Solidarity with Iraqi Labor

— Traven Leyshon and Dianne Feeley

THE FIRST DELEGATION of Iraqi labor leaders to visit the United States—and one of the few Iraqi groups of any sort not sponsored by the U.S. government—addressed more than 70 meetings across the country this June.  The group included representatives from the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions (IFTU), the Federation of Workers Councils and Unions in Iraq (FWCUI) and General Union of Oil Employees (GUOE).

The tour was organized by U.S. Labor Against War (USLAW), founded in January 2003 as a coalition of labor organizations opposed to the invasion of Iraq.  Today, USLAW has over 110 affiliates, representing four million union members, and hundreds of individual associated members.  Its web site (www.uslawagainstwar.org) is a valuable source of organizing tools and analysis.

Falah Alwan, a delegate from FWCUI, stated: "Our fundamental goal is a progressive, modern, civilized labor law that guarantees workers' rights...we have an incredible opportunity to build a progressive, independent labor movement that could be a model for the entire Middle East."

To the danger of U.S. withdrawal leading to civil war Alwan remarked, "Coupled with our call for the withdrawal of the occupation forces, we must present an alternative....The labor movement is the only force that can provide for uniting and not dividing the people of Iraq."

Speaking to longshoremen in Los Angeles, GUOE delegate Hassan Juma'a Awad Al-Asade addressed the divide-and-rule impact of the occupation.  "Who is talking about war?  I am 53 years old, and I didn't hear about Sunni and Shite [divisions] before the occupation forces entered.  I am Shiite, but I'm married to a Sunni woman."

During their U.S. stay, the Iraqis spoke with more than 4,000 U.S. workers, union officials, antiwar and social justice activists, religious and community leaders and the media.  Regarding U.S. and IMF/World Bank plans to privatize key sectors in Iraq, IFTU delegate Adnan Rashed al-Saffar said: "The future of Iraq and its reconstruction depends on Iraqis and on controlling our national resources.  Oil is a national treasure, and we won't accept that anyone else will take control of it."

The Iraqi trade unionists were often joined on the platform by representatives from Military Families Speak Out, Iraqi Veterans Against the War, and union leaders.  Speakers condemned the Bush Administration for using the war and national security hysteria to create a climate to attack civil liberties, pointed to the problem U.S. workers face in trying to organize themselves into unions, and explained how the war and occupation have lead to cuts in social and human services, and even veterans benefits.

Dawn Stanger, a Teamster and Vice President of the Vermont Workers' Center, remarked: "it is only natural that Iraqis call for the profits from their oil to be devoted to Iraqis.  We're glad to hear that Iraqi workers chased Kellogg, Brown, and Root from the oil fields and defeated lower wages.  We're psyched to hear that port workers expelled Maersk shipping company and ejected Stevedoring Associates from Um Qasr."

The tour decisively shifted discussion within the labor movement.  Gene Bruskin, a USLAW national coordinator, commented, "We believed strongly that if unions in our country could hear their Iraqi brothers and sisters asking for withdrawal of U.S. troops, they would respond in a spirit of solidarity and human sympathy.  We were right."

Debate and Disorientation

At the end of the tour the Iraqis and USLAW signed a solidarity statement, reflecting the longstanding positions of the three Iraqi organizations: opposition to the occupation as well as to the "terrorist attacks on civilians and targeting of trade union and other civil society leaders," support for women's equality, cancellation of Iraq's Saddam-era debt, and opposition to privatization.  The main debate around the statement was over the term "secular."  The statement is also a step towards joint action by unions who have been bitter rivals.

Prior to the tour, a few USLAW members had argued that we should exclude the IFTU because one of their representatives had supported the U.S./British occupation when he spoke in England last year.  That view was overwhelmingly rejected by USLAW delegates at its 2004 conference.  On the eve of the tour USLAW issued a statement, which explained:

...Our policy has been to work with and offer solidarity to all genuine labor organizations in Iraq.  The role of US and international trade unionists is to oppose the occupation while supporting all forces genuinely representing workers and fighting to assure that Iraq implements full internationally recognized trade union rights.  The workers of Iraq will decide who they want to represent them as this process unfolds.  (for statement see: uslaboragainstwar.org/downloads/USLAW on Iraqi Labor.pdf)

The tour was unambiguously antiwar.  As activists in USLAW affiliates, we believe that those who opposed inviting and working with Iraq's largest federation, the IFTU—whose members were tortured and murdered under Saddam Hussein's regime, both in Iraq and in exile, and remain victims of death squads today—were guilty of a sectarian error.

Given IFTU members' experience, and the tangled political history of the Iraqi Communist Party with which it is associated, it's understandable that they were ambivalent about immediate U.S. withdrawal, instead perferring to rely on the "UN process."  But as the UN gave open-ended support to an extended U.S. occupation, the IFTU seemed to shift its position.  (During the tour IFTUer Adnan al Saffar disavowed the alleged statement, saying it misrepresented IFTU policy at the time.)

The determination of some U.S. leftists to denounce the IFTU representatives had a negative impact on the tour.  After all, most people don't distinguish among the various currents within the Iraqi labor movement.  So the tactic of boycotting meetings where the IFTU was speaking remained a cloud over all the meetings.  Undoubtedly some who would otherwise have attended passed up the opportunity to hear Iraqi trade unionists speak out against the occupation.

In Vermont members of the International Socialist Organization (ISO) argued against endorsements and participation from unions and Military Families Speak Out. They boycotted a march organized by Vermont Labor Against the War. The sniping continued even as an IFTU leader spoke under a "Bring Our Troops Home Now:" banner, leading a chant "No justice—No peace.  U.S. out of the Middle East." (*)

But in July, for the first time in its 50-year history, an AFL-CIO convention voted to break with the U.S. government over an ongoing war, overwhelmingly adopting a resolution calling for "a rapid return of all U.S. troops from Iraq."  This step forward, as labor journalist David Bacon points out, "marks a watershed moment in modern U.S. labor history.  It is the product of grassroots action at the bottom of the U.S. labor movement (and) echoes the sentiments of thousands of workers and union members, whose children and families have been called on to fight the war."

Notes

See, for example, New York City Labor Against the War's statement, "Trojan Horse in the Antiwar Movement: Facts About the IFTU" or the ISO's "Behind the IFTU Controversy: Does Iraq's Main Union Support the U.S. Occupation," baiting the IFTU as "CIA dupes," denouncing the IFTU as "a pro-occupation mouthpiece in bed with the 'AFL-CIA,'" claiming it "supported every major aspect of the U.S. war and occupation in Iraq, and has not opposed even the most brutal crimes of U.S. occupation: massacres in Fallujah and other cities," and condemning the labor movement as "quislings" (fascist collaborators).  Such charges were circulated over the internet—and undoubtedly traveled to Iraq.  Did NYCLAW consider the danger that their actions have placed the IFTU spokespersons in back in Iraq?  While some people talk about life and death situations, others unfortunately have to live it, and so do their families..
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ATC 118, September-October 2005