Labor, Race

Matthew Harwood has an important article in the Washington Monthly about how failure to embrace Iraqi unions undermined post-invasion reconstruction efforts in Iraq.

What’s especially maddening about the U.S. government’s attitude towards the IFTU [Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions] is that organized labor has repeatedly played a vital stabilizing and democratizing role in situations that, in some cases, come close to that which Iraq finds itself in today. In Poland, Solidarity quickly evolved from a labor crusade into a social movement that peacefully brought down the communist regime and, once in power, established a system of regular, free elections. The trade-union movement in Brazil had a similar effect, helping to end 21 years of oppressive military rule and usher in 15 years of representative government. But perhaps the most significant precursor comes from South Africa. There, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) not only agitated for the release of Nelson Mandela from prison, but, as the apartheid government was losing power, helped keep the country from splintering along racial and tribal lines. Labor organizations are based on social class identity and as a result cut across divisions of tribe and culture so that you’ll find Zulu and Xhosa workers of COSATU,” said Professor Mike Bratton of Michigan State University. In that sense, COSATU is one of the major organizations that helps build a sense of national, non-tribal identity.” Instructively, all of these countries have remained democracies: According to Freedom House’s annual survey, each country is ranked free” in its commitment to both political rights and civil liberties.

I have one small quibble with the article, however, and that pertains to Harwood’s account of post-war Japan:

America’s own history of successful occupation teaches the same lesson. After the Japanese surrender in World War II, the country’s newly-appointed premier knocked on the door of Gen. Douglas MacArthur and was greeted with a memorandum outlining the framework for Japan’s democratization. First on the list was the emancipation of the women of Japan through their enfranchisement.” Second was the encouragement of the unionization of Labor.” Had the American administrators in Iraq followed MacArthur’s model and placed a similar emphasis on nurturing labor, that move alone would not have turned Iraq into a stable, civil society.

While it is true that MacArthur initially supported Japanese unions, he then turned around and not only blocked a nation-wide strike, but also oversaw a purge of 11,000 union activists including the entire national leadership of the Communist Party (JCP).” That unions are useful allies in suppressing labor radicalism is the other side of the story Harwood tells, but even such conservative uses for unions are anathema to the Bush folks and their program of privatizing Iraq.

ELSEWHERE: I also wanted to alert readers to a new site, now being run by Rahul Mahajan of Empire Notes, called Occupation Watch.

Every day, we’ll be picking 10 or 12 of the most useful mainstream news articles, alternative news articles, blog posts, and more, plus several of the best analysis pieces on Iraq and posting them, along with a News Watch much in the style of Cursor.

UPDATE: More anti-labor union initiatives from the Bush administration. This time at home. (See also.)

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