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March 31, 2006

Why are not the Iraqi unions centre stage

There is a strange gap in some of the lefts analysis and actions on Iraq three years after the invasion. Some seem more concerned about settling scores at home than engaging with new realities in Iraq, specifically the rise of a new and independent labour movement.

It’s almost as if it’s more important to bash Bush and Blair than give solidarity to Iraqi unions and other parts of the new civil society.

Will we be really happy to say “I told you so” to those who supported military action or is it much more important to assist those non-sectarian forces which are working night and day to unite workers for a federal, democratic and secular Iraq.

The Iraqi trade union movement was once been the most powerful in the Middle East. The May Day rally in Baghdad in 1959 attracted half a million people in a country with a population of about 7 million.

Saddam Hussein’s fascist-type regime annihilated independent political activity. Saddam established state-controlled “yellow unions” as part of his apparatus of terror. Trade union leaders were tortured, imprisoned, executed or exiled. By the time of Saddam’s fall in 2003 the unions had been reduced to a few hundred clandestine or exiled activists.

Since then, however, the main Iraqi trade union movement – now called the Iraqi Workers’ Federation as a result of a recent merger sanctioned by the Arab trade union confederation – has recruited about 200,000 members. There are professional associations for teachers and journalists as well as separate but fraternal unions in Iraqi Kurdistan. With several hundred thousands members, the unions have become a significant movement, all in the most dreadful conditions.

The unions have been attacked by American troops. A score of its leaders has been assassinated by insurgents who presumably fear the ability of non-sectarian organisations to unite Sunni, Shia and others. Its international secretary, Hadi Saleh escaped execution by Saddam but was tortured and strangled to death by remnants of his secret police who stole union membership records.

The new Iraqi government has also cracked down on the unions by bringing in Decree 8750 that freezes their assets and seeks to control their activities. This is the subject of a worldwide union campaign.

Unison has led the way in providing training. The Fire Brigades Union has sent containers of essential equipment such as fire-resistant uniforms and breathing apparatus. The RMT has supplied computers and the TUC runs a solidarity fund.

Sadly, parts of the left have not just sat on their hands but have smeared the new unions as collaborators, stooges and Quislings.

This hostility arose because Iraqi unions didn’t embrace calls at the 2004 Labour Party conference for a rapid withdrawal of troops. As one Iraqi put it, ‘We didn’t invite the troops in but we’d like a say on when they go.’

The Iraqi unions have accomplished something that some left-wingers here have signally failed to do – they can walk and chew gum at the same time.

They can oppose the invasion and seek the eventual withdrawal of troops but also recognise that the UN sanctioned political process – which has seen three popular votes with increasing participation, not least from Sunnis – might deliver a new dispensation in which unions can help to retrieve both the territorial as well as the economic sovereignty of their country.

The bile directed at the Iraqi labour movement is a betrayal of elementary principles of internationalism and is one of the most shameful points in the history of the British left.

Iraq is on the brink. It’s possible that the violence will tip into a full-scale civil war in which the hard-won gains of the labour movement will be extinguished for a long time.

It’s also still possible that most Iraqis will resist the temptation to retaliate to obscene provocations. Whether now or later, trade unions and other civil society groups can do much to heal the deep wounds of Iraqi society after so many decades of repression, violence, sanctions and occupation.

Iraqi trade unionists are amongst the bravest and clearest sighted I have ever met. Take Violet A Essa Qalaab, President of the Oil and Gas Union in Basra, who says: "Iraq is the only home we have and, God willing, extremists will be worn out by our resilience. But we cannot do it by ourselves alone and we need the support of the UN and the international community."

What is stopping the anti-war left and the pro-war left from sinking their deep differences, as we do, and embracing sisters like Violet?

It won’t be enough when our children ask us “what did you do over the Iraq war” to say that we kicked Bush and Blair whenever we could and didn’t lift a finger to help Violet and the Iraqi labour movement who are fighting for social justice and decency.

Gary Kent is director of Labour Friends of Iraq. He writes in a personal capacity.

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