Abridged version of speech by Harry Barnes MP, LFIQ Joint President on 14th February.
Everyone here is interested in assisting Iraqi unions but there are many in the labour movement who don’t even know that there are trade unions in Iraq. We have to get this message across and increase action in their support.
Everyone here knows their history from how the Labour Representation
Committee was formed when initially only 2 Labour MPs were elected, the Taff Vale and Osborne judgements against the trade unions and so on.
The Iraqi movement also has its history from organising the docks and oil industry after the First World War to the organisation of intellectual forces such as Doctors and Teachers to the overthrow of the feudal monarchical system in 1958 by the Free Officers’ Movement with popular support.
And Iraq was influenced by the UK until the Baghdad Pact in 1955. I was a soldier on national service in Basra in 1955/6.
And then a million people marched on the May Day march in 1959 out of a population of about 14 million people.
But then there was a series of coups and counter-coups which led to Saddam’s totalitarian state and his controlled yellow unions. Public sector unions were banned and union leaders were tortured and murdered.
Clandestine networks were established. They opposed the war and thought there were internally based alternatives. It is better for people themselves in struggle to create their own futures.
After the invasion people got together. I remember telling Tony Blair about the oil workers’ strike in Basra. I don’t think he was that keen on the idea of strike action.
The Baathist laws continue and trade unions in the public sector are technically illegal and there is a need for new laws to allow trade union activity.
But freedom of organisation and association are threatened by terrorists as we saw with the terrible murder of Hadi Saleh.
The unions also face the problem of rip-off capitalism being imposed as it was in Russia after the fall of communism.
The unions need training in industrial relations as well as computers and mobiles.
The elections present the beginnings of real possibilities for change with, in relation to the foreign troops, Iraq and its Parliament defining what they want.
But democracy is more than voting but is about the rights of unions, women’s youth and ex-prisoners groups to speak out. As groups will for better schools and hospitals.
We have set up Labour Friends of Iraq to help provide solidarity with such groups as they take control over their own lives. And change in Iraq can lead to change in the whole of the Middle East.