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Iraqi trade unions in struggle

Hadi never died: Hadi Saleh and the Iraqi trade unions by Abdullah Muhsin and Alan Johnson. TUC publications 2006. £10.00

Review by Laurence Humphries

The book sets out to commemorate Hadi Saleh, a leading Iraqi trade unionist who was killed in 2005. The authors trace the history of the Iraqi labour movement during the revolt against the British in the 1920s. It shows that the Shias, Sunnis and Kurds were united in one national movement.

In 1927 The railway workers’ union was formed. From 1932-1936 national movements of resistance emerged in support of calls for land reform, freedom of assembly and the right to form trade unions. Between 1944-1946 the railway and port workers’ union led a series of strike movements.

In 1948, 30,000 oil workers went on strike and there was an insurrection. Political strikes took place with trade unionists and students demonstrating against the signing of a new treaty with Britain. The government fell, trade unions were legalised and the Iraqi General Federation of Trade Unions (GFTU) was formed.

In 1963, the army seized power under Ahman Ali Bakir led by the Ba’ath nationalist party. GFTU trade Union leaders were arrested. In 1977 Hadi Saleh fled into exile. In 1987, Saddam Hussein, who was now president, incorporated the trade unions into the state, declaring, “there is no more need for trade unions, no right to strike”. The GFTU became a labour front, an appendage of the state. 

Hadi had gone underground and become Abu Farat. He formed the Workers Democratic Union Movement. In exile, he continued to oppose Saddam’s policies of summary executions, torture and Imprisonment. The British miners’ union, in their strike of 1984-5 gave their support to the “struggle for independent unions in Iraq”. 

WDUM militants in exile opposed the US-led invasion of 2003. When Hadi Saleh returned from exile after the fall of Saddam’s regime he “appealed to Iraqi workers to unite and speak with one voice”. The Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions was formed but with Bush’s appointee Paul Bremner in charge it was difficult to organise workers. The authors explain Bremner’s role in trying to destroy organised labour. Assets were frozen and union members arrested. In spite of this, membership grew to over 200,000. Strikes were frequent in all sectors of the economy.

In September 2005, three trade union groups merged to form one Iraqi Federation of Labour (GFIW). But the American occupation forces continued to attack the trade unions. The leaders of the GFIW were arrested; soldiers stormed union offices, destroyed documents and arrested militants.

The authors state that many trade Unionists have been killed and abducted by either US soldiers or terrorist groups.  Abdullah Muhsin, one of the authors, says: “We do not support the occupation forces, we did not ask for the war, we want to see Iraq sovereign and we want foreign troops out.”

Muhsin and Johnson compare Hadi with Joe Hill the American militant who like Hadi was arrested and executed. Hadi was arrested, tortured and murdered. Born in 1949, he joined the Communist Party as a printer. Arrested by Saddam’s secret police for his trade union activities in 1969, he went into exile in 1977 after his release. In 1990 moved to Syria and formed the WDTUM. In 2002/2003 he spoke against the invasion and occupation of Iraq.

Muhsin and Johnson have made a good contribution to our understanding of Hadi Saleh and his struggle to build the Iraqi trade union movement. The weakness of the book is that they have no answers for the political situation that now dominates Iraq. They call for elections but there is no demand for struggle against the American/British occupation. They somehow hope that democracy will arrive in Iraq and fail to understand the role of global capital in Iraq.

They also claim that British trade unions have “won their democratic rights” when the right to strike is severely curtailed here thanks to New Labour retaining Tory anti-union laws. What is required in Iraq is a plan to remove the occupation forces, and the transnational corporations that are now milking the country dry. In place of the present puppet government, Iraqi trade unionists will no doubt find a way to create a movement that can unite the country once more under democratic and socialist leadership.

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