Going through the Motions

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Andrew Stone questions the claims of some dubious representatives of the Iraqi working class.

Rarely have a people been so patronised as the Iraqis. They want us to bomb them, the shock and awe liberals told us, they will greet us with flowers. And when this didn't happen? They want us to stay, Blair's bombers insist, despite all poll evidence and a rising tide of resistance suggesting the contrary.

So it is refreshing - normally - when we get to hear Iraqis first hand. But recently we have been hearing a lot of the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions (the IFTU), and in particular its foreign representative Abdullah Muhsin. He has toured union meetings around the country referring to the 'so called Iraqi resistance', which he says is an attempt to Balkanise Iraq rather than being a genuine national liberation struggle. He supported Tony Blair's provocative (and aborted) attempt to invite the appointed head of the 'interim government' Iyad Allawi to address the Labour Party conference. In a letter to the Guardian he argued that 'his presence at Labour's conference is an excellent opportunity for a real dialogue with him'.

So is this the authentic voice of the Iraqi trade union movement? Not according to Sabah Jawad of Iraqi Democrats Against the War, who told Socialist Review: 'Having failed to bring over Iyad Allawi, a puppet for the occupation, because of the objection of rank and file Labour members and some MPs, the government came out with an alternative. They brought people from organisations that support the continuation of the occupation to lobby against composite six.'

This was the motion, backed by numerous constituency parties, demanding that British troops be withdrawn from Iraq. The leaders of the Big Four trade unions - the TGWU, GMB, Unison and Amicus - rallied to Blair's side against the policies set at their conferences. Much was made of how the speech by Shanaz Rashid, the Surrey based spouse of a member of the 'interim government', persuaded delegates to vote to maintain the occupation.

But the behind the scenes (and blatantly in front of the scenes) lobbying by the IFTU was also important in swaying gullible trade union leaders. Sabah Jawad argues that, 'the British government deliberately brought them to Brighton to sabotage any attempt by the conference to take a clear position for the withdrawal of British troops.'

The IFTU set up an office in Baghdad in May 2003 in the rubble of the invasion. It claims the affiliation of 12 independent unions and purports to be an umbrella organisation on the model of the TUC, to which it is affiliated through the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions. Sami Ramadani, a senior lecturer at London Metropolitan University and a former political refugee from Saddam Hussein's regime, explains: 'Historically, the IFTU generally played a good role within the Iraqi working class. But it was effectively dismantled once the Iraqi Communist Party (ICP) joined Saddam's regime in 1972 because the ICP was the leading organisation within the IFTU. Saddam established yellow unions [monopolised by the state] that workers were told to join. Most genuine Iraqi trade unionists continued to work in secret, but not under the umbrella of the IFTU.

'After the occupation the IFTU established an office in Iraq. Some of that group were genuine trade unionists, some were party people from the ICP. Swiftly US tanks raided that office. Their computer and furniture was smashed up and their leaders arrested, and Paul Bremer banned their activities.'

In response the ICP joined the Iraqi Governing Council and its successor the 'interim government', in which it has ministers. It is now in its interests to maintain the occupying forces that shore up its unpopular rule. The IFTU is a useful front for this project. But according to Sami Ramadani, 'the IFTU remains a historical notion rather than a reality. It hasn't held a democratic, representative conference for more than a quarter of a century.'

There are encouraging signs of trade union organisation in Iraq. In August the Southern Oil Workers Union struck 'and almost immediately shut down oil exports in the south of Iraq. It was supported almost unanimously. It was one of the factors that stopped the bombardment of Najaf.' There have also been huge mobilisations by the Union of Unemployed Iraqis. But it should come as no surprise that in the face of brutal military occupation forms of armed resistance predominate.

Of course socialists want to see a strengthened, militant trade union movement in Iraq. But our opposition to the occupation cannot be conditional on this. And we need to be wary of the arguments of false friends.