Labour Friends of Iraq
Building support for the new Iraq


Who we are
What we do
How you can be involved
July 02, 2005

‘Democracies Need Unions, Unions Need Democracies’

Abdullah Muhsin says that Democracies need unions, and unions need democracies.

Trade union organizations are fundamental to the development of secure, prosperous and democratic societies. They are the bedrock of civil society. I strongly believe that a truly free and democratic society will not exist any where in the world without a democratic labour movement that can freely advocate and bargain for the interest of the working people. ‘The Union Makes Us Strong’ goes the old slogan. This is true but the ‘Us’ really refers not just to the union members but to the entire society. Democratic societies, not just workers, need free trade unions.

1. Democracies Need Unions

For parliamentary democracy to prosper independent, democratic and free civil society organizations must be encouraged to develop. I strongly believe trade unions are the driving force of democracy. For they are not the voice of an ideology or an ‘absolute truth’ but are the motivators for the promotion and improvement of the social, economic and political condition of working people. By that I mean improving social provision (housing, education and health), achieving fair wages and better working conditions and reducing unemployment.

Trade unions bring common folks together in organisations regardless of their race, nationality, religion or colour. The purpose of these organisations is the collective organised and peaceful pursuit of improvement in the social conditions and life chances of the members. As such trade unions are one of the key factors in ensuring social and political stability alongside the role of the state, the major economic actors, and the role of the international community.

In conflict-ridden societies trade unions are a vital means to bridge divides, unite the people, and ease the tensions. Unions are not organised on the basis of national, religious and ethnic and ideological identities but help construct a new identity: worker, citizen, Iraqi. It is in the DNA of trade unions to instil collective and non-sectarian identities and to pursuit collective advances not sectarian advantage.

In any society it is civil society organizations that are the link connecting the state with the people, not as a transmission belt carrying orders downwards but as one of those awkward positive forces, an independent centre of identity, opinion and resource, campaigning on behalf of their members, representing their interests, projecting their voice. It is the plurality and free competition of such centres of identity, opinion and resource that makes a democracy real. Without this interaction between state and a vibrant plural civil society we suffer the domination of the state. In such cases usually the state in question is a dictatorship and violence, leader-worship and demagogy is the groundtone of the culture.

In Iraq the unions can be one of the most important independent centres of identity, opinion and resource in the formation, development and consolidation of our democratic future. This is for two reasons: unions promote social partnership and prosperity; unions promote social unity and citizenship.

Social Partnership and Prosperity

Unions are the engine that propels the economy alongside capital. A prosperous economy is fundamental factor in the building and consolidation of democracy anywhere in the world. A healthy economy encourages social and political stability and help maintain strong sense of community.

Social Unity and Citizenship

Unions are the glue that binds together disparate identities and traditions on the basis of social justice, democracy and human rights. Recall how bitter divisions between Catholics and Protestants in many European societies – divisions that frequently led to riots- were overcome in the 19th and 20th centuries. The trade unions played a major role by bringing the sectarian combatants into the same rooms, members of the same organisations, to share the same dreams: a better life for their children, dignity at work, a fair share of prosperity. Unions were a great antidote against the sectarian poisons of extremism and I believe they can be in Iraq. Every time a dictator triumphed, whether Hitler or Saddam, the first thing they had to do was to abolish the free trade unions and create transmission belts controlled by the state.

I believe that the free trade unions in Iraq can play a similar historic role in the 21st century to the European unions of the 19 and 20 centuries. Other identities will remain, of course: Shia and Sunni and Turkoman and Assyrian Christian and Kurds. But like the streams meeting in the mighty rivers- Tigress and the Euphrates- they can join together to create something quite new: worker, citizen, Iraqi. And as Shia and Sunni and Turkoman and Assyrian Christian and Kurds unite in some spheres of their lives, then the meaning of their distinct historic identities can be transformed.

The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle said this about democracy: “If liberty and equality, as is thought by some, are chiefly to be found in democracy, they will be best attained when all persons alike share in the government to the utmost’. This is true but so is the reverse: democracy is found in liberty and equality. The Professor of Political Thought at Cambridge, John Dunn, has just written a book called ‘Set the People Free’. Part of his argument is that when the ‘egalitarians’ lose out to the ‘egoists’ – in other words when collective social provision and the public service ethic is entirely squeezed out by the dictates of the market - then democracy itself withers on the vine.

If we put the insights of Aristotle and Dunn together do we not arrive at the conclusion that trade unions are a society’s egalitarian insurance policy against the self-defeating triumph of egoism? Unions are the organisational form of what some French thinkers call equaliberty: the idea that equality and liberty advance best when they advance together.

Unions help to keep equality and liberty from separating too much. Unions ensure social cooperation and prevent vast unaccountable centres of economic power from translating too easily into uncontested political power. When that happens the basic social compact between the people and the government is in danger.

2. Unions Need Democracies

The Enabling State

However, in order for civil society organizations to perform these functions and so contribute to building a parliamentary democracy, the state has a responsibility to create the right political climate in which independent civil society organisations, including trade unions, can function and organise. But this state support must preserve the independence of trade unions. By state here I mean the executive, parliament, public bureaucracy and security forces.

Unions in liberal democracies pride themselves for being democratic and independent of the influence of the state and the domination of political party control. They pride themselves for being a watchdog: growling, fiercely independent protectors of their members’ interests, against the power of government and capital as well as being engaged in social partnership.

Without independence from the state, unions’ lose their legitimacy as the voice of organized and unorganized working people.

The Democratic State

The commitment of the state to parliamentary democracy is another key factor. Without the will of the state and its agencies to accept the values and virtues of democracy in practice, it is difficult to see how civil society organizations and trade unions can function to fulfil their role.

Independent civil society organizations are the umbilical cord that connects a democratic state with individual citizens. For this to work, working people must be free to organize themselves in legal and recognized unions.

The state in liberal democracies has the responsibility to create a political space, a legal framework, and resources (for example facility time for union representatives) for workers to form their organisations. I believe it is a fundamental human right that working people can pool their resources in a special legal entity (the union) in a similar way to the pooling of capital resources in the form of what is called today the corporation.

3. Iraq and the European Model

If we look around the world we see that the relationship between trade unions and the state varies widely, and with it the degree of autonomy enjoyed by the unions. Unions in America, Canada and Europe, much of Latin America, and in some African and Asian countries are founded upon democratic principles. Union leaders are selected by democratic and open election procedures. In many of the former socialist bloc in Eastern Europe, and in many third World countries, unions are controlled and run by the state or dominated by political parties.

The European Model

The Iraqi unions will develop in accordance with our own national traditions. But we do tend to look to the European model as an inspirational model. This is because in many European countries we see two qualities in the typical state-union relationship that we feel are good for workers and good for democracies.

First, and in contrast to authoritarian societies, European unions are usually free.

• Unions are not transmission belts acting at the behest of the state but wholly independent bodies controlled by their members. Though they often have historic links to the social democratic parties of the left they are free to lend their political support to whichever party they believe will best represent their interests or to give their support to none. The unions’ special relationships with friendly parties do give them one way to influence government. Unions mobilise during general elections and seek to influence their outcome. They urge all parties to promote social justice, fair standard of welfare and the adoption of social market model of running the economy. And the unions that advocate such policies are usually free, democratic and independent and are not tied to a government or political parties.

• Unions have a protected legal status and so are free to organise workers within a clear legal framework including recourse to the law when employers ignore that framework.

Second, and in contrast to those societies dominated by a raw free market model, in Europe unions are often respected social partners.

This status is the result of a mix of pressure from below and sanction from above, a combination that is only possible in a social democracy.

• Pressure from below. In part, to state the obvious, unions wield influence because they are powerful independent political actors. They have freely recruited large memberships and reaped the benefits of collective organisation. Union influence on government policy, and in the workplace, is greater when large memberships and high union density combine with progressive industrial law. Yes, union density has been declining across the private sector since the late 1970s while holding up better in the public sector. But there is evidence that this decline is being arrested as unions adjust to new industries and labour markets.

• Sanction from above. In Europe the unions exist under an umbrella unfurled by the state. It may be a tattered umbrella in some countries now, but it exists.

Democracies need unions

We believe that the European model enables unions to play a positive role in the consolidation of liberal democracies. It gives concrete form to the talk of ‘pluralism’ and ‘civil society’. Unions play a central role in persuading the polity to end the social exclusion of working people by forcing onto the policy agenda issues such as health, pension and jobs, housing and education. I would like to quote a remarkable man called Karl Marx, we might say trade unions impose something of the ‘political economy of the working class’ on an economic system that sometimes only cares for the ‘bottom line’.

And I believe that when democracies look after unions, unions look after democracies. Gaining tangible benefits from democratic politics, trade unions have also been the great defenders of democratic politics, mobilising popular social classes at moment of social crisis against extremist threats. The most effective opponents of totalitarians of whatever stripe has always been the progressive democrats.

Iraqi working people are set free after three and half decades of Saddam’ years of darkness. Saddam’s model of state-union relations is found (in more benign forms) across the authoritarian regimes of the Middle East: the union as an extension of the state.

In Saddam’s Iraq those who refused to accept the authority of the undemocratic state had to organize in illegal and underground forms.

Let me give you one story. On 11 March 1987, Saddam’s regime introduced a new Labour Code, which redefined public sector workers as “employees” and removed their right to form or join trade unions. He abolished the eight-hour day and handed over workers pension fund to the treasury without compensation. The Labour Law No. 151 of 1970 was also abolished.

Saddam actually announced these measures during a televised meeting with the yellow union leaders of the General Federation of Trade Unions (GFTU). With the GFTU leadership and members of the "Central Workers Office" of the Ba’ath party smiling for the cameras Saddam said "From now on, the title 'worker' is abolished and all workers shall become official employees by the State. As everybody is now a government employee, there is no more need for trade unions. Workers in the private sector will have a special labour law decreed for them". The GFTU applauded all these measures! And, when Saddam launched his wars against Iran from 1980 to 1988 and his invasion of Kuwait in 1990 the GFTU, the yellow union, acted as Saddam’s recruiting sergeants

So today Iraq’s free trade unions, as with Iraq’s 30th January 2005 historic free elections, are blazing a trail for the entire region. This has its dangers. We have enemies within and enemies without.

Within Iraq the Saddam’s Ba’athist-Extremists Islamist fundamentalists so-called resistance hates the free trade unions. They have tortured and killed many of our members and leaders.

Outside Iraq there are many who are very fearful of Iraq’s free elections and free trade unions because of the dangerous example they offer peoples across the region. After all, think of it from the dictators’ point of view. What if workers in the region like the look of our free trade unions? What if they compare our IFTU to their Ba’athist- state run transmission belt model and decide they want a change?

Let me say a few words about the development of the IFTU in the last two years.


The clandestine trade union movement, the Workers Democratic Trade Union Movement (WDTUM), organized an open meeting on 16 May 2003 attended by 350 Iraqi trade unionists (liberals, communists, and nationalists, both Arab and Kurds). It was at this meeting that the IFTU was formed. Some of these founding organisers had been in exile. Some had been imprisoned. Some had been working underground.

The IFTU has achieved some great things against the odds. 12 national unions in key sectors of the Iraq’s economy have been established. The IFTU now includes the following unions: The Oil and Gas Union, the Railway Union, The Transport and Communication Union, the Mechanics, Printing and Metal Union. The Textile and Leather products Union, the Construction and Wood Workers' Union, the Electricians' Union, the Service Industry Union and the Agriculture and Food Staff Workers' Union.

These unions organise in Baghdad and across Iraq’s 15 provinces such as Basra, Kirkuk, Mosul, Kurbala, al Najif, Babel and Mesan.

The IFTU has over 200,000 members.

The IFTU has good relations with international Labour movement like the ICFTU, with many European federations such as the CCOO, CGT and CGIL and the TUC and COSATO and AFL-CIO and with many other trade union centres around the world, such as the Korean labour movement.

The IFTU and the international trade union movement

The IFTU seeks affiliation to the ICFTU.

Internationalism is more important today than ever before in a globalised world in which the distinction between ‘domestic’ and ‘foreign’ policy is collapsing.

The first international trade union centre was called the International Federation of Trade Unions (IFTU), was formed in 1901. This I-F-T-U was established to bring trade unionists from different part of the globe to campaign with one voice for jobs and economic justice and for the promotion of universal human rights such as the right to organise and vote. (Here is an irony, the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions, the newly formed free and democratic trade unions in the wake of Saddam’s dictatorial order, carries the same acronym: IFTU. We are proud of this).

The ICFTU is a democratic organization and is mainly controlled by its members and not governments or political parties. Today the ICFTU is the largest international union federation and the IFTU aspires to affiliation to the ICFTU.

There is also a World Confederation of Labour (WCL) a relatively small organization based on Christians social principles and values. The WCL is merging with the ICFTU to crate a new global trade unions center.

The European Trade Unions Congress (ETUC) was established on 1973, founded on the basis of independence, transparency and democracy. It is now one of the key trade union centres alongside the ICFTU.

Forgive me for the blizzard of initials. The point is this: the IFTU wishes to take its place alongside the democratic free trade unions inside the ICFTU.

Where now for the Iraqi Unions?

To finish, let me say that I think the union-state relationship must develop at two levels: national and international.

The National Level

Post-Saddam Iraq accepts trade unions as part of a democratic society. We urge and we expect that the new constitution will embrace a liberal-democratic model of state-union relations. We are arguing for the right of workers to join trade unions, and for unions to organise under legal protection, independent of the state. We want the new Iraq to embrace ILO standards, including an ILO-approved Labour Code. If the new constitution fails to embed the rights of Iraqi workers a tremendous opportunity to undercut the appeal of the terrorists will have been missed. For with those rights we will build a mighty union able to offer a real alternative to the nihilists.


Finally, let us not forget the elephant in the room, so to speak. When we talk about ‘democracy’ in Iraq, when we talk of ‘state-union relations’ in Iraq we must remember that my country is occupied by foreign troops. Iraqi democracy can only walk tall, and the unions can only take their place as social partners of a sovereign Iraqi government, when the UN-backed political process is successful and the phased withdrawal of foreign troops is complete. Security Council resolution 1546 sets out a process and a timetable for the total withdrawal of foreign troops. Upon the success of this process - no less than upon our efforts as trade unionists - hangs the future of free trade unionism in Iraq.

That’s why the international labour movement must embrace the UN political process under 1546 SC Resolution. Iraq is the hinge of our time and I’m afraid we Iraqi democrats do sometimes feel that this is understood rather better by the enemies of democracy than by its friends.
We Iraqi democrats wish that the international community would put aside old disputes and rush to Iraq with the urgency and determination and zeal of the poor deluded Islamist fundamentalists who cross the border seeking martyrdom and bringing only death and misery.

Drafting a constitution, holding fresh elections, training new security forces: all these tasks are immense and require the wholehearted support of the international community. We can’t bear these burdens alone.

If democracy fails in Iraq the world will be picking up the pieces for the rest of our lifetimes. If democracy succeeds in Iraq then we may be on the verge of a world historic process of democratisation throughout the region. That is what is at stake in Iraq. It is the hinge of our time.

Search this site:
PO Box 2421, Reading, RG1 8WY, U.K. - Email: - Phone: +44 (0)7 774 071 864