Lebanon: General Labour Confederation leaders sell out workers

Build for 19 October ‘independent’ unions’ strike!

A general strike, called for by the General Labour Confederation (a federation of unions), was cancelled yesterday by its leadership after being supported by the majority of trade unions, especially unions independent of the GLC that are leading a struggle in defence of jobs and for better wages and conditions. The settlement reached by the GLC leaders is an increase in the minimum wage from LBP 500,000 (333 USD) to 700,000 LBP (466 USD), an increase of 200,000 LBP (133 USD) to wages below 1 million LBP (666 USD), and an increase of 300,000 LBP (200 USD) to wages currently between 1 million LBP (666USD) and 1.800,000 LBP (1,200 USD). The deal also sees an increase in transport allowance from 8,000 LBP (6 USD) to 10,000 LBP (6.6 USD) for each working day.

More than a month ago, the GLC leaders announced they would call a general strike if the government did not agree to raise the minimum wage from 500,000 LBP (333 USD) to 1.250,000 LBP (833 USD), and agree to 12,000 (8USD) in transfer allowance. But instead of acting on these demands, the GLC leaders resorted to dragging out negotiations with the government and finally made a settlement at the expense of workers and of independent trade unions representing teachers, bank workers, media sector workers, and the working class, as a whole.

The deal was quickly struck to try to absorb the anger of the masses at rising prices and also due to pressure from the main pro-market political parties which are concerned at the lack of proposals to deal with economic problems. An exception to the politicians was the approach taken by the new Labour Minister, Nahas, who many people see as coming from a ‘leftwing’ background and who presented more ‘pro-worker’ reforms, including an economic plan to improve wages. The independent unions resisting government policies tend to led by either Leftists or members of Michel Aoun’s Christian populist Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), which backs Nahas.

The Nahas programme included adding transport allowances and grants to the basic salary, totaling 250,000 LBP (166 USD), and to increase total wages by 20%, with a maximum increase of 1.500,000 LBP (1,000 USD). His plan would also mean that, at the beginning of 2012, universal health coverage would have started, funded by real estate profit taxes and increased fees on companies that recruit foreign workers. If this had been agreed, workers’ wages would have increase by 30%, in real terms.

Hidden alliance

A ‘hidden’ alliance of those political forces with vested interests in the current economic model acted quickly to see off the Nahas plans and to defend the capitalist system of inequalities and exploitation. Although the Nahas proposals were relatively timid and hardly a socialist challenge (he is reported as supporting the part-privitization of the telecom sector a few years ago), the ruling elite and big business reacted sharply against him. Without any serious debate or discussion about the interests of workers and their needs, this alliance exerting its full power to ensure the Labour Minister’s proposals were killed off. They simply ignored issues like the high cost of living for working people, the lack of a decent social security system in Lebanon, the need to tax the rich, the need for massive investment to build a decent welfare system, the need for universal social protection, the provision of basic services that improve the standard of living, and huge investment to create jobs for youth on living wages.

But the Prime Minister, cabinet ministers from the Amal Movement and Hezbollah leaders all insisted that the settlement with the GLC took place quickly, fearing a general strike would take place otherwise. They all claimed that this was on the grounds that there are security risks involved, there were groups trying to use a strike for their own agenda, and that the national economic reserves cannot afford the unions’ demands. This did not stop company bosses complaining that they cannot afford the “burden” of the eventual poor settlement. So bad is the deal struck between government and the GLC, the President of the Association of Professors described it like proscribing a "painkiller tablet for a cancer patient."

This plot by the government, with the exception of the government ministers affiliated to the Free Patriotic Movement, and the Labour Minister, was responded too by the independent trade unions, including bank workers, media workers, secondary teachers and university professors, with a call for the “co-ordination of an association of independent trade unions”, and a strike by these workers on Wednesday 19 October 2011.

Arab revolutions

There has been a sharp change in workers’ outlook in Lebanon recently, as a result of rising (non-monitored) prices, high unemployment and the deterioration of workers’ conditions in many workplaces. Workers in the media sector, in industries and in banks are facing salary cuts and delays and redundancies. But sections of the most militant workers are organized in independent unions, like the school teachers and university professors, who call for workers’ unity around class demands. There are now also talks about the formation of independent unions by media workers and taking monthly strike action.

Over the last year, the Lebanese working class has been relatively indifferent towards the conflict between the contending, corrupt political leaders, who are, of course, allied along class lines. Since the revolutionary movements began in Tunisia and Egypt and across Arab countries, the mood in Lebanese society has unfolded and changed. Now the majority of workers consider the struggle against the bosses and the whole capitalist class as their most important fight.

Many workers have responded to the new call for strike action next week and oppose the government’s decision to increase salaries slightly but not to introduce adequate social welfare. Many workers support the Nahas alternative plan and the strike call. Although the Nahas proposed reforms were very limited, the positive response from many workers showed the appeal that a full socialist programme could find amongst the working class and youth.

It is important to build for the strike, which would also entail mobilizing and appealing to workers not yet organized in trade unions. It is also urgent to build an independent workers’ movement around a political and economic programme that represents the interests of the working class. Such a movement could be capable of calling an all-out general strike to force the government to stop cuts and attacks on workers and to win real reforms.

The CWI calls and fights for:

  • An increase in the minimum wage that corresponds to the high costs of living and housing
  • Full health insurance and decent welfare benefits for all workers, the unemployed and pensioners
  • Jobs for all, on a living wage
  • Full funding for the public utilities sector, such as the electricity and water companies, and affordable prices for consumers
  • For the nationalisation of the major companies and banks, under workers’ democratic control and management
  • For huge investment in public transport and affordable prices
  • The right of immigrant workers in Lebanon to get organized in trade unions and to struggle for their labour rights
  • For militant, democratically-controlled trade unions, independent of the corrupt leadership of the GLC
  • For the building of a powerful united workers’ movement to stop job losses, wage cuts, unpaid extra work hours and all other attacks
  • For a workers’ alternative to the greedy rule of capital and for the building of a mass workers’ party capable of leading the struggle for the socialist transformation of Lebanese society

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October 2011