Published in DGB-Bildungswerk (Germany) - October 2006
THE LEBANESE TRADE UNION movement dates back to the 1920s during the French Mandate period, but it was not until 1958 that an organization collectively representing the country's workers and 18 trade unions was established, the Confédération Générale des Travailleurs au Liban (CGTL), or General Confederation of Lebanese Workers.
In the period that followed the creation of the CGTL urban centres mushroomed in size as the agricultural sector declined and the need for workers rose as Lebanon industrialized.
The late 1960s and 1970s were the movement's self-described 'golden era,' when there was a widespread call for change (reflecting global developments), frequent socio-political demonstrations, an expanding membership, and active Leftist and socialist movements.
With the advent of the civil war (1976-1990) the trade union (TU) movement was effectively paralyzed, labour conditions of secondary concern to the militias and the government. But despite the government's weakness in the war years, the state was able to increase membership to 22 TUs and the CGTL remained operational, representing the country's fractious confessional groups and political parties.
However, the TU movement never recovered its former role in society in the post-war years. With the country struggling to get back on its feet politically, socially and economically, and a laissez-faire government led by construction billionaire Rafik Hariri, the rights of workers were sidelined by the establishment to not hamper, in their opinion, the reconstruction process. Equally, Leftist political parties such as the Communist Party, which had had a strong political role prior to 1990, did not get a position in the post-war government, losing the workers' movement a much needed voice in parliament.
Along with being belittled by the government and industry, the TU's pre-war independence was usurped by the Syrian presence in Lebanon and came under pressure to become tools of political parties.
"Following the civil war the TUs became increasingly aligned with political parties as civil society gradually replaced the militias," said Ghassan Ghosn, President of the CGTL.
And with Syria interfering in Lebanese affairs, the Labour Ministry, which grants permission for an organization to be established, came under control of Damascus, according to Samir Farah, a Representative at the Friedrich Ebert Stiffung (FES) institute in Beirut. The Syrians also encouraged federations that had no TU representatives to exert influence in the CGTL.
The dispute within the TU movement and the CGTL over the direction of the movement, its structure and membership composition, came to a head in 1997 when the Labour Ministry authorized seven new unions, related to the Amal and Baath parties, to enter the CGTL. The CGTL's president Elias Abu Rizk (1993-1997) refused to admit the new unions saying it was an illegal action and they had no right to participate in elections.
Two elections were eventually held, one under the auspices of Abu Rizk and the other by the Labour Ministry. Abu Rizk lacked government support resulting in Chuman Zoghby to be voted in as the new leader of the CGTL. Zoghby only stayed one year in office, his attempts to unify the movement under one leadership continuously thwarted by bickering and governmental interference.
Abu Rizk returned as president until 2000 when Aviation Trade Union leader Ghassan Ghosn took office, re-elected in 2005.
"Under Ghosn's tenure there are many unions related to parties and Syria, given authority by the Labour Ministry and members of CGTL," said George Hajj, head of the Banking Federation.
Over 50 federations are now affiliated to the CGTL, according to Farah, along with 43 TUs.
The organization of the CGTL reflects Lebanon's constitution, divided along sectarian lines with the president Christian and the board dived 50:50 Christian-Muslim.
In the 1970s the CGTL had 200,000 members, but now has between 50,000 to 70,000 according to Ghosn. Hajj believes TU membership is around 10 percent of Lebanon's 750,000 workers but the Friedrich Ebert Stiffung institute thinks TU's are around six to seven percent of the working force. Walid Hamdan, Senior Workers' Specialist at the International Labour Organization (ILO) in Beirut, thinks these figures are exaggerated, considering 3 percent a more realistic figure.
"In Lebanon the whole TU movement is hibernating. This goes back to a structural problem, the desperate political situation, interference by government and parties, lack of freedom, and allegiance rather than alliance," said Hamdan.
Hamdan said that even though there are 600 unions, syndicates and federations in the country, "whenever you call for action, they are not able to muster more than 100 to 150 people. If they succeed its because political parties can really mobilize."
Not all political parties are involved in the workers movement. The pro-big business party Mustaqbal (Future), which has the premiership, is against the TUs, said Ghosn.
Lebanon's political system reflects the struggle underway throughout much of the world between neo-liberal elements and more populist movements, with the political parties opposing the likes of the Future party drawing their political base from the working population.
In Lebanon the split became more pronounced after the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri early last year. Following demonstrations on March 14, 2005 that resulted in the withdrawal of Syria from Lebanon, the pro-West, pro-big business "March 14 movement", which dominates much of the government, manifested in opposition to the March 8 movement, consisting of the Shia Muslim parties Amal and Hizbullah, and the secular Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) led by former Lebanese Army General Michel Aoun.
Ghosn said the CGTL is more aligned with the March 8 movement as their support base derives from workers. However, to critics the CGTL has become too aligned with parties that have their own political interests in mind.
"Trade unions are declining and don't exist anymore. They represent political parties in order not to collapse," said Farah.
"Movements can be used for political ends, not the interests of workers," said Hamdan. "Hizbullah is new to the TU movement but can mobilize the streets. In the future they could control more, and the FPM is also mobilizing," he added.
The CGTL's role, said Ghosn, is to apply ILO conventions and improve working conditions and social benefits. "In Lebanon this is difficult to fight for, especially when the economy is weak and with huge government debts," said Ghosn.
The CGTL's weakness is evident in what the organization has not been able to achieve in the past decade, said Hajj.
"From 1996 until now no adjustment on salaries, unemployment is up, the National Social Security Fund is in deficit, and the CGTL not doing anything, only trying to have a role in the political conflict in coordination with Hizbullah, Amal and the Baath," added Hajj.
The CGTL however has refused government reforms that wanted to raise taxes and minimize social security and education spending. The CGTL also opposes IMF and WTO stipulations that advise the government to minimize the government's role as a social provider ( Lebanon is awaiting WTO membership).
But the movement's attempts to counter the government's drive to implement neo-liberal economic reforms that would be detrimental to workers and demand better working conditions have been repeatedly thwarted by the state.
On 27 May 2004 a general strike was organized by the General Labour Confederation to protest hikes in fuel prices and the lack of social services alongside a demonstration by taxi and bus driver organizations held in Hay-e-Seloum, a poor area of Beirut's Southern Suburbs. The demonstration became violent and was put down by the Lebanese Army, killing five civilians and wounding dozens.
In May 2006 a small demonstration by state sector employees took place to oppose economic reforms the March 14 government wanted to implement. Although the opposition to the reforms were successful, largely due to Hizbullah's support, the TUs did not participate as state employees are not allowed to organize into TUs. If Lebanon had signed the 1987 ILO convention, this would have been allowed, according to Farah.
"Lebanon has not signed the conventions of the ILO in order for the government to keep control of the movement. It should have been signed decades ago, but seems now the TUs are now working to force the parliament to sign it," said Farah.
Lebanon's labour law, implemented in 1946 and briefly revised in 1975, is also outdated, say critics, with the Labour Ministry no plans to implement any changes.
"The labour law is outdated and not applicable to the current situation," said Hajj.
Ghosn claims the Labour Ministry "has no influence over TUs, but they have the labour law" and either cooperate or hinder the CGTL.
In the past several months the TU movement has taken yet another blow. Following the 34-day war between Israel and Hizbullah and a two-month sea and air blockade this summer, Lebanon's economy is in bad shape.
Critics say the CGTL did not mobilize during the war and are not doing enough to alleviate the aftermath of the war for Lebanon's workers.
"The CGTL has no role in the socio-political situation. Their only role during the war was calling for support for the resistance (Hizbullah)," said Hajj.
But the CGTL said their arms are tied by the socio-political situation.
"The Israeli war on Lebanon made things a lot more difficult. The priority is politics, people are talking less about the economic crisis," said Ghosn. "Employers are taking advantage of the war to diminish debts by laying off workers, we have less room for movement or negotiation, and a big burden in terms of unemployment."
Adding to complications is the government's inability to financially aid businesses or social services due to the country's inordinately high debt, equivalent to 180 percent of Lebanon's GDP.
Nonetheless, no demonstrations have been organized to address socio-economic concerns in the post war period, only political rallies. "The last demonstration (on September 22) was to celebrate Hizbullah's victory, not socio-economic issues," said Farah.
As for the future of the TU movement, observers are pessimistic. The FES and the ILO have made several attempts to create grass roots movements, made appeals to the government that have often resulted in rebukes, and urge a re-structuring of the movement.
FES suggests cutting the number of organizations the CGTL represents down to 18 organizations to better represent different sectors to be "more democratic and independent from the political parties." The CGTL also wants restructuring to take place.
But to Hamdan there will only be a solution if there is a stable political system and TUs are independent of political parties.
"To be realistic, I personally don't see a way out of this movement, because TUs are a phantom for different groups that want TUs under their control," said Hamdan. "There is no national consensus to lift their hands from the TU movement to restructure and have a free, independent representative movement. As long as the political situation is the same, there is no way out."