Global Policy Forum

New Resistance in Iraq


By Wilson Sobrinho
August 2, 2005

The US was still oiling their weapons in order to fight Saddam Hussein and activists from all over the world were already pointing out the war would serve, among other purposes, to spread the liberal agenda in the Middle East. Now, about 28 months after the beginning of the conflict, it is getting clear that Washington's plans for post-Saddam Iraq included the term "privatization" among their keywords.

Iraq's authorities announced this Sunday - one of the most violent ones faced by the country, due to a series of insurgent attacks that resulted in more than 150 deaths – their intention of carrying out a wide privatization plan for the country's public sector. According to Adel Karin, Industrial Development vice minister, the first industries to be affected are in the cement, brick and pharmaceutics sectors. Karin said the aim is to give the private sector a "leading role" in rebuilding the country. However, he admits that the conflicts can have an impact on the interest of investors. "The security situation in Iraq is extremely bad, and obviously safety remains a top priority for businessmen who think about coming to invest in Iraq", Karin told the Associated Press Agency.

Karin did not say if the end of state monopoly will reach the oil mining business, but the new government's announcement may open the doors for the wider participation of a social sector which is not very representative in the country: the public companies' workforce union.

Since 1987, during the Saddam regime, these workers have been forbidden to establish class representations. In spite of all the US' discourse during the period in which Paul Bremer was ahead of the Provisory Coalition Authority being structured over the proposition that Iraq should be "a democracy", Hussein's measure against public servants has not been revoked. Even though its full rights are not granted, the Iraqi workforce is gathering in its unions and getting organized.

In a conference held by the General Union of Oil Employees (GUOE) in the Southern city of Basra in May, they expressed their unequivocal position: they want the invading troops to withdrawal, they claim for the immediate annulment of the country's external debt and, above all, they do not want do hear the term privatization in relation to oil exploitation or any other public sector in the country. The issue hit the newsreels, and it had a small repercussion, mainly because the movement's leaders went to the US to exchange experiences and join forces with their fellow public workers in the beginning of June.

A letter reporting the decisions that were taken in the conference was sent to authorities in Baghdad with the slogan "Reviving the public sector and building a privatization free Iraq". In it, workers state that "any kind of modification in the sector [of public enterprises] without popular consultation is unbearable (…)" and pointed out that Iraqi people have the capacity of finding by themselves the solution to any problem that might menace the country's industry.

"We see it as our duty to defend the country's resources. We reject and will oppose all moves to privatize our oil industry and national resources. We regard this privatization as a form of neo-colonialism, an attempt to impose a permanent economic occupation to follow the military occupation," Hassan Juma'a Awad, general secretary of the Southern Oil Company Union (SOCU) and president of the Basra Oil Workers' Union (BOWU), explained in an article published by the British newspaper The Guardian in February. The GUOE, say its leaders, represents many unions that are spread through the country and which have a total of 23 thousand members. Its establishment relates directly to an autonomous attempt of normalizing production soon after the conflict started, in 2003.

"Workers in Iraq's southern oilfields began organizing soon after British occupying forces invaded Basra. We founded our union, the Southern Oil Company Union, just 11 days after the fall of Baghdad in April 2003," Awad wrote. "From the beginning, we were left in no doubt that the US and its allies had come to take control of our oil resources," completed Awad, who was sent to jail three times during the Hussein regime.

After rebuilding the country's oil industry during the war, the Iraqi workforce has given other demonstrations of power. Even though it was not officially recognized, a strike held in August 2003 paralyzed the production for two days and forced the provisory government to negotiate. That resulted in a considerable raise of wages and avoided foreigner workers from taking their job positions. Besides opposing the occupation forces' interests and not having their full rights granted in the country, unionists have also complained to be the target of insurgent's attacks. According to David Bacon, North American journalist specialized in work and unionism, the Iraqi union activism bases date from the 1920s, when the British started to exploit oil in the country. As it happens today, at that time the movement was considered illegal, and was violently repressed by the British, the journalist reports in an article to the San Francisco Chronicle. "To Iraqi unions, denying them legal status is a way to keep them weak in the face of the occupation's economic program," Bacon wrote. He recently served as host to a group of Iraqi unionists who were visiting the US for two weeks in order to gain political support from their colleagues. According to the journalist, there are hundreds of union centers in the country which do not totally agree among themselves, but which have a single discourse when it comes to privatization.

Last month, 15 thousand workers from the South Oil Company went on strike for 24 hours in Basra – a movement that apparently did not relate to the government's announcement. They demanded better wages and that a bigger share of the amount resulting from oil exportation stay in the region.

More Information on Iraq
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