In 1979, Saddam Hussein's Ba'ath party seized power after a bloody internal coup. His regime broke independent unions, transforming them into "yellow unions" recruiting sergeants for wars. Union offices were turned into centres of interrogation and torture. For many Iraqi workers, the term "trade union" became associated with state oppression.
In 1980, an illegal, underground trade union movement was formed - the Workers' Democratic Trade Union Movement (WDTUM). In 1984, it organised a strike of 4,000 tobacco workers in Iraqi Kurdistan, openly defying the regime. Saddam's security apparatus crushed the strike and executed four workers. For nearly 20 years, the WDTUM organised clandestinely and in exile. In March 2003, it marched against the war on Iraq, conscious that the victims would once again be Iraqi workers and innocent civilians.
On 16 May 2003, following the regime's collapse the previous month, the WDTUM organised an open meeting in Baghdad to establish the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions (IFTU). It was attended by 350 Iraqi trade unionists. The IFTU has since established 12 national unions in key economic sectors. This year, six affiliate unions held the first open and democratic workers' conferences in Baghdad for more than 25 years. Despite deteriorating security, the IFTU unions are active industrially and politically.
The IFTU faces three principal challenges: to win a labour code that enshrines in law the right to form independent trade unions; to build our unions and affiliate to international union confederations; and to achieve the withdrawal of foreign forces and restore full sovereignty in a democratic Iraq.
After decades of internal repression, turmoil, economic sanctions, wars and now occupation, Iraqi society is devastated. Trade unions are essential to Iraq's democratic reconstruction, ensuring a powerful secular voice especially for women workers, the country's many disabled people and the unemployed - currently more than 50 per cent of the workforce. The IFTU plans to open centres for the unemployed that address the needs of young people in particular.
The IFTU has called on the international labour movement for assistance and has not been disappointed. British trade unions, including the RMT, FBU, Unison, Natfhe, GMB, T&G and PCS, have inspired the federation with gestures of solidarity. The IFTU also has good relations with international and European trade union confederations.
The hardest task for the Iraqi labour movement is to achieve a sovereign, democratic Iraq. For this to happen, foreign troops must leave in order to isolate the cynical, antisocial forces that indiscriminately bomb Baghdad churches and Shia pilgrims in Kerbala, shoot Iraqi cleaning women and butcher Nepalese and Turkish workers or Italian journalists. This so-called "resistance" is no "national liberation movement", as some have argued, but rather a sinister and reactionary coalition of sectarian economic and religious interests exploiting popular anti-US sentiment. The IFTU has argued that UN forces can play a role in the transition to democracy but, most importantly, Iraqis must govern themselves.
Iraq is crippled by debt. The country's oil wealth was squandered by Saddam's regime on arms and personal enrichment; today it is looted to pay for occupation. Such odious debt must be cancelled. However, the Iraqis are rich in history of struggle, culture and education. Thus the IFTU has launched the Khalil Shawqi Appeal to equip a bus as a travelling theatre to tour Iraqi workplaces and communities.
For more information or to help, contact the IFTU, c/o ICTUR, UCATT House, Abbeville Road, London SW4 (www.iraqitradeunions.org) TUC fringe meeting: Monday 13 September, 5.45-8pm, Brighton Conference Centre
Abdullah Muhsin is London representative of the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions