Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Thanks, Brother...Now how about some solidarity?

NOT content with handing over lucrative government contracts and juicy chunks of public services to big private interests, Blair's New Labour has felt it only right to decorate the rich bosses for showing interest. It was revealed the other week that Riley Bechtel, billionaire head of the American Bechtel Corporation, was awarded a CBE in 2003 for "services to UK-American commercial relations".

Besides moving into London Underground privatisation and taking over the Crossrail project, Bechtel has plans for the nuclear business. The US company has done well from the Iraq war, just as it previously did from doing business with Saddam Hussein, and in Saudi Arabia of course.

Bechtel became an honourary Commander of the British Empire, approved by HM The Queen, on 25 April 2003, a week after his company won a £430 million contract to rebuild Iraqi infrastructure. Jack Straw was Foreign Secretary. There have been suggestions the award was kept quiet at the time to avoid political controversy.

As I passed US firm Haliburton's building at Greenford the other day then came into Hammersmith where Bechtel has it's European HQ, I was thinking what more we can do to raise support for Iraqi trade unionists who are confident they could rebuild their country better without carpetbagging foreign companies, and want to stop their country's oil wealth falling prey to privatisation.

So far the only bit of infrastructure the Americans have been keen on reconstructing have been prisons, and of course their own bases -which are beginning to look rather permanent for a "temporary" occupation.
We heard last year how the General Union of Oil Employees had to chase Halliburton-KBR people out of the southern oil refineris, and since then the union has held a conference against oil privatisation, and taken steps to unite oil workers and other trade unionists across Iraq on this issue.
While maintaining its own independence, the oil union has begun discussing how Iraqi workers can have a distinct, but united, political voice.

Last week we heard that the Iraqi government had intervened, freezing the GUOE's bank accounts. This followed actions against lawyers associations and others. The Iraqi government is keeping Decree 8750 which is aimed against workers right to organise in unions.

Like others, I tried to spread word of this, copying a message from the oil workers' support group here Naftana (Arabic for Our Oil), in the hope we could raise some voices here in solidarity with Iraqi trades unionists. I think, as I've said in more than one meeting, that as we in Britain are fighting against privatisation, as well as an end to anti-union laws, we should form a united front with the Iraqi trade unionists. We're even facing some of the same companies.

I received this message below from the head of the British TUC's International Department:
The TUC is unaware of what has happened to the Oil Workers Union (it doesn't help that they seem only to communicate with small campaigning organisations rather than the global oil workers federation (ICEM) or the global trade union movement (ICFTU), but it is certainly true that Decree 8750 has been used to intervene in the lawyers union and others (note that this organisation and others affected are more professional associations than trade unions, not that that makes the government's actions any better).

However, it is a massive exaggeration to describe Decree 8750 as "the September 2005 decree making all trade union activity illegal", and things are bad enough without exaggerating and giving completely thewrong impression. Unions in Iraq are clearly still functioning, and have been since the Decree was announced (in August by the way).

This is not intended to stop people protesting about Decree 8750, as the TUC, ICFTU and Iraqi unions have been for nearly a year. But hyperbole doesn't help, it sends people off in the wrong direction.

Owen Tudor
, Head of TUC European Union and International
Relations Department
Congress House, Great Russell Street, London WC1B 3LS

Maybe it's because I've just been writing about the fire service, but I get the feeling that if I'd called these people to a fire they'd say I'd rung the wrong alarm, tell me off for exagerrating, then pour cold water over me rather than hastening to put the blaze out.

On "small campaigning organisations", I should point out that it was one of these, Iraq Occupation Focus, which arranged GUOE president Hassan Juma'a 's first trip to Britain, at a time when official trade union links were only being extended to the "official" Iraqi Trade Union Federation which had a full-time officer here.
It was as a result of his trip that Naftana was set up, and that the TUC invited Hassan Juma'a along with other union leaders to a seminar in Congress House about Iraq. There I felt the privatisation issue raised by Hassan was played down by officialdom (maybe because there were elections coming up). But it was Owen Tudor who, if I'm not mistaken, encouraged lay union members to go ahead with an Iraq Trade Union Solidarity Campaign, suggesting they could do more campaigning than the TUC itself.

Still, feeling a half-hearted TUC response was better than none, I forwarded Owen Tudor's letter to friends and fellow-activists, and this has brought the comment below from Sami Ramadani, an Iraqi political exile from Saddam Hussein, now teaching in London University. I think it blows away the bureaucratic fog and lets us see issues more clearly, so I'm glad Sami says to circulate it:

The head of the TUC European Union and International Department, Owen Tudor, has written a letter criticising Iraq's oil workers' union, for not building links with certain international union federations, and lambasting solidarity organisations for issuing statements alerting the trade unions and general public to the escalating anti-trade union measures and oil privatisation plans in Iraq.

Instead of directing his fire at the anti-trade union measures in occupied Iraq, Owen Tudor prefers to level a false accusation against a besieged trade union representing impoverished workers, languishing under a ruthless occupation. He also takes a swipe at "small" solidarity organisations in Britain and USA, and engages in diversionary nitpicking and making light of the grave problems facing the Iraqi people and trade unions.

But despite Owen Tudor's attempt to cloud the issues and downplay the seriousness of the problems facing Iraq's genuinely independent trade unionists, the facts are plain and simple to understand. The Iraqi government has, in the past few months, accelerated the implementation of Decree 8750. The Iraqi Ministerial Council approved Decree 8750 in August 2005 (probably not published in the official gazette till September) promising "a new paper on how trade unions should function, operate and organise," dissolving one government committee and replacing it with a new ministerial committee that includes the minister for National Security, to be in charge of Labour and Social Rights, and stating that the new committee would control all trade union funds.

Using wording rivalling the deviousness of the Saddam regime's 1987 anti-trade union law, decree 8750 does not ban trade unions. In 2004 US administrator Paul Bremer issued a notorious directive, still in effect, reviving Saddam's 1987 anti-union decree, which also did not ban trade unions as such, but merely deemed all workers in the state sector to be civil servants. Civil servants were of course banned from joining trade unions. Similarly, decree 8750 is worded such that it effectively makes all union activity illegal.

The decree states that the new ministerial committee "must take control of all monies belonging to the trade unions and prevent them from dispensing any such monies." How trade unions can function legally when it is illegal to dispense a penny on their activities, only Owen Tudor knows. He also knows how to stay calm and not resort to "hyperbole" when "Unions in Iraq are clearly still functioning, and have been since the Decree was announced."

In English, this means that his TUC department will not launch a serious campaign to defend Iraq's independent trade unionists until they all stop functioning. While the country burned and cities were at the receiving end of trigger-happy US Marines, US air and land bombardment, and occupation-induced terrorist attacks, the government proceeded this year with the implementation of the anti-union policies and decrees. As if it was not bad enough that his TUC department did not campaign to defend the Iraqi lawyers' and writers' unions, Owen Tudor tries to downplay nakedly anti-union measures by describing properly constituted unions, with elected officers, as "more professional associations than trade unions."

In April the government accelerated the implementation of its 8750 anti-union decree. Contrary to Tudor Owen's accusations of "hyperbole," the Naftana statement below understates the scale of the problem facing Iraqi trade unions by highlighting the actual freezing of the accounts of only the oil workers' union. The government decree in fact ordered control over the accounts of all trade unions (including those close to the government).

I find it astonishing that he chooses to accuse the oil workers union, whom the TUC officially invited to Britain last year, of not communicating with international union federations. He knows very well that the oil workers' union has been trying very hard to establish such contacts in the face of insidious, but polite and patronising disregard. He also knows that this union is financially strapped -(the price of true independence under occupation)- and relies heavily on its supporters in Britain to communicate its news in English to the British and world trade union movement.

Instead of publicly criticising the union, he should be writing to them expressing concern at the news of freezing their account, ascertaining the full facts and offering financial and other help. He should also be asking them how the TUC could help the union's planned second anti-privatisation conference in Basra.It is deeply regrettable that some in the TUC international department prefer to turn a blind eye to certain international events, which are seriously threatening trade unionists abroad, if such events are deemed to be politically embarrassing to Blair's government. For them Iraq is building a democracy, and strangling independent trade union activity does not fit in with that fictitious Blairite image of Iraq, an image designed to lull trade unionists into silence about the gravity of the situation in Iraq, and thwart calls for the swift withdrawal of the US and British occupation forces.

In the name of supporting a fictitious democratic process, they are in effect helping to crush democratic activity. And by not exposing the consequences of the Blairite (Thatcherite) alliance with the Bush administration, some in the TUC international department are, probably with good intentions, helping prolong the occupation of Iraq and privatisation and theft of Iraqi oil and other wealth by the transnationals.
In doing this, they are also damaging the reputation and proud record of most of Britain's unions, strongly opposed to the war and continuing occupation of Iraq. Instead, Tudor Owen should also be alerting Britain's unions to the fact that the Iraq's oil minister is preparing the ground for signing privatisation agreements, deceptively called Production Sharing Agreements, with the transnational oil barons.

The TUC is perhaps not aware that the occupation authorities have spent millions of dollars on so called civil society and other 'sweetheart' organisations to prop up activities designed to draw attention away from the war crimes of the occupation forces and plans to privatise Iraq's oil and main industries. The implementation, probably selectively, of Decree 8750 will hit the genuinely independent organisations hardest, because they rely heavily on the pennies they collect from impoverished workers and donations collected by solidarity organisations .

Decree 8750 is aimed at strangling the truly independent trade unions and other mass organisations. International solidarity helps them stay independent and to resist pressures to turn them into 'sweetheart' unions, docile apologists of the occupation and the transnationals.

Best wishes,
Sami Ramadani

See previous blog, Iraqi government attacks oil union:

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