Interview by the US journalist and activist David Bacon with Ghasib Hassan, member of the executive committee of the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions, and general secretary of the Union for Aviation and Railway Workers.
Q: What do you think about the elections that took place in January?
A: The IFTU supports democratic principles, and one of those principles is elections. So we supported them. The IFTU wanted to see a democratically elected and accountable government, mandated by the people, so we could raise our legitimate questions and concerns. Our members have voted for those secular candidates who support their right to join unions, their right to representation. The elections took place in a relatively free and democratic manner, after a long, long absence. Despite all the obstacles placed by the extremists who wanted to stop this process from moving forward, we saw Iraqis of all ethnicities and nationalities, from all sectors of Iraqi society, come out and vote. This election was also a way of facing head-on those extremists and anti-democratic forces who don't want to see Iraq a democratic and secure state.
Q: How will the political situation change as a result?
A: The election will lead to the formation of a national assembly, which will be representative of all the Islamist and secular forces, moving forward toward a stable and secure situation, where the institution of democracy will be allowed to go forward. We hope the incoming national government will take urgent steps to form secure economic and social policies, to give people jobs and hopes, especially on the issue of their insecurity. The incoming national assembly will appoint a president and two vice-presidents, an interim government, and write a constitution for Iraq, after which there will be elections.
Q: Critics of the elections in the US say it's not possible to have free elections under the occupation, and that they'd be used by the Bush administration to legitimize it. How do you respond to this?
A: We respect this view of our friends in the United States, and we understand the situation from reading the media. As a people, this is the first time we've exercised our right to have a government and assembly that are really appointed by the people themselves. The elections weren't perfect, but it should also be understood that the people who came out did so because they wanted peace and democracy and law. They don't want to see any more dictatorship. They don't want to see division. And this should be encouraged and supported. No election anywhere in the world is totally perfect or totally genuine. We live in a country torn by wars and dictatorship. As a people, we have been deprived of democracy. This is the first time we practiced it by voting for those who govern us. By voting we're saying yes to democracy. The incoming assembly will only be a transitional assembly for a short period, for only one year. Soon we'll have another general election to elect a permanent, accountable government, with a constitution. Then people will see what this government is all about. As a representative of the working class, we support the Iraqi people in their desire for democracy and the right to elect their own representatives.
Q: What is the attitude of the IFTU toward the occupation.
A: We oppose the occupation absolutely. We know they've said many things about it. One is that it's for the liberation of Iraq. This is what the American politicians and media tell us - that they've come to liberate our country. This is not liberation. It is occupation. It's led to the total destruction of the economic infrastructure of Iraq, with the aim of controlling its wealth and resources. Another disastrous policy was the dismantling of the Iraqi Army, which had a long nationalist tradition. There's been a deliberate destruction of our national and cultural heritage, like the looting of the National Museum, and stationing of occupation forces in historical places like Babel, Ur and Nineveh. That will lead to the destruction of these sites, and they can never be replaced. The Iraqi people are calling today, not tomorrow, for the removal of the occupation. US policy toward Iraq is not clear - it can change in a moment. The key political forces in Iraq are in discussion with the occupation forces in line with UN Resolution 1546, calling for the withdrawal of the troops and attaining the full sovereignty of Iraq. Bush and Rumsfeld have said that if the Iraqi government asks them to leave, they'll leave. It seems there is disagreement in the US administration - some want to stay and some want to leave. Their policy is unclear.
During the first few days of the occupation, the people were not so hostile to the US forces. They were happy to see the removal of Saddam Hussein. But because of the treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib and other abuses, they've found themselves in confrontation with the Iraqi people, who want them to leave. Their presence has impacted civilians, and the whole country. On a daily basis, at least 10-15 people die, and this can't be good. This is a result of terrorism, but terrorism wasn't present prior to the war. You can see that the US administration has imported terrorism into Iraq in order to fight it, but at the expense of the Iraqi people.
I want to talk about the brutality of the occupation. The war has resulted in extreme destruction of our country. Whole factories and workplaces have been destroyed. Some of those which survived were then destroyed later by the occupation forces. The occupation has increased unemployment, which has now become a major problem for Iraqi workers. It is very dangerous to have such high unemployment in a country with such wealth.
We call on your solidarity to end the brutal occupation of our country. At the beginning of the 21st century, we thought we'd seen the end of colonies, but now we're entering a new era of colonialization. We are campaigning to end the occupation of Iraq, to build a democratic, federal Iraq which will guarantee the rights and jobs of its people.
Q: Bremer issued orders allowing for the privatization of Iraqi enterprises, and published lists of enterprises which would be sold off. What is the attitude of the IFTU toward privatization?
A: We need investment, but we don't want privatization. Investment can bring us technology and skills and training. Privatization will take all of Iraq's wealth away. Iraqi publicly-owned enterprises should stay publicly owned.
Q: The IMF and World Bank have said they'd cancel a certain percentage of the national debt if Iraq accepted their reforms and privatization. Does the IFTU accept this?
A: If they're genuinely willing to cancel the debt, they should cancel it, without putting any conditions on it. The debt wasn't incurred because of construction, but destruction. If there are attachments to it, we need to know what they are. The World Bank has its own interest, and it's working for it. The World Bank has never done anything in Iraq until now.
Q: What about the oil? There have been recent proposals for private investment in the oil industry. Might this lead to privatization?
A: We support investment in the oil sector. We will never accept the privatization of oil. Oil must remain in the hands of the public. It is the only source of wealth we can use to rebuild our country.
We need training to equip Iraqis with new skills, appropriate to new technology, and we have to work to reduce the level of unemployment.
Q: There are a number of union federations in Iraq. What relationship should exist among them?
A: As a federation, our primary concern is with the needs of working people. Any Iraqi who works for that we're willing to meet and talk with. We have 12 unions, and we operate across Iraq. Working for better jobs and working conditions are the primary criteria for judging people. We don't try to veto the effort of any Iraqi worker to join a union of his or her own choice to advance their rights. Many of the people active in our union are very well known because of their struggle against the former regime of Saddam Hussein. They paid heavily. Our primary need is to create an independent trade union agenda and campaign on behalf of working people.
In the IFTU we campaign on these issues. We must build a trade union movement which is independent, democratic and pluralist. Workers should be free to join the union of their own choice. We campaign for social, economic and political advances in the interest of working people. We want a strong working class positioned to engage fully in building a federal, prosperous and democratic Iraq.
Women should take their place in society, government and trade unions. Their wages should be equal to those of men. We now have women who are leaders of national unions in the IFTU.
The IFTU was established soon after the fall of Saddam Hussein. Those who participated were trade unionists who had been in exile or prison, and who had suffered terribly. The IFTU is building free, democratic workers' committees. Our executive committee was formed in an open meeting on May 16th, 2003, in a convention of grassroots trade unionists who were all opposed to Saddam Hussein.
After that meeting, we initiated our work and began going out to factories. We formed committees in the workplaces, which were elected in meetings, and where we sent out notices two weeks beforehand. People could nominate and elect their representatives freely.
The IFTU supported the first struggle under the occupation, after the fall of Saddam Hussein, where 800 workers in a bicycle factory in Mamoudiya called for raises, and the management refused. The union for the printing and mechanical industry negotiated with the management, and gave them two weeks notice that if there were no raises, the workers would strike. After striking for five hours, the management agreed.
We've built 12 national unions, and six of them have held open conferences. We've held elections from the workshop level to the leadership - free and democratic elections, with competing candidates in an open process. In the next few months, we'll hold conferences for the other six unions.
Q: After the beginning of the occupation, the Coalition Provisional Authority decided to enforce sections of Saddam Hussein's old labor code which prohibit unions for workers in state enterprises or in public service, and the present government has continued this policy. What changes do you advocate in Iraq's labor laws?
A: We need to repeal the anti-union laws of the past, and write a labor code which adheres to the ILO standards. In particular, we need to repeal Law 150 from1987, which bans unions in the public sector. This law was designed to repress the labor movement, and deny workers their rights. The Saddam Hussein regime removed workers pensions, and stole billions of dinars, which it used to finance wars of aggression. As a result, the Iraqi unions were reduced from 12 national unions to 6. Unions were banned in railways and aviation, in the printing and mechanical industry, in oil, in electricity and power generation, and in textiles and leather products. We are now working to repeal this law.
We are faced with an extremely difficult situation. The existing government says it has no right to repeal this law. This recent election will result in an incoming, transitional assembly and government, which can take action.
But we didn't stop organizing workers because of the 1987 law. We defied the law, and organized in the public sector in areas where unions were banned. We have written to the Iraqi government, to insist that the government respect workers' right to organize, and to join the union of their choice.
We've been in dialogue about the new labor code. A draft was put forward in Jordan in October last year, and most federations were present. It was amended on many points, and has been printed with those amendments, and the draft given to the government. We hope it will be adopted by the transitional government.
Unions should have autonomy, and make their own decisions. Workers should be free to organize. We believe in a real democracy, where workers should choose their own leaders.