Unions of Iraq: Burdens of the Past and Crises of the Present
The recent protests that broke out in Iraq in October 2019 saw a major participation from labor unions and syndicates manifested in the massive occupation of main squares in 11 Iraqi cities. Iraqis, particularly unionists, recognized the significance and impact of unionized movements in mobilizing street protests and affecting politics, perhaps for the first time in decades. Unions’ participation marked a crucial turning point not only in joining protests and demonstration en masse, but also through their display of solidarity across wider networks and on various events. For instance, the teachers union was the first to take part in the students strike which led to a nationwide disruption of education across schools and universities, in turn, facilitating a wider student participation in the demonstrations. As a result, the protesters and demonstrators would eagerly anticipate the sight of students as they flocked into the main sit-in sites in central and southern Iraq provinces, marching in spectacular unison and uniform white-shirt costumes while chanting against American and Iranian intervention.
Meanwhile, the Iraqi Bar Association played a crucial role in defending protesters particularly those who had been arrested and held in Iraqi prisons. Additionally, tents were set up in various protest sites in order to provide legal advice to demonstrators as well as organize seminars to discuss and convey the shortcomings of the Iraqi constitution and its operating laws and point out the laws and articles that they should push to modify. Iraq's doctors syndicate was also at the forefront of the mass protests, announcing general strike and having its members, medical doctors and healthcare teams both on the ground and in hospitals, provide treatment and support to thousands of wounded protesters, as well as circulating instructions on how to avoid tear gas attacks and how to overcome their effects. Such vital interventions have been instrumental in bolstering protesters’ determination to hold their grounds. In southern Iraq, the nation’s oil reservoir and gateway to the Gulf, unions were subject to extreme security measures that compromised their capacity to mobilize. However despite their inability to participate actively in the protesters’ attempts to disrupt oil production, union members succeeded in relaying information regarding strategic sites and routes which, if sabotaged, could weigh in significantly on the course of events and force the authorities to submit to the protesters’ demands.
In response, authorities threatened to layoff teachers who insisted on carrying on with the strike, while lawyers were faced with a series of assassinations in the central and southern provinces to dissuade them from supporting and defending the protesters, not to mention the violent crackdown on the protesters among whom tens of medical personnel were killed. By March 2020, the UN delegation to Iraq estimated 490 demonstrators killed, in addition to 7783 wounded and 98 abducted, including several union members, at the hands of the Iraqi Security Forces as well as various armed factions belonging to dominant political parties.
Nevertheless, the unions’ relentless participation in the protests eventually forced Barham Salih, President of Iraq, to meet with their leadership and to discuss their demands and visions for overcoming the current crisis. During those meetings, major unions pledged to maintain a unified position behind the protesters’ demands to combat corruption, overhaul the electoral laws, hold officials involved in corruption and brutality accountable, select new members to the Independent High Electoral Commission and oversee early parliamentary elections. Unions also demanded that they take part in leading the transitional period following the resignation of the short-lived government formed by Adil Abdul Mahdi less than year ago, under the rising pressure from popular protests.
However, despite unions gaining prominence through political action and alignment with popular demands, their role began to recede as teachers and doctors suspended strike. The Bar Association suddenly decided to hold silence over the escalation of violence and arbitrary arrests against protesters, although some lawyers continued to push for the release of detained protesters inside police stations. Soon, workers unions relapsed to their internal conflicts and divisions pulling at them in different directions: one union that is associated with the ruling political parties, another affiliated with the communist and labor parties, and a third one seeking to be independent from the existing crisis-ridden political parties. To be fair, this was not the first time unions played such a prominent role in political transformations in Iraq, albeit constantly failing in their struggles due to organizational failures, yet, more importantly because of the apprehension with which they have been regarded by authorities since the inception of the modern Iraqi state in 1921. The deeply seated fear of empowering unions and granting them their rights lead consecutive Iraqi governments to meddle and interfere in unions and to place legal obstacles in the way of self-organizing.
The Origins of Unions
Several historians have traced the origins of unions in Iraq back to the Abbasid era (892 AD– 1258 AD). While clearly distinct from the structures, goals and demands of contemporary unions, one could claim that certain professions saw pioneering movements towards self-organizing long before the establishment of the modern Iraqi state in 1921. The Lawyer’s Bar Association, for instance, was established in 1918, whereas the Medical Association of Iraq was established in 1921 in association with the inception of the first king of Iraq by the British authorities who had occupied Iraq in 1914. Together, the British-sponsored monarchy and the British authorities that controlled most of Iraq’s resources barred the establishment of new labor unions despite the promulgation of the Associations Law in 1922 on the one hand, and the rise of a new working class under the influence of modernization and the British colonial projects in Iraq, on the other hand. Thus, the Iraqi monarchic authorities refused to give license for establishing a club for the 8 thousand railway workers, and took disciplinary administrative measures against its advocates. That same year, the dock workers at the port of Basra, the southern-most city in Iraq, went on strike in protest of harsh and discriminatory labor conditions imposed by the British administration which refused to grant them contracts similar to foreign workers contracts. In 1927, railway workers also went on strike in demand of a labor law. None of these strikes were successful. Many of their organizers were subjected to severely disciplinary administrative measures that often amounted to layoffs. Yet, the relentless pressure by Iraqi workers led eventually to the establishment of the ‘Society of the Industries’ Owners in Iraq’, ‘Hairdressers Guild’ and ‘Union of Printing Workers” among others.
Among the pioneers of these movements, was Muhammad Salih Al-Qazzaz, who founded in 1929 the Artisans’ Association [Jam’iyyat Ashab al-Sina’i], a labor union that was mainly composed of craftsmen and petty traders. This led the workers’ strikes and demonstrations and encouraged workers to join the unions in order to defend their rights. But the government opposed the expansion of the unions movement, especially after the ‘Association’ incited for the General Strike of 1931 and participated in protest against mass workers layoffs due to the Great Depression, and against the Municipal Fees Law which imposed additional levies on workers. Following these events, the government decided to shut down the ‘Association’ and ban its activities. In 1932, the Workers’ Federation of Iraq was granted license, only to engage a year later in direct confrontation with the Baghdad Electric Light and Power Company, in protest of raised electricity prices. Al-Qazzaz incited a boycott of the company to which the government responded by persecuting the federation leaders and arresting Al-Qazzaz and later banishing him to the province of Sulaymaniyah. In effect, labor unions were banned, with persisting hostility towards workers unionization, the monarchy denied workers’ unions approval to re-establish themselves until 1944. In 1946, a total of 16 unions became registered. But this short-lived freedom ended only three years later when authorities launched a new crackdown campaign against unions in 1949 and went on to shut down several of their headquarters.
It was not until the 1958 revolution against the monarchy that labor unions could finally breathe. The following year saw the organization of the first conference for trade unions and the largest million workers march in Iraqi history celebrating the international workers day. However, the unions’ short-lived prosperity was interrupted by the nationalist generals coup d’etat against Abd Al-Karim Qassim and his socialist republican regime. The deterioration continued as the Ba’ath party rose to power in 1968 consolidating the single-party system ideology which was exacerbated under the autocratic rule of Saddam Hussein who seized power in 1979. The series of crucial transformations in Iraq during the 1950s and 1960s had a profound and lasting impact on unions. Decrees that undermined the labor unions were issued and selectively deployed against them by the government that was installed under the American occupation following the 2003 invasion.
Despite persecution, workers succeeded in organizing strikes and massive demonstrations. According to historians, more than 40 strikes had been organized between the 1920s and 1970s in Iraq. Surely, not all those strikes succeeded in achieving the workers’ demands, but a quite a few of them eventually forced authorities to recognize some of the basic labor regulations such as limiting working hours, alleviating unjust taxation and counting official holidays as paid work days.
The Unions’ Crisis
Following the American military invasion of Iraq in April 2003, the unions sought a new beginning. Union leaders hoped to restructure and boost their power in the newly established political system, but the chaos left by the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime and the occupation proved that the American troops and the local government were not ready nor willing to allow such a transformation. In the immediate aftermath of 2003, Paul Bremer, the civilian administrator of the Coalition Provisional Authority, signed off more than a hundred decrees whose majority aimed to establish a neoliberal economy in Iraq. Several of those decrees were particularly devised to hinder the establishment of new workers and trade unions. Meanwhile, the established unions saw deeper conflicts among its members and political parties that sought to gain control over them. In 2005, the government froze the assets of the General Federation of Iraq Trade Union, including financial and real estate assets that had been acquired with the workers’ membership fees in the 1950s and 1960s. A few years later in 2012, the leadership of the General Federation was handed over to people closely connected with the Sadrist Movement, led by the Shi’a cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr. Throughout this conflict, union leaders began to break away and establish one alternative union after the other, such that in Iraq today there are eight general federations that claim to represent all Iraqi workers.
However, in fact, the Iraqi authorities never recognized any workers representative bodies besides the General Federation of Iraq Trade Union, which conveniently supports and abides by the decree 150 issued in 1987 under Saddam Hussein, according to which public sector workers are banned from forming or joining unions. From the government’s viewpoint, the decree proved extremely successful in controlling the unions and diminishing their power and capacity to mobilize.
On the other hand, the Iraqi government maintained an arbitrary and interest-driven relationship with the other workers federations and unions. For instance, the government would only recognize these bodies whenever they expressed generic demands such as wage increase or permanent employment. Yet, once their demands took the form of protest against foreign corporate encroachment on national oil reserves or the privatization of particular sectors such as electricity and other industries, the government would respond with sanctions and incarceration threats based on the widely condemned Anti-Terrorism Law. According to this law, the government retains the right to administer extreme forms of punishment, including capital punishment, against whoever “brings about horror and fear among people and creates chaos to achieve terrorist goals.”
A State of Public Employment
Iraq is a rentier state whose economy largely depends on revenues accrued from its oil reserves. As a result, one in five Iraqi citizens are dependent in some way on state economy. Additionally, Iraq runs the largest bureaucratic network in the Middle East with a total of four million public sector employees, an equivalent of 10% of the Iraqi population of 40 million. Given the enormous public sector workforce, it seems evident that banning government employees from organizing and joining workers unions is a political measure meant to weaken the workers movement and to bring public service employees under the control of the Iraqi oligarchic system, shared by dominant political parties and directly associated class of merchants.
It is noteworthy that over the past decade, the Iraqi authorities have attempted to pass several union legislations and regulations that often undermined workers’ agency and restricted the unions’ capacity to play out their role. Some of those decrees were resisted by the unions themselves and by rights organizations since they appeared in spirit of Saddam Hussein’s decree which banned public service employees from unionizing and calling out for strikes. For all these reasons, no union laws have been passed in Iraq so far. Meanwhile, the government appeared to take advantage of this legislative void in order to fully dismantle the unions and thwart their efforts to reorganize. Additionally, authorities continued to coerce union members. Some of the people I interviewed described the profound impact of the state’s terrorizing tactics against unionists and refusal to pass legislation that guaranteed freedom of association, on the relationship among the workers and their representatives leading to major challenges in recruiting new members due to fears of consequences that often entailed losing their employment.
Moreover, the dominant political parties resorted to two different strategies to contain labor unions. On the one hand, they introduced a number of government and party members into the unions and boosted their popularity either by supporting their campaigns or by meddling with the elections to guarantee their winning. Thus, they paved the way to seizing power and steering unions towards endorsing state politics. For instance, the president of 13 years of the Iraqi Journalists Syndicate (IJS), has continuously rejected journalist applications for syndicate membership, while offering membership to people who had never practiced journalism and to compliant members or voters. Yet, the syndicate maintains its silent with regards to the continuous breach of journalists’ safety in a country that is notorious for its crackdown on them as well as the absence of any form of liability with regards to guarding their safety.
The other strategy deployed by the government to control unions is the establishment of substitute unions that circumvent the main one and weaken its influence. One may note, for instance, how the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq supported the creation of a substitute to the long-established Union for the Literaries and Writers in Iraq. A few years later, this attempt proved a failure since writers held on to their original union. Meanwhile, several other unionists point at similar strategies used to divide the labor unions, while others speak of unions that receive funds from some political parties.
That said, unions today face numerous crises arising from their troubled relationship with the government, especially since the latter often refuses to recognize those unions or to negotiate with them. In addition, some union leaders point to a serious challenge proceeding from the withdrawal of unionization culture following decades-long government measures intended to discourage and prohibit labor unions. Together, these factors cast unions into grave financial difficulties due to diminishing membership fee revenues which lead to an increased reliance on donation from their leaders and supporters. Therefore, in the absence of any legislative and regulatory frameworks addressing the unions’ scope of political action and their financial vulnerabilities, the workers struggle lead by the unions has been reduced to harmless protests and anti-government demonstrations.
Nevertheless, unions have equally suffered from several setbacks related to organization, mobilization on the ground, raising awareness and addressing the media. Some of the union leaders I interviewed refuse to believe in a shared cause between them and private sector employees, therefore insisting on exclusively mobilizing workers of the public sector. Such dispositions continue to obstruct the possibility of reaching out to all working sectors. The Iraqi transport sector is a case in point where this distinction is evident and crucial. Iraq’s public transport infrastructure is arguably the most deteriorated in the region. By contrast, there is a highly efficient and successful private-owned transportation network that includes mini-buses, vans and around 2 million taxis, although not organized properly despite being subjected to the same injustices as public workers, including municipal and traffic fines and intimidation by security forces, not to mention the government granting taxi operating licenses to foreign companies that compete with local drivers.
Finally, one must note that unions have not followed in efforts to enhance and modernize their approaches towards their public. Instead, they adhere to an anachronistic set of slogans appropriated from the struggles of the 1950s and 1960s in addressing the workers and documenting and managing their working conditions. As such, unions in Iraq find great difficulties in attracting and organizing the younger workers generation. Moreover, labor unions lack any database structure that indicates the true numbers of organized workers in any particular sector. So, while the government frequently exercises pressure to obstruct labor unions, the latter seem unwilling to develop new mechanisms that respond to contemporary injustices facing workers in Iraq today.
 Protests in several regions in Iraq have persisted throughout the period of writing this text, despite the utilization of excessive violence against demonstrators and the emergence of the Covid-19 pandemic.
"نقيبا المعلمين والمحامين في مواجهة عبدالمهدي: الاضراب حماية لـ المضربين الطوعيين" (Leaders of the Teachers Union and Bar Association Against Abdul Mahdi: Strike in Defense of Voluntary Strikers), https://nasnews.com/view.php?cat=20404, 28 October 2019.
"«فرق الموت» تغتال فناناً ومحامياً جنوب العراق" (Death Squads Assassinate an Artist and a Lawyer in Southern Iraq), Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper, 12 March 2020.
" جنود الخفاء في المظاهرات العراقية أطباء وطباخون وحلاقون", (Iraq Protests’ Unknown Soldiers: Doctors, Cooks and Barbers), Al-Arab newspaper, 12 October 2019. The report refers to abductions of several nurses and doctors in the middle of Baghdad’s Tahrir Square.
 “Demonstrations in Iraq: 3rd Update: Abductions, torture and enforced disappearances in the context of ongoing demonstrations in Iraq”, Report by the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI), Published 23 May, 2020
 "رؤساء النقابات والاتحادات العراقية يطالبون بإشراكهم في المساهمة بتشكيل الحكومة الانتقالية" (Presidents of Trade Unions and Federations in Iraq Demand to Be Involved in Forming the Transitional Government), Baghdad Today News , 9 March 2020
 Al-Tuhafi, Abd Al-Wahad Abd Al-Razzaq, "تطور التنظيمات النقابية في العراق")The development of Labor Organizations in Iraq(, Azzaman newpaper, 17 August 2014.
 Al-Egaily, Zainab Jabbar Rahima, "الموقف الرسمي والشعبي من الطبقة العاملة في العراق 1932 – 1939" (Official and Popular Positions on the Working Class in Iraq 1932 – 1939), Master thesis – University of Moustansiriya Baghdad, 2013.
 Farouk-Sulglett, M. and Sulglett, P. (1983) ‘Labor and National Liberation: The Trade Union Movement in Iraq’. Arab Studies Quarterly, 5(2):139-154.
 Interview with Hassan Juma, president of Iraqi Federation of Oil Unions.
 The unions and federations are: Federation of Oil Unions in Iraq, Federation of Workers Councils and Unions in Iraq (FWCUI), Federation of Trade Unions in Iraq , Independent Federation of Trade and Workers Unions in Iraq, General Federation of Trade Unions and Employees, General Federation of Iraq Workers (GFIW), General Federation of Iraq Trade Unions, Central National Federation of Iraqi Trade Unions.
 Interview with Hashimiya Al-Sa’di, head of the Iraqi Union for Electricity Workers, Hassan Juma, president of Iraqi Federation of Oil Unions; and Abd Al-Karim Sweilem Abu Watan, president of Federation of Trade Unions in Iraq.