Lebanon: Union leaders call “a strike without credibility”

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As was expected, not many workers responded to the general strike on 3 May, called for by the General Confederation of Lebanese Workers (GCLW). This is because of the distrust towards the leadership of this confederation of unions which sells out workers at every given opportunity. This is despite the fact that the call for a general strike came at a time when strike action by independent workers unions had spontaneously erupted in Lebanon. Mass anger was building up over high living costs, unemployment, lack of public services, and increased poverty.

The largest trade unions announced on the night of the strike that they would not participate in the general strike, fearing that the President of the GCLW would cancel the strike in the middle of the night after striking a deal with the ruling class and employers. Bank employees, teachers’ associations, professors in public and private schools, state administration staff, and many other trade unions have all withdrawn their confidence from the President of the GCLW, Ghassan Ghosn, and those around him. They called his latest call for action a "political" move in light of the dispute taking place between the different parties in government.

GLCW trade union president, Ghassan Ghosn

A representative from the teachers’ union and member of the Coordination Body of Unions (representing a growing number of independent unions) explained that the teachers’ non-participation in the strike is not due to any lack of social and economic problems but to the absolute loss of confidence in GCLW. He explained how months ago, it was agreed between the Coordination Body of Unions and the GCLW to go on strike to achieve fair wages, but that Ghosn unilaterally announced that the strike was cancelled at one o’clock at night, just hours before the strike action was to start. He also said that they do not trust Ghosn, that his moves are linked to the disputes in government and has nothing to do with the misery of the people, that all parties in government are contributing to this misery, and that therefore teachers will not enter a fake strike.

A member of the Association of Public Sector Employees described the strike called for by Ghosn as “a strike without credibility”, because there was nothing to ensure that Ghosn would not cancel at night as he usually does. He stressed that state employees are ready to fight back, but that Ghosn did not work on coordinating the demands with their association even though the GCLW supposedly represents them. Instead, Ghosn called for a strike without a clear theme or central demand. The union activist pointed out that the experience with Ghosn has not been encouraging. Only months ago, he said, Ghosn was siding with the employers against workers’ rights, which poses the question of what led to Ghosn’s sudden awakening to demand the very rights which he had himself been part of attacking.

Likewise, the head of the General Federation of Trade Unions announced after a meeting of opposition trade union leaders that the strike was false, that it was contrived in order to try to vent some of the largely spontaneous mass frustration that had began to take shape even in the absence of any political lead being given from the official union bureaucracy. This mass anger so frightened top union officials, who are tied inexorably to the ruling class, that they were forced to call a general strike in order to save themselves from an angry popular movement in the streets that could potentially bring them down.

Limited strike participation

For this reason, participation in the general strike was limited to the social security and airport workers, who stopped work for two hours. This still counts as a political set-back for the ruling class, which is working day and night to maintain its hegemony over the leadership of the GCLW, to try to keep it paralyzed. Their greatest fear is that by moving into struggle, workers could gain control over the union. This was the case before the civil war in the sixties and early seventies, when the GCLW played a major role in workers winning social security, a minimum wage, and set working hours.

Talks in the street today are all about living conditions. While the ruling class is trying to draw the attention of working class towards the events in Syria, using these events to invent new political and sectarian tensions, it is clear that the mood today is one of mass anger over living standards. The working class is facing unprecedentedly high prices – especially for fuel, which in turn affects all other goods. Furthermore, there has been a reduced weight in the bundle of bread, high unemployment, and a significant increase in robberies. Hospitals have refused to serve patients on social security due to a deficit at the hands of a corrupt government. This is a result of consecutive policies since the mid-nineties aimed at demolishing social security and paving the way for privatization, which would big business to make increased profits by intensifying their exploitation of the working class.

The real figure of unemployment is unknown but several reports indicate that it exceeds 35%, which much of this being hidden away by various technicalities in the official figures. All of these conditions have led to an increase in mass anger towards the big parties in power and the ruling class, the owners of big business and large corporations. The independent trade unions are now growing and some trade unions affiliated to the GCLW have now withdrawn their confidence from the GCLW leadership and have begun to take action outside the authority of their corrupt leadership.

There is the need today, more than ever, to build our own workers’ alternative, and this is a great opportunity to struggle to build a mass workers’ party capable of uniting the working class and bringing down this corrupt sectarian system. Such an alternative party, of and by the workers, can also bring together the Left and the activists against the policies of capitalism. Within this mass party, we can build a democratic socialist programme that links up with the revolutions in the Arab world and the workers’ movement in all countries of the world to achieve genuine socialism in Lebanon as part of a socialist Middle East.

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May 2012