Lebanon: Financial Collapse, Revolution, and Pandemic: Where are the Unions?

Rima Majed writes:

If the last six months in Lebanon have taught us anything about extraordinary times—whether financial collapse, revolutionary moments, or pandemic waves—it is the centrality of having grassroots organizations that can play an important role in protecting collective interests, providing social safety nets, and envisioning alternatives that hold social justice at their core. At a time when the economic situation is in a “free fall”, and people are requested to stay home in order to contain the pandemic, the elephant in the room remains the social and economic consequences of such a measure. After all, a pandemic does not only require medical and public health interventions, but also social, political, and economic plans that can uphold society in such difficult times, especially as this hits in an already collapsing economy.

Several weeks into the lockdown in Lebanon, the government has only taken very slow and limited measures to protect what they qualify as being the poorest. Of course, this gave room—intentionally, I would argue—to sectarian leaders to resurface with their clientelism in the form of donation boxes. But in times like these, social protection cannot be equated to a charity program targeting the poor. Given the magnitude of the crisis, it is society at large that needs protection, and with it, a broader vision is required in order to get out of the multiple crises the country is going through simultaneously. Who will protect the daily wage workers who have lost their jobs due to the lockdown? The unemployed who have no social protection? The workers and employees who have been laid off? The employees who have lost more than half of their salaries because of the financial crisis? Who will protect domestic workers or migrant workers? What about the medical staff that are risking their lives to save ours? The cleaners, garbage collectors, and delivery workers who have been our essential workers, keeping us clean and safe in our houses, while being exploited and underpaid? Who will protect people who are unable to pay their rent? Or those who are unable to put food on their tables anymore? Who will protect the owners of small businesses who are unable to make ends meet anymore? After all, weren’t the youth encouraged for decades to be “entrepreneurs” and create their own businesses? Who protects them now that their small investments have only resulted in debts and losses? These social categories do not all qualify as the “poorest”, but they all require immediate social protection in the form of social justice, not charity.

One of the main predicaments of the Lebanese uprising and the current COVID-19 pandemic lockdown is the absence of strong and active unions and labor organizations. It is in times like these that unions and syndicates play a crucial role in protecting the interests of most people in society, and take a leading role in pushing for social and economic plans that guarantee social protection.

Why Labor Organizations?

While some consider it to be ‘old school’ to insist on the importance of labor organizations, an informed reading of socio-economic and political dynamics in Lebanon points to the centrality of such types of organizations in challenging the existing neoliberal-sectarian regime. It is not a coincidence that the post-civil war era in Lebanon was marked by a systematic and violent crackdown on unions that led, by the end of the 1990s, to a full cooptation of the General Confederation of Workers (GCWL), the country’s national trade union center. Similarly, professional orders were also dominated by sectarian party politics, and played an important role in upholding the interests of the ruling elites.

The post-war neoliberal rolling back of the state and the flourishing of non-state welfare in the form of clientelism created a system of inequality whereas only party partisans can potentially benefit. It is a system where bankers, businessmen, and sectarian leaders are able to accumulate wealth and exploit workers and employees with little to no resistance “from below”. The weakening of the unions meant that the power of collective bargaining and the struggle for social justice were made impossible. In such context, two types of activism flourished in post-war Lebanon: Sect-based mobilization (mainly in the form of political parties) and issue-based campaigns (mainly taking the shape of civil society activism). Despite their seemingly opposite paths, both streams have contributed—directly or indirectly—to the reproduction of the neoliberal-sectarian regime through the fragmentation of causes, the elevation of identity politics, and the professionalization of issue-based activism without ever questioning the very structure of the political or economic system.

Therefore, it is only when society starts to organize along class interests and to demand social justice by questioning the accumulation of wealth or by pushing for social protection as a right for all, rather than clientelism, that the regime is really threatened in its core. This is not an overstatement of the power of the people, but rather a reminder of the understated power of organization that is interest-based. The mobilization of the Union Coordination Committee in 2012, which aimed to improve working conditions of civil servants and teachers, is one such example of the power of alternative unions to pressure and to achieve benefits that contribute to social protection—despite the unfortunate crackdown that brought the movement to a halt in 2014.

Revival of Labor and Professional Organizations since October 2019

Since the start of the uprising in October 2019, new groups of workers, employees, and professionals started to emerge. While these movements were mainly spontaneous and largely unorganized, the severity of the financial crisis and its catastrophic implication on the labor market pushed employees to come together on many occasions, either informally or through pre-existing unions, to protect their rights and to collectively negotiate salaries and benefits.

As expected, the official GCWL did not mobilize in the uprising, and professional orders also remained widely silent and at the margin of the historic events. It was only after the election of an independent candidate as president of the Beirut Bar Association that the role of professional orders in the uprising surfaced. Simultaneously, new bodies of shadow unions or professional associations started to take shape and to organize as alternatives to the coopted and dysfunctional syndicates and orders. Clearly inspired by the Sudanese Professionals’ Association, a new Association of Professionals (تجمع مهنيات ومهنيين) was declared on 28 October, calling on professionals, employees, and workers to organize in their workplaces, and to couple the political struggle with a socio-economic struggle that brings back the question of labor and social justice to the core.

While such initiatives can play a crucial role in the unfolding of the uprising, their success in revamping the role of syndicates and creating a nationwide labor movement will largely depend on their ability to organize in a democratic and coherent way. These nascent organizations are now faced with the sudden shift to “work from home” for many employees, and the emergency of “essential workers” to report to work without interruption. In such difficult and unusual times, the challenge becomes to come up with a new repertoire of contention that can devise tactics of organizing and mobilizing that pressure for bargaining and protecting labor rights and social safety nets.

Moreover, such initiatives should also make room for types of organization that are not merely traditional labor unions or professional associations. For example, given the prevalence of the informal sector in Lebanon and the high rates of unemployment, it would make sense for these groups in society to organize based on informality or unemployment. Such organizations are crucial for social protection since they would raise very important demands such as the right to unemployment benefits, which would limit clientelism and youth migration, or the right to free universal healthcare. Had we organized and activated such unions and associations long before, the response to the COVID-19 pandemic at the social and economic level would have been much different today.

Finally, building a strong and independent labor movement is crucial to channel the popular demands of the October uprising for social justice into a political project that can have serious leverage in the balance of power between the regime and the people. Looking at the experiences of the Arab uprisings over the past decade, it becomes clear that the only two countries that were able to build on their popular upheavals to launch a somehow democratic transitional political process were Tunisia and Sudan. In both cases, labor unions and professional associations played a key role.

Imagining a political transition in Lebanon toward a more just and fair system will surely require unions and syndicates to play a central role. This is even more crucial today, at a time when the whole world will be going into a recession and when opportunities for “exporting” our youth to work abroad—as has been the Lebanese formula for decades—will be shrinking considerably. Protecting society means organizing based on our interests as workers, employees, unemployed, or underemployed. After all, a job and a decent income are a right, not a privilege; and the core of the problem is in the distribution of wealth, not in its existence.

Rima Majed is  Assistant Professor of Sociology at American University of Beirut and LCPS research fellow.
This article was first published by the Lebanese Centre for Policy Studies

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