Iraq Union Leaders Speak Out Against Occupation

Anti-war activists should be heartened that U.S. Labor Against the War (USLAW) is hosting a U.S. tour of two Iraqi labor leaders, providing people in this country a civilians-eye view of the Iraq war. On Tuesday June 12, these two impressive unionists spoke in San Francisco at an event co-sponsored by USLAW, United for Peace and Justice and the American Friends Service Committee.

Faleh Abood Umara, General Secretary of the Southern Oil Company Union (affiliated with the Iraqi Federation of Oil Unions) worked for the Southern Oil Company in Basra for 28 years. Umara was detained by Saddam Hussein’s regime in 1998 for union activities. In the post-Saddam years he has worked on his union’s negotiating team with both the Oil Ministry and British occupation authorities, defending the rights of oil company workers. His colleague Hashmeya Mushin Hussein, President of the Electrical Utility Workers Union, is the first woman to head a national union in Iraq. The Electrical Utility Workers are affiliated with the General Federation of Iraqi Workers (GFIW).

USLAW National Coordinator Michael Eisenscher introduced the speakers, pointing to the roots of Iraq labor unions in the country’s struggle against British imperialism, and the brave efforts of trade unionists under Saddam Hussein. Eisenscher noted that the June 2005 tour of Iraqi labor leaders USLAW coordinated (all three of the labor federations represented on that tour called for an end to the occupation in order to restore peace and end terrorism in Iraq) took place a month before a national meeting of the AFL-CIO, thereby helping achieve passage of a resolution by that U.S. labor body saying troops in Iraq “deserve a commitment from our country’s leaders to bring them home rapidly.” Eisenscher described this as the first time in its 50 year history that the federation took a position in opposition to a U.S. war while it was being waged, contrasting with unfortunate past history that earned it the label “AFL-CIA.” (The federation long served as an echo chamber for Washington’s cold war anti-communism, and helped facilitate brutal repression in Latin America and elsewhere.

Clarence Thomas, veteran International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) activist who participated in the first USLAW delegation to Iraq, also spoke before the Iraqi visitors. Thomas pointed out that in 2004 the Bush representative Paul Bremer issued edicts echoing Saddam Hussein, which forbade any union activity in Iraq, a clear slap in the face to the Iraqi people since “when you don’t have trade union freedom, you don’t have democracy.” Thomas noted that ILWU boycotted cargo from South Africa in the apartheid days, which “sent shock waves around the world,” which happens “any time you interrupt global commerce.” ILWU Locals 10, 34, and 91 continued that tradition after Bush began the current Iraq war by refusing to cross community picket lines on the Oakland docks targeting the war profiteering corporation Stevedoring Services of America.

Thomas argued that to stop the war, “we’re going to need to make some sacrifices,” and suggested taking inspiration from “the courageous militancy of our brothers and sisters in Iraq.” The widely-respected Bay Area activist suggested a one day strike might be appropriate, which brought cheers of approval from the more than 100 people in attendance.

After he took the podium to a rousing ovation, Faleh Abood Umara addressed the “economic occupation of my country” and the struggle against this modern-day colonialism. He described the recent strike in Basra in which oil workers demanded a voice in negotiating the controversial hydrocarbon law, which was drafted and written in English by U.S. contractor BearingPoint and reviewed by the Bush Administration and the International Monetary Fund months before Iraqi legislators saw it. Though Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki responded to the limited strike by calling out the army and issuing arrest warrants for the leaders of the Federation of Oil Unions, a negotiated settlement was reached. Partly, Umara noted, this was because an Iraqi colonel in Basra refused to arrest union leadership.

Of the U.S. military presence in Iraq, Umara said, “I’m talking heart to heart: We need to put an end to the bloodshed happening daily, so American youth can come back and participate in the building of America.”

Hashmeya Muhsin Hussein echoed that call for an immediate end to the occupation. Hussein described oil, other resources, and the creation of large military bases as the prime reasons for the US presence in her homeland, and argued, “Iraq has entered a new dark age under the shadow of occupation,” with its economy and infrastructure destroyed. “We wanted to get rid of Saddam, but we never wanted occupation as an alternative,” she noted. Thanks largely to multinational exploitation and the dictates of the International Monetary Fund, Iraq currently has 60% unemployment and 9 million live under the poverty line.

Hussein described her experiences in the U.S. congress, where she told members of the House of Representatives that the civil war in Iraq began only after the occupation, and that violence would be reduced if the US withdrew from Iraq.

Democratic Congressman Dennis Moore of Kansas insisted to Hussein that there would be “chaos” if the U.S. military withdrew, to which the Iraqi labor leader replied, “isn’t there right now bloodshed and occupation?” Hussein also argued that the peaceful areas in Iraq are where occupation forces have withdrawn. But Moore insisted that Iraqi Shias and Sunnis have hated and fought each other for generations. When Hussein denied this, Moore asked her whether she was Shia or Sunni, to which Hussein replied, “Iraqi.”

Since the U.S. high command has announced that it will arm “Sunni insurgents,” allegedly to fight al-Quaida, after years of equipping Shia militias, it doesn’t take much effort to see how Washington might be contributing to fragmentation in Iraq. And as Iraq specialists Antonia Juhasz and Raed Jarrar wrote about the oil law on CounterPunch: “Many Iraqi oil experts are already referring to the draft law as the “Split Iraq Fund,” arguing that it facilitates plans for splitting Iraq into three ethnic/religious regions. The experts believe the law undermines the central government and shifts important decision-making and responsibilities to the regional entities. This shift could serve as the foundation for establishing three new independent states, which is the goal of a number of separatists leaders.”

Meanwhile, the Iraq oil law’s granting dominance to multinational oil giants behind the Bush Administration continues to be largely overlooked by the U.S. media and politicians in Washington. Instead, the mostly unquestioned spin from Washington is that the U.S. is working to heal divisions: UPI energy correspondent Ben Lando, who has written extensively about the oil workers’s strike, this week described Lt. Gen Martin as “the latest U.S. government official to push a common but false claim that the controversial draft oil law will lead to a just division of the proceeds from oil sales and pave the way for reconciliation in the war-torn nation.”

In fact, under the Iraq oil law still being negotiated, foreign oil giants stand to be the primary beneficiaries of those proceeds.

As Antonia Juhasz wrote, “The foreign companies would not have to invest their earnings in the Iraqi economy, partner with Iraqi companies, hire Iraqi workers or share new technologies. They could even ride out Iraq’s current “instability” by signing contracts now, while the Iraqi government is at its weakest, and then wait at least two years before even setting foot in the country. The vast majority of Iraq’s oil would then be left underground for at least two years rather than being used for the country’s economic development.

The international oil companies could also be offered some of the most corporate-friendly contracts in the world, including what are called production sharing agreements. These agreements are the oil industry’s preferred model, but are roundly rejected by all the top oil producing countries in the Middle East because they grant long-term contracts (20 to 35 years in the case of Iraq’s draft law) and greater control, ownership and profits to the companies than other models. In fact, they are used for only approximately 12 percent of the world’s oil.”

Ben Terrall is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, In These Times, Counterpunch, Lip Magazine, and other publications. He can be reached at: Read other articles by Ben, or visit Ben's website.