Kathlyn Stone -- World News Trust
Aug. 28, 2006 -- A 48-hour strike led by oil and gas workers in Basra, Iraq, last week signals a growing impatience with the U.S. occupation of Iraq, said a spokesperson for the Iraq Freedom Congress. The strike shut down the country's main refined oil pipeline.
The workers presented four demands to the Ministry of Oil: higher pay, wages must be paid when due, workers must be paid for overtime work and ambulances must be provided to transport injured workers. About 350 oil workers and 200 gas workers walked off the job the morning of Aug. 22.
"Their basic demands for higher pay were met," said the IFC's Housan Mahmoud. "If the government doesn't deliver on the rest of the demands, the strikes will resume."
Mahmoud is a women's and labor rights activist and chair of Iraq Freedom Congress Abroad, based in London.
The IFC is a movement led by unions and human rights activists that is rapidly gaining in popularity among the general population. It is modeled after the African National Congress, which came into power following worldwide pressure to end the white minority rule of South Africa. The IFC is calling for a democratic, secular alternative to both the U.S. occupation and political Islam in Iraq. The IFC is also a major supporter of the strike.
"The government and its administration have turned a blind eye to the demands raised by workers for months. Therefore the workers were forced to resort to a strike to impose their demands on the government and South Oil Company," according to Amjad Aljawhary, North American representative of the Federation of Worker Councils and Unions in Iraq (FWCUI). Union spokespeople said the strike "completely paralysed pumping oil from all Iraqi ports in Basra."
The lack of electricity, running water and severe fuel shortages and widespread corruption have had an enormous impact on people's daily lives. Growing violence claimed the lives of more than 1,000 Iraqis in July, according to icasualties.org. The IFC said the people have a right through demonstrations and strikes to demand changes that will solve the mounting problems.
"The strike is a very important development. It could encourage others to start demanding a day of reckoning," said U.S. Labor Against the War Co-Convenor Bob Muehlenkamp.
USLAW representatives have been communicating with the Iraq Freedom Congress and union leaders in Iraq for more than two years. USLAW organized a tour of some 20 U.S. cities by Iraqi labor leaders in 2005 to increase direct dialogue with U.S. unions and the general public. "They've been asking when the United States will leave and trying to figure out how long to put it [the strike] off," said Muehlenkamp.
"Our job over here is to make sure the U.S. government stays out of this," said Muehlenkamp. The brevity of the strike "leaves open the possibility that the U.S. government may have been involved in a strike-breaking activity," he said.
Underlying the struggles is the U.S. plan to transform the Iraqi economy from publicly-owned to privately held. This holds true for the publicly-owned oil industry that represents 70 percent of the Iraqi economy. The march toward privatization and neglect of Iraq's infrastructure contributes to massive unemployment, increased insecurity and violence, and a devastating impact on the average Iraqi working family.
An American who is working to establish an Iraq Freedom Congress chapter in the United States said the corporate media in the United States is intentionally keeping Americans in the dark about the existence of the Iraq Freedom Congress and the strong labor movement in Iraq, both now and historically. The struggle in Iraq is presented by the media as an "either-or choice between the occupation and the resistance," said Martin Schreader. "If a third option, the IFC, was known by those outside of Iraq to be a real force, many of those who oppose the occupation, but do not want to see the ‘resistance' come to power, would begin to think they finally have a side in the conflict."
Schreader, who is on the U.S.-IFC streering committee, thinks the IFC offers a rallying point for international opposition to the war in Iraq. Greater awareness of the democratic and secular movement that opposes violence against civilians "would greatly erode the tenuous acceptance of the occupation by large sections of the population. It would embolden those who abstractly call for an immediate end to the occupation by giving them a rallying point. Finally, it would strip the Right of its chief talking point against withdrawal: if the United States leaves, the ‘resistance' takes over," Schreader said.
"People don't realize that Iraq has a long history of organized labor," Mahmoud said. Iraq's labor movement began in the 1920s and ‘30s with the formation of the oil workers and railway workers unions. Unions played an important role in the Revolution of 1958 which set up the first popular Iraqi government, according to USLAW.
While the Saddam Hussein government crushed the Iraq trade union movement in the 1970s -- by murdering and imprisoning unionists, forcing union members underground or to flee the country, and by taking away pensions -- labor leaders say workers have not fared any better under the U.S. occupation.
Most of the evidence points to worse working conditions under the U.S.-backed government. Unemployment is about 70 percent nationally, and attacks against union leaders have continued under U.S. occupation. Hadi Saleh, a leader of the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unionists (IFTU), was assassinated in January of this year, and Ali Hassan Abd, a member of the General Union of Oil and Gas Workers (GUOW) was assassinated in February.
Members of the Federation of Workers Councils and Unions of Iraq have been arrested and fired from their jobs, along with members and leaders of the Union of the Unemployed, according to the unions. In 2005, U.S. occupation forces arrested then later released eight members of the IFTU's governing board, without providing any explanation for their arrest
"For any workers, much less oil workers in Iraq, this takes tremendous vision and courage," Muehlenkamp said.
AP: Iraq Oil Workers on Strike
Reuters: Iraqi oil workers end strike
Electronic Iraq: Labor and peace activists should unite in support of the courageous Iraq southern oil workers strike
OpEdNews: Iraq Freedom Congress Rejects Violence of Occupation and Insurgency
US Labor Against the War: Iraqi Labor Tour 2005
Kathlyn Stone is a Twin Cities, Minnesota-based writer covering science, health policy, the economy and international relations for general and professional audiences. She writes for neurology publications and independent media including World News Trust, Twin Cities Daily Planet, OpEdNews, Electronic Iraq, and The Pulse.