Solidarity with the Iraqi workers!

by Mark, Detroit
(CV #33, March 25, 2004)

Recent workers' struggles
Struggles of unemployed workers
Trends organizing among the workers
WCPI on the UN and elections
WCPI support for banning the "hijab" headscarves
WCPI on the armed resistance
What lies ahead?


. The Iraqi workers and poor want real democratic change and relief from their miserable economic conditions. The occupation authority, the Iraqi bourgeoisie and the fundamentalists clerics quarrel with each other but are all against the working masses, as are the ex-Baathists and religious fanatics who are fighting the occupation. In order to survive these difficult times, the workers must build their own class movement. That's why, though the workers' movement overall is just beginning to revive, the actions and attempts at organization over the last several months are so noteworthy.

Recent workers' struggles

. At various workplaces, strikes and demonstrations have taken place in the most difficult circumstances. The occupation authority imposed wage-scales similar to those under Hussein, averaging a paltry $60/month. Making matters worse, the CPA ended various food and housing subsidies which existed under the Baathists. Hussein's policies combined with years of U.S.-approved sanctions and two wars have destroyed much of the economy and created massive unemployment. Such high unemployment creates tremendous pressure for employed workers not to rock the boat. Moreover, the occupation regime has carried over laws from the Hussein regime banning strikes in many sectors of the economy and added their own laws against labor actions. And the authorities have unleashed savage attacks on protesting workers. Yet, workers in Iraq are raising their heads.

. There have been a number of work actions in the oil industry, the most important part of the economy. At the Daura Oil Refinery in Baghdad the occupation regime saw fit to install a former Baathist as director. Getting in line with his new neo-liberal masters, the director boasted that "Privatization 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." In the face of these threats, the workers carried out three work stoppages in October and November 2003, demanding a salary higher than the paltry wage-scale implemented by the Coalition Provisional Authority.

. In the supposedly "quiet" south of Iraq, workers at Basra's Southern Oil Company have also been protesting low wages. A delegation of U. S. trade union activists visiting workers there reported that they were contemplating strike action to shut down oil production and planning to forcibly resist any attempts of the authorities to stop them. Some workers talked of joining the armed resistance against the occupation if their demands were not met. These threats frightened the authorities and early this year they agreed to significantly increase wages at the plant.

. Also in southern Iraq, the 18,000 workers of the Iraqi Port Authority in Umm Qasr have been quite active. The overall port operations were awarded by the CPA to the U.S. company Stevedoring Services of America, operating under the name SSA Marine in Iraq. Visiting U.S. union activists report workers there say "There's no difference between [CPA head] Bremer and Saddam. They're both thieves, two faces of the same coin." Workers have waged five wildcat actions against the hated port authority boss and are threatening more militant actions. Some workers promised to revive the revolutionary legacy of the uprising of 1920 against British colonialism.

. The courage and militancy of the Iraqi workers has been evident in other strikes as well. At the largest shoe factory in the Middle East, General State Leather, workers have formed a new union and launched a struggle to oust their management and improve wages. The new "democratic" Iraqi police and management goons have fired on worker protests, wounding two union leaders. But the bold moves by the workers, including a march on the Ministry of Labor, have resulted in at least kicking out the old manager.

. Another inspiring struggle was carried out at the Nahrawahn complex of brick-making factories near Baghdad. The 15,000 workers employed here were making $1. 50 for a 14-hour day. Child labor was also employed at 60 cents a day. On October 11 of last year, 75% of the workers went on strike. Several hundred marched to the owner's office, demanding improvements in wages and working conditions. The workers' had secretly formed a union, but the arrogant employer, unaware of this, thought he could easily intimidate the workers by threatening to dismiss them. But the workers refused to back down. Instead, they returned to their homes to get their guns, including machine guns and AK-47s, and set up an armed picket line to stop scabs from taking their jobs. The shocked owner was forced to grant higher wages and make other concessions.

Struggles of unemployed workers

. In Iraqi conditions, the development of organization among the unemployed is particularly important. The Union of the Unemployed in Iraq (UUI), an organization tied to the "left"-communist group, the Worker Communist Party of Iraq (WCPI) reports they have been able to organize tens of thousands of the unemployed into the UUI, at least for some period of time. The UUI has organized a number of actions for relief.

. There have also been a number of militant spontaneous outbursts by unemployed workers. On October 1 in Basra, unemployed workers attempted to occupy the local governing council, which was dominated by the Islamic clerical trends. The council fled while police fired on the demonstrators. In early January, there were stormy protests by unemployed workers in the city of Amara in southern Iraq. The protesters, demanding jobs and food, confronted police sent to stop them. The police opened fire on the unarmed demonstrators, killing six and wounding eight. The protesters returned two days later in front of the regional Governor's building, expanding their demands to include new gubernatorial elections and elimination of the police forces involved in the slaughter.

. At about the same time, some 400 unemployed workers took to the streets of the southern city of Kut in a militant struggle for jobs and food. They targeted an air base of the occupation regime manned by Ukrainian troops. The Ukrainian troops responded with tear gas, beatings and warning shots. Nevertheless the protesters returned the next day. They clashed with local police and the Ukrainian troops, who fired upon the demonstrators.

Trends organizing among the workers

. The present actions of the employed and unemployed give a glimpse of the potential strength of the Iraqi working class. But whether that potential is directed toward building up a militant class trend depends largely on what sort of trends hold sway among the workers and other oppressed.

One of the trends concentrating on organizing among the workers is the Iraqi Federation of Workers Trade Unions (IFTU). This trend has established a number of unions and conducted certain actions. It has certain contradictions with the occupation regime which has ransacked its offices and temporarily arrested its leaders, because the occupation regime finds almost any sort of organized force among the workers intolerable. But this is not a particularly radical or militant trade union federation. It reportedly is hesitant to defy the array of decrees which limit organizing and strikes on the pretext that the Baathist remnants might take advantage to make a comeback. An IFTU leader claims that the Iraqi National Accord(INA) is among the groups supporting it. This is not good news as the INA is a pro-capitalist trend led by anti-Hussein former Baathists officers and officials who developed close ties with the CIA and the Saudi monarchists.

. The IFTU also says it has support from the Communist Party of Iraq. Despite its name, this is, unfortunately, not a party of genuine communism or revolution. Long ago it lost the desire to stand alone for the workers against all the bourgeois trends. Thus, it has served as a left fringe of a variety of bourgeois nationalist trends. For a period of time it even took part in Hussein's Baath Party government.

. Today, it promotes the imperialist-dominated UN as the alternative to the U.S./British occupation. And it has taken a seat in the puppet Iraqi Governing Council. While the CPI mouths phrases against the occupation and for the workers, it works to contain the mass struggle. During the militant demonstrations of the unemployed in Kut, for example, the leader of the CPI branch recommended begging the occupation regime for assistance rather than struggle, stating "We disagree with the demonstrations, but we have told the Americans our views and we are ready to be of service if we can help." Far from being a party with the goal of overthrowing capitalism, the CPI now sees value in a controlled privatization of Iraqi industry. Despite its ties to the workers, this is a party of class collaboration, not class independence.

. The Worker Communist Party of Iraq (WCPI) is a relatively new party founded in 1993. As mentioned above, it has devoted a lot of efforts to organizing among the unemployed. It also has been in the forefront of advocating for women's rights. In contrast to the CPI, the WCPI denounces not only the occupation, but the lackey Iraqi Governing Council and the forces in it. The WCPI has carried out bold work in the face of attacks by fundamentalist gangs and the occupation forces. At the same time, their "left communist" views have hindered their ability to orient themselves on some of the key questions facing the struggle of the masses.

WCPI on the UN and elections

. One example of this is their view that the U.S.-led occupation should be replaced by a UN administration. They write: "As a matter of practical necessity, the UN, with the help of the international humanitarian and human rights organizations, should temporarily administer Iraq through the transition to a government chosen freely by the people of Iraq." But the UN, reflecting its character as an agency of international capitalism dominated by the more powerful imperialist states, has betrayed the Iraqi people time and again. It supported Gulf War I and sanctions. It wouldn't sanction Gulf War II but supported the U.S.-led occupation and gave credibility to the puppet Iraqi Governing Council. Certain of the big powers in the UN disagree with aspects of the present occupation. But they are not interested in what the Iraqi people want but what a coalition of imperialist predators desires. After all, the European imperialist powers are also interested in having their multinationals make inroads into Iraq and are ardent supporters of neo-liberal globalization. Nor would this eliminate the power of the U.S. in Iraq as any deal to bring in the UN will have to be approved by the U.S. and the UN is not anxious for U.S. troops to leave. A UN occupation will still mean imperialist domination in Iraq, not a humanitarian administration concerned with the well-being of the masses.

. The WCPI is no doubt aware of this history and feels uneasy about the UN. But they feel the fundamentalist threat looming over Iraqi society, and evidently feel the UN might ward this off. Thus, while they denounce elections under the U.S.-occupation as "Islamists' elections" where the fundamentalists or other reactionaries will come to power, they praise elections held under the UN as simply "the transition to a government chosen freely by the people." By contrasting things in this way, they imply that UN elections will lead to a happy result. However this is just wishful thinking which glamorizes a UN administration as a force for the masses.

. This stand reflects a desire to find a shortcut around the unpleasant realities in Iraq today. The fact is that the workers' movement in Iraq is relatively weak compared to the clerical trends and bourgeois nationalist trends. What this means is that whether elections take place under the U. S. -British occupation or under a multinational imperialist UN administration, forces representing this or that section of the bourgeoisie will almost certainly come to power. As well, a fundamentalist-dominated regime may be the result. In these circumstances it may be tempting to imagine some powerful established force will intervene and make things right for the masses. But there are no easy ways around the unpleasant situation. In fact, there are any number of bourgeois trends, including top fundamentalist clerics, who see UN intervention in Iraqi as hastening elections which would put them in power. This means that the Iraqi masses must fight against imperialist occupations, whether under the U.S. or the UN, and fight against the clerics. They must establish and build up their own class movement. True, this too will not prevent the Iraqi bourgeois forces from winning the elections at this time. But this is the only way the masses can offer resistance to the forces of exploitation and imperialism that will lord over them, elections or not.

. There is also the question of what attitude the revolutionary workers should take toward calls for elections. After years of authoritarian rule and then imperialist dictate, the Iraqi people are yearning for democratic elections. No doubt there will be questions about how they will be carried out and what restrictions will be imposed under either the U.S. or the UN. It is also important to give a realistic appraisal of what class forces will come to power. As well, revolutionary activists will have to evaluate the relative importance to give to elections as compared to various other democratic and economic demands. All that being said, the masses have a right to have their say and learn through their own experience the nature of the class trends in Iraq. Whatever emphasis one chooses to give elections, they certainly cannot be opposed.

. Unfortunately, the WCPI has a hard time coming to grips with this. True, it thinks elections would be good if only the UN came in. But they are upset when this demand is raised under the U.S.-led occupation. They not only denounce elections as merely a plot of the fundamentalists in alliance with the U.S. At times they even denounce the general notion of elections and representative democracy. For example the argue that

. "Elections and representative democracy have very little to do with freedom, mass participation, and control in the political process. They are political frameworks through which the bourgeoisie legitimizes its control of the society. Every few years, people get the chance to exercise their highest 'civic duty' to relieve themselves of their power as citizens and delegate it to those who rule over them and exploit them. Through these procedures we get Hitler, Khomeini, Aznar, Berlusconi, George Bush, Bill Clinton, etc."

. This is typical of the reasoning of "left"-communism. It rightfully sees the bourgeois nature of governments that have come to power in free elections under capitalism. But it draws the faulty conclusion that it is therefore irrelevant to the masses whether they live in a dictatorship or whether there is at least a modicum of democratic freedoms. This attitude is particularly wrong in a situation such as exists in Iraq where the issue of elemental democratic rights is and will be a major issue. The combination of supporting UN intervention as a practical matter while raising doubts about the general notion of elections will not serve well the goal of rallying the masses around a revolutionary workers' party.

WCPI support for banning the "hijab" headscarves

. The WCPI's desire for shortcuts to overcome the influence of the clerics has also led it to support the initiative by conservative French president Chirac that led to banning the wearing of the "hijab" head scarves by Muslim women attending French public schools. Indeed, they wish the French bourgeoisie adopted an even more severe ban. The French rulers also banned conspicuous symbols of other religions, but there's no doubt the ban was inspired by the Muslim religious symbols and the wave of chauvinist anti-Muslim peoples hysteria of the French bourgeoisie.

. Islamic fundamentalism relegates women to a subservient status, and no doubt the wearing of the hijab in many cases reflects the influence of these backward prejudices. But banning religious beliefs and personal symbols of them is not how to fight against the backward influence of Islam or any religion. The decision to give up one's personal beliefs must be voluntary. When it is not, the backward beliefs are not eliminated, but often become more deeply held and defended, which plays into the hands of the clerics. Turkey has banned the hijab, but the political Islamic trends have now become a powerful force there. And of course scum like bin Laden utilize every instance of anti-Muslim discrimination to equate fundamentalism with liberation from secular oppressors. Indeed, in the case of France, the banning of the hijab may drive a number of Muslim students from the public schools to Islamic schools. This will hardly help develop working-class unity across religious lines.

. Moreover a revolutionary workers trend should not support a campaign that reflects the backward prejudices of the French imperialist rulers against Muslims in general. Yet the WCPI writes "Although under the leadership of a Right Wing government, any degree of set back of political Islam will ease the struggle of women under Islamic states and groups around the world." (See article on the WCPI web site: "Hijab in France: Battle for Islamic Political Uniform.") This is a very dangerous stand as it implies that in the conflict between imperialism and fundamentalism, one should side with one against the other.

. The WCPI has a hard time seeing how one could be against religious influence and yet support the right to have one's personal religious views. Thus, a WCPI writer is critical of "secular forces in the western countries" like a Canadian feminist who says "I think if we are going to protest against a state forcing women not to wear the hijab we should also protest forcing women to wear the hijab." The WCPI considers this stand inconsistent, as they tend to equate defending the right to religious views with supporting religion. But in fact the Canadian women's stand is an example of consistent defense of democratic rights whether infringed on by the state or the clerics. And unless the battle to overcome fundamentalism is carried out in a democratic way, it will be bound to back-fire.

WCPI on the armed resistance

. The WCPI also has problems differentiating between the just sentiments of the masses and the reactionary forces who try to utilize those sentiments for their own ends. As noted above, they have difficulty separating out the mass demands for elections from the rotten goals of the fundamentalists. This also comes up in how they deal with the armed struggle. There is much that isn't clear concerning how the armed resistance is organized. But it is clear there is a strong influence of former Baathists and assorted fundamentalists. The growth of random bombings claiming massive civilian casualties reflects anti-people currents. But as the WCPI itself says, there's "millions of people in Iraq [who] are showing growing discontent and protest and demanding that the U. S. and its allied forces leave Iraq." There are reports of armed resistance organized on a spontaneous basis, of workers contemplating armed resistance, and of armed resistance organized on a local basis with fairly loose connections to any definite trend. It also seems that a number of guerrilla operations require support from the local masses. So despite the strength of the reactionary trends in the armed resistance, there is also a section of the masses whose support the armed resistance based mainly on hatred for the occupation.

. But the WCPI undermines efforts to appeal to the masses who are sympathetic to the armed resistance when they denounce armed resistance itself. For instance, they portray the armed resistance only as disrupting public services and killing civilians while implying that the idea of the armed resistance fighting the occupiers is just propaganda of the reactionaries to trick the masses. In an article on the armed struggle, the WCPI also states it "believes that political and mass struggle is the suitable form of struggle during the current situation in Iraq because it can help organize millions of people and bring them to the forefront." They are right to emphasize the building up of the political and mass struggle. But when a guerrilla movement already exists with some popular support, it doesn't help to break the influence of the Baathists and religious zealots to portray it as an illegitimate form of struggle. Rather it makes it easier for the rotten forces in the armed resistance to claim exclusive rights to this front of struggle.

. This is a glimpse at some of the problems of orientation with the WCPI. We have devoted much more space here to probing into their views than that of the other trends in the workers movement, it is not to denigrate the WCPI's achievements but because of them. It is a group that is trying to organize an independent working class trend, while miserable groups like the CPI abandoned their class independence long ago.

What lies ahead?

. The Iraqi workers have begun to move forward under daunting circumstances. The first attempts at organization and struggle have shown that there is an alternative to both the occupation regime, Islamic and Baathist reaction, and the bourgeois nationalist forces. But it also must be recognized that the process of developing class organization has just begun and will be a protracted process. Today the workers' actions are still sporadic and there are many weaknesses of orientation among the worker-based trends. But it's only through the experience gained in the present struggles that progress toward independent class motion and organization will be made.

. While the building of worker organizations of various types will be a vital task in the upcoming period, of special importance is work toward establishing the organization of revolutionary class-conscious workers. There are workers and activists with revolutionary class sentiments, but more work lies ahead to develop a party grounded on a genuine communist stand. Such a party will be necessary to help the workers find their way through the whirl of events.

. Iraq is undergoing a transition from direct rule by imperialism to rule by sections of the Iraqi bourgeoisie in alliance with imperialism. The Iraqi workers still face the task of ridding themselves of imperialist occupation while also opposing the former Baathists and Islamic fanatics who have influence in the anti-occupation struggle. As well, the anti-Hussein sections of the bourgeoisie collaborating with the occupation will see their role grow. This will bring the class contradictions more to the fore on all the pressing issues. This conflict will focus not just on conditions at particular workplaces, but on the extent to which the Iraqi workers will have democratic rights and social services. There will also be the question of whether the Kurdish people are allowed the right to self-determination, including forming a separate state if they so chose, and whether all minority peoples enjoy full rights. Or will the bourgeois factions place obstacles in the way of this, thus inflaming strife among the workers of different nationalities? And there will be the struggle for women's rights and the separation of mosque and state in the face of clerical tyranny and the willingness of other sections of the bourgeoisie to bow down before it.

. It would be the task of a genuinely communist trend to rally other sections of the masses around a platform reflecting their distinct class interests in this period. Each step the workers take toward organization will put them in a better position to resist the forces of imperialism and the domestic bourgeoisie. <>

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Last modified: April 14, 2004.