Iraqi Labor Leaders Visit Milwaukee They explain their opposition to the oil law and U.S. occupation

by Lisa Kaiser

The Shepherd Express, our alternative weekly, just came out with a great story on the tour, "Iraqi Labor Leaders Visit Milwaukee to Help End the War". It's especially good on the Oil Law:

July 12, 2007
While Americans are fed daily reports on the war in Iraq, little is known in this country about the role Iraqi labor unions play in that nation's daily life.

But a recent visit by two labor leaders from Iraq?Hashmeya Muhsin Hussein, ppresident of the Electrical Utility Workers Union, and Faleh Abood Umara, general secretary of the Federation of Oil Unions?helped shed light on the surprising strength oof Iraq's unionized workers.
Iraq's labor unions were outlawed under Saddam Hussein, but came out from underground during the American occupation. Since then, they've had notable successes in protecting their workers. For example, in 2003 they fought the occupation administration's attempt to cut public-sector workers' salaries from $60 to $35 a month, and even got that monthly salary raised to $100. In addition, the oil workers famously stopped KBR?aa subsidiary of Halliburton?from taking over oil fields in southern Iraq, after the no-bid-contract-winning KBR brought in Kuwaiti workers to help reconstruct oil facilities there.
Opposition to the Oil Law

Iraq's labor unions are also among the opponents of the pending oil law that's being promoted by the Bush administration as a sign of progress.
In opposing the law, the unions are trying to protect their members and the industries in which they work. But they're also attempting to maintain Iraqi political independence and control over the country's vast oil resources, despite formidable international pressure to agree to the law. In addition to pressure from the Bush administration, the International Monetary Fund has made debt relief conditional on passage of the law.
The law, somewhat revised from its original draft, passed the Iraqi cabinet last week, but there is growing opposition to it in the parliament. The law would allow foreign oil companies to exert more control over Iraq's oil fields—which were nationalized in 1972?and give the governmeent a minority percentage of the profits, about 35%. These foreign oil companies would not be required to hire Iraqi workers, invest their profits in Iraq or be subject to control by the Iraqi parliament. No oil company contracts would be made public, and any disputes would be settled by an international arbitration panel.

The parliament will take up the measure in October.
Bush has made passage of the oil law one of the "benchmarks" that signal success in Iraq. But, while speaking in Milwaukee, the Iraqi labor leaders had quite a different view of the law.
"Talking about the occupying forces in Iraq has become a broken record," Umara said. "There is a new occupation that has just started. It is to control the oil wealth of Iraq and all of the economic resources of Iraq."

Hashmeya Muhsin Hussein said removing Saddam and finding weapons of mass destruction were just excuses the United States used to invade Iraq and control its oil fields.
"This is an economic project that the occupation forces have introduced," she said, "and [is] transferring Iraq into a market for goods and services."

Umara said the oil law would allow foreign companies such as Shell, Chevron and Halliburton to make huge profits, and there are no guarantees that they must employ Iraqi workers. According to some estimates, about 65% of Iraqis are unemployed and about 9 million live below the poverty line.
"The oil plan does not really serve the Iraqi people," he said.

Umara said foreign consultants would determine the distribution of the contracts.

"Why shouldn't they present these contracts to Iraqi experts and consultants?" he asked. "The law was written to control Iraqi wealth."
Why shouldn't they present these contracts to Iraqi experts and consultants?" he asked. "The law was written to control Iraqi wealth."

Iraq's oil is among the easiest to extract in the world and costs about $2 per barrel to extract. The country is believed to have the third-largest oil reserves in the world, behind Saudi Arabia and Iran. Only about 10% of the country has been explored for oil, leading many energy experts to conclude that the war-torn nation is home to a huge untapped market of cheap, easily accessible oil.

Opponents of the oil law want to keep the oil fields under national control, instead of allowing foreign corporations to profit from them.

Umara added that the unions are working with some members of parliament to stop the law from passing.

"We have friends in the Iraqi parliament who are very nationalistic," Umara said. "And with their help we were successful in postponing discussion of the measure until October 2007. Unfortunately, there are just a few of them. And we know the American pressure regarding this issue."

The law's opponents got support from five Nobel Peace Prize laureates, who released a statement in late June stating that the Iraqi people should determine the use of their oil reserves.

"The Iraq Oil Law could benefit foreign oil companies at the expense of the Iraqi people, deny the Iraqi people economic security, create greater instability and move the country further away from peace," the letter states. "The U.S. government should leave the matter of how Iraq will address the future of its oil system to the Iraqi people to be dealt with at a time when they are free from occupation and more able to engage in truly democratic decision-making."

Signed by Betty Williams, Mairead Corrigan Maguire, Jody Williams, Shirin Ebadi and Wangari Maathai, the letter concludes: "It is immoral and illegal to use war and invasion as mechanisms for robbing a people of their vital natural resources."

Successes of the Iraqi Unions

Hussein and Umara spoke at the Milwaukee County Labor Council as part of a national tour sponsored by U.S. Labor Against the War.

Hussein is the first woman to lead a national labor union in Iraq, and is also involved in women's organizations. Her union is affiliated with the General Federation of Iraqi Workers, which has 200,000 members. They are currently battling the use of private contractors in Iraq, who are replacing local workers who are trained to do the same jobs.

Umara has worked for the Southern Oil Company in Basra for 28 years, and, as an organizer, is working to maintain Iraqi control over its oil reserves. He was detained by Saddam's regime for his work on behalf of his fellow oil workers.

Hussein and Umara explained that Iraq's labor unions are secular and not formally aligned with any religion, sect or political party.

"The secret behind the success of labor unions in Iraq is that no party controls the labor unions," Umara said.

"That does not mean that there [is] no force to politicize the unions," Hussein said. "There are political parties that try to influence the unions, and even religious groups are trying to influence the unions. And after they gave up, they created their own unions?what's called unions."
Umara said that he hopes this American tour will help promote peace in the region.

"We love peace," Umara said. "I feel that the number of people who oppose the war is on the increase. This is what makes me happy."