Report of Trip to Geneva for USLAW June 11-14, 2004

by Neal Bisno and Katharine Harer

[continued from Part 1.]
 
Monday Morning: Neal’s Meetings with Farouk Sourig and Representatives of the ICATU, IFTU, and ILO
 
Katharine caught an early morning flight out of Geneva, and Neal was left to himself on his final day in the city.
 
After talking his way into the vast United Nations complex in Geneva despite his lack of official ILO credentials, Neal hooked up with Farouk Sourig of the ICATU, and the two spent much of the day in between meetings drinking coffee and talking in the expansive snack bar, where everyone apparently goes to see everyone at the ILO meetings.
 
Meeting with Hacene Djemam of the ICATU
 
Waiting to meet with the IFTU representative, Neal took the opportunity to have a brief meeting with Hacene Djemam, the General Secretary of the International Confederation of Arab Trade Unions (ICATU), comprised of unions representing 35 million workers across the Arab world.  The meeting was cordial and friendly.
 
Hacene reiterated ICATU’s position that all trade unions must be allowed to organize in Iraq; the government must not choose unions for the Iraqi workers.  He has pushed this issue with the Iraqi Labor Ministry, which has assured him that Decree #16 recognizing IFTU was a temporary measure and that the new labor code would not grant legitimacy to any single labor federation.  Haceme has asked for a copy of the draft new labor code but has not yet received it.
 
Hacene stated that ICATU would fight for a strong labor code in Iraq that conforms with ILO Conventions #98 and #87.  He said that IFTU’s position on the new labor code is the same as ICATU’s.
 
On the issue of trade union unity versus pluralism in Iraq, he said he did not know which model the Iraqi labor movement would choose, but either would be acceptable to the ICATU.
 
He reiterated ICATU’s support for the FWCUI/UUI Complaint against Decree #16.
 
 
Meeting with Adbullah Muhsin of the IFTU
 
After the meeting with Hacene, Neal finally sat down for a lengthy meeting with Adbullah Muhsin, the Representative Abroad for the IFTU.  Abdullah is a longtime resident of Britain, an exile from Iraq from 1979 to 2003, and fluent English speaker, and was attending the ILO meeting on behalf of IFTU as part of the official Iraqi delegation.
 
Abdullah began by emphasizing IFTU’s strong opposition to the war in Iraq prior to the invasion, and continued strong opposition to the occupation.  Although Saddam’s brutal regime did tremendous damage to Iraqi workers and the Iraqi trade union movement, IFTU knew that a war would put Iraq back to the stone age and would end in a massive occupation of the country by U.S. forces.  Although they did not dispute that Saddam’s regime possessed some weapons of mass destruction, they argued that the regime posed no meaningful threat to other countries.  Prior to the war, they had called on Saddam to relinquish power to prevent an invasion.
 
IFTU’s position is that the occupation must end immediately and all U.S. troops must leave now.  The IFTU supports the United Nations’ coming in to assist with reconstruction of Iraq and its social, economic, political, and cultural spheres.  The UN is not perfect but it is the best vehicle available to assist in moving Iraq forward at the present time. 
 
The IFTU is working to build a strong Iraqi trade union movement.  But one must recognize the difficulty of building a functioning labor movement coming out of war, occupation, and the deliberate disintegration of the state (Iraq had  a functioning state bureaucracy prior to the war, as opposed to a functioning government).
 
The IFTU is open to all forces, even those who participated in Saddam’s government so long as they were not involved in harming Iraqi people.  They invited the FWCUI and UUI to participate in their federation.  They have deliberately refrained from responding to the public attacks and criticism leveled at the IFTU by the FWCUI and UUI.  IFTU did not ask for recognition under Decree #16, but would not turn down the opportunity to gain official legitimacy.
 
IFTU has established 12 national unions operating in all provinces.  By the end of June, 6 of the 12 unions will have convened their national conferences to elect a national leadership.  The remaining 6 are public sector unions whose legal legitimacy is not yet established because of the government’s continuation of the 1987 Saddam law banning unions in the public sector.  These 6 unions work openly in defiance of the 1987 law and are not repressed on a daily basis, but lack legal legitimacy. 
 
Contrary to the repeated claims of the FWCUI, the Southern Oil Workers Union is part of the IFTU.
 
The IFTU is an independent organization that is not tied to the government and is not shy about engaging in politics.  The IFTU is part of the emerging Iraqi civil society that will be the basis for building a secular society in Iraq.
 
The recent UN resolution passed unanimously by the Security Council establishing an interim government is a positive development, despite its flaws.  The UN resolution is positive in that it clearly signals the end of the occupation, the regaining of Iraqi sovereignty, and the eventual departure of foreign troops.  It is deficient in that it is too vague, does not specifically incorporate a reference to the Iraqi interim constitution, and references a regular review of the presence of troops, rather than an immediate withdrawal.  But IFTU believes that pressure from civil society can lead to a departure of foreign troops in the near future.
 
The establishment of the new interim government is also a positive step, but IFTU will not give them a blank check.  If they continue the policies of the IGC, IFTU will campaign against them.
The interim constitution is constructive in that it supports the right to organize and join unions, the right to strike and protest, and the rights of women. The danger comes from the Islamic parties who do not support these principles.
 
Article 13 of the Transitional Administrative Law (TAL) represents some progress in that it includes the right to form and join unions in the private sector.  Iraq needs a new labor code that expands and fleshes out these rights.  The IFTU is consulting with the ILO (which has a representative on the ground in Iraq), the ICFTU, and Iraq’s Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs in drafting the new labor code; IFTU is fully engaged in this work.  The labor code will be implemented after the elections in 2005.  The labor code must incorporate the ILO conventions.  The new Minister of Labor and Social Affairs is, in IFTU’s assessment, someone they can work with.
 
Abdullah echoed many of the descriptions of the desperate economic conditions for Iraqi workers that we heard from Fallah and Qasim, as well as the stories of workers standing up.  He reported 50-55% unemployment; no unemployment insurance; woefully inadequate wages; less than ½ day of electricity in Baghdad (better in other parts of country), making it impossible to store food in the unbearable heat of the Iraqi summer; and workers in various enterprises striking and protesting for wage increases and other issues, with the support of the IFTU.
 
Bush is a pro-market fundamentalist.  IFTU is fully opposed to privatization; no one has the right to sell off the wealth of the people.  IFTU wants a social market regulated for the people, not for the market.  While opposing privatization, IFTU welcomes foreign investment and holding of shares in Iraqi enterprises, with Iraqi control of decision making and management, and no foreign workers until Iraqis have full employment.
 
Nationalist sentiment and opposition to the occupation is running high in Iraq.  IFTU supports the struggle for national self-determination, but does not support armed struggle.  Some acts of violence in Iraq are a legitimate response to the cultural insensitivity and policy of collective punishment by the US troops and the CPA.    For example, the U.S. forces identified 9 high ranking former Baathists in Fallujah, but brutally killed 700 innocent Iraqis in their operations there.  This inevitably leads to violent resistance by Iraqis.
 
The IFTU in no way supports the outside terrorists, Saddam loyalists, and Islamist fascists that are responsible for much of the violence, and for which innocent Iraqis are paying the price.
 
It is difficult to stomach attacks from IFTU’s rivals that they are too accommodating to the U.S. government.  Abdullah marched in the British anti war protests, and IFTU strongly opposed the war and demands an immediate end to the occupation.
 

IFTU would like to have a stronger working relationship with USLAW.  They would like to have more of a voice in the U.S. and means of communicating with potential allies in the U.S.  They are in need of resources for fax machines, computers, and all of the basics for building a trade union infrastructure.

 

At the end of our meeting, Neal presented Abdullah with the certificate symbolizing USLAW’s financial contribution to IFTU, and took several photographs of the presentation.

 

Meeting with Walid Hamdan of the ILO

 

Neal’s last meeting on Monday was with Walid Hamdan, Senior Workers Specialist for Arab States, with the ACTRAV Field Office of the ILO.  ACTRAV (the ILO Workers’ Bureau) is headed by Jim Baker from the AFL-CIO, and is actively assisting with the drafting of the Iraqi labor code.

 

Walid asked Neal to say hello to David Bacon, and was interested in USLAW keeping him posted of our activities going forward.  Walid stated that the situation in Iraq is not a normal situation, given the war and occupation, and he is less optimistic today than he was originally about what is possible in terms of the development of Iraq.

 

He said that the first priority must be to end the occupation, then focus on development. 

 

He would advise IFTU to associate itself with the FWCUI/UUI Complaint, to take a principled position on the issue.  When he was in Baghdad, he intervened to help arrange the release of UUI activists who had been arrested, but the UUI activists told him they would have preferred to stay in jail longer as an organizing tactic.

 

The ILO and ACTRAV are now mostly focused on the labor code, and consider themselves representing the workers’ interests in the drafting of the code.  If he were the Iraqi workers’ representatives, he would take the ILO proposals and run with them.  They are working closely with ICATU and ICFTU.

 

It is impossible to determine who the “real” representatives of the workers of Iraq are, given the fluid situation on the ground.  It is up to the workers to decide the question of trade union unity versus pluralism in Iraq.  The problems facing Iraqi labor are much deeper than the Complaint or Decree #16; there is a lack of capacity to organize, and a real need for training and capacity building.  The Complaint will move slowly through the ILO procedures.

 

USLAW can help the situation by making the sure the U.S. government does not attempt to interfere with the drafting of the labor code.  The U.S. had initially offered a draft labor code, which the ILO rejected, and the U.S. was using a Minnesota consultant and Egyptian subcontractor to develop the code, but the Americans have since backed off and are not actively playing a role in the drafting process now.  Walid thinks very poorly of the U.S. labor law.

 

Neal had a final few hours in Geneva, which he spent walking the streets of this beautiful city on the lake and enjoying some Swiss cuisine.