Thursday, September 30, 2004


Blair escapes Labor Party call for Iraq withdrawal

In "The Unspeakable in pursuit of the Inedible" I wrote last week of the annual Labor Party conference taking place in Brighton. British party conferences are not the fun events that we think of when we recall the Republican and Democratic conventions.

When you last heard from me, the Labor Party was expecting to "debate the debate" on Monday as to whether Iraq would be included in the list of 5 agenda items for the conference. Prime Minister Blair, of course, was hoping to avoid the topic.

Against all government efforts, anti-war members of Labor succeeded in getting a debate on withdrawal of British forces from Iraq onto the agenda. Unimaginable in the United States, Labor government leaders, according to the London Times, "were forced to sit through an impassioned debate on Britain's policy in Iraq."1

Conference member Pat Healy put forth a motion "calling on [Blair] to set a date for the early withdrawal of Britain's 9,000-strong force." The government hustled into backroom negotiations with the four major unions in attendance. According to the Guardian, "Their victory was secured when they succeeded in persuading the big four unions, who control 40% of conference votes, to oppose Ms Healey's rebel motion."

The Guardian notes,

Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, in his address to the conference shortly before the debate, quoted an Iraqi trade unionist as saying that "an early date for the unilateral withdrawal of troops would be bad for my country, bad for the emerging progressive forces, a terrible blow for free trade unionism,2 and would play into the hands of extremists and terrorists". [emphasis added]

Party leaders then attempted to get Ms. Healey to withdraw her motion, which she refused. The motion came up for vote yesterday and was defeated by 80% of the delegates. When you consider that the union delegates voted as a block, that's not quite as bad as it looks for the anti-war movement.

The government claimed during the debate that British forces were only there at the behest of the Iraqi "government" and would leave just as soon as asked. After the vote on the motion to withdraw, the National Executive Committee issued a statement that was adopted by the conference. It said,

British troops remain in Iraq at any time only at the request of the Iraqi Government and under the terms of this Resolution the UN mandate for the multinational forces will terminate by December 2005."

Union leaders assuaged their consciences by declaring that the statement effectively set a timetable for withdrawal.

Previous posts:
What's up in Britain?"
The unspeakable in pursuit of the inedible


1 If George Bush were British Prime Minister, he would have had the delegates removed to a "free-speech zone" somewhere on an abandoned North Sea oil rig. [back]

2 This was an enlightenment for me, since up to that point I had thought the biggest blow to Iraqi trade unions was Paul Bremer, who undid just about every act associated with Saddam Hussein's government except the suppression of trade unions.

Back in December 2003 the UPI carried this account,

Trade unionists around the world are protesting a U.S. raid on the head offices of the post-Saddam trade union movement in Iraq. On Saturday, Dec. 6 American armored cars and soldiers raided the offices of the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions in Baghdad, according to union sources. They reportedly trashed the offices, threw black paint over the windows and arrested eight officials. Ironically, the soldiers tore up posters opposing terrorism in Iraq by remnants of Saddam Hussein regime and foreign fighters.

There is some confusion over what happened. The Iraqi trade unions say that the officials were released unharmed and are demanding an explanation and compensation.

But the former British foreign office minister Peter Hain told the House of Commons in London that he did not know of this incident at the union offices. However, Hain confirmed that there was a U.S. raid which netted illegal arms and ammunition. He added that eight Fedayeen were arrested and that two of them are now facing murder charges.

Were there two incidents or one? Who is telling the truth?

Who indeed?

But on the matter of trade union suppression there can be little doubt. U.S. Labor Against the War carried this article by Harry Kelber—

Press coverage of Iraq has been devoted almost exclusively to reports of battles between American troops and insurgents.... But very little has been written about Iraqi workers fighting against sweatshop wages and a denial of basic worker rights by the American occupation authority and the "sovereign" interim government.

From the moment the American-controlled Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) took power in Baghdad sixteen months ago, it began enforcing a 1987 Saddam Hussein law banning unions in public enterprises, where most Iraqis worked.

One of the first acts of Paul Bremer, CPA's chief, was to issue Public Order #1, banning statements and actions that "incite civil disorder, rioting or damage to property," a law that could be used to block union rallies and strikes.

Despite threats of repression, labor activists have been organizing unions not only in Baghdad, but in the oil and electrical enterprises around Basra and the southern port of Um Qasr.

Low wages and heavy unemployment are two major issues that account for the upsurge in labor activity, including three strikes in Basra alone, according to David Bacon, one of the few reporter-photographers covering the Iraqi labor scene.

After U.S. troops arrived in Baghdad, workers were given "emergency" salaries of $60 to $120 a month. Then several months later, Bremer issued CPA's Order 30 that lowered the base pay to $40 and eliminated housing and food subsidies.

Bacon says that longshoremen at the port of Um Qasr were stopped from voting in the election for the officers of their new union, and three workers were fired for trying to organize other workers. They struck briefly because of the low-wage rates, blocking people from entering the main gate. They also staged a job action when managers decided to pay them in old bank notes, worth only 75% of the new ones.

"Iraqi and their unions charge that the U.S. ia keeping wages low to attract foreign investors, as Washington plans the privatization of Iraq's economy," Bacon says. "The Bush administration sees Iraq as a free-market beachhead into the Middle East and South Asia."

The threat of privatization and the influx of U.S. contractors has stirred more labor unrest. Workers fear that new corporate owners will cut costs by laying off workers.

The new unions in the oil and electrical industries have conducted several strikes for increases in pay rates and have actually won them.

The installation of the interim administration of Prime Minister Allawi on June 28 has not improved either salaries or respect for labor rights. Hanoon's warning seems as unheeded by Baghdad's new authorities, as it was by the CPA. [emphasis added]

If you read nothing else on Iraq this month, I would definitely recommend Naomi Klein's "Baghdad Year Zero," which appeared in the September issue of Harper's.

She discusses the U.S. efforts to turn Iraq into a free-marketer's paradise and then visits the General Company for Vegetable Oils, a state-owned maker of cooking oil, hand soap, laundry detergent, shaving cream, and shampoo.

Read it and weep. [back]

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