Hassan Juma'a Awad from Iraq's General Union of Oil Workers talked with David Bacon
When Saddam Hussein’s regime started crumbling on 9 April 2003, those whom it had driven underground began to breathe again. From Syria, Britain, Scandinavia and elsewhere, exiled trade union radicals began to make the long journey home. Soon workers everywhere were organizing. A general strike broke out in Basra after the British troops tried to install a notorious ex-Ba’ath Party leader as mayor. Within a month the city had a labour council bringing together many new unions.
Among those who had resisted Hussein’s brutal dictatorship was an oilfield technician, Hassan Juma’a Awad. A veteran of the Shi’a uprising in southern Iraq of 1991, Juma’a had begun to speak openly about the bad conditions in the fields and refinery of the Southern Oil Company (SOC) where he’d worked for three decades. He soon became the most important labour leader in southern Iraq and today is the biggest single obstacle to the Bush Administration’s main goal for the occupation – the privatization of the country’s oil.
Oil is Iraq’s lifeblood and the southern fields produce 80 per cent of it. That puts the hands of this workforce on the tap controlling the country’s wealth, with the ability to turn it off at will. Like the oil workers in Iran who brought down the Shah in 1978, Iraq’s oil workers know their power and have already used it to deal important defeats to the occupation regime.
‘Without organizing ourselves we would have been unable to protect our industry, which we had been looking after for generations,’ Juma’a Awad says. ‘It was our duty as Iraqi workers to protect the oil installations since they are the property of the Iraqi people and we are sure that the US and the international companies have come here to put their hands on the country’s oil reserves.’
He’s not wrong. Within just a few short months SOC workers found themselves up against the best-connected US corporation in Iraq – Halliburton – whose former CEO, Dick Cheney, is now US Vice-President. As the occupation began its grinding course, KBR, the Halliburton construction subsidiary, showed up at the SOC facilities. Its no-bid contract with the US Defense Department gave it a mandate to begin reconstruction and get the oil flowing again to the tankers off the coast in the Persian Gulf. KBR in turn hired a Kuwaiti subcontractor, Al Khoorafy, which stood ready to bring in hundreds of foreign employees to do the work.
Faced with replacement in their own jobs in a city where unemployment soared to 70 per cent, Juma’a Awad and his co-workers stood firm. They told KBR that if they brought in a single person then they would stop the oil installations completely. ‘Iraq will be reconstructed by Iraqis. We don’t need any foreign interference,’ Juma’a said. At first KBR tried to cut a deal to split the jobs with Iraqis. But the oil workers refused to accept any outside help. Eventually KBR brought in the reconstruction supplies on trucks, unloaded them and left.
The next challenge came in September 2003. The occupation administration issued Order 30, lowering the base wages for Iraq’s public sector workforce – including oil workers – from $60 to $35 per month. It also cut subsidies for food and housing.
‘We asked ourselves: “How can it be that the workers in our industry would get $35 a month?” The American Administration wasn’t willing to co-operate with us, so we had a short strike. We managed to get the minimum salary up to 150,000 Iraqi dinars (about $100). This was the beginning of our struggle to improve the income of oil workers.’ The union effectively doubled the wages of many. Today, a labourer with 20 years’ experience earns about 420,000 Iraqi dinars (about $300 dollars) a month. A chicken in the market costs about 1,500 dinars ($1).
The strike had other repercussions. In Basra’s power generation plants workers threatened similar action and won increases as well. When they needed negotiators to represent them, it was to Juma’a Awad whom they turned.
Like all Iraqi unions, the General Union of Oil Workers opposes the occupation. But he views privatization as an even larger threat. ‘We oppose it very strongly, especially in oil. It is our industry. We don’t want a new colonization under the guise of privatization with international companies taking control.’
It is a message that companies like Halliburton cannot help but hear. ‘Now we have workers’ councils in 23 areas of southern Iraq and represent over 23,000 workers,’ says Juma’a. ‘The occupying forces tried their best to stop us because they saw this as a danger. They were aware that organized workers would have power. They kept saying that according to the law we had no legitimacy – no right to represent employees in the oil sector. As far as we were concerned we didn’t need them to give us legitimacy. We were elected by the workers. That’s the only kind of legitimacy we need.’