Socialist Worker

British trade union delegation to Iraq

Dave Barnes has just returned from occupied Iraq. He spoke to Socialist Worker.

Issue No. 1873

'From the hotel rooftop we can see the whole of Baghdad. As night falls sporadic gunfire starts. The city rests under an uneasy curfew.'

US BLACKHAWK helicopters buzz the city. As we look out whole districts suddenly lose power and the lights go out, first one area, then another until a third of Baghdad is in darkness. Yet another example of the failure of the occupation.

Our main aim in Baghdad was to meet Iraqi trade unionists who are beginning to organise and they were delighted to meet us.

We visited a bicycle factory 30 kilometres north of Baghdad. There are 600 workers there. The safety conditions are poor, there is horrendous lighting and low wages. The factory was originally owned by one of Saddam's cousins. He fled. A new manager was appointed and a new, democratic trade union formed.

Most workers were on a pitiful 17,000 Iraqi dinars a month. The management didn't move so the union called a strike. They went through the factory and won the workers. Everybody came out. They won an increase in wages to 60,000 dinars. That is still only $30 a month, but is a big increase.

At the Baghdad rail maintenance depot no meeting had been organised. We walked into the depot and a meeting was called in the manager's office. This caused a stir. Rail workers were coming out of the trains they were working on. We had a spontaneous meeting. The railways were devastated during the war.

Rail workers have started reconstruction themselves. They very quickly started to establish a rail service. They have no signals, no security, most bridges are damaged and track is blown up.

The US have hindered, not helped, this reconstruction. Paul Bremer, the US overlord of Iraq, cancelled all the rail contracts with Russia and China. There was nothing to replace them.

An Iraqi firm could have rebuilt a bridge that had been destroyed for $300,000. The contract went to a US firm for $50 million. All of these billions of dollars that the US is pumping into Iraq are going to US firms.

We visited an oil refinery in central Baghdad. Unlike the rest of Baghdad, where we only saw occasional US soldiers, here there were dozens of US patrols. Our visit to the oil refinery was unplanned. Security was tight and jumpy because of fear of attacks.

We arrived at the refinery and the newly elected oil and gas workers' union committee met us. The president told us about the issues they are fighting over-low wages, disparity of wages, conditions and safety. They had had a demonstration the day before in support of office workers who had worse pay than others. The blue collar workers had supported the demonstration.

It was Iraqi workers who reconstructed the damaged part of the plants without any assistance from the US. The US didn't even manage to restore the oil refinery!

In the media there is a perception of the Iraqi people as helpless. But it's not true. Iraqi workers are transforming their workplaces. A new movement is developing. Iraqi workers are skilled. They know what they're doing. They could carry out the reconstruction.

We visited Mustansiriya University, where the conditions are very hard.

We took part in a canteen meeting with students.

US soldiers have occupied student accommodation. The students are campaigning for more rights. One student said, 'We are struggling to rebuild after 35 years of suppression. We need to find new leaders from among us.'

Everyone we spoke to was against the US occupation.

The Iraqi trade union movement has been reborn in a genuinely democratic fashion. There is so much talk about the billion of dollars of reconstruction money. But anything that has been rebuilt has been through the effort of Iraqi workers. They have pitiful wages and spiralling inflation.

They want to rebuild their homes, their workplaces, their economy. Opposition to the occupation is universal in the workplace.

We were able to walk through the streets of Baghdad with no fear, with our trade union friends, unlike the US soldiers. The US soldiers don't connect with anyone. They are either in bunkers or driving around at speed.

The US forces are barely to be seen on the streets. If you removed them it would make no difference to the security of the Iraqi people. They are doing nothing for Iraqi people. They are maintaining control of an occupied country.

Dave Barnes visited Iraq as part of a British trade union delegation. The delegation was sponsored by Dave's TSSA rail union, the firefighters' FBU and the RMT rail union. If you want to get in touch with Dave to book him or any of the others on the delegations for meetings e-mail

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Sat 18 Oct 2003, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1873
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