Labor groups aim to build unions in Iraq

Thursday, March 11, 200

BAL HARBOUR, Fla. -- Organized labor, with support from the Bush administration, is trying to build more unions in Iraq and help those already there to function free of government and employer control.

The U.S. government, through the National Endowment for Democracy, has allocated about $15 million to form employer groups and unions in Iraq. International labor organizations, including the AFL-CIO, are using some of those grant funds to help Iraqi workers and leaders create a labor code and organize.

"We had an interest in seeing what we could do both in the reconstruction as well as the ... healing process that had to go on," said AFL-CIO President John Sweeney.

Labor leaders, meeting at this seaside resort, on Thursday ended a three-day session of discussing politics, organizing and the situation in Iraq.

Organized labor has had a historical role in "postwar activities in every war since World War II" with backing from the U.S. government, Sweeney said. The AFL-CIO opposed the Iraq war in a resolution at last year's winter meeting.

While labor and the Bush White House are locked in a political battle at home, they are working together to rebuild Iraq and create stable, independent unions.

"Republican administrations tend to see trade unions as part of a civil society that is dedicated to democracy and building democracy abroad," said Harry Kamberis, executive director of the AFL-CIO's American Center for International Labor Solidarity. "They see it as important to U.S. strategic interests."

Unions were first formed in Iraq in the 1920s under the British, and have a long history in the country, said Kamberis, who was part of the first international union trade mission that visited last month.

For example, the oil and transportation industries have union structures that already exist. Some of those early union leaders now are acting as advisers to new workers trying to organize.

Unions in the public sector - which was most of Iraq's economy - were forbidden under Saddam Hussein. Some groups existed, but they were dominated by the Baath party.

Workers in Iraq face huge challenges. The country has been devastated by sanctions and the war, and most of the work force is unemployed. The economy is shifting from government-controlled to free enterprise.

Also, a volatile political environment leading to a postwar election, and continuing violence, could make the task even more difficult.

"We're trying to help them develop their own political and economic power in their own country, to develop as a middle class in their own societies just like labor in this country did for workers in this country," Kamberis said.

Also Thursday, the AFL-CIO's executive council approved a flurry of resolutions, including:

-Criticizing President Bush for "defiling the memory" of people killed in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks with campaign ads that depict images of the devastation.

-Accusing the administration of having an economic policy that sends high-paying jobs overseas. Labor leaders pressed for a comprehensive employment policy that would require government contracts to go to U.S. companies, deny government research and development funds to companies that transfer jobs overseas and restructure trade agreements to protect workers.

-Promising to submit a petition under U.S. trade law arguing that Chinese suppression of workers' rights hurts American workers by taking their jobs and sending wages plummeting.

-Urging Boston and its mayor, Thomas Menino, to resolve 29 open collective bargaining agreements with city unions. July's Democratic National Convention scheduled in a strong union city under a Democratic mayor "under these conditions is untenable and cannot be tolerated."


        Southern Oil Company Workers Win in Iraq

Report by Ewa Jasiewicz, Occupation Watch, Occupied Basra
Published here: 06/02/04

SOC Workers Win Their Fight for Higher Wages! Bremerıs Orders Defied! Across the Board Rise for Public Sector Workers Expected

Southern Oil Company workers won their three month struggle, underpinned by the threat of an armed strike, for higher and fairer wages this month. All oil sector workers in Iraq will now be receiving the SOCıs negotiated wagetable. The unity, solidarity and support of oil sector workers in the central and northern fields in Kirkuk, Baaji and Baghdadıs Daurra was key in achieving this victory. Plus the fact that the CPA/GC is heavily dependent on oil production and export from SOC, Iraqıs biggest and most lucrative oil company, following the inoperability of Iraqıs northern fields due to continuous attacks on pipelines and stations. The only Oil Companies exporting crude oil from Iraq right now are SOC and Basra Oil Company.
In December, union representatives told Occupation Watch that they had been telling workers since last month to save some of their wages in the event of strike action. When SOC workers saw that their wages were being decreed by the Occupation Administration (OA) as signed by Paul Bremer III in Order 30 on Employment Conditions of State Employees and that the wages were lower than the emergency payments the OA had been paying post regime fall, they decided to form their own wage scale based on market prices - including the price of fuel, gas, rent and foodstuffs, work location, and level of risk. The OAıs wage table slashed all family, risk and location payments workers survived on under the regime. In every workplace OW visited, workers were frustrated with their low, late and fluctuating wages, as well as the axing of all their Œsurvivalı payments and subsidies which sustained workers and their families.
The SOC unionıs wagetable demanded the minimum wage for an Iraqi oil worker be set at 155, 000 ID ($100) per month - more than doubling the Occupation set 69, 000 (currently worth $50-55) and a rise of 84, 000 ID. SOCıs table also cut out two whole levels and 20 positions of the CPAıs 130 position, 13 level wagetable. The Union persuaded their management and General Director to support their demands for the homemade scale following two days of meetings last month. The union reinforced their demands by declaring that workers would join the armed resistance if their demands were not met. This prompted the minister of oil to travel to Basra himself and begin negotiations with union reps immediately.
The result was that the lowest minimum wage for the generators of Iraqıs wealth, the heart pumping itsı economic lifeblood, is now 102, 000 ID per month - a rise of 33, 000 ID. The whole wagetable now starts at level nine and all those meant to receive level nine wages will now be moved up to level eight, which starts at 120, 000 ID ($85) and ends at 155, 000 ID ($110). The maximum level an unskilled worker can earn is 328, 000 ID ($250) per month - the end of level five. Five upwards deals with technicians and workers with diplomas. Level four refers to workers with over 30 years of experience and upwards is reserved for senior technicians and engineers and management.
But why the concession for the lowest paid? Why not push for the 155, 000 minimum? 102, 000 is barely a life supporting wage. The lowest rent in Basra is 25, 000 per month (most people s is 50, 000), that leaves just under 20, 000 per week (approx 3000 ID per day) to spend on food, school books, gas, fuel, car maintenance, clean water, cigarettes and any other unexpected necessities. A full UN plastic 4-5 litre carrier of drinking water costs 250 ID. A small chicken costs 3, 500 ID, 1 kg of apples or oranges (6) is 750, potatoes (6) is 500, a bag of bread (5 pieces) is 250, tomatoes (6) is 500 (in Baghdad due to transportation costs up from the more fertile if DU radiated south, a kg is 2000 ID); a canister of gas is approx 2000 ID. A pair of adult leather shoes is 20, 000 ID, a pair of socks 500 ID, cheapest family shampoo 750 ID. A family can just about survive eating basic simple, rations bulked food, but it is nearly impossible to save or find the money for a gift or journey or new item of clothing. Life is hand to mouth for the vast majority of Iraqi people and thatıs just for those lucky enough to have work - the estimated 70% or 10 million unemployed have even more of a struggle on their hands.
According to the occupation wagescale over a third (35%) of the Iraqi public sector workforce is on 69, 000 to 155, 000. 10% - managerial and administration levels receive 574, 000 to 920, 000.
So why the compromise? In fact it s not. Risk and location payments have also been taken into account and a further 18-30% payment is included on top of the tabled figures. This means that all the wages detailed on the table are potentially 30% higher according to a workerıs location, i. e dessert, remote area, dangerous position. Whether North Rumeilla, contaminated by Depleted Uranium during both Gulf Wars is included as a risky location is yet to be seen but the danger presented to workers breathing in the tons of radioactive nuclear waste used by invading US/UK troops is immediate, severe and life-threatening.
Of the victory, Hassan Jumıa, Head of SOC Union said: ŒThis is something we were sure of. Our sector is the most organized in Iraq and we were elected by the workers themselvesı.
On the effect of the victory on the swelling struggle in the Electricity sector, Jumıa said, ŒItıs the oil section first, then the other sectors will follow, soon, soon, it will change, the influence will be feltı. Samir Hanoon, Vice President of the Federation of Iraqi Trade Unions said he was thrilled by the result and that it was Œall goodı and was already having a positive impact on the electricity unionsı negotiations for higher wages. ŒSoon weıll be next. Our negotiations have been helped by this and they are going wellı he told OW. The rise for Iraqi workers means a cutback for the exploitative ambitions of the Occupation Administration and a blow to the logic and regularly heard corporate boast of Iraq now possessing some of the cheapest labour in the middle east.
The regional Occupation Administration, CPA South, claimed ignorance of the wagetable, confusing SOC workersı new wagetable with the September CPA Ordered one now printed up in December into colour booklets for workers to read and understand why its natural for them to be paid slave wages.
All in all, the courage of Iraqi oil workers in recognizing and affirming their power as the sector capable of commanding GC ministers to attend to their demands and breaking the perceived Œlast wordı authority of the Occupation Administration, shows that social resistance to the occupation and its dictates is alive and on fire and ready to strike for justice in Iraq. Noone is taking this as a final result, but as a first win in a journey of many, making up for the decades of silencing, violence and murder by the Baath dictatorship. And itıs also the first move in a social battle waged more than anything to raise the consciousness and confidence of workers, so broken by the Baath, to realize that they themselves are a weapon against the injustices and exploitation of the Occupation.