Iraq’s second war is continuing to play out. The first war is open, public, and has bitterly divided the United States. The second war is private, unheard and unseen by the West, and has received scant media attention by the corporate owned press. The first war is the one that the U.S. military is now conducting against the insurgency. The second war is the one being carried out against Iraq’s trade unions.
The opening move in this second war was made by former CPA head Paul Bremer in 2003 when he reinstated Saddam’s repressive law banning all strikes. This law came amidst a flurry of neoliberal changes designed to quickly open Iraq’s economy for privatization and foreign ownership of nearly every industry from banking to oil.
Despite this attempt to prevent organized labor from taking a foothold in the newly “liberated” Iraq, Iraq’s repressed unions quickly reorganized following Saddam’s fall. The three largest being the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions, the Federation of Workers Councils and Unions of Iraq, and the General Union of Oil Employees in Basra. With their new found strength and their commitment to a secular, democratic Iraq, many had hoped that the trade union movement would provide a foundation on which to build a free and pluralistic society.
Round two of this covert war moved from legal options to violent suppression. In December 2003, U.S. troops raided IFTU offices in Baghdad, arresting several of their leaders and then proceeded to shut the office down. By the end of 2004, a systematic attempt to intimidate and threaten trade union workers was being carried out. Railroad workers were kidnapped and mutilated. The offices of the Transportation and Communication Workers in Baghdad was bombed. Other workers were simply beaten.
In January 2005, much to the dismay of the international labor community, the International Secretary of IFTU Hadi Salih was kidnapped in his home, his hands and feet bound, and then tortured and assassinated. The war against Iraq’s trade union movement continued in the following months as several more union leaders were kidnapped and assassinated.
Yet despite the laws attempting to repress them and despite the violence trying to eliminate them, the Iraqi trade union movement has been pushing ahead strong. IFTU now has over 200,000 members and half of the member unions have held conferences in which they democratically elected their leadership. As it currently stands, IFTU is the only union to be recognized by the Iraqi government.
And the union movement won a huge victory in December when the GUOE in Basra with its 23,000 members threatened to shut down oil production, leading to a doubling of their wages. They again held a 24-hour strike in July, asking for higher wages and a larger investment of oil profits in the impoverished region.
Now further efforts are being undertaken to break the unions’ strength. The Iraqi Oil Ministry announced plans to begin privatizing portions of the southern oil fields. And earlier this month the new Iraqi government overturned an agreement allowing the trade unions to operate without state interference. Not only will the government release new regulation telling the unions how they will operate and organize, but they have also decreed that all money collected by Iraq’s trade unions may be confiscated by the authorities.
And so Iraq’s second war continues, unreported and unnoticed by the West, as the transnational capitalist class vies for control of Iraq’s oil wealth and as the workers struggle for a democratic and just independence.