Grassroots Iraq: IFTU addresses Labour Party Conference fringe meeting

by Abdullah Muhsin

October 02, 2004
Grassroots Iraq: IFTU addresses Labour Party Conference fringe meeting

The Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions (IFTU) hosted a fringe meeting at the Labour Party Conference in Brighton on 29 September 2004, chaired by Harry Barnes Labour MP who is a member of the Socialist Campaign Group of Labour MPs and who opposed the war on Iraq.

The speakers were Abdullah Muhsin IFTU, Bill Ramell MP, Owen Tudor TUC International Secretary, Keith Sonnet Deputy General Secretary UNISON, Brian Joyce NEC (Treasurer) Fire Brigades Union.

Abdullah Muhsin's address to the fringe meeting follows:

"I would like to extend the warm greetings of the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions to each of you. Thanks you for coming here tonight. I believe all of us have very important work to do together. I want to say that supporting grassroots Iraq, supporting the Iraqi democrats, is today the most important work there is.

"Comrades, along with many of you the IFTU opposed the war. With many of you IFTU marched through London. And, with many of you IFTU still think it was right to do so. And comrades, like many of you, IFTU fights for democratic elections and a self-governing and fully sovereign Iraq. Nothing less is acceptable.

"This is what I want to talk about tonight. But first let me tell you my own history.

"26 years ago I was forced to flee Iraq. I was an elected officer of the student union that Saddam had banned. My experience as an Iraqi refugee in Europe was of Saddam's murderous state security apparatus exporting terror wherever we raised a dissident voice against his regime. In Rome in 1978 a group of 5 thugs dressed in black from Saddam's Mukhabarat attacked me and stabbed my friend while we handed out leaflets in a student canteen.

"Together with other Iraqis both in exile and clandestinely within the country, I worked during the 1980s and 90s to preserve an independent labour and student movement from the state-controlled yellow unions established by Saddam. In 1984 the Workers Democratic Trade Union Movement organised a strike of 4000 tobacco workers in Iraqi Kurdistan. The strikers were brutally suppressed by Saddam’s security apparatus.

"In May 2003 we emerged for the underground and created the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions (IFTU). And against all the odds the IFTU has achieved some great things. 12 national unions’ in key sectors of Iraq economy have been established. The IFTU includes the Oil and Gas Workers' Union, the Railway Workers' Union, the Transport and Communication Workers Union, The Mechanics, Printing and Metalworkers' Union, and the Construction and Woodworkers Union. During June 2004, 6 IFTU constituent unions held their first open and free conferences in Baghdad.

"But we are climbing up a steep mountainside and it is not a climb that we can make without your support. Saddam was truly a catastrophe that crashed down on the heads of the once mighty Iraqi labour movement. In 1959 the unions mobilised over half million working people for the May Day from a population of about 7 millions. Today the IFTU have to raise money to send a travelling theatre bus on tour in Iraq, performing plays that tell Iraqi workers what trade unions are. Why is this necessary? Because Saddam transformed trade unions into brutal agents of the state police and recruiting sergeants for his wars. Under Saddam that's what trade unions were. All the independent unions were crushed and their leaders killed, imprisoned or exiled. Stooge unions replaced them. So we are starting again. We are rebuilding. And we desperately need your help.

"Together we can rebuild the labour movement in Iraq. A powerful trade union movement could bring Iraqi together regardless of their religious, ethnic or national origins. The IFTU is not Shia, Kurd or Sunni, Assyrian or Christian, but brings all Iraqis together to improve working conditions, pay and social provision and to achieve a democratic and pluralist Iraq of social justice and economic prosperity.

"The IFTU campaigns on many fronts for the needs of ordinary Iraqis.
* IFTU campaigns for workers rights to organise freely, to join or form a union and have the right to strike and enjoy trade union representation.
* IFTU campaigns for workers right to be actively involved in influencing economic and social policies.
* IFTU campaigns for an increase in the role of women at all levels within the unions and in wider civil society.
* IFTU campaigns for special attention to the social and economic needs of disabled people of whom there are many after Saddam's internal and external wars of genocide and aggression.
* IFTU campaigns for Jobs, more than 50% of our able working people remain unemployed.
* IFTU campaigns for a Labour Law - and I need to say few words here. We want a labour law that incorporates the International Labour Organisation declaration on fundamental principles and rights at work. The IFTU regards the ILO Declaration as a statement of fundamental human rights and freedoms universally applicable. The IFTU is in consultation with the ILO, the Iraqi Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs and representatives of Iraqi businesses and professional associations like the teachers' union, pushing hard for a labour law that will guarantee workers basic rights to employment, health and safety and legal compensation for injury at work.

"Those demands are much the same the world over. But we are not anywhere in the world. We are in Iraq. And that means we also have to deal with the overall political situation.

"We want foreign troops out of our homeland as part of a political process that enables the Iraqi people exercise fully our right to decide our destiny and political future.

"We want free and democratic elections, which are supervised by the UN.

"We want to ensure a real transfer of power to the Iraqi people and regain full sovereignty for Iraq. This was the demand of the Iraqi people after the collapse of Saddam's regime on 9th April 2004, and their voice and legitimate demand should been heard, rather than imposing an occupation.

"This is also the way to build a unified democratic Iraq, laying the basis for democratic institutions, and preventing, once and for all, the return of dictatorial and authoritarian rule.

"Now, in Iraq, the majority of the Iraqi people, the democrats and trade unionists, battle to end the occupation and build democratic foundations for a free and independent Iraq. In this work, we are hindered by reactionary, anti-social forces and terrorists.

"There are grave security problems in Iraq but those causing them are not as some have wrongly said, 'the resistance'. They are nothing like the macquis, who bravely resisted the Nazis during the Second World War, but rather a mixture of Saddam's loyalist and foreign terrorists, who for the first time in Iraq history, have imported the terrible weapon of the suicide bomb.

"Today Iraq is on fire. Those in Britain who fight for universal human rights and freedom have two options.

"One: You can add petrol to the flames and fuel violence, which will certainly lead to bloody civil and the end of Iraq's territorial integrity (whether those who urge support for this so called Iraqi resistance are conscious of it or not).

"Alternatively, you can offer solidarity and support to Iraqi democrats, socialists and trade unionists. There are civil organisations of women, trade unionists and students in Iraq who present a real political opportunity to end foreign militarisation of Iraq and to isolate the forces promoting sectarian and religious violence.

"To support those fighting for a democratic, sovereign Iraq the UN resolution 1546 must be fully implemented. The transfer of power to an Iraqi interim government was a crucial step forward for Iraqis to regain full sovereignty. But the road to full sovereignty and self-determination is signposted 'free and democratic Iraq'. Nothing less is acceptable. Nothing less will undercut the appeal of so-called resistance.

"Iraq is potentially a very wealthy country. But we are crippled by debt. It would help a great deal if the debts run by Saddam and his cronies were cancelled or substantially reduced. This money was borrowed not for the development of Iraq but for its destruction. We may be an oil rich country, but Saddam squandered much of that wealth on wars, arms and personal enrichment.

"With the help of international solidarity and yours the IFTU can play an important role in helping a sovereign and democratic Iraq to emerge from the long nightmare of Saddam.

"In all these tasks the IFTU is appealing urgently for your solidarity.

"Thank you."