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Interview with IFTU representatives

Alex Gordon

 

The following interview was conducted with Iraqi trade unionists visiting Britain as guests of UNISON from 8th – 18th November 2004, as part of an international solidarity and capacity-building exercise with Iraqi trade unions. The delegation of 6 representatives of the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions (IFTU) took part in organising and education courses and was introduced to UNISON’s Conference, Equality, Branch and Regional structures.

As well as receiving training on negotiation and campaigning skills, ‘mapping exercises’ and other organising tools, the delegation met with union officers and lay representatives from a number of different unions, including UNISON, TGWU, RMT & CWU in both Bristol and Glasgow. The IFTU members were also introduced to a number of leading figures in the trade union movement including Bill Spiers, General Secretary of the Scottish TUC and the head of the TUC’s International Department, Owen Tudor.

The IFTU members in the delegation included two women members, Alia Hussein, an Executive Committee member and Naafa Najib, President of a local branch of the Agricultural Workers Union. The four men in the IFTU delegation are Hassan Shabar, Culture/Media Officer for the Transport & Communication Workers’ Union; Muhsin Jasim, Baghdad Regional Secretary and Abdul Hasan, Treasurer of the Public & Social Service Workers’ Union; and Arkan Jewad Kadhum, a member of the Railway Workers’ Union.

Alia Hussein (Baghdad Regional Executive Committee, Agricultural Workers Union - AWU) and Naafa Najib (Branch President, AWU):

Naafa Najib: “I work as an auditor in a department of the Ministry of Agriculture. My department is concerned with supplying all types of agriculture equipment, fertiliser, seeds, etc. In my department there are about 600 workers and administrators and we have 120 members in our local union branch of the Agricultural Workers’ Union.”

Alia Hussein: “I work as an administrator in a public sector company, the Veterinary Company, which is under the direction of the Ministry of Agriculture. In the Baghdad region our union has 27 workers’ committees and we also organise workers in 14 other provinces across Iraq.”

“I was elected as a member of the Executive Committee of the AWU at our first Conference in June this year. There are 15 members of the Executive Committee. I have special responsibility for women’s issues; maternity leave, sickness, health issues, etc. I organise seminars and meetings on all types of women’s issues as well as human rights, public health, health and safety and computer training. I was organising a computer-training course just before I left Baghdad to come to Britain.”

“At our Conference in June we took decisions to demand the repeal of the 1987 Labour Law of Saddam Hussein. We also called for the voice of women to be increased in society and politics and particularly in the interim national assembly. We also called for a campaign against unemployment.”

“When the Governing Council abolished the 1959 Personal Status Law (Family Law) which gave men and women equal legal status and introduced Law 137, on 29 December we protested against it. Under Law 137 women would have to get permission from a family member before being able to marry, their husbands could forbid them from working and divorce them by saying 'I divorce you' three times and would not have to pay alimony.”

“ Many women from non-governmental organisations, trade unions and women’s organisations held a Conference in June in Al Waziria district in Baghdad at the veterinary school conference building.  Over 300 women representing thousands of others took part. We demanded the repeal of the Law 137. One month later the law was repealed.”


 

Hassan Shabar (Culture/Media Officer, Transport & Communication Workers’ Union - T&CWU):

“I am unemployed but I work full-time for the T&CWU. I was a garage mechanic and a student. The T&CWU organises the sectors covered by the Ministry of Transport and the Ministry of Communication.”

“In all the state-run workplaces, directly under the control of the two ministries we have set up union committees. In addition we have union committees established in private sector companies, such as the private bus companies that operate both within Baghdad and between Baghdad and other cities.”

“In Iraq there are also a number of companies in which we call the ‘mixed sector’, which means those companies owned by a combination of private shareholders and public interests, for example the ‘Badia’ road haulage company where we have also built union committees.”

“We estimate that we have at least 10,000 members in Baghdad alone. The reason that we cannot be more precise is that since our union was formed following the 16th May 2003 founding conference of the IFTU up until recently we had not developed a proper membership registration and subscription system.”

“We recently produced a membership application form, which new members have to sign when they join the union. This allows us to develop accurate membership records. I am involved in setting up this system and compiling membership lists. I had to stop when we reached 10,000 to prepare my journey to London.”

“Our union’s structure is based on workplace committees and branches. In June this year we held our first Conference in Baghdad, each workplace committee of the union was entitled to send a representative and there was a proportional quota system to allow larger workplaces more than one representative. During June there were also conferences held by the Public and Social Services Union, the Mechanics Union, the Agricultural Workers’ Union, the Textile Workers’ Union and the Construction Workers’ Union.”

“All of the conferences were organised by an IFTU Conference Preparations Committee, composed of representatives of each of the IFTU’s affiliated unions. The Conference started by holding elections to choose the leadership of the new union. The elected Executive Committee then took suggestions from delegates for actions and campaigns and several political and industrial decisions were taken.”

“The Conference of the T&CWU unanimously demanded the re-instatement of victimised workers who had been dismissed for political activities in the past. Our Conference also demanded that the Interim Government repeal the 1987 Labour Law of Saddam Hussein, which classifies public sector workers as ‘state officials’ and makes public sector strikes illegal.”

“In July this year the Executive Committee took up the demand of the Conference for us to re-open the union offices, which had been closed down by the American military on 6th December 2003. The Executive Committee met and decided to break the locks the Americans had put on the building and to re-occupy it.”

“We prepared well for the action and led a march and a demonstration to the offices which we re-opened. There were approximately 300 union members on the march and they had banners that read: “Long Live the Union of the Workers – Death to Colonialism!” This is a famous slogan of the workers’ movement from the 1930s and 40s. We have kept the American locks as souvenirs.”

“Recently, the T&CWU has been involved in opposing attempts by the interim government at privatisation. Our sector has been chosen as the first one for the government to try to privatise state industries. The Communication Ministry announced in September that it planned to dismiss 1,000 out of 3,000 workers employed by the Telephone Maintenance Company. The Ministry sent out termination notices to the workers, saying that the workers selected for dismissal were only temporary and of no further use, although all of the workers had been employed for 10 years or more.”

“The Ministry said that because of shortage of funds it wanted to sell the Telephone Maintenance Company to a private company, but they did not say which one. The T&CWU Executive Committee met and decided to try to negotiate with the Ministry, but the Ministry refused to negotiate. So we organised a public protest in front of the Ministry buildings in the middle of October and started a media campaign using the IFTU newspaper and a local Baghdad newspaper, ‘Al Jareeda’. The result was the Ministry did not dare to risk a public confrontation on this issue and reinstated all of the workers that were sent notices of dismissal.”


 

Muhsin Jasim (Baghdad Regional Secretary, Public & Social Service Workers’ Union - P&SSWU):

“I was a technician and boiler maintenance worker for the Ministry of Industry until I was dismissed for political reasons in 1982. I then worked as a cleaning contractor. I am now the Regional Secretary of the P&SSWU in Baghdad. I work for the union in the morning and as a youth worker in the afternoon.”

“Our union organises all grades of civil servants in all government ministries, non-medical (ancillary) workers in the health sector and private sector service workers in hotels, clubs, cinemas, barbers, restaurants, coffee shops and in tourism. We have between 100-120,000 members in Baghdad and 300-400,000 members nationally in Iraq.”

“We have already started a membership subscription system and members pay about 1% of their wages. Temporary Contract workers typically earn 60-70,000 Iraqi Dinars (IrD) – about $45 / £25 - per month, although some have been employed on these contracts for 14 years or more. Permanent workers typically earn IrD 150-200,000 - $100-134 / £54-72 per month.”

“Our union’s Conference in June this year decided to organise all workers throughout the service sector industries, whether they are employed on temporary or permanent contracts. To do this we have to get rid of the inhibitions that many workers still have towards trade unions because of the history of Saddam’s ‘yellow unions’. Our Conference also demanded that the Interim Government repeal the 1987 Labour Laws that are aimed against public sector workers in particular.”

“We have organised strikes recently in the hotel sector in Baghdad. The union called a 2-day strike against the dismissal of 24 hotel workers at the ‘Baghdad Hotel’ - one of the big hotels in the ‘Green Zone’ where the Americans stay. At the time that the hotel workers were dismissed, there was no union committee at the hotel, but as a result of the strike we formed a union committee. The strike didn’t only educate our members, they educated the hotel manager too.”

“The strike was very difficult for the management because many Americans stay at the hotel. They were very angry and disturbed that the hotel wasn’t cleaned for 2 days. They tried to bribe us by inviting us to eat dinner with them, but we refused. In all 180 workers at the hotel took part in the strike – the entire workforce. Workers in other big hotels saw the strike and formed union committees as well.”

“Our union together with the IFTU is planning a march and demonstration soon demanding the right for trade unions to be represented in the planned national constitutional assembly. We want ordinary, members to have the right to stand for election as trade union candidates to represent our members politically and to take forward our demands for a repeal of the 1987 Labour Laws.”


 

Arkan Jewad Kadhum (a member of the Railway Workers’ Union - RWU):

“I am a works supervisor in the rolling stock (carriage and wagon) maintenance department at Baghdad main railway workshops. I have worked there since 1989.”

“We established our union committee over 12 months ago after the American troops came to the workshops and tried to install two Ba’athist union officials to negotiate on our behalf. The drivers and mechanics held a meeting and elected 3 representatives to tell the Americans that we would not accept the ‘yellow unions’ and that we have elected our own representatives.”

“We have a works committee in our depot of 6 representatives now. The RWU has about 10,000 members across Iraq. We organise all workers employed by the national Railway Company, including clerical and administrative workers, maintenance workers, as well as train drivers, controllers (guards) and others. We have a union office at the main Baghdad railway station.”

“Four of our members were murdered just before I came to London; two train drivers, one controller (guard) and a security guard. All of them were from Baghdad. They were working a freight train carrying timber from Mosul to Baghdad. I heard that their train was stopped and that they were shot in the back of the head, execution style.”

“As soon as the news of the attack on the railworkers reached the depot in Baghdad, the train drivers and mechanics went on strike, as we have before, to demand that the Railway Company (IRR) provides proper security for our members. The strike coincided with the attack against Falluja, but we were striking against the attacks on our members’ security by terrorists, we are more at risk from the terrorists than most other workers are, because we have to go everywhere in the country and trains are easy to attack.”

“It is a lie that Iraqi Railway workers have begun to boycott supplies to US troops, since we never supplied them in the first place. People who have no respect for the truth and don’t care for the lives or the safety of railway workers spread this story. Saddam used to move his weapons and army by road, which is why he built so many motorways. The Americans don’t use railways to supply their troops any more than Saddam did. The Iraqi railways are now mainly freight trains for industrial and consumer customers, there is a passenger train service between Baghdad and Basra which has been suspended due to the security situation.”

“We are proud of the Iraqi railways and we have even paid for our own tools to maintain some of the locomotives. We have formed a special committee to root out corruption in the Iraqi railways, especially in management. During the looting period private landowners tried to take over a lot of railway land to build private houses. We have served notice on them to leave the railway land.”

“Our union’s great concern is privatisation. A US army officer visited our workplace recently and told us that if we refused to work properly and continued to make trouble, he would bring Indian railway workers to run the trains. We have demonstrated against these threats.”

 

 

December 2004

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