The unionization of the south was the leading edge of a wave that spread across Iraq. Strikes took place in Baghdad and other cities. New, often competing federations were formed. The unions organized by Iraq’s Communists merged with the few Saddam had allowed in private businesses, to form the General Federation of Iraqi Workers. Others in many local workplaces merged into the General Federation of Workers Councils and Unions of Iraq, which was later joined by the oil workers. Teachers and journalists reorganized their old unions as well, which remained independent.
Since most Iraqi workers still work for government enterprises or services, almost all of them came up against Public Law 150. After elections resulted in a new government, and Bremer’s Coalition Authority dissolved, a new constitution promised labor law reform. Instead, the government not only failed to repeal Law 150, but passed a succession of others designed to stop labor activity.
In 2005, Decree 870 gave the government the ability to take over unions, and prohibited them from setting up bank accounts or collecting dues. Unions continued to function based on the willingness of workers to support them, but the government sought to deny them the resources to grow.
In 2007, as the US was pressuring for a new oil law designed to ensure that the multinationals would gain access on the most favorable terms, the oil union mounted what was, in effect, a political strike. On June 4, the Federation of Oil Employees in Iraq shut down the pipelines from the Rumeila fields near Basra, to the Baghdad refinery and the rest of the country. It was a limited strike to underline its call for keeping oil in public hands, and to force the government to live up to its economic promises.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki called out the army and surrounded the strikers at Sheiba, near Basra. Then he issued arrest warrants for the union’s leaders. U.S. aircraft buzzed and overflew Basra during and after the strike, increasing pressure on the union. In Iraq, the hostile maneuvering of military aircraft isn’t considered an idle threat by the people below. On Wednesday, June 6, the union stopped the strike. Maliki, who faced the possibility that it might escalate into shutdowns on the rigs themselves, agreed to the union’s principal demand. Implementation of the oil law would be held in abeyance while, while the union posed objections and proposed alternatives.
Even in the U.S., voices were raised saying that oil privatization was a bad idea. Congressman Dennis Kucinich charged, “Privatizing Iraq’s oil is theft.” Nevertheless, the U.S. threatened to withhold a billion dollars in reconstruction financing if Iraq didn’t pass the Hydrocarbon Act. Maliki faced a fact that U.S. policymakers refused to recognize. The oil industry is a symbol of Iraqi sovereignty, and handing control to foreign companies is extremely unpopular.
The oil workers union, still technically illegal, emerged as one of the strongest voices of Iraqi nationalism. Other demands reflected workers’ desperate situation. They wanted the oil ministry to give permanent jobs to thousands of temporary employees. In a country where housing has been destroyed on a massive scale, the union wanted land for building homes. It demanded jobs and a future for young people graduating from the Oil Institute. Fighting for these demands made unions popular – the only force in Iraq trying to maintain a survival living standard for the millions of Iraqis who have to get up and go to work every day in the middle of a war. The U.S. authorities, on the other hand, seem to Iraqis like an enemy bent on enforcing poverty.
The rationale for privatizing Iraqi industries like electricity and oil in the U.S. press is that the state-owned industries are old and inefficient. U.S. engineering know-how was needed, occupation authorities said, to bring it up to modern standards. Arab labor leader Hacene Djemam bitterly observed, “War makes privatization easy: first you destroy society; then you let the corporations rebuild it.”
But in electricity, they never did. U.S. contractors raked in billions in cost-plus contracts for rebuilding the power grid – General Electric alone got $3 billion. Yet Basra residents only get a few hours of electricity a day, while temperatures hit 120 degrees in the summer. Before the first Gulf War, Iraq generated 9,300 megawatts of electricity. The U.S. bombed plants and transmission lines in that war, and U.S.-imposed sanctions then kept many of them from being rebuilt. Production dropped to a third. Today, after seven years of “reconstruction” by U.S. contractors, production is only up to 6,000 megawatts, two-thirds of what it was twenty years ago. Meanwhile, Iraq’s population has grown, and consumption increased.
U.S. contractors became notorious for supplying parts and generators to Iraqi power stations that were incompatible with existing equipment, and for showing up with an entourage of gun-toting private security. Meanwhile, Iraqi workers, who were often targeted by insurgents seeking to sabotage the system, did the actual work of keeping the plants running.
That explosive combination finally produced a huge demonstration on June 19, when Basra and Nassiriya residents poured into the streets with signs saying “Prison is more comfortable than our homes!” Police killed one demonstrator, Haider Dawood Selman, and shot others. In their wake, the electricity minister resigned, and Shahristani, who was already oil minister, took over electricity as well. When he issued his order to shut down the electrical union, another large demonstration brought out 1,000 workers in Basra to protest. Their shouted slogans asked Shahristani where the $13 billion appropriated for electricity reconstruction had gone, chanting, “Hussein, where is the electricity?”