Protesters march carrying a banner that reads "Workers of Lebanon: Unite" (Photo: @LCPYouthSector / FB)

Workers Unite: The rise, fall, and future of Lebanon’s labour movement

Eight months have passed since people across Lebanon took to the streets to voice their frustrations with austerity measures and the corruption of the ruling oligarchy, igniting what is known as the October 17 revolution.

Since then, various popular chants and slogans have demanded for workers’ rights: “Al watan lel 3oumal, taskot soltat ra’as mal” (the state is for workers, the capitalist state will perish), the Sheikh Imam song “Shayid Kousourak” featuring the lyric “3oumal wa falaheen w talaba… dakkat sa3atana wa ibtadayna” (Workers, farmers and students… our time has come), and more. Workers were always mentioned, but in fact did not organise on a large scale to join the ongoing protests.

The absence of unions and organised labour in the protests is alarming

Workers have been at the forefront of movements and have played an integral role in strengthening the pillars of collective action in Lebanon’s past. It is thus alarming to see the absence of labour movements, as that absence has not always been the case in the history of Lebanese socio-political conflicts. Looking back at the history of the workers movement in Lebanon and the factors that have contributed to its neutralisation allows for the exploration and proper assessment of this lack in labour organising. 

Before the civil war, the workers movement had long been present in Lebanon. The first Lebanese union was formed in 1914 and the first labour code was introduced in 1946. In 1958, the General Confederation of Lebanese Workers (GCLW) was founded and included a few confederations. By 1970, the GCLW had all nine federations under its wing, making it the official representative of workers from both the private and public sphere.

The success of the labour movement was mainly due to the significant industrial sector at the time, as well as the prevalence of leftist parties, such as the Lebanese Communist Party and the Communist Action Organization, that were invested in improving conditions for workers in Lebanon. Thus, this allowed for large scale mobilisations to take over the country under the GCLW from its establishment until the beginning of the civil war in 1975. 

Two major strikes that constituted a turning point in the Lebanese labour movement were the Ghandour factory strike in 1972 and the Régie tobacco factory strike in 1973. These strikes exerted a lot of pressure on the government which led to violent incidents that resulted in the death of multiple civilians.

With the start of the civil war in 1975, the wave of mass collective action started to wither. The GCLW tried to maintain its activities during the war and was able to do so until the late eighties. 

After the war ended, there was a shift in the socioeconomic and political sphere. The emergence of neoliberal policies and heightened sectarian and geographical divisions threatened the strength of the labour movement, rendering it weak and monopolised by sectarian actors. 

By the late 1990s, the ruling oligarchy had transformed the GCLW into an extension of its interests, and had positioned it on the periphery of the fight against the exploitative conditions of the workforce.

The labour movement further declined post-war

Post-war, the government led by Hariri sought to neutralise labour organising by obstructing opposition to government policies. Rafik Hariri stood in opposition to the GCLW between 1993 and 1997, which led to a divide within the confederation and its eventual decline.

“The confessional elite created a multitude of fake unions, which were empty shells with no real adherents. Confessional leaders were then awarded control of key positions in order for them to take control of the executive board from the inside,” explains Nizar Hariri, a professor at Saint Joseph University, to Le Commerce du Levant.

In 1997, the government planned a “coup” to oust Elias Abou Rizk, the president of the  confederation, in the coming elections. The Ministry of Labour did not recognise Elias Abou Rizk and instead considered Ghanim Al Zughbi, a candidate who was close to the Amal Movement, as the successor for the presidency of the GCLW.

The sectarian take over of the unions solidified the neutralisation of the workers movement and allowed the ruling oligarchy to control the workers and weaken their mobilisation efforts.

According to Atallah al Salim, a political activist and researcher, figures show that the GCLW is composed of 600 unions. However, very few of them are actually active. Memberships in these syndicates are minimal when compared to the country’s labor force.

While examining the names and function of these unions, one can notice that there are syndicates representing professions which no longer exist, while there are tens of other professions without any kind of labor organisation.

Political interference in labor organising is not limited to the GCLW. The Union Coordination Committee (UCC) that represents public sector employees was also turned into a pawn in the hands of the ruling elite because it posed a threat as it was able to organise large numbers of workers, void of sectarian interference. 

The UCC initiated a successful movement in 2012 to demand a new salary scale. In response to the success of the UCC’s mobilisation efforts, politically-affiliated candidates allied to take over as UCC representatives in upcoming elections, once again neutralising and limiting the power of unions in future movements. 

Can labour organising return to what it once was in Lebanon?

In the present day, the October 17 uprising, the economic and financial crisis and the declining socioeconomic conditions of people in Lebanon resulted in the deterioration of the power and legitimacy of the ruling oligarchy.

The uprising led to a major paradigm shift, where people were not as tightly bound to traditional sectarian clientelism anymore and refused to be fearful of the ruling class. This kind of change allows for an environment where new labour organising that emerges today could return to what it used to be. 

Within the uprising, multiple groups of workers took the momentum as an opportunity to attempt to revive the labour movement by forming unions and syndicates, such as Alternative Journalists Syndicate, Lebanese Association of Professionals and Association of Independent University Professors.

“While we can see this trend on the short-term,” says Al-Salim. “It is somewhat difficult to predict if such syndicates will be sustainable. This will heavily rely on the long-term results of the October 17 uprising and to what extent it brings the desired change.”

Samir Skayni, a member of the Youth sector in the Lebanese Communist Party, notes the importance of the term “alternative,” as it solidifies the syndicate’s opposition to traditional syndicates and their deficiencies.

 “We still have a long way to go. Although the fact that these groups organised into unions and syndicates is important, labour organising is still lacking since we still have not seen farmers, industrial workers or workers from other fields that require unions organising themselves,” says Skayni.

“It’s a very complicated process which will probably take a long time to achieve. It may not happen in the near future, but the current events are certainly a starting point in a long journey to revive union and syndicate work in Lebanon.”

To be able to sustain the workers movement on the long run, we have to weaken the influence of the ruling oligarchy and its client-patron sectarian relations and start thinking of alternative ways to join workers together from all sectors and fields of work, on an independent and secular basis. Hopefully then, Lebanese society will witness the reemergence of the workers movement that was once at its core.