On USLAW's tour of Iraqi trade unionists

International solidarity or covering for pro-occupation leaders in the US and Iraqi union movements?

by Mark Williams
(CV #36, Sept. 2005)


Controversy over the IFTU
The WCPI/FCWUI and the question of a UN occupation

. This June, US Labor Against the War (USLAW), an organization of US trade union activists, organized a tour of Iraqi trade unionists across the US. USLAW statements on the tour called for an immediate end of the US occupation of Iraq, an end to the privatizations imposed there, and demanded rights for Iraqi workers. This reflects widespread sentiments among US workers who want the occupation ended now, not dragged on and on as the Republicans and Democrats insist. But while making nice-sounding declarations, the tour organizers hid from the workers the stand of the US trade union leaders, who overwhelmingly support the pro-occupation Democratic Party. As well, they covered up where the various Iraqi trade union trends stood, including that one trend favors a continued US occupation.

. The fact that workers in Iraq are getting organized following their suppression by first Hussein and then the US occupation is heartening news. The growth of a militant Iraqi workers' movement is what offers a real way out for the masses who are hit on one side by the occupation and its Iraqi bourgeois supporters, and on the other by the ex-Baathist and Islamic fundamentalist forces who also terrorize the masses. The Iraqi trade unionist tour included representatives of several different Iraqi workers organizations: the officially-recognized Iraqi trade union federation, the Iraqi Federations of Trade Unions (IFTU); the Federation of Workers Councils and Unions of Iraq (FWCUI), which is affiliated with the Worker Communist Party of Iraq (WCPI); and the General Union of Oil Employees (GUOE), whose stands we are just beginning to learn about.

. The various trade union groups in Iraq have differences over what should be done in the current situation. The Iraqi workers face a tough struggle to create a force that can press their demands. But that struggle takes place in the midst of sorting out the different stands over how to organize, what attitude to take toward various forces in Iraq, what stand to take toward the occupation and world imperialism, etc. How these differences are resolved will say much about the success of their organizing, and these differences may also cast light upon some of the problems of the workers' movement here. For workers and activists here to give solid support to their Iraqi comrades, they must pay attention to the specific approaches and stands of the Iraqi unionists.

. But USLAW, the tour organizer, thought that such issues should be glossed over during the tour. They sought to present a sanitized picture of the Iraqi workers' movement where the real stands and differences between trends got swept under the rug. But the idea that these issues could be ignored proved an illusion. Various activists, including the New York chapter of USLAW, objected to the pro-occupation stand of one of the three touring trends, the IFTU. In fact, only a few months ago, the two other union trends on the tour were themselves accusing the IFTU of sabotaging the actions of other unions in Iraq.

. The other unions represented on the tour are not officially recognized like the IFTU, nor do they have IFTU's links to pro-occupation Iraqi politicians in Iraq. Nevertheless, there are important issues of orientation to consider with them, too. But USLAW wasn't interested in dealing with this either. Take the example of the Worker Communist Party of Iraq. It has made many praiseworthy efforts to organize workers, the unemployed and women. But the WCPI and the FWCUI have both historically promoted the myth that a UN occupation would be a benevolent alternative to the US occupation. More generally, the "left communist" views of the WCPI have oriented it to seeking quick fixes to the difficult situation facing the Iraqi workers, rather than looking towards the protracted struggle to build up an independent workers trend.

. USLAW's reluctance to critically examine the Iraqi trends echoes how they deal with the problems in the US workers' movement. The US trade unions are controlled by a sellout bureaucracy tied mainly to the pro-imperialist occupation Democratic Party. But USLAW, whatever apprehension they may have about this or that stand of some AFL-CIO officials, constantly courts sections of the class-collaborationist union officials. This is no way to build up a militant class trend here. Nor does it serve international solidarity to promote the pro-Democratic Party US union officials as allies of the Iraqi masses. Indeed, it appears that throughout the tour, the pro-Democratic Party union officials ran the show. Thus, sadly, in a number of cities, union officials lavished praise on local Democratic luminaries in attendance.(1)

Controversy over the IFTU

. The main controversy that arose among activists concerning the Iraqi unionists tour was over the inclusion of representatives of the IFTU. The IFTU representatives spoke mainly in east coast cities and objections to their stand were raised by among others, New York City Labor Against the War. NYCLAW issued a statement of protest contrasting USLAW's glowing description of the IFTU leadership with the IFTU's actual support for the US occupation and their ties to pro-occupation forces inside Iraq. (2)

. The statement noted that USLAW described IFTU as "a legitimate force for a progressive, democratic, sovereign Iraq" that was "organizing strikes and other militant actions against US plans to privatize the economy" and "fighting for a future free from occupation." NYCLAW pointed out that the dominant forces in the IFTU included the Iraqi National Accord (INA) and the (misnamed) Iraqi Communist Party (ICP). The INA is led by Iyad Allawi, a long-time CIA operative who headed up the US puppet regime that was replaced after the last elections. The ICP abandoned communist principles decades ago in favor of being the left fringe of one or another section of the Iraqi bourgeoisie, even participating at one time in Hussein's Baath Party government. The ICP hailed the US-picked Iraqi Governing Council as legitimate and democratic, and wound up joining it. And it participated in the Allawi puppet government rigged up by the US and the Governing Council.

. The NYCLAW statement presented detailed documentation showing that the IFTU sides with the occupation's drive to crush the armed resistance in Iraq. It noted in particular how an IFTU and ICP leader, Abdullah Muhsin, campaigned in Great Britain against a resolution in parliament for speedy withdrawal of British troops from Iraq and for Tony Blair's efforts to invite CIA-agent Iyad Allawi to tour Britain as a democratic hero. In backing the occupation, Muhsin stated, "An early date for the unilateral withdrawal of troops .  .  . would be bad for my country, bad for the emerging progressive forces, a terrible blow for free trade unions, and would play into the hands of extremists and terrorists." Though the NYCLAW statement doesn't mention it, it should be noted that the ICP also promotes the UN as an alternative to US occupation. It ignores that the UN is dominated by the imperialist powers, has sanctioned the occupation and its puppet regimes, and at best reflects certain differences among the capitalist countries, not the interests of the masses.

. The statement of NYCLAW points out that given the IFTU's stand on the occupation, it's no accident that the IFTU is the only officially-recognized union federation in Iraq. Indeed, according to articles cited by NYCLAW, the assets of the defunct Baathist trade unions were turned over to the IFTU. Thus, while the IFTU proclaims itself for democracy and utters some words against Hussein-era anti-strike laws retained under the occupation, it enjoys a government-backed monopoly while other trends are denied rights. Moreover, the IFTU has a history of undermining labor actions organized by other trends, including strikes and protests by Basra oil workers and demonstrations of unemployed workers in Kut. Nor have the dominant forces in the IFTU proven to be real opponents of privatization. Rather they have promoted the virtues of privatization at a more controlled pace.

. Following the tour, the IFTU and the two other union federations signed a Joint Statement with USLAW that criticizes the occupation as "the problem, not the solution". The statement also calls for labor rights and other good things. But it would be folly to take this as evidence that the IFTU is reversing its stand on withdrawal of US troops or anything else. The Joint Statement does not call for an immediate withdrawal, or even a timetable for withdrawal. Since even the most enthusiastic Iraqi supporters of the occupation themselves call for an eventual withdrawal of US troops, merely demanding the US occupation must end sometime doesn't mean very much. Moreover, the IFTU leadership has, in the past, falsely denied making pro-occupation statements, as when their British representative, Muhsin, claimed he never made statements supporting the US/British occupation.

. In various interviews carried on the USLAW web site, none of the union representatives on the tour showed an inclination to criticize other trends. But in the recent past there have been pointed criticisms of the IFTU by the other trends. For instance, FWCUI representative Houzan Mahmoud on August 20 2004 stated, "IFTU is this era's version of state-made, anti-labor Baathist unions .  .  .". And according to a March 11, 2005 statement of Hassan Juma'a Awad Al Asade, one of the tour's representatives of the oil workers union, the GUOE, the IFTU leaders "do not oppose the occupation but are linked to their stooge regime." (Both statements are documented in NYCLAW's statement. ) Judging by these statements, it's hard to accept the anti-occupation phrases of the IFTU as anything more than an attempt to fool the naive.

. Though confronted with the evidence against the IFTU by activists, USLAW continued to deny the IFTU's stand. For instance, in a brochure for the tour, they made it a point to have a separate box stating that "All three organizations are on record opposing the occupation and calling for removal of all US and British occupation forces. All are committed to a democratic, secular and multi-ethnic labor movement and society in Iraq." This is dishonest. Sadly, it represents a typical USLAW method of promoting general proclamations that hide the real stand of the trends they want to promote. They do the same thing with the AFL-CIO leadership. They tout getting this or that union official to endorse a weak anti-war resolution, ignoring that these same officials are busy campaigning for pro-occupation Democrats like Kerry.

. While it was good that the problems with the IFTU were raised, this doesn't mean we agree with all the arguments used to object to the IFTU. For instance, in the name of supporting the struggle against the occupation, the NYCLAW statement downplays the role of the fundamentalist and Baathist trends within the resistance. Certain other activists opposed to the IFTU portray as glorious heroes the Islamic fundamentalist or Baathist trends that, unfortunately, dominate the leadership of the armed resistance.

The WCPI/FCWUI and the question of a UN occupation

. The tour of Iraqi trade unionists highlighted the need to critically assess the stand not only of the IFTU, but all the trends in the Iraqi workers' movement. Thus there was also the issue of the orientation of the FWCUI, the federation associated with the Workers Communist Party of Iraq. The WCPI was founded in 1993 and has had a more militant policy than the IFTU. Unlike the ICP/IFTU, it condemned not only the occupation forces but also the former puppet regime, the Iraqi Governing Council. The WCPI has carried out a series of bold organizing efforts and actions. It has made particular efforts to organize the huge unemployed population as well as founded organizations to defend women's rights. For its efforts it has been persecuted by the occupation forces, the various Iraqi governments under it and Islamic fundamentalist thugs.

. Nevertheless there are important problems in its stand that stem from its "left communist" orientation. And it's important to discuss these issues, as they are issues of concern not only in the Iraqi movement, but for workers and anti-war activists around the world. The "left communist" orientation of the WCPI creates problems for them in dealing with the fact that the building up of a revolutionary workers' movement in Iraq will be a long and painful process. Instead they imagine that the workers will soon come to power, provided just the right plan exists. Previously, they had a lot of hopes that workers councils would soon spread everywhere and that, through this vehicle, workers' power and socialism awaited around the corner. This hasn't happened. The WCPI leadership has apparently recognized this fact. But they have not abandoned the idea that they can come to power quickly. Thus, they have supported the idea of bringing in a UN occupation, essentially arguing that elections under the UN will deliver to power forces that really represent the masses. Fleshing out this concept further, they is recent founded the Iraqi Freedom Congress (IFC). The IFC is a scheme where the WCPI/FWCUI would lead an alliance of forces that supposedly will be able to soon take power under the protective shield of the UN.

. The promotion of a UN occupation as an alternative to the US occupation is a weakness not only found in the WCPI/FWCUI trend, but in certain anti-war organizations around the world. There has been some question as to whether the WCPI/FWCUI recently changed its position on this. (3) But this stand was reiterated again in an interview conducted by David Bacon with the president of the FWCUI, Felah Alwan, on April 18, 2005. And the interview continued to be posted, among other places, on the WCPI web site, at least through mid-July. Moreover, regardless of the WCPI/FWCUI position, the issue is being widely debated.

. Bacon's first question in the interview is, "What political process can end the occupation?" Alwan answers as follows:

. "Iraq is now in a state of anarchy. There are no civil institutions. There's nothing except the occupation forces and the government. The structure of the government imposed by the occupation forces has been divided along lines of ethnicity and religion. That makes some people believe that there is a popular support for it. Our society may be headed for civil war between religious groups. We call for the organization of a Congress of Liberation, including all the political powers in Iraq, to end the occupation and rebuild civil society. This Congress would include all groups, and would have the power to end the rule of the occupation. One way to end the occupation itself would be for the force of the United Nations to keep the peace." (Emphasis added.)

. Bacon's next question was: "So you think UN troops should replace the US military forces?" Alwan answered:

. "If the current troops withdraw, there may be a need for another military force, especially from countries that haven't participated in the occupation. They would supervise new elections, to help the Iraqi people elect their government, instead of the election that just happened. .  .  ."

. The thrust of Alwan's remarks is that the last elections in Iraq were a fraud, but if the UN military forces oversee new elections, this will deal a mighty blow to the forces that dominated the last elections, the Islamic fundamentalists, the Kurdish bourgeois nationalists of the KDP and PUK, etc. But this ignores both the reality of the UN and the balance of class forces in Iraq.

. The UN has constantly betrayed the Iraqi masses. It hesitated to sanction the US/British invasion, but supported the US-led occupation and gave credibility to the puppet Iraqi Governing Council. Indeed, the elections that the WCPI/FWCUI condemns were endorsed by the UN. The rotten stand of the UN is not an accident. It reflects its nature as a vehicle of international capitalism. And it's the big imperialist powers who dominate world capitalism and its agencies. True, certain big powers voice opposition in the UN to this or that aspect of the occupation. But the European imperialist powers are themselves vultures trying to impose a neo-liberal agenda that can pave the way for their multinationals to make inroads in Iraq. As well, the European bourgeoisie doesn't want US and British troops to quickly exit Iraq. In short, even if the UN takes over, it will be looking out for imperialist interests, not those of the masses. There are also those who think a multilateral occupation would be OK provided it was done by Arab Middle Eastern powers. But the Arab rulers in the Middle East been haven't shown much willingness to supply their troops for this. Moreover, even if they were willing to comprise an alternate occupation, the Arab regimes are also vehicles of repression, not democracy.

. Not only will the UN have an imperialist agenda in Iraq, but even should relatively democratic elections take place under a UN administration, the outcome will most likely be similar to the outcome of the last elections. Democratic elections do not insure that the trends that really stand for the masses will come to power, they can only measure the current strength of the political class forces in Iraq. And the Iraqi workers' movement is, at this time, not as strong as the clerical and bourgeois nationalist trends. True, there were all sorts of problems with the last elections. But it's also true that there was significant turnout in the Shia and Kurdish areas. And the vast bulk of votes among these sections, which comprise roughly 70 percent of Iraq's population, went to the coalition dominated by Shia clerics and the Kurdish bourgeois nationalists respectively. In fact, while Alwan points to certain instances of voting fraud and physical coercion, much of the complaint about the elections in Alwan's interview is really a complaint that the Shia clerics and the Kurdish bourgeois nationalists have a lot of influence. For instance, Alwan says the clerics portrayed voting for their candidates as a religious duty. No doubt the clerics and all the bourgeois groups used sectarian appeals. But what does that prove? Only that the bourgeoisie seeks to divide the masses on a sectarian basis, not that these trends don't have influence and could only win a rigged election. By no means should the Iraqi workers reconcile to the bourgeois forces that won the elections. They must oppose them tooth and nail. But that can only be done by building up the Iraqi workers' movement, not through wishful thinking about UN-run elections.

. The Congress of Liberation (also known as the Iraqi Freedom Congress) referred to by Alwan is supposed to play the key role in bringing about the democratic transformation of Iraq. The IFC was set up by the FWCUI in March 2005. The IFC founding declaration proclaims that it's against the US occupation and the Islamic currents and wants independence and democracy. The immediate goals of the masses certainly include such democratic demands which the IFC talks about, as well as various social demands that the IFC doesn't deal with. But the immediate and long-term aspirations of the downtrodden masses can only be fulfilled through an arduous and protracted struggle to build up the organizations of the workers and poor.

. According to the IFC Manifesto, "the immediate goal of the IFC is to seize power" which, according to Alwan's interview with Bacon, will involve "political powers" in Iraq uniting so as to "have the power to end the occupation". And the IFC Manifesto has a list of measures it will take that are predicated on it quickly seizing state power. For instance, the IFC is supposed to disarm all the armed groups in Iraq, expel the US, confiscate properties of religious institutions, etc. But what forces are supposed to carry this out? The Iraqi workers are currently not strong enough to take such measures. The reality is that the powerful forces are bourgeois forces of various types. The Kurdish bourgeois nationalist groups, the KDP and PUK, are secular, but they support the US occupation, and their militias engage in bloody campaigns against the masses in cooperation with the occupation. Iraqi and US workers must defend the right to self-determination for the Kurds, but this doesn't mean having illusions about the class aims of the leaders of the main Kurdish organizations. There are some bourgeois forces that want the US to immediately leave, but that's mainly a section of the reactionary clerics and Baathist remnants, forces the IFC opposes. There are other bourgeois forces that want the US to slowly withdraw or prefer an occupation by other forces. But all of these groupings have an agenda opposed to that of the masses.

. So that leaves the IFC scheme with a dilemma. If it is serious about carrying out its full agenda, it will have no allies among the political trends that are currently powerful. Indeed, it will encounter fierce resistance from the Iraqi bourgeoisie and imperialism, whether of US or UN variety. A real fight for this full agenda could only be carried out by a state power enjoying the support of a powerful revolutionary movement of the workers and poor. But such a movement is a long way from existing.

. Alternately, if the IFC wants to really woo the bourgeois forces in Iraq, it will have to jettison various demands or interpret them in a way that is favorable to various Iraqi bourgeois groupings. It's notable that from the start the IFC has little to say about the social demands of the masses, which presumably is an effort to reach out to certain bourgeois forces. Yet, there's no evidence that at present the IFC has attracted any significant bourgeois groups.

. However, if in the future the IFC makes it clear that it interprets its demands in a certain way, its position could get closer to how certain Iraqi bourgeois sectors view things. For instance, will the IFC compromise on how quickly US forces are to leave? Even many forces in the pro-occupation Iraqi government would like the US to leave, if not immediately, then according to a definite timetable. While this hasn't happened, recall that the FWCUI recently signed a joint statement with the pro-occupation IFTU which called for an end to the occupation, but without saying when this should happen. And there are groups, like the Kurdish bourgeois nationalists, who wouldn't mind measures preventing the imposition of strict Islamic law. Presently, of course, the Kurdish leadership is in love with the US and the IFC Manifesto has harsh words for the Kurdish leadership. But if, by chance, they are betrayed by the US and come out against the occupation, would the IFC seek an alliance with the Kurdish leadership? While certain kinds of useful temporary alliances cannot be ruled out, if the IFC continues with its present approach, this will result in further weakening any independent class stand. The WCPI/FWCUI's search for a scheme to assume power quickly only diverts them from the tasks at hand.

. The desire to find a fast way out from the horrors inflicted by the occupation and the religious zealots is understandable. But looking for ready-made powerful forces that can make up for the present relative weakness of the Iraqi workers' movement is no answer. At best it is illusory, and at worst, such schemes may lead to prettifying this or that bourgeois trend. Revolutionary workers and activists in Iraq should certainly champion the democratic demands of the masses including the Kurds right to self-determination, fight for relief from the crushing economic conditions, and fight to end the US occupation. This requires the organizing of strikes and protests of all kinds, of encouraging anti-occupation resistance (armed or otherwise) while chipping away at the influence of the Baathists and clerics there. It requires building up a revolutionary political party, militant unions, unemployed organizations, women's rights groups and other forms of mass organization. In the course of doing this work, there may be instances where there are temporary alliances of various sorts, but the working class must not lose sight of the class nature of various other trends, nor their goals, and must maintain its own independent stand and organization. The forging of a revolutionary mass movement may take a long time, but each step forward will increase the ability of the masses to resist the present horrors and prepare them for the future revolutionary onslaught that alone can really liberate them. <>


(1 ) During the last election, the main union leaders went all out for pro-occupation Democrat John Kerry, whose main criticism of Bush was that he didn't send enough troops to successfully occupy Iraq. But that didn't stop USLAW from using the tour to promote the same union bureaucrats who supported this imperialist policy. Thus, the USLAW web page is excited that the Iraqi unionists met with AFL-CIO president John Sweeney and other national union leaders.

Because the union bureaucrats pretty much ran things on the tour, in a number of cities Democratic politicians were promoted as working-class heroes. For example, in Detroit, the union bureaucrats had Democratic US Congressman John Conyers speak and boast of his ties to the unions, i. e. , the meek union officials, not the rank and file. This is the same Conyers who has been promoting reviving the draft as an alleged anti-war measure and backed repressive "anti-terrorist" measures under the Clinton administration. Later, Detroit City Council president Maryann Mahaffey was introduced. Mahaffey and the rest of the City Council is presently competing with Detroit Mayor Kilpatrick over who can impose the most layoffs and wage and health care cuts on city workers during the city budget crisis. Yet, USLAW and the union officials sang her praises. Meanwhile, Conyers is backing Kilpatrick's reelection bid. As well, the USLAW web site enthused about long-time Democratic Party shill, Jesse Jackson, for his participation in the Chicago tour stop. Solidarity with the Democrats trumped solidarity with the workers under attack by them on the USLAW tour. (Return to text)

(2 ) Among the many places the NYCLAW statement can be found on the internet is at < http://groups.yahoo.com/group/LaborAgainstWar/message/2264 >. (Text)

(3 ) During the tour, Amjad Ali Aljawhry, the FWCUI official representative in North America was asked by certain activists, including myself, about the FWCUI's stand on UN intervention in Iraq. He denied that support for a UN occupation was the stand of the FWCUI. He blamed the problem on a bad translation of Alwan's interview. Yet a month later, the translation stands uncorrected on the WCPI web site. Meanwhile, the speeches of the FWCUI representatives on the tour don't mention what they think of a UN intervention, though this is a controversial issue among solidarity activists around the world.

The WCPI web page does carry a link to the IFC Manifesto, and the Manifesto does criticize the "call for the replacement of the US forces with Multinational forces under the auspices of the United Nations" on the grounds that, "Regrettably, the European governments and the United Nations themselves are guilty of appeasement toward political Islam." But since appeasement of the Islamic fundamentalists is the only reason given for opposing the UN intervention and the European governments, this seems to imply that if only the European bourgeoisie cracked down more on the Islamic forces, UN intervention would be acceptable. Indeed, the WCPI earlier supported the French bourgeoisie's unjust decision to ban the wearing of the traditional Muslim scarf, the hijab, in French schools. It should also be noted that if the stand of the WCPI/FWCUI has changed, there appears to be no mention on their web site that a change was made or why. (Text)

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October 16, 2005.
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