WILL BROWN reports on the sorry tale of a ‘left wing’ attack on Iraqi trade unionists.
As Gary Kent’s article makes clear, support for Iraq’s trade unions has been a contentious issue on the British left. Indeed, it has grabbed media attention and exposed some woeful political judgements by the Stop the War Coalition (StWC). Part of the reason for this attention was the attendance at Labour Party conference of Abdullah Muhsin, the British representative of the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions (IFTU) and the fact that conference voted against calling for the early withdrawal of troops from Iraq.
The Stop the War Coalition argued that Muhsin and the IFTU had been used by the Labour leadership to build opposition to the conference resolution calling for an ‘early date’ for withdrawal of British troops. It was also claimed in letters to the Guardian that Muhsin’s union credentials had provided political cover for union delegates who backed the Labour leadership line.
‘The illegal occupation is killing hundreds of Iraqis and the lives of British soldiers are being needlessly placed at risk,’ claimed Lindsey German, StWC convenor. Jon Rogers, a Unison branch secretary in London, and hard left contender in the forthcoming Unison general secretary election, wrote that: ‘Many trade unionists regret the way in which the IFTU was used against the anti-war movement in Brighton’ while going on to argue for support for Iraq’s trade unions.
The truth was somewhat more complex. Tony Woodley, general secretary of TGWU, wrote in the Morning Star on 26 October that: ‘There was a choice between a blatantly pro-government resolution, a statement from the Party executive outlining a rather vague and conditional timetable for troop withdrawal, and a constituency resolution asking for an early date to be set for troop withdrawal. In the event most unions helped secure the withdrawal of the first, unacceptable, resolution, voted for the executive statement and against the last resolution.’ Woodley justified the T&G position by citing the views of the IFTU.
However, it was the level and extent of the criticism of the IFTU which then ensued that caused most uproar. In the wake of Labour Party conference, the Guardian reported that the Stop the War Coalition’s criticism of IFTU had led to serious splits with several key trade union backers. Mick Rix, former head of ASLEF and no soft lefty, resigned from the steering committee of the Coalition, claiming statements against the IFTU were ‘not issued in my name’. Rix was particularly angered when the Coalition attacked Muhsin as a collaborator, a sentiment echoed later when George Galloway labelled him a ‘quisling’. As Gary Kent makes clear, in Iraq such attacks can literally be a death sentence.
Stop the War’s statement reaffirming ‘its call for an end to the occupation, the return of all British troops in Iraq to this country and … the legitimacy of the struggle of Iraqis, by whatever means they find necessary, to secure such ends’ was rightly seen by many unions as justifying suicide bombings and beheadings, and incurred the wrath of Unison. The phrase ‘any means necessary’ was hurriedly withdrawn but the damage had been done as far as Rix was concerned. Reflecting growing frustration with the Coalition at the TUC, T&G and GMB, Unison’s deputy general secretary Keith Sonnet claimed: ‘It’s not for us to tell unions in other countries how to operate. We have to listen to what they want.’
The attacks on the IFTU continued at the European Social Forum in London in October when the general secretary of IFTU, Sobhi Al-Mashhadani, was prevented from taking part in a debate on Iraq by a small group of vociferous ultra-left protesters. Interviewed later in the Guardian, Mr Mashhadani claimed the experience reminded him of being ‘silenced like we were silenced by Saddam’. Going on to defend IFTU, Mashhadani claimed, ‘We are not a puppet union of any government … after the collapse of Saddam, [Paul] Bremer and his army attacked us… But this did not deter us to build the trade union movement that is transparent, democratic and independent from the state and political parties.’
For his part, in a subsequent Guardian article, Abdullah Muhsin defended his attendance at Labour Party conference: ‘I called for the removal of foreign troops and a genuine transfer of power to the Iraqi people. I explained the IFTU’s policy of support for UN resolution 1546. I did not offer voting advice to trade unions on Labour’s Iraq motions and confined my remarks to urging solidarity with Iraqi workers.’
He went on: ‘The emerging signs of vibrant civil society, such as organisations of women, trade unionists and students, present a real political opportunity to end the occupation and isolate the forces promoting sectarian, communal and religious violence… These forces offer only hell to Iraqis and harbour some of the world’s most dangerous ideas… Widespread, popular sentiment against the foreign occupation of our country does not translate into legitimation of these forces.’
One of the more eloquent attacks on the StWC came from Nick Cohen, writing in the New Statesman. Denouncing the support for terrorists in Iraq, Cohen claimed: ‘The left, or at least that section of it which always manages to get the whip hand, has swerved to the right – to the far right, in fact – and is actively supporting theocrats and fascists: the oppressors of racial minorities, secularists, women, gays and trade unionists.’ He concluded that: ‘No one who considers himself a democrat, liberal or socialist can continue to associate with the Stop the War Coalition.’