The Baath Are Back
Saddam Hussein's old Baath Party cronies are being reappointed to key positions by the American led administration in occupied Iraq. Reporting from Basra, Ewa Jasiewicz discovers a renewed climate of fear and intimidation amongst Iraq's workforce.
7th November 2003
It's 9.30am in Najeebeeya Electricity Plant in British-Occupied Basra. Machine gun-armed English guards are ushering US Bechtel managers on five figure salaries into the boss's office. Tanks and jeeps roll up into the serene sandbag-seiged airport, now a military base to the world's most notorious squatters.
The much lauded 'hearts and minds' British occupation is quieter and more humble compared to that of the Baghdad-battered hunters and hunted US Army. It is supposed to be based on past Brit experience of occupation. Any kid off the street in Northern Ireland circa 1972 could tell you hearts and minds were more likely to be splattered over the pavement than won by 'our boys'. The comparative calm in Basra is more down to the recycling of the old fascist authorities - a common Brit tactic most prominently witnessed in post war Nazi Germany where ministers, police and industrial overlords were quietly removed and their second or third in commands slipped in. Reliable Mercenary Ruling Elites. The Brits faced a riot when they tried to install Muzahim Mustafa Kanan al Tamimi (better known as Gen. Al Tamimi), a former brigadier in Saddam's army, as civil administrator in April.
The old General Federation of Iraqi Workers, formerly led by Ali Hassan Majid 'Chemical Ali' is still active and supported by the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) and is trying to pressurise new unions to join up by promising them state salaries and perks (social housing, food subsidies, bonuses); as paid by the old regime, and now paid by the new one. But according to Hussein Fadhil Hasan, Chairman of the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions in Basrah, the people appointed to occupy the important posts in occupied Iraq are the same faces as were there under Saddam Hussein's reign.
"We sent letters to the CPA many times, informing them of the Baathist managers and union representatives but they did nothing," he says speaking out of the old Baathist Union offices, now the HQ of the Communist Party, Women's Union, and Iraqi Fed of Trade Unions, and home to 70 displaced families. The airport is cited as the main location of former high ranking Baathist employees. The Union was barred from inspecting conditions there. The old Baathists, however, were allowed to work freely. It is commonly percieved in Iraq that the Baathists were the first to approach the occupying authorities and offer their services as translators and informers (most of whom were Secret Service before the war), and that previously on-side Special Republican Guard members are now responsible for securing military installations and bases and overseeing some of the most sensitive sites of reconstruction. Most Baath Party membership records were burned following the fall. The tactic now is to get close to the occupiers and wait for the appropriate time to turn ' if such is the inclination, or simply to save one's skin from retribution or incarceration. Fifteen Baathists have been killed by the hands of the people in the past month alone here.
"Many many workers totally reject the very idea of unionisation, so badly scarred are their memories of the Baathist formations, used as tools of oppression and intelligence-gathering against the working class. Many reject even the idea of forming a union," says Hussein Fadhil Hasan. The Union represents ten unions in Basra including the Spinning and Sewing Labourer's Union, Health Professionals Union, Oil and Gas Union and the Railway Union of Basra. The Union is also part of the all-Iraqi Federation of Iraqi Workers Unions, based in Baghdad. But the entire federation is devoid of funds - those of the old federation having been frozen by the CPA.
Before coming to Basra I walked in on a meeting of trade unionists: transport, engineering, electrical, gas, plus representitives from the Northern and Southern Oil Company Refineries, Basrah Oil Refinery and Baghdad's Daurra Oil Refinery. They were discussing a National Strike!! The workers were all up for it but the leaders of the Federation cautioned against it, saying that it would be against the interests of the working class right now, given the volatile security situation and the real possibility of action being co-opted or subject to sabotaging propaganda labeling it a Baathist strike. Indeed a couple of days after the meeting, old Saddamists called for a General Strike all over Iraq. Some workers in Basra joined in but were soon challenged and stopped by union reps. Fuel transportation workers were particularly enthusiastic over the idea of the National Strike. Five drivers have been killed on the road to Basra by thieves and saboteurs since the fall of the regime.
The demands of the strike were that:
1. drivers transporting gas, petrol and oil be allowed to carry arms to protect themselves.
2. all workers be granted transportation from their homes to workplaces,
3. higher wages ' emergency payments are still in force - $60 minimum for most state industry workers rising to $120 for those with long term experience, although the new CPA pay table is suggesting 69,000 dinar as the lowest monthly wage and three million for Super A fatcats, a riot-sparker if there every was one.
4. the sacking of all Baathist managers - currently still running the show being the most experienced, and privelaged both in terms of operational and managerial knowledge and the use of violent repression against workers, (although not necessarily the most qualified as many uneducated Baathists rose meteorically rather meritocratically due to their political devotions).
5. buildings for unions to base themselves.
Iraq is the most indebted country in the world, shackled with a $200bn debt, plus 70 per cent unemployment and no state rescue benefit despite fantasy-false claims that $60 will be paid monthly by the Ministry of Labour. Given the depths of the Iraqi economy's depression, it's suprising that any strike action is taking place at all, but the working class is on fire.
Dockworkers have launched 16 wildcat strikes in the past three months. Three were sacked three days ago by newly appointed CPA lackey Abdel Razzaq (more on him later) for trying to form a union. The workforce response is as yet unarticulated.
May saw a successful strike at Ma'aqd Port over payment of wages in 10,000 dinar notes (then practically un-usable and exchanging for just 7,000), and the withdrawing of profit shares for 2002 ' frozen all over the country in Ministry of Finance coffers, aka CPA pockets. Over 600 workers attacked the boss's house, destroyed it, trashed the adminstration offices, especially the accounting office, smashing up furniture and tables. The accounting manager, responsible for payment, fled and was later deposed. Workers received their pay in dollars immediately. British tanks and troops were moving in fast to repress the uprising when trade union leaders turned up and managed to pacify the situation. Impediments to radical workerism? Or reasoned arbiters of conflict that could've ended up in workers getting killed? With hindsight most would opt for the latter definition.
August and September were the 'hot' months of strikes in Basrah, including a totally autonomous governorate-wide walk-out demanding gas, fuel, water and electricity, started by transportation workers marching through the streets and ending in thousands joining them and front-line fist-fighting with British troops. There have been three general strikes over wages too ' the CPA has been varying the payment from dinars to dollars meaning a significant loss in earnings according to the fluctuating exchange rate. They messed with the pay three times, they were answered by general strikes three times. "It was the only way we get our fair pay," explains Hussein.
The antidote to this insurrectionary activity has been the supplanting of Iraqi labour by foreign workers, mainly by Kuwaiti subcontractors devouring their piece of the big Bechtel and Haliburton reconstruction pie. The Khoorafi Construction company rehabilitating oil refineries in the South faced a wildcat strike 21 days ago over the fact that 70 per cent of the workforce was foreign (mainly Asian) leaving 30 per cent Iraqi's (many highly experienced) with employment crumbs. The strike lasted two days, involved the physical ejection of the foreign workers by Iraqi workers and ended with local tribal leaders paying the boss a visit and telling him they'd bomb his offices it if he didn't start employing more Iraq workers. He reversed the ratio the very same day.
A few days ago I travelled down to the Southern Oil Company refinery and managed to have a talk with some control room workers but they were flanked by about ten (Islamic Party controlled - Daawa) Union reps and their supervisors. I got some great statements from one, a member of the union who sounded by turns a former Baathist cheerleader and a communist (the distinctions are blurred, the Baath's socialist analysis intersecting with that of the Communists, leading to their collaboration in the governmnent in the 80's), who said that the strike which shut the plant down a few weeks ago (totally unreported in the media) wasn't just about wages, it was a political warning. "We've lived on virtually nothing for years, we can carry on. The strike was about our pride. It was about sending our voices further than the front gate of this plant. It was about sending our voices right to Washington that we Iraqi workers will not be exploited. This is our country, these are our resources, and we have the power. We are not just workers earning a living, we've been working here most of our lives and this is ours. Everyone in Iraq knows the history of the British here, the Americans. We know who created Saddam and we know way this war was waged. For 13 years we were the cheapest country in the world. Now we will show them (occupiers) what we are made of." The strike was political. The strike was a warning. When asked about the response of KBR - the US's chief reconstruction/privatisation primer agent - the workers laugh,. "We sent them running," said one. "We told them to 'Ishtah!' - 'GO!'.
"They were terrified," said another. Indeed, KBR cars have been attacked by machine gun fire numerous times here and all reps travel with armed mercinaries and private security.
So back to Najibeeya, where this story starts. I'm taken to the decrepit, grime-greased maintenance section of the plant by a steely eyed union rep and the plant's security chief. The union rep is thought to be an old skool Baathist tool of the Boss and he was extremely chummy and full of praise-for the boss when we were with him, often a sure-sign of collaboration and fake unionism. His organisation is not part of the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions. Both men wear shiny shoes and pressed bright shirts with well-fed bellies protruding underneath. Inside, a spontaneous assembly of 40 workers gathers around. Taalib Abdel Zahra, father of eight, who put in 13-years service at the plant before leaving for Iran after the '91 Intifada, came back after 'The Fall' and is on 2,500 dinar per day ' worth three packs of cigarettes, a bag of bread and a cardboard wheel of processed cheese. All the workers are volatile over their slave wages. Desperation over the lack of any retirement payment, secure under the Baath, has forced many elderly workers to return to their jobs ' three in the plant are working for 1000 dinar (approximately a Kg of potatoes, a bag of bread and a banana) after 45-years of service. Asked if anyone has lost their job since the war, one replies, "If any of us are sacked we will kill the boss". Another cuts to the chase: "Before we were fighting Saddam, now we have two things to fight against ' the Occupation and the old Baathists still in power." Another says, "Corruption in the administration is massive, before it was 20 per cent now its 200 per cent."
"We are all highly skilled, we can fix anything, and know this plant well," says another. "But the management are bringing in foreign workers and paying them to repair things that we can do! We can do it and we have the time to do it." Asked what they expect from their union, the responses send the rep and the security guard into a minor tizz, trying to shut people up, pacify them with patting-down hand gestures and quick grimaces. "We don't know the word union," says one, ignoring them. "Our union is fake," says another. "It's something for the media. We've had no results. We want our union to send for members of the administration and question them. But they have no authority, they're not officially recognised'. Again, the ghost of the 1987 anti-Union Baathist law which exterminated the power of workers, redefining them all as state employees, persists unchanged. Communiques on management pinboards remind workers that the CPA has not changed any laws on unionisation and, therefore, all is as it always has been. Workers do not exist. Unions do not exist. The old '87 law is the biggest obstacle to the recognition of organised workers. However as MOST people regard the government and occupation as unofficial/illegal, the workers' will not and do not wait for legislation and official sanctioning before striking back at their oppressors - collective action they've been denied by threat of death for 35 years.
But the repression continues. Myself and my friend, who also acts as a guide, driver, threat-dispeller and sometime translator, visited a worker unaffiliated to the trade union but working for the Southern Oil Company (SOC). We spoke to him and his colleague 'Hassan' (not his real name) who has worked for SOC for 30 years. He knows the company inside-out. His wages have improved but still amount to just $10 per day. He tells us that the management, the dictatorial and murderous Baathists responsible for the ordering of hundereds of oil workers dead, are still running the show. "We threw them all out, every single one, but the Ministry of Oil/CPA ordered many of them back in," he says. They're protected by people from the Al Kahramasha tribe - a tribe known for looting, killing, robbing and kidnapping doctors and women in the area. "They have a very very bad reputation and nobody can go against them," he tells us. Our conversation is searingly truthful given the usual layers of well practiced 'lies-for-survival', evasions and watched words. The legacy of 35 years of totalitarianism and internal empire, is a form of social psychosis. But in the middle of our conversation, a well-dressed, smooth smiling man walks in and sits down. The atmosphere turns clenched, the talk stalls, stops and a now familiar screamingly violent but contradictory casual silence seeps over us. The psychosis re-ignites. The curtain rises and the slicker dressed man smiles at us, easily, warmly. How did he know?...to come here...
I ask him who he is. He works in accounts. Accounts. Never a good sign, always a position of power and boss-intimacy. I start off generally, asking him how-his-life-is-after-the-fall-of-the-regime. "So much better, excellent," he tells me, "everything's better, we have democracy, we can talk freely, we can buy satellite dishes now too!" Alarm bells - a dish costs $150 dollars - 90 per cent of the population can't afford one. Instead most people's only TV choice is the country's sole TV channel - the Iraqi Media Network - run in the name of the CPA by former military men with no media credentials whatsoever and beaming out affronts to the population. Programmes include pro-CPA news, reports and 'debates' and audio-visual abominations such as the truly awful 80's TV-movie adaptation of Fergie - the Dutchess of York's - life, complete with Diana in puffball partydresses and Charles and Andrew's pomposity-saturated reason. Sick-Bag Television.
I then ask the accountant about old Baathists at the oil company, saying we'd heard they were still in management. "No, there's no Baathists, they've all gone, we dont have any," he says, matter-of-factly. Our two friends agree, nod, not looking at us, yes, that's true, there aren't any. The conversation hangs, cut. The accountant re-joins it and carries on articulating just how there really aren't any Baathists and everything is much better, wages are higher, people are freer ..my friend translates to me and then let's me know that I really have to change the subject, that this is really uncomfortable and please not to change my facial expression as "the accountant thinks I'm translating everything to you, so just change the subject".
I do and we steer the conversation away, far away to the scripted track of how great liberation has been. Everyone exhales with relief all round, laughter, and the crossing of legs, reaching for cigarettes. I get up and leave, sick of it, and sit down on the floor of the pocketsize kitchen with our friend's wife.
We set out plates of fresh fish, lentil and noomi basri (dried lime) cassarole, flat bread made with palm oil, black-eye pea and pepper soup and minutely chopped up tomato and cucumber salad on a huge round metal tray. I say to her, carefully, "that guy, who just came over, who is he? what's he like, he's...he's strange". She laughs and looks ever so slightly deliriously delighted, "No No No! He's great, yes, he's great', she says, carrying on putting the dishes on the tray, perfectly. "No," I say, laughing a bit. "Really?". Deliberately showing my disbelief, leaving the field open for her to join me, "No no, he's good, all good," she continues, eyes down. Of course he is. He's the man who'd kill your entire family if you ever spoke out against him. Or Saddam or the local Saddam, the immediate Saddam - the Oil Boss. He's your neighbourhood guard dog, the Baathist you can't kill because he's protected by the governates most vicious tribe. He's your thought police, he's your reminder that nothing's changed and the rules are still the same. He's your reminder that the nightmare isn't over. The nightmare isn't over.
I bring in the tray and the accountant is getting up. Hassan is leaving with him. I'm worried about Hassan. He was the most open, he seemed the most aware. He seemed to be active, from before. He seemed to be ready to challenge, to speak out. He seemed like he's been through this before. They both leave, easy, inevitablely. We let the rupture pass, we eat, we talk about the food, we talk about the family's pets, where we're going next, we say our best thank-you's, kiss, and we leave.
As if the persistant power and presence of the Baath isn't enough, the other biggest challenge facing workers in Iraq today is their lack of knowledge of their rights. The International Labour Organisation Conventions ' the equivalent of the Geneva Conventions for workers rights - are unheard of. There is also no information available on their new foreign corporate controllers and the processes which brought them here. Most, including the unionists, do not even know what the term 'privatisation' means, even less so the practices and history of Bechtel and Hallburton, the two huge US corporations now technically running their plants. This is all compounded by a pronounced deprivation of organisational knowledge, and of a self-belief crushed by the dictatorship. Insurrection, autonomous striking, attacking the boss, armed picket lines ' are all expressions of a consciousness of their own power that workers have here. But the consolidation of that struggle, the raising of it to new levels of sustainable confrontation and its protection from forces of co-opation and potential extermination, is the real struggle ahead.
Ewa Jasiewicz (Occupation Watch) is working with Iraq Trades Unions, and US Labour Against The War in campaigning for the immediate repeal of the Baathist 1987 anti-trade union and full workers rights to unionise as recognized by the ILO. You can contact her on firstname.lastname@example.org for more details