David Bacon: Recently the oil workers union went on strike for two days. What was the strike about?
Faleh Abood Umara: We have many problems in the oil industry. Some time ago we met with the Prime Minister of Iraq, discussed them, and reached an agreement. We asked the minister of oil to implement that agreement, and he refused. He was supposed to organize a special congress with oil workers in the south, to provide land for building workers' homes, to raise our pay, to implement profit sharing, and to suspend the implementation of the new oil law. Our discussions with the oil minister didn't change the situation, so we announced we would go on strike.
Bacon: What objection does the union have to the proposed oil law?
Umara: The new law will give the control of all oil royalties and production to foreign oil companies. It will allow them to do whatever they want in our oil fields, and we won't have the ability to intervene, or even to observe. The oil law doesn't envision the existence of our oil union, nor will in include us as a member of the so-called Oil Congress. The most dangerous part of the law is the production-sharing agreement. We reject this kind of agreement absolutely. The law will rob Iraq of its main resource -- its oil. It will undermine the sovereignty of Iraq and our people.
Bacon: What would be the impact of the oil law on the ability of Iraq to rebuild after the war and occupation?
Umara: If the law is ratified, there will be no reconstruction. The U.S. will keep its hegemony over Iraq.
Bacon: Hashmeya, when I saw you in Basra in 2005, your union was fighting the management of the electric power stations over working conditions and subcontracting of the work of your members. What is their situation today?
Hashmeya Muhsin Hussein: Iraqi power stations and other facilities suffered a lot of damage during the war, going back to the time of Saddam Hussein. He didn't give contracts to foreign corporations, and depended on the indigenous resources in the country. After the collapse of the Saddam Hussein regime, we saw something new. Even the simplest job was given to a contractor.
As a result, the buildings of the electrical authority were filled with unemployed workers. We protested against this, and for a time, our industry's management would not accept the workers' demands. We demonstrated in front of the Basra mayor's office and submitted our demands to the governor. Of our seven demands, the two most important were first, stopping unnecessary contracting, and second, stopping the corruption throughout the management. Finally, we agreed with the managers that contracts would only be given out for jobs that were beyond the ability of Iraqi workers.
Bacon: What do the members of your union earn?
Muhsin: At the beginning of the occupation, the administration of L. Paul Bremer decreed wage grades for workers that were very oppressive. His system had 11 grades. The eleventh grade starts at $50 a month, and the first grade maxes out at $1,300 a month. You can see the disparity. No one can survive on $50 a month, while a tiny group receives much more. The maximum that a laborer in our industry can earn is grade 5 -- about $250, or hardly enough to survive. We have demanded that the ministry change this law, but even if they do, compensation will still be very low.
Bacon: Faleh, the oil union challenged the Bremer pay grades in 2004. What do oil workers make now?
Umara: The grades imposed by Bremer applied to workers all over Iraq. We objected to them at that time, and threatened to strike. After we met with the first Oil Minister, we were able to adjust the schedule. Compensation in oil is now completely different from that in other fields. We have eliminated the eleventh and tenth grades, for instance. There's a small improvement, but the prices in the market are going up all the time.
Bacon: I've visited the homes of oil workers, and many people still sleep in the same room, and while families have enough to eat, they live in very basic conditions.
Umara: Conditions are very tough. An oil worker in the fourth grade gets about 600,000 dinars, or about $400 a month. A small refrigerator for your house costs $200. That's half your salary. Could you survive on $200 for a month? The working conditions are also very difficult. But to be fair, it's better than it was during the time of Saddam Hussein. In the oil and electricity industries we asked for a special bonus of 30 percent, and managed to get it because of the strength of our two unions. God willing, we are going to continue improving the wages.
Bacon: Hashmeya, how was your union organized and how were you chosen to head it?
Muhsin: After the collapse of the Saddam Hussein regime, in September 2003, we organized labor committees in many workplaces. I was elected head of the committee where I work. Then, at the first conference for all workers in our industry, in May, 2004, I was elected head of the union. All our union's officers are volunteers. We have a democratic process with internal bylaws, and all the different kinds of work in the industry have to be represented. We have a convention every two years, and at our second convention in June, 2006, I was reelected unanimously. But because of the government decree which seized all union funds in Iraq, we have no money or any way to collect dues. The activists in all our unions, even in the electricity and oil industries, contribute as much as we can from our own wages, and that's what we use for all our union's activities.
Bacon: What is the attitude of the men in the union towards you as a woman?
Muhsin: At the beginning there was some difficulty, but now it's much easier. The workers elected me. They come to me with their problems, and we do our best to solve them. We have five sub-unions in our industry, and many women have union membership cards. We put their pictures on our posters to show them off.
Bacon: When I was in Baghdad in October, 2003, Bremer and the Coalition Provisional Authority published lists of state-owned enterprises that they intended to sell to private owners. Were there electrical enterprises on those lists? Are there plans to privatize electric power generation?
Muhsin: The power situation in Iraq is deteriorating very fast. We cannot get spare parts to replace ones that break or wear out. The terrorists sabotage the transmission lines and generating stations. Management corruption is very widespread. There has been no improvement in this situation at all, and people suffer from constant blackouts. In the labor movement, we think this situation has been deliberately created so that people will conclude that something must be done, and that the only alternative is the privatization of electric power generation.
On May 23 of this year we protested this situation. We asked the Electricity Ministry to improve the transmission system. We threatened to strike the transmission lines and substations, and cut power to the oil pumping stations. This would just have been a first step. When the electricity minister understood what we were planning, he agreed to discussions and we postponed the strike. But three days ago my union told me that they were again starting plans for a strike because those discussions were going nowhere. The government announced a crash program to improve the transmission lines and the entire system, but the money for it disappeared. Our objective is to force immediate improvements in the system, and we've given the minister plans and alternatives showing how this can be done. We are the experts in our own industry.
Bacon: Last month, the president of the oil union wrote to the U.S. Congress saying it wanted the occupation to end, and the troops to leave, but that it didn't want the oil law imposed as a condition for this. How does the oil union propose that the occupation should end?
Umara: All the problems in Iraq come from the occupation. Our oil union and all the other unions in Iraq believe we can't rebuild our country so long as the occupation is going on. The occupation fosters the enormous corruption. We ask people in the U.S. to tell their government to leave as soon as possible. The troops should be evacuated, without making the implementation of the oil law a condition.
The U.S. administration wants to control our oil resources of our country, so our letter to the U.S. Congress asked your leaders to stop making proposals that violate the will of the vast majority of our people. We have plenty of oil experts in Iraq, who are perfectly capable of managing the oil industry. The Southern Oil Company, where our union is based, is the only enterprise in Iraq currently producing oil. We're exporting 2,250,000 barrels a day, all managed by Iraqi experts, and produced by Iraqi hands.
Bacon: Many people say that if the troops leave, there is no civil society capable of governing the country. Do you agree with this?
Umara: There are many cities in Iraq controlled by the Iraqi administration. These cities are quite secure, while the cities controlled by the occupation troops see continuous killing and carnage. As long as we have an occupation, we'll have more sabotage and killing.
But when people from the local tribes control the security, they have expelled the al-Qaeda forces and those others who are terrorizing people. This means we can protect ourselves and bring security to our nation, with no need of the U.S. forces. To those who believe that if the U.S. troops leave there will be chaos, I say, let them go, and if we fight each other afterwards, let us do that. We are being killed by the thousands already. If the occupation continues, there will only be more blood shed by the U.S. forces and the Iraqi people.
Bacon: Hashmeya, your union belongs to another union federation. What does your federation think should happen with the occupation?
Muhsin: The electrical workers union belongs to the General Union of Iraqi Workers, and we want the occupation to end as soon as possible. All Iraqi unions want this.
After the collapse of the regime all the borders were open. Many people, intruders, came to Iraq. Many were al-Qaeda and others, who brought weapons and explosives. There was no inspection at the border at all. As an occupied nation under UN Resolution 1483, the United States was obligated to protect and guarantee our security. But the very first thing [they] did was throw the borders open. Given this experience, we're not expecting to have much security in Iraq so long as the United States is there.
Some towns are secure, but wherever you see the U.S. forces, you see a lot of terror and sabotage. We want the United States to leave. Of course, it takes time and it's not an easy operation. The logistics are tough. But our first and last demand is that the occupation end as soon as possible.
Bacon: The Bush administration says it envisions the presence of an occupation force for many years, comparing the situation to the presence of U.S. troops in South Korea. What do you think of that possibility?
Muhsin: If it was up to Bush, he'd occupy the world. But that's not what the nations of the world want. Would they accept occupation, as we have had to do? Our nation does not want to be occupied, and we'll do our best to end it.