A little background is in order at this time, as the current situation does not exist without context. While much of criticism of the Iraq War has come in the form of polemics of the dangers of big government, it's important to remember that from the beginning the Bush administration's planned remake of Iraqi was postively neo-liberal. Iraq (so they believed) was to be remade into a neo-liberal wet dream. Taxes would be slashed, state workers fired, state owned enterprises privatized, and the only remnant of Baathist economic policy left untouched would lie in the regime's treatment of organized labor. Paul Bremer and the CPA would remake Iraq as a showplace for free market economic policies.
The tone of Bremer's tenure was set with his first major act on the job: he fired 500,000 state workers, most of them soldiers, but also doctors, nurses, teachers, publishers, and printers. Next, he flung open the country's borders to absolutely unrestricted imports: no tariffs, no duties, no inspections, no taxes. Iraq, Bremer declared two weeks after he arrived, was "open for business." ........
But Bremer's economic engineering had only just begun. In September, to entice foreign investors to come to Iraq, he enacted a radical set of laws unprecedented in their generosity to multinational corporations. There was Order 37, which lowered Iraq's corporate tax rate from roughly 40 percent to a flat 15 percent. There was Order 39, which allowed foreign companies to own 100 percent of Iraqi assets outside of the natural-resource sector. Even better, investors could take 100 percent of the profits they made in Iraq out of the country; they would not be required to reinvest and they would not be taxed. Under Order 39, they could sign leases and contracts that would last for forty years. Order 40 welcomed foreign banks to Iraq under the same favorable terms. All that remained of Saddam Hussein's economic policies was a law restricting trade unions and collective bargaining.
Specifically, Bremer and the CPA allowed a 1987 declaration issued by Saddam Hussein classifying workers in state entreprises as civil servants to stand while removing many of the social benefits provided during the Hussein regime, and prepping entreprised for sale to foreign investors. While assets in the oil sector were protected in the first wave of privatizations, a manager at an oil refinery made clear the consequences that privatization would have.
Dathar Al-Kashab, who was appointed to manage the Al Daura refinery two months ago, having been an engineer there since 1966, predicts that privatization would have an enormous effect. "A worker starting here today has a job for life under the old system. There is no law that permits me to lay him off. But if I put on the hat of privatization, I'll have to fire 1,500 [of the refinery's 3,000] workers," he says. "In America when a company lays people off, there's unemployment insurance, and they won't die from hunger. If I dismiss employees now, I'm killing them and their families."
Low wages, unsafe working conditions, the use of foreign contract workers, and the peristent threat of being made redundant if their workplace is sold to foreign investors lead to an explosion in union organizing in the country. Organized labor is one of the few institutions that has successfully transitioned to democratic governance, has thoroughly repudiated the Baathist past, and could have served as the basis for the development of Iraqi civil society. This did not come to pass.
The U.S. government further signaled its attitude towards Iraqi labor unions in early December 2003 when coalition troops stormed the IFTU headquarters in Baghdad, ransacked their offices, arrested eight union workers, and shut down the office. Within a day, the arrested were released uncharged from Al Muthan airbase, but IFTU headquarters remained shut for seven months. The jailed men accused the United States of relying on information provided by a member of Saddam's old regime, Abdullah Murad Ghny, who owns a major private transport company whose workers had begun to organize. While in jail, Turkey Al Lehabey, the General Secretary of the Communication and Transport Workers Union, an IFTU affiliate, said a local American commander named Kelly had told the men, "Iraq has no sovereignty and no political parties or trade unions. We do not want you to organize in either the north or south transport stations." He added, "You can organize only after June 2004; for now, you have an American governor."
The raid had Muhsin and his followers equating American intimidation with Ba'athist repression. "They saw how Saddam Hussein brutalized the labor movement," Muhsin told me, "and then, [when] they saw the American forces come under the slogan of liberation, [they felt that they were] being terrorized by the same forces and not given a reason why." The State Department declined repeated offers to comment on any questions relating to the raid and how it perceived the IFTU's role in an independent Iraq; nevertheless, it seems clear that the CPA didn't exactly consider the union a partner.
Continued efforts to privatize the Iraqi oil industry have led to considerable debate within the Iraqi parliament, and may be in part behind the Bush Administration's refusal to offer a timeline for the withdrawl of American forces from Iraq.
On Tuesday Iraqi oil union leaders will protest in Washington outside the offices of a consulting firm called BearingPoint. A contingent from the 26,000-member union of oil workers is on a 14-city tour to bring to the American people a heartfelt plea: Please separate U.S. withdrawal from Iraq from the passage of an oil law by the Iraqi Parliament.
With Congress pushing for benchmarks, the Bush administration has been pressing Parliament to pass the oil law. Administration and media focus has been on the provision that states that oil and gas in Iraq are owned by all its people in all regions and governorates. Unfortunately, the law does not stipulate how to fairly distribute oil revenues. Distribution of the nation's vast oil reserves is vastly unequal, and there is no system of mineral rights, which weren't needed under Iraq's national oil company.
This familiar controversy is not the source of outrage for the visiting union members. Their fear centers around the provisions in the 33-page law that have received little scrutiny in the media. They say the law forces privatization of the Iraqi oil industry, an industry that is responsible for almost 70 percent of the gross domestic product.
Hoping to draw attentiont to the issue, Hashmeya Mohsen al Hussein, president of the Iraqi Electrical Utility Workers Union, and her colleague, Faleh Abood Umara, general secretary of the Iraq Federation of Oil Workers, are currently touring 12 US cities. Back in Iraq, Mr Umara's union has been negotiating with the Al-Maliki government hoping to avoid a strike.
On April 27 of this year, the Iraq Federation of Oil Unions issued a list of conditions they wanted met in order to avoid strike authorized by union leadership with member support. Following a meeting later that month between union leadership and Iraqi PM Nouri Al-Maliki, the strike was called off as the government agreed to meet the conditions put forward by the union. After the Al-Maliki government failed to implement the agreement reached in May, the union leadership announced that they would strike unless all elements of the May agreement were fully implemented. The strike action would came in two phases, the first being a limited action against smaller pipelines, while the second involved the shutdown of larger pipelines supplying electrical power plants in Basra and Baghdad.
The First Stage
- Closure of the 14 inch of petroleum products gas, petrol and paraffin
- Closure of 14 inch liquefied gas (reverse-pumping pipeline) supplying
Nassiriya, Diwaniya, Hilla [these major cities south of Baghdad-SR] and
- The port [of Basra-SR] has stopped receiving imported petrol. No
export of crude oil (RCR) or products of the refinery.
- Loading: no loading of transporters of petroleum products to the
governorates, except Basra, Amara and Nassiriya cities.
The Second Stage
- Closure of the 48 inch pipeline delivering gas from North Rumaila to
Khor Al-Zubair, feeding all electricity plants in Basra and all
petrochemical, fertiliser and steel plants, and Southern Petroleum and
Southern Gas [companies-SR].
- Closure of the 32 inch pipeline feeding al-Hartha and al-Najeebiya.
- Closure of the 48 inch pipeline, starting from GTU and heading for
Baghdad, Najaf and governorates."
On June 6 Iraqi military forces surrounded the striking workers, who were in the process of initiating the shutdown of the pipeline feeding Baghdad when the Al-Maliki government issued arrest warrants for union leadership effectively ending the strike. Apparently, following being surrounded by the Iraqi military, negotiations led to an agreement to restart the pipeline. Manfred Ward, President of the International Federation of Chemical, Energy, Mine and General Workers' Unions wrote to Al-Maliki after hearing this news asking that strikers not be arrested or physically injured.
While it's unclear whether any striking workers have been injured, the decision of the Al-Maliki government to arrest union leadership is not encouraging. The utter failure of major media to report on this story assures that the Al-Maliki government will have be able to engage in labor repression without consequences. Earlier this week in Prague President Bush praised the role of labor activism in ending the Soviet domination of Eastern Europe.
Through the long darkness of Soviet occupation, the true face of this nation was never in doubt. The world saw it in the reforms of the Prague Spring and the principled demands of Charter 77. Those efforts were met with tanks and truncheons and arrests by secret police. But the violent would not have the final word. In 1989, thousands gathered in Wenceslas Square to call for their freedom. Theaters like the Magic Lantern became headquarters for dissidents. Workers left their factories to support a strike. And within weeks, the regime crumbled. Vaclav Havel went from prisoner of state to head of state. And the people of Czechoslovakia brought down the Iron Curtain with a Velvet Revolution.
Across Europe, similar scenes were unfolding. In Poland, a movement that began in a single shipyard freed people across a nation. In Hungary, mourners gathered at Heroes Square to bury a slain reformer -- and bury their communist regime, too. In East Germany, families came together for prayer meetings -- and found the strength to tear down a wall. Soon, activists emerged from the attics and church basements to reclaim the streets of Bulgaria, and Romania, and Albania, and Latvia, and Lithuania, and Estonia. The Warsaw Pact was dissolved peacefully in this very room. And after seven decades of oppression, the Soviet Union ceased to exist.
Ironic then that the Bush administration has been recalcitrant in its refusal to adopt a timeline for withdrawl from Iraq, tying American withdrawl to the passage of a law selling Iraqi oil assets to international oil companies.
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