Australian solidarity

Andrew Casey gives an Australian perspective on solidarity with the Iraqi Labour Movement in an article for an Australian Labor Party journal, Challenge

The vicious torture and murder of a leading Iraqi trade union leader, Hadi Saleh, in early January was the lowest and ugliest point in the growing pattern of attacks on Iraqi trade union offices, and trade union members, over the last two years.
There is very little reported about these attacks on a fast growing, but fledgling, independent union movement – largely because it doesn’t fit into an easy formula of “good guys and bad guys”.
The attacks on the trade unions and workers come from everywhere – supporters of the Saddamists, the Al-Qaeda related Islamist resistance as well as from the US-led occupiers.
A masked gang broke into Saleh’s home bound him hand and foot and blindfolded him. They beat and burned his flesh. Once they had finished torturing him they strangled him with an electric cord and then riddled his body with bullets. The murder of Saleh bore all the hallmarks of the Saddamist regime’s hated secret police the Mukhabarat.
Hadi Saleh’s crime was that he had become a leading figure helping in the creation of an independent trade union movement in post-Saddam Iraq – campaigning for decent wages and basic health and safety conditions in the workplace.
Just weeks after his murder the President of the metal and printworkers union, Talib Khadim Al Tayee, was kidnapped threatened and then released. And in Mosul both the Secretary and President of the IFTU offices have been kidnapped, threatened, tortured and released in separate incidents in late January and, as I write, in late February.
Saleh had been active in reaching out to union people across the globe calling for their support for the creation of a democratic, socialist and secular society in which trade unions played a vital role.
He had addressed the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions Congress in Tokyo last year and called on them to play a role in helping to regenerate Iraq. He’d been to the UK, Europe and the USA where he had garnered significant support from the major Left and progressive unions.
On a visit to Europe last year, Saleh outlined the problems facing Iraqi trade unionists including lack of funds, the lack of training, the continued implementation of anti-union laws brought in by the Ba’athist dictatorship and attacks from US forces on IFTU offices.
The IFTU certainly seems to have received the most international support, across the political spectrum of trade unions in the developed world, but there are about a dozen different trade union groupings in Iraq now organising huge numbers of workers.
It was largely the work of Saleh which resulted in a major conference sponsored by the British TUC in mid-February this year, bringing together about 70 trade unionists from 16 British trade unions to discuss practical solidarity.
Importantly the Iraqi unions attending the conference represented all points of view : including Saleh’s IFTU, the Kurdistan Workers Syndicate, the Iraqi Teachers Union, the Iraqi Journalists’ Union, the Federation of Workers Councils and – Unions of Iraq, and – surprisingly – the General Federation of Iraqi Trade Unions (GFITU), the national trade union centre controlled by the former Saddamist dictatorship
The split between Iraqi union groupings in their response to the US-presence in Iraq was reflected at the conference.
The IFTU and the Kurdish Workers Syndicate, both of whom had opposed the
invasion, supported participation in the recent election so as to build a new civil society. They saw the election as an important first step to ending the US-led occupation.
Their union opponents, such as the Federation of Workers Councils and Unions of Iraq, damned the IFTU especially as collaborationists with the US-invaders.
The Basra Oil Workers’ Union has also kept themselves at arms length from the IFTU. They argue their role is to be independent of all political factions and defend Iraq’s oil bounty from the grasping hands of the US invaders.
This union, formed within two-weeks of the fall of the Saddam regime, has successfully organised wage and conditions strikes against the US-imposed administrators of the oil fields.
Unfortunately this split within the Iraqi unions is now also reflected in a number of progressive forums across the globe. At a recent meeting of the European Social Forum a far-left Trotskyite group orchestrated the booing, hissing and slow-handclapping effort ensuring an IFTU representative was forced off the stage.
There is a struggle to create independent unions going on now in Iraq – and there are real victories to be reported.
It should be the role of progressives to support all groups who are legitimately organising among working people for free and independent unions – without picking sides based on political prejudices or fractional loyalties.