Lebanon: Unions call for mass action against government cuts

Only a united working class can stop cuts and defeat imperialism

This week, Beirut’s streets will, once again, be filled with protestors, many of whom have been on a five-week protest against the pro-Western, Siniora-led government. But, this time the protests are part of an organised workers’ movement campaign against cuts and privatisation. Lebanon’s 200,000-strong Federation of Labour Unions (CGTL) called a sit-in, this week, at the Finance Ministry, in protest at a government ‘reform’ plans that will hike taxes and cause layoffs.

The plan was approved by the government, last week, ahead of an international donors’ conference in Paris later this month that aims to “lift war-devastated Lebanon out of its 41-billion-dollar public debt”. The Lebanese ‘business community’ unanimously embraced the government’s reform plan. Business leaders endorsed privatisation and plans to ‘streamline’ the state sector, including extending the work week to 36 hours for civil servants.

The CGTL called on all workers, and all those who reject the economic reform plan, adopted by the government, to take part in the protests and to reject any rise in taxes, direct or indirect, particularly a hike in the value-added tax (VAT), as well as any privatisation that could lead to layoffs in the public sector. Instead of anti-worker “reforms”, the unions called for a rise in salaries "that corresponds to the rate of inflation" and a boost to the minimum wage, which remained at 200 US dollars (300,000 Lebanese pounds) per month for the past 10 years.

The trade union’s call is backed by the opposition, led by Hezbollah and the Free Patriotic Movement, who camped out on the government’s doorstep for 35 days demanding a new “Unity Government”. The normal 24-member Western-backed government cabinet is now down to 17 ministers, due to the resignation of a block of six Shiite ministers and the assassination of the politician Gemayel in November.

The government is accused of being ‘illegitimate’ by the opposition and no longer representative of the Lebanese people. Still, capitalist policies are still approved by Prime Minister Siniora’s government in the name of ‘boosting investment’ through social and financial reforms. These include a hike on VAT, to 12% from its current 10%, to 15% in 2010, and privatisation of mobile telephone and electricity sectors. The Siniora government aims to sell its stake in Middle East Airlines and Intra Investment Company, and the water and sewage systems. In addition, taxes on interest paid on bank deposits will rise from the current 5% to 7%. The ‘Paris III’ donors’ conference, scheduled for 25 January, is expected to be attended by Western countries and oil-rich Arab states that back Siniora and the so-called ‘14th March forces’.

Workers say no to big business

The Federation of Labour Unions (GLC) 12 points include: fighting unemployment; halting ‘brain drain’ and the migration of youth in search of jobs abroad due to economic stagnation in the country; increasing the productive capacities of the agricultural, industrial and services sectors; and promptly establishing a social security contract, rather than adopting economic policies that increase debt. The GLC leader, Ghosn, stressed the need to initiate serious administrative reforms by ensuring the independence of monitoring institutions, and to combat corruption, bribery and theft from the public purse.

Union Chairman, Ghassan Ghusn, called on all parties and unions to take part in this "peaceful demonstration" and called for the implementation of "good financial policies that start with amendment of the taxation system" and would not levy taxes on workers and limited income groups. Ghusn said the aim of this protest was to "prevent Lebanon from becoming an open consumer’s market governed by globalised policies that negatively affect national production."

Prime Minister Siniora claimed the government’s cuts programme aimed to secure economic growth and the improve living standards of the Lebanese people, to enhance social development and social security, bring about major financial reforms and secure budget surplus, attract investments, put in place a conservative fiscal policy, and guarantee financial support for Lebanon through aid and long-term soft loans.

The union federation denounced the government in a statement, saying all successive governments since 1992 contributed to economic deterioration through their policies. The GLC said the present government was always biased toward the rich and "its only concern was to make a profit at the expense of the people”. The government wants to sell some of the state-owned companies at very cheap prices after deliberately mismanaging these institutions to give a pretext for privatization, the unions said.

The government claimed the proceeds from privatisations will be used to reduce the $41 billion public debt. The trade union federation said that for the past 14 years, all the governments failed to solve the problems of high prices and poor infrastructure, particularly concerning electricity, oil and transport. Administrations failed to create a decent National Social Security Fund.

The opposition, which planned to escalate its anti-government protests and sit-ins after the holidays, said it would step up pressure to oust the government, rejecting Paris III and backing the trade union action. Both the opposition and the union federation promise continuous daily sit-ins, possibly escalating this into a general strike, starting with demonstrations and rallies across the country.

Big business spokespeople said that to solve the country’s deep social and economic problems, “sacrifice” is needed. But they do not mean the capitalist class will make any sacrifices. As always, the working class and the poor will be asked to pay the price, while being further exploited, and alienated at work. Very limited state services will be cut and privatised, and workers will be even more ripped off as consumers! When government spokespeople talk about the economy – mainly meaning Lebanon’s tourism industry – they do not mention that workers cannot afford to even visit downtown central Beirut for a coffee! Lebanon mostly remains a travel destination for the ‘better-off’, not deterred by price increases.

Part of the government’s plan includes privatising the management of the Rafik Hariri International Airport (originally called ‘Beirut International Airport’ and re-named after the former prime minister, Hariri, was assassinated. Hariri’s son now leads the Western-backed ‘14th March’ forces).

Imperialism and capitalism are two sides of the same coin

With a 29-page ‘reform’ paper, Siniora will approach the “donor” states asking for “money for recovery for Lebanon”. The money committed to Lebanon is not sufficient to address all of the country’s financial and economic problems. These include a $41-billion public debt and an economy in total shambles. Furthermore, aid will not be for free! These “donating” powers include Arab and Western countries that will demand neo-liberal policies, like privatisations. Qatar warned the privatisation programme may not generate enough revenues for the Treasury, if the political situation remains “tense”, saying: "How can you invite investors to buy a stake in government companies while some people are threatening to close the airport road?" Siniora and his government team declined to say how much money they are aiming to raise buy sell-offs, but sources say that the government hopes to get between $6 billion and $8 billion in the form of soft loans and grants.

The Western plan for the Lebanese government is to press ahead with the carrying out of ‘UN Resolution 1701’. The powers demand “perpetrators of national crimes” are prosecuted by an ‘international tribunal’. Protesters, camped out in central Beirut, since 1 December, are now not only demanding more of a share of power for the opposition, but also launched "phase two" to bring down Siniora’s government, by early next week. Details of what this means are unclear but Hizbollah, the FPM, and their allies, say they plan "more protest and disruption to try to topple the government by paralysing the country".

For independent workers’ alternative

April, last year, saw a strike resulting in over 300,000 public school students and teachers walking out of classes. This was in protest against a government reform project, which the Lebanese Democratic Teachers’ Bureau (LDTB) described as a "threat to the livelihood of all civil servants." The project aimed at introducing jobs "based on a contractual basis”, in other words, replacing permanent positions with lower paid, contract jobs. The massive strike forced the government to revoke the reform ‘project’.

This is only an example of what is possible if working people fighting back as a united and organised class. When workers are in struggle, they become more conscious of their power and need to be united and are less divided along religious sectarian lines.

Previously mass working class opposition in Lebanon was repeatedly undermined by sectarian leaders and by right wing political parties and conservative trade union leaders. Working people need an independent and organised workers’ movement. This has to be run democratically. It means the creation of democratically-elected committees held accountable by the people they represent. The current wave of government cuts plans means that union meetings should be held locally, daily, to discuss the way forward to stop the cuts. Trade unionists and the entire working class need a fighting programme to lead the working class fight-back. Working class fighters and organizers, who represent the majority in Lebanon, are the only genuinely democratic leaders who can unite the majority of the Lebanese against the pro-big business offensive that is backed by imperialism. Only a mighty workers’ movement can appeal to the rest of the region’s workers to join the most effective resistance – class resistance.

Socialists and Marxists stand with the struggles of the Lebanese working class and demand united action to defeat the government’s right wing policies of cuts and privatizations, thereby cutting across sectarianism, which is constantly used by the bosses to divide working people. We need mass struggle to end the social and economic system that creates poverty, war and oppression – to fight for a socialist Lebanon and a socialist federation of the Middle East. Only by using the rich natural resources and wealth of the region in the interests of the majority, will it be possible to solve the daily problems and fears faced by the working people and the poor. This can only be achieved through the struggle for genuine socialism.

  • Build a united workers’ movement
  • Homes, public services & jobs for all
  • End war and capitalism
  • End all imperialist intervention in the Middle East
  • For socialist struggle – for a workers’ alternative
  • For a majority workers’ government in the Lebanon, acting in the interests of all workers and the poor

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January 2007