Iraqi workers and women foil U.S. agenda

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When newscasters announce that Iraqis rallying by the thousands against the U.S. are Muslim or pro-Saddam “terrorists,” don’t believe it. Those demonstrators are probably workers protesting unpaid wages and lousy working conditions under the occupation. Or possibly they are angry women denouncing attempts to shove them back to the Dark Ages.

Quiet as it’s kept, the mounting resistance to U.S. occupiers includes a class and gender eruption that expresses itself not in suicide bombs but in militant strikes and rallies and calls for international solidarity. As it gathers momentum, the profiteers who had hoped for smooth sailing are anxiously adjusting their agendas.

The explosive woman question. In mid-January, Iraqi women — from leftists and organizers for the unemployed to judges and cabinet ministers — came out swinging against a sudden decree by the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council (IGC). Resolution 137 replaced Iraq’s 1959 civil code on family laws, the most advanced in the Middle East, with religious laws (Sharia). These would revive polygamy and child marriages and abolish women’s rights to alimony, divorce, child custody, education, and inheritance.

The new code would “allow anyone who calls himself a cleric to open an Islamic court in his house and decide about who can marry and divorce and have rights,” said retired judge Zakia Ismael Hakki. “We have to stop it.”

And so far, they have done just that, with demonstrations and protest meetings involving 80 different women’s organizations in several cities.

Yanar Mohammed, founder of the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq (OWFI), a militantly anti-theocracy left group, got a death threat for her outspoken opposition to Resolution 137. She accused the U.S. of planning to hand over power to the fundamentalists, both Shia and Sunni, who dominate the IGC and are friendly to U.S. interests. Members of these two sects also dominate the streets; for the first time in decades, women cannot walk outside without fear of being assaulted by religious vigilantes.

Seeking international support, OWFI got hundreds of signatures on a protest letter to the U.S. occupying authority, and organized a solidarity demonstration in New York City on March 3. Forty-five members of the House of Representatives sent a letter to the White House urging action on behalf of Iraqi women.

The storm of protest persuaded the White House and occupation overseer Paul Bremer to promise to veto Resolution 137. This victory provides time to organize further against the Islamist reactionaries. This is a pivotal struggle, and not merely because women today make up 65 percent of the Iraqi population.

Before the decade of debilitating embargo followed by the U.S. invasion, women made up 40 percent of the Iraqi workforce, with rights and skills they have not forgotten. Now, they represent a large proportion of the unemployed, who are in the forefront of organizing independent unions, strikes, and street demonstrations. Women’s fight for freedom is an indispensable spur to and component of the revival of Iraq as a whole.

Workers up in arms, literally. The U.S. plan was to privatize the economy quickly. “Our strategic goal in the months ahead,” intoned Bremer in June 2003, “will have the effect of reallocating people and resources from state enterprises to more productive private firms.” The occupiers announced a list of the first Iraqi state enterprises to be sold off.

Also in June, they revived a 1987 Baathist ban on public-employee unions and strikes and issued a decree making it illegal to “incite to violence and disorder.” In July came an order against freedom of assembly.

In September, the IGC passed a law that economists dubbed “A Capitalist Dream.” Among other things, it permits foreign corporations to own 100 percent of a company or industry in Iraq and to export 100 percent of the profits.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the pot of gold. Legions of Iraqi workers and jobless detonated.

The Union of the Unemployed, led by the Worker-communist Party of Iraq, mobilized tens of thousands of the unemployed to protest against nearly 70 percent joblessness.

Independent unions and the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions are organizing militantly against everything from perilous conditions and the importing of foreign workers to starvation wages of $60 a month with no extra pay for overtime or dangerous work.

Numerous strikes broke out in Basra during August and September. Transportation workers started a government-wide walkout demanding gas, water and electricity services that mushroomed to include everyone. Another strike called for sacking Baathist managers. Three general strikes took place in the area over low wages and late paychecks.

At a brick factory 30 miles east of Baghdad, workers marched into the boss’s office and demanded a wage increase and a union contract. He told them they could easily be replaced. They went home and came back with machine guns and rifles to keep scabs from crossing their picket line. The owner backed down quickly.

In February, Southern Oil Company workers won a three-month battle for higher wages by threatening to join the armed resistance.

Solidarity builds. Iraqi workers are up against neo-Baathists, religious reactionaries, and domestic capitalists, all of whom are collaborating with a powerful imperialist occupier. But the Iraqi working class is large and strong, with a proud history of secularism and ethnic tolerance. And on its side are workers and antiwar activists around the world.

U.S. rank-and-file unionists have sent delegates to Iraq who publicize news of intrepid struggles there. But more is needed: a warning from internationalist unionists to beware of those U.S. labor bureaucrats who accept the goal of U.S. business — a privatized Iraq. In November 2003, for example, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney issued a statement that ignored privatization and its devastating effects, but pledged that the AFL-CIO “stands ready to participate in the Iraq reconstruction effort,” which he calls “as important an investment in American security as the budget to support our military.”

What demands can the U.S. labor movement make to give real support to Iraqis?

• Stop privatization!
• For workers’ right to organize unions and strike.
• For Iraqi workers’ and neighborhood councils, organized on a national level, to call for a national assembly charged with coordinating elections and writing a permanent constitution.
• No to religious control of the Iraqi state. For a secular society with equal rights for women.
• For freedom of the press, association, assembly, speech and religion. Self-determination for national minorities.

• For war reparations to Iraq paid by U.S. war profiteers.
• U.S. out of Iraq!

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