Iraq’s third big issue

We must look beyond the two issues that dominate discussions of Iraq, and unite in support of Iraq’s trade unions, says former MP HARRY BARNES

In Britain, our minds are often focussed on two big issues concerning Iraq. First, should we have been involved in its invasion? Secondly, should our troops now be withdrawn?

I will outline where I stand on these matters, before concentrating on a third key concern which I feel should engage the attention of the wider Labour and trade union movement. How significant are equivalent bodies to ours inside Iraq? What are they aiming for? And how worthy are they of our support?

But first let me confront those first two big issues.

I opposed the 2003 invasion of Iraq in a fully fledged way and I stand by the position I adopted. I was opposed to the invasion whether or not Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. We now know that he did not hold such weapons and that the argument used for the invasion was spurious. But, at the time, I argued that even if he held such weapons an invasion still wasn’t justified as it would have been a highly dangerous exercise – rather like prodding a mad dog with a stick.

I was also opposed to the invasion whether or not it was sanctioned by the United Nations. For me, if the United Nations had been persuaded to back the invasion, that decision would still have been the wrong one. With or without such backing, the likely consequences (as we have now seen) would be shocking in terms of the loss of life, the internal conflict in Iraq, and the impacts in Palestine, the rest of the middle east, and throughout the Muslim world.

While I don’t accept the estimates of post-invasion deaths that have twice been cited in the Lancet, I do recognise that the loss of life in this period has been horrendous and that something like it was predictable before the invasion.

However, those advocating an invasion did put forward a question which the rest of us needed to answer. ‘What would we do instead to tackle the manifest evils of Hussein’s regime?’ My answer was that we should have been assisting those brave people in Iraq who opposed the regime and who struggled to have it replaced by a humane alternative. The internal struggle should have been in the foreground. An article by Mary Kaldor on the Open Democracy website last year, called ‘Iraq: the wrong war’, has since spelled out that option in a section entitled ‘Was there an alternative?’

Bring them home?

Many assume that if someone opposed the invasion in such a fully fledged way, they must now be in favour of immediately withdrawing the troops. This does not follow, of course, either in terms of logic or morality, for there is a countervailing concern.

Terrorist groups and criminal gangs are murdering masses of Iraqi people who are going about their normal business and not ever giving meaningful support to ‘the occupying forces’ or to the supposed ‘puppet regime’. Iraqi troops and police need to be able to contain this hideous aggression. American and British troops play a role in helping to build up and supplement internal security.

The great problem is that American forces, in particular (but not excluding the British), have been involved in a whole series of actions involving prisoner abuse and over-the-top military action, and have failed to link with and aid Iraqis who could have helped build the alternative democratic society that Bush and Blair say they seek.

The questions that arise are: how much terrorist activity would fall away if the British and American troops left?; and would any drop in violence be sufficient to ensure relative peace?

I have always answered this quandary by arguing that the decision to withdraw should be made by the Iraqi parliament, although I recognise (and below stress) some of the shortcomings of the Iraqi parliament and their government. As a democratic socialist, I would criticise aspects of decisions made by almost every parliament in the world but that does not mean that I would wish to abolish them.

The Iraqi people did not support the invasion, but they should at least use their new institutions to decide just when and how the troops leave. I suggest there needs to be a timetable for withdrawal plus plans to replace the troops with forces from acceptable Arab and other nations, if needed. The Iraqi people need to know that Britain and America will be leaving.

I do not wish to draw a line under the above matters, but I do wish to turn our attention to another concern which should be given a much greater priority by the Labour movement. Furthermore, I would claim that whatever attitude we take on the first two big issues, we should be united on this one.

We should start by asking ourselves if there are forces in Iraq who are striving to advance the values which we share – namely, those of democracy, civil rights, social justice and a secular state?

In fact, there are many such forces, including those who mobilise to achieve a status for women, young people, the maimed and disabled, or to improve hospitals, schools, electricity and other services. But I will concentrate on the organisations I know best which seem to me to have massive potential – the trade unions.

Iraq’s population of 27 million is dominated by young people – only 15 million are between 14 and 65. Unemployment is normally said to be in the region of 50 per cent, but as many women in fundamentalist Muslim areas are discouraged from working outside their homes, the number of people in steady employment could be as low as five million.

Yet more than a million people are in trade unions – roughly 20 per cent of those who could be mobilised. In Britain the equivalent figure is 29.1 per cent and we have faced nothing like the traumas and controls experienced by Iraqi working people over the past 40 years.

In Saddam Hussein’s era, trade unions were banned in the public sector – which accounted for 80 per cent of the workforce – and Chemical Ali was put in charge of what was left of the trade unions. These were what are normally called yellow trade unions, working under strict and corrupt state domination.

Unions re-emerge

When Saddam Hussein banned trade unions in the public sector in 1987 he stated that workers no longer existed in Iraq and turned a body called the General Federation of Trade Unions (the GFTU, which had a fine past) into a corrupt state-controlled organisation for the private sector. It spied on its own members and its offices were used for interrogation and torture.

Yet within a few weeks of the invasion, workers who organised in the docks in Basra took successful strike action to remove an oppressive Baathist management and get a pay rise. Thirteen separate bodies with a total of 200,000 members were quickly organised and formed the units of the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions (IFTU).

How was this possible given the Baathist legacy? As in any revolutionary turn-around, it was a mixture of spontaneity and organisation.

Spontaneously, many workers in Iraq knew about the fine history of trade unionism in their nation and had an idea that it was needed and possible in the circumstances of uncertainty, disruption and confusion created by the invasion. Relatives and friends held onto the memory of many martyrs, and such networks are of great importance in Iraq.

As for organisation, many activists had managed to survive, after operating in a clandestine fashion throughout the Baathist days, and were in touch with comrades who had been driven into exile. Those in exile immediately returned or otherwise helped with organisational work.

Things happen quickly when spontaneity and organisation are fused.

The heritage

The pattern of trade union history in Iraq is a common one. Workers struggled for reasonable wages and conditions, opposed anti- trade union laws, and engaged in strikes, which at times had political implications. They struggled for the Labour movement to be given a central role in the nation.

Imperial interests established Iraq and it was placed under a British mandate in 1920. Britain set about exploiting its resources – railways, ports, cigarette and other factories were built, and, in 1927, oil was discovered.

A downtrodden and exploited working class emerged and did just what you would expect in such circumstances. The workers organised and industrial action took place in all the areas mentioned above. The 1920s was also a good time to learn from actions being taken by the organised working class in Britain.

Iraqi trade unions had a persistent battle with the law (and it is still happening today). In 1932 Iraq technically became an independent nation, but it was still under strong British influence. Trade unions were banned in 1936, with the inevitable reaction.

Industrial action had an even clearer political content when the Portsmouth Treaty was signed in 1948. This was an update of earlier Anglo-Iraqi Treaties that maintained British controls, meaning air bases, for example, were still British Crown Territories. I was one of many national servicemen who were sent to one of these bases.

There was widespread struggle in 1948, made possible by 16 new trade unions formed between 1944 and 1946, and the Iraqi Communist Party, which played a leading role in the conflict.

It wasn’t until the pro-British system was swept aside in 1958, in a revolution led by colonels, that Britain was finally obliged to leave its air bases. The GFTU (later to be subverted by Saddam Hussein) was established, and Communists won all ten seats on its central council in open elections.

In 1959, the trade unions then organised a May Day march in Baghdad, and half a million people joined from a population of less than seven million. The march was led by the Communist leaders wearing suits, shirts and ties. These were the nation’s leading advocates of bourgeois democracy as a means of giving the workers their place in the sun.

Murdered and reborn

From 1963, coups and counter coups took place until the Baath Party and Saddam Hussein took full power.

The way the trade union movement was forced into clandestine activity and exile, and unionists were tortured and murdered, is illustrated by the life of Hadi Saleh, a trade union leader whose story is told in a fine book produced by the TUC called Hadi Never Died: Hadi Saleh and the Iraqi trade unions, by Abdullah Muhsin and Alan Johnson (the academic, not the politician).

In 1969 (a year after a Baathist coup), the 20-year-old Hadi was imprisoned for trade union and communist political activity, seriously maltreated and sentenced to death. He remained on death row until 1973 when he was released under an armistice and returned to work as a printer where he again engaged in trade union and political activity. The armistice arose because the Baath Party had signed a friendship treaty with the Soviet Union to obtain arms.

However, in 1977 Hadi had to flee the country. In exile, he linked secretly with clandestine elements in Iraq and, in 1980, helped to found the Workers’ Democratic Trade Union Movement. In 1984, this movement called a strike at Sulymanyah, in the Kurdish area, involving 4,000 people. The regime took harsh action and four of the activists were executed.

In 2003, Hadi returned to Iraq on the heels of the invasion. He was at the forefront in establishing the IFTU, and became their international secretary, travelling widely from his base in Baghdad to develop crucial links with the international trade union movement.

He was brutally murdered in Baghdad in 2005 by terrorists who deliberately target trade unionists. His trade union records were stolen and information was used to seek out others. Some 2,000 of his comrades have been targeted and murdered, using a variety of sources of information. Imagine our own trade union movement withstanding such an assault.

I had the privilege of chairing a meeting for Hadi in the House of Commons. He was a fine person and his murder came as a deep shock. In fact, he is the only person I have had such close contact with who was later murdered, so you can imagine my reaction. I was privileged to address his memorial service at the TUC.

Thanks to his groundwork, the Iraqi trade union movement has become a significant force, recognised by the Arab Federation of Trade Unions and working closely with bodies such as the TUC, the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions and the International Labour Office.

Iraqi Kurdistan

Saddam Hussein engaged in a campaign of genocide against the Kurds in 1991. They fled to the mountains in the north, and a no-fly zone was established, creating the conditions for the Kurds to operate on a fairly autonomous basis.

Although the Kurds had a period of internal conflict after this, they are now united and Saddam Hussein’s anti-trade union legislation has bitten the dust. Trade unions now have full recognition from the Kurdish regional government and a number of ministers and officials come from their ranks.

Today the Kurdistan Workers’ Federation has 200,000 members, while the Kurdish Teachers’ Union has 100,000. There are also what are termed civic bodies catering for several tens of thousands. These are organisations that have much in common with, say, the MSF section of AMICUS.

Iraqi Kurdistan’s population is mainly Sunni Kurds, with minorities including Shia Kurds, Turcoman and Assyrians, making up between 20 and 25 per cent of Iraq’s population, depending on where we draw the boundaries (the status of Kirkuk has yet to be determined).

I visited Iraqi Kurdistan in April with Labour Friends of Iraq (LFIQ) and trade union officials. Outside of areas such as Mosul and Kirkuk, it is now reasonably safe to move around thanks to the Kurds’ own tight security system. This involves regular road checks (at which you can trust those questioning you not to have links with terrorists), and huge concrete blocks and guards, which protect key buildings.

The economy has characteristics of a command economy, but even the local Communist Party are aware of the need to attract inward investment. Yet in opening up the economy to the influences of capital, there is a keenness not to throw the baby out with the bath water.

A building boom is taking place covering private housing, rented flats, council housing, university students’ accommodation and public facilities. Road building, a hydro-electric project and plans for leisure facilities are to the fore. Cement factories proliferate.

But there are plenty of problems to overcome. Petrol shortages create a huge black market for petrol that’s smuggled over the borders. Hydro electric extensions are sought to overcome the regular breakdown in supplies, and there is also a great deal of hidden unemployment. We visited a cigarette factory employing 600 workers which had not produced a fag for several years, but the workers attended full-time in order to be paid.

The Kurds’ views of the invasion and the occupation tend to differ from those of Arabs elsewhere in Iraq, although a few shared the views of the minority Kurdish Communist Party, which opposed the invasion and looks for a phased withdrawal of troops. They were as opposed to the terrorists’ tactics as anyone, however. On the other hand, there is little feeling of being occupied in Iraqi Kurdistan as only 200 American troops are situated there.

Our visit was well publicised in the local media, but we were protected and closely guarded. If we had attempted the same activities in Baghdad then we would soon have been kidnapped. Our hosts from the Kurdistan Workers’ Federation looked after us well, and carefully. They even arranged for us to meet 11 trade union leaders from the rest of Iraq who flew from Baghdad to meet us in Arbil.

Arab Iraq

The IFTU forms the backbone of the newly established General Federation of Iraqi Workers. The GFITU was established to bring all recognised trade unions in non-Kurdish Iraq together to affiliate to the Arab Federation of Trade Unions, except for the large teachers’ union with which they enjoy close fraternal links. Today the GFITU has some 300,000 members, and there are 400,000 in the teachers’ union, from all education institutions.

Aside from terrorist attacks, these trade unions face another serious problem that does not affect those in Iraqi Kurdistan – the law is against them. In particular, Saddam Hussein’s measure banning trade unions in the public sector has not been repealed, so employers can resort to the courts and officials to act against trade unions. The practicalities on the ground do differ from Saddam Hussein’s time, however, and shop floor pressure can persuade employers in specific circumstances not to make full use of these legal powers.

However, another crippling government measure hit the trade unions on 8 August 2005. Under Decree 8750 trade union funds can be taken over by the state while it decides how the unions will be allowed to function, organise and operate. These powers to sequest funds, the threat of future bans and prescriptions, and the existing ban on activity in the main sector of the economy, place a crippling burden on the GFITU, its affiliates and the teachers’ union.

Considerable effort is being made by the international trade union movement, especially the TUC, to get these restraints removed.

Iraqi trade unions concern themselves with numerous issues beyond their own organisational viability and the wages and conditions of their members. Economic development is a key concern and they insist the oil industry should be publicly owned and under democratic control.

The status of women in society is another huge issue. Along with women’s organisations and non-governmental bodies, trade unions were at the centre of action leading to the repeal of Saddam Hussein’s Law 137, which made women subject to male domination in families and marriages. There are conflicting interpretations of the new Iraqi constitution, its free status for women clashing with Islamic commitments that some would use to justify Sharia law.

In Iraqi Kurdistan, I talked to women trade unionists at factories, on a trade union training course, and in civic society meetings, and Hasimia Muhsin Hussein, president of the Basra Electricity and Energy Union, was one of the trade unionists who met us in Arbil. I have also met female GFITU activists at the TUC and in the Commons. So far, Hasimia Muhsin Hussein is the only major office holder in a GFITU affiliate who is a women, yet all these bodies are committed to equal rights for women and struggle for it, especially within industry.


Understanding something about the commitment, scope and potential of the Iraqi trade union movement is a prelude to working with and for them. The British trade union movement is providing its brothers and sisters in Iraq with assistance, and there are ways in which we, as individuals, can also help.

For example, UNISON funds trade union training courses in Iraq. We visited one of these in Arbil and later came across shop stewards from the courses in their factories. We also met the person co-ordinating the national scheme. As a former tutor on trade union courses myself, I was impressed by what I heard and saw.

As a consequence of our visit, UNISON representatives also made a commitment to find resources to fund a workers’ radio station in Iraq.

In 2004 the Fire Brigades Union collected and delivered 600 kits of boots, leggings, tunics and helmets to fire fighters in Basra when they discovered that the Iraqi firefighters operated without essential equipment. Recently, they delivered two fire engines to Iraq and had to pay bribes to Turkish border guards to get them in.

The RMT, PCS and GMB are some of the other unions that have provided practical help in their areas. Many unions have facilitated visits to and from Iraq, and Iraqi trade unionists attend trade union education courses in this country.

As well as making regular representations to our government, and to the government in Iraq, the TUC runs an Aid Iraq Appeal. This sponsors a major project run by the International Federation of Journalists to help Iraqi journalists establish a free trade union. The National Union of Journalists is active in the TUC’s important Iraq Solidarity Committee, recognising that workers’ rights to free expression is crucial.

How can we help?

First, by learning about the issues involved and spreading the word. The key source for information is the TUC’s book on Hadi Saleh (details below). The book provides essential details on who to contact and profits go to the TUC’s Aid to Iraq Appeal.

As part of the appeal, the TUC also collects old mobile phones with their chargers to convert for use in Iraq. These are important because travel is so dangerous and landlines are unreliable. Unlike cash, mobiles are unlikely to be sequested by the state.

Also, raise questions within your own trade union or Labour movement organisation to see if adequate support is being given to bodies such as the TUC’s Iraq Solidarity Committee and Labour Friends of Iraq (LFIQ). The latter will provide speakers for meetings.

Links to LFIQ’s website will reveal other groups who support these ideals, such as a group called Books to Iraq which collects funds to buy and export text books to the Iraqi school of pharmacy.

I started by commenting on the two big issues which often dominate our thoughts on Iraq: where did we stand on the invasion?; and where do we now stand on the question of ‘troops out’?

I believe that whatever divided us over these matters, activists in the wider Labour movement could and should unite now over a third big issue: namely, support for the Iraqi trade union movement that pursues workers’ rights, democracy, civil rights and a secular state. This movement is one of the best hopes for a decent future for Iraq.

In fact, merely to concentrate on the invasion and the current position of the armed forces is a rather western-centred approach. Of course, these matters are also of key importance to the Iraqi people. But we need to go beyond our own two big issues if we are to link with their needs. After all, whose side will we be on when the troops leave? If it’s the trade unions, then shouldn’t we be active at their side already?

Hadi Never Died: Hadi Saleh and the Iraqi trade unions, by Abdullah Muhsin and Alan Johnson, is £10 from the TUC, This article was first published on Harry Barnes’ blog