vrijdag, februari 18, 2005

There is power in a union

Please excuse my radio silence this last week - on top of my regular work I was offered the opportunity to re-edit a film from the 1970s about a crucial strike in Charleroi here in Belgium. It has been thirty years since the workers at Glaverbel occupied their factory for seven weeks, ultimately winning a total victory with not a single job loss or wage roll-back that remains to this day a model of workers' action. I've been up until the early morning almost every night this week working on the project.

Nonetheless, this excuse provides a nice segue to a quick note on a positively vital opinion piece in today's Guardian from Hassan Juma'a Awad, general secretary of Iraq's Southern Oil Company Union and president of the Basra Oil Workers' Union. Those anti-war activists who opposed the occupation have been subjected to a cannonade of blimpish rhetorical beatings-up from the pro-slaughter left for our supposed abandonment of our trade union principles when we call for solidarity with the Iraqi resistance and question the legitimacy of the occupation-approved Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions. The fact that some of the leguminous characters now hurling brickbats our way seem only recently to have discovered they are trade union partisans (c.f. David Aaronovitch) now that it is convenient has not hampered the success of such arguments in quarters that should know better.

Awad was brought over to the UK in the last two weeks by Iraq Occupation Focus to talk about what his union is doing both to defend its members and fight the occupation - which, really, is the same thing, as he points out. Note in particular that he and his members have no time for the weasels who claim they want the occupation to end, but just not right now. [please excuse the near-plagiarous extended quotes, but this does really need to get out]:

The occupation authorities have maintained many of Saddam's repressive laws, including the 1987 order which robbed us of basic union rights, including the right to strike. Today, we still have no official recognition as a trade union, despite having 23,000 members in 10 oil and gas companies in Basra, Amara, Nassiriya, and up to Anbar province. However, we draw our legitimacy from the workers, not the government. We believe unions should operate regardless of the government's wishes, until the people are able finally to elect a genuinely accountable and independent Iraqi government, which represents our interests and not those of American imperialism.

Our union is independent of any political party. Most trade unions in Britain only seem to be aware of one union federation in Iraq, the regime-authorised Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions, whose president, Rassim Awadi, is deputy leader of the US-imposed prime minister Ayad Allawi's party. The IFTU's leadership is carved up between the pro-government Communist party, Allawi's Iraqi National Accord, and their satellites. In fact, there are two other union federations, which are linked to political parties, as well as our own organisation.


Our union has already shown it is able to stand its ground against one of the most powerful US companies, Dick Cheney's KBR, which tried to take over our workplaces with the protection of occupation forces.

We forced them out and compelled their Kuwaiti subcontractor, Al Khourafi, to replace 1,000 of the 1,200 employees it brought with it with Iraqi workers, 70% of whom are unemployed today. We also fought US viceroy Paul Bremer's wage schedule, which dictated that Iraqi public sector workers must earn ID 69,000 ($35) per month, while paying up to $1,000 a day to thousands of foreign mercenaries. In August 2003 we took strike action and shut down all oil production for three days. As a result, the occupation authorities had to raise wages to a minimum of ID 150,000.

We see it as our duty to defend the country's resources. We reject and will oppose all moves to privatise our oil industry and national resources. We regard this privatisation as a form of neo-colonialism, an attempt to impose a permanent economic occupation to follow the military occupation.

The occupation has deliberately fomented a sectarian division of Sunni and Shia. We never knew this sort of division before. Our families intermarried, we lived and worked together. And today we are resisting this brutal occupation together, from Falluja to Najaf to Sadr City. The resistance to the occupation forces is a God-given right of Iraqis, and we, as a union, see ourselves as a necessary part of this resistance - although we will fight using our industrial power, our collective strength as a union, and as a part of civil society which needs to grow in order to defeat both still-powerful Saddamist elites and the foreign occupation of our country.

Those who claim to represent the Iraqi working class while calling for the occupation to stay a bit longer, due to "fears of civil war", are in fact speaking only for themselves and the minority of Iraqis whose interests are dependent on the occupation.

We as a union call for the withdrawal of foreign occupation forces and their military bases. We don't want a timetable - this is a stalling tactic. We will solve our own problems. We are Iraqis, we know our country and we can take care of ourselves. We have the means, the skills and resources to rebuild and create our own democratic society.