By Michael Zweig
The path to stability and reconstruction in Iraq must first and foremost be a political process in the hands of the Iraqis themselves. It cannot be imposed by an outside power through military might.
Americans seeking an exit strategy from Iraq would do well to advocate strengthening institutions of Iraqi civil society, including trade unions, as vehicles to organize the Iraqi people and allow them to shape their future.
When we think about what is going on in Iraq, it's easy to imagine the society divided between two forces: on the one hand, suicide bombers and mysterious insurgents pushing toward civil war; on the other, the U.S. military striving to hold things together while promoting democracy. Some Americans originally opposed to the war now feel worried about calling for an end to the occupation, fearing "the terrorists will win," with disastrous results for the Iraqi people and our own safety.
But on a recent tour of 26 U.S. cities, including Stony Brook, six senior
Iraqi labor leaders described a different and more complex reality.
American audiences who heard representatives of the Iraqi Federation of
Trade Unions, the Federation of Workers Councils and Unions in Iraq, and
the General Union of Oil Employees learned something surprising. The
unions, representing hundreds of thousands of Iraqi workers in
transportation, agriculture, construction and the oil industry, are eager
to build a democratic society with equality for women and without
discrimination on the basis of religion.
These Iraqi labor leaders condemned the terror spreading in their country,
but in a joint statement issued at the end of the tour declared "the
principal obstacle to peace, stability, and the reconstruction of Iraq is
the [U.S.] occupation. The occupation is the problem, not the solution.
Iraqi sovereignty and independence must be restored. The occupation must
end in all its forms, including military bases and economic domination."
Wherever they spoke, the Iraqis stressed the need to have internal
political processes replace external military force to solve Iraq's
Iraqi trade unions have a history extending back to the 1920s. They were
severely repressed by Saddam Hussein, but -- following a brief period of
optimism after Hussein was overthrown -- it became clear that union
organizing wouldn't be easy under occupation, either. U.S. authorities in
Iraq continue to insist on enforcement of a 1987 Hussein law that prohibits
unions in the public sector (70 percent of the economy). U.S. military
personnel have arrested union officials and ransacked their offices.
Occupation authorities promote privatization of Iraqi state assets,
including oil reserves and production facilities -- policies the Iraqi
unions emphatically oppose.
The Iraqis touring the United States were guests of U.S. Labor Against the
War, a coalition of labor organizations formed in January 2003, now
representing 4 million workers. U.S. labor audiences discovered they had
some things in common with the Iraqis: a desire to end the occupation;
repudiation of terrorism; opposition to privatization; and a commitment to
a strong, free labor movement playing a central role in shaping social
policy -- not only in Iraq but also here, where the Bush administration has
stripped long-standing union protections from 180,000 federal workers
transferred to the Department of Homeland Security.
Common interests underlie an international solidarity that emerged at the
AFL-CIO convention in Chicago last month, though it was little noticed
because of the departure of three large unions from the federation. For the
first time in history, the AFL-CIO opposed an ongoing U.S. war when
delegates overwhelmingly called for the rapid withdrawal of American troops
from Iraq, the substitution of UN forces, and the strengthening of Iraqi
unions as alternatives to terror and occupation.
The United States has an obligation to help Iraq rebuild after the
destruction wrought by the war. We can make good on that responsibility by
ending the occupation and sending money from the peace dividend to the
government that the Iraqis build, anchored in the civil society that they
are dedicated to creating in our absence.
Michael Zweig, who directs the Center for Study of Working Class Life at
SUNY Stony Brook, is the author, most recently, of "The Working Class
Majority: America's Best Kept Secret."
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