Since 2011, the workers’ movement in Lebanon has shown signs of revival, the most significant being the three-year mobilization calling for a new salary scale including a wage increase. This mobilization is spearheaded by an emerging coalition of public sector workers under the name of the Union Coordination Committee (UCC).[1] How can this public sector mobilization be explained in light of the lackluster performance of unions in the private sector?  

Coordination Committees: A Longstanding Tradition 

Coordination committees, as a vehicle of union activism in Lebanon, are not a recent phenomenon. Prior to the outbreak of the civil war in 1975, coordination committees existed in different forms and structures. In the 1970s, the Coordination Committee of Public Sector Workers represented teachers as well as public sector employees and actively sought the establishment of public schools and the provision of water, electricity, and telephone landlines for all regions in Lebanon.[2] In the early 1990s, the Bureau of Teachers, which coordinated the actions of the various independent teacher leagues,[3]joined forces with the General Confederation of Lebanese Workers (GCLW), an umbrella of private sector unions, and formed the Union Coordination Committee. In addition to lobbying for workers’ rights, the newly-established body advocated for ending the war and extending the authority of the state to encompass all of Lebanon’s territory.[4]

By the end of the 1990s, the GCLW suffered from serious internal divisions while public sector workers became more united. In the first half of the decade, secondary public school teachers had united under one league while all private school teachers formed a single union. Also, in 1993, the graduates of the Administration Institute, a state agency for administrative reform, were organized under one league, which in 2012, became the League of Civil Servants of all categories. This is a first in the history of Lebanon.[5]In 2003, the League of Teachers of Vocational and Technical Education schools was created. Seven years later, the five leagues of the primary public schools united under one league.  

The coalition of the league of teachers and civil servants took action against contractual arrangements in the public sector, the rolling out of the welfare state, and the erosion of the rights of teachers and public workers. One of the milestones of UCC action was the holding of a massive rally in May 2006, when over 200 thousand workers demonstrated against contractual appointments promoted by the Lebanese government following the Paris III conference which rescheduled Lebanon’s mounting public debt.

The UCC’s actions stood in stark in contrast to those of the by-then co-opted GCLW. The latter, together with independent leagues representing teachers and public sector employees, had planned a general strike on October 12, 2011 to express solidarity with the workers’ demands for a wage increase. However, one day before the planned strike, GCLW leadership went into negotiations with the government, took a standalone decision to revert the strike, and reached a settlement with the government.[6]The leagues of public sector employees and schools teachers, however, carried on their fight for a new salary scale for public sector workers and mobilized under the umbrella of the UCC.[7]

The UCC has so far failed to achieve a new salary scale but has remained united and active for more than three years. It organized several public exam boycotts and more than 50 days of strike and 150 demonstrations and gatherings, including three large demonstrations on a scale that Lebanon had not witnessed since the 1970’s.[8]The resilience of the UCC and its ability to engage in active forms of mobilization amid unfavorable conditions calls for an examination of the possible institutional factors involved.

Structural strength of the UCC

While public sector workers operate within an inhibitive legal framework, and alongside a co-opted GCLW, the organizational structure of the leagues and the UCC may explain the extent and nature of their movement despite the restrictive legal framework they operate under. While the Lebanese government has yet to ratify the ILO Convention for the Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organize, 1948 (No. 87), civil servants are even more restricted than private sector workers. According to Article 15 of Law Decree 112 of June 12, 1959, civil servants are forbidden from dealing with political affairs or participating in strikes. According to Article 65, a civil servant’s participation in a strike is akin to a resignation. Nevertheless, Decision 335 (1972) and Decision 871 (1980) gave the rights to teachers to organize into cultural leagues.[9]How did the UCC overcome this unfavorable context?

First, the UCC represents 15,554 public servants,[10]92,900 public and private teachers[11] and 82,300 public sector retirees.[12]This large group of workers is mobilized against a single party, the state, and as such is able to act as a significant and unified pressure group.[13]

Second, the unity of public sector workers and teachers is strengthened by the fact that it is legally forbidden to create other leagues to represent teachers and public employees. Unlike the private sector, where more than one union can be established for the same group of workers,[14]this unity strengthens the weight and position of the teachers’ league without the risk of rupture and weak mobilization.

Third, and unlike private sectors union members, all public teachers and civil servants automatically become members of their leagues. This guarantees high representation of workers and therefore legitimacy and representativeness of decisions taken by the executive board.

Fourth, all the decisions of the UCC are to be reached by consensus and each member has the right of veto. This is a customary procedure in the UCC and no formal text exists that regulates its functioning. More specifically, teachers’ leagues have to go back to the general assemblies for major decisions such as strikes and boycotts. The vote of assemblies gives legitimacy, protects the UCC from political pressure, and guarantees the unity of the UCC.

Finally, elections in the secondary (high school) teachers’ league, the backbone of the UCC, have consistently taken place every two years within the electoral deadlines. These elections were rarely postponed or cancelled, even during the war. These periodic elections give the league legitimacy and representation that allows it to resist political interventions. Significantly, teacher league’s elections take place at the level of Lebanon as one district, which reduces sectarian divisions. The fact that the seats on the executive board are not allotted on a confessional basis stands in stark contrast to the prevalent forms of electoral practices in Lebanon.[15]The importance of this non-sectarian character of the league of secondary public teachers was demonstrated by the latest attempt by the political establishment to co-opt the league through introducing sectarian politics into its governing body. In the most recent elections of the board of the league that took place on January 25, 2015, most Lebanese political partiesallied together against the list formed by Hanna Gharib, the then president of the league and a major driving force behind UCC mobilization.[16]The list of the political parties’ coalition won 16 out of 18 seats, while Gharib and another member of his list won the two remaining seats. Nevertheless, Gharib came third with 60% of votes, while his list gathered 40% of votes.[17]These numbers show that despite the scope and strength of the large political alliance against the coalition of independent teachers, a large number of teachers remain independent and have not succumbed to political intervention. The fact however that this political coalition includes almost all political parties in Lebanon suggests that is remains a serious threat to the emergence of an independent union movement. The organizational structure of secondary schools teachers’ league and its regulatory framework, both of which guarantee democratic decision-making and representation, have made union action possible and sustainable.

The UCC action illustrates that workers’ movements in Lebanon can exist and stay relevant to workers’ struggles. Reforms of the GCLW’s, its organizational structure and internal regulations along similar lines, may also lead to its revitalization and independence from political intervention, thereby setting the stage for a new and more hopeful era of workers’ struggle in Lebanon .

* Lea Bou Khater is a PhD candidate in Development studies at the School of Oriental and African studies (University of London) with a special focus on workers’ movements. She is also a researcher at the Consultation and Research Institute in Lebanon.

This article is based on a more expansive research paper by the author published in Confluences Méditerranée, 2015/1 - N° 92, pp. 125 à 142
 

[1]A coalition of the public primary and secondary school teachers’ leagues, the Association of the Private Schools Teachers, and the League of Public Sector Employees
[2]Interview with Hanna Gharib, October 22, 2014.
[3]Two leagues for secondary public schools teachers, five leagues for elementary public school teachers (one for each governorate) two leagues for private school teachers and two committees for teacher of the Lebanese University. At this point, there was no union representation for civil servants and teachers of the vocational and technical education.
[4]Gharib, Hanna, 2013, “History of the Union Coordination Committee”, unpublished
[5]Ibid
[6]Many trade unions did not see themselves represented by the GCLW, and thus rejected the agreement with the government, as the wage increase was deemed insufficient.
[7]Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, ‘Period Review October 2011 : Debate on Salary Increase Reveals Both the Trade Unions’ Weakness and the Need for Large‐scale Economic Reform’, FES Beirut, 2011  .
[8]Lebanese Labour Watch. “Second Annual Report: The demonstrations and movements of workers in Lebanon 2012” (Al-Takrir al-sanawi al-thani: Al-ihtijajatwa al-taharoukat al-oumaliya fi lubnanaam 2012). Beirut: Al-Marsad, 2014
[9]Samaha Imad, 2006, The Dialectics of Movement and Awareness among Educators in Lebanon (جدلية الحركة والوعي بين أفراد الهيئة التعليمية في لبنان)Dar el Farabi, Beirut
[10]Institut des Finances Basil Fuleihan. “Personnel Cost in the Central Government. An Analytical Review of the Past decade”, May 2013, Beirut: IFBF, 2013
[11]Distribution of teachers per sector and work status for year 2012-2013: 26,084 public school teachers, 14,308 contractual teacher in the public sector, 915 volunteer in the public sector, 31,681 private school teachers, 19,102 private school contractual teachers, and 808 volunteer.  CERD Online, Statistics Bulletin 2012-2013, available online: http://www.crdp.org/en/statistics-bulletin;[Accessed on October 30, 2014]
[12] See Al-Akhbar, April 25, 2014
[13]Teachers, whether in the public or private sector, are subject to the same laws that regulate wages which explains why private teachers act together with public school teachers. The law pertaining to the organisation of private schools dated 15/6/1956 stipulates the unity of legislation between the private and public sector.
[14]After the war, private sector unions witnessed the “hatching” phenomenon. Hatching ( in Arabic “al-tafrikh”) is a term used by Badran and Zbib, in The Ceneral Confederation of Workers in Lebanon (Al-Itihad Al-Oumali Al-Aam Fi Luban), Friedrich Ebert Foundation, 2001, to describe the multiplication of the number of trade unions and federations under the GCLW due to the creation of federations by political parties and their inclusion under the GCLW in view of participating in the decision making of the GCLW.
[15]Every 10 teachers vote for one representative. 550 representatives elect 18 members at the executive board: 6 members of the board have to represent the 6 Lebanese governorates and the rest of the members win by number of votes.
[16]These parties included the Free Patriotic Movement, Amal Movement, Hezbollah, Lebanese Forces, the Future Movement, Marada and the Progressive Socialist Party.Faten Hajj, ‘انتخاباترابطة الأساتذة الثانوييننهايةهيئة  التنسيقالنقابية كما نعرفهاThe Elections of the League of Public Secondary Teachers’, Al Akhbar, 2015 [accessed 27 January 2015].
[17]‘Political Parties Sweep Public Secondary School Teachers Vote’, The Daily Star (Beirut, 26 January 2015) .