Ewa Jasiewicz reports from Basra on recent solidarity visit with the General Union of Oil Employees (GUOE)
Basra oil refinery is towering above us. A wheezing, whirring, oil-products factorium rooted in the She’iba dessert. Refinery manager Mr Wahid gestures up at the decrepit structure. ‘All of this was destroyed’ he says, referring to the damage caused by the Kuwait-Iraq war. ‘And Iraqi workers repaired all of it’. Mr Wahid is a supporter of the GUOE and has stood by the union, echoing its’ demands when it has taken strike action. Asked about his views on privatisation, he is candid, ‘Not now. Iraq is in no way at a level where it can accept any privatisation. It’s not the time now’. Unbeknownst to me, Mr Wahid is standing within earshot when I ask General Secretary Falih Abood Amara about whether it is possible to have an oil industry without bosses?
Falih explains that structure, managers, supervisors are necessary but that definitely a boss can come from the ranks of the workers. Mr Wahid then chips in saying, ‘Managers should not be authoritarian. We need to have a co-operative effort and collective responsibility. Decisions should be taken collectively’. But not all managers are so conciliatory.
Following strike action at the Basra Pipeline Company in June 2003, strike organisers were punished. ‘We were deprived of land for building employee homes, forbidden from taking part in foreign delegations and many other things’, says Hadi Shabood Mootlek, GUOE rep at the Basra Pipeline Company. ‘The boss is still angry from that time and considers us enemies. We are still hurting’.
A violet-orange sunset is spreading across the sky when myself, Faraj Rabat Mizban, Executive Committee Member responsible for cultural affairs and Ibrahim Radi Abd Wahid, Responsible for company affairs, meet a group of around 10 engineers and manual workers, along with their supervisor. The supervisor is an older, white-haired, steely-eyed man in his 60s. I ask them a provocative question. ‘Western companies like KBR and Bechtel, they think they know better than you’. It’s the bedrock propaganda of the bomb-and-build industry, one of the key lies of the privatisation through reconstruction racket, the one that tries to hide the fact this it is working class people who build and rebuild industries, and know their industries better than anyone else.
Particularly in Iraq. ‘Without offence’ begins the older, worn-faced supervisor, ‘We are the cradle of civilisation, the birthplace of science, law, and mathematics, yes, the dictatorship regressed us. But we have the skills and intelligence and resources to be the most developed country in the world! We could be at the same level as America if we had the chance. The science, the knowledge, the talents, the faith we have them all but we were cut down, with wars, sanctions, and Saddam’. Asked what they want for the future, the whole group responds, ‘to rebuild our country’. ‘But on our terms’ interjects the supervisor, ‘If we need assistance or experts in any field, we will ask for them. It has to come from us, it should not be imposed on us’.
Despite being conscious of the national and international political dynamics around them, many Iraqi workers are not clear on what the oncoming dynamic of privatisation will really mean. Iraq’s oil industry has been nationalised since 1972 and the state sector was, before the Iran-Iraq war, the most advanced in the Middle East. Privatisation is an alien term for people who have only known a state-run economy. And the group I met was no exception.
Faraj Mizban begins to explain. And when Faraj talks, you listen.
Currently chief fire-fighter at the Basra Refinery, he was jailed and tortured for organising protests in the 1991 uprising against the regime. Now he writes essays and communiqués in his spare time on union principles, workers rights and the political battlefield that is post-totalitarian dictatorship occupied Iraq. Dusk is descending and the flare from the Basra refinery is warping and licking the sky behind him.
It lends the optical illusion of his words being punctuated with flames of fire. He begins intently, calmly, addressing the workers before him.
‘With privatisation, there are four phenomena, four essential ingredients. Capital, Means of Production, Production itself and the Human element. Privatisation puts the human element and contribution as the lowest denominator; it is in the last place. In our concept, as people from the East, as Muslims, it is the human element, which comes first; this is top of the list, followed by production and means of production and capital in the last place. The value system held by advocates of privatisation is the opposite of our value system. We emphasise the human element because we believe humanity carries the most value’.
The GUOE started out as the Southern Oil Company Union. Their first strike focused on wages for the workforce, which had not been paid for two months. June 2003 saw around 100 activists blockade Basra Refinery, preventing oil tankers leaving to service British occupation troops.
Workers laid a crane across the road and sat behind it. During the four-hour stand-off, British troops allegedly threaten to kill workers, pointing their weapons at them and physically assaulting them. Some workers slid under the tankers and signalled with their cigarette lighters that if anyone was shot, they’d blow up the tanks. Negotiations ensued and the protest ended peacefully with workers paid within hours.
Following the protest, union membership leapt from 100 to 3000. Since then it has expelled Halliburton subsidiary KBR from oil sector locations, shut down oil exports over low wages, eradicated the last two levels of Bremer’s Order 30 wagetable, found work for Petroleum institute graduates, and reconstructed port equipment, pipelines, refineries and drilling rigs. Yet despite a current membership of 23,000 and trade union councils in nine oil sector companies in Amara, Nassiriyah and Basra, the GUOE is still illegal. The government still refuses to grant it any legal status or recognise it for bargaining purposes.
Autonomous reconstruction is a great source of pride for the Union. In the past two years, workers at the Iraqi Drilling Company (IDC) have rebuilt 12 drilling rigs in a sector which was looted post-war for four months. British forces did nothing to protect the sector says Ghafla Talib Dahmash, head of the IDC Union. ‘The military strategy of America was to destroy the public infrastructure of Iraq’ he says, ‘On the other hand, American forces undertook protection of some private sectors. This was in order to steer the country in a capitalist direction, to create the conditions, which would force privatisation… But we succeeded in our reconstruction achievements, and under great pressure; under American missiles, tanks and warplanes’. Proud, measured, and steadfast, Ghafla continues, ‘We did this ourselves. Foreign companies have brought us nothing, and they have reconstructed nothing. We have had no help, not from the occupation and not even from the government of Iraq’.
Hassan Jumaa calls workers like Ghafla ‘mujahadeen’ or ‘fighters’.
‘Because they succeeded in making something out of nothing’. And challenged the privatisation agenda or economic imperialism agenda, as Hassan refers to it, of the occupation.
Packed into the office of a two-room IDC cabin in the Basra desert are four international delegates, seven GUOE reps and IDC manager Nasser Muhsin Mohan. The back room, around 7ft by 12 contains three beds, and a small television perched on a small cabinet. The office, of the same size, consists of two desks, a few chairs, a notice board and a rattling 1970s air conditioner.
‘Look at this cabin’ says Hassan, gesturing around the room, ‘Is this the kind of accommodation an engineer should have? This is where engineers sleep and work. Look at it’, he goes on to say, ‘In Iraq, an engineer with 15 years of experience earns less than the lowest paid, basic-skilled worker in the North Sea in Scotland. See the neighbouring oil states like Kuwait, Saudi, and Jordan? These are oil countries, like Iraq, but their workforces have much higher wages, and better conditions than we do, even though we have increased efficiency and oil production and we are creating new wealth.’
The Leadership of the GUOE has repeatedly stressed the need for organisational training. For 16 years, since Saddam outlawed them in 1987, unions were illegal throughout the public sector (including the oil industry) - with the exception of the 'yellow' unions which represented not workers but Saddam's security apparatus. Key goals of the GUOE are the creation of shop stewards and organisational structures which can ensure the perpetuation of the union, generation after generation.
The struggle against the economic occupation of Iraq can be won through the united action of effectively organised workers. Workers who are able to translate their consciousness of their own power and opposition to occupation and privatisation, into a culture and structure of open organisation, accountability and collective responsibility. A structure that can cultivate and sustain struggle, counteract co-optation, and recover from attacks, an institution of solidarity, a union.