparatus
it maintains to protect the wave of foreign oil
companies coming into Basra to exploit the wealth of
Iraq's oil fields.
Is destroying Iraq's labor movement a way to ensure an
environment in which giant oil corporations can operate
freely, and the Iraqi government can institute further
market-based reforms? That was a logical question
during the Bush administration, when its
neoconservative advisors openly predicted Iraq would
become a beachhead for privatizing the public sector of
countries throughout the Middle East. Their policy,
however, has not ended with the change in
administration. And today, Iraqi labor is paying for
its devastating consequences.
Iraq's history highlights the bitterness unions might
feel over this situation
Iraq had labor unions before any other country in the
Middle East. Workers organized themselves when the
British drilled the first wells and built the first
railroads after World War One. The British, however,
banned unions, driving them underground. They installed
a Saudi sheikh as king, but kept enough control to
ensure that the oil wealth flowed into the bank
accounts of British companies (BP's predecessors),
while Iraqis remained desperately poor. The king,
meanwhile, threw workers who tried to organize unions
A revolution in 1958 overthrew the king. Unions came
aboveground so fast that Baghdad's May Day march in
1959 brought out half a million people, when the
country's total population was only 10 million. That
revolution didn't last long, however. By 1963, the
Ba'ath Party had mounted a coup. To help it into power,
the CIA gave it lists of thousands of Iraqi leftists
and union activists, who were imprisoned and murdered.
After a decade of more coups and counter-coups, Saddam
Hussein seized control.
Despite years of repression, Iraq's nationalists were
still strong and popular enough to force the
nationalization of oil in 1972. To deal them a
deathblow, in 1987 Saddam Hussein issued the infamous
Public Law 150. Unions were banned in public
enterprises, from oil and power plants to factories,
schools and hospitals. Again, as they had under the
king, union activists went to prison, went underground
or left the country. And as they did, Donald Rumsfield,
later George W. Bush's Defense Secretary and architect
of the occupation, shook Saddam's hand in an infamous
photograph, promising the dictator intelligence
briefings and arms to fight his war with Iran.
It's a little hard to understand why Iraqi leftists and
union activists were willing to see the 2003 U.S.
invasion as a step towards democracy. But most saw the
end of the Saddam Hussein regime as the precondition
for any change.
U.S. troops moved into Basra from Kuwait on the morning
of April 9, 2003, and American tanks pulled up to the
gate of its huge, dilapidated oil refinery. After
thirty years of Saddam Hussein, most workers there had
had their fill of war and repression. They were
prepared to welcome almost any change, even foreign
troops. "We were ready to say hello," recalls Faraj
Arbat, one of the plant's firemen.
The soldiers trained guns on them, and when the head of
the fire department protested, he was ordered to lie
facedown on the ground. "Abdulritha was absolutely
shocked," Arbat recalls. "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
The refinery workers had already labored through the
"shock and awe" bombing prior to the invasion. "Slowly
we got production restored, by our own efforts," Arbat
remembers. "Electricity workers, at their own expense,
brought power back to the refinery. 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
were banned," he explains. Nevertheless, a few dozen of
the refinery's 3,000 employees came together and chose
Arbat and Ibrahim Radiy to lead them.
To force authorities to pay everyone, 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 did not fire. Instead, by the end of the
day the workers had their pay. Within a week, everyone
at the refinery joined; and. the oil union in Basra was
The occupation's program for transforming the Iraqi
economy was announced by Paul Bremer, appointed by
President Bush to head the Coalition Provisional
Authority in mid-2003. It included the privatization of
state-owned industry, especially transportation, ports,
communications and most manufacturing.
In September 2003, Bremer issued orders 29 and 30. They
lowered base wages from $60 to $40/month, ended
subsidies for food and housing, allowed private
ownership by foreigners of state enterprises (except
oil), and permitted the total repatriation of profits
outside the country. Bremer kept in force Public Law
150. As a result, Iraq's new unions were illegal. When
power was handed over to an "independent" government in
June 2004, the transitional law froze the Bremer orders
Nationalist sentiment in Iraq views the public sector,
especially oil, as a guarantee of sovereignty and a key
to future economic development. Iraq's unions quickly
became privatization's most vocal critics.
The first big fight over the US economic program came
within months of the confrontation at the Basra
refinery gate. KBR, a subsidiary of the oil services
giant Halliburton, was given a no-bid contract to put
out war-caused oil fires in the huge Rumeila fields.
Within weeks, it had taken over the financial functions
of Basra's civil administration. In order to get paid,
workers had to take their timesheets to local KBR
offices for approval.
An oil worker in the Basra refinery.
Then KBR claimed the work of reconstructing wells,
pipelines and other oil facilities. With unemployment
hovering at 70%, Iraqi workers saw a clear threat to
their jobs. "It is our duty to protect the oil
installations, since they are the property of the Iraqi
people," explains Hassan Juma'a, who became president
of the Federation of Oil Employees in Iraq. The new
union gave KBR a deadline to leave the oil district,
and when it expired, shut down production. "For two
days we refused to pump a single drop until they left,"
says union leader Farouk Sadiq. "Other workers in Basra
refused to work, too. It was independence day for oil
KBR closed its offices in Basra.
That began a wave of union organizing in the south.
With the help of oil workers, a new union in the ports
of Um Qasr and Zubair forced two huge corporations, the
Danish Maersk and Seattle-based Stevedoring Services of
America, to give up sweetheart concessions they'd been
given to operate Iraq's deepwater shipping facilities.
In late 2003 the oil union threatened to strike again
if Bremer's orders lowered wages. The oil minister
caved in, bringing the base wage up to $85/month.
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Then the oil union helped workers in the power plants.
After Hashmeya Muhsin was elected the new union's
president, workers struck the Najibeeya, Haartha and Al
Zubeir generating stations. They stormed the
administration buildings and vowed to shut off power.
The electricity minister also agreed to abandon
Bremer's wage order. Muhsin's electrical union then
battled to stop subcontracting in the power stations -
a prelude to corporate control.
Union organizing at the refinery seemed spontaneous,
but in reality-* relied on workers' memories of years
of underground activity. In ports and power plants,
organizers from Iraq's old unions, who'd come back into
the country or up from underground, helped workers come
The unionization of the south was the leading edge of a
wave that spread across Iraq. Strikes took place in
Baghdad and other cities. New, often competing
federations were formed. The unions organized by Iraq's
Communists merged with the few Saddam had allowed in
private businesses, to form the General Federation of
Iraqi Workers. Others in many local workplaces merged
into the General Federation of Workers Councils and
Unions of Iraq, which was later joined by the oil
workers. Teachers and journalists reorganized their old
unions as well, which remained independent.
Since most Iraqi workers still work for government
enterprises or services, almost all of them came up
against Public Law 150. After elections resulted in a
new government, and Bremer's Coalition Authority
dissolved, a new constitution promised labor law
reform. Instead, the government not only failed to
repeal Law 150, but passed a succession of others
designed to stop labor activity.
In 2005, Decree 870 gave the government the ability to
take over unions, and prohibited them from setting up
bank accounts or collecting dues. Unions continued to
function based on the willingness of workers to support
them, but the government sought to deny them the
resources to grow.
In 2007, as the US was pressuring for a new oil law
designed to ensure that the multinationals would gain
access on the most favorable terms, the oil union
mounted what was, in effect, a political strike. On
June 4, the Federation of Oil Employees in Iraq shut
down the pipelines from the Rumeila fields near Basra,
to the Baghdad refinery and the rest of the country. It
was a limited strike to underline its call for keeping
oil in public hands, and to force the government to
live up to its economic promises.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki called out the
army and surrounded the strikers at Sheiba, near Basra.
Then he issued arrest warrants for the union's leaders.
U.S. aircraft buzzed and overflew Basra during and
after the strike, increasing pressure on the union. In
Iraq, the hostile maneuvering of military aircraft
isn't considered an idle threat by the people below. On
Wednesday, June 6, the union stopped the strike.
Maliki, who faced the possibility that it might
escalate into shutdowns on the rigs themselves, agreed
to the union's principal demand. Implementation of the
oil law would be held in abeyance while, while the
union posed objections and proposed alternatives.
Even in the U.S., voices were raised saying that oil
privatization was a bad idea. Congressman Dennis
Kucinich charged, "Privatizing Iraq's oil is theft."
Nevertheless, the U.S. threatened to withhold a billion
dollars in reconstruction financing if Iraq didn't pass
the Hydrocarbon Act. Maliki faced a fact that U.S.
policymakers refused to recognize. The oil industry is
a symbol of Iraqi sovereignty, and handing control to
foreign companies is extremely unpopular.
The oil workers union, still technically illegal,
emerged as one of the strongest voices of Iraqi
nationalism. Other demands reflected workers' desperate
situation. They wanted the oil ministry to give
permanent jobs to thousands of temporary employees. In
a country where housing has been destroyed on a massive
scale, the union wanted land for building homes. It
demanded jobs and a future for young people graduating
from the Oil Institute. Fighting for these demands made
unions popular - the only force in Iraq trying to
maintain a survival living standard for the millions of
Iraqis who have to get up and go to work every day in
the middle of a war. The U.S. authorities, on the other
hand, seem to Iraqis like an enemy bent on enforcing
The rationale for privatizing Iraqi industries like
electricity and oil in the U.S. press is that the
state-owned industries are old and inefficient. U.S.
engineering know-how was needed, occupation authorities
said, to bring it up to modern standards. Arab labor
leader Hacene Djemam bitterly observed, "War makes
privatization easy: first you destroy society; then you
let the corporations rebuild it."
But in electricity, they never did. U.S. contractors
raked in billions in cost-plus contracts for rebuilding
the power grid - General Electric alone got $3 billion.
Yet Basra residents only get a few hours of electricity
a day, while temperatures hit 120 degrees in the
summer. Before the first Gulf War, Iraq generated 9,300
megawatts of electricity. The U.S. bombed plants and
transmission lines in that war, and U.S.-imposed
sanctions then kept many of them from being rebuilt.
Production dropped to a third. Today, after seven years
of "reconstruction" by U.S. contractors, production is
only up to 6,000 megawatts, two-thirds of what it was
twenty years ago. Meanwhile, Iraq's population has
grown, and consumption increased.
U.S. contractors became notorious for supplying parts
and generators to Iraqi power stations that were
incompatible with existing equipment, and for showing
up with an entourage of gun-toting private security.
Meanwhile, Iraqi workers, who were often targeted by
insurgents seeking to sabotage the system, did the
actual work of keeping the plants running.
That explosive combination finally produced a huge
demonstration on June 19, when Basra and Nassiriya
residents poured into the streets with signs saying
"Prison is more comfortable than our homes!" Police
killed one demonstrator, Haider Dawood Selman, and shot
others. In their wake, the electricity minister
resigned, and Shahristani, who was already oil
minister, took over electricity as well. When he issued
his order to shut down the electrical union, another
large demonstration brought out 1,000 workers in Basra
to protest. Their shouted slogans asked Shahristani
where the $13 billion appropriated for electricity
reconstruction had gone, chanting, "Hussein, where is
Three weeks later, the union had been expelled from its
Hashmeya Muhsin and Hassan Juma'a were among several
Iraqi unionists who traveled to the U.S. looking for
labor support in their battles against illegal status
and privatization. U.S. Labor Against the War, a
national organization of anti-war unions, organized
several national tours for the Iraqis. They were
invited to conventions of the AFL-CIO. The American
Center for International Labor Solidarity (affiliated
with the AFL-CIO) and the British Trades Union Congress
began offering them material support and training at
facilities in Jordan. As the conflicts in Iraq
increased, however, the government moved to cut off
that support. Unions were already prohibited from
receiving money or even maintaining bank accounts. But
after the leaders of two federations, Falah Alwan and
Rasim Awadi, toured the U.S. in 2009, Maliki issued
order No. 3-2004. In the future, union leaders would
have to have permission from the Supreme Ministerial
Committee to travel abroad. That permission, clearly,
would not be forthcoming.
Even in public schools, unions felt the government
closing in. This past January, the Maliki
administration organized an effort to seize control of
the Iraqi Teachers Union from its independent
leadership. It ran a slate that teachers accused of
being a front for Maliki's ruling party. The union
president in Basra was thrown in jail. "He's receiving
threatening phone calls such as, 'If you don't stop,
we'll kill you,'" according to union leader Nasser al
Death threats aren't taken lightly in Iraq. Since the
beginning of the occupation, dozens of trade union
activists have been assassinated. Iraqi unionists still
mourn the death of Hadi Saleh, who was tortured and
murdered in his Baghdad home in 2005 by killers so
brutal that they emptied their guns into his body after
they'd strangled him. Saleh was the most well-known of
those labor activists jailed by Saddam Hussein, and
later exiled, who then returned to Iraq to begin
rebuilding its unions. Most think the killing was the
work of former agents turned insurgents, from Saddam's
old secret police, the Mukhabarat. In 2008 Shihab al-
Tamimi, head of the Iraqi Journalists Syndicate
[Union], was shot by gunmen in Baghdad. Al-Tamimi, an
outspoken independent reporter, was a strong critic of
the occupation and of sectarian violence.
In January pressure against unions in the oil districts
escalated. Hassan Juma'a, president of the Federation
of Oil Employees in Iraq, criticized refinery managers
for cutting the food rations workers receive as a
supplement to their low salaries. Overtime hours were
cut, reducing income even further, and some workers
were demoted. One manager said anonymously to
correspondents from Iraq Oil Report that he feared some
would be transferred as retaliation: "We are always
under the threats from the oil officials to punish and
to sack people who speak out about the problems in the
oil sector." Juma'a's statement was followed a few days
later by a protest by workers in the refinery itself.
In March, workers organized demonstrations throughout
the oil district demanding pay increases, permanent
positions for temporary workers, modernization of the
equipment and facilities, and legal status for their
union. Since the 2007 constitution, Iraqi unions had
been promised a labor law reform to abolish Law 150 and
set up a structure under which they could function
normally. In August, however, the parliamentary
committee considering the draft law discarded it. That
not only returned the reform process to its beginning,
it left Law 150 and the bans on activity the only laws
In April fears of retaliation were realized. Five union
leaders were transferred from the Basra refinery to
Baghdad, hundreds of miles away. They included Ibrahim
Radiy, who had lowered the crane across the road in the
confrontation where the union was born seven years
earlier. Others included Alaa al-Basri, Majid Ali,
Khaza'al Hamoud and Faraj Misban. South Refineries
Company spokesman Qassem Ramadhan admitted that the
transfers were punishment for earlier worker protests.
Muhsin Mull Ali, a retired longshoreman and grandfather
of the labor movement in Basra. After being imprisoned
under the king, and then
by Saddam Hussein, he left Iraq and later returned to
help longshoremen reorganize their union.
In June, repression spread to the ports south of Basra.
Leaders of the longshore union there were transferred
1,000 kilometers from their worksites, and when workers
protested, management brought in military units who
surrounded the demonstrators. Finally, on June 1, as
electricity workers filled the streets of Basra, the
Southern Oil Company issued arrest warrants for Hassan
Juma'a and Faleh Abood Umara, the oil union's general
secretary, who was held for two days. The two were
accused of "impeding the work," and "urging workers to
stand against senior management," according to Umara.
Oil Ministry Spokesman Assam Jihad told the Iraq Oil
Report that, "The problem is that the unionists
instigate the public against the plans of the Oil
Ministry and its ambitions to develop (Iraq's) oil
riches using foreign development."
Faleh Abood Umara, general secretary of the oil workers
The Iraqi Parliament, under siege by Iraq's unions and
nationalist parties, was never able to finalize the
Hydrocarbon Law, despite intense pressure from the Bush
administration. But the Maliki government found ways to
let the companies in. In the huge oil fields around
Basra, it held auctions for contracts to provide
services to the Iraqi National Oil Company. Those
services included expanding production in existing
fields, and exploring new ones and bringing them on
line. The Maliki government predicts oil production
could rise from its present 2.6 million barrels per day
to 12.5 million within seven years.
A shack where people sell gasoline and motor oil to
Contracts were awarded to 18 companies, including the
U.S. Exxon/Mobil, the European Royal Dutch Shell and
Eni, the Russian Gazprom and Lukoil, Malaysia's
Petronas and Chinese state firms. A partnership between
BP and the Chinese National Petroleum Corporation got
the contract for the giant Rumaila field.
Workers on a drilling rig in the Rumaila oil field.
A former Iraqi Parliament member, Shetha Musawi, sued
the government over the contracts, accusing it of
essentially extorting loans from recipients, including
$500 million from BP/CNPC, $300 million from Eni, and
$400 million from Exxon Mobil, according to the Iraq
Oil Report. Some loans were replaced with $100 million
non-refundable "bonuses." The Iraqi court ruled she had
to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to hire outside
oil consultants to make her case, and then she began
receiving death threats. When the case came to a
hearing, she didn't appear in court, and it was
Meanwhile, the U.S. military took over the former
British base in Basra, converting it to a center for
helping oil company executives and personnel begin
operations in Iraq. While Musawi faced her threats
alone, and Iraqi unionists were expelled from their
offices and jailed, the executives who sought contracts
and labor peace found the U.S. military placed at their
service. General Ray Odierno, head of U.S. forces in
Iraq, told reporters, "There is good coordination going
on with all the oil companies and the Basra operational
camp." Odierno predicted that, despite the departure of
combat troops, the U.S. would maintain forces to
provide security there and in the oilfields. In
addition, security contractors will supply thousand of
private soldiers, paid the U.S., to provide additional
protection for assets it believes must be guarded. That
will undoubtedly include oil.
The wreckage of war - tank treads and turrets - in the
middle of a
residential neighborhood. The wreckage includes
depleted uranium ammunition, a big health hazard to
Last month, U.S. Ambassador Christopher Hill invited
oil executives and diplomats to the base, known
formally as Contingency Operating Base, Basra, for a
fancy lunch. They talked about ways to facilitate visas
for employees they intend to bring in. Ambassador Hill
offered help in easing the way for the billions of
dollars the companies will be transferring. The Iraqi
oil union, meanwhile, can't even open a bank account.
According to Kenneth Thomas on the Basra Provincial
Reconstruction Team at the U.S. Embassy, "U.S.
government policy at this time is that the USG in Iraq
should assist in facilitating the mobilization of these
companies without regard to the nationality of the
companies." Bremer couldn't have put it more plainly.
A worker disabled in a refinery accident at his home in
Basra. A picture of the Muslim martyr Hussein, the
founder of Shiite Islam, is on the wall.
Iraqi unions, meanwhile, have not gone underground nor
have they stopped their efforts to organize. In fact,
days after Hashmeya Muhsin and her coworkers were
driven from their offices, she, the oil workers and
Basra's other unions held a meeting to put aside their
organizational differences and cooperate on resisting
the government's effort to extinguish them. Unions in
Europe and the U.S. sent messages in support, and AFL-
CIO President Richard Trumka wrote to Maliki protesting
the actions against the electrical workers.
The Basra unions formed a Joint Committee for Defending
Unionism Rights in Iraq. "We shall carry on our
struggle through all peaceful means like protests and
strikes," Muhsin promised.
David Bacon is a writer and photographer. His new book,
"Illegal People - How Globalization Creates Migration
and Criminalizes Immigrants," was just published by
Beacon Press. His photographs and stories can be found
c 2010 truthout
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