Unions reverse policy on Iraq


The occupying powers in Iraq received a significant boost at the Labour Party Conference on 30 September, when a withdrawal resolution (Composite 6) was defeated.  And they have the Iraqi Communist Party to thank for it.


The operative part of that resolution was:


“This conference now calls on the British Government to recognise that the continuing occupation of Iraq is unjustifiably destructive of both lives and resources and calls on the Prime Minister to name an early date for withdrawal of British forces.”


It was defeated because the four big trades unions – UNISON, AMICUS, TGWU and GMB – voted against it, despite the fact that, broadly speaking, it reflected the agreed policy of each union.  With the support of these unions, Conference went on to support a National Executive Committee (NEC) statement endorsing continued occupation.


These unions opposed the withdrawal resolution, despite having supported a much more forthright withdrawal resolution at the TUC Congress on 15 September, a fortnight earlier.  This resolution reaffirmed the TUC’s “opposition to the occupation of Iraq”, adopted last year, and made the following demand:


“Congress thus calls for the speedy withdrawal of the coalition forces and the dismantling of their military bases in favour of the Iraqi people being left free to build their country’s infrastructure, public services and education system, with assistance from international agencies if required.”


Speaking for the resolution, UNISON Deputy General Secretary, Keith Sonnet, was unequivocal:


“Congress, each day we watch with horror the continuing carnage in Iraq. We must remember who is to blame for the chaos - George Bloody Bush and Tony Blair. Just as we know that there will never be peace in the Middle East until Israel stops occupying Gaza and the West Bank, and an independent viable Palestinian State created, so we know that there will never be peace in Iraq until the occupying British and American troops leave.


“We demand in the motion that our Government take immediate steps to end its occupation of Iraq and to return Iraqi assets back to the Iraqi people. The war was illegal, based upon lies and deceit, and it has spawned continued human rights abuses by occupying forces and now by the so-called interim government headed by a former US intelligence agent. …


“Congress, we have no moral right to be in Iraq or to remain there, and we must leave completely. There must be no bases left behind to guard the oil fields.”


The resolution was supported by the TUC General Council.  No union spoke against it and it was passed unanimously.


What happened?

So what happened between 15 and 30 September to make the unions move from a position of demanding “immediate steps” to end occupation to one of supporting the continued occupation?  What happened to make the unions move from complete opposition to Government policy on Iraq to one of complete support?


The background to this is that, with a General Election reckoned to be a matter of months away, there was pressure on trade union leaders not to rock the boat at Conference this year.  To keep them sweet, at a meeting at Warwick University in July the party leadership had promised them that a few items from their wish list would be included in the election manifesto.  So, the unions were predisposed not to have a major row with the party leadership at Conference.


It is true that they helped pass resolutions contrary to Government policy on rail nationalisation and council housing, but the Government could easily brush those aside, and did. The big issue was Iraq: had they taken the lead in getting the party to endorse the sentiments they supported unanimously at the TUC, there would have been headlines around the world proclaiming that Blair had lost the support of his party on Iraq.  Of course, he would have shrugged it off in his usual manner, but he would have suffered further damage on Iraq.


IFTU intervention

Happily, for the trade union leaders, there was a mechanism whereby they could move from complete opposition to Blair’s Iraq policy at the TUC conference to complete support for it at the Labour Party conference – and salve their conscience at the same time.  This was provided by Abdullah Muhsin, the Foreign representative of the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions (IFTU), an Iraqi who has been an exile in Britain since 1978.


On behalf of the IFTU, he issued an open letter to trade union delegates to the Labour Party Conference, advising support for the party leadership:


“You have two options before you this week.


“One would give hope to all those in Iraq who want to see free trade unions and political organisation grow and thrive. In line with UN Security Council resolution 1546 it says that the multinational force is thereto help our democracy.


“The alternative asks for an early date for the unilateral withdrawal of troops which would be bad for my country, bad for the emerging progressive forces, a terrible blow for free trade unionism, and would play into the hands of extremists and terrorists.”


(See, for example, report to UNISON members from Steve Warwick, the chair of the UNISON delegation to Conference.  All the documents before the Conference on Iraq – the NEC statement, Muhsin’s letter, and Composite 6 – are reproduced in it.)


The advice is plain: vote for the continued occupation of Iraq as defined in the NEC statement, and the advice was snapped up by trade union leaders anxious not to have a row with Blair on Iraq.


Steve Warwick of UNISON wrote in his report:


The views of the IFTU had, quite naturally, a powerful effect as we dealt with the issues.”


And Tony Woodley of the TGWU wrote in the Morning Star on 26 October:


“I make no apology for listening to the representative of the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions in Brighton. Our traditions of solidarity and internationalism could not let us do otherwise.  And let me make it clear that, as far as the T&G was concerned, it was clear advice from Abdullah Muhsin which tipped the balance.”


(Strangely, after his role at Conference became public, Muhsin wrote in the Guardian on 23 October: “I did not offer voting advice to trade unions on Labour's Iraq motions and confined my remarks to urging solidarity with Iraqi workers”.)


Why does IFTU support occupation?

Why should the IFTU be so anxious to maintain the US/UK occupation of Iraq?  Last summer, in a letter in the Guardian (18 August), writing on behalf of the IFTU, Abdullah Muhsin supported the suggestion that the US-appointed interim Prime Minister, Ayad Allawi, be invited to address the Labour Party Conference.  Why?


On the face of it, none of this makes sense.  But there is a simple explanation: the IFTU is led by the Iraqi Communist Party and the Iraqi Communist Party has co-operated with the occupation from the outset.  Its Secretary-General, Hamid Majid Musa, was a member of the 25-member Iraqi Governing Council, appointed by the US in July 2003, and it has a minister, and two deputies, in the Interim Government, appointed by the US last June.  (The minister is Mufid Muhammad Jawad al-Jaza'iri – he is Minister of Culture.)


The future of the Iraqi Communist Party is therefore intimately bound up with the future of Ayad Allawi and his Interim Government, so it hardly surprising that the IFTU is doing its best to promote Allawi and his Government, and defending the continuation of occupation.  Neither is it surprising that on 12 August the Financial Times described its Secretary-General, Hamid Majid Musa, as “aside from his communist label, in many ways the US’s ideal partner”.


(The IFTU itself openly defends the occupation – see, for example, an article by Abdullah Muhsin on the IFTU website.  There, he writes that the US had to appoint the Iraqi Governing Council in July last year because of “the failure of Iraqi parties to agree on holding a national conference April 2003 to elect a transitional government”.  Apparently, the US wanted an elected Iraqi government 18 months ago, but was somehow thwarted by Iraqis.)


IFTU recognised

The IFTU has used its connections with the Governing Council and the Interim Government to get itself recognised by the occupation authorities in Iraq.  By Decree No 16 of the Governing Council issued on 28 January 2004, the IFTU and its President, Rasem Hussein Abdullah, were declared as “the legitimate and legal representatives of the labour movement in Iraq”.  This was confirmed by the Interim Government on 10 July 2004.


The IFTU is attempting to get its hands on the assets of the old Ba’athist General Federation of Workers’ Trade Unions in Iraq.  For that reason, the IFTU uses that name inside Iraq.  But, as yet, it doesn’t seem to have been successful in persuading the Interim Government to give it access to these assets.


The IFTU is not the only trade union federation or group in Iraq.  The International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) sent a fact finding mission to Iraq in February 2004.  Owen Tudor of the TUC was a member of that delegation and a report written by him (available on the TUC website) gives a flavour the embryonic nature of trade unionism in Iraq, and the variety of groups that exist.  The IFTU is but one of them, with the distinguishing mark that it is prepared to deal with the occupying authorities and has been singled out by the occupying authorities for recognition.


(Two groups, the Federation of Workers Councils and Trade Unions in Iraq (FWCUI) and the Union of Unemployed in Iraq (UUI), have lodged a complaint with the International Labour Organisation (ILO) that this singling out the IFTU for recognition is contrary to ILO Conventions on freedom of association.  On 2 June, the ILO accepted this complaint for consideration as Case No 2348.)


Unions’ excuse

The leaders of UNISON and the TGWU, who say they took the IFTU’s advice at the Labour Party Conference, could not have been ignorant of the fact that it is but one element of the trade union movement, such as it is, in Iraq, and that it had its own political agenda of support for the status quo, determined by its Iraqi Communist Party leadership.  All of this is in Owen Tudor’s report.


The only reasonable conclusion is that they took the IFTU advice, not because that they believed it to be the authentic voice of Iraqi trade unionism, but because they needed an excuse to give to their members for reversing their union policy on Iraq.


Steve Warwick’s account of the UNISON delegation’s action on the Iraq issue at Conference is difficult to square with reality.  He writes:


Direct talks took place during the week between the four unions and government ministers, with the support of our delegations. Our aim was to commit the government to a timetable for troops to leave Iraq. …


“Our pressure forced the government to acknowledge, for the first time, that there is now a timetable to which they must adhere to end the occupation. …


“We firmly believed that getting the government to commit to a timetable for British troops to leave was the most effective way of achieving UNISON’s policy.


“Getting a government commitment to a date as expressed in the NEC statement was preferable to a vague call in a conference motion for the Government to consider setting a date in the future.”


A reasonable conclusion from this is that, thanks to union pressure, the government is now committed to a timetable for withdrawal, which it wasn’t prior to the application of that pressure.  That is simply untrue: before the Labour Party Conference, there was no timetable for withdrawal, and there is none now.  The Government didn’t give one inch of ground to the trade unions on Iraq at Conference.


The Prime Minister has said time without number that we are going to stay in Iraq for as long as it takes to do the job, and he doesn’t specify the job.  That was his position before the Conference and it is his position now.


Steve Warwick makes much of the fact that the “UN mandate [in Security Council resolution 1546] for multinational troops to remain in Iraq ends in 15 months time – December 2005”, as if that were a firm date for withdrawal.  It isn’t: the mandate can be extended ad infinitum.


Withdraw sooner

The Government tells us that foreign troops have to stay in Iraq “to help the Iraqis build a free, stable and democratic future”, to quote from the NEC statement, and that those Iraqis who engage in military action against occupation forces, and Iraqis co-operating with them, are driven by a perverse desire to prevent this idyllic future arriving.  They are not: they are driven primarily by a desire to end the occupation, and see the occupation forces go home.


So, the best hope of reducing the present carnage is for the occupation forces to go home, or at least to give a clear indication that they are about to do so.  Sooner or later, that will have to happen, so better sooner than later, because that way fewer people get killed.


UN tarnished

It would be useful if, at that juncture, there was an institution available to assist Iraq in constructing a system of government, perhaps backed up by troops from the Muslim world. 


Unfortunately, the UN cannot fill that role because since 1990 it has acted as an instrument of the West in oppressing Iraq through economic sanctions of unprecedented severity, and latterly by blessing the occupation of Iraq.  On Iraq, the UN is badly tarnished.


It is true that the UN Security Council didn’t back the invasion, but it made no attempt to indict the aggressors either, as Iraq was indicted in 1990 for invading Kuwait (having sought and got permission from the US for doing so).


And a few months later, in resolution 1511 (and later in 1546), it authorised the occupying forces (renamed the multinational force) under the command of the US “to take all necessary measures to contribute to the maintenance of security and stability in Iraq”: in other words, it gave the US carte blanche to take military action to suppress those people who took up arms against the occupation. 


Every single military action by the occupation forces since 16 October 2003, when 1511 was passed, has been duly authorised by the Security Council.  The slaughter of civilians in Falluja last April was authorised by 1511 and carried out in the name of the UN.  1511 allows the US to be the judge of what measures are necessary in any circumstance.  Likewise, the continual pounding of Falluja today is being carried out in the name of the UN, authorised by 1546 passed on 8 June this year.  If you support 1546, you have no grounds for complaint when F16s and helicopter gunships pound Fallujah: under 1546, the US is acting within the UN Charter in doing so.


The UN is on the side of the occupiers, and against the occupied, which means that it can no longer play a useful role in Iraq, and means that UN personnel in Iraq get killed.


*  *  *  *


Stop the War Coalition

The Stop the War Coalition issued a statement on the IFTU’s activity at the Labour Party Conference, which has provoked a degree of dissent from trade unionists.  The statement, which is reproduced below, gives a measured and reasonable statement of what the IFTU stands for and of its activity at the Labour Party Conference.  (There is one factual error as regards the latter: the IFTU shared a platform with Foreign Office Minister, Bill Rammell, not with the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw).


Understandably, since the Coalition has trade union affiliates, its statement is very kind to the trade union leaders who used the IFTU representations as an excuse for reversing their policy on Iraq and conforming to the official line.



A Kurdish woman called Shanaz Rashid delivered a near-hysterical appeal to the Labour Party Conference for British troops not to be withdrawn, singling out the Prime Minister for praise for having “stood up to Saddam and freed my people”.  The Conference wasn’t told that she is the partner of Abdul Latif Rashid, a member of the PUK and US-appointed Minister of Water Resources in Iraq’s Interim Government.



Labour & Trade Union Review

November 2004