A Brief History of the ‘Yellow’ Unions in Saddam’s Iraq

GFTU: Instrument of Repression Against Iraqi Workers under Dictatorship.
Published by the Workers Democratic Trade Union
Movement (WDTUM) in Iraq – Nov. 2003.
When the Baath party seized power by a coup
d’etat in July 1968, it launched a systematic
campaign to break up the workers’ trade unions.
Only four days after the coup, the regime took
over the offices of the legitimate trade unions,
arrested the leadership and appointed their own
men in union positions.

During the following decades, until the collapse
of Saddam’s regime last April, there were no
genuine trade union elections. The first
elections to the official union, the General
Federation of Trade Unions (GFTU) that the
Baathist regime was forced to hold took place
without secret ballot and in an atmosphere of
intimidation and reprisal. The official unions
thus lost their representative nature and became
instruments for imposing Baath hegemony over
workers. A vicious purge was conducted to remove
all leaders and activists who refused to pledge
total allegiance to the ruling Baath party.
On many occasions, senior officials of the yellow
trade unions themselves were physically
liquidated. When Saddam Hussein became president
in July 1979, he ordered a series of purges
within the ruling party to obliterate all
potential rivals or critics. Among those executed
were the General Secretary of GFTU who was
himself a minister and a member of the
“Revolution Command Council” which ruled by
decree, the Chairman of GFTU and other officials,
all of whom were Baathist appointees. In January
1983, the Gen. Secretary of GFTU, Khalid Muhsin
Mahmoud, was officially announced dead in a
“tragic car accident”.. A new chairman, Ahmed
Muhsin Al-Dulaimy, was appointed by the “General
Workers’ Bureau” of the Baath party. He had never
held any trade union position before and was
known to have been a leading member of the
fascist “National Guards” (following the first
bloody coup of the Baath party in 1963) and also
the paramilitary “People’s Army” of Baghdad
region in the early 1980s.
Trade union activity under the Saddam’s
dictatorship was monopolised by the state, and
the official trade unions were turned into an
apparatus of repression against workers, i.e.
yellow unions, unrepresentative of workers’
interests and incapable of fighting for their
economic and political demands. To cover up its
isolation, the regime resorted to falsified
elections for the leadership of GFTU. But such
tactics failed to hide the fact that these yellow
unions were nothing but an instrument in the
hands of the ruling clique to crush legitimate
trade union rights and workers demands. Despite
sham elections, GFTU’s leadership was effectively
appointed by the regime and run by the “Workers’
Central Council” of the Baath party.
During the late 1970s, a systematically organised
campaign of repression and mass scale terror was
unleashed by the regime with the full
participation of instruments of repression:
Security, Baath party organisations, and the
yellow unions. GFTU carried out information
gathering and spying activities on workers. GFTU
offices became centres of interrogation, beating
up and on many occasions torture. As a result,
thousands of Iraqi trade unionists and workers
suffered harassment, victimisation, and expulsion
from work, detention and torture. Many workers
died under torture in the custody of the
notorious Security services.
As the death toll increased and international
solidarity mounted, the regime’s tactics were
changed. In some cases, detainees were given
delayed action Thallium poisoning and released to
die weeks after in their homes, seemingly from
natural causes. Assassinations at factory gates
were carried out as a means of mass terror. Many
workers “disappeared” and their fate remained
Since the collapse of Saddam’s regime in April
2003, documents of the Public Security Department
have revealed the horrors of physical
liquidation, mass and summary executions of
thousands of political prisoners and detainees,
with lists including the names of scores of
workers. Thousands of mass graves have so far
been unearthed all over Iraq.
Among “disappeared” workers:
Badran Risan (Tobacco workers)
Abdul Razzak Ahmed (mechanic)
Fa’iq Mustafa Abdul Karim (mechanic)
Abdul Khaliq Tahir (Dock workers union)
Radhi Atiyya (Printworker)
Natiq Al-Shakily (Electrician)
Nasr-allah Al-Nabawi (Post Office worker)
A prominent trade union leader, Hindal Jader
Al-Sawadi, from Basra “disappeared” in 1979, and
in 1983 a London-based human rights organisation
(CARDRI) reported that he been killed.
GFTU and Saddam’s Wars
The GFTU fully supported the regime’s internal
and external wars and criminal adventures. During
the Iraq-Iran war which lasted 8 years (1980-88),
it was instrumental in sending nearly 60% f the
workforce as cannon fodder to the war fronts.
Wages were reduced during that war, firstly by
25-30% in state enterprises, and then 20% was
deducted at source from wages towards the war
effort. Allowances were abolished and working
hours were increased to 12 hours.
Tens were thousands of workers were killed and
maimed during that futile war which resulted in
death and destruction on a horrific scale. In
Iraq alone, the number of those killed was
estimated at 200,000 people. GFTU was used to
quell the angered workers. It played the same
role during the Gulf War (1991) and the last war
(March – April 2003).
GFTU support for abolishing Labour Law!
The GFTU supported Saddam’s decree on 11 March
1987 that abolished the Labour Law No. 151 of
1970, which guaranteed such rights as the 8 hours
day, turning workers in the public sector into
government employees thereby denying them the
right to form or join unions. The pension funds
of these workers were handed to the treasury
without compensation.
The decree was announced by the dictator during a
televised meeting with the GFTU leadership and
members of the “Central Workers Office” of the
Baath party.
He said:
“From now on, the title ‘worker’ is abolished and
all workers shall become official
employees by the State .. As everybody is now a
government employee, there is no more
need for trade unions. Workers in the private
sector will have a special labour law
decreed for them”.
New “unions” were created for the private sector
only which, according to Law 52 of 1987, would
work with management to “increase efficiency and
work discipline”.
One of the GFTU leaders remarked to Saddam during the 11th March 1987 meeting:
“Sir ? your historic decision has rid us of the problem of the British TUC not
working with us. They always told us that we were working for the government”.
In the following days, the announcement was
trumpeted in the official press by GFTU “leaders”
as a “revolution” that was removing class
structures from Iraqi society. Writing in the
regime’s daily Al-Thawra on 13 March 1987, GFTU
“Chairman” Ahmad Al-Dulaimi proclaimed that they
were “celebrating this great historic
achievement”, and he thanked God and Saddam
Hussein for it.
Trade Union Solidarity in Britain
Under the conditions of fascist terror and war,
and the monopoly of trade union activity by the
state under Saddam’s rule, an underground trade
union organisation was formed in Iraq in 1980 –
the Workers’ Democratic Trade Union Movement
(WDTUM). The movement encompassed workers
regardless of their nationality, religion or
The WDTUM enjoyed worldwide support and
solidarity, including the firm and principled
support of British labour movement. This was
demonstrated by a TUC resolution as well as by
the visit to Britain in 1984 of a representative
of WDTUM. He held fruitful meetings and
discussions with many national and regional trade
union leaders, including TUC representatives.
Among the unions he met were NALGO, NUPE,
and support expressed by the British trade union
movement for the Iraqi people and workers was
Thanks to international workers solidarity, all
desperate attempts by the yellow unions, the
GFTU, to establish contacts with British tradeunions
miserably failed. Some were under the guise of
invitations to visit Iraq, to attend conferences
and meetings held in Baghdad and hold bilateral
discussions. But such attempts were exposed as
nothing but a ploy designed to help the yellow
unions break out of their tight international
isolation, to beautify their tarnished image
abroad and to serve as a public relations and
propaganda exercise for their masters.
posted by abdullah