Iraqi unionists defy occupiers and fundamentalists
Detroit--About 50 labor activists came out on June 19 to hear first-hand reports on conditions and struggles of workers in Iraq under U.S. occupation. The first speaker, Amjad Ali Aljawhry, North American representative for the Federation of Workers’ Councils and Unions of Iraq (FWCUI), has been in exile since 1995 for his organizing activities. He described the 60% unemployment, the 100,000 Iraqi deaths in the last two years, and the deteriorating infrastructure.
The second speaker, Falah Awan, President of the FWCUI, has been an underground organizer for many years. He wants the Federation to play a role in shaping the future Iraqi society, a society without divisions. For that, he insists, the U.S. occupation must end immediately. He recalled the 60 million worldwide who came out against the war before it began and said we need to reactivate that anti-war movement to end the occupation.
In response to my question about the FWCUI’s relationship to the Organization for Women’s Freedom in Iraq (OWFI), Mr. Awan discussed the situation of women workers. In textiles, women make half of what men earn. Women must often exchange sexual favors to receive their pay. FWCUI has proposed a Labor Code to end such practices. Because of their principle of full equality, they support and participate in OWFI’s events.
—Susan Van Gelder
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Chicago--Below we excerpt remarks by FWCUI leaders and their responses to questions on June 17 at the UNITE HERE hall.
Amjad Ali Aljawhry: I’d like to thank all of the unions here in Chicago, especially U.S. Labor Against the War. I’d like to begin with a phrase we’ve been saying over and over. We want to end the occupation now.
Since the occupation started, the Iraqi people have never seen one single day of peace. Whenever you want to go outside, you need to remember that, 50%, you may not be coming back home. A lot of detonated cars in the street, suicide bombers, rocket-propelled grenades.
The democracy that we’ve been promised, we’ve never seen anything from it. Even the election that we had—we call it a phony election—it brought a government based on ethnicity, based on religion, divided the country, divided the society into groups and divisions that deepens ethnic tension and puts society on the verge of civil war.
The government, or the CPA, when they were in place, set wages that for an ordinary worker would be the minimum wage of $35 per month. It has become $45 per month per worker, which is not enough to pay half of his rent.
Clothing has become a luxury for these people. The unemployment rate has officially gone up to 40%. We don’t believe that. There is no social security, there is no unemployment insurance. The government is using the same labor code as the former regime.
The health care system is devastated. Corruption is devastating the country. Many projects to build society were called off and the money redirected toward more security. Without withdrawal of the occupying troops, democracy won’t be established, the unions that we are representing won’t be established.
The situation of women is actually getting worse and worse, where she cannot go outside by herself, but needs an escort. And that escort must be a male.
We were not able to criticize the government of Saddam Hussein, and today we cannot criticize Saddam Hussein himself, even though he is not in power, because of the security situation. If you take a cab, any cab driver has a gun on him, and you don’t know if he’s pro-Saddam or if he’s pro-terrorist groups or if he’s pro-government.
The last thing that I would like to say is that the people who are dying are innocent. I’m not saying just the civilians. Our sons, both Iraqi and American, deserve to live a better life in prosperity. They don’t deserve death, they don’t deserve torture.
Falah Awan: The occupation doesn’t mean only the presence of the tanks. The occupying troops have installed a government based on ethnic and religious division. It is not a sovereign government, but is a translator of U.S. policy in Iraq.
The Iraqi labor movement has its own alternative to this situation. This is the first time for the labor movement that they can elect their representatives and leaders. Governments have installed unions to represent the worker. Therefore, these unions represent the regime’s interests rather than the workers.
We fight for a modern labor code and labor law. And we fight for participation in writing the constitution. We fight to end the domination of the right wing and the reactionary powers in Iraq. We fight to build a secular labor movement in Iraq. This is not the task of Iraqi workers only, but all the workers around the world, and all the libertarian workers, and all the freedom lovers and equality lovers.
Responding to a question about the role of FWCUI in helping to establish workers’ councils, especially in Nasiriyah:
Nasiriyah was one of the cities where we have councils. The biggest aluminum plant and the largest power generation station are in Nasiriyah. The workers stood against the government's intention to privatize the aluminum industry.
They didn’t do it only to increase working wages and decrease working hours, they demanded improved electricity output in the city. The administration was deliberately operating the station at 25% of capacity. Later the workers found out that the administration has ties to power generator importers. They demanded an end to the corruption.
We organized the workers in councils. We demanded improved health and safety standards, increased wages, and paid days off. But the administration didn’t achieve anything because there is no labor code, there is no law that limits or controls its activity.
Responding to how FWCUI would deal with Kurdish aspirations for separatism:
Political freedom is not better than the old days under Saddam. In 1991, when we formed a union of unemployed, there at that time, they opened fire on the demonstrators, and three people were killed, all members of the UUI, or the Union of the Unemployed at that time, and two members of the councils. They were the leaders of these unions. That’s after they took over the power by some months.
The question of the future of Kurdistan, or the issue of Kurdistan itself, must be redirected to the Kurdish people themselves.
We demand immediate end of the occupation, plus a secular state that separates religion from the state, and ending the conditions of terrorism. These are the immediate demands of the Iraqi society. Ending the occupation doesn’t mean the social revolution.
Responding to a self-described socialist who attacked the FWCUI condemning the U.S. occupation and the resistance equally, claiming that the masses of the oppressed Iraqi identified with the resistance against the occupation:
The same question has arisen when I was in France and in Finland and in Japan, that you condemn this resistance and you condemn the occupation. Let me tell you something, bombing a school bus with 25 children, what does that have to do with the occupation? The Left unfortunately, and I want to stress this strongly, the Left doesn’t want to distinguish itself from the terrorism and doesn’t want to put itself as a representative of humanity.
As a person who believes in the social revolution, you [the questioner] believe that these parties, or these groups, represent classes in society. There are social interests that stand behind them, even the militant ones. These are forms of the bourgeoisie. They fight the United States, not to get rid of injustice in Iraq, but to have their share of government or power
Published by News and Letters Committees