Hassan Jumaa Awad: Working class hero facing jail for oil union organizing

6 Apr 2013 admin
Hassan Jumaa speaking into the megaphone

Hassan Jumaa, leader of the Iraqi Federation of Oil Unions is facing a potential jail sentence when he faces a Basra court on Sunday 14th of April for ‘Overstepping the Duties of a Public Official’. His ‘crime’ is organising protests and building union strength in opposition to oil privatisation and also for standing up to anti-union Baath regime legislation which the Occupation and successive Iraqi governments have upheld since 2003. Ewa Jasiewicz, who worked with Platform on the Hands Off Iraqi Oil campaign has written a guest blog on her friendship with Hassan, and what people can do to support him and the struggle of other Iraqi union workers facing repression. Please get your union or organisation to support him and the Iraqi Federation of Oil Unions’s struggle for Iraqi self-determination

I first met Hassan 10 years ago in Basra. It was six months since the invasion and the fall of some echelons of the regime – others were being recycled into the service of the Occupation. Id heard about strikes in the Oil Sector and travelled down to Basra to check out was happening. I was excited that class struggle was challenging imperialism in such a direct and collective and open way, after so many decades of repressive dictatorship.

But I was wary. Who was behind these unions? Were there Baathists at the helm? What were their politics? Baathist yellow unions were still around and I had no intention of supporting them. Meeting Hassan and the other men and women fronting up the Southern Oil Company Union I was struck by the diversity of the steering committee. Communists, Islamists, younger and older activists. All were anti-regime – Hassan himself had been jailed three times under Saddam – and all were anti-occupation. They knew exactly what the invasion had been focused on – oil, support for Israel, widening western influence in the region, weakening Iran, imposing corporate rule and fomenting sectarianism to achieve this.

Hassan’s wife was Sunni, he was Shia. This had never come up in all the months I spent with his family – six children, 3 boys and 3 girls – during the many evenings in his humble, deteriorating stone house in Jhoumouria, a working class district in Northern Basra. We drank sweet thick tea, boiled on the stove all day, and ate fresh naan-like bread with fried-to-a-pulp tomatoes. We talked about the new Bremer Orders, anti-union managers, how to garner international support, how to organise, what was Privatisation going to mean? And about the Baathist security apparatus employees that were now working as security guards for the new mercenary companies crawling all over Iraq.

I found out about the ‘difference’ between Abu and Om Ali when were on a trip to Scotland to meet Fire Brigades Union leaders. Hassan joked that under the occupation administration’s agenda, he should kill his wife ! Such was the level of sectarian rhetoric and policy being pushed in the country. For Hassan and the SOC Union, unity at work and unity nationwide were key priorities. It was common to hear ‘We do not recognise these categories, Sunna and Shia, the Occupation brought them – we are Iraqis’.

Hassan enjoyed his visits to the UK. He stayed in my home when I lived in Manchester and we visited Manchester United’s Old Trafford stadium where his message of support in Arabic can still be found in the visitor’s book. Comrades from the then Transport and General Workers Union in Salford were fascinated by him. ‘Whass his name again? Nessun Dorma?’ The nickname stuck.

From an original founding membership of about a hundred, the Union grew to a federation of over 23,000 workers. Links were made with unions in the Kurdish north. Joint co-ordinating meetings became common-place. Anti-privatisation conferences where papers examining the agendas of the likes of Shell and BP were presented and links with international trade unions and NGOs were developed.

The SOC Union grew to become the General Union of Oil Employees and later the Iraqi Federation of Oil Unions and a front of working class resistance to the western aims of privatising and controlling Iraq’s oil. An Oil Law, part drafted by and hard-lobbied for by the biggest oil companies in the world, has still not been passed, due to popular resistance. Oil experts, some political parties and Islamic scholars had their role in making sure it would not pass but it was also the visible, loud and determined street and workplace protests of the oil and other trade unions that established a public, common interest in keeping Iraq’s oil in the hands of the Iraqi people.

The Production Sharing Agreement – the PSA – is an unknown entity in the UK and arguably all over the world, but a household terms and a red hot potato in Iraq. The neutral and fluffy sounding contract that private oil companies crave to secure decades of control over public resources became emblazoned across banners and placards all over the country, in large part due to awareness raising by the IFOU, with the help of social justice and environmental campaigners from the global North, like Platform in London. Who would have thought that this secretive, codified, technocratic ‘thing’ that is the PSA was become a shouted-out, negated, we-know-your-game public enemy?

Abu Ali, or Hassan Jumaa, was a well respected figure in the community, as someone who had supported the families and widows of those killed under the Baath regime and in the wars with Iran and the West. He was often inscrutable. Never a word wasted. Every word counted under the regime because the wrong one could be your last one. He played his cards close to his chest. But he also had a killer sense of humour and was often hilarious and irreverent. For some in Basra he was an ardent communist, for others, an Islamist. Rumours flew. But to me, and so many others, he was and is, a working class hero, a community, workplace and country-wide activist for social and economic justice and liberation.

Real liberation, human, class-struggle liberation that sees all resources and the environment as a commons to be respected. These were and are the politics of the IFOU – developed through an understanding of Iraq’s anti-colonial history, Islamic economics and Islamic social principles, communism and on-the-ground organising in the face of dictatorship, war and occupation. These are the politics – the politics of a commons – that are so dangerous to Power which seeks to dominate, divide and denigrate people who get ‘in the way’ of capital. It’s no wonder that the Iraqi government, the subcontractor of Western imperialism, is cracking down on mass, participatory movements – like the trade union movement – that challenges its’ anti-social agenda.
Last week, I met an Iraqi shop-owner in Warsaw, we had a chat over the cumin and dates. We talked about his family in Baghdad, and how bad the situation was. I told him about the Union and Hassan and how he might end up in Jail. Saeed, the shop owner, was not shocked. ‘For challenging the oil companies? Of course he is going to Jail, aaadi, normal’. I looked back at him glumly. He continued, matter-of-fact but up-beat. ‘No really, it’s normal, he will go, directly, ah, but its ok’.

The ‘ok’ being the so common ‘T’awodna’ – ‘we got used to it’ ethos – that you hear all over the Arab world in response to bloody and harrowing struggles that never end, and which steadfastness holds out over. But it isnt ok. And there’s a real risk it will happen.

Dozens of unions worldwide have endorsed the solidarity pledge for Hassan, thousands have signed a petition and there was a snowy protest at the Iraqi embassy in Warsaw (a one-woman protest if I’m honest. My Polish friends joked this a ‘medium sized protest for Poland. A small one is just over facebook and the web. Nah you did well’ they said). There will be solidarity observers at Hassan’s trial and his comrades in all Union in Iraq will be watching too. The story should be news but the ‘what bleeds leads’ agenda still rules when it comes to the Mainstream Media.

We need to be prepared for more punitive and repressive actions against trade unionists in Iraq and to respond to them with solidarity and support. The game of divide and rule is still being violently played out on the bodies and in the communities of ordinary people all over the country. Death and imprisonment are still key tools of censorship in the hands of Iraq’s and all governments. The battle for justice and liberation is far from over and we can’t forget the working class heroes in Iraq still fighting the occupation of capital and designs of imperial powers.

SHOW YOUR SUPPORT: Get your organisation or union to sign on to US Labor Against War’s letter to the Iraqi Prime Minister

Protest at your local Iraqi Embassy, and let us know about it!
Ewa writes:  I spent 9 months living in Occupied Iraq from June 2003-February 2004 organising against occupation and supporting emergent grassroots civil society groups, including unions. I worked with Voices in the Wilderness and Occupation Watch. After my time in Basra with the SOC Union, the Union made me their International Representative (!) and my role was to develop international support and links for the Union. In the UK I was part of the Naftana (Our Oil) support committee for the Union and also worked on the Hands Off Iraqi Oil campaign which was a coalition of five different organisations in the UK.
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