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Iraqi Teachers' Union (two articles)

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Iraqi trade unionist MAHDY ALI LAFTA talks about the huge challenge of renewing education in his country. Teachers and lecturers have been frequent targets for attacks by Iraq's insurgency.

From the website of the  Iraqi Federation of Workers' Trade Unions   (IFTU)

April 24, 2005


 Any  teachers who read this and want to discuss solidarity and direct links with Iraq teaching unions should contact Abdullah Muhsin. Click here to email Abdullah Muhsin


"We are the resistance"


Morning Star, Tuesday April 19

Interview by Richard Bagley


WHEN Mahdy Ali Lafta, the head of Iraq's teaching union in Baghdad, started his career in 1970, he had no idea what life would later hold in store. That was the year that he first started out as a teacher in Iraq. After Saddam Hussein became president in 1979, Lafta's life, like those of many other Iraqis, was changed forever.



When the new regime began to force all teachers to join the Ba'ath Party, he refused and was dismissed.



Eking out an existence taking any job that he could find, he worked as a taxi driver and even a labourer. "I did any job to survive," says Lafta.



He was arrested several times by the authorities but released. Lafta's brother was not so fortunate. "My brother lost his life, we don't know his fate. He was a teacher as well," he says.


Lafta took part underground political activities within Iraq and, when Saddam's regime collapsed, he saw his chance to return to education to build a free teaching trade union.


"I'm a patriot, I love my country and I love my profession. I am committed to rebuilding a proper civil society and teaching is a part of that."


Education was one of the key pillars for the former regime and Ba'athist propaganda dominated the curriculum and textbooks. But years of war and sanctions have taken a heavy toll. The country's schools and universities are now in a dire situation. Lafta describes the challenges as "enormous."


"First, there needs to be a demilitarisation of education and deba'athification of education. You can't just change things overnight," he says.


"The curriculum must be based on proper consultation with teachers. Human rights and respect for rights must be paramount in education."


Lafta highlights the kind of pressure that teachers are currently being placed under, with teachers in Iraq often taking classes of around 50 children, in three shifts a day.


But he reports that wages have increased since the collapse of the former regime. Before, many teachers were forced to take on side jobs just to make ends meet, but pay rises mean that this is no longer the case.


Textbooks still contain many reminders of the dictatorship. While for some subjects, like science, the old books are useable, Lafta points out that there are references to Saddam and war even in geometry textbooks, for example.


A new curriculum is currently under discussion by a committee convened by the education minister with consultation from unions and civil society.


Lafta says: "Education has to be separate from politics and must not be dominated by one political party.


"But you can't transform education overnight, you're talking about the legacy of dicatorship over decades, a generation that's lived under dictatorship."


Teachers and lecturers have been frequent targets for attacks by Iraq's insurgency.


Lafta is adamant that such attacks are being carried out by enemies of democracy, "Saddam remnants and forces from across the border."


He condemns the attacks, which have seen union members in universities and schools have been killed across Iraq, from Mosul to Baghdad, Al-Ramadi and Basra.


"We are patriots," Lafta says. "We are defending unions and our members, we are struggling under a difficult situation to build our country.

"They target the most prominent people with a lot of things to say about the occupation, about terrorism and who are prominent defenders of Iraq's integrity.


"Those who are targeting and killing our members are not resistance fighters but terrorists," he says.

When the possibility of Islamic or US influence on the curriculum is raised, Lafta points out that, since the Shi'ite group in the country's interim parliament does not have a government-forming majority, it would be difficult for it to get its own way.


Besides, he adds, when Islamists talk publicly, they say that they don't want an Iran-style regime.


The US, says Lafta, is working to ensure that no group has outright power in the country in order to protect its strategic interest.


He argues that trade unions can play a large part in educating the people to ensure that outside influence is not brought to bear on Iraq's education system.


"We can't just sit and wait. We must campaign to educate our people," says Lafta.
"You cannot build democracy without proper civil society and trade unions are at the heart of that. We are the real resistance."


The trade unionist says that he is "pleased and grateful" to have met British education trade unions and the TUC.


Some have offered physical support and training and others have pledged to take part in delegations to the country to witness the situation on the ground.


This support is welcome, while some things are improving, Iraq's teachers, like most of the country, still face plenty of hardship.


Posted by abdullah at April 24, 2005 03:03 PM

\Interview with Head of the Teachers' Union in Baghdad

Interview with Head of the Teachers' Union in Baghdad

Gary Kent, Director of Labour Friends of Iraq saw Mahdy Ali Lafta on his recent trip to the UK when he was a guest of the TUC and the NAS/UWT and was able to conduct this interview.


Teachers lost little time in building a new union. As soon as Saddam Hussein was overthrown in April 2003, they were off and by July had organised the first open conference to set up the Baghdad branch of the Iraqi Teachers' Union. Other open conferences were held and the first open national conference was held in August 2003, which elected a central leadership which also draws representatives from each of the branches in Iraq's 14 governorates. There are equivalent organisations in Iraqi Kurdistan.


The activists were starting from scratch. According to the Head of the Teachers’ Union, Mahdy Ali Lafta, on a recent trip to the UK, “The union under Saddam had merely been a transmission belt for the Baa'thist regime. Instead of defending workers it had assisted the torture squads. Many teachers were jailed, tortured or just disappeared.”


Mahdy's brother was one of the many victims: “He just disappeared without trace and his family was never given any compensation or his pension and had to fend for themselves. Even now there has been no trace of him although many mass graves have been discovered. The Mukhabarat secret police used to tag the bodies with identity numbers but increasingly didn't do this because there were so many bodies.”


The new Teachers' Union has issued 250,000 union cards throughout Iraq and there are more than 75,000 in the Baghdad region alone. The union organises educationalists throughout the education sector – from nurseries to schools to universities.


Mahdy outlined the union's priorities: “Education is fundamental to a healthy society. Teachers need proper training and to retrieve the dignity robbed from them by Saddam. We need smaller class sizes of between 25-30 to avoid stress for teachers and for the students. Schools need to be properly equipped with decently sized rooms and be healthy places to work and learn in. Earnings have improved since the fall of Saddam but most teachers don't have secure homes.”


He said that teachers often have to spend two-thirds of their salary on rent. But the union has plenty of land but no money to develop homes, “In Baghdad we could build 4,000 homes if we could raise the money.”


As for the future, he said, “we are positive that a free, democratic, peaceful and federal Iraq will be built and one that is at peace with its neighbours. We are sure that the extremists will wither away but the news you see only shows chaos and suicide bombs but doesn't show how the police and army are making progress in catching extremists by the score. The Iraqi people now have the confidence to co-operate with the police. The election was an historic moment. The terrorists' back was broken by the election and we hope that turnout will be even bigger in the next election.


We opposed the war but the fall of the dictatorship was wonderful. To those who say they are against the war, we say what war are you fighting. The old regime fell so what should we do now. People should support Iraqis against terrorism and for democracy. We need to reconstruct the economy and not blow up pipelines and destroy jobs.

We want to convince the peace movement to support the struggle for democracy. We are very eager to be exposed to the virtues of well-established mature democracies and ask people to come and see for themselves what we're doing.”


The union is not just concerned with its industrial role but also works with the IFTU. A symbol of this is that the ITU has authorised Abdullah Muhsin who is also the IFTU Foreign Representative to represent the union in the UK.


Posted by abdullah at April 25, 2005 10:35 AM

Created by keza
Last modified 2005-05-22 03:57 AM

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