Is the US Pulling the Plug on Iraqi Workers?

Three weeks later, the union had been expelled from its offices.

Hashmeya Muhsin and Hassan Juma’a were among several Iraqi unionists who traveled to the U.S. looking for labor support in their battles against illegal status and privatization. U.S. Labor Against the War, a national organization of anti-war unions, organized several national tours for the Iraqis. They were invited to conventions of the AFL-CIO. The American Center for International Labor Solidarity (affiliated with the AFL-CIO) and the British Trades Union Congress began offering them material support and training at facilities in Jordan. As the conflicts in Iraq increased, however, the government moved to cut off that support. Unions were already prohibited from receiving money or even maintaining bank accounts. But after the leaders of two federations, Falah Alwan and Rasim Awadi, toured the U.S. in 2009, Maliki issued order No. 3-2004. In the future, union leaders would have to have permission from the Supreme Ministerial Committee to travel abroad. That permission, clearly, would not be forthcoming.

Even in public schools, unions felt the government closing in. This past January, the Maliki administration organized an effort to seize control of the Iraqi Teachers Union from its independent leadership. It ran a slate that teachers accused of being a front for Maliki’s ruling party. The union president in Basra was thrown in jail. “He’s receiving threatening phone calls such as, ‘If you don’t stop, we’ll kill you,'” according to union leader Nasser al Hussain.

Death threats aren’t taken lightly in Iraq. Since the beginning of the occupation, dozens of trade union activists have been assassinated. Iraqi unionists still mourn the death of Hadi Saleh, who was tortured and murdered in his Baghdad home in 2005 by killers so brutal that they emptied their guns into his body after they’d strangled him. Saleh was the most well-known of those labor activists jailed by Saddam Hussein, and later exiled, who then returned to Iraq to begin rebuilding its unions. Most think the killing was the work of former agents turned insurgents, from Saddam’s old secret police, the Mukhabarat. In 2008 Shihab al-Tamimi, head of the Iraqi Journalists Syndicate [Union], was shot by gunmen in Baghdad. Al-Tamimi, an outspoken independent reporter, was a strong critic of the occupation and of sectarian violence.

In January pressure against unions in the oil districts escalated. Hassan Juma’a, president of the Federation of Oil Employees in Iraq, criticized refinery managers for cutting the food rations workers receive as a supplement to their low salaries. Overtime hours were cut, reducing income even further, and some workers were demoted. One manager said anonymously to correspondents from Iraq Oil Report that he feared some would be transferred as retaliation: “We are always under the threats from the oil officials to punish and to sack people who speak out about the problems in the oil sector.” Juma’a’s statement was followed a few days later by a protest by workers in the refinery itself.

In March, workers organized demonstrations throughout the oil district demanding pay increases, permanent positions for temporary workers, modernization of the equipment and facilities, and legal status for their union. Since the 2007 constitution, Iraqi unions had been promised a labor law reform to abolish Law 150 and set up a structure under which they could function normally. In August, however, the parliamentary committee considering the draft law discarded it. That not only returned the reform process to its beginning, it left Law 150 and the bans on activity the only laws in force.

In April fears of retaliation were realized. Five union leaders were transferred from the Basra refinery to Baghdad, hundreds of miles away. They included Ibrahim Radiy, who had lowered the crane across the road in the confrontation where the union was born seven years earlier. Others included Alaa al-Basri, Majid Ali, Khaza’al Hamoud and Faraj Misban. South Refineries Company spokesman Qassem Ramadhan admitted that the transfers were punishment for earlier worker protests.

In June, repression spread to the ports south of Basra. Leaders of the longshore union there were transferred 1,000 kilometers from their worksites, and when workers protested, management brought in military units who surrounded the demonstrators. Finally, on June 1, as electricity workers filled the streets of Basra, the Southern Oil Company issued arrest warrants for Hassan Juma’a and Faleh Abood Umara, the oil union’s general secretary, who was held for two days. The two were accused of “impeding the work,” and “urging workers to stand against senior management,” according to Umara. Oil Ministry Spokesman Assam Jihad told the Iraq Oil Report that, “The problem is that the unionists instigate the public against the plans of the Oil Ministry and its ambitions to develop (Iraq’s) oil riches using foreign development.”

The Iraqi Parliament, under siege by Iraq’s unions and nationalist parties, was never able to finalize the Hydrocarbon Law, despite intense pressure from the Bush administration. But the Maliki government found ways to let the companies in. In the huge oil fields around Basra, it held auctions for contracts to provide services to the Iraqi National Oil Company. Those services included expanding production in existing fields, and exploring new ones and bringing them on line. The Maliki government predicts oil production could rise from its present 2.6 million barrels per day to 12.5 million within seven years.

Contracts were awarded to 18 companies, including the U.S. Exxon/Mobil, the European Royal Dutch Shell and Eni, the Russian Gazprom and Lukoil, Malaysia’s Petronas and Chinese state firms. A partnership between BP and the Chinese National Petroleum Corporation got the contract for the giant Rumaila field.

A former Iraqi Parliament member, Shetha Musawi, sued the government over the contracts, accusing it of essentially extorting loans from recipients, including $500 million from BP/CNPC, $300 million from Eni, and $400 million from Exxon Mobil, according to the Iraq Oil Report. Some loans were replaced with $100 million non-refundable “bonuses.” The Iraqi court ruled she had to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to hire outside oil consultants to make her case, and then she began receiving death threats. When the case came to a hearing, she didn’t appear in court, and it was dismissed.

Meanwhile, the U.S. military took over the former British base in Basra, converting it to a center for helping oil company executives and personnel begin operations in Iraq. While Musawi faced her threats alone, and Iraqi unionists were expelled from their offices and jailed, the executives who sought contracts and labor peace found the U.S. military placed at their service. General Ray Odierno, head of U.S. forces in Iraq, told reporters, “There is good coordination going on with all the oil companies and the Basra operational camp.” Odierno predicted that, despite the departure of combat troops, the U.S. would maintain forces to provide security there and in the oilfields. In addition, security contractors will supply thousand of private soldiers, paid the U.S., to provide additional protection for assets it believes must be guarded. That will undoubtedly include oil.

Last month, U.S. Ambassador Christopher Hill invited oil executives and diplomats to the base, known formally as Contingency Operating Base, Basra, for a fancy lunch. They talked about ways to facilitate visas for employees they intend to bring in. Ambassador Hill offered help in easing the way for the billions of dollars the companies will be transferring. The Iraqi oil union, meanwhile, can’t even open a bank account.

According to Kenneth Thomas on the Basra Provincial Reconstruction Team at the U.S. Embassy, “U.S. government policy at this time is that the USG in Iraq should assist in facilitating the mobilization of these companies without regard to the nationality of the companies.” Bremer couldn’t have put it more plainly.

Iraqi unions, meanwhile, have not gone underground nor have they stopped their efforts to organize. In fact, days after Hashmeya Muhsin and her coworkers were driven from their offices, she, the oil workers and Basra’s other unions held a meeting to put aside their organizational differences and cooperate on resisting the government’s effort to extinguish them. Unions in Europe and the U.S. sent messages in support, and AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka wrote to Maliki protesting the actions against the electrical workers.

The Basra unions formed a Joint Committee for Defending Unionism Rights in Iraq. “We shall carry on our struggle through all peaceful means like protests and strikes,” Muhsin promised. (

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