Iraqi unions getting their act together

Alex Gordon, an RMT activist, examines developments in the Iraqi trade union movement
There have been dramatic new developments within the Iraqi labour movement, which has grown enormously in confidence and strength since the fall of Saddam Hussein in April 2003. Keith Sonnet, Deputy General Secretary of Unison, which actively organises practical solidarity action with the Iraqi movement, told last week’s TUC that “Iraqi unions are getting their act together.”
The Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions (IFTU) has since its foundation
conference on 16 May 2003 insisted on the need to refound the Iraqi trade unions movement, not on an ideological basis – as with the state-run unions of Saddam Hussein’s regime – but as a genuine democratic and national union federation independent from both the state and from political parties.
Months of detailed discussions have taken place between the IFTU and local workers’ committees, particularly in the Baghdad area, some of whom were represented by the General Federation of Iraqi Trade Unions (GFITU), a union formation that emerged following the invasion when officials of the former state-run union, the General Federation of Trade Unions (GFTU), left to seek a political pact with the Shia parties SCIRI and al Dawa, but who are dissatisfied with the lack of progress achieved since its formation.
In July, the first meeting took place between IFTU officials and leading figures from the GFITU, whose leaders made clear their organisation’s wish to merge with IFTU leading to a united trade union movement centre in Iraq.
They also clearly indicated their disappointment with the sectarian agenda and reactionary social policies of the current government, which is headed by the Shia political parties and led by al Jaafari, the head of al Dawa.
A joint statement was issued from the meeting calling on all Iraqi workers and their committees and organisations to come together at this critical time for Iraq’s future.
A lively debate opened up among trade unionists in Iraq, which has brought together many worker activists from divergent traditions.
In August, the IFTU Executive authorised a formal meeting with GFITU
officials and those of the GFTU, one of whom was a former national official under the regime of Saddam, both of whom now openly disassociate themselves from the former regime and its supporters who are inflicting the horrific wave of terrorism against Iraqi workers.
The meeting agreed on principles for a merger to form one united national labour federation, which is the IFTU. There will be no changes to the membership of the IFTU Executive until a further national conference has been held. All IFTU officials are subject to election by union members whether in workplace ballots or at open conferences and there are no appointed officials. This has been a founding principle of the IFTU and contrasts with the top down practices of trade unions both under the former regime and elsewhere in the Arab world.
The IFTU insists that where workers have previously had a recognised GFTU official they will now be subject to workplace elections.
A joint statement signed by IFTU, GFITU and GFTU announced a unification meeting to formally merge into the IFTU, which was this week hosted by the International Confederation of Arab Trade Unions in Damascus.
The IFTU President Raseen Alawadi addressed a Unison fringe meeting at the TUC last week on these developments. Raseen Alawadi joined the
Construction and Woodworkers’ Union in 1957 and by 1959 had already been arrested for trade union activities. By 1968 he had become International Secretary of the General Federation of Trade Unions (GFTU) and also Vice President of the International Confederation of Arab Trade Unions (ICATU).
In 1979 he was arrested in a purge by the new Iraqi President, Saddam Hussein that included the murder of GFTU President Mohamed Ayish.
Raseen and others accused of plotting against the Iraqi dictator were imprisoned but escaped from Iraq in 1991, returning in April 2003
after the fall of Saddam’s regime to establish the IFTU.
Raseen reminded the meeting that Iraq’s people continued to bleed from
wounds inflicted by terrorism. Earlier that same day the TUC heard the terrible news of yet another car bomb in Baghdad, deliberately targeted at Iraqi workers queuing outside an employment agency for desperately needed jobs.
This horror followed the great tragedy a few weeks previously that saw a terrorist-inspired panic lead to the deaths of more than a thousand people in the stampede on Al Khadamiya bridge.
Such terror attacks fall on trade unionists on a regular basis, Raseen said: “When we go to our offices in the morning, we don’t know whether we will be coming home again.”
Yet, Raseen insisted that despite the existence of the fundamentalists who attack working class people in their homes and workplaces and in the street, the IFTU remains optimistic. The foreign intervention feeds such extremism and that is why the IFTU reiterates its position of calling for an end to the occupation of Iraq by foreign armies.
On the furious debate that is taking place in Iraq over the new draft
constitution, Raseen said; “In general we support the need for the new
constitution, although we have great reservations about the current
draft being proposed to the Iraqi parliament.”
The IFTU’s reservations are firstly the references to Islam and religion as the source of the law under the constitution, secondly the draft constitution’s relegation of the position of women, thirdly the crude references to de-Ba’athification, which fail to distinguish between the bloody criminals of Saddam’s regime and the many thousands of ordinary Iraqi people who may have joined Saddam’s Ba’ath Party because of fear, or to protect a relative, or in order to access higher education or employment. Fourthly, the IFTU supports the principle of federalism in the draft Constitution, but opposes the sectarian way that this is being used by Islamists in the south to divide Iraq.
Raseen said: “We are working for national unity on the basis of equality under the law. We have worked for over two years now for the creation of one united, democratic trade union movement in Iraq and we have now achieved this goal.”
It is now more vital than ever that British trade unions and others increase solidarity work with the new, united Iraqi labour movement as a bulwark of non-sectarian values that can help to build a united, democratic, secular, sovereign and federal Iraq.
Alex Gordon is an RMT member who has visited Iraq as part of his union’s solidarity work