Umm Qasr Workers Take Strike Action, Beat Up Boss Infront Of Minister Of Transport

January 27th 2004
Umm Qasr Occupation Lock-Out, IPA Chief Gets a Kicking (again), 25 Answers

Ewa Jasiewicz

It's a grey blank day and the Highway of Death is sending us to Umm Qasr, Iraq's most significant trade and passenger port, currently under the operation of Stevedoring Services of America or, in tune with the corporate trend here of spinning new aliases and name-changes - SSA Marine. My friend is recalling what he saw in 1990, after the US Central Command agreed to let their arch foes, the Republican Guard, fly over the strip of returning soldiers from the Kuwait front and massacre them into the asphalt for over 130 kilometers. 130 kilometers, from within Kuwait up to the mouth of Basra, a highway of corpses - The Highway of Death. Clearest in his mind is the sight of officers shooting the injured, lying on the road. Bang after Bang as un- rescueable soldiers were finished off by their comrades, staggering sights of strewn bodies for as far as the eye could see. Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide, just a computer game killing juggernaught and the only hope Iraq had for an end to 35 years of Baath fascism, swept away in blood. Respective dictators shook hands, closed the deal, and went back to business-with-the- Baath-as-usual, each side sharpening the long-knives for an attack another day, another bloodbath another day.

Inside Umm Qasr it's the boss first - always. We met him before, a man on the side of the Iraqi Port Authority's Abdel Razzaq. Razzaq, a man once admired but now reviled by most of the 18,000 IPA employees in Basra, has withstood a number of attacks against him and his administration by wildcat striking workers. I tried no les than five times to see him to obtain his permission to speak to workers. Why? The end of October saw Razzaq issue a notice to all IPA staff informing them that any unsolicited communication with journalists or NGOs would be punished by dismissal. Not wanting to get anyone sacked, we returned time and time again to get his open-sesame word. But he was never there (despite our friends telling us he was). This time a friend of a friend of a friend has sorted us out. Workers were expecting us. The Manager will let us see the port, see whatever we like, ahlan wa sahlan. The first thing he wants us to be convinced of is the top-class security at the port, the very first thing. We nod politely, we've heard about the smuggling and the complicity of the US military, currently still running customs at the port, controlling everything coming in and out, signing along the dotted line for any contraband coming in. We've heard via an off the record well-placed source working within the CPA itself. It's an old old story, it's the same old story, post-war chaos, little market regulation, no government. Open borders mean free booty, controlling the borders means controlling the trade, and turning a blind eye or slipping a tip means a pocket full of cash, day in day out. The black market is soaring. And the pressure and intimidation againt Umm Qasr workers is gnawing.

Formalities out of the way we finally meet a group of workers, 6 or so are sitting around the port's Clerk's Office, some are sat outside munching oranges, others are drinking tea, smoking. Some in overalls, some in homeknit jumpers, they glance over, dwell a little and look away, they're not interested in another 'journalist'. There are no ships unloading today otherwise the docks would be full of people unloading explains our guide/guard, a handlebar mustached former crude oil tanker sailor and currently responsible for security at Umm Qasr.

6-7 passenger ships pass through Umm Qasr weekly. There port contains four container cranes at two in the new docks, two in the old. Part of the old dock is a US military base. Following The Fall everything including office chairs and desks was stripped from the port by looters.

We walk in and settle ourselves into the worn-out, Spartan clerks office. Workers gather round. We start the talk on how there lives are, what's going on, what do they need.

Wages, as usual, are the first topic of discussion:

"We get 100,000, all of us, everybody apart from maybe 5 people out of 50 who get 200,000 or 300,000" tells us one of the clerks, a stout, chirpy, mustached man in his mid thirties who everybody listens to. '100,000 ' I'll tell you now that this doesn't last me and my family or any family, more than 10 days. My rent alone is 40,000 per month and then it's 9000 transportation to and from work every month. With clothes and medicines and school - it should be 300,000 at least." I ask him how he survives. He smiles, looks away, and explains, frankly, "I find another job, I get tips from lorry drivers, extra payments from trade members/buyers, and we share, we here share our wages too." A round of nods and 'Aiywahs' (Yeses) animates the room when he says, "There's no difference between Bremer and Saddam -- they're both thieves, two faces of the same coin. "

Another starts to talk about transportation, "We used to have six buses before the war, three were destroyed by looters, two are for the personal use of the administration and that just leaves one, and it's not enough. Two days ago one of our friends was killed by looters on his way home from work. We really need buses." Another talks about the axing of all profit sharing, "Before the war we got a cut of all the profits here. We're supposed to get 2% and the annual profit for the docks here in Basra is $50m -- John Walsh (SSA's Operations Manger at the port) himself told us this and that it was held in a bank in Kuwait. That share must be distributed amongst all the dock workers. With 52 weeks per year, two ships per week, transporting 250 containers per ship, and the $150 tax per container, you can imagine how much we're not getting." Another cuts in, "A foreigner comes here and earns $7000 per month, and we are Iraqi, we make everything happen here and we get next to nothing. I can't afford to save; I can't afford to buy anything new, not even chocolate for my children. After the fall of the regime we were expecting results, changes, but nothings different." Our security guide cuts in too, "What is this 100,000 Dinar gap between wages?? 120,000 yes, 150,000 ok, but a jump straight up to 200,000?? What, someone has to work 15 years before they can get 200,000, and we're the country of oil, what is this?"

The men in this small, decrepit clerk's office are gnarled with frustration, "They came here to loot our country, Saddam was looting us, and so is the occupation. They never came here for the weapons of mass destruction or for Saddam -- now they say he's not even a war criminal! He's a prisoner of war -- will they release him next!!?" "Here take a look at this", says one, he heaves in a dusty cardboard box and plonks it down in front of me. "Go on, open it", I open up the cardboard flaps. It's filled with something soft sealed in plastic. I smell it. Its smells like fermented vinegar, pangs my nose, "What is it?", "It's bread mix" he says. "The British gave it to us. Look, look at the date." It's out by four months. "We've been starving, we've been eating this. The British have been giving us old off food and we've been eating it." "Didn't anything bad happen to you, you didn't get sick?" I ask, "Ask him", they say, pointing to a quiet dark skinned guy standing by the wall, who looks a bit startled, mumbles what? Then responds, "No, no it was fine, it was ok." The shame is burning though.

The clerk, irate, throws out an example of what's to come if things don't get better: "You know the 1920 revolution? When Nasiriyah people went against the British army with swords and sticks -- swords and sticks against cannons, and won?! We promise to give life again to the 1920 revolution!" The room is gathering energy, the guys are moving around more, tuning in more. He goes on, "One of the most insulting things is that I am a son of this country and when I leave my workplace, I find a foreigner standing there pointing a gun at me."

Another younger worker picks up the talk, "The last demo we had here was something for the media, the next actions we take will be serious. Falluga? Falluga is simple, basic stuff." I've heard from people here many a time, "In the north they are fighting for their own interests, for the privileges they lost, here when we fight we will fight for our honour and we will lead." And from the talks I've head with workers and trade union leaders, their honour and rage compounded by their struggle under the regime will set them in good stead for the fight ahead.

People are all prepared, there's no surrender to the occupation in the south despite the 'our boys winning hearts and minds in the stable south' mantra of theatrical press officers and eager BBC Government line-tow'ers. The stable south, the grateful south, People are watching, waiting, some biding their time, some making plans, re-grouping, working towards making sure the Baath, their interests and their power sources are broken, and the Baath themselves too, are reconfiguring their identities and positions into new businesses, organizations, representations. Everybody's getting on with reconstructing their own lives and working towards as well as openly fighting for, their own interests. Nobody I have met in 3 months of being here is in agreement or acceptance of the CPA, its institutions, its representatives, its Iraqi collaborators, or its economy restructuring role. Daawa Party spokesperson and Basra Security Council member Ayoob Abu Hajaar told me that: ''All of the Iraqi people who came with the occupation don't have dignity, honesty or loyalty to their country. Iraqi people see them as intruders, not Iraqis. The Governing Council is not legal, it is not elected by the people. We have our representative involved but we accepted that because we wanted someone to watch the steps of the GC, not because we think it is legal'.

Back to Umm Qasr, an older, worn looking man explains at pains, "We are followers of Sistani. If he says 'Jihad', you will see what happens. This is why the British are following Sistani -- he has the first and the last word."

On the matter of their working conditions, "We expect everything to go from Bad to Worse," says one, "At first the British and the CPA took down our names for unloading the first ships and told us we'd get special payments. We got nothing." "There's no electricity (blackouts are constant, seeping Basra daily, sometimes four times a day), no pure drinking water. The British managed to bring in cable but they only lit the streets, not the houses." A clerk cuts in as I scribble frenetically, "And we have no hope in what you're writing by the way, because we've had five visits from journalists with no results." "Two things have improved in our lives since the Occupation began", begins our guide, "Satellites and bananas -- both became cheap." "And the dish is only there to distract us from what's really going on, distract us from the reality of our misery" comments a younger worker. He looks knackered out beyond belief. Looks like he hasn't smiled since Eid. Not that there would have been anything to smile about because Umm Qasr workers got Zero Eid bonuses from the IPA -- compared to the recommended public sector worker amount of 100,000 ID.

"You have to form a union" I say to them, "This will really really help you, help you get organized, get better wages.." they cut me off, "We've never even thought of setting up a union." "Four months ago we had a riot over our wages -- we hadn't had them for two months -- we rioted against the administration. Abdel Razzaq was beaten and as a result they had to get in police and security." And just two weeks ago, they say, 50 workers attacked Abdel Razzaq in front of the Minister of Transport. Grimaces and laughs light the room all-round, a mixture of pride and slightly delirious frustration as nothings really changed since.

Umm Qasr workers have managed to change two general directors of the Iraqi Crude Oil Tanker Company. Saying of one, the Clerk begins "We talked to him politely, we said, 'sir, you are not serving our purposes directly', and he left, But Abdel Razzaq is STICKING to his position!! He has a special authorization from the ministry, a special budget to spread around his closest people, and he managed to assign the Badr troops (Armed militias of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution) as a result of this." The workers tell me that his nephew, who used to work as bodyguard for the head of the Basra Baath Party branch, is now his own personal bodyguard. Looks like he needs one, the rage against him runs deep. "He's a big liar, he promised a lot, special payments to help us but we got nothing." The clerk points to the barred window next to him with sunlight glaring through it, and then to a bag of material on the floor. "He's a millionaire and we bought the curtains for this office with our own money!!"

Two weeks ago six gate guards managed to shut down the Port of Umm Qasr for six hours. The lockout was over low wages and long hours. Turns out our friend was one of the organizers. We had worked constantly for eight months, with no holiday, 14-hour days, we need a break, we need a holiday. We locked out Abdel Razzaq, the British, everyone. The British were just standing there, watching. In the end the strike ended with a lie -- we were told we'd be paid more, something would definitely be worked out. But nothings changed."

The clerk quips up, exasperated, exhausted, "The police on the gate get 400,000, I have a certificate, I am educated, and I get 100,000 ID per month. And the British boss here never even comes to shake our hands. He comes here, driving through the gate, and he looks at me as if IM working for HIM, and in fact, I AM!!" Resentment against the Occupation profiteers for their very presence catches fire when those profiteers disrespect Iraqi workers. Under duress, cajoling, and repeated requests, one of the workers opens up about his experience with a Mr. Mike, a company rep from British security firm Olive, who allegedly got drunk and damaged an employee's car. "I was totally insulted by him. He told me 'fuck you', and he called me names. In Iraq the appropriate response for him is a punch in the face, but, because he is a foreigner, I couldn't do anything." He's not comfortable with the story, can't recount it with ease, it serves as yet another testament to the daily humiliation and cheapening of Iraqi life by the Occupation administration and its business allies, taking up the gauntlet from where the fascist Baath left off.

"So, you should really form a union", I say, trying to reintroduce the subject, they all look at a loss, some dismiss the idea flat, brush it aside with a wave of their hands. I run to the car and gather up the stacks of Arabic ILO conventions I'd been saving for them. The International Labour Organisation, set up in 1919 and incorporated into the UN, is responsible for the creation, facilitation and advocacy of the 'Geneva Conventions' of workers' rights -- the ILO Conventions). I lug up Convention 87 on Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise (Iraq is not a signatory to this), Right to Organise and Collective Bargaining Convention 98, Workers Representatives Convention 135, Dockworkers Convention 137, Occupational Safety and Health -- Dockworkers Convention 152, Workmen's Compensation (Occupational Diseases) Convention 42, plus a list of all 185 ILO conventions with those signed by neighbouring Arab states and of which 66 of which were ratified by Iraq. Also in the bundles is the chapter, detailing the boss and labour history of Stevedoring Services of America. in Arabic, from US Labour Against The War's 'The Corporate Invasion of Iraq'.

I give them out; they're met with a mixture of skepticism and curiosity and a ripple of 'What's this? What's this for?' The room falls quiet, people are reading, and then our clerk friend starts to well up with anger. "Why should we kid ourselves?" he says slapping convention 35 on the table, "What's the purpose of forming a union? How can it serve us?", 'It'll be just like the old one', joins another, 'And how can we organize when there is no 'labour'?, "Why? We lived in fear for 35 years, you think we can accept this? With all respect, this is useless, we can't do anything. We have tried, to start a union -- but, it, it can't happen." "Is it your management, will they sack you? Are you afraid? Are you afraid from violence from them", I ask tentatively, the responses are a "Yes", "Yes", "Yes", with a closed-eyed nod, for each. "We are afraid of the management, we are afraid of the response." "What do you mean kid ourselves?" challenges another, "If we want to strike and shut down this port tomorrow we could do it, we're ready, we can do it," Clerk volleys back - "No we can't! We can't even agree on one word; 25 of us met, tried to organize a strike and what happened? Yes or No -- we couldn't even agree on one word, to do it or not. What is that??", "The whole room is in uproar, a-blast with strained voices, embattled positions, declarations, refutations, argument, anger, flux and frustration. They start to read the conventions, Number 135 on the protection of worker representatives from harassment and intimidation is intriguing them. "Well, you work hard", says one, "And this is something that deserves to be read." A spontaneous negotiation ignites over whether they should go to the Federation or to form one themselves? Where would the office of their union be?

My friend tells us we better get going, if the management come and see all this the guys might get sacked. What we're doing is dangerous. Some of our new friends are reading, others considering the possibilities. I say, in leaving, that they should visit the Federation of Iraq Trade Unions in Basra, that they will help them form a union. We give them names and the address. I tell them that they have mass international support and solidarity, especially from the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), the workers from which have the same employer as y'all -- SSA. I tell them that ILWU workers refused to ship arms for the war last year, and that they shut down their docks for a day in solidarity with jailed Black Panther supporting radical journalist Mumia Abu Jamal. "They're a very strong union, very", "Abtaal!", (Heroes) , I say putting my hand into a big fist, "They are with you, they will support you." They look surprised and interested and "really??"

In truth is too short a meeting, the documents need more explanation, and back up, there should be Bremer's Orders number 30 on Employment Conditions of State Employees, Order 39 on Foreign Investment, the goal of the war and occupation in writing, transforming the whole of Iraq into one massive free trade zone, and the Public Notice on Organisation in the Workplace (being implemented like an order) which revives Baath dictatorship anti-worker law -- all in Arabic. But we can't stay, is getting too hot and management suspicion will be gathering. Our clerk friend asks us again where the Federation of Trade Unions is, he's going to go, they're going to go. I tell them they can succeed, they just have to get organized, that they have the power, they're survivors, people will help them, they're not alone, all I can to encourage them.

With the victory of Basra's Southern Oil Company workers winning higher wages from the Occupation Administration/CPA, this month, and the Electricity sector workers still in negotiations with the Ministry of Energy and the GC on raising theirs, bolstered and empowered, they say, by SOC's win, the road is open for workers struggling not just Occupied Basra but Iraq as a whole to reclaim their revolutionary history and finally fight the fight for justice they've been murdered into refusing,intimidated into denying and divided into desisting.

Ewa Jasiewicz is an independent human rights activist and has been working with Iraqi trade unionists and workers in Occupied Basra and active in Baghdad the past 7 months.