A Sad Anniversary
Exactly a year ago today I sat near the centre of a long and crowded table at a meeting in Arbil in Iraqi Kurdistan. Sitting almost opposite to me was Najim Abd-Jasem, the General Secretary of the Mechanics, Printers and Metalworkers Union in Baghdad.
I have just discovered that Najem was kidnapped last Tuesday, brutally tortured and then murdered because of his non-sectarian Trade Union work. His body was found on Monday. It is a sad and shattering anniversary of what had been one of the most telling meetings I have ever attended.
3 April, 2006
The room was crowded with people from four avenues. First, there was our delegation of British Trade Unionists and representatives from Labour Friends of Iraq. Then there were our fine hosts from the Kurdistan Workers Federation, plus a handful of journalists. We were there to meet a delegation of Iraqi Trade Unionists who had flown in from Baghdad and included representatives from Basra and elsewhere.
Because it was considered unsafe for us to visit our Iraqi comrades, they kindly came to see us even though travel to Baghdad airport was not without its risks.
After comradely introductions, our visitors took turns to explain the roles of their respective Trade Unions and to answer questions about their problems and needs.
Najim was the third to do this, following Hashimiya Hussein the President of the Basra Electricity and Energy Workers Union and the only woman in the Iraqi delegation and then Abdul Latif al Saadi the General Secretary of the Oil and Gas Workers Union.
Najim told us that his Union had 18,000 members in Baghdad only a few of whom were women and the latter were mainly centred in the printing industry. 35 work place committees operated in Baghdad.
The Union was, however, seriously hampered by the fact that 194 factories were paralysed and out of production in Baghdad itself. The Union had serious organisational, negotiating and financial problems due to high unemployment levels. Their unemployed members not being able to pay Union dues. The Union was also hampered by a current Iraqi State decree which provided for the sequestration of Union Funds on the grounds that they still had to rule as to whom they saw as being bona fide Trade Unions.
Having to deal with numbers of managers which included a remnant of Baathists who maintained anti-Trade Union attitudes produced numbers of problems, including the willingness of such managers to resort to the use of Saddam Hussain's Decree 150 which banned Trade Unions in the main State Sector of the Economy. The Decree has not since been rescinded outside of Iraqi Kurdistan.
Najim had been an active member of the underground Workers' Trade Union Movement during Saddam Hussein's rule and had struggled against the regime, losing his employment as a consequence.
He was a key founder member of the new free Trade Union Movement which emerged in Iraq immediately after the Coalition's invasion. He helped establish both his own Trade Union and the wider body it affiliated to - the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions (IFTU). The later has now merged into a wider body known as the General Federation of Iraqi Workers and is recognised by the Arab Federation of Trade Unions.
My Links With Najim's IFTU
Just before we sat down for our meeting in Arbil, I was presented with a certificate of Honorary Membership of the IFTU. I now have it proudly displayed in my study, but I will now view it with a deep poignancy as it was just after I received it that Najim and I sat down almost opposite each other.
Furthermore, Najim is the second Iraqi Trade Union Leader involved with the IFTU whom I have met and who was subsequently brutally murdered for their efforts in building up open, democratic Trade Unionism. The first was Hadi Saleh whose life and work is dealt with in the fine TUC publication referred to here.
If Iraq is ever to overcome its current troubles, it is what Najim and Hadi lived for, worked for and died for which is in need of our support.