Iraqi workers stand defiant against bosses and imperialist forces

Opposition to the presence of foreign troops is not merely expressed in the daily attacks on US soldiers. Now there are signs of a growing militant mood among the Iraqi workers. The number of strikes has been increasing. By Roberto Sarti. (October 28, 2003).

When the occupation of Iraq began in April we stressed that the task of holding down the country would not be so easy for the imperialist armies as the actual winning of the war. US Deputy Secretary of Defence, Paul Wolfowitz, has just finished a short visit to Iraq. This was part of a public relations gimmick by the White House. Unfortunately for Wolfowitz his attempt to portray a rosy picture of the situation in Iraq was rudely interrupted by the shooting down of a US army Black Hawk helicopter. The number of attacks on the US military is on the increase – an average of two dozen every day!
Wolfowitz would like the Iraqi people to believe the US military are there to help them. However a study by Iraq’s Centre for Research and Strategic Studies has recently revealed that 67 per cent of the Iraqi people regard the US-UK led forces as “occupying powers”. This is 20 per cent more than when Saddam Hussein’s regime was brought down. Thus as time goes by things get worse for the imperialists. The people of Iraq have lost any illusions any of them may have had in the early stages of the US occupation. They can see which interests the US-UK troops are really defending.

It is not only a question of armed resistance that is growing day by day. The mass media cannot avoid reporting this. There is also a growing mood of anger among ordinary Iraqi workers that is beginning to be expressed in strike action.

The class struggle on the part of the Iraqi workers and unemployed is beginning to take off. And yet this kind of opposition hardly gets a mention in the western media. The reason is obvious: they want to give people here in the west a picture that depicts the Iraqis as a bunch of uncivilised barbarians, of Muslim fundamentalists far removed from our “cultured”, “civilised” world. What they want us to believe is that what is happening is not a war between oppressor and oppressed, but a “clash of civilisations”, one in which we are supposed to be more inclined to take sides with our own rulers against so-called “alien cultures”. However, nothing could be further from the truth. Iraq, far from being some backwoods is an industrialised country, where the workers, especially in the oil sector, play a key role. And like workers of all countries they act when their vital interests are at stake.

In the last few weeks a whole number of demonstrations and strikes have been taking place. The unemployed have held mass rallies and demonstrations in Baghdad and Basra. On October 1 in Basra unemployed workers, tired of empty promises, attacked the council building in an attempt to occupy it. The governor and the members of the city council, which is mainly made up of Islamic groups, fled from the building. The police then started shooting randomly to disperse the demonstrators.

A solid one-day strike was also reported in the country's biggest refinery in Basra at the beginning of October, although if its outcome is unclear. In Baghdad's Daura Oil Refinery three strikes in two weeks have taken place. The refinery's Director General Dathar Khashab explained how he dealt with the industrial action: “I wish I could have solved the protest by peaceful means but, well… we can't have anymore stoppages. More stoppages will harm the country”.

This ruthless former Ba’ath Party member, and now enthusiastic supporter of the occupying forces, revealed a lot about the attitude of the new rulers to a freelance journalist (part of an Occupation Watch delegation of US Labour Against the War). He explained to him that, “Privatisation [of Iraq's oil industry] is good because it keeps workers in fear. It keeps workers in fear for their jobs. Every worker here knows I control his life. If I sack him I ruin his life, his family's life”.

These are the kind of new managers that the US-UK bourgeoisie like. The fall of Saddam Hussein for the Iraqi workers was like fall from the frying pan into the fire.

In 1987, the Ba’ath passed a law that banned strikes and also officially deleted the very existence of “workers” in Iraq. They all became “civil servants”. It is no accident that the Provisional Authority has deliberately decided not to repeal this law. It seems not all of Saddam’s laws were bad. It also reveals that the outlook of the Saddam regime and that of the US-UK imperialists were and are the same, when it comes to dealing with the working class. Thus, thanks to Saddam, Bremer and Co., feel they have free hands when it comes to dealing with the Iraqi workers.

The working conditions of the vast majority of the Iraqi workers are appalling. The same freelance journalist visited Nahrawahn, near Baghdad, a complex of 150 factories, employing 15,000 workers, churning out thousands of bricks daily. Men, women and children are employed there, working 14 hours a day for the sum total of $1.50 (or 60cents for child labour). Of course, there are no health benefits, no holiday pay, no safety rules and no medical aid for injuries.

The reporter showed, however, that all workers have a limit beyond which they cannot go. When things reach this limit they have no alternative but to fight back.

“On Saturday October 11th, 75% of the workforce decided enough was enough and went on strike. 300-400 workers marched to the owner’s office and demanded social security, retirement payment, onsite medical aid facilities, contracts and a rise in wages. The owner had no idea that a union had been formed and told them, 'Fine, strike, go, I will dismiss you, others will come to take your place'. The workers responded by going to their homes, bringing out their guns and spontaneously forming an armed picket line. Manned with machineguns and kalashnikovs, workers guarded their factory and defended their strike from demolition by scab labour.

“The owner, overpowered, ended up granting the workers a rise of 500 dinars (25c), and agreed to enter into negotiations regarding social and health benefits. The strike was regarded all round as a massive success.”
“The unionised workers, empowered by their victory, have ideas about improving their conditions and keeping the owners in check. 'The Union must control the fuel in the ovens. Then the factory owner will obey us', says Farhan (one of the workers interviewed).”

This episode is only a foretaste of the music that we are going to hear in Iraq in the future. Even in the extremely difficult conditions of Iraq, the workers are rising to their feet. The clashes between bosses and toilers will often take on a brutal character. This is due to the nature of the occupation by the imperialists and to the ruthlessness of the native and foreign bourgeoisie. That is why self-defence committees on picket lines are absolutely necessary. The workers in the episode described above clearly understood this when they went and got out their guns!

However, we must also understand that the question of weapons and guns is always auxiliary to the organised action of the working class. It is mass action that is always decisive. The workers in the case mentioned above won firstly, and mainly, because they were determined and united, and the question of arms was secondary (although obviously important). The US Army, from a purely military point of view, could have smashed them any time they wanted. What they could not do was destroy the spirit of solidarity among the workers and their determination to struggle.

The working class, together with the unemployed and the poor peasants are the overwhelming majority of the population in Iraq. Organised in a revolutionary party, they could defeat any army of occupation. This is especially the case in a situation where the US soldiers are not happy to be in Iraq. According to a survey conducted by the Stars and Stripes newspaper, already about a third of the respondents complain that their mission lacks clear definition and characterize the war in Iraq as of little or no value. Fully 40 percent said the jobs they were doing had little or nothing to do with their training. A total of 49 percent of those questioned said it was “very unlikely” or “not likely” that they would remain in the military after they complete their current obligations. (The Washington Post, 19/10/2003).

As conditions deteriorate, the workers of Iraq will inevitably take the path of working class struggle, involving strikes and factory occupations, general strikes and mass demonstrations. Such a mass movement of the Iraqi masses would have a deep effect on these already dissatisfied American soldiers. It would make it abundantly clear that what they are doing in Iraq is not “liberating the people” but oppressing their Iraqi working class brothers and sisters.
A mass movement of the Iraqi working class would also cut across the Islamic fundamentalist fog which is being used to dupe the workers and it would be seen as a beacon by all the workers and youth of the Middle East.