Between trying to find a job in "free Iraq" and the daily dose of bullet-dodging, you'd think the minds of most Iraqis would be too preoccupied to think of unions. But with a national unemployment rate of 50 percent and rates topping out at a staggering 70 percent in some regions (according to U.S. Labor Against the War), unionizing workers is becoming a priority for both Iraqis and American unions.
A June 21 luncheon and public forum in Oakland, "The U.S. and Iraq: Jobs or Occupations?" will feature two Iraqi unionists: Falah Awan, president of the Federation of Workers Councils and Unions of Iraq, and Amjad Ali Aljawhry, representative of both the Federation and the Union of the Unemployed in Iraq for North America. They will speak about unionizing Iraqi workers and as well as about the U.S. occupation of Iraq, according to Dan Kovalik, assistant general counsel for the United Steel Workers.
"While the union as a whole hasn't taken a position on the war, the union sees this as a solidarity issue," says Kovalik. "But whether it's here or in Iraq, trade unionists are trade unionists and we want to give them a forum to discuss their issues."
And their issues are many. The unions, quashed by Saddam Hussein in the late 1970s, haven't fared as well as they would have hoped under U.S. occupation, says U.S. Labor Against the War. Wages for Iraqi workers have been lowered from $60 a month to $40. At least two Iraqi labor leaders have been killed.
"Unemployment over there is massive," Kovalik says. "There can be a tendency, especially in war situations, to take advantage of workers. In these times, unions are even more important."
Labor luncheon: noon, Tue., June 21, USW Headquarters, Stanwix Street at Boulevard of the Allies, Downtown; public forum, 7 p.m., Friends Meeting House, 4863 Ellsworth Ave., Oakland. Free (donations benefit Iraqi workers). See www.uslaboragainstthewar.org.