August 24, 2004

A short history of trade unionism in the Iraqi oil industry

The history of trade unionism in the Iraqi oil industry began in the 1930s, when union committees were formed in Baghdad, Basra and Kirkuk.

In 1930, about 1600 workers were employed by the oil companies, but improvements in production, the discoveries of new oil wells and increase in exports meant that this soared very quickly to over 10,000 in 1957 and 48, 000 by 1975.

Oil union committees were formed and fought for workers' rights across Iraq. The oil union at the Kirkuk plant organized the first strike on July 1946, but the government brutally suppressed the strike and 15 strikers were martyred.

The state became increasingly dependent on oil revenue during the 1940s and 50s. This increased workers' awareness of importance of trade unionism. New and determined leaders emerged through the struggle for workers' democratic rights and membership of trade unions also expanded. By 1969 18,000 members were part of 9 oil workers branches but over the next two years this dropped to 16,000 in 8 branches due to political and economic instability.

By 1973 after the nationalisation of the oil industry, increased efficiency and the significant jump in oil prices led to huge increases in the workforce and union membership rose to 47,870.

It was in this context of mass unionisation of the lucrative oil industry that Saddam's 1987 anti union Decrees (numbers 150 and 52) banned public sector workers from joining or forming unions. These decrees halved the number of unions from 12 to 6.

The Iraqi labour movement received a severe blow from Saddam's fascist anti-union laws and state repression. A campaign of repression, imprisonment and execution was carried out by Saddam's dictatorial regime against oil workers. Many disappeared without trace.

But trade unionism in Iraq had deeper roots, which Saddam's brutal regime could not manage to eradicate completely. A clandestine trade union movement was formed. The Workers Democratic Trade Union Movement (WDTUM) began organizing secretly in small trade union groupings. But despite severe state repression, its leaders and activists fought in defence of working people's legitimate rights to union representation.

After the fall of Saddam's hated regime, many trade union activists of different political persuasions, including oil worker activists, initiated the rebuilding of Iraqi unions on a democratic and pluralistic basis.

On 16 May 2003 the oil workers established their Oil and Gas Union in an open meeting held at the Al Dora oil refinery in Baghdad and a preparatory committee was established.

Since then 18 oil union committees have been formed in Baghdad. Many tens of oil committees are also formed in Basra and Kirkuk.

Membership of the union runs into tens of thousands and the Oil and Gas Union is affiliated to the Iraqi Federation of Trade Union (IFTU).

Iraqi Oil workers like the rest of Iraqi working people are struggling in the most difficult and complicated circumstances. They are struggling to rebuild the infrastructure of the oil industry which was destroyed as a result of wars, foreign invasion and occupation. They are struggling along side other Iraqis for the return of full Iraqi sovereignty.

Oil workers also struggle to defend their rights for decent job and better pay. Wages are low and working conditions are dangerous. Iraq has no labour code that guarantees and protects working people's rights. Oil workers have been subjected to waves of bombing and terrorist acts by local and foreign extremists which have killed many oil workers.

The IFTU and the Oil and Gas Union back policies to ease oil workers suffering, to improve wages and working conditions.

Oil workers along side other worker resist privatisation in the public sector and especially in the oil sector. The Oil and Gas Union stated clearly that oil must remain a property in the hands of Iraqi people. Multinational companies should not be allowed to reap easy profits at the cost of well-being of Iraqis.

Due the high level of unemployment not least of oil workers, the Oil and Gas Union strongly oppose the importation of foreign workers, whilst thousands of skilled Iraqis have no job. Jobs should go first to Iraqi workers.

The Oil and Gas Union is working closely with both Basra IFTU and the national IFTU to organise training courses in trade union representation with assistance from regional and international trade union centres.

The Oil and Gas Union is working to strengthen its cooperation and friendship with energy trade union centres around the world and seeking their support and solidarity to enable the union better to defend its members' rights.

Iraqi Oil and Gas Union
21 August 2004

Posted at August 24, 2004 09:52 PM