Labor - And A Whole Lot More

Bringing Real Democracy to Iraq
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It's a peculiar kind of democracy we're bringing to Iraq. For like Saddam Hussein before them, the U.S. occupation authorities are denying workers the basic democratic right to form unions and to strike or otherwise protest their working conditions.

Although Hussein is gone, the supposed forces of democracy are enforcing his 1987 edict prohibiting union activities in the state-owned enterprises where the vast majority of Iraqis work.

The occupation authority also has frozen wages at the average of $60 a month set under Hussein -- but without providing the bonuses, profit-sharing and food and housing subsidies that workers regularly got in addition to pay.

Most workers, in any case, are not even getting wages. The unemployment rate has soared to 70 percent under U.S. occupation, yet not a cent of the $87 billion that Congress appropriated for rebuilding Iraq is going for unemployment benefits or for raising the wages of those who are fortunate enough to find work.

Workers are faced as well with the serious implications of the occupation authority's plans to privatize and sell off the state-owned factories, mines, mills, refineries and other enterprises to foreign investors, luring them in part with the promise of weak or non-existent unions. The foreigners could own the enterprises entirely, meaning that all profits could be spent outside Iraq. It's likely, too, that foreign owners would add to the country's severe jobless problem by cutting workforces in order to increase profits.

All of which makes clear that Iraqi workers badly need the right to form unions that would give them an effective voice in helping determine, not only their conditions of employment, but also the very future of their country.

They've been trying to organize such unions, primarily through a newly formed Federation of Trade Unions that so far encompasses unions in a dozen industries. Organizers also have established a Union of the Unemployed to seek help for the jobless. But though what they've been doing is of course a democratic right guaranteed to U.S. workers, it definitely is not a right guaranteed to Iraqis by U.S. authorities.

The authorities have twice arrested and detained for a day the two principal officers of the unemployed workers' union for leading members in demonstrations demanding jobs and unemployment benefits. They were warned that they and others leading workers' demonstrations or striking or encouraging strikes for any reason, including opposition to the authorities' privatization plans, could be charged with "inciting civil disorder" and thus made prisoners of war.

Soldiers also have raided the headquarters of the Federation of Trade Unions in Baghdad, handcuffing and detaining overnight eight members of the organization's executive board. A delegation of U.S. unionists who investigated said the raiders ransacked and sealed off the building, tore down banners and painted over the federation's name on the outside.

It's not surprising that President Bush's administration is involved in such blatant anti-unionism. That's precisely what the president has been doing domestically. He's taken away, "in the interest of national security," the union rights of more than 200,000 employees of the Transportation, Homeland Security and Justice Departments and attempted to privatize as many as 850,000 other federal jobs.

American unions naturally are attacking those domestic policies, as many are also attacking what the administration is inflicting on Iraq's workers "in the interest of national security." The opponents of U.S. policy in Iraq are joined in a group representing several million American union members and several dozen national, state and local labor organizations.

They're demanding immediate nullification of the Hussein era's anti-union laws and any other restrictions on the exercise of labor rights, in accord with the International Labor Organization's guarantees to all workers -- plus an immediate halt to privatization. They also demand a Congressional investigation of the U.S. role in suppressing union rights and in privatizing assets that belong to the Iraqi people.

President Bush doesn't know or doesn't care that no society can be truly democratic unless those who do its work can bargain collectively with their employers and otherwise assert their rights as workers.

The International Longshore and Warehouse Union put it best: "If democracy is ever to be achieved in Iraq, it must include free, independent trade unions."

Copyright Dick Meister