With Support for Afghan War Falling, Obama Speaks at AFL-CIO Conference


-USLAW Delegation includes Iraqi Unionists in Attendance, Will Propose Tough Resolutions

-Administration May Face Hard Choices

By Beth I. Gandelman, Union Web Services (UWS) Correspondent

As representatives of American Labor convene this week at the annual AFL-CIO conference in Pittsburgh, PA, a ground-breaking US Labor delegation will offer resolutions in support of Iraqi unions and confront the Obama administration on its plans for Iraq and Afghanistan. The delegation will be accompanied by invited leaders of Iraq's oil sector unions. Obama spoke to the conference Tuesday, in a speech largely devoted to healthcare.

The Obama campaign leveraged wide-spread opposition to the Bush Administration's war in Iraq en route to the Presidency. However, the latest polls show the nation and Obama's own party especially defecting in heavy numbers from support for the Afghan war with an all-time high of 57% of Americans opposed. Voters in the President's own party are said to oppose the war by  75%. Opposition from Independent voters, who arguably pushed Obama to the presidency,  increased by  10% since the last numbers taken in April.

In this context, organized labor, which formed the political bedrock of Obama's support in critical, union-heavy contested states during the 2008 election, meets this week to “decide the union movement’s next steps and long-term strategies”

Opposition to the administration's plans in Iraq and Afghanistan is led amongst convention delegates by US Labor Against the War (USLAW), who, accompanied by a delegation of five Iraqi union leaders, with whom they met earlier this year in Iraq , will propose resolutions on the floor of the AFL-CIO.

The group's National Coordinator, Michael Eisenscher, recently drew historical comparisons to a previous Democratic President : “President Obama risks his entire domestic agenda, just as Johnson did in Vietnam, in pursuing this course of action in Afghanistan,

Such outspoken opposition to the administration's plans may mark a turning point in Obama's relationship with some of the constituencies that guaranteed his election.

USLAW Meeting with Iraqi Unionists Led to AFL-CIO Invite :

Eisenscher, and USLAW, helped organize and attended an international labor conference in Erbil, Iraq in March 2009 that laid the groundwork for the resolutions that will be brought to the floor of the AFL-CIO convention this week.

The Iraqis attending the AFL-CIO conference this week belong to a new Iraqi labor confederation, formed at the Erbil meeting. The confederation includes the Federation of Oil Unions (www.basraoilunion.org), the nationwide Electricity Association and the General Federation of Workers Councils and Unions. ). Altogether, the confederation represents 15-18 public and private sector Iraqi unions in all.

U.S. Labor Against the War (USLAW), is a network of 186 local, regional, state and national labor organizations that together represent more than five million union members.

In a recent interview with UWS, Eisenscher explained the roots of the organization and its contact with Iraqi unions: “in 2003, there was a huge demonstration against the war around the U.S. of union people that tied us together. We organized delegates from the AFL-CIO unions to establish an emergency response to the threat of war.

“In October of 2003 we sent two delegates, David Bacon, a national labor attorney and editor of the Labor Journal and Clarence Thomas, former Secretary-Treasurer of ILWU Local 10 in San Francisco, to establish a connection with labor leaders in Iraq. They reported back at a conference that communication was beginning with the Iraqi unions.  

“In 2005, an affiliate of USLAW established resolutions for the AFL-CIO and the break-away labor coalition, “Change to Win” to fight for resolutions in Iraq.”

Eisenscher recognizes that  USLAW's stance on the Iraqi war and occupation, and potentially Afghanistan, constitutes a key shift for labor. “This is the first time in 50-year history of the AFL-CIO that we have broken support with a White House administration,” he said.

The break in organized labor's support that occurred under the widely unpopular Bush Administration now threatens to extend itself to the Obama Administration. As the AFL-CIO meets, USLAW is “moving more into full opposition to the continuing occupation” of Afghanistan, according to Eisenscher.

In Iraq, in March, Eisenscher and the USLAW delegation discovered that the issues most important to  the Iraqi labor representatives attending this weeks AFL-CIO convention deal with collective bargaining aspects familiar to working Americans, with some unique twists.

Unions In Iraq : Forbidden to Organize in the Revenue-Producing Oil Sector

Although Saddam Hussein is no longer in power, the Iraqi parliament continues to outlaw oil industry unions. Addtionally, the oil workers often wait up to three months for their paychecks.

While it remains illegal for the Iraqi public sector workers to strike or have any right to collective bargaining, workers continue to organize, often at their own peril, according to Eisenscher. “They are often harassed by the government, detained, and in some cases, endure beatings or even assassination.”

Jim Norris, President of United Steel Workers Local 675, representing oil industry workers in Southern California, who attended the March conference in Iraq, said that the lack of recognition afforded Iraqi oil workers leads to “primitive ways of dealing with things – at one point they threatened to blow up the oil fields when dealing with management. Their arbitration procedures are like [the US labor unions] in the early 1900’s, before unions were in existence.”

The Iraqi oil workers union representatives claim that throughout the US invasion they kept the oil industry running, even as it became more difficult to get parts and improved technology. Because of this and for other reasons, they believe their bargaining rights should  be legally recognized.

Connecticut Central Labor Council Leader Bill Shortell also went to Iraq with the USLAW delegation is expected to attend the Pittsburgh convention. Shortell told UWS that “the [Iraqi] unions’ assets have been frozen, and the Iraqi workers doubt they will ever have access to those funds.”

In addition, resolutions on the floor of the AFL-CIO may also take on the proposed “Hydrocarbons Law” pushed by both the  Bush and Obama Administrations. The law is viewed by the Iraqi unionists as  putting control of Iraq’s oil reserves under U.S. and British control. Several US and multinational oil companies hold significant, multibillion dollar, stakes in seeing the law passed.

While certain commentators, such as Christoper Hitchens, have pointed to the Hydrocarbons law as evidence of “demonstrating the possibility of a cooperative future,” Iraqi oil workers  directly impacted by the law have a different view.

“We met with oil workers and learned the purpose of the Hydrocarbons Act by U.S. oil companies (under the Bush administration) has been long-term contracts, giving only 12% back to Iraq. We are hoping this will end with the Obama administration,” Shortell said.

Eisenscher ties USLAW's opposition to the US Occupation in part to documents that show that plans to seize control of Iraq's vast oil reserves were in place prior to the US Invasion. “A year before the invasion, Vice President Cheney gathered oil executives and put together a wish list, hiring Bearing Point, a top-notch consulting group, to draft the oil law and deliver it to the Iraqi government. The draft was leaked and it contained a proposal for the privatization of Iraqi oil by multi-national companies to gain control. There was a revolt – opposition because the workers and people of Iraq don’t want control of their nation’s wealth and the fate of their nation determined by other countries or the oil industry.”

Details of Cheney’s dealings with Bearing Point are listed here.

Faleh Abood Umara, the general secretary of the Federation of Oil Unions and a founding member of the oil workers union in Iraq, has consistently called on Iraqi lawmakers to reject the Hydrocarbons legislation.

Umara is in the US in September and is expected to attend the AFL-CIO conference as well as address labor groups in the Northeast over the next couple of weeks

In the Iraqis' view,  the oil companies as well as the Iraqi parliament have an additional reason to prevent the workers from organizing : they bring in cheaper labor from outside Iraq, even though personnel costs are miniscule to the oil companies' massive profit margins, according to Norris.

“Exxon Mobil, Shell, British Petroleum, ConocoPhillips and others have high hopes that the oil fields will be theirs. They bring over immigrant labor to do construction in the oil fields in Iraq and in other places. The workers come from African nations, Southeast Asia and other poor nations. They’re cutting out the Iraqis.” Norris cited this as one more reason for the oil workers to unionize.

Shortell is even more explicit: “The Iraqi and U.S. governments are the allies of the private oil industry. They want to offer western oil companies a union-free industry.”

Hassan Juma’a Awad, President of the Iraqi Federation of Oil Unions and attending todays AFL-CIO meeting also criticizes so-called “production-sharing agreements” that could cede control of Iraq’s oil to foreign corporations. Speaking for his 25,000 members, he recently called for the oil industry to remain under the control of the Iraqi government to benefit the people of Iraq.

USLAW and Iraqi Unionists Earn Support :

Along the way to Pittsburgh, the Iraqi labor leaders have earned the support of  Nobel Peace Prize Laureates  Betty Williams, Mairead Corrigan Maguire, Rigoberta Menchu, Jody Williams, Shirin Ebadi and Wangari Maathai who in 2007 released a statement in opposition to the proposed hydrocarbons legislation. . The statement read, in part, “The Iraq Oil Law could benefit foreign oil companies at the expense of the Iraqi people, deny the Iraqi people economic security, create greater instability, and move the country further away from peace.”

According to Eisenscher, the Iraqi unionists also have received political support from multiple members of the US Congress including the Congressional Black Caucus and US Congressman Dennis Kucinich (D-OH), who has previously expressed support for the Iraqi labor movement. In a videotape played at the Erbil conference in March, Kucinich reiterated his long-held belief that the invasion and occupation of Iraq constitute “a gross violation of international law and that all the U.S. troops should be promptly withdrawn.”

The Iraqis and their USLAW sponsors have also become allied with certain US veterans of Iraq. Former US soldier Aaron Hughes will join USLAW and the Iraqi delegates at the AFL-CIO conference in Pittsburgh, according to Eisenscher. The Iraqis and US veteran first encountered each other at the March labor conference, in an emotionally-charged meeting that led to a public acknowledgement by  Hughes and fellow veteran T. J. Buonomo of “crimes committed against the Iraqi people” and an  “apology for their role in the economic and military occupation.”

On stage in Erbil, in front of the Iraqis they had went to war against, Hughes and Buonomo denounced “the manipulation of intelligence, the bribing of Iraqi journalists, the torture of Iraqi prisoners, the suppression of workers’ rights and attempts by the U.S. government and multinational corporations to control their oil industry.” According to USLAW, the response was “immediate and powerful” as an Iraqi union leader rushed to the stage to embrace the veterans. Buonomo and Hughes then received a standing ovation from  all the Iraqis present. Both men are principal organizers of the group Iraqi Veterans Against the War.

After leaving the convention, Hughes, Awad and the Iraqi delegation continue with a scheduled speaking tour to unions throughout the Northeast.

Oil Industry Exposed by ABC’s 20/20 :

An ABC 20/20 TV special, entitled “Over A Barrel: The Truth About Oil” (aired on July 24, 2009), appeared to back up Eisenscher's and USLAWS' allegations about the motivation for the US invasion of Iraq. 
During the program, General Wesley Clark, the former Supreme Allied Commander of NATO, termed “oil resource protection” as one of the key factors driving U.S. foreign policy.  “There is no one who would have any doubt about whether protecting energy sources and access to those sources is one of America's vital interests,” Clark said.“Indirectly, oil was at the foundation of a lot of this, not just in 2003 but in 1990, '91... It's been the thrust of U.S. policy, and before that, it was the thrust of British policy to safeguard access to that region.”

According to the 20/20 program, the oil industry earned $180 billion in profits in 2008. Since there are only 149 oil refineries in the U.S., imported oil accounts for 70 percent of the U.S. supply. Iraq is one of the countries with the most plentiful untapped resources and the easiest to acquire.

This is something Eisenscher, a labor instructor at Laney College in Oakland, CA, and others in US LAW have known since the inception of their organization. “We’re at a peak oil point in the U.S., consuming more than we’re drilling. This makes every barrel that much more valuable. The oil companies’ values are determined by the amount of undrilled oil on their books,” Eisenscher said. “Iraqi oil is among the cheapest to pull out for $2 per barrel, therefore with a high potential for profit. Iraq is second or third as the world’s largest producer of undrilled oil, next to Saudi Arabia and possibly Iran.”

“When the U.S. invaded Iraq, where did the troops go? They were sent to guard the oil fields and wells. They looted stores and museums. To the Iraqi people the message was clear, that the U.S. was there for the oil,” Eisenscher contends.

The focus on oil companies perceived gains for the Iraq War coincide with an ever-increasing list of dead and wounded on both sides of the conflict.
The death toll of U.S. soldiers in America's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan stood at 5,157 in the second week of September. Add at least 1,360 private contractors working for the U.S. and the number tops 6,500, according to a recent Reuters article.

On the Iraqi side, USLAW cites statistics as high as 1.3 million Iraqi lives lost on their website, pointing to research done by the British corporate research firm Opinion Research Business.

The USLAW site contains a list of various statistic and resources on the topic.

USLAW Urges President Obama : Unions Offer Best Hope for Iraqis

In Iraq, Eisenscher was impressed by the fact that unions remain one of the few sectors of Iraqi society that is non-sectarian and participatory. This has often placed them under attack from those attempting to establish a purely theocratic society in Iraq.

Specifically, Iraqi trade unionists have endured multiple forms of harassment, throughout the occupation, both from various militia factions and sectarian death squads, as well as occupation forces, who have, according to Eisenscher, conducted joint U.S.-Iraqi raids on union offices.

In response, Eisenscher points to a 1998 international treaty that adopted resolutions calling for the protection of workers’ rights in Iraq and to comply with International Labor Organization standards. Eisenscher says that he believes the U.S.-backed Iraqi government is in violation of that agreement. “The [Iraqi] parliament has a constitutional obligation to give workers’ their rights and they have not acted on it, partly because the U.S. is not interested in doing so. We hope to force the U.S. and Iraq governments to enact labor laws before we pull out our troops. ”

Regarding the current administration, USLAW leaders believe Obama has a window of opportunity in Iraq, hoping he will leverage the good will and sense of anticipation felt toward his election. While it is unlikely the President was aware that Iraqi labor leaders are in attendance Tuesday to hear his speech, USLAW sees their role and participation as critical to the development of a democratic society in Iraq.

In addition to  this week's resolutions at the AFL-CIO convention, USLAW plans to present a petition to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton calling for the rights of Iraqi labor unions to exist and provide protection to their workers.

“Under the U.S. occupation, the Iraqis are not free to make their own decision as to whether or not the oil industry should be privatized,” said Eisenscher. “We believe in the right of self-expression and self-determination. I have confidence in the Iraqis to do their part and take responsibility for their own workers.”

Other conference attendees have been equally affected by their experience meeting their Iraqi counterparts.

“I wanted a chance to meet Iraqi trade unionists opposed to the war and learn first-hand about the struggles the workers endure,” said Bill Shortell.  “This war has resulted in hundreds of thousands killed, millions injured, the economy destroyed – this is no way to effect political change. Whatever changes have occurred (since the fall of Saddam Hussein) are not worth it. This is no way for the U.S. to make friends in Iraq and control the oil industry by privatizing it.”

Shortell continued: “The most important thing is for us to lobby against privatizing the [Iraq] oil industry, in favor of legalizing all trade unions, and increasing solidarity with unions internationally, including those in Iraq. “

Eisenscher concluded: “We shouldn’t be telling people how to run their government. But up until now, the only thing the U.S. government has been silent on in Iraq is workers’ rights. We want President Obama, Hillary Clinton and Congress to do the right thing. They have an obligation to look at the bigger picture. We will deliver our petition to them in October.” (Readers may view the petition here.)

It is that message Eisenscher and his Iraqi union counterparts plan to bring to the AFL-CIO in Pittsburgh this week and union halls throughout the Northeast United States. They are hoping the message will be heard by Obama, even as the President speaks on healthcare. Should USLAW and its supporters extend their international cause to Afghanistan, the Obama administration may find itself having to choose between its domestic ambitions and the cost of its foreign wars.