Global Policy Forum

Blood, Sweat and Oil


By Kamil Mahdi*

Socialist Review
July 2007

In recent months Iraq's oil workers have come into confrontation with the puppet government in Baghdad. Kamil Mahdi writes on a union movement forged in struggles.

Iraq's oil workers represent a small proportion of the country's workforce, but they are historically some of the best organised and most politically conscious groups. Their politics has always combined labour issues with wider working class and national concerns. This is because the nature of their industry brought them into direct contact with multinational capital and its imperialist protectors as well as with subservient or oppressive governments. The workers were also conscious of the supreme importance of their industry and of the greed that surrounds it. The nature of the oil industry has meant that there is a high proportion of technical posts and a close association between workers and middle-level technical managers, and a high level of work discipline that is necessary to maintain safety and also security in times of conflict. This is also a national industry in which the workforce is made up of both people of a particular locality as well as others appointed from across the country and chosen for their specific skills.

The industry itself combines not only workers in oilfields that stretch over wide spaces, but also workers in a number of related activities, including production services such as drilling, refineries, pipeline transportation, terminals, oil tankers, gas bottling plants and others. The workers and professional staff in all these different activities and relevant companies have organized themselves in the General Union of Oil Employees in the Southern Region which subsequently was joined by others to form the Iraqi Federation of Oil Unions which aspires to represent the sector's workers across Iraq. These unions and the federation were established in the first weeks of the US occupation of Iraq, and they were born in struggle with the mercenary arms of the US occupation, including Halliburton and its contractors who were designated to establish a colonial type hegemony over Iraq's resources. The workers forced these mercenaries out and established the terms under which the oil industry was going to operate during the subsequent period. By their actions, the workers linked their labour rights demands with a major national issue, and carried on in the long tradition of labour organisation and activism in Iraq, interrupted by a period of extremely effective penetration and suppression. The IFOU today stands at the forefront of labour, national and democratic struggles in Iraq.

Workers in the southern fields as well as elsewhere in the country together with those in other parts of the oil industry have maintained a high level of vigilance and commitment to their industry and their country at this critical time, maintaining production in the most trying of circumstances, and considering this a duty to the rest of society. It is therefore not surprising that they should be demanding acknowledgement of their role and full consultation on the future of their industry and Iraq's national resources. They continue to reject takeover attempts by multinational oil companies under the proposed Oil & Gas Law, and they are now coming into growing conflict with a government that dependent upon the protection and support of the occupying forces. The Government is engineering a crisis in relations with the IFOU by agreeing to union demands and then reneging on them, pushing workers towards a serious strike action. The incompetence and corruption prevalent under the US occupation has meant that there is a serious fuel crisis and also inability to carry out any war reconstruction. The government therefore has great residual financial resources with which it might fight try to confront the unions at the same time as it will try to whip up hostility among the population over the shortages of fuel and lack of reconstruction by blaming them on the workers.

However, the workers have also maintained solidarity across the different parts of the industry and have gained support from other unions and very wide public understanding over the question of the oil law and over the government's corruption and subservience to the occupation. The coming months will be very important for the future of the labour movement in Iraq, and for the country's control of its national resources. The government is ignoring objections of oil workers and of many others across Iraq to its proposed Oil and gas Law, and instead threatening to arrest workers' leaders. The Iraqi Federation of Oil Unions must be supported by the international workers' movement.

About the Author: Kamil Mahdi is an Iraqi lecturer in Middle Eastern Economics at the University of Exeter and a fellow of the Transnational Institute.

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