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Putting the Brakes on Privatization in Iraq

James O'Nions
Date Published: 
August 01, 2005
    Hassan Juma’a Awad, the President of the General Union of Oil Employees (GUOE) in Basra, Southern Iraq, visited Britain in February as a guest of U.K.-based Iraq Occupation Focus. James O’Nions spoke to him.

No anti-war activist can be unaware of the importance of oil to Iraq’s economy — and to its occupiers. No sooner had the occupation begun than oil workers started forming unions. The General Union of Oil Employees (GUOE), formed by federating a number of oil sector unions, is politically independent and represents approximately 23,000 workers. The GUOE is built from the grassroots and is not linked to any of the political parties involved in running the occupation. This is in contrast to the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions, the most successful of Iraq’s three non-sector-specific federations in promoting itself on the international stage. The GUOE started with a union at the Southern Oil Company in April 2003, spreading to nine other companies in the area in three main provinces in the south, Amara, Nasiryah, and Basra. The union’s aims, Awad says, are twofold, “Firstly to maintain and advance the rights of workers and to reclaim rights lost under the Baath regime; secondly to protect the wealth of the country, the oil, both from looters and from the occupiers.” Awad is particularly proud that the union was responsible for the first free and democratic union elections since the Baath regime banned strikes in 1978 and independent unions in 1987. They also managed to wrangle some impressive early concessions from Paul Bremmer’s provisional authority. “We knew that the US strategy was military occupation followed by economic occupation. Kellog, Brown and Root [KBR; a subsidiary of Halliburton] were clearly aiming to dominate and control the oil sector. So the union tried to hinder their work. We reached an agreement that KBR could supply the materials for rebuilding, but that Iraqis must install it. Eventually KBR withdrew because they weren’t happy with the arrangement, and it wasn’t sufficiently profitable for them.” In the meantime, the union won other victories. Bremmer’s authority tried to impose a 69,000 dinar ($35) per month wage on public sector workers (which included oil workers). A three-day strike forced them to raise this to 150,000 dinars with more for skilled workers and those with longer service. KBR subcontracted work to a Kuwaiti company that brought in 1,200 workers from South Asia on wages twenty times that of Iraqis doing the same job. Not only was Iraqi unemployment 60-70% at the time, but KBR’s policy was part of a strategy of systematically denying Iraqis both the ability to earn a wage and any control over the country’s infrastructure. The union was very pleased to get 1000 of those jobs reallocated to Iraqis. The GUOE also ensured that pumping stations were working again within just two months of the beginning of the occupation. According to Awad, this was a humanitarian act, since oil is Iraq’s only real source of income. Last year, during the siege of Najaf, the union shut down production briefly in solidarity with oil workers. “And we will do it again,” says Awad, “if the occupation forces perpetrate those kind of violations again” Crowning achievement None of the concessions have been won easily, and Bremmer’s insistence to enforce a Baathist law banning unions hindered them considerably. Awad says there is a desperate need for union education, as the younger generation have no experience in union organizing. So what of the future? Awad wants to see a union for all oil workers in Iraq, including in Kirkuk in the north. Elections are also a key issue. “Even though the elections were not fully legitimate, we are hoping that at least the new government will do something to look after the interests of the country and take firm decisions against the occupiers,” he says. Awad dismisses tensions between the Sunnis and Shia, pointing to the occupiers who have an interest in igniting communal fighting. “In Basra, Sunni and Shia live in harmony; we say that we all believe simply in Islam.” In May of this year, the GUOE hosted a conference in Basra — with solidarity funds raised by UK activists — to discuss oil privatization. Although oil was excluded from the privatization program when Paul Bremmer was “governing” Iraq, the occupation authorities are keen to make changes. Iraq’s army of western economic advisers are only concerned with private ownership to deal with the technological gap that exists in the oil industry. The interests of big oil companies may also have something to do with their enthusiasm. Awad and others at the conference argued that the oil industry’s highly skilled Iraqi workforce can develop the production under Iraqi ownership and establish service agreements with western experts only when necessary. Although no survey has been done, anecdotal evidence suggests the vast majority of Iraqis agree with the union. The Basra conference, entitled “To revive the public sector and to build an Iraq free of privatization,” brought together academics and trade unionists as a first attempt to place the issue of privatization in the public domain. In this sense, the conference was an enormous success. The closing statement of the conference affirmed a shared belief that Iraq’s public sector economy was the crowning achievement of the 1958 revolution and represented the commonwealth of all Iraqis. In light of the current political situation, the conference rejected all privatization and called on elected representatives to do the same. The international community was asked to unconditionally drop all of Iraq’s odious debt accumulated under Saddam Hussein. As an independent trade union, GUOE has been central to the fight against the “corporate invasion” of Iraq. The union stands in resolute opposition to the military occupation and not just because of the continuing deaths and suffering. Until the occupation is over, the US and its partners will continue to impose their aggressive neoliberal agenda on Iraq and create poverty for decades to come. While the priority for anti-imperialists in the West remains to expose and end the occupation, it is vital that the inspiring work of the GUOE receive our solidarity. In the end, the struggle against the US empire and global capitalism are one in the same. ______________________ About The Author James O'Nions is a London-based anti-capitalist who works with Iraq Occupation Focus. His factsheet on the Corporate Invasion of Iraq can be found at Ewa Jasiewicz assisted in preparing this article