On 24 January John McDonnell MP ran an article on his blog entitled "The Iraq Debate : the Prime Minister couldn't even be bothered to turn up".
I posted the following comment in response.
When the troops are finally withdrawn, who should the Labour and Trade Union Movement seek to give moral and practical support to inside Iraq? Surely we should not then ignore the well being of the Iraqi people. So will we THEN seek to advance democracy, social justice, equality, freedom of expression and association; plus secular constitutional and legislative provisions? By for instance giving moral and practical support to bodies such as their Trade Union Movement? If so, should we not also be on their side NOW? Including opposition to actions to impede their progress from whatever source, be it Government edicts, American and British pressure, sectarian acts and terrorism?
The above led a blogger named Duncan to raise a number of questions about my stance. He did this in a very civilised way and I then posted a holding reply to say that I would answer in this current fashion via my own blog. Below I reproduce his contribution in full, giving my responses at appropriate junctures.
His First Issue
Harry I agree with a lot of what you're saying and I think your position (against the invasion but for troops there to manage the transition now?) is perfectly legitimate even if I'm not sure about it myself.
I certainly opposed the invasion and feel that what has happened since vindicates that stance. I also, however, argued for alternative means to remove Saddam's regime involving support for caldestine opposition elements. On the current situation, I would prefer the Iraqi Government to openly seek assistance for replacement forces involving other Arab and Muslim Nations. If we are stuck with America and Britain, then I would like to see some clear and acceptable rules of engaging with terrorists which are then followed to absolutely minimize civilian casualities.
Q 1: What About Trade Union Laws?
Duncan. I've a couple of questions though - bearing in mind I'm no expert on this and I really am asking this based on the little I know. Are the new government in Iraq or the British and American governments actually recognising independent trade unions in Iraq or only the same state controlled ones established by Saddam?
As far as I've read (and I won't have read or heard everything) the Coalition Provisional Authority didn't recognise independent trade unions at all - only the same government controlled unions set up by Saddam and the Ba'athists. The Bush administration and its backers as you've said yourself aren't exactly pro-union. In fact US forces seem to have been suppressing many independent trade unions, arresting their leaders and beating demonstrators.
Harry. I am no expert either, merely having an amateur interest and some fortunate contacts.
In 1987 Saddam Hussein banned Trade Unions from operating in the public sector under Law 150, which covered 80% of the work force. He also finally turned the once independent and progressive General Federation of Trade Unions (GFTU) into a State controlled body for the remaining private sector. He placed the GFTU under the leadership of Chemical Ali and its facilities were used for Baathist abuse. This body still operates as a rump organisation, but the Baathist control will have gone. It is not a body I have met.
Law 150 banning Trade Unions in the public sector was abolished in Iraqi Kurdistan after the Region gained sufficient autonomy following the establishment of the no-fly zone in 1991. But the law has not been repealed by the Iraqi Government and remains in place for the rest of Iraq.
Although the the continuation of this law has not led to the destruction of the Trade Unions which emerged after the invasion, it does allow enmployers to turn to the law to protect their interests. It also means that officialdom can hamper Trade Union activity. Its continuing existence is also a serious worry for the future.
Things then got worse. In August 2005, a decree 8750 was adopted by the transitional Government to enable the State to take over Trade Union funds whilst it waited to draw up proposals to say how it will allow Trade Unions to organise and function. The threat of such State regulation is a further problem. This decree has never been accepted in Iraqi Kurdistan, but it has a huge impact in the rest of Iraq.
The International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, the TUC and numerous Trade Unions throughout the world have pressed for the removal of Law 150 and Decree 8750. Our own Government makes favourable noises about Trade Union rights in answering questions in parliament. What impact the responses from Blair and others then has on moves in Iraq is unclear.
The small GFTU are subject to decree 8750, as well as to Law 150 when they venture out to sign up workers in the public sector. The major newly emerged Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions (IFTU) had its offices in Baghdad raided by American troops in the early days with 8 officials being imprisoned. It was only after widespread international protests that they were released and the property returned to the IFTU.
Eventually Bush went on to include a reference for the need of free Labour Unions in Iraq in a State of the Union address, but I'm not fooled by that. I am told that when the Australian Prime Minster Howard was watching Question Time in the Commons, he was upset by a favourable response Blair gave to me on Trade Union activity in Iraq. I have no doubt that the Howards of this world have more influence than me.
Q 2 : Who Are the Big Trade Unions in Iraq?
Duncan: One of the biggest examples is the Iraqi Union of the Unemployed which - since at least 60% of Iraqis are now unemployed - is probably the largest in Iraq? (you probably know it was formed after the Iraqi army was disbanded and many other Iraqis fired in preparation for the total privatisation of all Iraq's public industries and services.)
(Note: these comments also generate Q3 below on the Union for the Unemployed : Harry)
Harry: In Iraqi Kurdistan there is a wide range of Trade Unions which are recognised by their Regional Government. These are significant to the the rest of Iraq in terms of whom it is they have fraternal relationships with it. There links are between their own Teachers' Union and the
Teachers' Union in the rest of Iraq. The other close link is between their own Workers' Syndicates and the IFTU.
In non-Kurdish Iraq, the biggest Trade Union is the Teachers Union (which covers all avenues of education). The next largest body to emerge covering all other forms of public service was the IFTU made up of 13 new individual Trade Unions. All of these emerged on the heals of the invasion, but not in association with it. It is mistaken to assume that the IFTU emerged as the private sector Trade Union which had been led by Chemical Ali. As mentioned above that was the GFTU.
The rump of the GFTU still exists. So does a body which broke away from the GFTU after the invasion called the GFITU. There are other small unions such as the Southern Oil Workers Union in Basra. As you also mention there is also a body called the Iraqi Union of the Unemployed (see my Q3).
It is difficult to judge the total Trade Union Membership in Iraq, but since the invasion it seems to have topped the million mark. Terrorism and sectarian pressures are likely to have taken some toll. But as Iraq has a population of 27 million and has many young people, only some 15 million fall in the 14 to 65 age group. With high unemployment and women in fundamentalist areas being discouraged from working outside of the home, those with employment (including those moving in and out of jobs) could be no more than 5 million. To have organised so many into Trade Union membership (at least 20% of those feasible) is a massive achievement. The number of UK workers in Trade Unions is under 30% and look at the comparatively favourable conditions.
Q 3 : How Significant Is The Union For the Unemployed?
Harry : I believe that you exaggerate the position of the Iraqi Federation of the Unemployed. Other Unions accept and recruit unemployed workers. For many of the unemployed see themselves as unemployed railway workers, or oil workers, or dockers (etc) and link in with their appropriate Union. Many move in and out of employment, but keep their Trade Union links.
Organising workers who don't identify with jobs, except those in the armed forces, is an extra difficulty in an already problematic situation.
In Iraqi Kurdistan there is underemployment rather than unemployment. In April I visited a cigaratte factory which hasn't produced a fag for 6 years or so. But people turn up in order that the State will pay them and they have a strong set of shop stewards, many being women.
The main Trade Unions in Iraq have close fraternal links and to summerize are (a) the two Teachers Unions, (B) two Kurdish Union Syndicates linked with the IFTU and (c) Professional Bodies (a bit like ASTMS was). Then there is the hotch potch of separate bodies including the Unemployed, Southern Oil Workers and the GFTU and the GFITU.
This pattern altered somewhat in the Arab areas when three Trade Union groups applied for recognition from the Arab Federation of Trade Unions. These were the two small bodies the GFTU and the GFITU, plus the much larger IFTU. They were told to go away and set up a single Federation amongst themselves for affiliation purposes. They eventually set up a body called the General Federation of Iraqi Workers (GFIW) in December 2005 and gained the required recognition. The IFTU are easily the largest unit and need the recognition from the Arab Federation to try to influence a move to Trade Union recognition rights in their own country. This by no means makes them a tool of the Iraqi State who maintain they are illegal AND still sequest their funds!
Q 4 : Who Are The Southern Oil Union ?
Duncan : Then there are the independent unions of Iraqi state employees like the Southern Oil Union which don't seem to be recognised by the US either according to this article by one of their leaders.
Harry : All of the Trade Unions I have mentioned above are independent of the State, not just the Southern Oil Union. When that Union is referred to as "independent", it means that they are not part of the GFIW. This is rather like a small Union in this country deciding not to affiliate to the TUC. One of the main Unions affilated to the IFTU (and hence to the GFIW) is for Oil Workers throughout the whole of non-Kurdish Iraq.
I met Hassan Juma whose name appears on the article you link us to, just 10 days before it appeared in the Guardian and I also heard him address a meeting of the Socialist Campaign Group in the Commons. When I was in meeting with Trade Unionists in Erbil last April a Trade Unionist from Basra said that Hassan Juma represented hardly anyone but himself.
You will note that his Guardian article does little to help towards building an effective Trade Union Movement in Iraq. And why does his organisation not seek to affiliate to the equivalent of the Iraqi TUC?
Q5 : What Of Anti-Union Activity?
Duncan : How can British and American troops' presence in Iraq protect the rights (and lives) of those trade unionists if they seem to instead in many cases (for US troops at least) to be trying to replace independent trade union members with foreign contractors and break any protest strike?
Harry : The fact that mass privatisation hasn't yet been added to such problems is due to several factors, which includes the role played by the IFTU and its sister Unions in Iraqi Kurdistan.
The holding up of privatisation which America has both a commercial and ideological interest in, probably is a result of (a) its unacceptability to many in the Iraqi Government and Parliament, who will be needed to dot the i's and cross the t's, (b) terrorist disruption, making take-overs seem non-viable (although this would not be the case in Iraqi Kurdistan) and (c) pressure in the industries by workers organised in Trade Unions to stop this development.
The influences of (a) and (c) would become normal processes if Iraq becomes a working democracy. This is what we should work towards. This would, of course, also overcome the other problems you mention.
It should also be noted that Trade Unionism does not always lose out to the blockages we have been discussing. Wages increases, improved conditions, recognition of negotation positions (even if these are illegal under the law) are at times achieved. The potentail is considerable if the legal framework and the practices of officialdom and foreign troops altered.
Q 6 : How Much Faith Should We Place In Sami Ramadani ?
Duncan : Does the TUC and you recognise trade unions in Iraq other than the state approved IFTU which many Iraqis (including the one who wrote the article linked to above - and Iraqi exciles - like Sami Ramadani in this report) say is not independent at all but the same state controlled one that existed under Saddam?
Harry : I recognise the rights of all the Trade Unions I have listed and believe the TUC does the same.
The IFTU is not, however, the State Controlled Union that operated under Saddam Hussein. That was the GFTU. Even then with Saddam's regime now gone, it needs to be recognised that the GFTU had a fine history before the Baathist era. It emerged after the 1958 revolution which had removed a puppet regime and got rid of the 5,000 or so British troops then camped on its territory. It led a May Day demonstation in Baghdad in 1959 involving half a milliion people in a population of less than 7 million. Given the size of the nation and the nature of travel at the time, this was even more impressive than the anti-war demonstration in London before the invasion of Iraq.
Sami Ramadami's letter in the link you provide is answered by comments on the same link from Mick Rix, the TUC, the IFTU, the report of the Grassroots Iraq meeting at a Labour Party Conference which I chaired and by Abdullah Muhsin. Abdullah was also an Iraqi excile. He was active in the Student's movement and when he voted against Saddam Hussein in an election, he was obliged to flee the country. It was people returning after being driven into exile and those operating in a caldestine way in Baathist Iraq, who were the organising force behind setting up the IFTU immediately after invasion.
Although I was on the platform at the formation of Labour Against the War and fully endorsed their role at the time, the catalyst for my resignation from that body was a contribution to one of their meetings in the Commons after the invasion by Sami Ramadami. His contribution found approval from Alan Simpson M.P. its Chairperson.
Ramadani in answer to my contribution from the floor, claimed that there was virtually no trade union movement in existence in Iraq as activists had nearly all been slaughtered by Saddam Hussein. Instead the real struggles were taking place inside the Mosques and it was those forces he said we should be associated with. I was equally unimpressed by Ramadani's speech on Iraq at a meeting of the Socialist Historians Group. As a young child he said that he had attended the May Day 1959 demonstration in Baghdad. It is a pity that it had no lasting impact upon him.
John McDonnell understands Trade Unions as well as anyone. He led a protest to 10 Downing Street on the plight of Iraqi journalists and media staff. I hope that he will respond positively to the points I placed on his blog. He needs to distance himself from those who only see one side of the picture in Iraq - opposing American Imperialism. They refuse to come out at least as strongly against all forms of terrorism in Iraq, the bulk of which is directed against the Iraqi people. Working out a position that is both Anti-Imperialist and Anti-Nihilist/Fascist isn't easy, but there are some guide lines. Support those forces who further democracy, social well-being, peace and mutual respect. The Iraqi Trade Union Movement then comes to the front of the list. People are giving their lives in this struggle.