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Teachers march during a protest in Sulaymaniyah, Iraq’s Kurdistan Region on October 22, 2023 (Winthrop Rodgers)

The Teachers Building a New Labor Movement in Iraqi Kurdistan

Facing late and partial payment, teachers in Iraqi Kurdistan launched the longest strike in the region’s history.

Words: Winthrop Rodgers
Pictures: Winthrop Rodgers

On a bright Sunday morning last October, marching teachers filled the streets of Sulaymaniyah, the city in the Iraqi Kurdistan region. Most wore button-downs and blouses, as if they had only just stepped away from the chalkboard. They eyeballed a couple boisterous teenagers along the protest route with the practiced look of censure that comes with their profession. 

But the edge of their dignified demeanor was fraying with evident frustration. Their message was clear: pay us our salaries or we will continue our strike.

The teachers had walked off the job a month earlier to protest the government’s failure to pay them in-full and on-time. Their strike would continue for the next four months. It constituted the longest sustained labor action by public servants in Iraq’s Kurdistan Region in recent memory. It also marked a major show of power by a workforce that is deeply angry with governance by the two ruling parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK).

“The situation is very serious, which is why we decided to do something,” Saman Tahir Ali, a protest organizer, said in a recent interview. “How can we pay the rent if we don’t receive our salaries?”

During a protest on Oct. 29, 2023, demonstrators carry a sign calling on the government to honor promises to teachers (Winthrop Rodgers)
During a protest on Oct. 29, 2023, demonstrators carry a sign calling on the government to honor promises to teachers (Winthrop Rodgers)

Ali is a member of the Dissenting Teachers’ Council, which was established in 2014 and coordinates strikes and protests. It is not an official labor union, but is part of a new kind of politics in the Kurdistan Region that is developing outside of institutions dominated by the ruling parties. “Our Council has its mandate from the street, from the demonstrations,” Ali said. “Our Council represents the desire of the teachers and expresses what they are fighting for.”

Concerns over Governance

The Kurdistan Region enjoys a high-level of autonomy within Iraq. It has its own government, known as the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). With about 1.2 million civil servants, the public sector is by far the most important employer. The education ministry employs more than 160,000 people, a large number of whom are public school teachers.

Most Kurds support these institutions as an important expression of Kurdish self-governance, which was secured after decades of struggle against the government in Baghdad. However, many have deep concerns about the quality of governance that they offer.

The KDP and the PUK dominated the KRG’s institutions, and both have used their influence to establish pervasive patronage networks throughout the public sector. For decades, this has been accepted as part of an implicit social contract, where the parties provide employment in return for political support.

How can we pay the rent if we don’t receive our salaries?

– Saman Tahir Ali

However, this bargain has steadily unraveled since 2014 with the KRG struggling to pay public servants in-full and on-time because of low oil prices and budget disputes with Iraq’s federal government in Baghdad. To deal with its cash flow problems, the KRG instituted a number of unpopular austerity programs, including withholding portions of monthly salaries, freezing hiring and promotions, and offering insecure contracts to teachers.

Since July 2019, when the current cabinet took office, the KRG has only paid 37 monthly salaries in-full, or about 63%t of the time. Many of these payments came late. In May 2020, when public servants received their salary for classes taught in January, one especially cheeky teacher from Koya showed up wearing a winter coat and gloves to collect his money despite it being 97 degrees  outside.

“We Teach Children”

As the new school year approached in September 2023, the KRG was three months behind paying its workers. In response, the teachers announced a strike that would ultimately last until February. Previously, the longest such strike had lasted 52 days. Their main demands included direct salary payments from the federal government, which is generally regarded as a more reliable paymaster, and the resumption of promotions.

Due to the size and importance of their sector, the teachers’ message carried significant weight and created space to call for substantive reforms to governance in the Kurdistan Region.

“We teach children …we have to call for the right things. Teachers are important in society. Every progress in society is made by education. And, of course, education is led by teachers,” Hevi Azad, a high school English teacher in Sulaymaniyah, said at a protest last October.

A group of women teachers hold a banner that says "Strike" in Sorani Kurdish, in Sulaymaniyah, Iraq’s Kurdistan Region on Oct.22, 2023 (Winthrop Rodgers)
A group of women teachers hold a banner that says "Strike" in Sorani Kurdish, in Sulaymaniyah, Iraq’s Kurdistan Region on Oct.22, 2023 (Winthrop Rodgers)

During the strike, tens of thousands of teachers staged weekly protests in Sulaymaniyah city and smaller towns in rural areas. In posters and chants, they took aim at the KRG minister of education and local officials.

They brought their children and student groups organized to support them. As the marches wound their way through the city, shopkeepers would bring out water and bystanders waved to people they knew from their neighborhoods.

The strikes even caught the attention of the UK parliament, breaking above the usual focus on oil and security that usually dominates conversations about the Kurdistan Region in foreign capitals.

“The government hasn’t given us our rights, our salaries, and our promotions,” said Azad. “Our country is rich. We have so much oil. So why didn’t they give us [our salary]? They don’t have a right reason.”

She added, “They do this because they want everyone to be under the control of their parties.”

Risks of Protesting

Eventually, the federal government in Baghdad stepped in to transfer salary payments and the teachers returned to the classrooms in late February. However, they maintained pressure on the ruling parties by holding protests even after ending the strike.

During the strike, the teachers faced a number of challenges. First, the labor action was only permitted to take place in areas controlled by the PUK. While teachers in the KDP-controlled Erbil and Duhok governorates face the same problems as those in Sulaymaniyah, they risk arrest if they try to organize protests.

The KDP has a well-earned reputation for cracking down on public displays of dissent in areas it controls. The PUK tends to be more tolerant of protests, but also has its red lines. Several teachers were arrested when they tried of hold a protest near where the party leadership has its headquarters.

Importantly, the teachers were only sporadically joined by civil servants at other ministries, including after the main strike had ended. This lack of coordination showed the degree of control retained by the parties over large parts of the public sector. This is a major limiting factor, but one that organizers see as solvable.

“A Different Movement” 

“We are at the initial stages of our political life here. We have not had groups that can lead these movements in the Kurdistan Region,” Osman Gulpi, another member of the Dissenting Teachers Council.

“Now you see that there is a different movement … This is a different sort of civil organizing. It is not only the political parties that are controlling the people, but these types of groups can have influence as well,” he added.

The strike may have ended, but Gulpi insists that the teachers will go back out into the streets if the promises made by the federal government and the KRG are not implemented.

A teacher holds a sign in front of the General Directorate of Education during a protest by striking teachers in Sulaymaniyah on Oct. 22, 2023 (Winthrop Rodgers)
A teacher holds a sign in front of the General Directorate of Education during a protest by striking teachers in Sulaymaniyah on Oct. 22, 2023 (Winthrop Rodgers)

That is a real possibility. Both the KRG and Iraq’s federal government have made promises to public servants in the Kurdistan Region, but have gone back on their word before. While both Erbil and Baghdad say they want to keep their political conflicts away from the livelihoods and welfare of the people, it is difficult to ensure in practice.

As a result, both governments are very much on probation as far as the teachers are concerned — and next time public servants will have a battle-tested organization they can build upon.

The establishment of viable, sustainable power centers within civil society and outside of the party system represents a major development for Kurdish democracy. Labor is a potential source of energy to drive this dynamic.

“We believe that we are an alternative for this corrupt system,” Ali said. “It can be a new model for politics in Iraqi Kurdistan that the teachers and the workers are the center of this power, not the political parties.”

Winthrop Rodgers

Winthrop Rodgers is a journalist and researcher who focuses on politics, human rights, and political economy. He spent six years living and working in Sulaymaniyah in Iraq’s Kurdistan Region.

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