Last month saw the successful founding of an independent workers’ union emerge out of the Lebanese private sector. Yet there has been little social media fanfare outside Lebanon over this success … perhaps not surprisingly. Class struggle in contemporary Lebanon has rarely captured the imagination of either scholars or social activists. Long described as a bastion of laissez-faire politics, a site of never-ending civil strife, and a platform for settling regional scores, Lebanon is hardly seen as a crucible for subversive class activity in the Arab world.
More recent history has served to reinforce this conception of a complacent – or complicit – middle and working class. Following the end of the civil war in 1989, over a decade of Hariri-led neoliberal policies destroyed the country’s already emaciated networks of social and class activists, including unions, associations, and political parties. The ongoing Arab uprisings, despite all the momentum they produced to fight injustice, seemed to trigger little in their wake amid the discontented Lebanese. In early 2011, signs of a mass movement for regime change in Lebanon fizzled amid bickering about slogans and goals; since then, the social and political climate has deteriorated at an alarming pace. State services are all but a caricature of what they once used to be. Basic needs like clean water and electric power are now a privilege of the very few. Daily struggles for survival are punctuated by spouts of kidnappings, tire-burning riots, and in certain areas by the intermittent militia fighting between pro and anti-Asad forces, with the Lebanese army joining in the fray every now and then. Meanwhile, Zionist aggression in its myriad forms remains a constant.
Amid this domestic and regional conflagration, a local matter such as the founding of a workers’ union at the supermarket chain Spinneys might appear as a sideshow unlikely to cause ripples of change. The jury is indeed still out on the long-term impact of this development. But there is little doubt that it has set a precedent for union activism in Lebanon. It is the first known case of founding an independent private sector union in the country in the last two decades. And unlike many other “depressing” stories of class struggle that expose persistence of sectarianism as enabler of the status quo, the Spinneys story suggests that the sectarian monster does have an Achilles’ heel, but it is buried under decades of rooting out any resistance to it.
Undoing Unions in a Neo-liberal “Utopia”
In the 1990s, the long neo-liberal reign of Lebanon’s late prime minister Rafiq Hariri finished off what a fifteen-year civil war nearly failed to: eliminate the remnants of any independent union movement by destroying or co-opting it into the institutional apparatus of the state. Hariri of course had more than willing partners in the sectarian warlords that came to rule Lebanon after the war. Top among them was Nabih Berri, who continues to hold strong sway among members of the General Workers Union (GWU). The GWU is an umbrella of dozens of unions, many defunct, and acts as the official negotiator and spokesperson for Lebanon’s workers, both public and private. The GWU fought and lost its battle for independence and influence during Hariri`s time. It is now a caricature of what it used to be. But its legitimacy was not vociferously challenged until recently.
Following the assassination of Hariri in 2005, workers across Lebanon remained largely out of the media limelight. Street union mobilization, often ceremonial, was largely the domain of white-collar and public sector employees. The most visible were the teachers who had retained partial cohesion of their union body and held traditional bargaining chips of the education sector (abstention from grading etc). But in 2010, an unexpected strike at a factory in northern Lebanon marked a watershed. The firing of about 400 workers without compensation at the Future Pipes factory triggered an onsite sit-in and strike and grabbed public attention. The workers eventually lost their battle and their lawsuits against the employer in arbitration councils are still pending. But their bold move exposed the hypocrisy and laxity of the GWU and the quasi-defunct communist party that continues to pay lip-serves to class struggle.
In the following two years, a movement to set up alternative representative bodies to the GWU emerged and a new smaller umbrella of unions was formed under the name The Unionist Coordination Committee. But the GWU would receive its harshest blow from the least expected quarter, the Ministry of Labor. In 2011, a new minister was on the block and the rules of the game were turned on their head. The duet between minister Charbel Nahhas and the GWU would be short-lived, but long enough to inflict significant damage on the reputation and credibility of the GWU and its tactics.
State as a Site of Subversion: The Nahhas Touch
After a long career as an economic and administrative consultant for local and international organizations, Charbel Nahhas became a household name in Lebanon after taking on two ministerial posts in the past few years, that of telecommunications and labor. Nahhas had ridden the ticket of Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) to come to power. His reputation as an upright and non-corrupt politician vouched for him among many leftists. Others were less optimistic and speculated he would have to either turn coats or be swallowed by status quo rules. Despite some compromises, Nahhas proved his mettle. When Nahhas was telecommunications minister the government was a loose coalition between Lebanon’s two dominant political camps, March 14 and March 8. The former continued to hold the reigns of state power while Nahhas was telecommunications minister. Targeting Harirism as the source of economic ills made sense and jibed well with March 8 forces. Nahhas had a relatively free reign to do so. Things changed when a March 8-dominated government was formed in 2011. Nahhas found himself at odds with his own allies. Once in power, the reform and resistance discourse of March 8’s FPM and Hezbollah was exposed as largely lip-service. Ironically, Nahhas would be hung out to dry in the face of elite vested interests – not by Hariri, by the very people who brought him to power.
Nahhas was not the first independent politician in Lebanon to make some noise and gain public support as a credible voice of ordinary people’s desire for change. What distinguished him from other critics of the political system however has been his ability to move beyond the rhetoric of bringing down the sectarian regime and endorse a concrete roadmap built on a moderate discourse of the return to law and order (so often invoked by the country’s ruling parties but turn it against them). According to Nahhas, the state has become so dysfunctional, its apparatus entirely co-opted, its resources thoroughly plundered by the ruling elite, that a concerted campaign to demand a sincere implementation of law and order and a restoration of state authority would be a subversive act in itself (The 1946 Labor Law is such an example). Such an act would not only seriously threaten the authority of those who had usurped it, but confuse them. What is needed, Nahhas holds, is a restoration of the “aura” or “prestige” (haybah - هيبة) of the state. In his public campaigns, Nahhas compares the political system to a giant machine, a juggernaut, that has been running for a long time. Ruling elites have become so comfortable in their hegemony and control of the state apparatus that they may not be able to handle emergency malfunctioning, no matter how insignificant it may seem. The trick is to find screws here and there and keep tinkering with them till the entire machine starts shaking. The sense of security that elites enjoy is reinforced by what Nahhas refers to as the taming, or domestication (tadjin –تدجين) of the public, which is led to believe that the system is so robust that it is futile to tinker with any screw. To break this sense of domestication, a successful challenge of the status quo needs to happen on multiple levels and with ant-like persistence. (For some examples of Nahhas’s writings, click here.)
Nahhas tried to implement his theory as Minister of Labor. By constantly invoking the country’s labor laws and exposing the outrageous extralegal practices of the state, he forced stakeholders to live up to their empty rhetoric of state-building and sovereignty. Instead of merely calling for an increase in wages, he put forth a detailed proposal to redefine what a wage means (it includes transportation fees, it is inflation-adjusted) and focused on job security as a whole. In a scenario that contradicted the basic assumptions of class struggle , the Ministry of Labor’s wage hike and reform program was deemed too much to ask for by none other than the alleged representative of the workers, the GWU. In December 2011, the GWU eventually struck a side deal with the government that gave the workers less than what the minister had called for, and Nahhas found it too much to swallow. He resigned in protest. Nahhas lost his wager on change from within. Towards the end of his tenure as minister, he was asked to identify with one of the following myths: Don Quixote, Icarus, or Sisyphus. He chose the last. With his exit from office, the rock that rolled down the mountain had to be picked up somewhere else and pushed upward. This time it would need a helping nudge that came from a most unexpected place, a handful of workers at one of Lebanon’s largest supermarket chains, Spinneys.
Spinneys as a Springboard: Breaking the Class Ceiling
The wage hike battle waged by Nahhas and the exposing of the GWU would not be in vain. After many years of working at Spinneys, veteran employee Samir Tawq was fed up with the way management continued to violate the rights of the workers and take them for granted. When a watered-down version of the Nahhas-proposed wage hike was approved in December of 2011, Tawk protested the management’s partial implementation of it. He convinced over 100 of his colleagues to sign a petition calling for a full and swift implementation of the hike. The only swift reaction of the employer was to order the transfer of Tawq to a faraway branch, and when he protested, to fire him. In the meantime, close to 700 employees out of the estimated 1500 working for the company were either coaxed or coerced into signing a statement forfeiting their right to demand full implementation of the wage increase. But Tawq would have none of this. He was determined to take the fight to its conclusion, and a handful of workers were ready to join. He found a handful of workers willing to join the fray.
The defiant workers were in for an uphill battle. Their move had coincided with one of Lebanon`s longest strikes at the country’s national power generation company. Daily contract workers at the company refused to work for over three months and staged sit-ins and sleep-ins at the company’s head office. They were facing the threat of layoffs amid privatization plans of power distribution and revenue collection. The strike was another watershed in reviving street action for unions, but it fell short of total victory. Final resolution was brokered among two of the country`s main political factions who held sway among the workers or management. In the case of Spinneys, the workers were not even recognized as a collective entity neither by the state nor by the employer. Legally, forming a political party in Lebanon is easier than forming a union. Parties need only notify the state of their existence to become recognized as such. Unions have to apply for a permit or license from the Ministry of Labor. The labor minister in turn can “consult” the Ministry of Interior about the criminal records and other purported security concerns regarding the members of the founding committee. The discretionary nature of the process meant that political patronage was the key to setting up a union and that union leadership loyalty to political parties was the key to getting patronage. The power of ministerial discretion is not the only risk factor taken by those who wish to publicly found a union. The minister has two months from the date of submission for a permit to make a decision. During this “grace” period, the founding committee members are sitting ducks unprotected by law or a critical mass of membership. Of this, Spinneys was fully aware.
On 26 June 2012, the founding committee applied for the legally-required union license to be issued by the Ministry of Labor. Five days later, they organized a well-attended press conference. During the conference, testimonies of working conditions in Spinneys did serious damage to the company`s standing. According to these testimonies, close to 450 porters were not even registered employees. More scandalously, it was revealed that porters who help customers bag their groceries actually have to pay the company (not vise versa) a daily fee (5000 L.L., or about $3.33) to “reserve” a spot for themselves at the checkout counters (they make their money through customer tips). These revelations placed the company on the defensive and triggered a vicious campaign to ensure that the union never fully sees the light of day. The campaign was led by British businessman and Spinneys President Michael Wright. Lawyer activist Nadim Souaid says Wright himself was rumored to be working in Lebanon without a permit and scrambled to obtain one once the unionists outed him. Wright apparently had little qualms about this alleged violation. For Spinneys had already secured impunity vis-a-vis the law in Lebanon by embedding itself into the sectarian system of power and privilege dominating the country. The company reportedly bought the favors of powerful local politicians in each region by renting out their land for long term leases to set up branches of the supermarket. The politicians were also allegedly granted quotas to employ their loyalists. Under this arrangement, the politicians rake in profits from rent, and gain the favour of constituents. The company in return is able to call on the politicians to vouch for its interests in legal, tax and other matters and on the employed loyalists to do the “dirty” work for the company such as bullying and intimidation of union activists.
These tactics were extensively used in the two months following the union’s first press conference. They culminated in the firing of the union founding committee’s elected president Milad Barakat. At that point, solidarity with the union movement spilled into the street. On 31 August, a few days after news of Barakat’s firing, a rally calling for his reinstatement was held by activists in solidarity with the workers at the door of the supermarket’s Achrafieh branch in eastern Beirut. Solidarity also came in the form of a letter of support from the International Labour Organization (ILO). The Spinneys founding committee had kept invoking ILO Treaty no. 87. The treaty guarantees the right to form a union without a permit or state obstruction. Over 150 countries have ratified the treaty. In Lebanon, the Council of Ministers had approved it and passed it on to Parliament for ratification, but it has yet to be voted on, let alone placed on the docket . The sit-in outside the store had taken the conflict to the street and threatened to expose Spinneys more explicitly in front of its customers. A creative Facebook campaign attacking management was also growing. Unlike factories where production space is hidden from consumption, consumer-based companies like Spinneys could not easily suppress such moves unnoticed.
Despite the escalatory nature of the sit-in, the turn-out of a few dozen people was lower than expected. Of more concern was the fact that more workers stood at the store entrance in support of management than were in the demonstration. Founding committee members say these were the politician loyalists brought in from different branches by management to undermine the rally. Among the founding committee members, only Milad Barakat was visibly present at the solidarity rally. The absence of all founding committee members, despite the fact that the rally was called for by support groups, was disconcerting. Even if the union had the sympathy of most workers, Spinneys seemed to be winning the war of intimidation. It was becoming painfully clear that without gaining state recognition, via the permit, the union would remain in a very precarious position.
Just when things seemed to hit a dead end, a Beirut-based judge lit a light at the end of the tunnel. One week after the rally, and following a media shaming campaign directed at the corrupt political and juridical system conspiring against the workers, judge Zalfa Hasan of Beirut`s court for expedited matters effectively placed a freeze on the ability of Spinneys to lay off members of the founding committee pending the decision on granting a permit by the minister of labour. What had seemed so farfetched now became probable. Hasan’s decision placed the ball squarely in the minister’s court, who was running out of excuses to deny the union a permit. On 25 September, the last day of the two months grace period, the permit was issued. The union became a legal entity. A new stage of struggle was ushered in that may prove as difficult, if not more, as the founding moment. Infiltration, intimidation, and factionalism stoked by status quo forces can easily compromise the union. But a precedent of setting up an independent union and getting state recognition without the traditional route of clientalism has been set. A screw has been loosened. With everyone’s priorities seemingly elsewhere, sustaining the struggle ... is all that remains.
[Post-Script: Although the media shaming campaign might have played role in swaying Beirut judge Zalfa al-Hasan to issue a decision in favour of the founding committee, I should have also noted the persistent and persudaing efforts of the legal team behind the case, which included lawyer Nizar Saghieh and his associates. The petition to the court to grant union members immunity from lay off was initially filed and turned down by a judge citing lack of competency to rule on such matters. The team re-petitioned after the judge`s summer break and won the case.]