Still waiting for the freedom to organize
by Brian Kaller
No matter how many lies were told to promote or justify the U.S. government’s invasion of Iraq, there was one truth: Iraqis did want Saddam Hussein gone and had waited decades to regain their freedom.
They are still waiting, says Iraqi labor activist Amjad Ali Aljawhry. Hussein had prohibited workers from unionizing in a country with a decades-old tradition of radical and labor activism. After the fall of the Hussein regime, many Iraqis expected to regain such freedoms. But the American-led government has kept Hussein’s ban in place, and unionizing is still illegal in most places. The occupation government has also made other changes that have worsened the country’s rushing poverty and high unemployment.
North American representative of the Federation
of Workers Councils and Unions of Iraq (FWCUI), Aljawhry is carrying on
a heritage of labor organizing in a country whose rulers—usually Britain,
the United States, or dictatorships backed by them—have imprisoned or
executed union leaders.
Even before Hussein was out of power, however, organizers tried again to regain
their freedoms. Only two days after British troops arrived in Basra, labor leaders
organized a strike, demanding the right to organize and protesting the appointment
of a Ba’ath Party member as the new mayor, according to David Bacon of
the Progressive. Two years ago, 400 union activists met in Baghdad and formed
the Workers Democratic Trade Union Federation, making plans to organize the
nation’s industries and sending organizers to talk to workers across Iraq.
But the Iraq government set up by the Bush administration and its allies has
made organizing no less difficult. The old decrees remain in force, and much
of the formerly public industries have been taken over by corporations—often
foreign corporations that bring in their own employees and leave Iraqis out
of the picture, organizers say.
The 39-year-old Aljawhry was blacklisted under the Hussein regime for his political
views and for trying to organize sewing workers. He fled to Turkey with his
family in 1995, and for nine years has lived in Toronto, Canada, speaking on
Iraqi issues and campaigning against the sanctions and the war. He has lectured
in Japan, France and the United States about the Iraqi labor movement.
will speak in the Twin Cities June 16 at the Carpenters’ Union Hall in
St. Paul, joined by FWCUI president Falah Awan, an engineer who refused to sign
a Saddam loyalty pledge and was subsequently barred from practicing his trade. Awan
was an underground union organizer in factories and the construction trades
during the Ba’athist regime and the first Gulf War, and helped found the
FWCUI in 2003.
They have been invited to speak in the Twin Cities by the United Steelworkers
and its Associate Member Program’s Global Justice Tour, and their appearance
will be sponsored by a broad coalition of unions and human rights organizations.
Aljawhry spoke to Pulse of the Twin Cities last week.
PULSE: I did not realize until recently that Iraqis have a long history
of labor activism, starting against the British occupation at the end of World
War I. Could you talk a bit about the background of today’s union struggles?
ALJAWHRY: Sure. The British invasion started in 1914, at the beginning
of World War I. They installed a government in 1921, a monarchy. It was then
that the Iraqis began agitating for labor rights, starting with the railway
workers. When the British invaded Iraq, they wanted to transport their equipment
from south to north for the war, and the first industry they built in Iraq was
the railroad. So the railway workers were the pioneers in the Iraqi labor movement.
Since then, the strikes and the struggles of the labor movement have not stopped
until this moment. Iraq has the longest history in the Middle East of the labor
movement, except for Egypt. For 35 years Saddam’s regime tried to marginalize
this movement, even after the war on and occupation of Iraq. The media try to
portray the Iraqi people as religious fanatics who know nothing about reality
or the world. But the reality is different—the Iraqi people have the longest
[labor organizing] history in the Middle East.
Would you say this has been a continuous struggle, or at times been suppressed
and then revived under other people?
ALJAWHRY: In 1968, when the Ba’ath party came to power, they tried
to marginalize the workers, and succeeded to the extent that workers were deprived
of any right to associate, any right to organize or any right to demonstrate
or strike. In October of that year, right after the Ba’ath party came
to power, workers in the crude oil factory—the biggest industry in the
capital city of Baghdad—went on strike, and the government, instead of
trying to negotiate with the workers, raided the factory, killed some union
leaders and arrested others. That was the beginning of marginalizing the workers.
After that, in 1970, came Law 151, banning any strike or demonstration. For
35 years, there were no big strikes, because everyone was afraid. But while
the movement was scattered, the desire for it continued.
Two years ago, after the war and during the occupation, when there were no laws
or anything, workers started to become the center of the society again, and
rebuild their organizations. Our organization, the Federation of Workers’
Councils and Trade Unions, was one of those that tried to mobilize the workers
towards making demands. Part of it was political and part was economical.
PULSE: The unemployment rate in Iraq is 70 percent, right?
ALJAWHRY: After the invasion, it went up to 90 percent, just because
the entire infrastructure of the country was devastated and nothing was working.
After a while the ministries got rolling again and put some people in places—the
teachers and some civil employees went back to work again. But the unemployment
rate is still high, and will get higher.
other day I was reading an article by some Iraqi expert who was saying it was
now down to 40 percent. But, he said, there were some major concerns, because
last week the government spokesperson was saying the government is planning
massive layoffs, because they see that “only” 40 to 60 percent of
them are needed. The other 40 to 60 percent will be out of a job soon.
That will add on to the unemployment rate, which will grow much higher, leading
to more devastation and more damage in the society. Not to mention that these
people who will now be unemployed will redirect their loyalties to the insurgency,
leading to more violence and more killing. It is a chain reaction of changes—one
leads to another, to another.
PULSE: So until recently, the public sector has been the main source
of employment, and since the invasion the public sector has been scaled back?
ALJAWHRY: Because Iraq was a country entirely run by the state, the
government was the biggest employer. After the invasion, the U.S. authorities
in Iraq decided to privatize the entire country, except for one industry—the
oil sector. Other sectors will be privatized, and this will lead to massive
layoffs, because it will lead to companies coming to Iraq and saying Iraqis
are not capable of running enterprises. So countries that come in from abroad—United
States, Japan, Australia and others—can lay off Iraqis and bring in their
This is going to be a big problem, because the public sector employs a huge
number of people in Iraq. Destruction of it will be dangerous. The government
has not planned for any kind of unemployment insurance, any Social Security
payments. Millions of people are laid off and receive no benefits of any kind,
and they are the source of the insurgency.
PULSE: In the American media, the insurgency is depicted as motivated
by ideological extremism. But you say most insurgents are mostly economically
I’ve been there. I went back to Iraq last June and spent four months there,
until the end of September. I’ve seen the people there. For 35 years,
the Iraqi people have never had one moment of peace. Never had one government
that has treated them as human beings. Forty years of devastation, 40 years
of instability, 40 years of insecurity, 40 years of killing. The Iraqi people
don’t want anything right now except peace. They want to be able to go
to the store and know they will come back alive.
I’ll tell you something—everybody that can afford one in Iraq is
getting a cell phone. They are borrowing money to buy cell phones, not as luxuries,
but because if they go outside they might not come back, and in an emergency
they want to be able to talk to their families.
This is how the Iraqi people live. They didn’t want all this violence
and killing, which is being driven by the U.S. occupation forces and religious
and Ba’ath remnants that have allied to fight the U.S. troops. So the
Iraqi people are caught in between these two forces.
Poverty plays a big role here. You can tell someone, “I will pay you $200
to kill an American, or someone in the occupation government,” and there
is someone who will do it. So the poverty is a big role in driving the country
into this kind of violence.
PULSE: You were an underground union organizer, both under Saddam and
today. What were some of your experiences?
ALJAWHRY: It was very hard to organize workers [under Hussein], because
of the security police everywhere and the banning of freedom to demonstrate
and organize. So it was difficult to motivate people to take actions like this.
After the war, the only people who knew how to organize were ones who used to
work 30 or 40 years earlier among the unions, when they were a little bit free.
It was difficult just to bring these kind of traditions back to the workers.
Workers knew there were such things as unions, but they didn’t know how
to lead a strike, how to negotiate—all these things that had been suppressed
for 35 years. If you’ve lived without unions for 35 years, there are many
things you don’t learn.
For example, we had some unions who went on strike in the city of Kut—180
kilometers south of Baghdad—and instead of negotiating with the organization,
they decided simply to strike until their demands were met. So the heads of
that textile factory called the national guards, who raided the factory, opened
fire on workers, injured four people, arrested 10 and left. So both the workers
and the administrators didn’t know how to play the game of unions or negotiations.
I’m not blaming the union—the workers are new at this—but
what the government has tried to do is escalate the situation instead of de-escalate
it. They inflame it until there is no way for a solution, and this is what happens—people
get injured and arrested.
These kinds of situations were taking place under Saddam, and now the traditions
live on. The union didn’t know how to respond at that time. But later
on, we organized them and told them we don’t want to go through that kind
of violence again, and that the government is going to act viciously, and we
don’t want to lose any more workers.
So this is the kind of thing we deal with every day.
PULSE: When you left Iraq, you became active in the international campaign
to end the sanctions. What did the sanctions do to the situation inside Iraq?
What effect did they have on organizing and dissent?
ALJAWHRY: The sanctions were the worst period in Iraq’s history.
It lasted 13 years, and what the sanctions did was to dismantle the entire country,
so that everything except the government stopped or vanished. They didn’t
have the infrastructure to feed equipment and tools into factories. Wages were
low, and many people who could left the country. Unemployment shot up to 80,
Iraqi society was really damaged by the years of sanctions, until 1996, when
the U.N. oil-for-food program alleviated it a bit. But even that gave us some
flour or oil or a bit of tea—these are the things given under the program.
Even then, you could not sell anything to the outside, you could not buy anything
from the outside.
The sanctions brought the country to its knees, and it might take decades to
bring the country back to what it had been.
In September 2003, in the months after the invasion, the U.S. government made
several laws in Iraq. One was that foreign companies could own 100 percent of
Iraqi businesses, and limited corporate and personal taxes to 15 percent. How
did that affect the Iraqi people?
ALJAWHRY: This is another part of the privatization process. So many
enterprises in Iraq are under a process of privatization—like in Basra,
where foreign corporations brought in Indians and Sri Lankans and Pakistanis
to do the jobs, rather than employing the qualified local people. And of course
this creates some kind of hatred, unfortunately, because local people think,
“This is my country, we should have these jobs.”
This has affected all the workers and added on to the unemployment rate. Companies
brought more than 3,000 workers from Egypt to rebuild the airport, and Iraqis
who wanted to get a job there were told, “We don’t want Iraqis.”
Because of the violence in Iraq the government has tried to take advantage of
this situation, by robbing the entire country. The corruption is at the highest
it has ever been—higher than it was even during Saddam Hussein.
People think about the violence and the killing, and are busy responding to
these emergencies, and don’t think about the other things that are going
on in their country. Four billion dollars of oil revenue went missing last year,
and by the end of this year, who knows how much they are going to “lose.”
I’m not sure how it’s possible to lose $4 billion.
ALJAWHRY: Well, that’s probably only part of it—the $4 billion
that was reported missing was just the part that someone reported. Oil is flowing
out of the country on a daily basis, and no one is talking about it. The government
wants to lay off people and just do nothing about their poverty, but you don’t
heal a crippled society by putting people out of work, you do so by creating
PULSE: One last question: You’ve been living in Canada for the
last few years, and traveling the United States. What strikes you most about
America, and Americans’ attitudes towards the world?
ALJAWHRY: It is not the American people. They are not the problem. The
problem is the American media, who are deliberately trying to face off against
the entire Middle East. They try to portray everyone in the Middle East as religious
fanatics, who deserve the way they live now, who do not deserve democracy.
Take Egypt—it is run by a dictator who has been in power for 25 years,
who has suppressed democracy for 25 years, and the U.S. government has supported
him for 25 years. The government supports the Saudi monarchy, and says nothing
This will be my third time in the United States, and each time I come here,
we tell the people that the media are saying things far from reality. The reality
is that the Iraqi people and many people in the Middle East have a long progressive
history, a long history of dissent against the dictatorships imposed on us.
We have a long history of labor struggle, of a struggle for women’s rights,
of a struggle against corporations. But there are many dictatorships here that
have been heavily supported by the U.S. and others, and the image Americans
are given of the Middle East is an image of people who just want to kill and
die. But this is not the reality. Pakistan the other day had a big labor march,
but they don’t show these things on FOX News or even the BBC.
Americans want to get out of Iraq, but even some progressives think that the
United States is stuck there now. But there is an easy way for the U.S. to get
out of Iraq and leave behind more than chaos. It is an organization called the
Iraqi Freedom Congress, a coalition of groups that want a more progressive country,
and which my organization is part of.
It is a movement for a secular state, that wants to work with the U.N., that
wants an end to violence. But no one hears about such a movement, and the media
won’t show it. ||
Amjad Ali Aljawhry and Falah Awan will speak at 7 p.m. Thursday, June 16
at the Carpenters’ Union, 710 Olive St., St. Paul.