Building a voice for Iraq’s workers

Oil workers’ union leader speaks to the socialist

HASSAN JUMA’A AWAD – president of the Iraqi Federation of Oil Unions
(previously known as the General Union of Oil Employees) spoke to Zena
Awad of the socialist.

Can you tell us about the oil union’s re-launch and what role it is
playing in fighting the privatisation plans for Iraqi society and
particularly for the oil industry?

"THE OIL union’s re-launching played an important role during the
first stages of the occupation. Iraqi workers had been forced to join
trade unions set up by the Saddam regime. But when US troops invaded, we
saw the need to re-found the oil union for a number of reasons.

Firstly because the US occupation’s main aim, among others, is to get
their hands on oil in the Middle East and prepare the ground for an
economic occupation. Also, if oil workers were not organised in an oil
union, the US leadership would not give them rights as we saw in (US
governor of Iraq) Bremer’s attacks on trade unionism.

The oil reserves are Iraq’s main source of income and therefore
crucial to Iraq’s economy. This was clear from the start when troops
invaded and destroyed schools and hospitals but guarded the oilfields.
We felt the sham aims of the US occupation and started with only 20 oil
workers initiating the union.

This was under an initial rule banning trade union activity. Recently
Bremer had to change this in the face of Iraqi society’s trade unionism.
11 days after the occupation started, we set up the union which has been
consistently built ever since. We now organise 23,000 oil workers not
just in Basra but across the south of Iraq.

We developed the union’s organisational structures and waged an
intense battle against the US administration on wages and workers’
rights – demands which are unlikely to be met by the US administration,
which only gives in when it faces strong pressure beyond its own

We were surprised when, two months after the occupying troops entered
Basra, American companies were suddenly entering our oil fields. Our
main role was to stand up against the greedy oil companies while knowing
that oil is the only thing which can give Iraqi living standards a lift
after 35 years of oppression from a dictatorship originally sponsored by

We struck back against Kellogg Brown Root (KBR – a Halliburton
subsidiary) in October 2003, forcing them out of the oilfields. Now
we’re fighting against privatisation of all oil refineries by American
companies. We forbid the US administration and all those who favour
privatisation of the oil refineries and other industries in Iraq as we
believe that this is the return of colonisation in the region."

Privatisation threat

"WE FIGHT for the public ownership of industries according to the law
passed in the 1970s. Until now the oil industry has worked as one
national industry and Iraqis had a common knowledge of the country’s
rich natural resources. Iraqis are aware of that and also of the aims of
US imperialism worldwide.

We feel that privatisation is damaging to the Iraqi economy, that it
means private companies controlling public resources and wealth for
their profit while the Iraqi people see very little of it. Many
countries around the world have carried out privatisation but brought no
material or social benefit for the ordinary citizen.

Privatisation has now developed further and the plans are clear. The
propaganda in favour of these plans only started this year – before
that, the US was busy with military occupation and the security
situation. I have to say to the occupation forces that the US will face
a battle much more fierce than when they entered Iraq as Iraqis then
wanted to get rid of Saddam but now they see through US economic
interests and hence the aim of the occupation.

We have put forward our position on this issue, and held the first
conference ever to deal with this in Basra in May 2005. It was agreed
that we hand in a statement to parliament saying we oppose any
privatisation plans and any foreign troops entering our fields. We said
that after the military occupation comes the economic one.

This first national meeting for the oil workers union prepared us for
the future. One of our main tasks is to explain to people that
privatisation means looting oil reserves and therefore running the
refineries dry. Our second task is to show that we’re waging a battle
against privatisation of the oil industry and that they will face a
strong opposition when they try and implement their privatisation plans.

Frankly, we’re not in the most technologically developed industry and
our equipment is in need of development. Nevertheless, we oppose this
happening through privatisation, or even through sharing half with the
enemy. We are the workers of Iraq and it is in our capacity to build and
rebuild the refineries.

I personally think this would not cost much and every trade unionist
in Basra, Nasiriyiah or the whole of Iraq would sacrifice to defend our
public oil industry and against outside forces controlling what is the
right of the Iraqi masses.

Many economists, even in Britain, paint a nice picture of
privatisation, forgetting that Iraq’s main income comes from oil and
that if half of this is shared with private companies, this would be an
attack not only on Iraqi workers but the whole of Iraqi society.

What form would public ownership take in your view and what is the
role of workers in this?

"WORKERS THEMSELVES want to run their own industry. The proof for
this is when they re-opened the oil refineries only two months after the
troops invaded. This shows they have the capacity to manage production
themselves without any interference. It was also shown by forcing KBR
out – in fact not even allowing then into the fields in the first place.

After 35 years of repression, Iraqis now want to be in control of
society. Also, when troops left the Gulf in 1991 the Iraqi oil workers,
despite resources and trade unionism, did not reopen the refineries for
a year after. As soon as the troops entered this time around, the
workers wanted to take control. Therefore, we are on the side of all

The US fears this. Instead of using the term ‘privatisation’, they
now talk of a Production Sharing Agreement – something very new to
Iraqis who are now told that we are sharing production and profit. In
the end, it is privatisation with a different face and with longer-term

What about the merging of the oil unions in the last year – how are
relations with other unions and federations?

"WE FOUND the oil industry’s situation quite urgent and we only
organised across three provinces. So we agreed we should expand across
the oil industry because of the issues faced by oil workers and
therefore the need to link up with other oil workers’ unions.

Oil workers’ working conditions, for instance exposure to gases and
chemicals, are different to those faced by other workers. Also, oil
workers are a skilled force in a specialised complex production.

We used to have over five federations in Iraq with no clear
direction, so we decided from the start that we would build our own
independent oil workers’ union federation within which all oil workers
can organise. We now have links with other oil workers’ unions with the
aim of affiliation; one of which is in Kirkuk – the province with Iraq’s
second biggest oil reserve after Basra.

Now with the new constitution giving local powers to regions, it is
important to unite the oil workers across all of Iraq. We need an
expanded union as the battle against the government will be more
successful and at a higher level.

So we need to expand our organisation and organise on a national
basis with a national structure and a national committee bringing
together all the different oil refineries in Iraq. The change has not
only been in the name but in the way we organise and the structures and
make-up of the union.

Our union has been in a number of battles, one of which is when KBR’s
sub-companies tried divide and rule tactics, bringing in 1,200 workers
from Asia who they wanted to use as scabs. This was opposed by all
workers who could not accept this while four million Iraqis are
unemployed. The battle was successful in reinstating 1,000 Iraqi

How specifically do you think the occupation can be ended?

"FIRSTLY, WE call for the immediate unconditional withdrawal of all
troops and for workers’ control of society and industry. Some argue
against this, fearing a civil war developing. Even if there will be
sectarian tensions and divisions soon after the withdrawal, these
problems will be solved by the Iraqis.

All these developments are because of the occupation and its divide
and rule tactic since it wants no unity and no real stability. Sectarian
problems were born out of the occupation. In places where people lived
without tensions, the occupation forces created problems in order to
demonstrate their role. It is easier to control a divided people.

We are part of Iraq’s trade union movement. Many unions support our
struggle because they see that if the oil industry is privatised, the
others will follow. Our union has organised a solidarity strike with the
Basra port workers against privatisation and defeated the Danish company

We have differences with other trade unions but we always unite in
the interest of Iraqi workers and to unite the trade union movement.

We want our union federation to be democratic so we believe we should
have a conference of all oil workers’ trade unions to exchange
experiences from across Iraq. 75% of Iraqi workers are in the public
sector so we hope that in the future this workforce will be united and
successful in defeating the occupation and its economic plans."

Bosses’ rate of return – 162%!

PRODUCTION SHARING Agreements (PSAs) are a pro-privatisation oil
policy that could be adopted in Iraq after December’s elections. A PSA
would make sure that most of Iraq’s oilfields – accounting for at least
64% of the country’s oil reserves – should be owned, controlled and
profited from by multinational oil companies.

A War on Want report Crude Designs: The rip-off of Iraq’s oil wealth
says that with oil priced at $40 per barrel, such a deal could lose Iraq
anything from $74 billion to $194 billion compared with leaving oil
development in public hands, over the 25-year-plus lifetime of the

That’s at least twice and maybe seven times the current Iraqi
government budget and it’s only from the first 12 oilfields to be
developed. The oil companies’ rates of return from investing in Iraq
would range from 42% to 162% – the industry’s minimum target is usually
around 12% return on investment.

It’s big money and should be tempting though at present the total
insecurity of Iraq is making the prospect seem less inviting for the
giants of Big Oil.

Iraq survey shows hopes and fears

UP TO 70,000 civilians have died since the Iraq war officially ended
in May 2003. Now there are, on average, 700 attacks by insurgent groups
in Iraq each week. Along with attacks by US and other troops the lives
of Iraq’s workers and the poor are being put constantly at risk.

US imperialism claims that the 15 December elections will be a
"turning point", bringing the situation back to normality. Many people
share some of that slender hope, but like every other ‘turning point’ so
far, this one is unlikely to bring any serious improvements to the lives
of ordinary people.

Of course Bush and Blair will clutch at any straw that appears to
boost their optimistic scenario for the future. One of these ‘straws’ is
a recent Western survey of Iraqi views on their country’s future.

While half the population (53% according to the survey) think Iraq’s
overall situation remains bad, most (69%) believe this will improve in
the next year. However there were wide variations between different
regions of the country.

Iraqis clearly see practical issues, such as whether they can get
electricity in their homes, as paramount. They said security was their
main worry. Most people wanted any new government that emerges to
concentrate on improving security.

However on the basis of capitalism, the new government will prove
incapable of meeting any of these basic demands. Imperialism’s strategy
for ‘stabilising’ Iraq has fomented and reinforced sectarian divisions
which will continue after the elections.

The only hope for the future for ordinary Iraqis is the building of
workers’ unity in opposition to the occupation and around demands for
security, jobs and a better life for Iraq’s people.

One key element needs to be action to confiscate the oil wealth,
currently being divided amongst the multinationals, and measures to
allow the country’s resources to be democratically owned and controlled
by the working class.

Stop the War Coalition international peace conference

THE 1,000 participants at the Stop the War Coalition’s international
peace conference on Iraq on 10 December heard many impassioned speeches
against the war and contributions from representatives of the US
anti-war movement.

Ken Smith

The conference unanimously passed a resolution calling for the
release of hostages in Iraq, including peace activist Norman Kember. It
also called for the release of prisoners being held by occupation
authorities in Afghanistan and Iraq. Another statement called for an
immediate end to the occupation and for international demonstrations to
be held on 18-19 March 2006.

Some impassioned speeches came from those involved in the Military
Families against the War movement in Britain and the USA. Former SAS
soldier Ben Griffin, who left the army as a conscientious objector, said
there are more British ex-servicemen working for private companies
trying to get their hands on Iraq’s resources than there are British
soldiers in Iraq.

Kelly Dougherthy, who served for eight years in the National Guard in
the Balkans and Iraq, said that on her ten-month tour of duty in Iraq
most of her time was spent guarding Halliburton convoys. US
vice-president Dick Cheney was an executive of Halliburton.

Some US soldiers who wanted to do more to help the Iraqi people had
gone to an orphanage to take sweets and gifts for the children. But the
soldiers came away asking themselves why they were carrying out US
policies that were making these children orphans. Many soldiers see the
futility of what they were doing in Iraq.

The conference’s turnout showed the residual base that the anti-war
movement in Britain has, although many participants registered in a
personal capacity rather than representing organisations such as trade
unions. It was more of a rally than a representative conference and
opportunities for speakers from the floor were limited. So,
unfortunately, there was no real chance of beginning a debate about what
sort of strategy could advance the anti-war movement.