The soldiers trained guns on them, and when the head of the fire department protested, he was ordered to lie facedown on the ground. “Abdulritha was absolutely shocked,” Arbat recalls. “But he did as he was ordered. Then an American put his foot on his back. So we started fighting with the soldiers with our fists, because we didn’t understand. The tank turret started to turn toward us, and at that point we all sat down.” Someone easily could have died that day. As it was, the memory of the foot on Abdulritha’s back left a bitter taste.
The refinery workers had already labored through the “shock and awe” bombing prior to the invasion. “Slowly we got production restored, by our own efforts,” Arbat remembers. “Electricity workers, at their own expense, brought power back to the refinery. Meanwhile, the Americans and British began coming with tanker trucks, loading up on the gas and oil we were producing.”
For two months, no one got paid. Finally, Arbat and a small group began to organize a union. “At first the word frightened people, because under Saddam, unions were banned,” he explains. Nevertheless, a few dozen of the refinery’s 3,000 employees came together and chose Arbat and Ibrahim Radiy to lead them.
To force authorities to pay everyone, the small group took a crane out to the gate, and lowered it across the road. Behind it, two dozen tanker trucks pulled up with a heavily armed military escort. “At first there were only 100 of us, but workers began coming out. Some took their shirts off and told the troops, ‘Shoot us.’ Others lay down on the ground.” Ten of them even went under the tankers, brandishing cigarette lighters. They announced that if the soldiers fired, they would set the tankers alight.
The soldiers did not fire. Instead, by the end of the day the workers had their pay. Within a week, everyone at the refinery joined; and. the oil union in Basra was reborn.
The occupation’s program for transforming the Iraqi economy was announced by Paul Bremer, appointed by President Bush to head the Coalition Provisional Authority in mid-2003. It included the privatization of state-owned industry, especially transportation, ports, communications and most manufacturing.
In September 2003, Bremer issued orders 29 and 30. They lowered base wages from $60 to $40/month, ended subsidies for food and housing, allowed private ownership by foreigners of state enterprises (except oil), and permitted the total repatriation of profits outside the country. Bremer kept in force Public Law 150. As a result, Iraq’s new unions were illegal. When power was handed over to an “independent” government in June 2004, the transitional law froze the Bremer orders into place.
Nationalist sentiment in Iraq views the public sector, especially oil, as a guarantee of sovereignty and a key to future economic development. Iraq’s unions quickly became privatization’s most vocal critics.
The first big fight over the US economic program came within months of the confrontation at the Basra refinery gate. KBR, a subsidiary of the oil services giant Halliburton, was given a no-bid contract to put out war-caused oil fires in the huge Rumeila fields. Within weeks, it had taken over the financial functions of Basra’s civil administration. In order to get paid, workers had to take their timesheets to local KBR offices for approval.
Then KBR claimed the work of reconstructing wells, pipelines and other oil facilities. With unemployment hovering at 70%, Iraqi workers saw a clear threat to their jobs. “It is our duty to protect the oil installations, since they are the property of the Iraqi people,” explains Hassan Juma’a, who became president of the Federation of Oil Employees in Iraq. The new union gave KBR a deadline to leave the oil district, and when it expired, shut down production. “For two days we refused to pump a single drop until they left,” says union leader Farouk Sadiq. “Other workers in Basra refused to work, too. It was independence day for oil labor.”
KBR closed its offices in Basra.
That began a wave of union organizing in the south. With the help of oil workers, a new union in the ports of Um Qasr and Zubair forced two huge corporations, the Danish Maersk and Seattle-based Stevedoring Services of America, to give up sweetheart concessions they’d been given to operate Iraq’s deepwater shipping facilities. In late 2003 the oil union threatened to strike again if Bremer’s orders lowered wages. The oil minister caved in, bringing the base wage up to $85/month.
Then the oil union helped workers in the power plants. After Hashmeya Muhsin was elected the new union’s president, workers struck the Najibeeya, Haartha and Al Zubeir generating stations. They stormed the administration buildings and vowed to shut off power. The electricity minister also agreed to abandon Bremer’s wage order. Muhsin’s electrical union then battled to stop subcontracting in the power stations – a prelude to corporate control.
Union organizing at the refinery seemed spontaneous, but in reality-* relied on workers’ memories of years of underground activity. In ports and power plants, organizers from Iraq’s old unions, who’d come back into the country or up from underground, helped workers come together.