Reply to Harry Barnes - Why we should support all Iraqi and British Trade Unions – not just selected ones


This article is a reply to former Labour MP Harry Barnes as part of a small internet debate between the two of us which started on John McDonnell’s campaign blog. (Harry has been to Iraq several times and will undoubtedly provide another interesting and well-informed response)

It’s one of a series of articles responding to those who support the continuing presence of British troops in Iraq and in defence of the Stop the War Coalition and those who oppose the Iraq war in general , as well as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch against charges made by Nick Cohen, the Euston Manifesto, Labour Friends of Iraq and others.

Hadi Saleh – the renowned Iraqi trade unionist murdered in January 2005

Harry Barnes (a Labour MP until 2005), Nick Cohen and Labour Friends of Iraq have argued that the anti-war movement should be showing solidarity with the General Federation of Iraqi Workers or GFIW (an Iraqi trade union federation seen as similar to the TUC) and especially the IFTU (‘Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions’ – the largest of the three smaller federations of unions which make up the GFIW – especially as many members of the federation are being assassinated – most famously the IFTU official Hadi Saleh. They also argue that several Iraqi unions which refuse to join the IFTU/GFIW (such as the Iraqi Union of the Unemployed )represent almost no Iraqis and are not worth recognising or supporting on the grounds that this would be comparable to a British trade union refusing to join, or leaving, the TUC.

Barnes, Cohen and Labour Friends of Iraq allege that the Stop the War Coalition has never condemned such murders and supports insurgent or resistance groups responsible for many of them. Some members of the StWC such as Sami Ramadani allege the IFTU (and so the GFIW) is controlled by the Iraqi Communist Party and collaborating with the occupying coalition forces – and that many of the killings attributed to insurgents are actually being carried out by groups controlled by the coalition and the new government. (These are not though positions taken by the Stop the War Coalition as a whole despite Cohen’s and LFoI’s claims)

First its worth noting that no-one knows who is responsible for many of the assassinations in Iraq and the evidence we have suggests both some pro-government / coalition forces and some insurgents or resistance groups as well as Al Qa’ida are murdering democrats in Iraq

It’s also worth noting Abdullah Muhsin of the IFTU’s obituary of Hadeh Saleh in which he wrote “his commitment to independent trade unionism was also linked to his determination to end the occupation of our country and to rebuild civil society.”

The Iraqi Union of the Unemployed was formed due to the sacking by the Coalition Provisional Authority under Paul Bremer of the entire Iraqi army – along with sackings and planned sackings in many other Iraqi state industries and public services (even including hospitals) in preparation for selling them off at below their market value to foreign firms (mainly British and American ones).

The majority of the Iraqi population are now unemployed.

The response of the Bush administration to the formation of the Iraqi Union of the Unemployed was to refuse to recognise the union and have coalition forces arrest its members and attempt to break up demonstrations by its members by methods including threats to shoot them. (The sources here are people who risked their lives in Iraq to see what was happening there such as Ewa Jasiewisc and Caoimhe Butterfly of the human rights activist group Voices In the Wilderness as well as independent journalists Zehira Houfani and David Bacon among others). If the union is “not that significant” why did Bremer bother having its members threatened and why do IFTU officials bother discouraging people from talking to the union of the unemployed?

US troops break up a demonstration of the Iraqi Union of the Unemployed - August 2003

The Iraqi Union of the Unemployed is not recognised by the main trade union federation in Iraq the IFTU. Harry Barnes MP points out that trade unions in the IFTU federation do represent many unemployed former workers in their industries (e.g rail workers unions allow unemployed former rail workers to be members),This and the fact that no one knows how many members it has seem to be the reasons that Harry Barnes considers it not that significant.

It’s good that the IFTU does represent many unemployed Iraqis – but is it really an argument against recognising non-IFTU affiliated trade unions? If we believe everyone has the right to form independent trade unions shouldn’t that be a right to form non-IFTU or non-TUC affiliated trade unions? A single federation of unions will certainly have greater negotiating power. Will it represent it’s members’ interests as well though? If people can’t decide for themselves which union they think is really raising the issues that matter to them and which , if any, they wish to be a member of how long will it be before union officials start taking positions which are in their interests rather than that of their members? To demand recognition for independent trade unions and then when granted it deny this recognition to other unions is neither solidarity nor democracy – especially when all the officials of the IFTU come from one political party.

The IFTU federation of trade unions – all of whose officials are members of the Iraqi Communist Party - are the only federation recognised by the new Iraqi government and the British and American governments (though as Harry Barnes has pointed out they are only tacitly recognised – they remain illegal under Iraqi laws which don’t differ greatly from Saddam’s laws.). I am not saying that the IFTU they are ‘collaborating’ with the ‘occupiers’. I am saying that Iraqis have the right to choose whichever union they believe best represents their interests whether that is an IFTU federated one or not. IFTU members are in a difficult and dangerous situation as Abdullah Muhsin put it caught in the crossfire between the occupying militaries and the insurgents. However this difficult position may make them not always the people best placed to represent the interests of all Iraqis. They may, as with all organisations once they become institutionalised , end up sometimes representing their leadership’s interests more than their members. Iraqi – and British – people should not be limited to membership of unions headed by officials of one political party. Not everyone is a Communist in Iraq or has faith in Blair or Brown in the UK.

There is a potential difficulty in reconciling solidarity and representation. Solidarity among all trade unions is needed to provide negotiating leverage (and safety in numbers) - but if many employees feel the IFTU/GFIW federation doesn't represent their views and interests they should have the right to be represented by trade unions outside that federation. In the long term the critics of the IFTU may be reconciled with them and join it - but that may require a change in the policies and structures of the IFTU to represent viewpoints other than solely those of the Iraqi Communist Party.

(It does seem just slightly ironic that Nick Cohen castigates the ‘hard left’ and communists in Britain for not agreeing on everything with the Iraqi Communist Party – but then the ICP and the IFTU were against not for the war and want foreign troops out of Iraq so perhaps its Nick Cohen who is the odd man out on that ? )

Unions like the Southern Oil Union and the Union of the Unemployed have as much right to exist as any other and no duty to affiliate to the GFIW. Harry Barnes says one Iraqi trade unionist told him the Southern Oil Union’s leader Hassan Juma’a Awad represents no-one but himself - but if Harry’s source was a member of the Iraqi Communist Party he was hardly unbiased. Ewa Jasiewisc, who spent four months in Southern Iraq, says the union is immensely more popular among oil workers in Basra than most unions – and is separate from the GFIW as unlike most IFTU unions the Southern Oil Company Union is not headed by members of the Iraqi Communist Party but by the (outlawed) Iraqi Workers’ Communist Party.

If , as Harry Barnes claims, Sami Ramadani said unions weren’t that significant and that the real opposition to the occupation in Iraq is in the mosques then I disagree with Sami on that. If that is Sami’s view then it's his personal position, not the position of the Stop the War Coaliton as a whole. Independent trade unions are vital in any democracy. However Harry Barnes’ position of recognising only the IFTU doesn’t seem right either. We should support Iraqis’ right to be members of any trade union they wish to join. That’s the only way to ensure the trade unions properly represent their members.

Of course even if Barnes allegation is true most of the StWC believe in trade unions. The position of the StWC as a whole on the IFTU as stated by Andrew Murray is to neither approve nor disapprove of the IFTU – considering that a matter for Iraqis, not British people, to decide on but condemning for instance Abdullah Muhsin’s motion asking the TUC to welcome Iyad Allawi – who murdered Iraqi dissidents for the Ba’ath party in the 1970s, organised car and cinema bombings for the CIA in the 1970s and as Iraqi interim Prime Minister shot prisoners in the head without trial.

Harry Barnes MP

Harry Barnes does oppose the anti-union laws in Iraq and points to the IFTU’s success in so far preventing privatisation of many Iraqi public industries and services. This is admirable but makes his attempt to reconcile himself with Blair and Brown unrealistic given that the British and American governments have lobbied the Iraqi government to pass a law privatising its oil industry so it can be bought up by British and US based multinationals.

The Iraqi Freedom Congress also claims that much of the resistance to privatisation has come more from them (and an alliance of Iraqi trade unions outside the IFTU/GFIW and human rights and anti-war organisations) than from the IFTU/GFIW which they say has opposed workers’ wish to go on strike in opposition to the occupation.

The demands of the IFC strikers as reported by Solidarity Online would not seem to uphold IFTU and Labour Friends of Iraq’s allegations that the IFTU’s opponents support attacks on trade unionists by “the resistance”. The demands included :

• Abolition of all contracts which include imposed privatisation.

• The disbanding and expulsion of armed militias from Iraqi cities.

• An end to the killing of workers by the armed militias in Iraqi cities.

• Continued distribution of food rations.

• Continued distribution of profit-sharing bonuses to the oil workers.

(Note that the Workers Communist Party of Iraq which is involved with the IFC is not the same party as the Iraqi Communist Party which provides the officials who lead most of the IFTU andGFIW)