Eric Lee pays tribute to Hadi Saleh .
The torture and murder of Hadi Saleh marks a turning point for trade unions around the world. The question is now posed — to quote the famous American trade union song, “Which side are you on?” Let me explain.
Hadi Saleh represented everything that trade unionists should hold dear — he was a committed socialist, survived repression (including a spell in Saddam’s jails) and exile, and was helping to build an new and independent trade union movement in Iraq for the first time in more than a generation. He was the international officer of the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions (IFTU).
It was in that capacity that I met him last year in the coffee bar of the Trades Union Congress in London. He spoke little English and I spoke even less Arabic, but we were able to communicate through our mutual friend Abdullah Muhsin, the IFTU’s foreign representative. We discussed how the IFTU could make the best use of its website, which we had originally produced in English. We were discussing the importance of an edition in Arabic as well. Abdullah later showed Hadi how to add content to the site when he returned to Baghdad.
On January 4th, 2005, Hadi Saleh was tortured and murdered by Ba’athist thugs in his home in Baghdad. According to one report, “They bound him hand and foot and they blindfolded him. They beat and they burned his flesh. Once they had finished torturing him, they strangled him with an electric cord. As a final touch, they riddled his body with bullets.”
He is not the first Iraqi trade unionist to be targetted by the so-called “resistance”. In a press release issued five days before Hadi’s murder, the IFTU wrote that it “denounced yesterday further attacks on its members on the railway line between Basra and an-Nasiriyyah and on union premises in Baghdad. These criminal acts designed to intimidate workers and trade unionists follow a well-established pattern of targeted campaigns of assassination and terror which have been waged by those loyal to the former fascist-type, dictatorial regime of Saddam Hussein against individual IFTU activists and ordinary workers in recent months.”
It should not surprise us that the last remaining loyalists of the Saddam regime would target trade unionists. After all, people like Hadi Saleh and Abdullah Muhsin were jailed and exiled during the decades of Ba’athist rule. Independent unions were not tolerated in Iraq. Only the state-controlled General Federation of Trade Unions was allowed to exist, and it was under the direct control of Saddam’s family and cronies.
Hadi Saleh was killed because trade unionists represent an important part of the new civil society emerging in Iraq in the wake of the fall of the Ba’athist regime. Whatever one thinks of the US-led invasion — which Hadi Saleh and his comrades opposed — what we should all be able to agree on today is the need to rebuild civil society in that long-suffering country.
Most trade unions in the world do seem to understand this, and the outcry following Hadi’s murder was world-wide and comprehensive. It involved not only official national trade union centers like the AFL-CIO, the Canadian Labour Congress and the Trades Union Congress in Britain, but also groups like US Labor Against the War (USLAW). USLAW, which played a key role in opposing the invasion and which continues to oppose the occupation, has taken a firm stand of nevertheless supporting the emerging unions in Iraq, and has raised money for the IFTU and other organizations. The International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, representing 148 million unionized workers around the globe, declared: “This vicious murder is nothing less than an attack on the right of Iraqi workers to trade union representation.”
But some have been reluctant to add their voices to the global protest. In Britain, a group called the Stop the War Coalition, led by top figures in the British Communist Party and the Socialist Workers Party and financially supported by some unions, has been denouncing the IFTU as quislings, a “fake union”, tools of the occupiers, traitors and so on for weeks. Other opponents of the war and occupation have severely criticized them for doing so, pointing out that doing so could endanger the lives of Iraqi trade unionists who could now be targetted by the “resistance”.
One very prominent left-wing trade union leader quit the Stop the War Coalition a few weeks before Hadi’s murder, warning precisely of this sort of thing. In a letter, Mick Rix, formerly the general secretary of the train drivers union ASLEF wrote, “The language that was used [by the Stop the War Coalition] was deliberate, archaic, violent, and plain downright stupid and dangerous if you happen to be an Iraqi at this present time.”
In the struggle between independent trade unions on the one side and a coalition of Ba’athists and Islamo-fascists on the other, the choice for trade unionists and others on the left should not be a difficult one. No more difficult than the one posed by the song, which tells us that “there are no neutrals” and asks of each of us, “Will you be a lousy scab — Or will you be a man?”