An Anti-Labor Line in the Sand

David Bacon is a labor journalist and photographer. His forthcoming book is "NAFTA's Children."

For most Iraqis, oil used to seem like a blessing. It raised their standard of living during the 1960s to near-First World levels. Then it began to seem more like a curse, financing war and a brutal dictatorship. It was oil, many believe, that drew the covetous attention of foreign powers, most recently the United States. Now, for some Iraqis, oil is simply a commodity their children sell by the roadside to passing cars, the way poor farmers in the San Joaquin Valley once sold peaches and strawberries at highway fruit stands.

At the Al Daura refinery on the outskirts of Baghdad -- one of three such huge installations in Iraq -- the plant manager knows workers can't live on their salaries, which average $60 per month, so to keep them working he gives them oil, which their children hawk daily outside the plant.

Before the war, workers received bonuses, profit-sharing and food and housing allowances to supplement their small incomes. Now, although salaries remain the same, that additional income has been eliminated by U.S. occupation authorities.

In plants and factories all over Iraq, workers are quickly organizing unions. They want better wages. They want shorter hours (workers at the refinery and elsewhere often work 11- and 13-hour shifts without additional pay). They want safety shoes, goggles, masks and other protective gear. Most of all, they want a voice in the future of their jobs.

But in their quest for what they see as simple fairness in the workplace, they are encountering a determined foe: the Coalition Provisional Authority. Whenever the new unions try to talk with the managers or ministries that operate the plants, they're told that a law passed by Saddam Hussein in 1987 is still being enforced by the CPA. This law says that workers in state-owned enterprises (where the majority of Iraqis work) have no right to form unions or to bargain for contracts.

The law violates at least two conventions of the United Nations' International Labor Organization. But on June 5, CPA chief L. Paul Bremer III backed up this decree with another that Iraqi union activists say bans strikes and demonstrations that would disrupt economic activity.

U.S. funding in Iraq seems primarily focused on two things -- an overwhelming military presence and the transformation of the Iraqi economy from one in which the bulk of industry is state-owned to one in which it is in private hands. Both are key parts of a plan to make the country attractive to foreign investors, who, Bremer seems to feel, might find the presence of unions a disincentive to investment. And nothing can stand in the way of privatization.

In an Oct. 8 phone press conference, Thomas Foley, director for private-sector development for the CPA, announced a list of the first Iraqi state enterprises to be sold off, including cement and fertilizer plants, phosphate and sulfur mines, pharmaceutical factories and the country's airline. On Sept. 19, the authority published Order No. 39, which permits 100% foreign ownership of businesses except for the oil industry, and allows businesses to send their profits outside the country.

Iraqi workers view the prospect of privatizing their workplaces with dread, fearing the sell-off will bring massive layoffs in order to maximize profits. Al Daura's manager, Dathar Al-Kashab, predicted that with privatization, "I'll have to fire 1,500 [of the refinery's 3,000] workers. In America, when a company lays people off, there's unemployment insurance, and they won't die from hunger. If I dismiss employees now, I'm killing them and their families."

Outside the gates, the unemployed go hungry and even homeless. Some 70% of Iraqi workers have no jobs. Though Congress may have appropriated billions for "reconstruction," Nuri Jafer, the deputy minister of labor and social affairs, says he can find "no country willing to fund our plans" for a minimal system of unemployment benefits. Reconstruction itself is invisible on the streets. Work may be proceeding on the pipelines and ports necessary to get oil exports restarted, but huge piles of the war's rubble lie untouched.

Fledgling unions, although in a precarious position, are moving forward energetically. One, the Workers Democratic Trade Union Federation, is being organized by labor activists driven underground or into exile in 1977 when Saddam Hussein banned real unions and executed many leaders. Now the federation has set up unions in the country's main industries, including oil refineries like Al Daura. Basra already has a central labor council, and workers there have mounted protests.

Another group, the Workers Unions and Councils, helped workers elect committees in factories like the State Leather Industry plant, a huge shoe factory, and the Mamoun Vegetable Oil enterprise. Both factories are candidates for privatization. This union also backed Baghdad's Union of the Unemployed when it organized demonstrations in front of the CPA offices, demanding jobs and unemployment benefits -- hardly things the U.S. should stand against.

But U.S. zeal to privatize Iraq -- in the process bringing in a host of American companies -- seems to trump labor rights, jobs and the welfare of working families. At one recent international conference, ExxonMobil, Delta Airlines and the American Hospital Group all expressed interest in purchasing Iraqi concerns, while Bechtel, Halliburton and Fluor Corp. are among many already operating in Iraq under no-bid contracts.

Meanwhile, the CPA is holding down the wages of Iraqi workers. One woman sewing shoes at the state leather factory said she struggled to support six family members on her CPA-set emergency payment. "The prices of food and clothing are going up rapidly, and the salary is very low. We work hard, and I've been here 10 years. I have to have a raise," she said. But that requires the CPA's permission. "When we talked to the manager, he told us he had to talk to the Oil Ministry, which had to talk to the Finance Ministry, which had to get permission from the coalition forces," said Detrala Beshab, president of Al Daura refinery's new union.

Iraq's new labor movement is determined to stop the work site sell-off, the loss of jobs and the prohibition of unions and strikes, which may increase conflict with the CPA. Instead of trying to ban labor activity, the U.S. must respect the labor rights guaranteed under international law. Unions, after all, are an important part of America's democratic tradition. As Majeed Sahib Kreem, general secretary of the union at the vegetable oil plant, said recently, "a major reason for our existence is to eliminate the laws issued by the Baath regime."

For The Record Los Angeles Times Sunday November 16, 2003 Home Edition Opinion Part M Page 3 Editorial Pages Desk 1 inches; 33 words Type of Material: Correction Bechtel contracts -- A Nov. 9 Opinion piece stated incorrectly that Bechtel was among the U.S. companies operating in Iraq under no-bid contracts. Bechtel was one of seven bidders for a limited-competition contract.
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