There’s a nice little piece worth reading over at Labor Notes spotlighting the First International Labor Conference in Iraq that took place in the Kurdish city of Erbil on March 14.  As part of U.S. Labor Against the War‘s delegation to the Conference- which marked the rebirth of a labor movement held for years under the thumb of dictatorship- two members of U.S. Veterans Against the War spoke to the crowd and were received by a man who rushed the stage- to everyone’s fright- and then declared “I’ve come up here to embrace my comrades from America” to a room full of applause, hugs and tears.  Over 200 delegates from as many as 18 Provinces attended.  The article points out:

Under both Saddam Hussein and the newly installed regime, Iraq’s unions have struggled for the right to exist. In 1987 the dictator declared public workers “civil servants,” making it illegal for them to unionize. They are 80 percent of Iraq’s labor force.

That law was on the books when the U.S. invaded in 2003. Paul Bremer, director of the Coalition Provision Authority, ditched most of the Iraqi legal code, but he found one law he liked, and he kept it. That labor law was passed on to the incumbent Iraqi regime, which has enforced it energetically.

In that way, the situation in Iraq resembles the U.S. labor movement before the Wagner Act of 1935. Workers had no legal protection to organize a union and no legally guaranteed rights, but they organized unions anyway, and the Iraqis have done so as well.

The government applies the anti-union laws selectively, primarily to weaken labor’s influence in high-value public enterprises, especially oil. At times, including in the last six months, the government has gone beyond simply regulating or repressing union operations.

It has used the power of the state and the military to invade union offices, destroy equipment, seize records, freeze bank accounts, and on occasion arrest union leaders. The current Maliki government even sought to certify who is entitled to lead unions and tried to impose government-controlled elections. It backed off in the face of massive resistance by workers.

Early in the occupation, the U.S. military was involved directly in these actions, but now has subcontracted that job to the Iraqi government. Union leaders were tortured and assassinated in the first years of the occupation by sectarian militias and death squads widely believed to be acting on behalf of the occupation forces.

The article also provides a great story that illustrates just how powerful a union can be, even in the face of a foreign occupation and the fact that the union itself is illegal.  Seems that upon invading Iraq the U.S. military took control of power plants, as they’re obvious strategic locales, and in doing so made the power plants targets of the insurrection.  Several workers at at least one plant were killed on the job as a result of fighting.  The plant was declared “closed” by U.S. forces after dark- meaning the plant could not operate 24 hours and power supplies to over 5 million Iraqis was jeopardized.  When worker’s attempted to go to the plant one evening to make repairs to the down system they were arrested.  The Electricity (Utility) Worker’s staged a strike that led to those worker’s being released and eventually led to more workplace actions and compelled the Iraqi government to negotiate the military’s removal from the plant- today there’s no U.S. military force there and the plant functions fine.

All this came without firing a shot—and from a union that is technically illegal. That same kind of power has been demonstrated repeatedly by oil workers, dock workers, and others, responding to the conditions of occupation.