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Strikes, Bosses Attacked, and Fist Fighting with British Soldiers - Basra Report

Ewa in Basra | 05.12.2003 21:45 | Social Struggles

Written early November, apologies for the late posting, piece was originally meant for Red Pepper Dec Issue


Workers Struggle in British-occupied Basra

Its 9.30 am in Najeebeeya Electricity Plant in British-Occupied Basra.
Machine gun-armed English guards are ushering US Bechtel managers on five
figure salaries into the boss's office. Tanks and jeeps â?? shudderingly
similar to those used by Israeli troops in Occupied Palestine
roll up into the serene sandbag-seiged airport â?? now a military base to
the worlds most notorious squatters. The much lauded 'hearts and minds'
British occupation spun as quieter and more humble compared to that of the war-combat and Baghdad-battered hunters and hunted US is supposed to be based on past Brit experience of occupation. Any kid off the street in
Northern Ireland circa 1972 could tell you hearts and minds were more
likely to be splattered over the pavement than won by 'our boys'. The
comparative calm in Basra is more down to the recycling of the old
fascist authorities â?? a common Brit tactic used in
post war Nazi Germany where ministers, police and industrial overlords
were quietly removed and their second or third in commands slipped in.
Reliable Mercenary Ruling Elites. The Brits faced a riot when they tried
install Muzahim Mustafa Kanan al Tamimi, better known as Gen. Al Tamimi,
a former brigadier in Saddamâ??s army, as civil administrator in April.

The old General Federation of Iraqi Workers, formerly led by Ali Hassan
Majid â?? chemical Ali â?? is still active and supported by the CPA, trying
to pressurize new unions to join up by promising them state salaries and
perks (social housing, food subsidies, bonuses) as paid by the old
regime, and by the new one too, so says Hussein Fadhil Hasan, Chairman
of the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions in Basrah. "We sent letters to
the CPA many times, informing them of the Baathist mangers and union
representatives but they did nothing', he says speaking out of the tired
offices of the old Baathist Union offices, now the HQ of the Communist
Party, Women's Union, and Federation, and home to 70 displaced families.
The Airport is cited as the main location of former high ranking Baathist
employees. The Union was barred from inspecting conditions there however
the old Baathists were allowed to work freely. Pre-regime fall, Saddam Hussein advised all party activists and loyalists to join the occupiers, keep close to them, assimilate into their apparatuses, and collaborate in order to explode them from within at a later date. It is commonly perceived here that the Baathists were the first to come to the Occupying
Authorities and offer their services as translators and informers (most
whom were Secret Service before the war) and that previously on-side and bought off
Special Republican Guard members now secure military installations and bases
and oversee some of the most sensitive sites of reconstruction. Most
Baath party membership records were burned following the fall, proof of party membership is scant. The tactic
now is to get close to the occupiers and wait for the appropriate time to
turn â?? if such is the inclination, or simply to save ones skin from
retribution or incarceration. But peopleâ??s justice is also being administered here. OW was told that 15 Baathists have been killed by the hands of the people in the past month alone here.

"Many many workers totally reject the very idea of unionization, so badly
scarred are their memories of the Baathist formations, used as tools of
oppression and intelligence gathering against the working classâ?? tells us Samir Hanoon, head of the Transport Workers Union. Many
reject even the idea of forming a union". The Union represents 10 unions in Basra including the Spinning and Sewing Laborerâ??s Union, Health Professionals Union, Oil and Gas Union and the Railway Union of Basra.
The Union is also part of the all-Iraqi Federation of Iraqi Workers
Unions, based in Baghdad. But the entire federation is devoid of funds -
those of the old federation having been frozen by the CPA.

Before coming to Basra I walked in on a meeting
of trade unionists in Baghdad: transport, engineering, electrical, gas, plus
representatives from the Northern and Southern Oil Company Refineries,
Basrah Oil Refinery and Baghdad's Daurra, all discussing a National Strike!!
Workers were all up for it but the leaders of the Federation cautioned
against it, saying that it would be against the interests of the working
class right now, given the volatile security situation and the real
possibility of action being co-opted or subject to sabotaging propaganda
labeling it a Baathist strike. Indeed a couple of days after the meeting
old Saddamists called for a General Strike all over Iraq. Some workers in
Basra joined in but were soon challenged and stopped by union reps. Fuel
transportation workers were particularly enthusiastic over the idea of
the National Strike; five drivers have been killed on the road to Basra
by thieves and saboteurs since the fall of the regime. The demands of the
strike were that drivers transporting gas, petrol and oil be allowed to
carry arms to protect themselves; all workers be granted transportation
from their homes to workplaces; higher wages â?? emergency payments are
still in force - $60 minimum for most state industry workers rising to
$120 for those with long-term experience, although the new CPA pay table
is suggesting 69,000 diner as the lowest monthly wage (approx. $40) and 3 million for
Super A fatcats, a riot-sparker if there every was one; the sacking of
All Baathist managers â?? currently still running the Oil Industry as attested to by many workers here in Basra, kept not just because they are the most
experienced (non-high ranking Baathists didnâ??t get promoted and were banned from working in any crucial or sensitive areas of operation in any refineries. Most were trained outside of Iraq to ensure that the critical information remained solely in the hands of the regime, and that no repetition of the Iranian oil worker refinery take-overs during the revolt against the Shah in the late 70s could take place),but also the most experienced in the use of violent repression against workers. These people are not necessarily the most qualified as many uneducated Baathists rose
meteorically rather meritocratically due to their political devotions. The final demand of the general strike was to have spaces for unions to organize in.

Iraq is the most indebted county in the world, shackled with approx. $200bn, plus 70% unemployment and no state rescue benefit despite fantasy-false claims
that $60 will be paid monthly by the Ministry of Labour. Given the depths
of the Iraqi economy's depression, itâ??s surprising that any strike action
is taking place at all, but the working class is on fire.

Dockworkers have launched 16 wildcat strikes in the past three months.
Three were sacked three days ago by newly appointed CPA lackey Abdel
Razzaq (more on him later) for trying to form a union. The workforce
response is as yet unarticulated.

May saw a successful strike at Ma'aql port over payment in 10,000 dinar
notes, then practically un-usable and exchanging for just 7,000, and the
withdrawing of profit shares for 2002 â?? frozen all over the country into
Ministry of Finance coffers aka as CPA pockets. Over 600 workers
attacked the boss's house, destroyed it, and trashed the administration
offices, especially the accounting office, smashing up furniture and
The Accounting Manager, responsible for payment, fled and
was later deposed.
British tanks and troops were moving in fast to repress the uprising when
Trade Union leaders turned up and managed to contain the situation by giving British Troops an ultimatum: Give us our wages, in dollars, the full amount, or we will Kill the accounting manager and we will kill Abdul Razzaq. The management (controlled by the CPA) paid up the following day.

August and September were the 'hot' months of strikes in Basrah,
including a totally autonomous governorate-wide walk-out in September demanding gas,
fuel, water and electricity, started by transportation workers marching
through the streets and ending
in thousands joining them and front-line fist-fighting with British
troops. Vans formed barricades at the front of the march and demonstrators carried placards saying â??Iraq â?? the land of fuel without any fuelâ??. The price for a canister of cooking gas had risen to 12,000 dinar ($6) the equivalent of four days wages for the average Iraqi worker. In Baghdad it was 8,000. It should be 1,500 maximum. The residents of Basra live above ground containing massive reserves of gas, produced in Rumeilla and Sheâ??iba refineries. People were unable to feed their families. The crowd was on fire and the riot raged for three days.

The result was the reduction of the price of gas to 1,250 dinar and a reduction of the price of fuel too.

There have been three general strikes over wages too â?? the CPA has been
varying the payment from Dinars to dollars meaning a significant loss in earnings according to the fluctuating exchange rate. Pay is constantly delayed too, from 4 days to 10 days in the worst circumstances. â??They messed with the pay three times; they were answered by general strikes three times. It was the only way we get our fair pay', explains Hussein.

The antidote to this insurrectionary activity has been the supplanting of Iraqi labour by foreign workers, mainly by Kuwaiti subcontractors biting their piece of the big Bechtel and Halliburton reconstruction pie. The Al Khoorafi Construction company rehabilitating oil refineries in the South faced a wildcat strike 21 days ago over the fact that 70% of the workforce was foreign (mainly Asian) leaving 30% Iraqis (many highly experienced) employment crumbs. The strike lasted two days, involved the physical ejection of the foreign workers by Iraqi workers and ended with local tribal leaders paying the Boss a visit and telling him they'd bomb his offices it if he didn't start employing more Iraq workers. He reversed the ratio the very same day.

No former high-ranking Baathists have been sacked from their managerial
positions, including those running the country's soon to be pumping
jugular vein of capital â?? Um Qsr. The new director General however is
42-year-old Abdel Razzaq, who has made the quantum career leap in
responsibility and duty from engineer to GD of all the ports on the
southern strip, mostly on account of his family's occupation loyalty
securing trauma (six brothers in the Daawa Party slaughtered by Saddam)
rather than his skills, so say local workers. He oversees 10,000 workers with no powers of payment or payscale leverage. He's the buffer and antagonism sponge the CPA â?? the workers real employer, responsible for all wages â?? weighing in at approx $1m per month with $15 per week minimum â?? needs to retain its armed, indifferent, sandbagged distance. Elected into the position, he is currently overseen, mentored and advised by what Basra workers call the 'shadow boss' of the key port â?? John Walsh, Stevedoring Services of Americas' Man in the Field and officially titled â?? Operations Manager. He denies any authority over Razzaq, saying â??Heâ??s my bossâ??, but he's working and living in the country's main port, while the GD works from an office in central Basra, guarded by 120 Badr Brigade militia men (the armed wing of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq), following the destruction of
his office and cousin's house by some seriously pissed of port workers. On October 25, Razzaq also prohibited any communication between any workers at any level in the Iraqi Port Authority and foreign media or NGOs. If Razzaq is Walshâ??s Boss, how was he able to speak to me â??freelyâ?? without any deference to â??his bossâ??.

Asked what he would do if workers took strike action in Um Qsr, Walsh
replied 'I would go and sit in my compound and play cards all day'.
Pressed further, he continues, 'Well if got Really nasty I'd be over that wall in the British compound playing cards with the British all day. Cos they got guns'. Neither worker welfare nor warfare were his concerns or that of SSA â?? answerable to only to USAID (SSA's
paymasters/contractors) and the CPA. Why worry about insurgent workers
when you've been paid your $4.8m and there are tanks and troops to stream out and repress it all if it gets out of hand?. Walsh would not comment on whether SSA would be bidding to the Iraqi Port Authority to run the port proper in March. However, he conceded that it would be a lucrative contract and that neither Iraqi managers nor companies were in a state to run the port at the current pace of learning, equipment or capital ownership â?? a condition of competitive capitalist backwardness due to the 13 years of UN approved genocidal sanctions that stunted the trade and business possibilities of generations of Iraqis.

A few days ago I traveled down to the Southern Oil Company refinery and
managed to talk with some control room workers, flanked by about 10 SOC Union reps and their supervisors. One, a union members, was particularly outspoken, who sounded by turns, like a former Baathist cheerleader or communist
- the distinctions are blurred, with elements of the Baath's socialist analysis
intersecting with that of the Communists, leading to their doomed
collaboration in the government in the 80s - who said that the strike
which shut the plant down a few weeks ago (totally unreported in the
media) wasnâ??t just about wages, but was a sharp political warning. 'We've lived on virtually nothing for years, we can carry on. The strike was about our pride, it was about sending our voices further than the front gate of this plant, it was about sending our voices right to Washington that we Iraqi workers will not be exploited, this is our country, these are our resources, and we have the power. We are not just workers earning a living, we've been working here most of our lives and this is ours. Everyone in Iraq knows the history of the British here, and the Americans, we know who created Saddam and we know why this war was waged. For 13 years we were the cheapest country in the world. Now we will show them (occupiers) what we are made of'. The strike was political. The strike was a warning. When asked about the response of KBR - the US's chief reconstruction/privatization/troop services agent, the workers laugh, 'We sent them running', said one, 'We told them to 'Ishtah!' - 'GO!'.". They were
terrified', said another, smiling shyly. Indeed, KBR cars have been attacked by machinegun fire numerous times here and all reps travel with armed private security.

So back to Najibeeya, where this story starts. I'm taken to the decrepit, grime-greased maintenance section of the plant by a steely eyed union rep and the plant's well-fed,
authority-sated security chief. Both men wear shiny shoes and pressed
bright shirts with well-fed bellies protruding underneath. Inside, a
spontaneous assembly of 40 workers gathers around.
Taalib Abdel Zahra, father of eight, who put in 13-years service at the
plant before leaving for Iran post '91 Intifada, came back after The Fall
and is on 2,500 Dinar per day â?? worth 3 packs of cigarettes, a bag of
bread and a cardboard wheel of processed cheese. All the workers are
volatile over their slave wages. Desperation over the lack of any
retirement payment, once secure under the Baath but cancelled by the CPA has forced many elderly
workers to return to their jobs â?? three in the plant are working for 1000
Dinar (approx. a kg of potatoes, a bag of bread and a banana) after
45-years of service. Asked if anyone has lost their job since the war,
one replies, 'If any of us are sacked we will kill the boss'. Anther cuts
to the chase â?? 'Before we were fighting Saddam, now we have two things to
fight against â?? the Occupation and the old Baathists still in power'.
Another says, 'Corruption in the administration is massive, before it was
20% now its 200%'.

'We are all highly skilledâ??, continues one, â??we can fix anything, and know this plant
well. But the management are brining in foreign workers and
paying them to repair things which we can do! We can do it and we have
the time to do it'. Asked what they expect from their union, the
send the rep and the security guard into a minor tizz, trying to shut
people up, pacify them, schtum them with patting-down hand gestures and
quick grimaces. 'We don't know the word â??union.' Says one, ignoring them, 'Our union is fake' says another, 'its something for the media. We've had no results.
We want our union to send for members of the administration and question
them. But they have no authority, they're not officially recognised'.
Again, the ghost of the 1987 anti-Union Baathist law which exterminated
workers, turning them all into â??civil servantsâ??
state employees, persists unchanged. Communiques on management pinboards
remind workers that the CPA (Under their Public Notice on Organisation in the Workplace issued June 6 which states that the â??CPA respects Iraqi Lawâ??, especially worker repressing Baathist regime law, and has therefore not changed any laws regarding labour legislation. Same as it ever was....Workers do not
exist. Unions do not exist. The old '87 law is the biggest
obstacle to the recognition of organised workers. However as most people regard the government and occupation as unofficial/illegal, workers struggle will not and does not wait for legislation and official sanctioning before striking back, taking collective action theyâ??ve been denied on pain of death for 35 years.

But the repression continues. Same as it ever was. I visited a worker unaffiliated to the trade union but working for the Southern Oil Company in his company supplied home. We spoke to him and his colleague 'Hassan' (not his real name) who has worked for SOC for 30 years. He knows the company inside-out. His wages have improved but still amount to just $10 per day. He canâ??t, and never will be able to afford to move out of his 2-room caravan, unless he gets a raise. He tells us that the management, the same dictatorial and murderous Baathists responsible for the ordering of hundreds of oil workers dead, are still running the
show. 'We threw them all out, every single one, but the Ministry of
Oil/CPA ordered many of them back in'. Theyâ??re protected by people from
the Al Gahramasha tribe â?? notorious for looting, killing, robbing
and kidnapping doctors and women in the area. 'They have a very very bad reputation and nobody can go against them', he tells us. That and the fact that the Baathists' re-installers -the CPA - must also be watching their backs, secures them in their comfy, mafia chairs. Who better to control the most powerful men in the world and the biggest real and ideological threat to the occupation of Iraq and the wars and sanctions and logic of capital that lead it here, than their old oppressors, backed up by men in different uniforms, with better weapons and a slicker global PR machine.

In the middle of our conversation, searingly truthful in the face of so
many usual layers of practised lies-for-survival and evasions and watched words - by the speaker himself or the guard beside him - the legacy of 35-years of totalitarianism and internal empire, amounting to a form of social psychosis, an internalised state duress-impressed false consciousness, false reality, in the middle of his talk, a well-dressed, smooth smiling man walks in and sits down. The atmosphere turns clenched, the talk stalls, stops and a now familiar screamingly violent but contradictory casual silence seeps over us. The curtain rises, the psychosis ignites and the slicker dressed man smiles at us, easily, warmly. How did he know? I ask him who he is. He works in
accounts. Never a good sign, always a position of power,
boss-intimacy and here, high ranking Baathism. I start off general, asking him how-his-life-is-after-the-fall-of-the-regime. 'So much better, excellent' he tells me, 'Everythingâ??s better, we have democracy, we can talk freely, and we can by satellite dishes now too!â?? A dish costs $150 dollars - 90% of the population cant afford one and are forced to suffer the country's sole TV channel - the Iraqi Media Network - run by CPA former Delta Force men with no media credentials whatsoever and beaming out affronts to the population such as pro-CPA skewed news reports and 'debates' â?? the words â??occupation forcesâ?? ruled out and unuttered - and audio-visual abominations such as bad 80s documentaries on crop circles and the truly awful 80s TV-movie adaptation of Fergie - the Duchess of York's - life, complete with flicks-a-hoy Diana in puffball partydresses and Charles and Andrew playing angst ridden pomposity saturated voices-of-reason. Sick-Bag Television. Cultural collective punishment.

I then ask the accountant about old Baathists at the oil company, saying we'd heard they were still in management. 'No, thereâ??s no Baathistsâ?? he says, matter-of-factly, â??theyâ??ve all gone, we donâ??t have any', he says. My two
friends agree, nod, not looking at me, â??yes, thatâ??s true, there aren't anyâ??.
The conversation hangs, cut. The accountant re-joins it and carries on
articulating just how there really arenâ??t any Baathists and everything is much better, wages are higher, people are freer translator friend whoâ??s with me translates to me that I really have to change the subject, that this is really uncomfortable and please not to change my facial expression as the accountant thinks Iâ??m translating everything he just said to you, so just change the
subject, ok?'. â??Al Hamdulilah!â?? I say (thanks be to god!) and we steer it away, far away to the scripted track of how great liberation has been, and its exhales all round, laughter, and the crossing of legs, reaching for cigarettes. I get up and leave, sick of it, and sit down on the floor of the caravanâ??s pocketsize kitchen with our friend's wife. We set out plates of fresh fish, lentil and noomi basri
(dried lime)casserole, flat bread made with palm oil, black-eye pea and
pepper soup and minutely chopped up tomato and cucumber salad on a huge
round metal tray. I say to her, carefully, 'that guy, who just came over, who is he? Whats he like, he's...he's strange'. She laughs and looks ever so slightly deliriously delighted, 'No No No! He's great, yes, he's great', she says, carrying on putting the dishes on the tray, perfectly. 'No', I say, laughing a bit, 'Really?' deliberately showing my disbelief,
leaving the field open for her to join me, 'No No, he's good, all good' she continues, eyes down. Of course he is. He's the man who'd kill your
entire family if you ever spoke out against him. Or Saddam or the local
Saddam, the immediate Saddam - the Oil Boss. He's your neighborhood
guard dog, the Baathist you can't kill because he's protected by the
governorates most vicious tribe. He's your thought police, he's your
reminder that nothings changed and the rules are still the same. He's
your reminder that the nightmare isn't over. The nightmare isn't over.

I bring in the tray and the accountant is getting up. Hassan is leaving
with him. Im worried about Hassan. He was the most open, he seemed the
most aware. He seemed to be active, from before. He seemed to be ready to challenge, to speak out. He seemed like he's been through this before.
They both leave, easy, inevitably. We let the rupture pass, we eat, we talk about the food, we talk about the family's pets, where we're going
next, we say our best thankyous, kiss, and leave.

As if the persistent power and presence of the Baath isn't enough,
the second biggest challenge facing workers in Iraq today is their lack of knowledge of their rights. The International Labour Organisation
Conventionsthe e quivalent of the Geneva Conventions for workers
rights are unheard of. There is also no info available on their new
foreign corporate controllers and the processes which brought them here, on the Occupation-decreed laws against them. Most, including the unionists do not even know what the term 'privatisation' means, even less so the practices and history of Bechtel and Halliburton, now running their plants.
This is all compounded by a pronounced deprivation of organizational knowledge, information-sharing, and dictatorship crushed self-faith. Insurrection, autonomous striking, attacking the boss, armed picket lines â?? are all expressions of the high consciousness of their own power that workers have here, but the consolidation of that struggle, the raising of it to new levels of sustainable confrontation and its protection from forces of co-optation and potential extermination, is the real struggle ahead.

Ewa Jasiewicz (Occupation Watch) is working with Iraq Trades Unions, and
US Labour Against The War in campaigning for the immediate repeal of the
Baathist 1987 anti-trade union and full workers rights to unionise as
recognized by the ILO. You can contact her on
for more details - notes on
the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions

Ewa in Basra

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