Unions have continued to play an important role before and during the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia since 2011. Lebanon has also witnessed a variety of strikes and sit-ins in 2012. On the one hand, electricity workers staged the longest ever strike in Lebanese history and employees managed to establish new unions, sometimes after a long struggle. On the other hand, the fragmentation of Lebanese unions is second to none because they are divided along party political lines. How independent and effective are unions under these political circumstances? At a workshop organized by postdoctoral fellow Aurora Sottimano at the OIB, Unionists and scholars discussed this question before the background of Egyptian and Lebanese experiences as well as the status of workers’ rights and the union laws at a workshop organized at the OIB.
In her introduction, Aurora Sottimano pointed to the sharp contrast between the newly proactive role taken up by unions in Tunisia and Egypt and the corporatist stance of most Lebanese workers organisations. The failure of Lebanese unions in linking social and workplace concerns, she contended, accounts for their inability to get public support and affects their ability to pressure government into taking action for workers’ interests. Guest speaker Charbel Nahas, former Lebanese Minister of Labour, explained the political economy of the Lebanese job market – often reduced to a patron-client relationship – as a structural aspect of the Lebanese economy. He further illustrated the difficulties to reform such an “inefficient and inequitable yet powerful system”, which stymied his attempts to bring about social and economic reforms earlier in 2012.
Keynote speaker Elisabeth Longuenesse, Director of Contemporary Studies at the French Institute for the Near East (IFPO), introduced three topics for discussion: the fragmentation of Lebanese workers organisations; legal barriers and actual work conditions; and current trends in the Lebanese labour market – all of which negatively affect the ability of unions to mobilize workers. In answering her questions, the speakers discussed the precarious balance of peace that followed the Lebanese civil war. In contrast to the vitality shown by workers unions during the war, the early 1990s saw a proliferation of yellow unions. Abdel-Amir Najde, President of the Federation of Public Car Drivers for Land Transport, and Adib Bou Habib, General Secretary of the Printing Press Employees Union, drew on their personal experience to explain this development. Whilst most union leaders blame the direct and indirect interference of Syrian authorities for the fragmentation of the workers movement, Abdallah Castro, President of the Federation of Lebanese Workers Unions (FENASOL), pointed to the questionable role of domestic actors as well as international organisation agencies, all of which contributed to “kill the labour movement”.
Public Service International Secretary for Arab Countries, Dr. Ghassan Slaiby, argued for the need for a new organizational framework to replace the General Confederation, which represents political and sectarian factions rather than workers’ interests. According to him, a new organizational framework is a precondition in order for re-launching the Lebanese labour movement and placing it once again on the track of independence and democracy.
The independence and unity of workers organisations also were the background issues of the ensuing discussion, which included leaders of the most active and politically independent organisations in Lebanon, such as Hanna Gharib, President of the Secondary School Teacher League (rabita); Kamal Mawlud (Document 1| Document 2), President of the Union of North Lebanon Water Establishment Workers; and Georges Hajj, President of the Federation of Bank Employees Unions. In their contributions, they showed how they articulate workers’ demands and the obstacles they routinely faced in the context of the “politicization” of the public sphere in Lebanon.
The two Egyptian speakers, Hussein El Masry, (Training Coordinator of the Centre for Trade Union Services), and Tarek Moustafa (General Secretary of the Real Estate Tax Authority Union), focused on the strategies of the Egyptian labour movement in confronting the two challenges of repression by the former regime and a pro-regime General Confederation. They maintained that unionist practice is inseparable from politics and involves more than narrowly conceived workers’ interests – as their demand for a maximum as well as a minimum wage implies. Moreover they urged their Lebanese counterparts to “think out of the box” (Moustafa) in order for unionist work to become more effective in authoritarian or democratically-deficient contexts.
Both positions – to skilfully play by the political rules and to resolutely act against them – were represented by some of the new actors in the Lebanese labour movement, which includes workers from a variety of work conditions. Mohammad Mansour (Public Sector Cooperative Workers) and Mohammad Boukhari (Hariri Hospital Workers) explained the situation of public sector workers. Lubnan Makhoul, president of the newly formed Electricity Workers League, described how daily workers are torn between the public Electricity Establishment and private subcontracting companies. Samir Tawk, from the newly established Spinneys Workers Union, highlighted the working conditions in the private commercial sector. All these speakers denounced heavy political pressure and breaches of labour law provisions, including the firing of leading activists. Lubnan Makhoul also deplored the lack of solidarity with the cause of daily workers on part of established unions amidst the general public apathy vis-à-vis the longest ever strike in Lebanon.
Ziyad Abdel Samad, Executive Director of the Arab NGO Network for Development, said in his concluding remarks that Lebanese unionists appear increasingly aware of the potential role of workers organisations as engines of political and civil action. However, it appears that Lebanese unionists lack a clear vision of their own capacity to bring about change. Faced by their own apparent limitations – discussed at length during the workshop – almost all expectations remain directed towards the state, which the unionists deem responsible for creating and enforcing a democratic regulatory framework for labour activities. Crucially, each case study pointed to the need to democratize union practices as a first step to gain credibility and increase workers mobilisation.