2010 / 1 / 11
A 53-day strike by 1,500 leather workers in Iraq concluded successfully on 7 December 2009, after the state-run Enterprise of Leather Industries and Iraq’s Ministry of Industry acceded to demands of workers on safety benefits. The leather workers, part of the Federation of Workers’ Councils and Unions of Iraq (FWCUI), won added payments totaling 25-30% of salaries for working in hazardous conditions.
The workers’ committee, led by Sa’ad Issa and Munadhil Atiya, displayed persistence and resolve throughout long negotiations with the state, and even after reaching a deal with state administrators in the early days of December, the strike continued for three days until all workers were paid the safety stipend in cash.
The leather workers are employed in two factories in Baghdad and a third in Al Kûfah, some 160 kilometres south of the capital city. They produce shoes, bags, and clothing items such as leather coats. The strike began in mid-October and was brought on by workers having to deal with hazardous chemicals and operate dangerous equipment.
The leather workers’ strike served as an inspiration for 4,000 textile workers. Following the early December end of the leather strike, Baghdad-area textile workers embarked on an 18-day strike of their own and won partial safety stipends from a separate state-run enterprise inside the Ministry of Industry.
“The strike organizers showed an ability to lead and maintain a determination among the ranks that lasted for more than seven weeks,” said FWCUI President Falah Alwan. “We learned a valuable lesson in this strike. That lesson is not to respond to hollow promises intended to slow or extinguish the movement of workers.
“The victory of the workers in the leather industries is the beginning of a new drive for the workers’ movement in the public sector and in all sectors.”
The strike was marked by continual dialogue with state administrators, but talks that produced only false promises and nothing substantive. Anticipating this, strike leaders engaged fellow workers to conduct constant demonstrations, marches, and public gatherings demanding safer work conditions and safety benefits.
Leather workers also participated in a peaceful 6 October Baghdad manifestation, in which protestors were met by Iraqi armed troops firing rubber bullets. (See InBrief No. 143 here.) In that clash, FWCUI strike leader Munadhil Atiya was beaten and then arrested for his participation.
Nearly 90% of all industry in Iraq is incorporated in state hands and the country still abides by the Saddam-era Decree 150 of 1987 that prohibits independent trade unions in the public sector. Thus the need for persistent and ongoing direct action by workers is in order to gain labour rights from the al-Maliki government. The ICEM commends the leather and textile workers of the FWCUI for their heroic and historic actions in late 2009.