You are herecontent / OIL FOR FREEDOM
OIL FOR FREEDOM
By David Bacon
The Progressive, October 2005
BASRA, IRAQ -- The morning of April 9, 2003, started like any
other at Basra's huge, dilapidated oil refinery. Workers knew the
US/British invasion of their country might begin anytime. Still, no
one expected American tanks when they suddenly pulled up at the gate.
After thirty years of Saddam Hussein, the vast majority of the
refinery's laborers had had their fill of war and repression. While
there was always a small core of Baathist loyalists among them, most
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
Someone easily could have died that day. As it was, the
memory of the foot on Abdulritha's back left a bitter taste.
The Rebirth of the Oil Workers Union
The refinery's workers were used to conflict, having labored
through two decades of shelling and fires, including the "shock and
awe" bombing prior to the US 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
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 British
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
joined, and. the oil union in Basra had been reborn.
Reborn is the proper word, because the union for oil workers
is one of Iraq's oldest institutions. Originally organized when Iraq
was a British colony in the early 1920s, the oil union has always
been the heart of the country's labor movement. "Our two biggest
strikes, in 1946 and 1952, were organized by oil workers," says Faleh
Abood Umara, general secretary of the newly reorganized General Union
of Oil Employees. Today it is again the country'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.
Unions occupy a critical, but perilous, position. They
confront the occupation's economic plan directly, and are its most
vocal opponents. The neoliberal program for transforming the economy
was announced by Paul Bremer, appointed by President Bush to head the
Coalition Provisional Authority in mid-2003. Its basic elements
include the privatization of state-owned industry (including
transportation, ports, communications, and most manufacturing),
enforcing a low standard of living and high unemployment, and ending
state subsidies on food and public services.
In September, 2003, Bremer issued two orders, 29 and 30, to
put those principles into practice. They lowered the base industrial
wage from $60 to $40/month, cut payments for food and housing,
allowed private ownership by foreigners of state enterprises (except
oil), and permitted the total repatriation of profits outside the
country. [see The Progressive, 12/03] When power was handed over to
a supposedly independent government in June, 2004, the transitional
law enacted at the time froze the Bremer orders into place, until a
new constitution could be written and a new government elected. That
has yet to happen.
Bremer appointed Bush fundraiser Tom Foley to head the
occupation's privatization agency. Foley published lists throughout
late 2003 of factories to be put on the auction block. When the
deteriorating security situation and the dubious legality of sales by
an occupation government discouraged would-be corporate buyers, those
plans were temporarily shelved. But Iraq's Industry Minister revived
them this spring, listing again a number of enterprises the
government intends to sell off.
Privatization is not popular - nationalist sentiment views
the public sector, especially oil, as a guarantee of sovereignty and
a key to future economic development. Iraq's new unions are its most
vocal critics. To keep their critique from gaining a political base,
Bremer kept in force Law 150, issued by Saddam Hussein in 1987.
Hussein, and then Bremer, decreed that Iraqi workers in the
state-owned sector had no right to organize unions. As a result,
Iraqi labor has had to operate in illegal conditions.
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.
Workers Drive KBR out of the South
KBR, 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. In fact, Iraqi
oil workers were outraged. With unemployment hovering at 70%, they
saw a clear threat to their jobs. But according to Hassan Juma'a
Awad, now president of the General Union of Oil Employees, workers
had other concerns as well.
"We organized the union for two reasons," Juma'a 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 2 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 civil
administration 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 a union in the power
generation plants. Hashimia Mohsen al Hussein was elected president,
the first woman to head a national labor organization in Iraq.
Following the oil workers' example, they also successfully threatened
work stoppages to convince authorities to raise wages, but had a
harder time preserving their jobs. Last June the electrical 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."
Unions spread from oil rigs and power stations to Iraq's
deepwater ports. At Um Qasr, Seattle-based Stevedoring Services of
America was given a contract to take over terminals before the
invasion even began. Cooperation between oil workers and
longshoremen first forced the port operator to deal with a new dock
union. Then, in mid-2004, SSA agreed to leave entirely, and turned
the port back to the Iraqi Port Authority.
In nearby Zubair, the Danish shipping giant Maersk also took
control of the docks when the occupation began, as a reward to
Denmark for sending troops. Maersk removed the port's skilled
employees, and replaced them with its own workforce. When the new
dock union challenged its right to run the port this spring, the
company was unable to produce any contract with the Iraqi government.
The union appealed for help, and on March 2, 600 longshoremen, oil
workers and supporters descended on Zubair. They blocked its access
road for three days, and in the end, Maersk, like SSA, agreed to go.
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
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. "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.
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.
Unions Under Attack
The occupation, however, is not the unions' only enemy.
On February 18, Ali Hassan Abd (Abu Fahad), a leader of the
Baghdad oil workers union, was walking home, through the neighborhood
beneath the cracking towers and gas flares of the huge al-Daura
refinery. He was holding the hands of his young children when gunmen
ran up and shot him.
Abu Fahad was one of 400 union activists who emerged from the
underground or returned from exile in May 2003, and at a Baghdad
conference formed the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions (IFTU).
Afterward, he went back to the refinery and urged his fellow workers
to elect department- and plant-wide committees. That, in turn, became
a nucleus of the Oil and Gas Workers Union, one of the twelve
industry unions that make up the IFTU.
Less than a week after Fahad was killed, on February 24,
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. Moaid Hamed, general secretary of
the IFTU's Mosul branch, was kidnapped in mid-February, as was Talib
Khadim Al Tayee, president of the metal and print workers union. Both
were later released.
The GUOE's Abood Umara refers to them all as "our leaders"
despite the fact that the GUOE is not affiliated with the IFTU. Like
the rest of Iraq's unions, the GUOE condemns terrorism and
assassination, and Abood adds that a bomb was found in the car of a
GUOE member earlier this year, fortunately before it was detonated.
Hassan Juma'a Awad has also received death threats, and predicts that
"an attack on myself will take place, but I'm not afraid. I expect
the terrorists will strike everywhere." Juma'a, like most Iraqi
unionists, attributes the murder of Saleh in particular to remnants
of Saddam's secret police, the old Mukhabharat. "They seem to be able
to operate freely," he says.
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. US soldiers threw Baghdad's Transport and Communication Workers
out of their office in the city's central bus station in December
2003, and then arrested members of the IFTU executive board. Qasim
Hadi, general secretary of the Union of the Unemployed (part of the
Federation of Workers' Councils), 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
This past February, as IFTU leaders were being killed,
Baghdad's hotel workers struck first the Sheraton, and then the
next-door Palestine Hotel. Both are luxurious establishments behind
high blast walls, housing U.S. journalists and administrators.
Despite the U.S.-imposed ban, the IFTU has managed to force de facto
recognition and bargaining in some workplaces, and now claims 200,000
members. Metalworkers at Baghdad's Al Nassr molding and car parts
factory won a minimum wage of 150,000 ID per month. The Rail Workers
Union forced a wage increase at Railways of the Iraqi Republic from
75,000 to 125,000 ID per month, and equal pay for men and women.
Since the spring, the Iraqi government and occupation troops
have increased repressive actions against unions. A US military
helicopter indiscriminately shot at workers without any
justification, gathered in Alawi Al-Hilla district in Baghdad on
August 15, where the Transport and Communication Workers' Union has
its head office. Twenty-six were wounded.
The new Iraqi government is also attempting to take control
of the assets accumulated by Iraq's government-controlled unions
under the old Saddam Hussein regime. Although they had no right to
organize public sector workers, they administered large benefit
funds. Now a new decree adopted by the Iraqi Council of Ministers
says that the government would be "taking control of all monies
belonging to the trade unions to prevent them from dispensing any
such monies." This decree not only deprives Iraqi unions of control
over those old assets, but could also prevent them from collecting
dues and spending them in the future.
Iraqis Get Support from US Unions
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. 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 war with Iran,
the revenue was used to build universities, hospitals and big
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 have paid for those ideals
with death and prison. Unionists, women's rights advocates, teachers
and journalists, and members of progressive political parties would
like Iraq to become 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,
Britain, and other countries contributing troops to the occupation.
Six Iraqi trade unionists, from the GUOE, IFTU and FWCUI, toured 25
US cities for two weeks in June, to help their union counterparts
here understand the cost of the war in a new way.
At the end of the U.S. tour, the three unions agreed on a
statement, made together with US Labor Against the War, which
organized the visit. This is the first time Iraq's major unions have
developed a common position on the two key issues that confront
them-the occupation and privatization. "The occupation must end in
all its forms, including military bases and economic domination," the
statement said. "The war was fought for oil and regional domination,
in violation of international law, justified by lies and deception,
without consultation with the Iraqi people. The occupation has been a
catastrophe for both our peoples."
The statement condemned the occupation's economic program.
"The national wealth and resources of Iraq belong to the Iraqi
people," it emphasized. "We are united in our opposition to the
imposition of privatization of the Iraqi economy by the occupation,
the IMF, the World Bank, foreign powers, and any force that takes
away the right of the Iraqi people to determine their own economic
USLAW, which brings together anti-war unions in the US labor
movement, 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
In July, in response to another campaign organized by USLAW,
resolutions calling for an end to the occupation poured into the
AFL-CIO convention from unions across the country. As a result, the
labor federation passed a resolution calling for the rapid withdrawal
of U.S. troops from Iraq. The resolution marks a watershed moment in
modern U.S. labor history. In the many meetings and discussions that
paved its way, union members grasped the purpose of the occupation in
a new way-as the imposition, at gunpoint, of Bush administration free
market policies. Calling for bringing U.S. soldiers home puts US
workers on the side of Iraqis as they resist the transformation of
their country for the benefit of a wealthy global elite.
Although bombs continue to go off in Baghdad and Basra, while
the occupation troops assault whole cities from Tal Afar to Fallujah
and Najaf, Iraqi workers are still confident in their ability to
reclaim their own country. Out at the Basra oil refinery, they
remember other struggles against foreign occupiers. Tefiq Jassim,
another fireman, recalls his own grandfathers, "who stood up to the
British guns and planes with picks and shovels. The day will come
again when our people will drive out the British and US armies," he