Industry matters around the world: Iraqi oil workers on the front line again

Proletarian writers

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Proletarian writers

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US trade-union leaders feather their own nest as workers struggle against austerity

Although the Democratic party in the US has a very different lineage from the British Labour party, the way in which American workers’ hard-earned union subs are squandered on boosting the electoral fortunes of the Democrats and the way that every grassroots attempt to break through the bureaucracy is co-opted and stifled at birth must surely ring bells for workers up against do-nothing unions and Labour cuckoos over here.

Illuminating in this respect is an article posted on the Fight Back! website. Noting that “No-strike agreements and open-shop clauses in the private sector and right-to-work [ie, anti-strike] legislation and restrictions on collective bargaining in the public sector strike right at the heart of what’s left of organised labour’s gains”, the author turns to some impressive-sounding plans announced by the American Federation of Labour and Congress of Industrial Organisations (AFL-CIO, the US’s version of the TUC) ostensibly aimed at developing new forms of worker representation “including Working America, Workers Centres, and a general low-wage worker campaign at Wal-Mart and in the general service industry”.

From the writer’s account, it seems that these Workers’ Centres have sprung up all over the place and now run into the hundreds, struggling to do the job of standing up for working class communities which is shirked by the unions themselves. As he puts it, “workers in these communities were forced to reinvent the wheel, struggling with tiny resources to accomplish something that a multi-million-dollar union federation had failed to do: be an active voice in actual struggle”.

Now that the AFL-CIO is sniffing around them, he remarks somewhat plaintively: “Let’s hope workers can gain union representation through them and not just be used.” However, the writer’s own experience as an employee of Working America, supposedly over 3 million strong, is not encouraging.

I worked for Working America for a year and a half, rising to become one of a handful of field managers in Wisconsin. I travelled to different cities, attended leadership conferences and met national leaders of Working America. I spent hours on doorsteps, signing up thousands of new ‘members’ and raising tens of thousands of dollars for the effort.

Working America is not what it’s pumped up to be. There is almost no ‘community’ involvement in Working America offices, given they are open only a few months of the year, with three exceptions nationally. Working America is a traditional fundraising canvass, subsidised by unions, exclusively to gather names, addresses, emails and phone numbers for national elections.

Quite frankly, very few people even recognise that they are ‘members,’ nor are they contacted other than for get-out-the-vote purposes or to be asked for more money. The ‘alliances’ with community groups that Working America builds are hollow and empty and usually involve, again, asking for money from already cash-strapped community organisations and union locals.

One example from my time working in Wisconsin was the canvassing of the city of Manitowoc during the Machinists Union Manitowoc Crane strike in 2011-2012. In ‘support’ of the striking workers, Working America staff canvassed with discussion points vaguely linking to the strike in this small industrial town, fundraising as we went. The funds, despite demands from several of the staffers, did not go to supporting the strikers, but instead directly to Working America’s state and national accounts.

These thousands of dollars could have supported the Machinist strikers, who ultimately failed in their fight to oppose an open shop clause in the new contract.

He goes on to detail the cynical way in which a grassroots revolt in Wisconsin, aimed at ousting Governor Walker and halting the attack on public-sector collective bargaining rights, was shamelessly leeched on by union fundraisers:

It bears saying that a similar technique was employed during the Walker recall race, to great fundraising effect. While we only collected a scarce thousand or so Recall Walker petitions, we raised tens of thousands of dollars for Working America by promoting the Walker recall. In the end, we only canvassed for two to three weeks against Walker in the election itself. While Wisconsin’s trade unions gave the Walker recall every effort, the AFL-CIO put their efforts elsewhere.

In short, he says, “Working America is a multi-million dollar part of the pipe dream of a better future with the Democratic Party … millions in dues money are used to support politicians who either turn a blind eye toward, or actually vote against the interests of workers.” (‘Trumka’s turn-around proposal’ by Kas Schwerdtfeger,, 30 March 2013)

Iraq’s oil workers on the front line again

Back in the early days of the occupation of Iraq, when the TUC and ‘Labour Friends (!) of Iraq’ were busy lionising the collaborationist Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions and Alex Gordon (now RMT President) was writing off Iraqi resistance forces as “shadowy bodies of armed men” to be shunned like the plague, one Iraqi labour leader spoke out clearly about the real situation.

In an interview with the Guardian, Hassan Juma’a, leader of the oil workers in Basra, noted that “Most trade unions in Britain only seem to be aware of one union federation in Iraq, the regime-authorised Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions, whose president, Rassim Awadi, is deputy leader of the US-imposed prime minister Ayad Allawi’s party. The IFTU’s leadership is carved up between the pro-government [revisionist] Communist party, Allawi’s Iraqi National Accord, and their satellites.”

Unlike IFTU, which sent its general secretary to Britain to persuade Labour conference delegates not to call for the immediate end of the occupation, Juma’a affirmed that “The resistance to the occupation forces is a God-given right of Iraqis, and we, as a union, see ourselves as a necessary part of this resistance – although we will fight using our industrial power, our collective strength as a union.” (18 February 2005)

Now, with oil workers engaged in a series of strikes demanding redress of grievances and respect for workers’ rights, it is again this courageous union leader who, with his comrades, is to be found in the vanguard of the struggle.

The puppet government recently filed a criminal complaint against Juma’a, threatening him with five years in jail and a hefty fine. Eight other workers at the Southern Oil Company were hauled into the ministry of oil to be interrogated about their role in peaceful demonstrations in Basra. Even TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady has been shamed into ‘action’, sending a mild reproof to the Iraqi ambassador in London.

Yet throughout the occupation and all the way up to the present day, social democracy has strained every muscle in the attempt to divorce the workers’ struggle against the oil monopolies from the national-resistance struggle, thereby conspiring to weaken and disrupt both. The enduring presence of forces that refuse to accept this divorce is heartening evidence that imperialism will never win in Iraq.