Iraqi oil workers are the backbone of the industry that produces most of their country’s wealth. And since the US invasion and fall of Saddam Hussein, they’ve also organized its strongest and most vocal union. They’ve shut their industry down in the past, successfully challenging Halliburton during the US occupation and forcing it to leave Iraq. To try to stop Iraq’s government from signing unfavorable contracts virtually handing over the oil to foreign transnational corporations, they shut off the oil spigots again after the US withdrew.
Now it looks as though another shutdown is looming. On December 10, more than 3,000 angry oil workers surrounded the headquarters of the Southern Oil Company (SOC) in Basra. The SOC is a huge, state-owned enterprise that acts as an intermediary between the Iraqi Oil Ministry and the foreign transnationals who operate the concessions to drill wells and pump the oil out into waiting ships. The SOC’s multistory building towers over Basra, an ancient city that lies at the heart of huge fields of Rumaila, Qurna and others.
Part of what brought these weathered veterans of the drilling rigs into downtown Basra is the continuing illegal status of their union. “The government wants to destroy our union,” Hassan Juma’a Awad, president of the Iraqi Federation of Oil Unions, told Truthout in a recent interview. “They will not allow us to work as a union. Law 150, passed under Saddam Hussein, is still being enforced, and the Iraqi government uses this law to prohibit the operation of Iraqi unions. Another law, special to our union, doesn’t allow the workers in the general labor department to join.”
Other demands dramatize the fact that although these workers produce Iraq’s wealth, they still live in squalid conditions, working for low salaries. “We have a set of demands that should be answered, but the most important of them are dues [wage bonuses] correlated to annual profit, and the provision of housing and worthy residential buildings for staff, risk and rotation allowances, in addition to incentive pay,” Mahdi al-Jabri, one of the organizers, told the Iraq Oil Report. “It would have better for the ministry to answer our demands instead of procrastination and the formation of committees, which basically did nothing and didn’t agree on anything.”
This time, instead of mounting a complete, open-ended strike, oil workers are using a strategy chosen by workers in many other countries. They are organizing limited protests of two hours a day, for two weeks, to dramatize their case and try to move the Oil Ministry. Because the workers actually work at the drilling sites operated by foreign companies, the protests will take place there, drawing the companies into the conflict. The union also has brought its case to provincial and local government bodies, as well as to members of the Oil Committee of the Iraqi Parliament.