Iraqi labor leaders in Vermont

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(HOST) Commentator Ellen David Friedman says that events this coming weekend will offer a rare look beyond the headlines at the challenges of rebuilding Iraq, from the Iraqi point of view.

(FRIEDMAN) The high human cost of the war in Iraq would be worth it, some argue, if it is the necessary price of democracy. But many of us remain doubtful: Is this a project about building democracy, or about U. S. domination?

This weekend, Vermonters will have an unprecedented opportunity to hear directly from two Iraqis who are on the front-line of the democracy struggle, and then decide for themselves. On June 18th and 19th, two Iraqi trade union leaders will visit Montpelier and Burlington in the first such tour of its kind in the U. S. – a tour organized nationally and locally by a coalition of American labor unions.

Why are trade unionists particularly important reporters on the question of democracy? Well, they are often like canaries in the mine when it comes to democratic rights. Any government’s commitment to freedom of speech, freedom of thought and freedom of association will be put to a very severe test by trade unionists, because the right to speak freely is always highly contested when it comes to economic questions.

Adnan Rashed and Abed Sekhi both suffered repression under the Hussein government when independent unions were outlawed in 1979. Adnan Rashed, a leader in the Union of Mechanics, Printing and Metals Workers, was forced into exile in Syria for many years, returning home immediately after Hussein was deposed. Abed Sekhi remained in Iraq, but was expelled from his leadership post in the General Federation of Trade Unions when that union was taken over and refashioned as an arm of the state. Both men now serve on the Executive Council of the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions, the newly organized labor federation which already repre- sents over 200,000 workers from all major economic sectors and all ethnic and religious backgrounds.

In Iraq, unions are organizing for the first time in 30 years, and this is an excellent sign. But it is not a walk in the park. Many dozens of labor leaders have been brutally tortured and assassinated, and their organizations disrupted. Meanwhile, half a million Iraqis have lost their jobs, and unemployment is at 70 percent.

The central struggle that the unions have undertaken is for Iraqi control of Iraqi resources. The oil workers union, founded just one year ago and now representing 23,000 members, is using its new power to oppose the privatization and foreign takeover of Iraqi oil fields. Privatization of other basic industries and services are also being pushed by the U. S., the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, and are being pushed back by the new Iraqi labor movement.

In a democratic society, these questions are answered by citi- zens, not foreign governments and not corporations. Vermonters will soon have a unique chance to hear from Iraqi citizens whether this is possible in their new world.

I’m Ellen David Friedman in East Montpelier.

Ellen David Friedman is vice chair of the Vermont Progressive Party and has been active in the labor movement for 25 years. She spoke from our studio in Montpelier.

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