Iraqi Labor Tour DC Report
By Denice Lombard
Why do we do solidarity work? Because it affirms our fellowship and links us as people. Because it reaches our hearts, not just our heads. Because it heals divisions and wounds, both inflicted and internalized. Because it inspires us to carry on the fight.
Geoff Millard, interim chair of the IVAW board,
speaking with union leaders at the first forum of the
Iraq Labor Tour in Washington DC
Solidarity work is another way to fight for peace. It reaches people in a different way. When we connect with Iraqi individuals who live under US occupation and war and find common ground, our fight takes on a far more personal dimension.
Such was the case when USLAW and IVAW teamed up in September to host five Iraqi labor leaders on a speaking tour in conjunction with participation in the AFL-CIO convention in Pittsburgh. The Solidarity Center (a non-profit organization established by the AFL-CIO to help build a global labor movement by strengthening the economic and political power of workers around the world through effective, independent and democratic unions) brought the Iraqis to the convention. We wanted to bring them to the public.
About 60 people gathered at Westminster Presbyterian Church to welcome the Iraqis and hear them talk about their lives. Then we switched seats. The Iraqis heard about organizing that activists in Washington, DC were doing. Panel member Geoff Millard described IVAW's work. Community members working for housing and voting rights spoke about their work. Ben Butler from American Federation of Government Employees talked about their fight against DC Mayor Fenty's attacks on city services and workers, after-school childcare programs and teachers.
Steve Yoczik and Aaron Hughes went to the Hill to lobby for Iraqi labor rights, determined to find a representative to sponsor a briefing. They accomplished their goal in Jan Schakowsky's office. Lynn Woolsey and Raul Grijalva, co-chairs of the Progressive Caucus, added their names to the invitation.
Two nights later we gathered at IVAW's house in DC and barbecued a feast. Though communication was challenging with only a few bilingual English-Arabic speakers in the room, Iraqi labor leaders and Iraq war veterans met on common ground, breaking bread and drinking beer together as friends. Executive Director Jose Vasquez came down on the train from NYC to meet our Iraqi brothers.
After Pittsburgh, New York City and Philadelphia, the Iraqi men returned to DC the day before their departure back to Iraq. Arriving unshowered, unshaven and exhausted and unable to get early check-in at the hotel, they pleaded to push back the Congressional Briefing so they could spiff up. Sorry guys, no can do!! We've got a busy afternoon planned for you! So they sucked it up with great attitudes.
Before heading to the Hill, they met with the national steering committee of the Communication Workers of America, the first international union in the AFL-CIO to affiliate with USLAW.
The briefing on Capitol Hill was a success. Though no representatives attended (which is common) four legislative assistants and a number of congressional interns had very good questions for the Iraqis. We will be following up with each of them. Aaron asked each congressional staff person to encourage their representatives to talk to union and working people, not just officials if they go to Iraq. He asked them to bring the issue of Iraqi labor rights back to their congressperson and consider leading on a sign-on letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Meeting at the end of the day at a Lebanese restaurant, Mama Ayesha's, to debrief and say farewell, the Iraqis shared how important it is to them to have our organizations' support. Then Hassan Juma'a, head of the Iraqi Federation of Oil Unions, said he wanted to make a comment about Aaron.(Aaron had escorted these gentlemen from one end of the tour to the other in his van and put everything he had into this tour.) Hassan said that he sensed that Aaron carried around a lot of guilt and that he needn't feel guilty as his military service in Iraq is what transformed him into the activist and organizer he is today working on their behalf.
I was honored to be able to help the Iraqis get their voices heard in the US. I was equally honored to work with a great bunch of veterans with big hearts, great integrity and political savvy. I look forward to our next project together!
Denice Lombard is the Chair of the International Solidarity Committee of US Labor Against the War.
This was the third tour of Iraqi labor leaders Denice has been a part of.