Our common purpose is to gain rights for workers
and expel the occupation forces
Hassan Juma’a, President of the General Union of Oil Employees in Basra,
spoke in London on 8 February and answered questions. The meeting was organised
by Iraq Occupation Focus, and the translation was by Sami Ramadani.
This is a transcript of what he said.
Greetings, my dear friends. I am very happy to meet this segment of British
society, who stand with us in the ordeal we are living through in Iraq.
The Americans' greed in occupying Iraq is very well known and very clear to all.
In 1975 a book was published by an American politician, Henry Kissinger, in
which he outlined US policy in the Middle East. He stressed that the USA should
control Middle East oil, and that, we believe, is the main reason why Iraq was
invaded and occupied.
The former ruler of Iraq, Saddam Hussein, was working as though he was an
official of the State Department. The State Department could have removed him
with an order of dismissal. But the USA felt it could handle things differently.
Preparations were made against Iraq because Iraq is rich in natural resources.
I will briefly survey the Iraqi trade union scene in the 1950s. 1958 was the
beginning of a new stage, with the 14 July revolution. Then we had the decision
in 1987 by the Revolutionary Command Council, headed by Saddam Hussein, to
transform workers into "civil servants" [so that they could not join unions].
With that decree, the identity of the biggest social group in Iraq, the working
class, was deformed.
Nobody raised their voice to ask how the workers' identity could suddenly be
changed into civil servants. Violations of workers' rights escalated.
Iraqi trade unions were established in the 1950s. Following the discovery of oil
in the region, and the expansion of the sea ports, the unions became quite
important. They demanded improvements in workers' conditions. In 1952 the oil
union staged the first strike against the oil company, demanding improvement in
the wages of the workers. That was followed in 1956 by a similar strike led by
the port workers' union.
The 14 July revolution of 1958 transformed Iraq from a monarchy into a republic
under the leadership of Abd al-Karim Qassem. Within a few days of that
revolution those who controlled power in Iraq started to repress and oppress the
trade union leaders.
But the biggest problems for the workers began in 1968, when the Ba'th party
took control of Iraq through a military coup. Not until a month after that coup
did Iraqis find out the real identity of the coup leaders. They hid their
identity because they had captured power previously in 1963 and had written a
black page for the Iraqi people.
Unions continued, but now under the umbrella of the Ba'thist ideology of unions
serving the regime. The Ba'thists tried to make unions belong solely to the
Ba'th party. Trade unions stopped demanding workers' rights and became
mouthpieces for the regime. In fact they became security organisations, taking
to task workers who demanded their rights.
That continued until 1987, when the decree was issued under which workers were
transformed into "civil servants". Many people who did not understand the real
meaning of the decree applauded it. One justification for the decree, according
to Saddam Hussein when he appeared on television, was that women in Iraq did not
want to marry a worker. He had taken the decision [to reclassify state-sector
workers as "civil servants"] so that Iraqi women would marry workers.
The General Federation of Trade Unions used to get a lot of state funding
through deductions from workers' salaries. It owned a lot of property. The
decree also enabled the regime to control all the money going into the workers'
social security scheme.
The situation of the workers in the state sector was extremely bad. As regards
benefits accrued to the employees, a lot of distinctions were made between one
group and another. For example, in the Southern Oil Company the general manager
got a share of profits of one million dinars while the workers got five
Moving forward to April 2003, when the occupation forces entered Basra - some
union activists decided to form an oil workers' union to protect the national
economy. We knew very well that the Americans and their allies had come for the
oil. When the British forces entered Basra they protected the oil installations,
leaving the universities, the hospitals, and so on to be burned or looted.
We established a nine-member committee on 20 April to protect production and to
liaise with the administration. That happened in conditions of extreme chaos
across the country.
There are ten oil companies in Basra. We established unions there and then we
started our second fight against the Americans.
Paul Bremer's decrees banned the formation of trade unions and associations in
order to protect US interests. [They said that the 1987 decree remained in
force]. We expected that the living standards of the workers would increase, but
a table of wages was issued by Paul Bremer with eleven steps, where the oil
workers' wage was set at the equivalent of $35. That was strange for a country
which has the second largest oil reserves in the world.
Meanwhile, workers brought from Asia by KBR [a subsidiary of the US corporation
Hallliburton, granted contracts by the occupation authorities for
reconstruction] were getting twenty times as much.
In the oil union we objected to the wages decision. The US administration
refused to listen to us, so we staged a strike on 10 August 2003. We stopped oil
exports for three days. It forced the Americans, the Oil Ministry, and the
Finance Ministry to scrap the two lowest scales in the wages table.
We think it's important KBR gets out, because we believe that US strategy is
that military occupation should be followed by economic occupation. They plan to
privatise the oil sector and all other economic sectors, and we think the US has
the dominant position in privatising the oil industry.
Iyad Allawi has told the Oil Council, in the Ministry of Oil, that the decisions
about privatising the oil industry should be kept secret and should not be
revealed to the national assembly.
Most of the major pumping stations were controlled by the USA. KBR brought in an
Indian company and a Kuwaiti company, which, when there was such high
unemployment in Iraq, brought in 1200 workers from Asia. We cannot deal with
these companies because they are protected by US tanks and forces. We tried to
enter negotiations with the Kuwaiti company, and succeeded in getting 1000 Iraqi
workers employed and having 1000 of those brought in by the Kuwaiti company sent
Pressure on KBR forced it to withdraw from the pumping stations and to give the
work to Iraqis.
Because we succeeded in imposing those restrictions on KBR, it started to become
very obstructive about supplies of simple things like spectacles - instead of
making them available within a day or two, they delayed them for months.
The USA was planning that no Iraqi oil should be exported until four years after
the occupation. They were surprised to find Iraqi workers were able to restore
production after two months - for humanitarian reasons, because the money was
needed. That forced the USA to revise its policy on the question of oil exports
and rebuilding of the oil installations.
I attended four meetings with the head of the Southern Oil Company, but in those
meetings I found nothing that served Iraqis. They were focused on obstructing
the production process. Our problems in the oil sector are still there, and
transgressions of workers' rights are continuing.
The Oil Ministry was supposed to activate two companies within the oil sector -
the oil digging company and the oil transport company. Those two sectors are
vital, and to freeze their activities means to destroy the oil sector.
We are opposed to privatisation. The reason is very clear. The servants of the
old regime took with them vast amounts of money, and if the oil installations
are put up for sale, we are convinced that these agents of Saddam's regime will
try to purchase them.
We greet you all because we know that you have stood by us in our hour of need.
We appreciate that very much, and we stand by all those who stand by us.
[Have Iraqi political parties campaigned against privatisation?]
We hope that all the parties which took part in the elections will adopt that
stand. All that is left for Iraq in terms of natural resources is the oil. The
entire infrastructure of Iraq has been destroyed.
Please don't take my remarks as being for or against the elections. Since the
entry of the occupation forces in Iraq, Iraq has still been working with Saddam
Hussein's laws. We hope that the elected government, though not fully
legitimate, will take us forward.
We don't think this government will have a magic wand to stop all violence. But
certainly there will be some change. We hope that the new government will
There is confusion between the resistance and those who carry out acts of
violence, the suicide bombers etc., who are hurting Iraqis more than the
We have heard bin Laden's recent statement appointing Zarqawi prince of Iraq.
Obviously those people have their agents and people working with them, and they
don't want to see a stable Iraq.
[Under the US occupation authority decrees] what is underground cannot be
privatised. But oil companies could be brought in to extract the oil. Those
concessions could be given to American companies.
Before the elections I met religious and other political parties. I felt that
they were all opposed to privatisation. What they will do when they come to
power, only God knows.
As far as the trade unions are concerned, God willing we can stop this project,
even if we have to give our blood in the process.
[Have the unions tried to organise those foreign workers, brought in by
contractors, who remain in Iraq?]
The Kuwaiti company, when it came into Iraq, changed its name to the "Iraqi
National Company". In reality the company was never registered as an Iraqi
The workers brought in by these companies are in very special conditions. Most
of them are mechanics [engineers?]. Maybe the mechanics' section of the union
can handle their case. But it's a very difficult situation because these workers
are under very strict control.
It is a new situation for Iraq, because previously the law forbade oil companies
to bring workers into the country other than high-level experts. All other work
had to be handled by Iraqis.
In any case, the Kuwaiti company has withdrawn from Iraq, because one of their
managers and their doctor were assassinated.
[Does Hassan's union, based in Basra, have links with oil workers in the
north of Iraq?]
Yes. Our aim is to establish one oil workers' union for the whole of Iraq. We
are the biggest in terms of number of workers, geographical area, and volume of
production. We have good links with the unions in Kirkuk and other centres.
[What are the oil union's relation with other unions in Iraq?]
There are three union federations in Iraq. The first is the Iraqi Federation of
Trade Unions, which gained recognition from the regime of Iyad Allawi. According
to law, outside bodies should not recognise this body, because it has been
imposed by the government. If a government gives legitimacy to one union, that
union will not oppose the government or protect workers' rights.
This federation was formed on the principle of coalition - [a committee with]
five members from Allawi's party, five Communist Party members, and five from
the Arab Socialist Movement. The president of this federation is a deputy in
Iyad Allawi's party.
The second federation has people within it who claim to be independent and a
group which belongs to the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq,
and some from the Dawa party [an older Islamist party, which like SCIRI has
participated in the Interim Government].
The third federation, led by Falih Alwan, belongs to the Worker-communist Party
[the Federation of Workers' Councils and Unions of Iraq].
The southern oil workers' union decided to remain independent, though personally
I know people from all these federations and work with them.
For 35 years we lived under one party rule. Each one of us has his own
convictions and ideology - Communist, or Dawa party member. We should leave
those political identities out of union work. Unfortunately, it does not happen
Coordination between the unions is ongoing, because we have a common purpose -
how to gain rights for the workers, and how to plan to expel the occupation
[What about the old Ba'thist union federation, the GFTU?]
At the last meeting, held in Amman, of the Arab labour organisation, the three
federations that I named were invited. I was also invited. I did not go, but the
general secretary of the oil workers' union went. He told me what happened at
Three men and a woman came to the meeting from the old regime and said that they
also represented workers in Iraq. The leader of the Arab labour movement, an
Algerian, tried to expel them from the meeting. These are people who change
their colour according to the circumstances. If the water is blue, they are
blue; if the water is green, they turn green. God willing, they will not have
[Have unions taken directly political action?]
The production area in the Najaf regime stopped work during the US attack on
Najaf. As regards the union's influence on general policy, it is represented on
the Oil Council in the Ministry of Oil. The Oil Council has control over raising
or lowering production. We have the power and the muscle that if we stop
production for one day, the government will surely listen to us.
[Have US/UK troops intervened in industrial disputes?]
The Kuwaiti company had an industrial dispute. The welders had not been paid
their full wages, and they went on strike. An American manager came in and told
them that if they did not end the strike, he would bring US forces in.
In another strike, against the same company, US tanks actually came in and stood
between the strikers and the company management.
Those incidents were not reported in the media.
The unions must unite with and cooperate with all forces that want to end the
occupation. The unions are like any Iraqi who wants to end the occupation. They
must use all available means to do that. We do not want to be outside that arena
Remember, in terms of industrial workers, we represent about 50% of those
workers. In the southern oil sector, we have about 23,000 employees, not
counting the port workers, the railway workers, etc. If we all unite, then we
could produce some effective results.
[Oil production levels?]
At one time, under the old regime, oil production levels were extremely high,
though there was no much gain for the people. Production reached 4,350,000
barrels a day, and the price was $36 a barrel. You could create quite an
advanced society with those sums. Regrettably, the money was used to prop up the
Today, probably about 1.8 million barrels a day are being exported, and total
production is about 2.5 million barrels.
Since we succeeded in eliminating the two bottom wage scales, the relative
economic position of the workers has improved, although it is nowhere near where
we are aiming for. Under the sanctions regime, at one point, a teacher's salary
was the equivalent of only five kilograms of flour, so the situation was
desperate. There is a relative improvement now, which the union has fought for.
[Until recently the Southern Oil Company Union was affiliated to the Iraqi
Federation of Trade Unions. What are its relations now?]
We were never part of that federation, because we questioned its legitimacy. We
think the information that we were part of it has come from someone called
Abdullah Muhsin, in Britain, who has good relations with Members of Parliament
and others here*.
I have been nominated by the Arab labour organisation to coordinate between the
oil workers' unions in Iraq and the oil workers' unions in Iran. So how could we
be affiliated to the IFTU, if the Arab labour organisation deals with us
In fact, I have document issued by the president of the IFTU to the Arab labour
organisation declaring that the IFTU will dissolve itself after the election of
a new government in Iraq.
[What are the union's relations with the unemployed or with unemployed
We don't formally work with the unemployed in an organised way, but we do our
best to find work for them. My frankness in answering such questions always gets
me in trouble with some political forces back in Iraq. The unemployed workers'
union belongs to the Worker-communist Party, and I don't want to tread on their
[The current situation with foreign workers in the oil industry?]
The Americans and the terrorists have done their best to keep foreigners out of
Iraq, as part of sabotaging economic conditions in Iraq. The security situation
means that there are no foreign workers now.
* The information about the Southern Oil Company Union's affiliation to the IFTU
came not from Abdullah Muhsin, who is the British representative of the Iraqi
Federation of Trade Unions, but from Ewa Jasiewicz, an activist who spent
several months in Basra working with the SOCU and who, in fact, chaired Hassan's
www.workersliberty.org/files/Occupied_Basra_19.pdf. Ewa was reporting the
SOCU as affiliated to the IFTU as recently as November 2004: see
www.workersliberty.org/node/view/3417.. I spoke with Hassan Juma'a after the
8 February meeting, through a different interpreter, and he said yes, the SOCU
had in the past "coordinated with" the IFTU "in the interests of unity".