We’re delighted to share the first of a multi-part series from the archives of photographer David Bacon. A former union organizer, Bacon’s thirty years of photographs and writing capture the courage of people struggling for social and economic justice in countries around the world. His images are now part of Special Collections in Stanford University’s Green Library. Part One tells of his visit to Iraq to find out how workers were faring in the wake of the 2003 U.S. invasion.
In 2003, as people began to realize that the Bush Administration intended to invade Iraq, demonstrations of hundreds of thousands filled streets around the world. I joined them as an activist opposed to a war that seemed inevitable, and as a photographer documenting movements for peace and human rights.
These marches included people from many unions, including my own—what was then the Northern California Newspaper Guild (now the Pacific Media Workers Guild), CWA Local 39521. One of our members, Henry Norr, was even fired by the San Francisco Chronicle after he was arrested on the first day of the war, along with 1400 other demonstrators, in the streets of the city’s financial district. They’d all blocked traffic in the city’s downtown business district, vowing to halt business as usual. Some brave souls even signed a petition in the paper’s newsroom, arguing for Henry’s right as a worker and union member to participate in political activity.
I went into the streets, photographing street life from demonstrations of the unemployed to children sleeping on the sidewalk.
The involvement by workers and unions led to the formation of U.S. Labor Against the War, which quickly grew to include labor organizations and activists across the country. One of the first questions on our minds was how the war would impact Iraqi workers. We knew that the country had one of the oldest and most radical labor movements in the Middle East, driven underground by Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. US LAW asked me and Clarence Thomas, a leader of the San Francisco longshore union, ILWU Local 10, to go to Baghdad and get some answers.
Just after the occupation began, Medea Benjamin and Code Pink set up an office in Baghdad, called Occupation Watch. Staffing it was a Polish/British activist, Ewa Jasiewicz. With their assistance Clarence and I visited activists in several unions, and through them were able to go out to Baghdad’s refinery and several factories. I interviewed and photographed the workers and their workplaces. The impact of the war on ordinary people was everywhere, and I went into the streets, photographing street life from demonstrations of the unemployed to children sleeping on the sidewalk.
In each workplace, workers had reorganized unions that had been illegal under Saddam Hussein. The U.S. occupation authorities, however, denied these unions their legal right to exist. Occupation czar Paul Bremer published lists of factories, most of which had been publicly owned, and invited private foreign investors to buy them at auction. While the union activists we talked with were glad Saddam Hussein was gone, they said the occupation had thrown most people into poverty, failed to pay wages, and treated them as enemies.
While the union activists we talked with were glad Saddam Hussein was gone, they said the occupation had thrown most people into poverty, failed to pay wages, and treated them as enemies.
After returning to the U.S. Clarence and I described what we’d seen and heard, first at a national US LAW conference in Chicago. Then, in a tour quickly put together by USLAW organizer Michael Eisenscher, and coordinators Gene Bruskin and Amy Newell, Clarence and I spoke in union halls and churches across the country. We used these photographs to help audiences understand the real impact of occupation on Iraqi people. A report and photographs, published in The Progressive and the ILWU Dispatcher exposed the corruption of the privatization plan and attacks on workers. It and won the Max Steinbock Award.
A leather goods factory and a factory making plastic bottles
The women in the leather goods factory were deaf and mute. Since the days of Iraq’s radical government of the late 1950s, these women and others like them were given preference for jobs in factories like this.
Union leader Falah Alwan argues with the plant manager about the union rights of the plastic bottle factory’s workers.
The plastic bottle factory was in very poor condition because sanctions against Iraq kept it from purchasing parts for machinery.
A poster showed workers how to recognize bombs and avoid them – evidence of the impact of years of war on factory life.
The Baghdad oil refinery
The refinery was in poor condition because of the impact of economic sanctions. Workers patched things together to keep it going. I met with the plant’s fire department—the most critical employees especially during a war. Others worked in the machine shop. At the gate to the refinery a guard was posted with a submachine gun to protect it.
Life in Baghdad streets
There was actually a lot of life in the streets, in spite of bombings. In the streets I photographed a demonstration by unemployed former police, prohibited by the occupation authorities from returning to their former jobs. Weapons were everywhere, carried by both the unemployed people and the police trying to contain their protest.
People sold gasoline at stands by the road, or whatever else they could find. Some lined up for busses while others walked home from jobs in the hotels.
Soldiers searched people at the blast wall lining the road to one of the city’s big hotels where foreigners stayed, where children sold CDs and whatever they could find. Outside the refinery a child of one of the workers sold motor oil to passing cars and trucks. Part of his father’s salary was paid in oil. A nearby soccer field was abandoned by kids who had to work instead of playing. Homeless children even slept on the sidewalks.
These images are digital scans of film negatives. They are part of a large body of work, created over a span of thirty years. Two years later I returned to Iraq, and spent time with Basra oil and longshore workers. Those images are coming in Part Two, Basra.